“Unlike Data, for example, [Spock] at least has feelings.” -Richard Raben, Boldly Live as You’ve Never Lived Before: Unauthorized and Unexpected Life Lessons from Star Trek
I posted this quote (from a book I read for another post) on my Facebook a while back, with the simple caption “#NERDRAGE.” It generated an excellent conversation about Data, Spock, emotions, neurodivergence, and Star Trek’s unstated values. I wanted to share some of those thoughts here because they’re really, really important. Instead of just spouting off about it myself, I’m pleased to present it in conversation form with two brilliant Facebook participants, fellow Comparative Geeks contributor Rose B. Fischer and super duper college buddy Lani. Edited slightly for readability.
Hannah: So, my irritation with the above quote is twofold: The statement that Data doesn’t have emotions, and the implication that having/expressing emotions is intrinsically better. They sound contradictory but they’re not, given the two characters being portrayed and especially the connection with autism.
Firstly, the definition of emotion. I have this conversation every time I watch the movie Equilibrium, where “emotions are suppressed/removed” but things like loyalty, ambition, and disgust (ironically, disgust for emotions!) all remain. Data’s kind of the same, he “doesn’t have emotions” but actually he has desire (for knowledge/curiosity, desire to please), happiness and sadness when good or bad things happen, affection (for Spot), loyalty to Picard/his friends/Starfleet, etc. Where does emotion end and an intellectual position begin?
Lani: If we are are argue that Data has no emotion, we have to argue that the desire to experience emotion is, in and of itself, not an emotional experience. Beyond that, his friendship with Geordi, his affection of Spot, and his desire for a family unit all suggest emotional response.
Rose: The issue that’s consistently played up with Data is lack of emotional awareness, compounded by incomplete cultural/social understanding. He can analyze human culture norms but isn’t invested in them and doesn’t have a bunch of conditioned responses based on observed behavior since infancy. There are several instances of other characters recognizing emotion in Data and commenting on it. Data usually “corrects” them, but context makes it pretty clear that the audience is meant to infer that Data has more emotional capacity than he realizes.
Hannah: Yeah, a lot of people tease about this, as in “Oh, they’re trying to write an emotionless character but they keep accidentally giving him emotions anyway, haha,” but I think it’s a more foundational concept that there IS no distinct line between emotions and thoughts/opinions/beliefs. The issue here is with comprehension and expression, not existence. Data doesn’t understand other people’s emotions or the way humans act because of them, and because others tell him he doesn’t have emotions, he believes them and continually uses that as a defense, reminding others that he’s responding in his own way and isn’t capable of doing what they’re doing.
The Enterprise crew tends to be more understanding than the rest of the universe in all things and all situations, and they generally provide a supportive environment in which for him to experiment and learn, but it still would’ve helped him out enormously if there was ANYONE there who could go “Oh, me too, I also find this difficult and this is what my emotions are like,” etc. Data’s emotion chip basically gives him overwhelming emotional reactions, and cues the matching physical action (laughter, etc.) but he gets little or no help learning how to deal with them the way a (neurotypical) child usually learns.
“The Outrageous Okona”
Lani: Data’s ability to process emotions coincides closely with the disorder alexithymia, which is the inability to understand, identify, and process one’s own emotions and, no surprise, research shows that 85% of autistic adults have it. So yes, Data’s experiences are highly analogous with autistic experiences.
Also, speaking as an autistic adult, one thing I have learned over the years is that if someone tells you that you have no feeling, your instinct is to believe them. Especially if you are alexithymic and can’t identify those emotions, it is very easy to take the words of someone else regarding your own emotional experiences as gospel.
The flip side of that is Spock’s experience with emotions, which is also analogous with an autism spectrum experience: your emotions are Big. They are Big and they are Violent and they don’t fit right inside you and you don’t know what they are or what to do with them. You’ve been told that your emotions–not other people’s, but yours–are odd or unnatural or too Big, too Violent, and you learn to push them aside because no one has time to understand your emotions, which are big and violent and angry and confused. And so you learn to dislike them and to feel ashamed of them because they are difficult to deal with and People Like You shouldn’t have or need emotions, anyways.
So yes, Spock has emotions. And Data has emotions. And they process them differently from each other, and differently from the humans around them. But to classify emotions that do not fit the typical mold as nonexistent is a dangerous place to start.
