Thursday, August 13, 2015

Strange New World Just Ahead, or: How to Make a Vulcan Feel at Home (Part 6 of 15)

6. Spock Reconsidered

In this installment, I want to look at three (or so) Spock-centric episodes. These aren't necessarily the best episodes of Star Trek (indeed, one is widely considered the all-time worst) but they're worth examining for what they reveal about our Vulcan pal.

Let's start with the purportedly worst first: "Spock's Brain." A sexy woman from a nearby ship beams aboard the Enterprise, and knocks everyone unconscious. After they all come to again, Spock is discovered in sick bay with his brain removed. Because of his unique Vulcan physiognomy, he can survive for another 24 hours before succumbing. In an obvious hurry, Kirk has the other ship traced to a planet heretofore thought to be uninhabited. McCoy hooks up Spock's body to remote control, and the two of them plus Kirk and, for a change, Scotty,  beam down to a frozen wasteland where they meet some scared caveman-types. An elevator takes them down to a technologically advanced underground city, where they meet up once again with the sexy woman. She's no help as she not only can't tell them where to find Spock's brain, she doesn't even know what a brain is! They do hear Spock over an intercom  and he leads them in to a room with a black box with what looks like a crystal ball sitting on top. Now comes the explanation. Spock's brain was hijacked so it could operate a computer that in turn operates the whole planet and takes care of a people too ignorant to take care of themselves. After some jostling back-and-forth with the sexy woman and her friends, phasers getting knocked out of hands and retrieved again, Kirk and co. find out about a device that looks kind of like a hair dryer with electrodes called "The Teacher" that gives the wearer advanced knowledge. This is how the otherwise backwards women figured out how to pilot a spaceship and steal Spock's brain. McCoy puts on the device and learns how to perform a brain transplant, and goes to work on Spock. The advanced knowledge runs out halfway through, but Spock, who apparently can have such an operation performed on him while remaining completely conscious, guides McCoy the rest of the way, much to the doctor's chagrin.

"Spock's Brain" was written by Lee Cronin, actually Gene L. Coon writing under an assumed name as he was now contractually obliged to a different studio. What in the world was he thinking? Well, if you look at some of his previous writing credits, this episode shouldn't really be that much of a surprise. "A Taste of Armageddon" and "The Apple", both of which he co-wrote, warn of the dangers of letting a computer do your thinking for you, and the comely young ladies do just that in "Spock's Brain". In fact, that these women are so ignorant may not be due to low I.Q.s but because material abundance has resulted in a state of mindless passivity, a theme mirrored in "Breads and Circuses" which Coon also co-wrote (the men laboring on the planet's frozen surface aren't too bright either; too much and too little leisure time can sap the intellect, this episode seems to be saying.) However, it's the Spock part of "Spock's Brain" that really matters. Coon wasn't just interested in exploring strange new worlds, but also in the explorers doing the exploring. More than anyone else, he made sure Star Trek's science fiction was character driven. And so in this particular episode, the most fascinating character in the series becomes the actual science in the science fiction that the rest of the plot revolves around. Maybe it's just the bizarreness of Spock's brain being removed that turns so many people off to this episode (that Spock and Nurse Chapel briefly share the same skull in the much more dramatic and much more highly regarded "Return to Tomorrow" always struck me as much more bizarre, but everyone else who's seen that one apparently finds it touching.)

