Damn Vulcans, ruining this federation…

Consider their treatment of Mr. Spock. Almost every episode, Dr. McCoy heckles him over his logic and even uses “green-blooded” as part of his threats. Captain Kirk, ostensibly Spock’s greatest friend, takes any opportunity he can to point out problems logic causes, and on more than one occasion makes Spock the butt of race-based jokes in front of the entire bridge crew. Several members of the crew question his authority on the basis of race in many different episodes, and no one thinks to reprimand or stop them until the situation becomes serious for other reasons. Finally, let’s not forget Mr. Stiles’ suggestion that Spock just be killed off in “Balance of Terror.”

It is clear that in the 23rd century, over 100 years after first contact with the Vulcans, humans are still an extremely xenophobic species. —Damn Vulcans, ruining this federation… (Not In Cardiff)

This author makes a good point about the difference between the attitude of the show and the characters represented in the show.

Whoopi Goldberg found her way to Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) because she says she loved that TOS actually showed black people in the future. The black bridge officer Uhura made a prominent statement, just by her presence. Having her in a hot miniskirt was making another statement, but let’s tackle one thing at a time. Consider also the part of Richard Daystrom — the inventor of the M5 computer, who happened to be black but whose race had absolutely nothing to do with the plot.

Yet The Original Series (TOS) was created for a 1960s audience. Whites and blacks had been living in supposedly legal equality for 100 years, yet racial tensions were hardly a thing of the past.

DeVito mentions the one-time character Stiles, who makes racist statements about Spock in “Balance of Terror” (an episode in which we see what Romulans look like for the first time and learn — surprise — that they look just like Vulcans). Stiles is far from the voice of authority; he’s an angry minor character, attacking a major character, and he gets upbraided by Kirk for it.

(TNG expanded on this theme with the young officer who claims to be part Vulcan but turns out to be part Romulan. There is a long tradition in American literature of light-skinned people with black ancestry “passing” for white, even though according to the laws in place at the time they would be considered legally black.)

And yes, Gene Roddenberry was fond of saying that there are weren’t enough aliens in the Screen Actors Guild. Quite honestly, the forehead bumps and facial spots got to be boring after a little while… I like what Babylon 5 and DSN did, namely having a small number of aliens that recur more frequently, so that we can really get the sense that we really do have to learn to live together, rather than just meet a new civilization with a new set of differences we must learn to tolerate until the closing credits roll.

For a moment, let’s run with the idea that Star Trek should show more aliens… what would a show that was entirely set on Vulcan be like? Would the general audience of TV viewers who are used to emotional conflict be able to comprehend the story? Are there enough actors who can play Vulcans in such a way that viewers would identify with the characters? Any story set on Vulcan (or the Klingon homeworld, or a starship) is going to be created, produced, and interpreted according to how it reflects on the society of the humans who created it. In a similar way, the alien or the robot or the mutant in science fiction is interesting, in the sense of story, because it can teach us something about ourselves. Yes, of course, some people watch or read SF for the technology, but good special effects won’t make a successful TV series.

On the topic of violence… Since Westerns were popular at the time the original show aired, audiences would have expected gunfights and fistfights. And they got them. But I think TOS was more varied and sophisticated in its approach to violence.

In “The Man Trap,” we hear McCoy give an eloquent defense of the salt vampire’s actions — it’s just doing what comes naturally in order to survive. But at that point, the creature has actually drugged the real McCoy and is impersonating the good doctor during a staff meeting. The creature needs more than salt to survive; it also needs love, and has for years been impersonating Dr. Crater’s wife Nancy. Crater knows this and accepts it. Yet the creature prefers to be the Nancy that McCoy remembers (they used to be an item) rather than the Nancy that Dr. Crater knows is only an alien counterfeit. In this episode, we have several scenes in which the creature is alone, so we know its motives better than the heroes do. This is unusual in a science fiction/action show — we are more sympathetic to the monster than the heroes are. The plot leads to a climax in which McCoy has the option to use violence to destroy the possibility of a future with an image of his beloved Nancy, or stand by and watch his captain die.

That was good drama — Kirk, the unfliching man of action, was helpless by this point, and McCoy, the healer and lover, was forced to use violence. But we see how much it costs him.

Yes, this is violence, but it is not the same thing as cheering when Scotty punches an obnoxious Klingon in The Trouble with Tribbles. It’s a well thought-out theme that recurs frequently in the Star Trek universe. (Well, not universally… in “Up the Long Ladder,” Riker and Pulaski destroy clones of themselves without batting an eye; yet Odo tells a criminal in “A Man Alone” that “killing your own clone is still murder.” I am not one of those retconners who obsessively looks for reasons why what appears to be an inconsistency is really coherent and fits into an ordered plan.)

