Star Trek: Spock's New Cultural Relevance

I saw my second-ever Star Trek movie this weekend. (The first I saw, 1996’s Star Trek: First Contact, ensured that I wouldn’t be trying another for quite some time.) I’ve seen maybe a couple of episodes of Next Generation, but, other than that, my Star Trek knowledge is entirely vicarious. What I have to offer is not so much a review, but the observations of a newbie who found the new Star Trek entertaining and accessible, if occasionally lacking in logic as far as its plot.

On that note, as an outsider to the Star Trek universe, though one who’s clocked enough hours with “Trekkers” to know that’s what they prefer to be called, I’ve always been puzzled by the typical teenage geek-boy’s idolization of Spock. One the one hand, it makes sense that those who sense their own social awkwardness would latch on to a character whose stilted speech and repressed emotions are raised to a virtue, rather than a mere deficiency. It’s, er, logical that the geek might look up to Spock as someone whose “antisocial” attributes are carefully cultivated, rather than either inherent or forced upon him by others. On the other hand, I’ve never known any women, even self-proclaimed geek-girls, who worship Spock with quite the same intensity. And then there’s that study from a few years back that found a correlation between Spock-obsession and pedophilia. (Making any sort of causal argument here would be ridiculous, of course.)

In an insightful piece on Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman attributes the original Spock mystique to Spock’s ability to assuage cultural fears that, in an age of rapidly advancing technology, we’d eventually become just like our machines. While Spock, like his later stand-in Data, does have the supposedly cold, emotionless logic of a binary system, he is still susceptible to feeling. The new film especially, by delving into Spock’s origin story and emphasizing his human mother, points out that he is hardly free of passion: his self-control is a choice. Furthermore, as Spock’s daddy informs us, it’s not that Vulcans don’t have emotions; Vulcan emotions actually run deeper than human emotions.

Not only is Spock’s emotional control deliberately chosen, but the new film gives him a romantic relationship (one that has apparently lasted some time) with Uhura. Romance was never really in the cards for the original Spock (unless he went through a time portal that made him regress to his people’s “primitive” state, before the Vulcans developed their famed logical prowess). Not only is Spock brilliant, but, in this reboot, he gets the girl. As Gleiberman points out, Spock, more than ever, represents the triumph of “geek chic.” The difference between the 1960s and the 2000s is that,

“[i]n the age of the Internet and the endlessly updated technological home-entertainment/office-slave gadget, we’re all geeks now. And maybe it’s only in the context of a culture that has come to require mind over matter, 24 hours a day, that a mandarin like Spock could finally pull up even with a noble macho like Kirk in the cool sweepstakes. Or maybe even surpass him. For the first time, says the new Star Trek, we’re no longer just all geeks; we’re all Spock.”

This last statement may have even more truth than Gleiberman intends. Watching the new film, I began to realize that Spock’s characteristics bear a lot of resemblance to high-functioning autism. A brief Internet search revealed that I’m hardly the first person to have had this thought. In a time when autism (high-functioning and otherwise) is inexplicably on the rise, Spock may have something to teach us about life with autism.

While Spock’s emotional control and elevation of logic are a choice, his inability to recognize jokes or social cues seems to be something beyond his control, a product of his Vulcan upbringing. Many autistic individuals find themselves similarly struggling to understand social cues and conventions (though of course this is due to their brains’ wiring and not necessarily to their upbringing). However, even while they struggle to recognize and express emotion, people with autism often experience great anger and frustration: autistic children may throw extreme tantrums without knowing why. To function in society, the autistic have to learn how to recognize and express emotions within socially acceptable bounds. Spock tries to navigate this same pathway, while wrestling with the additional burden of trying to fulfill the standards of two different cultures at once.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the new Spock, whether we see him as representing geek chic or autism, is that the movie implies that he could have been (and indeed, briefly was) captain of the Enterprise. That Kirk becomes captain is, once again, Spock’s choice (though the complexities of the movie’s time-travel plot also come into play here—that’s all I’ll say for now, to avoid spoilers). Spock resigns the power that he could exercise—and exercise reasonably well. For the socially ostracized, it suggests that being limited to a supporting role can be a noble choice, not something forced upon them. The new Star Trek tells us that Spock is just as capable of commanding the Enterprise as Kirk; it’s through his own wisdom that he chooses to play second-fiddle.

As a Christian, I’m encouraged whenever I see a character voluntarily resigning power for some higher reason. It goes against all our cultural beliefs that the best are those who fight their way to the top. American Christians too often have embraced this belief without qualification, preaching the importance of Christians rising to positions of power and influence in politics, finance, and entertainment. While there’s an element of truth in this message—sometimes Christians are called to be leaders “for such a time as this”—we seem to forget that cultural dominance was never a part of the Great Commission. Instead, we are to preach the good news and make disciples of the servant-king, Jesus, who emptied himself of power and suffered a shameful death before being raised to glory at God’s right hand. For once, thanks to the new Star Trek movie, I can see why admiring Spock might not be a bad place to start.