Still, "Spock's Brain" is pretty goofy at times, stretching credibility even by the standards of science fiction (not least when the Vulcan's gray matter comes and goes without him losing a lock of hair.) It should be remembered that while he wrote the episode, Coon didn't produce it, and so something may have been lost in translation. I frankly think he meant it as a comedy, but the new producer and new story editor just didn't get the joke. Now, that's not to say, as others have suggested, the episode is actually a parody of Star Trek (at least not any more so than "The Trouble with Tribbles") or that Coon was mocking the creative and budgetary abyss on which the series was then teetering on the edge. With its stupefied women at home, brutalized men at work, and mechanized society, this episode is not a satire of Trek but the American Dream, circa 1968. Except when we hear Spock's disembodied (supposedly synthesized) voice, at which point it becomes pure character comedy. What I like about "Spock's Brain" is that it reminds me a bit of the classic Chuck Jones-directed Warner Brothers cartoon Duck Amuck. That's the one where an unseen animator plays havoc with Daffy Duck, even replacing his body at one point, yet Daffy remains unmistakeably Daffy, just as in this Spock remains unmistakeably Spock. The difference is that whereas the funny fowl was frustrated at what was being perpetrated on his being, Spock seems delighted at his predicament. Nothing turns this Vulcan on more than weird science, even if he himself happens to be the guinea pig:

KIRK: We might be able to locate you if you gave us some idea of what they were using you for. Is it medical?
SPOCK (over some kind of intercom): I am not certain. I seem to have a body which stretches into infinity.
SCOTT: Body? Why, you have none.
SPOCK: Then what am I?
MCCOY: You are a disembodied brain.
SPOCK: Fascinating! It could explain much, Doctor. My medulla oblongota is hard at work apparently breathing, apparently pumping blood, apparently maintaining a normal physiologic temperature...   
KIRK: Spock, we don't have time for that.

The whole thing turns into the sci-fi sitcom it was heading towards when Spock starts dictating his own brain transplant:

SPOCK: Yes, I already have some sensation of feeling. Please stimulate the nerve endings and observe the physical reactions, one by one. In each case, I shall tell you when the probe is correct. you will then seal using the tri-laser connector...
MCCOY: [...] A Vulcan telling me how to operate. I'll never live this down!

 Once everything's back to normal, yet another summing up of the day's events by Kirk, Spock and McCoy:

SPOCK: On the whole Captain, I believe I am quite fit. Fascinating. A remarkable example of a retrograde civilization. At the peak, advanced beyond any of our capabilities and now operating at this primitive level which you saw.  And it all began thousands of years ago when a glacial age reoccurred. This underground complex was developed for the women. The men remained above, and a male-female schism took place. A fascinating cultural development of a kind which never--
MCCOY: I knew it was wrong. I shouldn't have done it.
KIRK: What's that?
MCCOY: I should never have reconnected his mouth.
(Spock does a double-take.)
KIRK: Well, we took the risk, Doctor.
SPOCK: (deciding to ignore the slight) As I was saying, a fascinating cultural development of the kind which hasn't been seen in ages. The last such occurrence took place on old Earth, when the Romans were warring with the...

It all comes down to Leonard Nimoy's wonderfully comic performance. Whether or not Coon meant "Spock's Brain" to be funny, whether or not the producer realized the episode was supposed to be funny, Nimoy decided on his own he would make it funny. Years later, when this episode achieved a certain level of infamy among Star Trek devotees, the actor would claim that he found the story embarrassing. Embarrassing or not, Nimoy's own performance is nothing to be ashamed about.

It should be no surprise that Nimoy's Spock could be funny. In a way he reminds me of Sean Connery's James Bond. Starting with Dr. No in 1962, Connery on his own added humor to the narrative by the way he said a particular line or even his deadpan expression upon witnessing something amazing, be it a technological display theretofore unbeknownst to science or his own hairbreadth escape from certain death. Eventually the producers and writers caught on to what Connery was doing and started adding intentional comic material, until you get to Diamonds are Forever, an out-and-out comedy. In Nimoy's case, the humor, be it scripted or not, starts as early as the very first Star Trek episode to air, "The Man Trap", which opens with a bored (and not particularly professional) Lt. Uhura attempting to flirt with Mr. Spock:

SPOCK: Miss Uhura, your last subspace log contained an error in the frequencies column.
UHURA: Mister Spock, sometimes I think if I hear the word "frequency" once more, I'll cry.
UHURA: I was just trying to start a conversation.
SPOCK: Well, since it is illogical for a communications officer to resent the word "frequency", I have no answer. 
UHURA: No, you have an answer. I'm an illogical woman who's beginning to feel too much a part of that communications console--(practically cooing at this point) Why don't you tell me I'm an attractive young lady, or ask me if I've ever been in love? Tell me how your planet Vulcan looks on a lazy evening when the moon is full.
SPOCK: Vulcan has no moon, Miss Uhura.
UHURA: I'm not surprised, Mister Spock.

