[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “Star Trek: Discovery” Episode 6, “Lethe.”]
Conflicts between parent and child are never pleasant, but “Star Trek: Discovery” takes it to another level entirely when Vulcan ambassador Sarek (James Frain) struggles with one of his children. Following an attempted terrorist attack by a kamikaze logic extremist, Sarek barely makes it out alive, but is left unconscious and barely clinging to life. In this state, his mind keeps returning to a moment during the graduation day for his adopted daughter, the human Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). In order to save his life in the real world, Michael must enter his psyche through their katra bond and break past his mental barrier.
But when she enters this memory, Sarek becomes angry and defensive, and they enter into a physical altercation, using Vulcan martial arts. Frain spoke with IndieWire about the fight, which he rehearsed with the stuntmen who had developed the fighting style.
“The stunt guys were trying to find a way of expressing something that was conceivably Vulcan and different from another style of fighting,” he said. “It’s very precise, and very choreographed and quite long for a fight. But we had a really good time because Sonequa was super excited to do it, and I was too. We had a lot of fun.”
The conflict leads to an emotional breakthrough that reveals a secret that Sarek has been hiding for years. He was forced to choose his son Spock over Michael to get a spot in the Vulcan Expeditionary Group, but instead of owning up to his decision, he had made her believe that it was her failure to meet standards, which is the scene that replays in his mind. Even worse, Spock ended up going against his father’s wishes and joining Starfleet instead, making the difficult decision moot. Despite the Vulcan preference for logic over emotion, Sarek is overcome with shame.
“I think he is a loving father, but he just doesn’t express that, and she doesn’t experience it,” Frain said. “But I think he absolutely believes in her, and is rooting for her. He did this thing that he thought was the right thing to do at the time, which was really partly to recognize that she, because she’s human, needs the company of a human being. And in some sense, the Vulcan Academy failed her, and he then was actually made to feel that he failed her. His relationship with Michael is key and is going to keep developing.”
Understanding Michael requires an understanding of how she was raised and by whom. Certain expectations are laid out for how a Vulcan conducts their own behavior. This is a deeply held belief for how society should work based what Vulcans learned from their own mistakes.
“[The Vulcans] apparently originated from a very volatile, emotional people, and then they had a catastrophic nuclear war on their planet,” said Frain. “The survivors of that war concluded that it was their out-of-control passions that caused this situation and the only way they could move forward is if they suppress that and replace it with this ideology of pure rationality. So, somewhere along the line, there is this sort of repression that has been handed from generation to generation, to the point where they really don’t know what they’re feeling, necessarily. Or they really have to deny that they’re feeling, because that would be to betray the Vulcan spirit.”
Sarek initially appears to be the epitome of a logic-led Vulcan on the surface. “But then what’s fascinating about Sarek is that he goes off and marries a human,” said Frain, “which is what this episode is all kind of rooted in. And I think that’s one of the things that they’re gonna be looking at more, I hope. Who is this guy? How did that happen?
“What he tries to achieve, and his affinity to humans is really touching. but it’s also matched with this frustration. Especially with Michael, and with him. She’s not going to get a loving father out of him. He also pays a very heavy price for it, and he nearly loses Michael in one terrorist attack. He’s almost murdered in this episode for his beliefs, which are progressive and integrative.”
Sarek’s fascination with humans, how he’s incorporated them into his family, is not the Vulcan way, and therefore it’s not terribly surprising that his children are somewhat rebels in their own right.
“People have their blind spots, and it’s one thing having an ideology as a person, and it’s another thing living it as a parent,” Frain said. “Sometimes I think parents struggle with kids who are really like themselves. So the relationship between a parent and child evolves as the time it keeps changing. It’s interesting to see where he is stuck in the old ways and where might he be trying to have one mindset but not actually necessarily achieving it. Saying one thing here and another thing there, it’s very human — his complexity, his ambivalence.”
While Frain attempted to mind-meld into his character, the physical aspects were far easier than he expected.
“I was expecting that I was going to have a wig, but [hair department head Ryan Reed] just straightened my hair and brushed it forward, and it basically fit,” said Frain. “He didn’t even have to cut it. It went straight into this kind of Beatles 1963 look. It hasn’t aged that well. But it’s really good, it’s really iconic. And I love the look they put together for Michael as well, as a sort of semi-Vulcan. In fact, she has this very kind of almost Vidal Sassoon kind of cut.”
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The pointed Vulcan ears required a bit more work. “Because the prosthetics are getting more sophisticated, it takes a little longer to put them on because they glue them in very specific places so that they can move with your facial muscles,” he said.
Unlike Starfleet members who wear regulation uniforms, the ambassador has been able to wear an array of rather ornate robes. “I have like a different costume in every episode, which are all sort of haute couture,” Frain said. “I think that’s opened up a lot of avenues for cosplay in the future. I think I’m gonna be seeing some polyester Chinese-made versions of Sarek’s haute couture, I hope. Halloween’s going to be certainly next, and Comic-Con.
“The costume design is very structured, and then when you get in it, it gives you this sense of uprightness and almost sort of regality, which fits in perfectly. It’s interesting. When you’re working on a character, you’re not quite sure what is the thing that makes the final click, but for me, it was definitely the costume.”
New episodes of “Star Trek: Discovery” stream at 8:30 p.m. ET on Sundays on CBS All Access.