Puppies, Trek, Hugos and More

Not too long ago, Leonard Nimoy died. I wrote a few words. So did everybody else. But there’s something in what I wrote that I’d like to revisit.

It was about Nimoy and Spock, in the venerable original Star Trek series. I said that I first saw that stuff when I was about six years old, and when I saw it, I didn’t want to be suave, tough-guy, womanising Kirk who commanded the ship: I wanted to be calm, logical, rational — and above all smart — Spock. In the piece that I wrote, I gave credit to Nimoy for making the character cool and interesting, and I’m not planning to take that away. But I do want to discuss how Spock was different from other smart characters on TV and in the movies of the time.

Think about Thunderbirds. We’ve all seen it: wonky puppets flying model rockets to rescue other wonky puppets. Sure, the Tracy boys are the heroes but there is that important scientist/engineer character, Brains. You remember him. With the stutter, right? And the coke-bottle glasses? Who could forget Brains? I mean, even his name says  it: Brains. The smart puppet. Yeah, he never really got to do much heroic rescuing, and he mostly just built shit and repaired it, and the glasses and the stutter and …

…actually, Brains is a fucking depressing character. But that’s okay, because he was smart and back then everybody knew that smart guys were clueless munters.  Still, what about Lost In Space. eh? The whole family is smart, right? Oh. Wait. Except… yeah, there is this one guy, Doctor Smith, who’s supposed to be really clever. Only he’s a coward and a weakling, and the Robinson family with all their good, wholesome, athletic family values have to keep rescuing him. Over and over and over. Because Doctor Smith the science dink is a treacherous weak coward.

Hmm. All right. So Doctor Smith comes off badly too. What about the head of Q branch, in the James Bond movies? Oh. Wait. He’s clever, right, but he never gets to do anything interesting, and mostly he’s just jealous of Bond, and occasionally his fussy ways make him the butt of Bond’s clever one-liners. And he’s kind of anxious, and he’s a bit nerdy and physically unimpressive and… Oh. Yeah.

That was how smart characters played out in the late 60s and early 70s. That’s what I saw all around me. That’s what was expected of me at school, and in sports.  And though things have improved.  the clumsy, inffectual, nerdy smart stereotype remains alive in popular culture to this day.

Which is exactly why Spock was so damned important to me. Leonard Nimoy’s Spock was smart. It was his defining factor. And even though the other characters found him difficult and made jokes about him, it was his intelligence that allowed him to save the day on so many occasions. Sometimes he was too smart for his own good, and his actions didn’t work out as he’d planned, sure. But that didn’t stop him being smart, and it didn’t make the rest of the characters treat him like a joke, or an outcast, and it didn’t stop him being courageous or physical or attractive to women or anything else.

I was a smart kid. I think the original Star Trek was the first science fiction I ever encountered. back in my grandmother’s house, and I loved it. It was that show which prompted me to read actual, grown-up science fiction the moment I could get my hands on the stuff. But most importantly of all from my viewpoint, it was that TV programme which showed me it was possible to be smart, and not be a reviled, socially outcast nerd.

That was Nimoy, and Spock, and it was Roddenberry and the scriptwriters, and I cannot possibly say how grateful I am to them all. It was the existence of Spock which helped me find the courage to front up in school classes and accept being smart — despite the taunts of other kids, despite the dullness of the classes, despite the idiocy of the school system. The existence of that character as a visible role model made me stubborn enough to insist on reading the books I wanted, even if the school librarian thought I should be reading Paddington Bear. (I quite like Paddington, by the way. But not the same way I like science fiction.)  The tangible, identifiable character of Spock made it possible for me to believe that I could be smart and athletic. I didn’t have to be just one or the other. I didn’t have to be clumsy, or shy, or awkward just because I was clever.

You will never, ever hear me dismiss the importance and the power of role models in popular fiction and culture. Nimoy’s “Spock” had more effect on me, as a kid and onwards, than just about any other character I can think of. (Well… maybe Batman. Oh, and Robin Hood. Hey — didja notice both of them are smart guys too?)

Now, let’s consider something else about Star Trek and Spock, shall we?

Spock is smart, sure. But his intelligence is just what he brings to the ensemble. There are other aspects to his character, although they were fairly cartoonishly explored. (The times were what they were, after all.) There are stories about the importance of his intellect (the one where his brain gets stolen springs to mind. Stupid concept!) and the value he places on it… but for the most part, Spock’s intelligence is used as a device to let the stories unfold, and a means of giving him some character of his own. Same with Scotty’s genius down in engineering. Same with McCoy’s devotion to saving lives. And regrettably, the same with Kirk’s tendency to rip his shirt off and seduce the nearest vaguely female character.

That inclusiveness is pure Roddenberry, classic Star Trek. It was also very important to me. Spock’s intelligence was central to a few stories — but mostly, it just fit in and made his character what it was. The stories operated independently, and they were still interesting and occasionally challenging (and sometimes dumb as hell, sure.)

D’you see what I mean? Spock’s defining characteristic, the thing that made him different — that wasn’t all he was. It wasn’t the driving force behind stories involving him. There was more to him, and more to the stories, and there was room for other characters, other ideas.

That was important to me too, as a kid. It’s still important to me now, as an adult. I want my science fiction to be inclusive. I want different viewpoints and different characters. I understand very deeply the importance of characters that put your personal difference, your niche, up there on the screen or on the page.

But I still want to enjoy the story. I still want to be confronted by challenges and ideas and adventures. And I loved the original Star Trek series because Spock could be smart and McCoy could be obsessive and Kirk could be a bombast and Uhura could be black and dammit I wish George Takei could have come out publicly back then because there could have been still another influence on those stories…

…Influence. I guess that’s the point. Star Trek wasn’t just for smart guys. It wasn’t just for bombastic, shirt-tearing scenery chewers. It wasn’t just for black women, or southern American men. All of them had an influence. None of them owned it. And that was precisely the thing that gave Star Trek the capacity to make Spock important to me. Spock was my favourite character. He was the one I identified with, but it wasn’t his show.

And if they’d made it his show I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly so much.

I’m not going to fight anybody for the Hugos. I’m not going to fight anybody for science fiction. But if you insist on making it your show and you don’t leave room for me, I will just change the channel. And I’m not the only one.

Eventually, you’re going to have an extremely boring party all by yourself.

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2 comments

  1. I realise a discussion about the influence of science in Star Trek isn’t the point of your analogy but for me it was the fact that a bridge crew included as a second in command a SCIENCE officer role. Imagine that in any other series, a Navy ship with an officer whose primary ROLE, not just expertise, is science. For me that was such a great concept it really made it believable that this was a future where they we were primarily explorers. Even when the other STEM character, the Chief Engineer Scottie, was in charge he was damn awesome eg A taste of Armageddon.

    1. Actually, the influence of characters and characterisation in popular culture and fiction is a vital part of the point — and your observation about a science officer is a damned good one. That, too, is part of why I liked the Spock character. And it reinforces the point I’m making about the value of visible role models in pop culture, because you’re right: I think Spock as “Science Officer” was the first time (and remains an isolated example!) that I ever saw ‘science’ brought into the mainstream of a fictional organisation like that.

      It also reinforces the other half of the point. Spock was a science officer. The ship’s mission was exploration. But if all we’d seen was a lot of science and exploration, it would have been a short-lived, dull show. The adventure and the action and the occasional Klingon-driven mayhem was a vital part of what made it fun to watch.

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