OK, all that was scripted, but not the truly dumbfounded look on Spock's face when Uhura asks him about the moon. Sometimes I can't tell you why I find Spock funny, such as in "A Taste of Armegeddon" when he says, "Yeoman Tamula, you stay here and prevent this young lady from immolating herself. Knock her down if necessary. This is a killing situation." That killed me, and I don't know why! Don't get me wrong. I don't believe in knocking down young women (though I suppose self-immolation prevention is as good an excuse as any.) I just laughed out loud when I heard it. As I did when Spock, upon hearing Zefrem Cochrane's outrage at discovering he's been a kept man for a female ball of electricity in "Metamorphosis", comments: "Fascinating. A totally parochial attitude". Was I suppose to laugh at that? I don't know, but I did. When on a planet modeled after the Third Reich in "Patterns of Force" Kirk disguises himself as a Gestapo agent, Spock offers this compliment: "You should make a very convincing Nazi." Kirk's not sure how to take that, but I chuckled. Then there's the times where it's obvious that it's meant to be funny, but Nimoy makes it even funnier. When Kirk tells him at the end of "The Return of the Archons" that he'd make a "splendid computer" the starship captain means it as a dig, but Spock doesn't care: "That is very kind of you, Captain." Calculating the odds of making it past a couple of Klingons in "An Errand of Mercy" Spock says: "Difficult to be precise, Captain. I should say approximately 7,824.7 to 1" Trapped in a 1930s slum in "The City on the Edge of Forever" and trying to build a computer, Spock matter-of-factly tells Kirk, "Captain, I must have some platinum. A small block would be sufficient, five or six pounds." In "Friday's Child", when he finds out an alien mother is going to name her newborn baby Leonard [McCoy] James [Kirk] Akaar, Spock indignantly replies: "I think you're both going to be insufferably pleased with yourselves for at least a month." When Kirk tries to drive a 1920s-style car in "A Piece of the Action" Spock makes this observation: "Captain, you are an excellent starship captain, but as a taxi driver you leave much to be desired." Actually every word that comes out of Spock's mouth in that episode is funny "Why would you put our captain in a bag?" he asks a mobster. In "That Which Survives" after Scotty goes through great lengths to speed up the starship's engines and keep everyone from getting killed in the process, and then wonders why Spock won't even say thank you, the Vulcan uses the occasion to pontificate "What is it in you humans that requires an overwhelming display of emotion in a situation such as this? Two men pursue the only reasonable course of action indicated, yet you feel something else is necessary" and seems unaware that the exhausted engineer has just told him "Never mind." As much as the way he said his lines, however, Nimoy could make me laugh just at the way he used his eyebrows for double-takes and deadpan expressions, such as when Kirk tries to get him to go to an Adults Only establishment at the end of "The Wolf in the Fold" or his reactions to any number of McCoy insults. Do you suppose Spock is related to the James Bond on his mother's side?

