In last week’s post about Star Trek Into Darkness I mentioned that you probably shouldn’t ask me about the aliens of the Abramsverse.
You’re about to find out why.
First, let’s discuss the role aliens played in the original incarnation of Star Trek.
One of Roddenberry’s explicit goals in what is now known as The Original Series was to present a genuinely diverse society. This is spelled out plainly in the Star Trek writers guide:
International in origin, completely multi-racial. But even in this future century we will see some traditional trappings, ornaments, and styles that suggest the Asiatic, the Arabic, the Latin etc. So far, Mister Spock has been our only crew-man with blood lines from another planet. However, it is not impossible that we might discover some other aliens or part aliens working aboard our Starship.
This diversity, though sometimes more “fair for its day” than “fair,” wasn’t always reductive or simple, either. For example, while some crew members were more stereotypical in their cultural trappings (Scotty, for example, or Chekov), some were more nuanced, including Sulu, who, though predominantly Japanese in ancestry, was described as, “contemporary American in speech and manner.” Roddenberry and his writers seemed admirably determined to depict culture on an individual level rather than a reductive or blanket one, and this was nowhere better illustrated than in their handling of Mr. Spock. He’s described in the writer’s bible as follows:
Mister Spock’s mother was human, his father a native of the planet Vulcan. This alien-human combination results in Mister Spock’s slightly alien features with the yellowish complexion and satanic pointed ears. Thus he is biologically, emotionally, and even intellectually a “half-breed”. He is considerably stronger than his human crewmen, he can endure lack of water and higher temperatures for a longer period. His hearing is particularly keen. He also has a strange Vulcan “ESP” ability to merge his mind with another intelligence, read the thoughts there. He dislikes doing so since it deprives him of his proud stoic mannerisms and reveals too much of his inner self. Also, the physical and emotional cost of this is quite high.
We now realize that Spock is capable of feeling emotion, but he denies this at every opportunity. On his own planet, to show emotion is considered the grossest of sins. He makes every effort to hide what he considers the “weakness” of his half-human heredity.
But despite the diversity of the Enterprise, Spock’s non-human origins would mean for some rocky integration with his human crew members. He faces significant prejudice from Bones throughout the series, and at times even his biology is at odds with his duties as the Enterprise‘s second-in-command. The episode “Amok Time” examines this nicely; his reproductive imperatives disrupt the ship’s mission–but ignoring them may mean death.
As the series developed, viewers learned that Spock’s emotional repression was not due to his feeling less emotion, but rather more–his people had once been particularly labile, even violent. They developed their rituals, customs and values as a way to cope with unique facets of their biology. This culture that grew up around Vulcan biology was paid not merely lip service but often at the heart of Trek’s plots. See, for example, The Search for Spock, a plot which would not have been possible without Spock’s alienness–specifically his ability to separate his consciousness from his physical body.
This complex treatment of alien cultures was largely limited to Spock in The Original Series, but later explored in other characters and species as well. Klingons, Ferengi, other Vulcans, Trill–all would be explored through Star Trek’s narrative lens. These cultural differences were often front and center of Trek’s stories, for example in the Deep Space 9 episode “Homefront,” which is fairly explicitly an examination of what happens when one’s cultural values come into conflict with one’s ambitions.
That’s not to say that Star Trek was always completely exemplary when it came to examining issues of identity or prejudice; there were, in fact, some serious missteps over the years. But the franchise, as a whole, was very earnest and above all serious about its alien characters–even when those characters were, at times, used as comic relief, as was the case with the Ferengi. And it was curious about them, too, endeavoring to explore all sorts of detail about biology and culture–and even structuring stories around this.
And this earnestness is fairly unique to the series. Compare, for example, the treatment of aliens in Star Wars. Though the Star Wars universe has an impressive array of alien species, in the actual films, aliens are rarely well-rounded, nuanced or complex characters. They were more often sidekicks (Chewbacca), villains (Jabba the Hutt), or expository plot devices (oh, Yoda! I love you, but it’s true). And they were almost entirely static. It’s somewhat ironic that the alien character with the most well-developed culture within the films, and who receives the most character development, is probably the much-loathed Jar Jar Binks. Otherwise, the purpose of aliens in the Star Wars universe seems to be a shortcut to depicting the color and diversity in that universe without it ever impacting the plot. There is no Chewbacca Pon Farr episode; alien biology, much less culture, stays out of the way of the story that really matters–the human story. The alien is the Other, playing the same role as native populations did in older pulp stories. They’re window dressing. Exotic. Cartoonish. But they’re very rarely people.
And JJ Abrams has approached xenobiology and xenoanthropology in a very Star Wars way in his reboot. Background puppets abound, used to illustrate the diversity of the universe, but this is still a universe where the actions of the humans are those that matter. Scotty has a non-verbal alien friend who plays an almost identical role to Chewbacca in Star Wars; he’s a silent cipher whose words must be surmised only through the pauses of the more plot relevant human. Kirk bags a space babe, but she’s mostly just a sight gag. And there are Romulans and Klingons, but they’re villains–obstacles to overcome, really. But still not people, not fully, not yet.
Take, for example, the opening scene of Star Trek Into Darkness, set on a planet called Nibiru. This scene in many ways seems intended to pay homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark (and the films it paid homage to). The pre-warp population native to the planet chase down Kirk and Bones, are distracted by some sort of religious scroll, and then, when they see the Enterprise, come to worship it. These aliens seem built on racist tropes–they move like apes, for one; they are easily duped, for another. There are dozens of stories of pre-warp civilizations in Star Trek, but it’s notable that “pre-warp” has rarely been used to mean “ignorant” or “easily manipulated.” Instead, these pre-warp civilizations normally have complex, interesting cultures and beliefs. But the Nibirurans’ cultural beliefs are laughable; they are, as the alien characters in Star Wars, obstacles or jokes at best, and barely disguised racism, at worst.
Which brings us to Spock. Spock’s culture has been flattened, literally and figuratively, in this franchise. One gets a strong suspicion that his Vulcan heritage is considered inferior in this narrative; unlike in the original series, his parents’ relationship seems troubled due to his father’s reticent and unyielding nature, whereas it was mostly a loving relationship as depicted in “Journey to Babel.” For example, in “Journey to Babel,” both Spock’s mother Amanda and Spock himself seem to recognize that Sarek’s answer to the question of his marriage to Amanda–“at the time it seemed the logical thing to do”–is nothing more than an affection tease; in the 2009 movie, this line is, instead, used as an illustration of Sarek’s cold and unloving nature. The death of Spock’s mother in the 2009 reboot causes Spock to increasingly embrace feeling, and this “more human” Spock allows him to seamlessly integrate with the rest of the Enterprise crew. Spock’s biology now allows him to have relationships (not so in the original series–see “This Side of Paradise”), and to cry openly at the death of a friend. His alienness is not merely not a problem here. It largely isn’t even present–not really, not meaningfully. Certainly not to the extent we see in “Amok Time.”
One might wonder what’s wrong with that–why not have Spock whole-heartedly embrace his human half? Well, this assumes that the alien half is inherently less interesting; more, it assumes that this level of seamless assimilation is even possible when two cultures intermingle. It assumes that the same values are shared and elevated across the Federation (and among viewers), that to integrate and embrace the values of majority populations is the ultimate goal.
Maybe I’ve seen too much Star Trek, but I’d always imagined the future to be more diverse than that.