What can I say about Star Trek? It is easily one of the most celebrated TV shows in history. Boldly going where no shows had dared to go before, Star Trek tackled real-world issues like racism, death, friendship, loss, love, and just about everything else you can imagine, all under the umbrella of awesome, interstellar adventure. Memorable characters, quotes, and episodes still stick in our minds as significant explorations of what it means to be human, warts and all.
As I have been (re)watching “The Next Generation” on Netflix, I have been thinking about two characters in particular: Mr. Spock, from “The Original Series,” and Mr. Data, from “The Next Generation.” These are two of the most-loved characters from the entire Star Trek Universe. Everyone knows Spock’s customary Vulcan greeting, even if they don’t realize what it’s from.
I recently had an enlightening discussion with my good friend Dominic, perhaps the greatest Trekkie in existence, about the interesting duality of both of these characters. If you’re unfamiliar with their backgrounds, you’re probably on the wrong site, but read on.
Mr. Spock, the Enterprise’s Science Officer, is half human, half Vulcan, an advanced alien race which founds its civilization completely on logic, and is entirely without emotion or feeling (“That is illogical, Captain.”). Mr. Data is an android who serves as a Lieutenant aboard the Enterprise, always having difficulty understanding things like humor or sadness, as they are innately human emotions.
Both these characters face a similar struggle: they are sort of human, but sort of not at the same time. Mr. Spock is always torn between his human and Vulcan sides, one in touch with feelings, emotions, and, to an extent, sans rigid logic. Data tries constantly to learn about humor (even asking a stand-up comedian for help understanding in one episode), but he never seems to fully understand. At his core, he is a machine.
However, with both Spock and Data, we see an interesting shift in the characters throughout their respective shows. Data, for example, is introduced as extremely mechanical, quite literally, but as the show progresses, he develops a human side. He struggles to balance his nature as a machine with his desire to laugh, cry, feel. Spock, too, continually wrestles within himself, trying to rectify just what he is.
Both these characters present questions to the viewer about what exactly it means to be human. And, while Star Trek explores this topic, it never gives any answers. Data and Spock challenge us to look within and find out what makes us who we are. This, I would argue, is why there is such a love for them among fans. When Data grows a beard or dresses up as Sherlock Holmes, we feel for him; we understand what it is like to be searching for yourself, trying to find out who you really are. We as the audience want Data and Spock to be human. We root for them among the rest of the cast, because, in many ways, they are the most human of all. (Let’s be honest, Shatner’s acting is WAY more robotic than Nimoy’s. Let the flame war begin.) They represent a great metaphor for our own internal struggles as people.
Maybe it’s time for you to rewatch some old episodes. Until next time, live long and prosper.