Spock — A Character Study

Spock promo picIf anyone is a geek icon, it’s Spock. Portrayed with understated skill by Leonard Nimoy, Spock is practically synonymous with Star Trek, and even people who’ve never seen an episode of Star Trek know his name. They know pointy ears and a weird hand symbol and “illogical.”

For fans, Spock is even more than that — he was the cool geek when it wasn’t cool to be a geek, you know? As the Enterprise‘s science officer, he helped represent Star Trek‘s ideal of an optimistic future created with science and cooperation. As the ship’s resident (half-)alien, he also embodied that future’s growing pains. He dealt with racism and bigotry from both sides, not to mention widespread misunderstandings of himself and his culture. He was an outsider who was one of us. He also has a singularly interesting character arc!

The Original Series (1966-1969)

Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are the three central characters of the original Star Trek series, and they form a heroic triad representing soul, mind, and heart. (Think Harry, Hermione, and Ron). Kirk is the captain, the one who makes the decisions. Spock (the science officer) and McCoy (the ship’s doctor) each advise the Captain in their own way — Spock with cold intellectualism and logic, McCoy with unbridled empathy and passion. Spock and McCoy often butt heads, but Kirk fuses the two, tempering intellect with emotion and emotion with intellect to aim for a “right” choice somewhere in the middle. In fact, he often leaps beyond both of them to make leaps of intuition and hang plans on charisma. He transcends both mind and heart, while always supporting both. This isn’t a Kirk post, but we’ll be back to him in a moment, because this is important!

Kirk Spock McCoy

Vulcans, because of a violent and tempestuous history, chose to suppress all their emotions and devote themselves to the pursuit of logic. They have been successful to the point that they claim not to have emotions at all — or at least not “human” emotions. Spock is half-Vulcan and half-human, though, and for many years he struggled to reconcile that. At the beginning he’s totally committed to intellectualism and logic, utterly discounting emotions, and often mystified by why humans do things. The original series explored that inner conflict on a regular basis, as Spock explored himself, his human half, and his human colleagues.

It would be easy to set up his arc as a conflict between logic and emotion, but really it’s more nuanced than that. It’s a transition from an attempt at emotionless logic to an understanding of “human logic,” a system that takes passions and emotions into account. In episodes like “The Menagerie,” Spock showed he was willing to jeopardize his own career for the sake of a friend, and friendship becomes a logical priority for him. Then in “The Galileo Seven” we get this delightful exchange:

KIRK: There’s really something I don’t understand about all of this. Maybe you can explain it to me. Logically, of course. When you jettisoned the fuel and ignited it, you knew there was virtually no chance of it being seen, yet you did it anyhow. That would seem to me to be an act of desperation.
SPOCK: Quite correct, Captain.
KIRK: Now we all know, and I’m sure the doctor will agree with me, that desperation is a highly emotional state of mind. How does your well-known logic explain that?
SPOCK: Quite simply, Captain. I examined the problem from all angles, and it was plainly hopeless. Logic informed me that under the circumstances, the only possible action would have to be one of desperation. Logical decision, logically arrived at.
KIRK: I see. You mean you reasoned that it was time for an emotional outburst.
SPOCK: Well, I wouldn’t put it in exactly those terms, Captain, but those are essentially the facts.
KIRK: You’re not going to admit that for the first time in your life, you committed a purely human emotional act?
SPOCK: No, sir.
KIRK: Mister Spock, you’re a stubborn man.
SPOCK: Yes, sir.

This kind of approach to logic becomes one of Spock’s signature moves, especially in the later movies.

The Movies (1979-1991)

In the six original-series-based movies, we start to see a more mature Spock who’s secure in himself, more powerful and more at peace. In fact, we see Spock becoming Kirk.

In The Wrath of Khan (1982), commonly considered the best of the six movies, Spock sacrificed himself to save the others. The next two movies are about Kirk moving heaven and earth to get Spock back, and Spock relearning his place in the universe after being revived. Kirk’s friendship and leadership had already helped shape Spock’s outlook, but Kirk becomes even more of an influence at this point.

Movie-Kirk is uncertain, though. He’s getting older. All he’s ever wanted to be is a starship captain, and most of the movies deal with his life (or lack thereof) when he can’t do that anymore. He’s the one who needs someone to look out for him while he finds out who he is, and Spock is now that person. Just take The Undiscovered Country, the final movie. Spock commands the Enterprise, Spock decides when to listen to his superior officers or not, Spock makes the hard leadership decisions. Spock says things like “If I were human, I believe my response would be ‘Go to hell.'”

