Sunday, May 07, 2017

Trek50: The Spock Factor

Fifty years ago this spring, Star Trek completed its first season and went into summer reruns. Though apparently it was a close thing, the series was renewed for another season.

 Star Trek had a lot going for it, a number of reasons why it became a cult hit even in that first season, then an enduring popular hit, an immense saga and ultimately a mythology as well as an entertainment and popular culture legend.

But despite some hype to the contrary, complete originality wasn’t one of those reasons, because Star Trek wasn’t totally original. There had been science fiction television shows set aboard a spaceship before—in fact, quite a few of them, including one of the first television series ever, Captain Video.

 Even much of the fondly recalled Trek tech had appeared before on those early TV shows as well as movies and print stories as far back as the 1930s (including transporters, forward viewscreen, automatic doors and phasers with a stun setting.)

 In fact, the existence of those shows was part of the pitch for Star Trek. Popular shows like Space Patrol, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (as well as local variations like San Francisco’s Captain Z-ro) were the 1950s equivalents of popular westerns like Hopalong CassidyThe Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid—that is, shows primarily for children.

Then in the late 50s and early 60s, television drama was dominated by the so-called Adult Westerns, with the same Old West settings but with more complex stories and characters: Gunsmoke, Wagon Train and the series that Gene Roddenberry wrote for often, Have Gun, Will Travel.

 But the adult western was waning by the mid-60s, and television was looking for the Next Big Thing. If adult westerns had worked so well, how about that other staple of early TV? Why not Adult Science Fiction?

 “Wagon train to the stars” became part of the Star Trek pitch, but there were also explicit parallel to what shows like Gunsmoke did to the standard western: a full hour to get beyond the simplistic stories of those old half-hour westerns, with more believable settings, stories and characters. Adult westerns also featured slightly more graphic violence and a bit more sexuality, at least implied.

 Still there was the central western hero, with supporting cast of regulars for added interest and comic relief. In its own way, Star Trek replicated all of this with one crucial difference: an important character who was a good guy but looked like a bad guy, a hero who was an alien. Not just somebody who looked a little different, but somebody who was different, and definitely not comic relief. (Most of the time anyway.) Star Trek had the Spock factor.

Captain Kirk was the hero figure, the protagonist—he was Marshall Dillon as well as Ulysses, Horatio Hornblower, Gulliver, Hamlet. Every adventure has a Captain Kirk.

 Mr. Spock however was in many ways an original. Yet he became the template, not only for characters in future Trek series (Data, Odo, 7 of 9, T’Pol) but in significant ways created a standard character for many other television series (Ziva in NCIS, Parker in Leverage, Bones in Bones, even Sherlock in Elementary, etc.)

 He clearly wasn’t the sidekick, Matt Dillon’s Chester. He wasn’t just the brain who supplied the cool gadgets, Tut to Captain Midnight. He was sometimes the second in command who differs with the captain of the ship or the commander of the expedition, but that wasn’t his most significant role.

 He wasn’t the antagonist either, the inside enemy who tries to undercut the hero, like Othello’s Iago. He was loyal, he was a friend, but he was Other. He was the alien. He was a different voice.

Star Trek is rightly famous for its diversity on the bridge. But functionally, most of the racial and gender diversity was neutral in effect. That is, the race or gender or nationality of the navigator, the communication’s officer, or the chief engineer didn’t matter, didn’t make a difference in their jobs. Which was part of the point—there was no reason not to have a woman officer, she could be just as competent.

 Of course that’s a generalization—the specific talents of an individual may well be shaped in some sense by these factors. But in terms of what they actually did on the show, the differences didn’t much matter. But Spock’s differences mattered.

 His special mental and physical gifts, his knowledge, his skills, his very being as a Vulcan, all contributed to what he did, and why he was valued on the Enterprise. The others provided visual and audible evidence of diversity. Spock embodied it.
 The others provided evidence that diversity works. Spock sold it.

 There is some sense of this in mythology, where the hero is aided by helpers with a specific gift or skill. That aspect is mirrored in superhero teams like the Avengers or the Fantastic Four whose members have different powers.

 But Spock is more than that, too. Spock crucially offers a different point of view. He contributes to how Captain Kirk sees a situation, analyzes it. Before he decides a course of action, he often asks Spock for recommendations.

 One of Captain Kirk’s great qualities—which William Shatner brought to the role—is his curiosity. He wants to know what Spock thinks, not only because of the mission, but because he is curious, he wants to understand, to see things (at least for a moment) through Spock’s eyes.

 What makes Captain Kirk curious is that Spock is an alien.  Kirk is not threatened, though others feel the visceral discomfort.  While aliens in a lot of sci-fi were automatically evil, just their status as Other, as very different and therefore unknown, creates doubt and unease.  Kirk bypasses this and goes directly to that other aspect of the alien--as a resource, with different skills and abilities, and above all, an inherently different point of view.

And in just a few broadcast episodes, the alien became a very popular character with the Star Trek audience. He remains probably the most beloved.

So why were so many viewers identifying with an alien?

