I have recently started watching Star Trek: The Original Series
. I grant you, my new found interest is probably helped by the quaintness of the 1960s style (I never managed to get into Voyager
, for example). My ability to suspend disbelief is always helped by less than stellar (see what I did there?) sets: when I am in the process of suspending disbelief with regard to the sets, my brain fills in a number of other blanks as well. I enjoy this. But I confess the main appeal of the series is found in the characters. What sets The Original Series
apart, as far as my experience of Star Trek
goes, is the beautiful assembly of a cast that works. One where all the major players are interesting in their own right (although I must admit to a preference for Spock).
Now to the heart of the matter. Having watched the first season and a half of the show, I got a sudden urge to rewatch J.J. Abrams' Star Trek
(2009). I remember being unhappy about it when it came out (while I am new to the series, I have watched the old films, and I had formed some definite ideas about how Spock, in particular, would act). I returned to it with my earlier views more fully grounded (you can shout "confirmation bias" all you like; I can't hear you), and I am increasingly convinced Abrams and his cronies (I am looking at you, Lindelof) have made a terrible mistake.
It is not the casting. Not a word against Zachary Quinto as Spock.
Nor do I think the mistake is simply to have Spock show emotion: One of the most powerful tools in the character toolbox is to have a character (be it Sherlock Holmes or Spock) established as unfeeling, logical or cold show glimpses of emotion. I doubt my fondness for Holmes and Spock is concidental: both characters follow the same pattern. Holmes is described by Watson as a "calculating machine", but occasionally (and more frequently as the stories progress) his feelings for Watson are shown (something which the Sherlock
adaptation does rather well).1
Holmes acts primarily based on logic and science, not emotion; and so, when he makes an exception from this pattern, the effect is much greater than if an emotional character weeps bucket loads (as you will find out if you ever read a sentimental novel). If Holmes were actually unable to feel anything, however, he would not be anywhere near as appealing.
Spock is the same type of character as Sherlock Holmes in this respect. He is half Vulcan, and as such is presented as rigorously logical: McCoy regularly calls him a computer (see: calculating machine); but even I (with my limited Star Trek credentials) know that Vulcans are also deeply emotional, a trait the logic is meant to keep in check. There is therefore a great potential for moments of emotion. Moreover, much of the tension in the character springs from his suppression of his human heritage with a view to being sufficiently Vulcan. This, one could argue, makes logic perhaps even more important as an identity marker for Spock than for an ordinary Vulcan. When he shows emotion, therefore, it must be strongly felt; the glimpses of feeling in Spock are more effective (and affective) than the outbursts of McCoy.
And so, as I said, I have no problem with Spock showing emotion. And certainly not a problem with him showing more emotion in this film (having lost his planet and his mother) than he otherwise might (the scene in the transporter room just as Vulcan disappears is spot on, I think). It is a parallel universe; I get it.
HOWEVER. The film loses a lot of its effect when it shows Spock as emotional from the beginning
. There are moments of true Spock (when he changes his mind from opposing Kirk to accepting his reading of the situation at the approach to Vulcan; or when stating, after the loss of parent and planet, that what he needs is for everyone to continue performing admirably). But the idea that Spock would be involved with one of his students, to the extent that he would assign her to another ship because he is unable to properly consider whether assigning her to the Enterprise would be a display of favouritism … it is a patent break with his character (and while Kirk's timeline has been altered, there is no reason to assume Spock's should have been affected at this point in the story).
If you are going to have Spock give in to emotion, it must be AFTER the destruction of Vulcan.
When Abrams has Spock kissing Uhura in the elevator (see my second point for a more specific rant on this), it is clear that that is not new: it is the action of two people comfortable with intimacy, and it entails no attempt to maintain control in the face of emotion. I won't get into the kiss in the transporter room (this article would become unmanageable). Suffice to say, it does not work. Not because of bad acting, but because it breaks with Spock's character to such an extent.
Which brings me to the second point. Spock and Uhura? Really? Because she is the only woman available? It should be obvious to the most casual observer that if you are going to match two of the original series crew, you match Spock and Kirk.
There are two reasons for this. First of all: Spock/Uhura is cheap. Uhura is the only woman on the bridge. In The Original Series
she is there as a kick-ass character in her own right. Yes, possibly as a token woman (although that was rather cooler in the 60s than it is now); but turning her into the Romantic Interest is taking the Smurfette Principle
to its tritest conclusion. Zachary Quinto is spot on when he says that
in this filmUhura is almost a canvas onto whom Spock can project the emotion that he is not able to express himself.
And therein lies the problem. Yes, it enhances Spock's emotional depth; but it reduces Uhura to a canvas, something to reflect male emotion,2
not as a character in her own right (and this is especially problematic when she is the only woman there
). Which brings me to the second reason: That is Kirk's job, goddamnit!
Yes, the suggestion of Spock's emotional life works very well when articulated by another character (who can say and feel what Spock cannot). See "The Journey to Babel", for example (where Spock's relationship with his father is explored); if that is Uhura doing the reflecting, she has suddenly turned surprisingly white, male and Kirk-shaped.
Watch the bloody TV series. Watch the early films. Look at the lingering looks, casual touches between Spock and Kirk. Note Spock's reaction when he thinks Kirk is dead; note Kirk's reaction at the loss of Spock. Study their reactions whenever the one of the other has a dalliance with some pretty lady. Compare that to their relationships with Dr McCoy. You could make an argument for a strong male friendship (as with Holmes/Watson), but it is a bit of a stretch. There is a strong emotional undercurrent in the relationship between Spock and Kirk which exceeds any connection they have with other characters. I am not suggesting they have hot sex in broom closets (although if I were to, I am willing to bet there is plenty of fan fiction that would back me up);3
the emotional power of the relationship lies in its suggestion, its restraint: Spock would no more act on romantic feelings for a superior officer than Kirk for a subordinate (or Spock for a student).
Except possibly, perhaps, if something unprecedented, like the destruction of Vulcan, were to throw them together. I am merely musing on possibilities. Possibilities missed (so far) by Mr Abrams.4
I expect he will rectify this in the next film.
See "The Devil's Foot" and "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs".2
This is a classic (mis-)use of female characters, and one that sets my feminist teeth on edge. I have mentioned the Bechdel test, and Star Trek
(the film) narrowly passes; but by using the only major female character primarily as a way of enhancing a male main character, it loses all gold stars. Couldn't they just leave her alone? 3
That is not even taking into account the "Amok Time" episode, in which Spock must either mate or die, but miraculously feels much better after a wrestling match with Kirk. You should find it under "subtext" in any dictionary.4
I suspect the terrible mistake made by Abrams & co is founded in other problems
(the absurd quote is from the film commentary track). If I may go off on a secondary rant at this point: It seems like the mis-step is based in Mr Lindlof's very, very strange ideas about women. First among these is the idea that what women really want to watch in cinemas is … a birth scene. That is right. I suspect this goes hand in hand with an idea that women would never watch a nerdy film if there were not some chance they might get to identify with a woman who got to sex up the emotionally distant gentleman (because it is well known that the only thing that can make women leave the kitchen in order to attend the cinema is Mr Darcy). Someone should have confronted him with two, perhaps three, important points: A long, long history of female trekkies; the fact that women are capable of interest in something other than romance; and the fact that if you are going to have romance then this is really, really not the way to go about it.
(Gratulerer med dagen, Silje)