It’s easier for me to accept that some action stories require the heroes to be aggressive, or the action premise of the show loses focus. (Consider the running joke about Picard repeatedly solving crises by surrendering.)

And while the Star Trek movies were getting pretty tired by “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” having Kirk brooding over the murder of his son and hating the Klingons made for a good dramatic plot, made even more powerful because by that time we had seen a lot of development of a Klingon culture that many fans grew to enjoy immensely.

Back during the TOS era, it was apparently still OK to hate the Klingons, since they were universally bad in every encounter — and perhaps Roddenberry meant to atone for that. Yet even in the TOS era, the Organians showed up to force the Federation and Klingons to adhere to a peace treaty. Thus, while the Federation and the Klingon empire don’t get along, the moral perspective of the show itself, the spirit that we can recognize as Star Trek — forced them to do so, in order to find rich dramatic material in the ongoing conflict.

I recall reading that the idea of having a Klingon as a character in TNG was just intended as a walk-on part, just to establish that things have changed since the era of Kirk.

Consider Spock’s refusal to use violence against the primitive creatures that threatened the Galileo 7. McCoy has to be harsh with Spock not because McCoy wants violence, but because the story demands it. Spock is on his first command, his non-violent response is seen as weak by the people he is supposed to lead, and people die while following his orders. In other cases, again when the story demands it, McCoy attacks Spock for being heartless and cruel abandoning what looks like a hopeless search for missing officers in order to carry out some other duty.

Remember also that the groovy episode with the singing hippies have Spock naturally “reach” the anti-establishment sensibilities of the young people (who obviously were intended to reflect the political and social concerns of 60s youth). And Spock himself chose to go against Vulcan tradition and join Starfleet rather than enter the Vulcan Science Academy — an act which causes his father to cease to speak to him for years. (Even though Sarek’s isolationism is softened by his having a human wife.)

One of the things I liked least about TNG was the milksop perfection of Federation society. Thank goodness DS9 — a much more racially diverse core cast (Odo, Kira, Quark, Dax, and eventually Worf all non-human… add in the Cardassians, who started of in TNG as generic bad guys, but whose culture became even more developed than the Bajorans).

And naturally, with a more diverse cast, the writers could do more kinds of tension than the human-Vulcan tension that was part of what made TOS the success that it was. Thus, as the TV casts got more diverse, the opportunities for tension increased — and the writers used those opportunites to their advantage.

(Disclaimer… once I started teaching full-time, I lost track of the second half of Voyager, though I kept reading the plot summaries on the internet; and I don’t even know what channel Enterprise airs on, so I can’t speak from an informed perspective about that series.)

3 thoughts on “Damn Vulcans, ruining this federation…

  1. I grew up watching TOS so often that I only remember seeing two shows for the first time — “Balance of Power” and “Obsession.” I put a tape recorder up to the TV set and recorded the audio and listened to them over and over. (The writers never knew whether the special effects would convey anything of significance, so they always had someone says, “Captain, the alien vessel is approaching,” or something like that, so the shows made great radio plays.)

    When I come across one of these shows now, I always remember the plot, and I always know that the Enterprise will win. But what I don’t always remember is whether Spock of McCoy will win. Although I’ve seen these shows scores of times, I keep watching them for the characters. (Oh, and the groovy colored lighting effects in the corridors.)

  2. On a slightly different subject, I thought trying to shoehorn Dr. McCoy’s constant heckling of Spock over his logic was a real stretch. I kind of like the concept, actually – bigotry towards someone because of their race is immoral, but heckling them over concrete ideas isn’t. Disliking Mr. Spock because of his race was bad, disliking his constant adherence to logic was more like one idea versus another.

  3. It’s funny, because the episode with Stiles was on tv a few weeks ago and I saw it.

    When Kirk berrates Stiles, he tells him to leave his bigotry in his quarters, or something like that. It’s difficult to tell whether this suggests a tolerance towards bigotry, or if it’s more of a “As the captain, I don’t have the authority to completely tell you what to think” kind of thing. Like “It’s not my business if you do disgusting things in your own quarters, but when you’re at the office there are certain things you can’t do” kind of thing.

    Stiles makes a few more small comments throughout the episode, but in the end it’s Mr. Spock who saves Stiles’s life – and afterwards Stiles wholeheartedly tries to apologize to Mr. Spock for the things he said and his attitude.

    Strangely, Mr. Spock just says that he was saving the guy because of his role in ship duties and no apologies were necessary. I wasn’t really sure how to take that…it was a little odd.

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