In the end, the humor serves to--for want of a better word--humanize Spock, though he himself would surely want a better word, as witnessed by the epilogue to "The Devil in the Dark":

CHIEF VANDENBERG (via radio): You know, the Horta aren't so bad once you're used to their appearance. Well, that's about it, Kirk. Thanks for everything.
KIRK: Our pleasure, Chief. Kirk out.
SPOCK: Curious. What Chief Vandenberg said about the Horta is exactly what the Mother Horta said to me. She found the humanoid appearance revolting, but thought she could get used to it.
MCCOY: Oh, she did, did she? Now tell me [of course McCoy would bring this up] did she happen to make any comments about those ears?
SPOCK: Not specifically, but I did get the distinct impression she found them the most attractive human characteristic of them all. I didn't have the heart to tell her that only I have them.
KIRK: She really liked those ears?
SPOCK: Captain, the Horta is a remarkably intelligent and sensitive creature, with impeccable taste.
KIRK: Because she approved of you?
SPOCK: Really, Captain, my modesty.
KIRK: Does not bear close examination, Mister Spock. I suspect you're becoming more and more human all the time.
SPOCK: Captain, I see no reason to stand here and be insulted. 

The next Spock-centric episode I want to look at is "Mirror, Mirror" though many might not consider it a Spock-centric episode at all. The many would be wrong. At its very heart it's about Spock as Man of All Universes. Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura (why those four exactly?) are on the planet Halkan, trying to convince the leaders to let the Federation mine dilithium crystals (which powers starships), and they're proving a bit stubborn as they don't trust outsiders. Kirk tells them to think about it, and then he and the three others beam back to the Enterprise. Unfortunately, as this is right during yet another ion storm, Kirk, McCoy, Scotty and Uhura find themselves on a bridge with a bearded Spock and themselves dressed like character right out of Conan the Barbarian. Turns out they're in a parallel, or mirror, universe, one in which where there is no Federation but instead an Empire governed by cruelty (meanwhile back home, non-bearded Spock has their savage counterparts thrown in the brig, all the while muttering "Fascinating.") Mirror Spock demonstrates this cruelty by punishing the operator of the transporter with an "agonizer". The four decide to play along until they can find out how to get back to their own universe. Unfortunately, time and the Empire's non-democratic way of achieving its goals seems to be against them. The mirror Kirk had orders to destroy Halkan cities if they don't turn over the dilithium. The regular Kirk's visible reluctance to do this stirs up savage opportunism aboard the I.S.S. (Imperial Starship) Enterprise. Mirror Chekov first tries to kill Kirk, but is double-crossed by one of his own henchmen wanting to curry favor with the intended target of the assassination, who's after all top dog. Mirror Spock shows up again, and expresses relief Kirk is still alive, as if he wasn't, he'd have to take his place and then be a target himself when all he really cares about is his scientific endeavors. Still, he reminds Kirk he's under orders to wipe out the Halkins, and if he doesn't, then Spock will have to kill him, whether he wants to or not. So Kirk goes to his quarters to mull things over, and finds out he has a beautiful harlot waiting for him. She laughingly reminds him of the "Tantalus Field" a lethal button that can allow one to monitor and kill their enemies from afar. Apparently, Mirror Kirk copped such a device from a plundered scientist's laboratory, and used it to move up the Empire's ladder. Meanwhile, Mirror Sulu decides he'd like to kill Kirk, but the harlot, Marlena, vaporizes his henchmen with the aforementioned Field. Mirror Spock shows up again, having decided the only logical way to save his own skin is by killing Kirk, after all. Taking on Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura, Spock seems to be having an easy time of it, until the Starfleet captain lands a lucky blow, knocking the Mirror Vulcan out. They all head to the transporter room, which Scotty has rigged to get them back to their own universe, except McCoy. Seems the ol' Hippocratic Oath is bugging him, and he's just gotta stay behind and save Mirror Spock's life, even if finds this Spock no more likable than the other one. McCoy performs his oath a little too efficiently as Mirror Spock comes to and mind melds with the terrified doctor. The mirror Vulcan learns everything, and comes down to the transporter room and tells Kirk he'll personally man the controls and make sure he gets back to his own universe. Kirk then has a thought. Suppose, just suppose, the Mirror Spock is Spock. The universe has changed but he's basically the same guy, only operating under a different set of conditions, where survival is the ultimate logic. Kirk asks Spock how long this Empire can last before some there's some sort of revolt.

