Look, I have been waiting years to say this and I just can’t hold back anymore. Science fiction is full of horrible dad figures. We know this. There are so many that we’d be hard pressed to decide the winner of that Battle Royale, particularly given the scope of their terribleness. Anakin Skywalker Force-choked his pregnant wife and tortured his daughter. Howard Stark emotionally abused his son into creating the “future” he wanted to bring about, and never managed to utter the words I love you. Admiral Adama made his eldest son feel totally inferior to both his dead son and his surrogate daughter, and then left him alone on a new world so he could spend three minutes with his dying paramour. Sci-fi dads are generally bad at their jobs.
But you know who it the absolutely worst? Spock’s dad.
Yeah. I’m looking at you, Sarek of Vulcan.
[Spoilers up to the latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery.]
Obviously, Sarek has done some truly incredible things in his life as both a citizen of Vulcan and ambassador for his people. Those accomplishments matter a great deal. But as a parent? He’s flunked out so many times, it’s amazing that they keep letting him retake the course. And then he adopts more children under the auspice of being the one who knows how to raise “kids with emotions” on Vulcan when he’s really the worst at it ever. The truth is, Sarek would probably be a better parent if he owned up to something that he clearly feels great shame over—that he, himself, is super emotional for a Vulcan and happens to enjoy being surrounded by humans and emotional beings for that exact reason. He never says so out loud, but there is so much—in his past and in his actions—that suggest so.
A lot of effort has been made in zines, fan fiction, and licensed novels, to dig deeper into Sarek’s psyche and show that he is more than what we see on screen. But what we know of Sarek from Trek television and film is oddly telling. See for example: his marriage to Amanda Grayson, Spock’s mother. On more than one occasion, Sarek insists that marrying Amanda made sense, given that he was the Vulcan ambassador to Earth. If he’s married to a human, he can better understand them. If he’s married to a human, he can observe one up close consistently. “Marrying your mother was logical,” he tells tiny Spock in the alternate timeline provided by the 2009 film series. (And yes, I will count those as alternate canon, you cannot stop me.) When adult Spock and his father razz Amanda over being emotional in “A Journey to Babel,” Spock asks his father why he married her and receives the same reply: “At the time, it seemed the logical thing to do.”
Because that’s what Sarek of Vulcan is all about, right? He’s a Vulcan and they’re logical, they never make rash decisions, they are cool like cucumbers or ice or liquid nitrogen. Vulcans are very chill, rational people, and Sarek is a great example of an amazing Vulcan. Case in point: that time he had an affair with a Vulcan princess who gave birth to a radical exile—
Wait a minute.
Because remember, Spock isn’t Sarek’s only blood-related child. There’s still Sybok to account for, the product of Sarek and said unnamed Vulcan princess. And also the question of whether or not Sarek and this Vulcan princess had a fling or a more prominent relationship. It’s all a bit confusing because Amanda Grayson is referred to as Sarek’s first wife, but the novelization of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier suggests that T’Rea (that’s the name given to the Vulcan Princess) and Sarek were subject to one of those childhood emotional bonds that some Vulcans undergo. It’s “less than a marriage but more than a betrothal,” the way Spock was bonded to T’Pring. Sybok was meant to be the product of their only coupling before T’Rea got super into Kolinahr (the Vulcan process of purging all emotion), and had their marriage annulled. But Sarek raised Sybok alongside Spock as though they were brothers…that is, until Sybok became such an emotional fanatic that he was banished from Vulcan.
Still, why should that be Sarek’s fault? That probably has nothing to do with his parenting! It’s unfair to blame anyone for the events of The Final Frontier, really. (Except maybe William Shatner.) But Sybok’s resurfacing does bring us to perhaps our first concrete exhibit of Sarek’s bad parenting skills: when Sybok hijacks the Enterprise, he converts Kirk’s crew to his side by helping them “release their pain.” Sybok has the ability to telepathically show people their worst memories and traumas, and when he arrives at Spock, the event we witness is his birth. A bawling baby is handed to Sarek, and the Vulcan ambassador looks on the infant with disdain. “So human,” he says, before handing the child off.
