Spock: “You are proposing I better balance my Human and Vulcan natures?”
Dr Aspen: “I’m saying, maybe you’re neither.”
Spock: “That is nonsensical. If I’m not Human or Vulcan, what am I?”
Dr Aspen: “I mean, that’s not my question to answer.”
- Star Trek, Strange New Worlds, "The Serene Squall"
In a recent episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, a prequel to the original 1960s Star Trek series, which tells the story of the Enterprise before Captain James T. Kirk was in command, Spock and Dr. Aspen – a non-binary counsellor at a starbase on the edge of Federation space – discuss the eternal question of his nature. Genetically, he is half-Human and half-Vulcan. He was raised on Vulcan. He’s been brought up to temper his emotions, as per Vulcan custom. Humans are tempestuous. Vulcans are logical.
Dr. Aspen suggests that Spock looks beyond the boxes that society puts us in. To find language that describes what he is to himself and let that be known, rather than trying to find his place in a binary choice or even at a point on a spectrum.
The core of this episode – “The Serene Squall” - is about how we define ourselves in relation to work and personal relationships. And it strikes clearly at the heart of how our outward appearances aren’t really the key to who we are. Dr. Aspen, it turns out, is really Captain Angel, a space pirate who is trying to steal the Enterprise. And yet, even that turn doesn’t undermine a fundamental part of their nature – they are non-binary. And their pronouns are consistently throughout the episode.
Though Strange New Worlds is set in the past of Spock we know, the character continues to struggle with his identity throughout Star Trek and the films he’s in, perhaps never entirely coming to terms with who he is but knowing that his complicated nature can help him see past the confines of the community where he was raised.
Spock was not originally conceived as analogous to non-binary people, of course. He was simply created as the “outsider” – a character to remind the audience that this show was set in space.
In that way, though, the outsider Spock quickly became a character into which many different kinds of real-life outsiders poured their hopes, feelings and own emotions. In a TV series that strived for representation when TV was seriously lacking in it, Spock became the person who represented a lot of other people who had not see themselves on screen.
In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times in 2011, Jennifer Beals – star of Flashdance and The L Word – discussed growing up biracial in America. She endured taunts of “whitey” from darker-skinned African Americans in her south-side Chicago neighbourhood. As she grew older, she went looking for images of girls that looked like her and role-models that spoke to a multi-racial heritage.
“As a biracial girl growing up in Chicago, there wasn’t a lot there, positive or otherwise. I mean, I had Spock. And that was kind of it.”
Mr Spock, the half-Vulcan, half-Human First Officer on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, filled in for something that Beals needed growing up in the late 60s and early 70s. He represented her experience of being from two worlds and not feeling comfortable in either.
The character, first played by Leonard Nimoy in the first Star Trek pilot “The Cage” (produced in 1964), has grown a lot in the nearly six decades since he first appeared on television – and he continues to reflect and represent a whole range of minority voices, even in a film and TV landscape that is far more diverse than when TV audiences met him in 1966.
1960s television was very white, even during the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement throughout that decade. Films on the big screen were advancing in small steps that looked like big strides compared to the characters that were invited into people’s living rooms.
Star Trek made bold steps forward for multi-racial casts on television, with African-American actor Nichelle Nichols and Japanese-American actor George Takei as part of the main crew of the Enterprise.
Leonard Nimoy himself was born to Jewish parents who had immigrated from the Ukraine. As an outsider, raised in Catholic Boston, Nimoy brought a complicated personal history to the role of Spock. And he imbued his own sense of not-fitting-in to the role of the alien on board the ship. Mr Spock was the explicit outsider, with pointed ears, he stood out amongst the rest of the cast and could always be relied on to raise a quizzical eyebrow when he didn’t understand a particular human foible.
In fact, the famous Vulcan salute – a raised hand with separation between the middle and ring fingers into a “V” shape – was developed by Nimoy based on a Jewish blessing. In a future in which Gene Roddenberry considered that humanity had evolved “beyond religion”, the series was still being created by people whose religion was central to their lives.
The entire original run of Star Trek in the 1960s was plagued by possible cancellation. The original pilot was deemed “too cerebral” and even as the first season aired, the network wanted to keep Spock in the background for fear of, excuse the pun, alienating viewers.
