The Darth Vader Parenthood Award for Outstandingly Horrible Fictional Parents

Last week, I came across a Tor.com post by Emily Asher-Perrin, in which she claimed that we can safely say that Sarek of Vulcan is science fiction’s worst dad.

Both the headline and the post left me baffled, for while Sarek is never going to win any “Father of the Year” awards, he’s definitely not the worst father in science fiction, far from it. How could he be, considering he shares a genre with the likes of Darth Vader, Thanos and Ego, the Living Planet? And indeed, during a discussion over at File 770, we came to a very similar conclusion. In a genre full of truly horrible parents, Sarek isn’t even a blip on the radar.

So what has Sarek done to cause Emily Asher-Perrin to make the sweeping statement that he is science fiction’s worst father, beating out the likes of Darth Vader, Thanos or Ego?

Well, as we know from his occasional appearances in various incarnations of Star Trek beginning with the original series episode “Journey to Babel” and ending with two episodes of Star Trek Discovery, Sarek, the Vulcan ambassador with an uncommon liking for humans, particularly human women, is estranged from his half-human son Spock. The reason for this estrangement is that Sarek was disappointed, when Spock opted to join Starfleet rather than the Vulcan Expeditionary Group, the Vulcan-only counterpart to Starfleet. Spock’s decision caused a rift between him and his father, which lasted for the rest of Sarek’s life. The fact that Sarek, being a Vulcan, had problems expressing affection for anybody, including his son, didn’t help either.

Nor is Spock the only child from which Sarek is estranged. There is also Sybok, Sarek’s pure-blood Vulcan son from his first marriage, who – as we learn in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (provided we could endure what has to be one of the most excreable Star Trek movies) – left Vulcan to become a fantical cult leader looking for god at the edge of the universe or some such thing – the film doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, to be honest.

Finally, as we learned in Star Trek Discovery, the latest addition to the Star Trek canon, Spock also had an human foster sister, Michael Burnham, who was adopted by Sarek and his human wife Amanda after her biological parents were killed by Klingons. Now the surpise addition of a never-before-seen sister to Spock’s family might have raised some eyebrows (and to be fair, I rolled my eyes when I learned that Michael was supposed to be Spock’s sister), however, it’s not entirely inconceivable that Spock might have a sister he just happened to have never mentioned before, because Spock never mentions his family, until they suddenly show up in the lives of the Enterprise crew. After all, Spock never mentioned his parents before “Journey to Babel”, he never mentioned his fiancée T’Pring before “Amok Time”, he never mentioned his brother Sybok before Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. So it’s not inconceivable that he never found a reason to mention his adoptive sister Michael (and besides, would you introduce your sister to Kirk or even mention her in his presence?), because not talking about his family is just something that Spock does.

As seen in Star Trek Discovery (and discusses extensively here, here, here and here), Michael Burnham doesn’t fare all that well either. Vulcans, no matter how well meaning, really aren’t the ideal foster parents for a traumatised and grieving child, since telling her to repress her emotions doesn’t actually help her cope at all. And once things go spectacularly wrong for Michael and she first ends up in prison as the most hated person in the Federation (without cause) and is then forcibly conscripted into the crew of the starship Discovery under the command of the flat-out monstrous Captain Lorca, Sarek is absolutely nowhere to be seen. So yes, he is a crappy father.

Warning! Spoilers for Star Trek Discovery behind the cut:

After putting in a cameo in the pilot, Sarek showed up again in the most recent episode (number 6, I think) of Star Trek Discovery. This time around, Sarek is attacked by a Vulcan suicide bomber (“It is very logical to blow you and myself up”), is injured and gets lost on his way to peace talks with the Klingons. Coincidentally, in the space of two episodes, the Federation loses three extremely important officials to attacks on the small, unarmed shuttles transporting said officials. So Starfleet and the Federation as portrayed in Star Trek Discovery are not just a prisoner exploiting dystopia, they are also completely incompetent. You’d think they’d have learned after Lorca was captured by Klingons in the previous episode and give bigger escorts to their important officials, but no – they almost lose Sarek and actually lose Admiral Cornwall in exactly the same way at the end of the episode. Because they’re fucking idiots.

