Why ‘Star Trek’ — and Mr. Spock — Matters

From the archives: Following the death of Leonard Nimoy, the Register’s film critic reflects on the significance of the franchise — and one of its defining characters.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in March 2015. It is reprinted today on the 50th anniversary of Star Trek's television debut.

I think my earliest memory of Star Trek is of an episode I watched at my grandparents’ house, a rerun of “Arena” — the original series episode pitting William Shatner’s Capt. James T. Kirk against a hissing, reptilian alien captain of a race called the Gorn.

To a young kid in the 1970s, the Gorn was terrifying in the way that the Sleestak on Land of the Lost were terrifying, slow and inhuman and incalculable behind a rigid, inexpressive mask. (A few years ago, I showed “Arena” to my kids, and there was much hooting and merriment at the first appearance of the Gorn, who looks much cheesier on our widescreen TV than I remember him on my grandparents’ console television. “Taste my foam rubber fist!” my oldest son chortled. Kids these days.)

But “Arena” was about more than going toe-to-toe with a menacing adversary in a dragon mask. It was ultimately about the power of technology — not just the shiny, now-quaintly futuristic technology of creator Gene Roddenberry’s 1960s vision of the 23rd century, but about the technological leaps that got us there. Specifically, it was about the importance of the discovery of gunpowder.

“Arena” was also about a moral leap — the leap from self-interest and concern for one’s kin and clan to universal empathy and compassion. “By sparing your helpless enemy, who surely would have destroyed you,” Kirk is told in the end by a super-powerful alien sitting in judgment, “you demonstrated the advanced trait of mercy — something we hardly expected. We feel there may be hope for your kind.”

This backhanded compliment is a good representation of Star Trek’s utopian but not necessarily Pollyanna humanism. Roddenberry imagined the United Federation of Planets as a shining bastion of Camelot-like glory, implausibly free of poverty, prejudice, violence, disease and other social ills — but he could also acknowledge that it might not be so easy to leave behind mankind’s uglier impulses.

I loved Star Trek as a kid, but even though Kirk was the main character, he wasn’t my favorite. As a quiet, bookish boy who stood somewhat apart from my peers at school, I identified with Mr. Spock, the defining role of Leonard Nimoy, who died last Friday and was buried yesterday in a traditional Jewish ceremony.

Spock was part of what became a central triad that also included Kirk and Dr. Leonard McCoy, or “Bones” (DeForrest Kelley). Like many fictional triads (Frodo, Gandalf and Aragorn; Harry, Hermione and Ron), Kirk, Spock and McCoy can be seen as embodiments of heart, mind and body; of id, ego and superego; of priest, prophet and king.

It was Spock, though, who gave this particular triad, and in a way the cast itself, its “Star Trekkiness.” Roddenberry originally pitched the show to CBS executives as a “Wagon Train to the stars,” and Kirk was a square-jawed, two-fisted, lady-killing hero who in many respects could have been at home in an actual Western. Bones, too, was a readily identifiable type, right down to his old-timey nickname (from the 19th-century idiom “sawbones,” i.e., a surgeon).

Spock, by contrast, was a less familiar sort of hero: aloofly cerebral, dignified, scientifically minded and seemingly emotionless. Kirk was the kind of alpha male who might well shoot for the stars, but Spock represented a class of technocrat who would make such voyages feasible — and unlike many pop-culture scientists at the time, he wasn’t a reclusive oddball or something worse.

Star Trek as a whole promoted techno-optimism and wound up instilling countless fans with a love of science, space and technology, not to mention inspiring a number of real-world inventions — but Spock in particular helped make being a scientist, along with being smart and calmly rational, cool for countless Americans.


The Impact of Star Trek

It is hard to overstate the cultural impact of Star Trek. I don’t mean to gloss over the limitations of the original series and of most subsequent expansions of the Trek universe. Philip J. Fry of Futurama’s succinct summary of the show — “79 episodes, about 30 good ones” — is pretty much on the money. 

