Berman’s Vulcans

Spock IDICIt’s hard to remember exactly, but I think I first noticed it back in the days of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It’s even possible it really started in the earlier series, Star Trek: The Next Generation. By the time of the final series, Star Trek: Enterprise, it was definitely a thing, and by then it went way too far.

In the original Star Trek series, Gene Roddenberry gave us Vulcans. They were, in many ways, better than humans. They lived longer, they were stronger and smarter, and — crucially — they were, in some ways, wiser than us. Rick Berman, Roddenberry’s heir apparent, re-wrote that vision to make them conniving, lying, self-interested bastards. In other words, he made them more human.

My question here is: Why did our heroes turn into such assholes?

Venn TrekIf we set the Way Back machine to 1966, when the original Star Trek first aired, we find the ever-fascinating triumvirate of Captain James Kirk, Doctor “Bones” McCoy and First Officer Mr. Spock (whose first name is supposedly unpronounceable by humans).

What made them so fascinating was how Dr. McCoy represented the compassionate loving heart, Mr. Spock represented the dispassionate logical mind, and Captain Kirk combined those qualities into rational and balanced leadership.

Part of the point of Spock — and the episode The Galileo Seven shows this explicitly — was that dispassionate logic is not always sufficient. Compassion, empathy, even wild leaps of faith are sometimes necessary.

Spock Galileo 7

Spock learns that logic isn’t always the perfect tool!

Spock, and Vulcans in general, represented something crucial. In being better than us they represented ideals. According to canon, Vulcans were once a barbaric race constantly at war. They saved themselves by learning to suppress their aggressive emotions and to replace them with logic.

[The mistake the Vulcans made is that logical thinking, critical thinking and rational thinking are all separate things.]

Roddenberry’s idea here is clear. The Vietnam War was in full swing when Star Trek first aired. John Kennedy had been dead three years, and we were in the first stages of losing faith in our government. (Richard Nixon, in the early 1970s, ensured we would never view our politicians quite the same again.)

In an era of growing disillusionment, Vulcans represented a noble goal. They’d brought themselves up from self-destructive barbarism. Could we not aspire to find a way — a human way — to do likewise?


The most idealistic, and therefore most boring, hero ever? NOT!

One of our greatest and most well-known heroic icons, Superman, represented a similar impossibly idealistic goal (or at least he used to). We could never be Superman, but we could aspire to be like him in holding high ideals and in always trying to do the right thing.

But there are those who found Superman a little on the dull side. In contrast, the heroes in Marvel comics had a bit more edge, more real grit, than most of the heroes in DC comics. (DC’s Batman was a darker, much more human, superhero, but unlike some Marvel heroes, he never killed people!)

And while I agree that a bit of darkness makes a character more interesting (that’s Storytelling 101), we seem to have pegged the needle on reprehensible and thrown idealism out the window (if you’re forgive a mixed metaphor).

As the Star Trek franchise developed, Vulcans became more human, more emotional, and more devious. When we finally get to Enterprise, we learn that they covertly use an important Vulcan religious shrine to spy on their neighbors. The idea of a noble people had all but vanished.

Spock chess

One of the ways they showed us Spock wasn’t all that is in how Kirk always won at 3D chess.

What concerns me is two things. Firstly that we seem to have a need to sully nobility. It’s almost as if  someone with high goals or abilities puts into stark contrast our own failures of  heart, soul and mind. We seem to take comfort in the idea that, yeah, everyone else is an asshole, so it’s okay that I am, too.

Secondly that the assholic characters of today reflect our own increasingly broken moral compass. I am astonished at the moral repugnance of far too many of today’s protagonists.

I am dismayed at how wrong behavior no longer seems to get the comeuppance it once deserved. Heroes do bad things and not only don’t suffer for them, but are rewarded. The lesson seems to be that bad in the service of good is a-okay.

You may disagree with my premise that our media affects us. You may disagree that the violence and immoral choices and despicable roles models prevalent today affect our own choices and views. But I think it’s much harder to disagree that our media reflects our choices and views.

There was a time when TV, movies and even comics reflected the kind of people we wanted to be, the kind of world we wanted to live in. Those days presented a picture that was impossibly sanitized and benign. It didn’t reflect reality so much as what reality could be. It reflected our hopes, dreams and ideals.

Tyrion Lannister

I really did like Tyrion!

What do we see reflected in the media mirror today? I watched Game of Thrones for a couple of seasons, but finally couldn’t take it anymore. The violence is one thing, but the awfulness of the characters was too much. Not one of them, save perhaps Tyrion, was worth knowing.

[To me that makes them not worth watching. I need a story to have characters I like and would like to know. An interesting exception there is Seinfeld. I disliked every one of those characters, but the writing was brilliant and ground-breaking, so the show gets a free pass. GoT isn’t brilliant and doesn’t.]

I filed the show under “Vile Filth” and moved on. Then I found a show so morally repugnant, so utterly vile and despicable, that it makes GoT look like Lord of the Rings.  That show is Scandal. Its creator, Shonda Rhimes, has a new show out, How To Get Away With Murder, and that show is just as ugly and reprehensible in its nature and characters.