The Undiscovered Country

Considering his relationship with Kirk, putting Kirk first is logical for Spock. He reasons himself into some more emotiona outbursts. He’s successfully learned Kirk’s lesson about balance between head and heart, and about when to throw off the traces and do something crazy based on intuition and love. His arc, when the movies are included, says to me that it was never a battle between intellect and emotions. Any friction was always from trying to unify them. When he can finally have the best of both worlds, and express the heritage of both his parents, he’s finished.

The, er, Other Movies (2009-2013)

Spock Zachary QuintoIt’s no secret that I intensely dislike Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013). Usually I just ignore them. However, Zachary Quinto’s iteration of Spock was interesting, and relevant to this conversation. He’s also coming to terms with emotions and learning how to function, but instead of intellect vs. passion, we get a portrayal of barely-suppressed anger and the pain of repressing emotions.

I don’t think I like this. I’ve always related to Spock as someone who, like me, just has different emotions from typical humans. Quinto’s Spock is not that Spock. He’s playing a much younger Spock, built on the assumption that Spock is suppressing emotions rather than cultivating them. There’s more to it, though, because those movies don’t have the Kirk/Spock/McCoy triumvirate. Kirk and Spock are usually hostile to each other, so Spock doesn’t have that supportive relationship or see Kirk as someone to emulate. It makes for a very different attitude and character arc. Of course, I must say I prefer the old version!

Hannah blogs at Things Matter, and you can find her on Twitter at @HannahEGivens!

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15 responses to “Spock — A Character Study

  1. Fabulous post, Hannah. Spock is one of my all time favourite characters, so it’s great to see him getting some love. I prefer the originals too, mainly because they are wrapped up in so many fond memories. Personally, I liked Quinto’s version, and Pine as Kirk. Perhaps because we see how the relationship might have developed, that rawness – the complete lack of polish we learned to expect. Maybe it was their chemistry on screen, the potential I saw, I’m not sure. But regardless, I couldn’t agree more – the relationship between Spock, Kirk and McCoy, especially in the television series, was inspiring. So much, that I’m sure many writers learnt from the dynamic 😀

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  2. Reblogged this on Things Matter and commented:

    I’m on Comparative Geeks today, talking about one of my favorite characters in the whole wide world!

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  3. As a geeky teen when TOS was on the air (and a geeky GIRL to boot!), Spock was intensely important to me. As you said, he was the outsider, not at home anywhere, struggling to come to a full understanding of himself and his place in the universe, but he was also confident and accomplished and respected. He gave me a goal I could reach for. I really like your description of Leonard Nimoy’s “understated skill” in his characterization. Well said.

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  4. There’s something I’ve always wondered about the end of “The Galileo Seven”, though. What exactly did Kirk, or the writer of the episode, think that a “purely logical” person would have done in Spock’s place?
    It actually is logical to conclude that a slim chance is better than no chance at all.

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    • Good point! The Vulcans, and by extension other Star Trek denizens, usually act like “logic” will produce one and only one answer in any given situation. And maybe it will… But you have to operate from all the same starting assumptions and information. Take a slim chance to increase visibility for a shorter time, or try to survive as long as possible on the slim chance that the Enterprise will look in the right place at the right time? It’s only a “logic” problem if one can calculate the exact probabilities involved…

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  5. I need to watch the original series again… it was so long ago. But your descriptions of the trifecta made it clear to me why the older series will always be better. I don’t hate the new Star Trek movies… they are beautiful. But… there is something lacking in the emotional department, which the original series has in spades.

    Great study!

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  6. Spock really is among the most interesting science fiction characters in existence.

    Personally I enjoyed the first Star Trek reboot movie, but I was never a huge fan of the original series so I don’t have the same attachment that you seem to have. The second one feels like a second rate Wrath of Khan knockoff though.

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    • Agreed.

      I actually saw the first reboot movie three times. The first time I thought “Okay, that wasn’t too bad.” The second time, “Um, I really didn’t like that.” The third time, I hated it. Again, I liked the second one okay… right up until the last fifteen minutes, because they were the narmiest thing I’ve ever seen. They went for an emotional punch they hadn’t earned at ALL. In my opinion. I do know hardcore Trekkies who liked the reboots, but as always, different people like different things in the same pieces of media, so… 🙂

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