Still, Star Trek changed everything, or at least it contributed in a mighty and enduring way.

Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train to the stars” line was pitched to spin a still-exotic genre, sci-fi space opera, as a variation on a well-established one, the Western. In reality, the Western was embarking on a slow ride into the sunset, as science fiction rocketed into the future.

Woody was yesterday, Buzz Lightyear was tomorrow, and Star Trek was at the vanguard of mainstreaming sci-fi — at least, the comparatively grounded, speculative sort of space opera Roddenberry wanted to do. This kind of sci-fi had previously been the domain of novels, pulp magazines and movies; Roddenberry brought it into America’s living rooms where the whole family watched it (especially in reruns in the 1970s, as I did with my grandfather and other extended family members).

Earlier sci-fi shows like The Twilight Zone and Lost in Space included overt fantasy elements and weren’t concerned with offering a thought-out, even semi-consistent vision of what sort of future might await us or what sort of future we should be striving to realize — or to avoid.

In the portrait of the utopian Federation, Star Trek showed us Roddenberry’s vision of what mankind should aspire to be. By contrast, in the U.S.S. Enterprise’s voyages to a Gulliver’s Travels-like sea of island planets, each with a monolithic culture, often representing some facet of human experience or behavior, it often showed us what we ought to avoid. A striking example of the latter was the racial hatred between the last two survivors of race wars on the planet Cheron, each with skin that was black on one side and white on the other — ah, but not on the same sides.

A picture is worth a thousand words, and one key aspect of Roddenberry’s vision of the future was right there on the bridge of the Enterprise, with all-American Kirk flanked by a black female communications officer, an Asian helmsman — and, later, a young Russian ensign. (Decades later, Deep Space Nine had a black commander, Avery Brooks’ Benjamin Sisko, and Voyager was helmed by a woman, Kate Mulgrew’s Kathryn Janeway.) In the midst of the Cold War, the civil-rights movement and second-wave feminism, these were powerful statements.

Most exotic of all was the science officer, Spock, whom a recent NPR story calls “Otherness personified.” Complicating the picture, Spock wasn’t simply alien; he was half Vulcan and half human, opening the door to a variety of themes: reason vs. emotion; nature vs. nurture; racial and cultural mixed heritages. Precisely by denying his emotions, Spock affirmed their importance, at least for us.

Roddenberry’s overarching vision, for good and for ill, was broadly humanistic, in multiple senses. Today “humanism” is often used synonymously with “secular humanism,” and Roddenberry was a secular humanist who took a dim view of religion as one of the things mankind would and should eventually leave behind. But the show’s humanism, while largely secular, was often compatible with the historic Christian humanism of St. Thomas More and Erasmus.


Star Trek’s Humanism

Star Trek affirmed the equality and dignity of all people, extending this to nonhuman peoples of every hue and description the makeup department could supply (even when these aliens didn’t share this enlightened perspective). Fear of the unknown or alien was rejected in favor of curiosity and openness to all.

The show was also humanistic in its affinity for the humanities, for literature, art and music. Shakespeare cropped up frequently on the original series, perhaps most strikingly in a staging of Macbeth on the Enterprise in the original series episode “The Conscience of the King.” Other sources of literary references include classical antiquity and the Bible. Kirk himself was reputed to have a scholarly past at the Academy, where one alum remembered him as “a stack of books with legs.”

This literary tradition carried on into the feature films and later series. Dickens and Melville ran through Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) frequently cited Shakespeare, even telling the android Data (Brent Spiner) — in many ways a similar character to Spock, except in Data’s assiduous wish to be more human — “There is no better way of learning about the human condition than studying Shakespeare.” On Deep Space Nine, Cmdr. Sisko’s son Jake (Cirroc Lofton) became an award-winning writer.

In “Darmok,” a remarkable episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that makes a fascinating counterpoint to “Arena,” Picard relates part of The Epic of Gilgamesh to a member of a race for whom allusion and metaphor were central to communication, remarking thoughtfully in the end, “More familiarity with our own mythology might help us relate to theirs.” (Alas, this literary side of Roddenberry’s humanism was lost in J. J. Abrams’ rebooted series.)

