What’s wrong with Star Trek? The Spock problem

I’m a geek. I like science, sci-fi, and pretty much anything to do with space. I like TV. I don’t however like Star Trek all that much, surely I should? I tick all the relevant boxes. I’ve made a concerted effort on a couple of occasions to try and get into it. I’ve watched the films, I’ve watched the original series, I’ve watched The Next Generation, Deep Space 9 and Voyager. Not Enterprise though, if heard even Trekkies think its pony. It’s not that I hate Star Trek, it just doesn’t grip me, and I quickly get bored. Here’s why I think that’s the case:

First off, it’s not the more obvious stuff. I don’t mind the cheesy special effects, I love 50’s and 60’s sci-fi films and they have really shit effects, it’s the stories I enjoy. I don’t mind the relatively slow-pace of Star Trek, in fact I enjoy slow-pace in films and TV; I’d rather a story spends time investing in characters and establishing an interesting plot, than see a car crash into a helicopter or be visually-offended by anything else that Michael Bay currently has in production. I also don’t mind the faintly embarrassing visual style of Star Trek, even the clothes, or Janeway’s hairstyles:

I quite like the original Star Trek series from the 1960’s, it’s a great cultural artifact and when watching it you can really see a culture struggling with embracing new ideas such as sexual equality and free-love, and rejecting older more repulsive ideas like racism. It’s a utopian view of humanity’s future filled with hope and progress, in which religion and superstition has largely given way to progressive values and scientific advancement (although at times it is still pretty sexist by modern standards). Plus the galaxy is full of intelligent alien life, like everyone knows it should be. In this respect Star Trek is quite intoxicating. It represents so much of what I believe in. So why don’t I enjoy it more? Maybe its because I’m seeing it over 40 years later and after watching TV like the Wire, the Sopranos and the West Wing, I find it hard to be captivated by less sophisticated storytelling. I don’t really enjoy TV shows in which episodes are self-contained stories (apart from British comedies), like mini-films, in which the situation is set-up and solved all in one hour or less. I much prefer TV like the Wire, where a story-arc is stretched over an entire series or longer. I know Star Trek has relationships and themes that do span series and more, but the storytelling is always confined to each episode. This often prevents interesting ideas and stories being explored in more depth.

Another reason may be that many of the sci-fi ideas in the original series are outdated and have been done-to-death elsewhere (this may not be a fair criticism as many of the ideas probably originated in Star Trek, and I’ve seen them regurgitated in later copies). One of the reasons I love sci-fi is that it’s the medium of ideas. I want my sci-fi to be challenging and to explore concepts I’ve never thought of. The original series rarely cuts the mustard here; after ten minutes I often know what the mystery is and what’s going to happen. It’s totally unfair to say this of a TV series decades old, but still, I think it’s a reason I’ve not properly bonded with the ‘old’ Star Trek. (I know I sound like a tasteless oik who doesn’t have the appreciation and taste to appreciate less-modern TV, its probably true though).

If this is the reason why the original series didn’t grip-me, then the more modern Star Trek depictions should be the solution, the same ideals but with more contemporary story-telling and sci-fi ideas. But unfortunately I don’t think contemporary Star Trek succeeds at either of these. Lets begin with the ideals. Firstly, modern Star Trek has become riddled with stereotypes and comfortable social ideas. A captain with an English accent, well he must be an intellectual and be obsessed with Shakespeare. A Native American commander, well lets have him be all spiritual and worship stones and his ancestors and stuff, and oh yeah, be an awesome fighter. An operations officer of Chinese-descent, eager to please his parents? You bet. A handsome guy? Yep, well he’s kind of a rebel; gambles, drinks, chases girls, but deep-down he’s a great guy. One of the reasons Gene Rodenberry created Star Trek was to try to challenge social stereotypes (I saw him say that in a documentary once). Modern Star Treks does not challenge, it usually compounds stereotypes, largely as it provides for quick and lazy writing. At least its not out-and-out racist like the Star Wars prequels, in which all the bad-guy aliens look suspiciously like foreigners, and have the accents to match; evil Trade Federation aliens? Sure lets make them look Japanese, and have Japanese accents. Slave-trading, money-grubbing thief of a trader; lets make him look and sound a bit Jewish, with a big hooked nose. Sand people are Arabs, are you crazy? Don’t even get me started on the Gungans. But I digress.

Then there’s the sex problem. Sex was ever-present in the original Star Trek series, as I think Gene was trying to show people that sex is nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about, and that in a better-future-society people will be free to have casual sex without as many hang-ups as today, plus people will be fucking aliens. But this totally vanishes from Generation onwards; suddenly Star Trek becomes sex-less. If sex does occur in an episode it’s most likely to be in the guise of a temptation to be avoided (Jean-Luc and Beverly Crusher anyone?), rather than an activity to be enjoyed. This isn’t the teenage boy in me (not literally) complaining, I’m not looking for boob-shots and sex-scenes. But I do feel that sexual repression and an obsession with abstinence is not healthy (I’m looking at you Christian right-wing Conservatives) and that sexual freedom is progressive and beneficial for the individual and society. Removing sex from Star Trek was a step-backwards and a failure to carry-on Gene Roddenberry’s legacy. It also makes Star Trek less fun to watch.