It would be surprising if this scenario happened exactly as Sybok reveals it. The truth is, as the audience, we’re never completely certain about the nature of his powers—is he really showing people their pasts, or is it the past according to their perception? After all, it’s unlikely that Spock could “remember” the moment of his birth, so how could Sybok project that for him? But if Sybok’s powers are limited to a person’s perception of events, that would explain a great deal, including the increased levels of pain and anxiety each person feels in relation to that event. Which means that what Sybok is showing Spock is not a memory, but rather what Spock assumes happened the moment after his birth. And that is more telling than anything: Spock thinks his father’s first expression toward him was one of disgust at his humanity, even after all these years.
You would think that Spock would know better, given that his father married a human woman, but Sarek’s attitude toward his wife Amanda does very little to disabuse anyone of that notion. He continually insists that he only married Amanda because it was a logical practice, and he basically orders her around like she works for him in professional settings. The same is true of Sarek’s second wife, Perrin, who is pointedly also a human; she basically exists to hang around and make certain that he has everything he needs. Knowing that Vulcan is a society full of powerful women, you almost have to wonder if Sarek didn’t marry human women out of a belief that they might be easier to control. Spock carries around certain sexist beliefs that are likely a product of this environment; on more than one occasion we witness him frame women (in general) as irrational and over-emotional when compared to men, and it’s hardly surprising because his father says this about his own mother constantly, to the point where making fun of her for it is a bonding exercise between them.
So. Aside from teaching his half-human kid to belittle his mom for lolz and parenting his first son so well that the guy became a renegade against Vulcan society… well, there’s also the fact that Sarek is basically using two of his children as “experiments,” trying to integrate emotion into Vulcan society.
Star Trek: Discovery has expanded Sarek’s peculiar legacy with the addition of Michael Burnham, his adopted ward. Raised alongside Spock after the death of her parents, Michael clearly struggles with her logical upbringing. She does her best to live according to Vulcan principals, but has difficulty compartmentalizing when she feels strong emotions. This difficulty is part of what leads her to commit mutiny against her beloved captain, Philippa Georgiou. Sarek claims that he brought Michael to Starfleet and to Captain Georgiou’s ship in particular because he thought that Philippa would be the ideal mentor to help Michael learn about her human psyche. But we later find out that Michael’s entry into Starfleet was never Sarek’s desired plan….
Michael has a unique connection to Sarek; because he brought her back from the edge of death when she was young, she holds a piece of his katra, or soul. In the episode “Lethe,” Michael tries to aid Sarek as he’s dying on a deteriorating ship via this link. She finds him caught on a specific memory—the day she found out that she was rejected from the Vulcan Expeditionary Group. It turns out that a large portion of Vulcan elites were unhappy with Sarek’s continual experiment of infiltrating their ranks with beings of emotion. The leader of the group gave Sarek a choice: they would accept only one of his “not-quite Vulcans,” Michael or Spock. While Spock was too young to be considered for admission to the group—he had not yet even had the chance to apply for the Vulcan Science Academy—Sarek chose his son over his adopted daughter.
This decision is cruel enough, but Sarek did it one better by allowing Michael to believe that she had failed him, failed to achieve the Vulcan standard which Sarek touted as the very highest standard there was. Rather than tell the truth to both his daughter and his wife—that his own people were bigoted and should be made to answer for their prejudice and hypocrisy—he allows Michael to shoulder this burden. While he admits that this was his own failure when she finally insists on viewing this memory, he still turns a cold shoulder when she takes him to task for it; Michael notes that this was an awful thing to do to your own daughter, to which Sarek replies, “Technically, we are not related.”
Wow. Just… yeah, wow.
He later pretends that the does not remember the conversation he had with Michael inside of his mind, just so he doesn’t have to talk to her about it. A fact that Michael calls him on, reminding him that he’ll owe her that chat one day.
But it gets better. (I mean worse, obviously, it gets much worse.) When viewers were first introduced to Sarek back in the Original Series, it was with the caveat that he had not spoken to his son in eighteen years. The reason given was that Spock had forgone admission to the Vulcan Science Academy and chosen instead to enlist in Starfleet. Amanda tells Captain Kirk that Sarek had expected his son to follow his path the same way he had followed his own father. But now there’s an extra layer here: Spock tuned down the path that Sarek betrayed his adopted child to ensure for him. So he essentially hurt Michael for nothing. And the anger over Spock making that choice (yes, anger, because refusing to talk to your child is an emotional response, plain and simple, there is literally no way around that), leads to a rift in their relationship that lasts the rest of Sarek’s life.