 Especially in his first book (I Am Not Spock) Leonard Nimoy focused at length on this aspect of the Spock character. He noted his own feelings of alienation growing up, personally and as a member of a relatively poor Jewish family in Boston. The first movie character he identified with was Quasimodo, the noble monster otherwise known as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

He later faced a kind of discrimination as an actor in Hollywood, at a time when dark-haired actors with certain facial characteristics were typecast as “ethnics” (Jewish, Italian, American Indians) or as “heavies” and villains. In other words, he was often typecast as an alien (and actually played a space alien in a low budget 1952 movie serial called Zombies of the Stratosphere.)

 He also mused on Spock’s appeal to the alienated segment of his audience, particularly adolescents. While younger children were fascinated with his exotic, even demonic and slightly scary appearance, teenagers who felt misunderstood or not accepted by the popular crowd could identify with the alien aboard the high school Enterprise. (That Spock was half-human, with constant internal conflicts, only added to the identification, which was not restricted to adolescents.)

But there was another reason why a lot of viewers in the 1960s were alienated, and they were not all so young. As noted here previously, Mr. Spock was a symbol and an icon used on placards carried by protestors in recent marches supporting science and addressing the climate crisis. But Spock was also enlisted as an ally in protests almost fifty years ago: against the Vietnam War.

The reasons are roughly the same in both instances. Spock became the hero of “logic” or rationality. But it meant more than the words imply. Certainly, Spock championed a certain objectivity that is central to the scientific method. But logic is basically a process, and it can turn out to be wrong if the initial premise is wrong, or if the facts within the process are incorrect.

 In a strict sense, that Spock would be an anti-war hero in the 60s isn’t, well, logical. For proponents of the war cast themselves as the rational ones, as contrasted with anti-war protestors, who—in proponents’ view—were operating basically on emotion or unrealistic idealism.

 That’s how the argument was often cast, especially in the first years of controversy, in the early to mid 60s: Everybody hates war, proponents said, and no one wants war, but sometimes wars must be fought. Unfortunately there are victims, including non-combatants. But society must face the hard facts that this war is necessary.

 One of their arguments seemed unassailably logical: the so-called Domino Theory. Once one southeast Asian state became Communist, then the next would, etc. like falling dominoes, until the United States faced a huge block of enemies.

These arguments carried weight because it was the position of most leaders in Washington. The Secretary of Defense in particular was renowned as a brilliant thinker, tough minded and strictly if not brutally rational. Military leaders had facts and figures, and news shows paraded serious men in dark suits to soberly describe both the necessity for the war and the case for how it was conducted, including the strong likelihood of victory. They also marshaled ideals with emotional weight—patriotism, love of liberty, duty, for example—in support of their cause.

 Meanwhile, their anti-war opponents were much less impressive and credentialed, and were dismissed as uninformed, misguided and unrealistic sentimentalists.

 As the war expanded, however, opponents began to include the highly educated and credentialed, and eventually sober-suited leaders in Washington. They argued not from ideals but from different premises—different accounts of past events, of history, geopolitics and other factors. For instance, they argued that the Domino Theory was too simplistic to account for differences and complexities in the region (as later proved to be the case.) Thinking more appropriate to three-dimensional chess was needed.

Proponents also argued on the basis of facts, which were selected and at times falsified to make their case. With these different premises and facts, they used logic. They showed that proponents were being illogical.

 Eventually the arguments of these opponents proved out, especially as a series of revelations showed that officials had hidden or distorted facts, particularly about the conduct of the war, its failures and the true (as opposed to the public) opinions of some of those conducting it as to the likelihood of success.

 As the arguments of proponents looked more and more phony, fatuous and hypocritical, the war looked tragically irrational. It was clearly illogical.

But Spock logic had two other dimensions beyond simple scientific or rhetorical logic that also featured in the Vietnam War debate.

 The first is that Spock’s logic is alien logic—that is, it is rational observation from the Other, from an outside perspective.

 After other arguments were exhausted, some proponents of the war confronted opponents with what they considered an unanswerable question: how do we get out of Vietnam? There were only two outcomes to a war: victory or defeat. The US could not simply leave without losing immense prestige and abandoning allies.

 This argument (which in fact I heard from across the table in a formal debate in 1965, when I believe I was the first student on my campus to publicly argue against the war) was most insistently made by Washington officials who simply could not imagine any other alternatives. Only those outside the establishment, or outside their frame of reference, could imagine (many) ways out. They tended to be the alienated, and were by definition the Other.

But even more broadly, the Vietnam War, along with the madness of the Cold War thermonuclear standoff, required a kind of alien point of view to even articulate how mad that establishment logic was.

This was expressed for example most strongly in 1960s satire, from the movie Doctor Strangelove to Beyond the Fringe on stage and That Was the Week That Was on British and US television. It was applied to Vietnam in popular songs, perhaps most directly in “Fixin’ To Die Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish.

It’s notable also that two of the last famous World War II novels that were published during the Vietnam War, could see it only in satirical, absurdist terms: Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. They artfully demonstrated the craziness—the illogic—involved in these wars.