The opposite was true. Viewers of the show started to claim Spock as their favourite. Leonard Nimoy was receiving more fan mail than William Shatner, who played lead character, Captain Kirk. When contract negotiations came around for the second season, Nimoy was in a position to demand more because so much of the audience were big fans of his character in particular.
The series was cancelled after two seasons and a massive letter-writing campaign from fans brought the show back for a third and final season. In some ways, this act – changing the minds of a network – fanned the nascent flames of future fandom. After this, fan conventions would begin, and Star Trek actors made appearances across the United States in those fallow years between the TV show and the film franchise.
Also in this period, fanzines started to crop up – sharing their love of the show through artwork and fan fiction – stories based on the show and characters. Most notably in fan fiction history was a story called “A Fragment Out of Time” by Australian fan Diane Marchant, the first example of slash fiction, pairing Kirk and Spock in a scene of homosexual intimacy.
Notating stories of this queer relationship as “Kirk/Spock” – with a slash between their names - is where the phrase “slash” fiction comes from. And while writers of the original series denied there was any such relationship between the characters, that never stopped fan fiction writers before or since.
Queering these two characters in slash fiction is both a tool of female fantasy, as well as an explicit example of LGBTQI+ fans looking for representation they couldn’t find elsewhere. If Spock is the outsider, the character could easily stand in for the person with a secret or the person whose community shuns him. As Half-Human, other Vulcans aren’t always trustworthy of Spock.
And while a non-binary interpretation of Spock was decades away, perhaps the combination of the “canon” stories of the TV series with the K/S fiction might suggest the character is bisexual rather than just homosexual. Though later series in the Star Trek franchise would explore sexuality and gender diversity in a more explicit way, and creator Gene Roddenberry suggested his future was more sexually liberated than modern-day earth, it still required audiences to read into these things until many years later.
The outsider character continues to be a staple on Star Trek shows even now, with Spock being the blue print for all those who would come later. The Next Generation had both Data (an android looking for humanity) and Worf (a Klingon, whose people were long at war with the Human- and Vulcan-dominated Federation). Deep Space Nine had Odo, who begins the series alone in the universe, not knowing where he has even come from and who his people are. The character of Dax is not played as an outsider but their species – the Trill – does change gender presentation over their very long lifespans. More recently, Discovery includes First Officer Saru, whose species can sense fear when approaching – but he also hides the secret that he has left his homeworld behind without anyone else on his planet knowing.
The multiple Star Trek shows that exist now don’t have to hold back when it comes to representing diverse genders or sexualities. Blu del Barrio, a non-binary actor, plays Adira, a human character bonded with a Trill symbiont. Ian Alexander, a trans non-binary actor, plays Gray, a Trill host. Together, these two actors explore all the possibilities of the Trill species that had traditionally been performed by cis actors.
And Captain Angel/Dr Aspen, who wonders whether Spock is something other than his Human and Vulcan sides, is played by non-binary actor, Jesse Keitel (also recently seen in the latest reimagining of Queer as Folk).
On Strange New Worlds, Spock continues to shine as a beacon for all those looking for representation that is not there. But as the character has become iconic, it’s tough to see Spock as the “outsider” anymore. The name is known across the world, even to people who don’t watch the series. But the series also has the character of Hemmer, an alien whose species are born blind but navigate the world through different senses. The character is played by Bruce Horak, a blind actor – boldly going where no Star Trek series has gone before, having a blind actor as a regular cast member.
Nearly 60 years after the original series was created, the franchise continues to expand its core ideal of looking at the human condition through multiple viewpoints. As progressive as the original series strived to be, the show in 1966 couldn’t be what its multiple progenies could be in the 1990s or can be in 2022 and beyond.
The basis of Vulcan philosophy is “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination” – a celebration of the vast array of variables and diversity across the universe. Spock, regardless of how he defines himself, is a character that has been used as a stand-in for countless marginalised people over the decades.
The fictional universe may have expanded greatly and representation may be light years ahead of tis original conception, but one of its original ingredients continues to stand in when viewers can't see themselves in the Star Trek that is on their screens right now. Spock may be one person but he contains multitudes. He's infinite diversity in infinite combinations, all by himself.