Star Trek’s Saddest Episode Was Secretly About Gene Roddenberry

By Chris Snellgrove | Published

star trek sarek

For fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation, one of the saddest episodes was “Sarek,” which featured Spock’s father facing a health crisis even as he embarks on one last diplomatic endeavor before retirement. The episode hit fans particularly hard because Sarek was a beloved legacy character from The Original Series, and it’s difficult to watch it without remembering that Sarek actor Mark Lenard died only six years later. However, one tragic secret about this episode is that many of those responsible for making it considered Sarek’s onscreen health issues as mirroring franchise creator Gene Roddenberry’s own failing health.

The Episode’s Story

star trek sarek

To understand why various Star Trek creators felt that way, it’s important for us to revisit the events of “Sarek:” early in the episode, the titular Vulcan arrives ahead of what is supposed to be his final diplomatic mission before he retires. But Sarek is oddly emotional, and his telepathic abilities cause the crew to act significantly out of character until Dr. Crusher identifies he is suffering from the neurological disease known as Bendii syndrome. To help the legendary ambassador complete his mission, Picard mind-melds with Sarek, giving him the mental strength necessary for him to succeed and end his career on a high note.

Mark Lenard

star trek romulans

From the very beginning, this Star Trek episode made fans misty-eyed because Sarek was a legendary character who first appeared in The Original Series. Mark Lenard first starred as a Romulan commander, but he soon played the role of Sarek, otherwise known as the father of the famous Vulcan Spock. He continued that role across the decades thanks to his appearances in the original Star Trek films, and even a voice role in The Animated Series.

After the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Sarek,” Lenard played his signature character the following year in “Unification I,” and soon afterward made his final appearance as the Vulcan in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. He died five years later, in 1996, at the age of 72.

Sarek’s Decline Mirrored Gene Roddenberry’s

star trek sarek

Aside from the inherent sadness of the episode’s plot and Mark Lenard’s death, Star Trek writer and producer Michael Piller later revealed that “Sarek” saddened those making the episode because they couldn’t help but think about Gene Roddenberry. According to him, the parallels with Roddenberry were “what I remember most about that episode.” During the shooting, he said “Gene was beginning to go into decline,” and while the visionary creator had not become “uncommunicative… it was clear that he was not the same man that he had been.”

The Parallel Was Intentional

When it comes to the Star Trek staff, Michael Piller was in a unique position to appreciate the parallels between Gene Roddenberry and Sarek. Piller had come to The Next Generation for its third season, and he had more creative freedom than previous writers because Roddenberry’s failing health meant that (for better or for worse) he couldn’t micromanage every detail of the show like he once did. The writer acknowledged that this was a “great man” that he had known “for less than a year at this point,” but seeing him “going into decline” meant that new Star Trek guru Piller “immediately felt a very strong connection to the premise of ‘Sarek.’”

In the eyes of Michael Piller, there was no way to watch this Star Trek episode without explicitly comparing Sarek to Gene Roddenberry. “If you go back and look at ‘Sarek’ closely,” he said, “what that character is, is Gene Roddenberry.” He later revealed that this was fully intentional and that the episode was written to reflect what was going on with Roddenberry’s own health and how the ongoing issues affected everyone connected to the show.

Seeing Roddenberry In A New Light

These days, it’s all too easy for Star Trek fans (myself included) to dunk on Roddenberry’s stranger ideas, but these revelations about “Sarek” paint the creator in a more sympathetic light. Roddenberry wasn’t what he once was by the time of his death or even the beginning of The Next Generation, but Gene Roddenberry was more creative and visionary on his worst day than most franchise creators are on their best. As fans, though, we should remember what Sarek told Picard at their final meeting and respect that we shall always carry the best parts of Gene Roddenberry inside ourselves via our love for the franchise he created.

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