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  • Clarissa says, “…a correlation between Spock-obsession and pedophilia. (Making any sort of causal argument here would be ridiculous, of course.)”

    And yet, despite stating it would be ridiculous to argue, you do make flippant use of an unsourced study, directly connecting Star Trek fans and pedophilia. May I ask why? In what way was this article enhanced by pointing out your passive feeling that nerds are probably also “sick”? That those who grew up enjoying the series are not only socially awkward but probably (not definitely, of course, that would be ridiculous, but probably) socially suspect?

    I can’t seem to wrap my head around how this information plays into the article — especially the conclusion that choosing to be Spock-like (and thus, pedophila prone) could be a good thing for Christians.

  • hi-chan

    “On the other hand, I’ve never known any women, even self-proclaimed geek-girls, who worship Spock with quite the same intensity.”

    I have to say, Clarissa, you are wrong on this one. As a nerdy girl who grew up in the Silicon Valley, I knew plenty of younger and older women who romanticized and idolized Mr. Spock. In fact, it takes one to know one…I have always had a huge crush on him. :-) I really think you’ve hit the nail on the head about what makes him so attractive to women, though, besides the “tall, dark and handsome” thing. It’s a sort of gracious humility, sort of the way Christ was willing to be a servant to others. Also, like Christ, Spock is good at witty comebacks. ;-)

    Still don’t believe girls love Spock? Here’s another data point for you:

  • @Sean – I’ll be kind and simply suggest that you wildly misread her.

    @hi-chan – Are you saying that Carissa is wrong and that she really has known geek women who adore Spock with equal fanaticism? ‘Cuz that would be a weird thing to say.

    The Danes last blog post..20090417.teaParty

  • Carissa

    @Sean: If you want the source, the original story was run by the LA Times back in 2005–the article isn’t accessible anymore, though, unless you’re willing to pay for it, which is why I didn’t link to it. The internets kind of exploded over it back in the day. But, as I hoped to suggest, I don’t think it’s all that relevant anyway. If, say, a study shows that pedophiles like to drink tea, that doesn’t mean there’s anything at all wrong or “sick” about drinking tea. But it does mean that society in general may cast aspersion on those who drink tea, rightly or wrongly. I’m just calling attention to some of our past cultural associations with those who admire Spock.

    @hi-chan: As The Dane said, it’s only my experience that I’m speaking of. My childhood was sadly deprived of fellow female nerds.

    @The Dane: Thanks for spelling my name correctly!

  • @Carissa – I think i only called you Clarissa once. And I even knew that wasn’t your name. I just have a nostalgia-crush on Clarissa Explains It All (which I really only saw twice) and so have to fight the usurpation of your true name by your not-as-true name.

    The Danes last blog post..20090417.teaParty

  • satchel

    what i want to ko is whats the difference between spock and original spock. In all fiarness i ahvent seen the movie……or any of the episodes….but im gonna see the movie this weekend. Still i wanna kno the difference between spock and original spock?

  • kate

    Er, Leonard Nimoy was the one from the original series who got sacks of female fan mail in the 60s. Isaac Asimov even wrote an article on Spock’s sex appeal. The Spock character didn’t appeal just to the geeky girls either. In fact I don’t think science fiction was geeky in the 60s, it was quite exciting, hence the popularity of Dr Who and 2001 a Space Odyssey.

  • Carissa Smith

    Kate: Yes, I’m focusing more on identification with Spock here, as opposed to finding him sexy.

  • petered

    I do like the idea of people giving up power for a higher reason, but my understanding after watching the movie was that Spock gave up his position because of regulation. The rules stated that any captain who was emotionally compromised would be forced to give up their command. It seemed to me that Spock’s rigid adherence to the rules was as much of a factor as wisdom in giving up command.

    I thought the movie did a poor job at developing Spock’s character, and it gave a bad message about the response to emotions. The only emotion I remember Spock feeling or showing was anger and sadness, hardly a good representation of someone becoming in touch with emotions. Additionally, the “good” response to those emotions the movie gave was an unwise vengeful attack, which takes some of the shine off the idea of Spock developing his emotional side.

  • Science fiction is awesome. As Carissa pointed out in the article, there are limitless ways in which one can use such a constructed universe to safely explore serious issues. Do Spock’s difficulties in understanding, expressing, and dealing with emotion have anything to teach us about autism? Why is it that we regard Spock as Vulcan even though he is half-human? Fun things!

    *spoiler alert!*

    However, I must quickly add that all of those interesting issues are far overshadowed by the fact that the old Spock went back in time and contributed to the blowing up of his entire planet…in the past. This would presumably mean that the old Spock would not exist, and so he couldn’t unwittingly contribute to the destruction of his old home world, which would in turn mean that he would exist. So is this a multi-verse? A universe? Seriously! Forget the girl Spock, explain paradox to us!