“I loved Spock,” said President Obama, reacting to the death of actor Leonard Nimoy. Why? Because Spock reminds him of himself. The galaxy’s most famous Vulcan, the president wrote, was “Cool, logical, big-eared, and level headed, the center of Star Trek’s optimistic, inclusive vision of humanity’s future.” Just like you know whom.
The president is not the only writer who has drawn comparisons between himself and Spock. I am also a Star Trek fan, but I admit I was somewhat confused by my rather apathetic reaction to Nimoy’s death. And as I thought more about the president’s statement, I realized he identifies with the very aspects of the Spock character that most annoy me. I don’t love Spock at all.
Not only do Spock’s peacenik inclinations routinely land the Enterprise and the Federation into trouble, his “logic” and “level head” mask an arrogant emotional basket case. Unlike the superhuman android Data, a loyal officer whose deepest longing is to be human, Spock spends most of his life as a freelancing diplomat eager to negotiate with the worst enemies of Starfleet. He's the opposite of a role model: a cautionary tale.
Spock cares only for himself. He returns to the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) only because he believes the superior intelligence of V’ger might help him finally purge all human elements from his soul. True, he sacrifices himself for the good of the ship in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982), but Spock’s renunciation of self is not as total as we are led to believe. He knows he has a fallback position. He knocks out McCoy and—without the doctor’s consent—transfers part of his consciousness to his old friend.
The crew then spends the following two movies breaking countless regulations to bring Spock back to life. They steal the Enterprise, illegally pilot it out of Space Dock, trespass on the Genesis planet, blow up the Enterprise, hijack a bird-of-prey and kill its entire crew, take the stolen Klingon vessel to Vulcan, and return to Earth despite a travel ban imposed by the president of the Federation at the beginning of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). Illustrating the absurdly liberal future envisioned by Gene Rodenberry, where there is no money or human want or, apparently, rule of law, despite all of these crimes Kirk and Spock and company are rewarded with a brand new ship at the end of the fourth film.
Spock is the reason Sybok captures this just-off-the-assembly-line Enterprise in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) and comes very close to delivering it to an insane, frightening god entity that sounds like Orson Welles. Most damning to his reputation, however, has got to be the mess Spock creates in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). Unbeknownst to his best friend, Spock has taken up secret negotiations with the Federation’s mortal enemy, the Klingon Empire, to dismantle the neutral zone and end the military dimension of Starfleet. Then Spock decides the best person to accompany the Klingon high chancellor to a galactic peace conference is Kirk, whom the Klingon’s despise (in the words of the great John Schuck: “There shall be no peace as long as Kirk lives!”) and who hates them in return. What a brilliant idea.
Furthermore, Spock volunteers Kirk for the job without the captain’s permission. His decision thoughtlessly plays into the hands of the interstellar conspiracy to foment war between the Federation and the Klingons, because the plot’s leaders see Kirk as the perfect fall guy for the assassination of Chancellor Gorkon.
Spock’s ethnocentrism, combined with “illogical” romantic attraction, leads him to promote one of the conspirators, Lieutenant Valeris, to a bridge position wherefrom she manipulates the investigation into Gorkon’s death, conceals evidence, and murders two co-conspirators. Some judge of character, that Spock.
Then, when Kirk surrenders himself to General Chang, Spock plants a ridiculously conspicuous Viridian Patch on Kirk’s shoulder so he can trace the captain’s whereabouts. But he has no need to track Kirk because the captain’s trial is broadcast across the quadrant and the Klingon judge says specifically where Kirk and McCoy will be imprisoned.
A routine planetary scan of Rura Penthe would have alerted the Enterprise the moment Kirk emerged from the energy shield. Was Spock hoping the Klingons would see the patch and murder him and McCoy for attempting to escape? We’ll never know.
Kirk eventually figures out the murder mystery and once again saves civilization. But Spock’s colossal blunder does not stop him from disappearing from the Federation decades later and turning up on Romulus, where he begins unauthorized negotiations with yet another illiberal adversary of the Federation. This time he has befriended Romulan Senator Pardek, with whom he hopes to arrange for the unification of the Vulcan and Romulan peoples.
But of course Pardek is playing Spock for a fool. Reunification is a guise for an audacious Romulan invasion of Vulcan that draws inspiration from the Soviet taking of Iceland in Red Storm Rising (1986). It is only because the Enterprise-D has been sent to the neutral zone, and Captain Picard and Lieutenant Commander Data have been dispatched to Romulus to locate and secure Spock, that the plot against the Federation is revealed before it’s too late.