The modern Star Trek series have carried on many of the tropes of Roddenberry’s creation, the visual style, the typical episode structures and the aliens with slightly different heads. But unfortunately this is also true of the storytelling and the ideas. The newer Star Trek series have pretty-much rehashed the old series, but put a coat of shiny new paint on. Each episode is still relatively self-contained and similar stories are told to those in the 60’s; Starships are attacked in space by super-intelligent ephemeral beings, new alien civilizations are encountered with have different social-values, less-advanced civilizations are threatened with destruction etc etc. The sci-fi ideas haven’t really been updated either, there’s been a sprinkling of more up-to-date science and the holodeck, but there aren’t the kind of mind-blowing ideas explored in contemporary sci-fi literature. So modern Star Trek storytelling doesn’t really appeal to my want for complex plots and nuanced storytelling either.

Then there’s something I haven’t talked about yet, the Spock problem. One of the greatest things about the original series was Spock. Spock basically embodied the scientific method; he represented that part of humanity that embraced science and rationalism, and rejected emotion and irrationality. I’m sure the 60’s was a time in which science was both seen as a force of good and evil. Living standards in the Western World were developing at quite a pace, largely thanks to scientific innovation, but the world was also in the midst of the Cold War, fearing a potential nuclear Armageddon. Spock was both fascinating and terrifying as he embodied this duality, he was capable of great logic, but was also capable to seemingly inhumane actions ‘the needs of the few must out way the needs of the many’ etc, especially as he was both Vulcan and Human. Spock was, and still is, a great example of the positives and negatives of science. What’s more, the relationship between Spock and some of the other Enterprise crewmembers was captivating. Spock, Bones and Kirk each represented three aspects of humanity, Spock the cold rationalist, Bones the compassionate and surprisingly emotional carer, and Kirk, the raging ego, all Kirk ever wanted was to be lead, fight lots, and have sex with anything that moves, preferably once per episode. We all have a little Spock, Bones and Kirk in us, and the frequent arguments and tension between these three good friends was rich and interesting, it was a great analogy to the conflict between the competing aspects of humanity. Yet despite being so different, the three were close-friends and tolerant of each other’s world-views. I think the makers of the 2009 Star Trek reboot really got this, as they’re clearly laying the foundations for a brilliant Kirk-Spock relationship, and they had Leonard Nimoy in the film, one of the best actors ever associated with Star Trek.

The writers of modern Star Trek have understood that Spock was an iconic character, I mean who doesn’t know who Spock is? So they’ve attempted to create similar characters on a couple of occasions, Data, the hologram Doctor from Voyager, and even Seven of Nine. But I think these writers haven’t understood what made Spock so popular. Partly it was what Spock represented, the fear of science and the application of scientific knowledge without emotion. Partly it was because his character so brilliantly acted as a foil to Captain Kirk and McCoy, and partly it was because Leonard Nimoy is a great actor, who looks unique and brought gravity and depth to Spock’s character. The modern Spock analogues are not so well portrayed, for instance Data looks cheap-and-tacky, and his acting is buffoonish and almost slapstick. The rest are certainly not stand-outs. Also, the characters often don’t have another crewmember which they can counteract, there is not of the depth of a Kirk-Spock relationship. And worst of all, the characters do not represent a concept or conflict in the way that Spock did. Each of the new Spock-analogues seems to be primarily focussed on becoming more human, and exploring emotions, this is totally missing the point of Spock. Spock appears to understand human emotion, as he was himself half-human, but was usually slightly exasperated by emotions, he certainly didn’t want to become more human. Spock represented an opportunity for the viewer to consider humanity and perhaps develop new perspectives, the ‘new-Spocks’ feel more like masturbatory celebrations of humanity, as though being an irrational human was the pinnacle to which all should aspire.

If this blog were more popular (I’ve had about ten visitors so far) then I’m sure such a post would inspire quite a lot of nerd rage, as Star Trek is something that many people hold so dear. And if anyone ever reads this and is inspired to rage then I’d love to hear why. I don’t hate Star Trek; I’ve just not clicked with it. I’d be happy to hear why you love Star Trek and why you think I’m wrong.

As a last point, and as a cheap and unfair parting-shot, I’ll leave you with this, the worst moment ever in Star Trek:

Maybe I was wrong about the whole sex thing?

These posts are getting bigger. Soz.

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5 Responses to “What’s wrong with Star Trek? The Spock problem”


  1. 1 Ricardo Dirani April 11, 2012 at 2:20 am

    Wow, a whole year and no responses. This text deserved better. I had never thought of that, of how the Spock analogues fail so miserably and why. It’s a great text and I’m reposting it.

    • 2 Spock May 21, 2015 at 3:22 pm

      Hi, I accidentaly found your post now and, except a “de gustibus non est disputandum” feeling I have about it 🙂 , I think you really have to watch also the Enterprise since you say that you like series that have longer stories than one-two episodes. Indeed it is different from the other series in some aspects, but from my point of view that’s a plus, if the watcher is not some purist with narrow views. Enjoy! (or I should say “Engage!” ?!? 🙂 )

  2. 3 James Frederick Bland July 29, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    I enjoyed reading your analysis and can’t find fault with you point of view. You might have an error in the sentence ” Spock the cold rationalist, Bones the compassionate and surprisingly emotional carer, and Kirk, the raging ego, all Kirk ever wanted was to be lead, fight lots, and have sex with anything that moves, ” All Kirk wants to do is lead, be the captain, fight and have sex… Interesting post.

  3. 5 Topaz July 20, 2013 at 7:42 am

    *nodding*
    I loved the original show, maybe because I was 13 when I first watched it.
    I could never connect to the newer series. I saw them as pale imitations full of stereotypes (nowadays they call them “tropes”). I especially hated how Data was a mockery of Spock, so I think you hit the nail on the head with that one.


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