MIRROR SPOCK: Approximately two hundred and forty years.
KIRK: The inevitable outcome?
MIRROR SPOCK: The Empire shall be overthrown, of course. 

Of course. Asked why he's serving such an illogical system if he believes it to be doomed, Mirror Spock is again the rationalist: no man can change the future. It's then Kirk tells him about the Tantalus Field, gambling that he'll do the right thing. Kirk, McCoy, Scotty and Uhura all return to their own universe, and we never do learn if Mirror Spock did indeed do the right thing. But it's not like he could make the situation any worse. At least Mirror Spock transcends his immediate environment in this one. More so than anyone else, including Mirror Kirk.

Finally, in the third Spock-centric episode "Journey to Babel" we get to meet his parents, Vulcan father Ambassador Sarek (Mark Lenard) and Earth mother Amanda (Jane Wyatt, the mom on Father Knows Best; TV daughter Elinor Donahue played Commissioner Nancy Mitford in "Metamorphosis".) This story revolves around a bunch of diplomats, some of them not too nice, being ferried to the title planet on the starship Enterprise. Sarek is one of the nicer diplomats, but he and Spock are estranged, the father never having approved of his son's choice of Starfleet for a career. The pig-faced (fictional ethnicity, remember) Tellerlite ambassador is murdered, and suspicion falls on Sarek, as the two had earlier argued. During an interrogation, Sarak has a heart attack, and is rushed to sick bay, where he needs blood fast, which Spock is there to supply. Meanwhile, a member of the Andoran delegation stabs Kirk, and he's rushed to sick bay. In accordance to duty, Spock halts his father's transfusion, and heads to the bridge to take command of the Enterprise,  so that now he's estranged from his mother! Not wanting to break up a family, Kirk fakes a speedy recovery and relieves Spock of command. The transfusion continues. An alien spaceship tries unsuccessfully to take out the Enterprise, but that hardly matters here. As an amusing bit between Spock and his parents attests to at the end of this episode, Vulcan families are as fucked-up but loving as any found here on Earth.

Sarek and Amanda reminds me that I've been referring to Spock as a Vulcan throughout this series when he in fact is only half Vulcan, the other half being human. But what does that mean exactly? I suppose metaphorically, symbolically, allegorically, it all makes sense as Spock so often acts as a go-between Earth and whatever alien planet the Enterprise is visiting. Literally, though, what does it mean, since after all Spock both looks and acts 100% Vulcan? The most common answer is that since he's 50% human, Spock must have 50% emotions, which he has to constantly suppress, a burden not shared by his 100% Vulcan countrymen. Well, that's true if 100% Vulcans are born with 0% emotions, but the show sometimes suggests otherwise. Take the episode "Amok Time", for instance. We find that Spock can only resist the charms of Nurse Chapel and any other female making googly eyes at him for seven years before he gets sick and dies. OK, horniness isn't exactly an emotion, but Spock goes back to Vulcan to engage in a duel-to-the-death mating ritual that even he admits isn't very logical. There we meet a 100% Vulcan femme fatale named T'Pring, who connives to have Spock fight Kirk so she can run off with the 100% Vulcan Stonn. Spock ends up calling it "flawlessly logical" but it seems to me that T'Pring and Stonn are acting more like a couple of lovesick kids. A season later in "The Savage Curtain" we meet Surak, the back-from-the-dead father of Vulcan civilization who a way long time ago convinced his countrymen to lay down their arms, forgo the passion that was causing so much bloodshed and adopt logic instead. Two decades later in Star Trek II: The Search for Spock, when told by T'Lar that it's illogical to try to transfer "katra" from McCoy to a newly resurrected Spock, Sarek replies: "Forgive me, T'Lar. My logic is uncertain where my son is concerned."And then there's those Vulcan offshoots, the Romulans. They're hardly the most even-tempered bunch. So if this head-over-heart lifestyle is nothing more than mere socialization, it should really be no more difficult for 50% Vulcan Spock to suppress his emotions than his 100% Vulcan father, who, after all, when it came time to choose a mate, ignored the 100% Vulcan females on his own planet and instead hooked up with a 100% Earth woman with all that entails because "at the time it seemed the logical thing to do." Now you know where Spock gets his sense of humor.