Hannah: Yes. Plus the fact that they exist doesn’t mean they need to be pushed into typical channels. Spock’s situation is almost the opposite of Data’s, he knows he has emotions but he’s always dealt with them by getting rid of them. Some fans complain that he gets “turned into Kirk” by the end of the movies, and I agree with that in part — I would’ve loved to see him remain more alien and more incomprehensible in some ways — but that also shows his journey toward accepting his emotions and factoring them into the equation, but still never allowing them to overwhelm him. (eg he has an emotional attachment to Jim, so he breaks rules and lies to save him, but he doesn’t need to indulge in an emotionalistic display about it.) He was suppressing them and suffered a lot of internal distress about his emotions, but learning to “express” or “release” them was not part of the solution at all.
“The Devil in the Dark”
Rose: Spock can be an analogue for trauma survivors, too, though I guess not as close as the one with autism.
Spock expresses emotion by acting in supposedly “illogical” and non-Vulcan ways. His entire relationship and way of interacting with McCoy is emotional, even though neither one will admit it. What logical purpose is served by the way they banter? He didn’t need to learn to “express” emotions in the sense of becoming a passionate romantic or having big Vulcan rages, or laughing at jokes, but he was always expressing them whether he wanted to admit it or not.
I think what a lot of the fan commentary is saying is that there is a “right” and “wrong” way to express feelings. It’s codified as closer to what a stereotypical neurotypical person would do, so obviously problematic from that perspective.
Equally so for anyone dealing with trauma. Primary symptoms of trauma-related disorders involve inability to express, identify, or cope with emotions, having emotional reactions and responses that are frowned upon by society (either too much or too little) or in simply needing alternative means to express and cope with emotions because the ones society likes don’t work anymore. Star Trek has a poor track record for mental illness in general, but Spock and Data both demonstrate degrees of my experience in trauma recovery (moreso Spock, because I’m prone to rages that nobody sees and recognize emotions but don’t react or express them in commonly accepted ways. Data comes in with the aspect of needing feedback and rarely having an opportunity to get it because then I have to explain the problem…)
Hannah: Absolutely. It’s also relevant that both characters essentially come from non-human cultures, although Data doesn’t really have a “culture” in the same way. That would be enough to say “this character is different, stop slapping them down for not expressing the same way humans do,” but the fact that actual humans are actually like this makes the whole thing that much more important. Data and Spock are VITAL crewmembers and friends, and neither of them would be improved by making them more “normal,” either more “useful” for others or more comfortable with themselves.
Both of them learned and grew as people, becoming more confident and happy and satisfied with themselves, but neither of them were “fixed” by becoming neurotypical, it’s the opposite. And for the most part, the shows/movies didn’t indicated that they should be, it’s the fan reactions/commentary that have grown up in response to them. The whole response to Data and Spock devalues intellectualism and all the things Data and Spock actually care about the most. Ties into the “right and wrong expressions” issue, plus the idea that they need to learn from humans because emotionalism is some kind of glorious thing that makes humanity special in the cosmos when it’s not.
Lani: Neurodivergence is woefully underrepresented in Star Trek. I actually can’t really think of any canonically neurodivergent characters? Worf has a very brief (one episode) bout of suicidal ideation, but that’s about it. Which is really disappointing to me because in a universe that says that differences are the things that make us great, in a rare sci-fi universe where disability isn’t treated as an evolutionary failure, it would nice to see some hint of canon neurodivergence.
Let us know what you think in the comments below! And if you’re interested in this topic, don’t miss the post on my book blog tomorrow, a review of The Myth of Irrationality: The Science of the Mind from Plato to Star Trek by John McCrone!
Star Trek Movie Commentaries!