I also find it noteworthy that Commander Sela and Proconsul Neral believe there is a chance that Spock will actively cooperate with their plan—evidence that the ambassador’s loyalties aren’t clear even to the Romulans. What’s more, despite inadvertently starting yet another war, Spock insists he remain on the home world of the most aggressive and conniving galactic power. In a massive (but unusual) lapse in judgment, Picard agrees.
Amazingly, though, such disastrous negotiations with Klingons and Romulans aren’t even the worst things Spock does. If we accept Star Trek (2009) as canon then the “cool” and “level-headed” Spock is responsible for the destruction not only of his home world and the death of 6 billion Vulcans but of the entire Star Trek timeline that audiences have loved for almost 50 years. As usual, evil happens because Spock is too idealistic, too in thrall to a value-neutral conception of science, to consider the unintended consequences of his actions.
The 2009 movie has a backstory that is complicated and silly, and I am too tired to recount it in detail so you can read a synopsis here. Nevertheless, Star Trek is an enjoyable picture that is revealing of Spock’s awfulness. It shows how Spock (played by Zachary Quinto) is tormented, physically and mentally, by the fact that his mother is human, how Mr. Logic is actually a boiling kettle of fury, resentment, passion, and ambition. Spock is a jerk to his girlfriend Uhura (Zoe Saldana), who is way out of his league. He almost kills Kirk (Chris Pine). He is so overcome with emotion he relieves himself from duty in the middle of a huge crisis.
Spock is rude to his father. “I never knew what Spock was doing,” Sarek (Mark Lenard) tells Picard in “Unification 1.” “When he was a boy, he would disappear for days into the mountains. I would ask him where he had gone, what he had done; he’d refuse to tell me. I forbade him to go; he ignored me.” Spock and Sarek fight constantly throughout the Trek continuity, despite Sarek’s offering his son countless diplomatic opportunities that Spock invariably messes up. Then Spock ignores his father for years as Sarek suffers from Bendai Syndrome and dies.
And Obama likes this selfish jerk? The coolness the president so appreciates in Spock is a thin veneer over a remarkably arrogant and off-putting detachment from human suffering. Dr. McCoy, played by the charming DeForest Kelley, bitingly exposed this truth about Spock’s nature again and again. Discussing the Genesis Project in Wrath of Khan, for example, Spock lectures McCoy, “Really, Dr. McCoy. You must learn to govern your passions. They will be your undoing. Logic suggests—"
But McCoy won’t hear it—and he’s right. “Logic? My God, the man’s talking about logic; we’re taking about universal Armageddon!”
All Spock can do is pretentiously raise his famous eyebrow.
Spock is ashamed of his humanity. He flees it. In Star Trek VI Kirk tells Spock, “Everyone’s human.” Spock says he finds that sentiment offensive.
My favorite scene in “Unification 2”: Spock and Data are alone, collaborating on a technical project. Spock muses on the Vulcan aspects of Captain Picard, which Data finds curious because Picard has been a model for his emulation of humanity. Spock can’t understand why Data would want to be more human. “You have an efficient intellect, superior physical skills, no emotional impediments,” he says. “There are Vulcans who aspire all their lives to achieve what you’ve been given by design.”
“You are half human?” Data asks.
“Yes,” Spock says.
“Yet you have chosen a Vulcan way of life?”
“I have,” Spock says.
“In effect,” says Data, “you have abandoned what I have sought all my life.”
The two look at each other in silence.
It’s in this scene where Data’s superiority to Spock is most apparent. Data not only has the mental and physical edge over practically everyone, he is curious and earnest and humane, while Spock is moody, flip, detached, and self-consciously superior. Data wants to fit in, while Spock displaces his anxieties over his bicultural heritage onto his family and work relationships. Data’s words and actions are the result of blind unerring computation, while Spock is a creature of inner conflict and envies his famous and high achieving father. I’d pick Data over Spock for my first officer any day.
What Leonard Nimoy’s death revealed is that there is a sizable portion of Trek fans, and of nerds in general, that identifies with Spock’s neuroses, his hang-ups, his self-loathing, that are attracted to the cold soulless abstractions through which he views life, who believe in the naïve and ineffective diplomacy in which he so thoughtlessly and recklessly and harmfully engages. I can't help but find this revelation disturbing. One of those fans happens to be the president of the United States who, like Spock, has derided the notion of helping to end the slaughter of the Syrian Civil War as illogical while giving up leverage in his negotiations with Iran. It will take America some time to recover from the legacy of our Spock-loving president—though probably not as long as it will take my friends to stop laughing at me for writing this column.