Coincidentally, Captain Lorca has something of a B-plot in this episode, which mainly serves to highlight the fact (for everybody who hasn’t already noticed) that Lorca is insane and quite possibly a psychopath. Admiral Cornwall, an old acquaintance (and lover, it turns out) of Lorca’s shows up aboard the Discovery to tell Lorca that she no longer recognises him and that she believes him unfit for command. Now Admiral Cornwall is absolutely right; Lorca is unfit for command (and so is Saru, who still hasn’t gotten himself eaten). However, what precisely is it that persuades Admiral Cornwall that Lorca is unfit for command? Is it the fact that he blew up his previous ship and killed his crew? Is it the fact that he just survived Klingon torture and that he deliberately abandoned a Federation citizens to certain death (okay, so Mudd survives, but that’s not Lorca’s doing) at the hands of the Klingons? Is it that he idiotically got himself captured in the first place? Is it that he experiments on alien lifeforms and clearly violates the prime directive? Is it because Lorca has a PTSD-induced freakout, while in bed with Admiral Cornwall (and how nice is it that both actors are similar in age?) and almost shoots her? No, of all the many awful and inexcusable things Lorca has done what sets off Admiral Cornwall is that he brought Michael Burnham aboard and so deprived the Federation’s prison mines of a slave worker. Because everybody in Star Trek Discovery believes that Michael Burnham is the worst person in the universe, including Admiral Cornwall who should know better (come on, with her rank, she really should know that the story about Michael singlehandedly starting the war is just propaganda bunk). In the end, Lorca gets to keep his command for now, because Admiral Cornwall manages to get herself kidnapped by Klingons. And for once, Lorca is strangely uninterested in rescuing her and instead wants to wait for instructions.

Meanwhile, Michael Burnham wants to rescue Sarek and uses the mental link between them (due to a mind meld and due to Sarek reviving a nigh dead Michael as a kid) to locate him. Captain Lorca actually lets her go – apparently, he’s eaten chalk that day. So Michael, her roommate Tilly and the Discovery‘s new security chief Ash Tyler (whom Lorca rescued from Klingon captivity in the previous episode) set off to rescue Sarek. Coincidentally, Ash Tyler is the only person aboard the Discovery with the possible exception of Tilly who treats Michael like a human being rather than the worst person in the Federation, which is pretty much a guarantee that this fan theory regarding the character of Ash Tyler will turn out to be correct.

When Michael and friends finally locate Sarek, he’s dying (don’t worry, he gets better and will go on to live a long time). Through their mind link, Michael keeps seeing a painful memory from the past, a memory of the day she graduated from the Vulcan Science Academy and was denied a spot in the Vulcan Expeditionary Group. Michael always assumed that Sarek was disappointed in her. However, the truth is worse, because it turns out that the bigotted Vulcan establishment told Sarek point-blank that they would only accept one of his weird, non-Vulcan children into the Vulcan Expeditionary Group, but not both of them. They asked Sarek to choose, whereupon Sarek chose his biological son Spock over his adopted daughter Michael. Of course, Sarek never tells anybody about this (I guess we know where Spock got his uncommunicativeness from), let alone discusses the issue with Michael and Spock and lets them make the decision, especially since we know that Spock doesn’t actually want to join the Vulcan Expeditionary Group anyway (and of course, his fateful decision may well have been influenced by the fact that the Vulcan Expeditionary Group rejected his sister a few years before. So Sarek becomes estranged from his son and thoroughly manages to screw up not just his own, but both of his kids’ lives, too, since Michael would never have ended up a life sentence prisoner forcibly conscripted by an insane captain, if she had joined the Vulcan Expeditionary Group in the first place.

All right, so he is a crappy father.

Some people had issues with the way the Vulcans were portrayed in this episode of Star Trek Discovery, but personnally I find that Star Trek Discovery‘s portrayal of Vulcans not related to Sarek matches what we’ve seen of Vulcans before a lot better than Star Trek Discovery‘s portrayal of Klingons and the Federation matches what we’ve seen of those groups in previous iterations of Star Trek. Because let’s face it, Vulcans have always been snotty and superior. They may be publicly committed to “infinite diversity in infinite combinations”, but they don’t actually like non-Vulcans very much, merely tolerate them at most. As for the Vulcan extremists, I have zero problems imagining that there are groups in Vulcan society who want to keep Vulcan “pure” (though why must every race in Star Trek Discovery suddenly mirror all the bad tendencies in our own world?), though I don’t really find it believable that Vulcan extremists would resort to suicide bombing, because suicide bombing is highly illogical. Not that I cannot imagine Vulcan terrorists, I just don’t think that this is a tactic they’d choose.