The best part? Sarek was in the room (again, according to the alternate Kelvin timeline, which has no particular reason to diverge from the main timeline in this instance) when Spock turned down his spot at the Vulcan Science Academy. And the reason why he walked out and straight into a Starfleet recruitment office? It was because he could not accept the outright bigotry that the Vulcan elite displayed toward his human heritage—particularly the fact that they referred to his human mother as a “disadvantage.” Spock did a very brave and loving thing that day, making the choice to separate himself from people who viewed himself and his mother as far beneath their regard. And Sarek still chooses to express disappointment that his son wouldn’t shrug off Vulcan prejudice and direct insults to his own wife, all for the sake of following in his footsteps and making good on a bad decision he already made on behalf of his children.
And the sad part is, it never really gets any better. Whether Sarek ever makes good regarding Michael remains to be seen, but his relationship with Spock is permanently damaged. They make small talk and interact on occasion, but Spock seems to think that his father would rather not bother with him and treats him accordingly. When Sarek suffers from Bendii Syndrome late in life (a neurological disease that causes Vulcans to lose emotional control), he mind melds with Captain Picard, who gets a heavy dose of all the emotions breaking through Sarek’s mind. The aging ambassador laments never expressing love to the people in his life, something which Picard is finally able to communicate to Spock after his father’s death via another mind meld. While it is beneficial for Spock to know, to say it’s late-coming is laughable at best. Sarek indicates his affection via other parties—asking Kirk to retrieve Spock’s katra and body to restore his life, telling Captain Georgiou to guide Michael—but he cannot possibly summon the maturity it would take to own up to emotions that he insists he does not feel.
This is not a “he’s Vulcan, of course he behaves differently” issue. There are plenty of Vulcans who have to ability to indicate basic affection, warmth, and regard toward others without resorting to grander displays of emotion. Sarek would rather gaslight the people he cares about into believing that Vulcan philosophy requires the strictest adherence possible because it’s a “better” way of life (something that Spock and Amanda frequently parrot to anyone who questions the Vulcan way of doing things). This, despite the fact that the Vulcans think his choice to take care of an orphaned human child is a step too far, despite the fact that Vulcan children bully and assault his son on a regular basis, despite the fact that his wife’s very reasonable insistence that her children be safe from torment and respected for their impressive accomplishments falls on deaf ears. It points to Sarek’s inability to reconcile what wishes and believes Vulcan could be with what it actually is. And that is an unfettered emotional response to the situation, not a considered and rational one.
By the way, there is one way to get Sarek to open up to his kids—by literally destroying Vulcan. In 2009’s Star Trek, following the destruction of his home planet and the sudden death of his wife, Sarek witnesses Spock completely lose control; he nearly kills Jim Kirk when the man deliberately goads him into an emotional response to prove his unfitness for command. Following this display, Sarek opens up to Spock; he tells his son that Amanda wouldn’t have recommended trying control his grief, and admits, “You asked me once why I married your mother… I married her because I loved her.”
See? He can admit that he has some good emotions! After losing a loved one, witnessing genocide, and watching his son’s near nervous breakdown!
Sarek clearly believes that human emotion has some measure of value, or he wouldn’t work so hard to fold it into Vulcan culture. But he refuses to acknowledge that the prejudices of his own people make it impossible for this integration to take place. Doing so would force him to make peace with the fact that Vulcan society is not the beacon of evolved thinking that he believes it to be. He wants to introduce these children with emotions into Vulcan society, but he refuses to fight for them at every juncture. As a result, not one of his children carves the path he wanted for them. But more important than that is the simple fact that Sarek was a horrific paternal figure to his children. He belittled them for feeling, allowed them to believe they evoked nothing but disappointment from him, and took exception to the majority of their decisions. He made his children feel undervalued, unsupported, and unloved, then doubled down whenever those tactics were called into question.
He is the worst dad. It’s quantifiable.
Good thing he had some very special kids to make up for it. (Let’s not talk about Sybok, though.)
Emmet Asher-Perrin has always maintained this position on Sarek, and was happy enough to be vindicated yet again by Discovery. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.