View Matt Zoller Seitz's video essay "Vulcan: The Soul of Spock" here.
Mr. Spock, the Vulcan first officer of the Starship Enterprise in the original Star Trek
series, is one of the most enduring characters in popular culture — so charismatic, conflicted and, well, fascinating, that his name and character are synonymous with the series, and in some ways synonymous with its potential, both achieved and unrealized.
As envisioned by series creator Gene Roddenberry, and honed by actor Leonard Nimoy and many inventive writers, including original series story editor D.C. Fontana, Mr. Spock is the company man par excellence — a spit-and-polish naval officer whose unstinting excellence stands as an example (sometimes a rebuke) to others. His first thought is invariably not of his own welfare, but the good of the starship, its crew and the highest ideals of Starfleet Federation. He is impressive in every way — eloquent, educated, fair-minded, resourceful and above all else, cool under fire.
And on top of all that, he's got cool signature moves: the split fingered Vulcan salute; the mind-meld, and the Vulcan nerve pinch, which can nonviolently disable a foe.
Along with impetuous Captain James T. Kirk and cranky chief medical officer Leonard "Bones" McCoy, Mr. Spock was part of a central trio of characters that dominated the original Trek
. Yet from the moment the series premiered on NBC in 1966 through its cancellation in 1969, its resurrection in syndication and as an animated series in the '70s and its reinvention as a movie franchise — including director J.J. Abrams' upcoming theatrical re-boot — Spock stood apart from the rest. To this day he arguably remains the franchise's most popular character, a walking emblem of Roddenberry's earnest attempts to use myth and melodrama to examine the human condition, and the poster Vulcan for a media and merchandising phenomenon that continues to this day.
Spock is distinguished most of all by his self-control — a trait so pronounced, so carefully maintained and fully felt, that he can transfer it to others via the mind-meld. This process is most vividly demonstrated in the Season Three episode "The Spectre of the Gun," in which Spock and his fellow crewmembers are trapped in a nightmarish roleplaying exercise in which they are the Clanton gang marked for death by the Earps at the O.K. Corral. In the climax, Spock deduces that because the scenario itself is not real, the bullets are not real either, and transfers his certitude to his colleagues as only he can.
But the very source of Spock's charisma — his sense of control — is in some sense a façade, one purchased at a terrible price. As any Star Trek
fan knows, Spock's Vulcan identity is not innate, but assumed, and his struggle to maintain it is the source of much discomfort, sometimes torment — and a guarantee that no matter where Spock is or who he associates with, he will remain, forever, an outsider.
Spock is one of the more vivid examples of a half-breed character — a person of mixed parentage who finds him or herself torn between two worlds. Vivid cinematic examples include Silas Lynch, the mulatto in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation
, who rises to power during the American Reconstruction and torments the whites that once tormented him; Pearl Chavez, the half-Mexican, half-Native American spitfire in the western potboiler Duel in the Sun
; Caine, the half-Chinese, half-white martial arts master on Kung Fu
; and the half-white, half-black maid's daughter in Imitation of Life
, who tries to pass for white. In these stories and others, half-breed characters are deployed in order to examine the preconceptions with which one culture views another, and to illustrate the precarious nature of identity.
For the resourceful actor, such a creation is a treasure trove of artistic possibilities; Spock is such a rich one that Nimoy himself has hinted that the character may contain depths as yet unplumbed. In a recent NPR interview, the actor said he looked forward to seeing Zachary Quinto play his signature role in the rebooted Trek
franchise because Spock, like Hamlet, was complex enough to withstand many interpretations.
Of course, if we're ascribing Shakespearean dimensions to Spock, the ideal comparison point isn't Hamlet, but Othello — a black man in a white man's army whose suppressed emotions are teased by a foe until they detonate, destroying the façade of control he has worked his whole life to construct. Like Othello, Spock is a driven individual who donned a uniform in order to define himself — not to reconcile his human and Vulcan ancestry, but to contain or neutralize it — to make it quite beside the point. He is dependable to a fault: the officer to whom the captain, the crew and the series all turn to in order to make sense of the inexplicable; the man with the answers and the plan.
Yet Spock's relentless perfectionism recalls the wary admonition of African-American parents to their children, that one must be twice as good as the white man to get half as much. We sense him chafing beneath his immaculate tunic, and there are times when his cool demeanor cracks and we see that Mr. Spock resents his predicament, and is not above being a bit of a bitch.
Which nature is Spock's true nature? What, exactly, is being suppressed? Like Othello's hale-fellow-well-met energy, Spock's placid, reflective demeanor is a silk bow tied around a grenade. The contradictions keep roiling beneath. And in the classic episode "Amok Time," which shows Spock's home planet and shows us Vulcan culture's unexpectedly savage Pon Fahr mating ritual, and in the numerous episodes in which mysterious ailments or puppetmaster aliens flush the Trek
characters' hidden aspects into the open, we see that Mr. Spock is, in fact, more human that he'd like to admit.
It's in Mr. Spock's relationship with Nurse Chapel — a deep crush expressed and then suppressed — that we see Spock at his most tortured and vulnerable. His anguish at the thought of acting on his impulse is overwhelming. Its mix of wonder and terror, desire and disgust is Oedipal; it is this impulse toward miscegenation that overtook Spock's own father and gave birth to Starfleet's finest first officer.
And yet the central irony of Spock's predicament is that his father's admonition to choose one path or another amounts to a false and damaging description of what personalities are made of. People are not, and never can be, either/or — either aggressive or peaceful, loving or cold, petty or kind, passionate or logical. A multitude of selves coexist within each soul, and Spock is no exception.
Surely a character plagued by this many demons deserved to be labeled unhappy. Yet to apply that label to Spock would be most illogical. While one could never say he's at peace with himself, one could say that he's at peace with the fact that he's not at peace. Perhaps, even though he never says as so Spock knows, or feels, that his soul contains multitudes: warrior, scientist, lover, son, and most of all, Starfleet officer.
This last role is by far the most satisfying for Spock because, as they say on earth, in the military, you don't salute the man, but the uniform. This interpretation is validated by Nimoy's fleeting but brilliant bit of stagecraft in the finale of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in which Spock, on his last legs after repairing a radiation leak that threatened to destroy his beloved Enterprise, hauls himself up, then absentmindedly straightens the hem of his coat. It's his nonverbal way of honoring ideals and aspirations worth dying for. He's too human to be Vulcan, too Vulcan to be human. But in uniform, he's simply Spock.