Next: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night


  1. I am so entertained by the idea of Spock's brain removal.

    I (along with many other people online) have likened Spock's behavior to people with Asperger's, but I have to agree with the blogger who said, "While Vulcans do have a hypersensitivity not unlike that found in people with Asperger's, it does not seem to have the same distressing effect. The Vulcan brain is wired to process this information correctly and effectively." Also, the blogger made a major point of saying that Asperger's is a purely human condition and that put into question the intricacies of the identification.

    Once again, thorough and entertaining!

  2. "Asperger's is a purely human condition"

    Let's pretend for a second that Vulcans are real instead of make-believe. Pointy ears aside, they sure LOOK a lot like humans. I don't just mean Spock who of course is half-human, but also the full-blooded Vulcans we come across through the course of the original and other Star Trek series. In fact, Vulcans resemble humans so much that biologists would consider such a thing impossible, that is, too coincidental, given the intricacies of evolution. Even more difficult for the average biologist to fathom is the thought that a Vulcan (such as Sarek) and a human (such as Amanda) could mate and produce an offspring (Spock). That would be like a horse and a donkey mating and producing an offspring. WAIT! A horse and a donkey can mate and produce an offspring. They're called MULES. So, is Spock the outer space equivalent of a mule? (Dr. McCoy might consider him as stubborn as one.) Possibly, except that horses and donkeys both evolved from a now-extinct animal, a now-extinct EARTH animal. If Vulcans and Humans evolved independently on their respective planets, then, no, they shouldn't be able to mate and have offspring. But suppose, just suppose, Vulcans and Humans didn't evolve separately from each other. At least two episodes of the original series ("Return to Tomorrow" and the "The Paradise Syndrome") mention ancient alien races "seeding" the galaxy. If Vulcans and Humans came from the same seed, that is, they evolved from a now-extinct humanoid, or maybe the humanoid's not extinct at all but pointy-ears (as well as other differences) is what occurs when humans stay on the the planet Vulcan for a very long time (say, ten millennium or so), or, vice-versa, round ears is what happens when Vulcans spend too much time on Earth. If which case, yeah, then Vulcans and Humans could indeed mate and have offspring. What does all this have to do with Asperger's syndrome? I don't know. I forgot the point I was trying to make. Oh, wait, now I remember! If Vulcans and Humans are close enough genetically to mate and have children, then why is it so hard to believe autism might exist on the planet Vulcan?

    Anyway, I doubt Spock has Asperger's. For one thing, we've been told that the majority of Vulcan's population behaves pretty much as he does, making it "normal" behavior and not a "disorder", as autism is currently classified. Indeed, if someone on Vulcan acts non-autistic, THAT would be considered the disorder.

    Sorry for the long-winded reply, Kass. I got carried away with myself.

  3. Good ahead and carry away. I do the same thing. I was quoting some blogger about the human/Asperger's thing, but I do find people with Asperger's quite interesting....and in good company: Bill Gates, Einstein, Jim Henson, Darwin....and some of my family (although they don't know it).

  4. I can't promise it will lead to Asperger's, Kass, but I'll speculate more on the inner workings of Spock's mind in a later installment.

    Asperger's or not, I'm not sure it's a good thing to lump Bill Gates in with Einstein, Darwin or even Jim Henson. People who know much more about technology than I do have complained that Gates and that software monopoly of his have retarded rather than advanced the digital revolution by clamping down on innovation.


In order to keep the hucksters, humbugs, scoundrels, psychos, morons, and last but not least, artificial intelligentsia at bay, I have decided to turn on comment moderation. On the plus side, I've gotten rid of the word verification.