This week I watched commentaries for the first six Star Trek movies, the ones with the original cast. I know, I know, I’m supposed to be watching The Next Generation, but I suddenly realized I’d been sitting on collector’s editions of the movies from 2004 and had never even checked to see what kind of special features they had. Turns out a lot of behind-the-scenes documentaries, but also commentaries for each movie, which my fellow fans might find interesting. Summaries first, then overall thoughts:
Star Trek: The Motion Picture: Commentary with director Robert Wise, special photographic effects director Douglas Trumbull, effects supervisor John Dykstra, composer Jerry Goldsmith, and Stephen Collins (who played Decker). This commentary is almost entirely about special effects and how things were created. This is presumably a combined result of the commentator choices and the movie itself, but it’s just not that interesting unless you’re a budding effects wizard. They’re basically silent during any character conversations, which strikes me as more of a “meh, waiting for more effects to talk about” than a stylistic choice. That itself is more interesting as the movie progresses though, because that is really what this movie was about. It made me appreciate the beauty of the designs and the time they took, even if the overall movie ended up, er, bad.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: I knew seconds into this commentary that it was going to be way better than the first one. It’s just director Nicholas Meyer on his own, so it’s much more chill and relaxed, but also much more revelatory. At times it sounds like a rambling monologue, and yet it’s all supremely relevant to what’s onscreen and how the movie became what it is, demonstrating again why Meyer’s are the great Trek movies but also extending beyond them in significance. He’s talking about the movie, but the commentary gradually becomes an extended meditation on writing and how to put a story together, and its brilliant.
Nicholas Meyer, Leonard Nimoy, and William Shatner on the Wrath of Khan set.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: Commentary by Leonard Nimoy, producer Harve Bennett, director of photography Charles Correll and Robin Curtis (the second Saavik actress). It’s a relaxed chat about the movie, but I don’t think they were talking to each other, it sounds more like they recorded statements independently. The main focus was on how they managed to make the movie on their budget, with a sub-theme of the characters’ motivations and how the actors worked. So, most of the information I already knew from Leonard Nimoy’s memoirs, but it was nice to hear him talk about the movie.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: Ah, this is Nimoy and Shatner in the same room watching the movie, so it’s a pleasure. They jog each other’s memories of what word they’re looking for, they laugh at jokes in the movie, they express their feelings at watching DeForest Kelley after his death. They share some behind-the-scenes stories and insights into filming, but they’re also quiet for a lot of the movie, and it creates a kind of intimacy. I just love how entertained they still were at the humor here.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: This is William Shatner and his daughter Lisabeth, who served as his chronicler during the making of the movie. They mostly just describe what they see onscreen, and the tone here is much different from Voyage. Frequently Lisabeth reminds Shatner of a story or anecdote, and he just repeats what she says. I did, at a few moments, get a glimpse of the movie Shatner wanted to have made, and knew he hadn’t, and there’s something very poignant in that, especially combined with the “forgetful older man” dynamic he’s showing in the conversation, but otherwise there’s not much insight here.
William and Lisabeth Shatner, in this case discussing Star Wars.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: Back to Nicholas Meyer, this time with his co-screenwriter Denny Flinn. So, there’s some of the pleasure and depth from Wrath of Khan, but a little more chat. I also enjoyed getting more details about the then-contemporary political allusions, because while I can follow “this is the Cold War and the Klingons are the Russians,” they actually had a few more layers and references that I didn’t catch because I wasn’t alive when that was the news, so it was cool to hear those and see how they added those resonances to a sci-fi plot with existing characters. Neither of them knew much about Trek before they got started, so their thoughts on writing longstanding characters, and now characters who aren’t young anymore, was really interesting.
In this collection — which is sometimes expensive but can also be found cheaply if you strike at the right time — Meyer’s Wrath of Khan commentary is absolutely the standout. The Undiscovered Country is a great complement to it, and The Voyage Home is a pleasure. The other three aren’t terribly compelling on their own, but I did enjoy watching them all as a unit. I especially noticed the difference between Meyer’s “constraints make the work better” attitude and the other directors’ litanies of what they couldn’t afford, and I’m fascinated by the way the commentaries matched up to the movies in terms of tone. Overly effects-laden and kinda boring, brilliant, technically good but not transcendent, funny and a bit touching, sad, and brilliant but a bit chattier. That’s the cycle of the movies, too.
These aren’t must-watches, certainly, although I recommend that second commentary to everyone. But if you’re a fan, I think you’ll appreciate the experience.
Posted in Movies, Watching
Tagged commentaries, James T. Kirk, Klingons, Leonard Nimoy, Nicholas Meyer, screenwriting, Spock, Star Trek, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek: The Original Series, The Wrath of Khan, William Shatner, writing