 By the late 60s, satire became part of political and social movements. There was also serious and angry demand for radical change, including advocacy for revolutions of one kind or another. Vietnam, the Bomb and more mundane aspects of society (conformity, suburbia, etc.) along with the high spirits of booming youth fueled and formed what came to be known as the counterculture.

 Without getting into detail about factions, personalities and analysis, this much can be said about the broad impulse towards counterculture. The word itself implies not only an opposing culture, but a point of view outside the main culture. It’s the culture of the aliens. Spock was one of its heroes.

The second added dimension of the Spock factor is that Spock’s logic was not only alien but based on particular values. Those values were mostly implied, expressed mostly in action and attitude in various episodes and movies.

 Their role can be discerned in an exchange that the newly reborn Spock has with his mother Amanda at the beginning of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Spock at this point is engaged in relearning everything, and is testing himself with interactive computers. She asks him if he believes in the statement “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” Spock replies that “I will accept that as an axiom.”

 An axiom is a statement accepted as true that becomes the basis for inference and argument. That is, the process of logic begins with the axiom. We would also call this particular axiom a statement of values. It is not a basic physical truth or a necessary foundation for a system like geometry.  It is a foundation statement for ethical decisions (though as Amanda points out, this particular axiom can be ethically reversed.)   Spock’s logic is often applied with such axioms in mind.

 There’s another example later in this movie. When Spock learns that 20th century whalers are knowingly killing the last Humpbacks, he observes “Hunting a species to extinction is not logical.” A human scientist counters, “Who said the human race is logical.”

 But it is not logical to hunt a species to extinction only if you value the existence of that species, even if solely as a source of food. That value placed upon the species is not intrinsic. It’s possible to imagine an axiom by which it just doesn’t matter. In fact, human behavior in this case implies an axiom that freedom to exploit resources at the present moment is paramount.

But alien logic makes us face our implied values. “Nobody wants war” or “nobody wants the whales to go extinct” are statement often made, but do humans act in ways which logically follow from these axioms? Spock’s logic makes us examine this, and in many cases it exposes hypocrisy. At minimum, it provides a useful and invigorating challenge.

 We need the alien point of view. We need to see the slaveowner from the point of view of the slave, the majority from the minority, institutions from individuals, the privileged from the dispossessed, the rich from the poor, the well from the sick, the able from the disabled, the bully from the bullied.

 This is Spock’s logic. It paid off many times, as in The Voyage Home when it was the non-human science officer who suggested that the alien probe might be trying to contact members of an intelligent but non-human Earth species—the whales.

Spock’s character was enriched in the feature film series. He accepted the importance of feelings in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. By Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, he was counseling a young Vulcan, “logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.” But it always was that, in Spock. This was simply the recognition, that values as well as experience are crucial.

A sense of values therefore informed the Vietnam War reaction, for not only was it illogical on geopolitical and societal terms, in the immense number of human lives it destroyed and deranged, it was tragically and immorally illogical.

There are other appealing aspects of the Spock character  Like the alien who came to Earth and became Superman, Spock's differences include powers and abilities beyond those of humans. These make him less vulnerable, but also separate him from humankind--a combination that may appeal on several levels to alienated humans.

A more subtle element, yet probably the most impressive feature of the character was crucial to Spock's importance and popularity. It involves behavior, attitude and presence.

 In developing the character of Spock, Leonard Nimoy made a fateful choice. Rather than play Spock as utterly cold and machine-like, he translated the Vulcan retreat from emotion and emotional display into stillness and apparent calm.

 Instead of impatience and disdain, he exhibited a courtliness, and a gentle irony (except perhaps when Bones provokes him, when it becomes more biting.)  His occasional arrogance was played for comic effect, but he was also self-aware, and took note of the feelings of others, even if he did not feel those emotions himself.

Nimoy combined this sense of logic and objectivity as a calm attentiveness with the curiosity of a scientist, and an open sense of wonder.  His key word was, of course, “fascinating.”

 Nimoy’s sense of the character and of the Vulcan culture informed Star Trek’s further treatment of that culture.  What evolved was a kind of Buddhist culture, complete with meditation. Vulcan was portrayed as an arid planet of plains and mountains, with the vaguely Asiatic trappings of Tibet. And Tibetans actually were a warrior race that made the cultural turn to Buddhist non-violence and a kind of rigorous logic, the same as the Vulcans.

But even in that first season, Nimoy developed the Spock posture in a particular way. His pose on the bridge was not rigid but both formal and relaxed, his hands folded behind his back. Above all, he was centered, exuding self-control. “Lack of emotion is pathological,” Nimoy said. “Restraint is civilized.”

 So in all the furor of the 60s, with all the frenzied noise in the lives of young American viewers, there was this example of an anomaly, and yet a role model: the alien as a civilized man. Which made sense, since it seemed a civilized person would be seen as an alien.

 The irony of the 23rd century alien—or the 20th century alien—is that he’s a throwback to a 19th or 18th century ideal of civilized behavior: restrained but kind, useful, dignified, ethical, courteous, curious, large-minded and large-souled, open to new ideas and observations, fascinated.

 In our culture of vulgar and violent extremes, that might still be pretty alien. And it’s possibly another reason that Spock was an admired role model for many, and still is.

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