Despite Roddenberry’s secularism, Star Trek’s record on religion is not simply negative, but mixed. Even in the original series there were positive religious elements, and after Roddenberry died, show runners took the ongoing franchise toward what I would argue is a more humanistic view of religion, i.e., religion as a fundamental part of human experience and culture. That wasn’t Roddenberry’s vision, but television, like cinema, is a collaborative art form, and in the end the work is what it is.

In “Who Mourns for Adonais?” (an allusion to Percy Bysshe Shelley), Kirk tells a powerful entity self-identifying as the Greek deity Apollo, “Man has no need for gods. We find the one quite sufficient” — a strikingly direct affirmation of monotheism. (In spite of this, in one episode, “That Which Survives,” a crew member of Indian descent wears a bindi, an apparent sign of Hindu heritage.)

Even more astonishingly, in an episode co-written by Roddenberry, “Bread and Circuses” (a reference to the Roman satirist Juvenal), the Enterprise encounters a near-parallel Earth with a version of ancient Rome that enslaves peaceful dissidents who apparently call themselves “children of the Sun.” In the end, Uhura realizes that they had misunderstood: “Don’t you understand? It’s not the sun up in the sky. It’s the Son of God.” In this parallel Roman empire, apparently, a parallel Christianity has arisen, enduring persecution there, as it did here.

As the franchise developed, Spock was a key element in the Trekverse’s growing openness to spirituality and religion. Spock’s “otherness” included a certain mysticism, perhaps linked to an Asian vibe present even in the original series and much more in later versions. Spock’s meditation and emotional control, among other things, evoke Japanese Zen Buddhism, a tradition to which Roddenberry apparently had some affinity (he and Majel Roddenberry were later married in Japan in a Buddhist/Shinto ceremony).

The feature films upped the ante considerably on Vulcan spirituality. In The Wrath of Khan, Spock mind-melds with Dr. McCoy shortly before a fatal exposure to radiation, an act by which we learn in the Nimoy-directed Star Trek III: The Search for Spock that Spock has imparted his katra — his spirit or soul — to McCoy, so that his spirit can be brought to Vulcan and find rest. When it turns out that an experimental scientific process has somehow regenerated Spock’s body, Spock’s friends petition a Vulcan high priestess to perform a rare, solemn ritual called fal-tor-pan, by which his soul and body might be rejoined.

Deep Space Nine and Voyager both went a long way toward complicating the naively utopian vision of Roddenberry’s vision, often to the benefit of the Trekverse, taking the vagaries of human nature, politics and conflict in a more realistic direction. An increasingly frank acceptance of religion, especially Bajoran and Klingon religion, became a significant dimension of the franchise. By the time Enterprise came along, it was possible for the Trekverse to frankly acknowledge ongoing human religion on earth; one character, John Billingsley’s Dr. Phlox, even mentions attending Mass at St. Peter’s in Rome!

The ongoing cultural influence of the Star Trek phenomenon is incalculable, and Leonard Nimoy’s contributions are an immense part of that. Nimoy wasn’t just an actor doing a job; in a real sense, he was a co-creator who helped to define his character in many ways.

His Jewish heritage gave him an experience of “otherness” to draw on, even before the pointed ears and arched eyebrows went on. Among other things, Nimoy famously adapted the Vulcan salute from a liturgical gesture used during the Jewish priestly blessing he spied in synagogue growing up.

It’s remarkable how real and important Nimoy made this fictional character for so many of us.

“I have been, and ever shall be, your friend,” Spock tells Kirk in that unforgettable death scene at the climax of The Wrath of Khan. Many feel that we have indeed lost a friend. McCoy’s line, “He’s not really dead, as long as we remember him,” rings hollow. I prefer to hope, and pray, to see him as no one ever has: not Spock, but Nimoy, in the great sequel to which this world is only a poor pilot episode.