What is more, the vast majority of Vulcans we’ve encountered in the various iterations of Star Trek – Spock, Sarek, Tuvok, T’Pol, Savik, Sybok – are all uncommonly open-minded by Vulcan standards, because they chose to join Starfleet/become Federation diplomats/leave Vulcan to found a religious cult. Meanwhile, the less open-minded Vulcans are still sitting at home on Vulcan or serving in the Vulcan Expeditionary Group. As for Sarek, his obvious fascination with humans as well as his tendency to marry human women and adopt human children must seem positively eccentric to his fellow Vulcans at the best and kind of perverted at the worst. It’s no wonder Sarek is experiencing blowback on Vulcan. In fact, he has probably experienced blowback from mainstream Vulcan society all his life. And indeed, Sarek’s many decades of work as an ambassador as well as his clear preference for human women suggest that Sarek doesn’t actually feel all that at home in Vulcan society. As a matter of fact, I wonder why Sarek keeps surrounding himself with humans and even marries two human women. Of course, Sarek seems to treat both his marriages as well as fathering Spock and adopting Michael as science experiments, but I suspect that he likes the higher degree of emotional support he receives from his human partners. He probably also doesn’t mind that with a human partner, he gets to have sex more often than once every seven years. Coincidentally, considering Sarek’s preference for human partners, I wonder why he chose to adopt Michael. Charity, science experiment or did he intend her as a potential partner for one of his sons? After all, Sarek would probably consider Michael partnering up with one of his sons (Sybok mostly likely, since Spock is already betrothed to T’Pring) logical.

Actually, all this makes Sarek more of a tragic figure – the uncommonly open-minded Vulcan who actually likes humans enough to keep marrying and adopting them and who clearly craves support and emotional connection, yet who still manages to become estranged from all three of his children. He’s still a crappy father and a crappy husband, though. But is he the very worst father in science fiction or even in the top ten? No, he isn’t. Because, as I’ve said above, science fiction is full of horrible fathers.

This is probably the time to introduce you to the prestigious Darth Vader Parenthood Award for Outstandingly Horrible Fictional Parents. If you’ve never heard of this highly prestigious award before, that’s no surprise. Because the Darth Vader Parenthood Award for Outstandingly Horrible Fictional Parents is given out by a jury of one, namely me.

Let’s have some background: I noticed a long time ago that the popular media (and not just SF either, the Darth Vader Parenthood Award is for all genres) is absolutely filled with truly horrible parents. And whenever I came across such a truly horrible parent in a book or a comic, in a movie or on TV, I’d often say something along the line of, “And here is this year’s winner of the Darth Vader Parenthood Award.” So eventually, the Darth Vader Parenthood Award became a thing, a list of annual winners backdated to the inaugural winner Anakin Skywalker a.k.a. Darth Vader in 1980. The first version of this list dates back sometime to the late 1980s/early 1990s. It has migrated from a handwritten list scrawled in a notebook to a computer file and from there to other computers and other formats. I still update it every single year.

The list is an interesting record of what I was reading and watching at the time. In the early years, there are a lot of soap opera characters and German TV characters, because I watched those with my Mom. Literary and comic book characters start showing up with increasing frequency in the late 1980s, while the TV and movie characters shift away from soap operas towards science fiction and fantasy as well as crime and action shows. Coincidentally, the list also provides a record of what media touched me and which characters really pissed me off once upon a time. A few of the choices make me wonder just what precisely that character did to piss me off so badly at the time. Hans Beimer from the German soap opera Lindenstraße seems an odd choice as early as 1986. Sure, I can’t stand the character and have disliked him for more than thirty years, but most of what pissed me off happened much later. I suspect he won for being mean to three of his eventually eight on-screen kids.

There are 56 names on the list, including joint awards and honourable mentions (because sometimes, there are just too many horrible parents for one year). 14 of those or 25% are women, because yes, there are also truly horrible mothers in the media. 27 characters are from science fiction works, including borderline stuff like superhero comics and movies as well as 1990s mystery/conspiracy fare like Twin Peaks or the X-Files. A further ten are from fantasy works. Four characters won more than once. In the lead is Tywin Lannister with three wins, followed by Anakin Skywalker a.k.a. Darth Vader and Victor Creed a.k.a. Sabretooth with two wins each as well as Howard Stark with two honourable mentions.

Not all fictional parents on the list are monsters on the scale of Darth Vader or Tywin Lannister, let alone Ego or Thanos. Many are a more mundane kind of unpleasant people, the likes of Blake Carrington, Betty Draper or the unnamed adoptive parents from the Schimanski Tatort episode “Kuscheltiere” (I checked IMDB. The characters really were not named). Quite a few characters are actually pretty likeable, they just happen to be really crappy parents. Some are not actively evil, but merely completely incompetent, the likes of Howard Stark or Eli David. Sarek would fall into this category, too.

The full list to date (in PDF form) is here, for your information. And look who earned himself an honourable mention this year. Yes, it’s Sarek. Cause he certainly fits in with this company, even if he’s far from the worst parent on the list.

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