[I don’t know who watches this seriously fucked up shit, but if you do, I don’t want to know you. Far as I’m concerned, it’s inexcusable and you should be ashamed to allow it into your life.]

Leoni and Daly

They like hiking, cooking, good movies… and discussing ethics!

These kinds of shows are why Madam Secretary is like a beam of sunshine through the clouds. A show in which people discuss ethical issues and strive to do the right thing. Not the legal thing or the permitted thing, but the right thing.

The main character’s husband is an ethics professor! I loved the episode where Madam Secretary needs her husband to compromise his values in order to save the life of an imprisoned CIA agent. The husband refuses, and by the end of their discussion about values and ethics, she agrees she was wrong to ask.

What’s so refreshing is avoiding the tired cliché of a character first doing the wrong thing, getting burned and then learning an important life lesson about doing the right thing. That’s stuff you should have learned in Kindergarten (or by watching Star Trek in the 1960s).

yin-yang idealism realism

Don’t we need both?

Madam Secretary is not alone — there are other shows with characters who strive to operate with good values. To me, it does seem to stand a little above the crowd in having such clearly high values. Its idealism is what reminds me of The West Wing, a show many still revere exactly because of the high values espoused by its characters.

One reason I love NCIS is the values of its main character, Jethro Gibbs, and how he lives those values and expects them in others (I also love it because it’s really good).

The shame, at least to my eyes, is that so few of our heroes seem to share those values. What worries me is the perception that we’ve given up on idealism, that we’ve given up on high goals.

Maybe that’s a mountain peak we can never quite reach, but isn’t climbing it a worthy effort?

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

20 responses to “Berman’s Vulcans

  • reocochran

    I wish they would leave Spock alone! I liked his objectivity which did balance Dr. and Capt. Kirk’s emotional sides. I liked Scotty’s expressive side, too.

    Heroes can be found, more in movies than television. I am a big fan of the Bond movies. I like Matt Damon’s character in the Bourne Identity series, I enjoy the show, “Parenthood,” which is blessed with a great cast. I happen to still watch “Grey’s Anatomy,” which is trying to be more real, more back story and less about sleeping together. I like the fact the head of the hospital had an affair with Grey’s mother, they addressed this again this season, with a heart-wrenching episode that the daughter relives how her mother is turned away by the black doctor, unknowing she is pregnant with a bi-racial baby. The baby grows up, she is part of the hospital staff, Grey needs to learn how to accept the humanity of her mother’s lover and respect him for going back to his wife. This is all shown in flash backs of her being there when her mother tried to commit suicide, along with their spending her fifth year of life, in a far away location with her mother, seeing her belly grow, baby given up for adoption… It is deeper than it has gone before, but I like the deeper episodes of “ER” with Sally Fields being an alcoholic and others…

    I don’t watch, “Scandal” but watch “Revenge.” I don’t watch “How to Commit Murder…” but I watched this summer, “Satisfaction.” Hmmm…. Slippery slope… I imagine.

    I love “Elementary” and also, “Perception.” I used to like the show, “Numbers,” and so am watching the Dad in that show play the Son in the interesting show, “Forever,” which is not romantic, but about forensics and history. I liked “42” and “12 Years a Slave,” but really liked “Julie/Julia” movie and “The King’s Speech,” more for their positive and less depressing themes. Well, that is all for now, W.S.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      [smile] Television had a series called Heroes… does that count? 🙂 It may be that movies are based more on specific heroes and heroic acts because they only have the 90 or 120 minutes to tell their story. (They are up to 180 minutes, or more, but still.)

      I can honestly say, based on your description, and on every description I’ve ever heard, that Grey’s Anatomy isn’t a show I’d enjoy. Different strokes for different folks! I do really like Elementary (I’ve always been a big Sherlock Holmes fan, and that show is a pretty good modern retelling), and I enjoy Perception.

      I did watch Numbers for a while, and I’ve been meaning to check out Forever. But I think Judd Hirsch will always seem like Alex Rieger from the TV show Taxi to me.

      I really loved that show and developed quite a youthful crush on Marilu Henner. That was such a great show: Danny DeVito, Tony Danza, Andy Kaufman (!), Christopher Lloyd (!!) and Carol Kane (!!!). But then, what would you expect from the guy (James L. Brooks) who was involved in bringing us Room 222, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant and… (wait for it) … The Simpsons!

  • reocochran

    Judd Hirsch is the name of the Son of the leading character in “Forever.”

    • Wyrd Smythe

      He’s a good actor. He was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe (Best Supporting Actor both times) for his role in the movie Ordinary People. He kind of faded from view for little until he popped up (as guess what, a dad) in Independence Day. When I saw him in that, I was all like, “Oh, Alex! You’re back!” 🙂

      • reocochran

        The cast for Taxi was great, W.S. and I can see why you would have a crush on Marilu Henner!

        I did like “Cheers” and find Ted Danson a good “CSI” leader, who is more of a team player…I liked Carol Kane and Billy Crystal so much in the movie, “The Princess Bride.” My kids, babysitting and biological, loved that movie, along with “Stand By Me,” and “The Goonies.” I liked the cast from “Barney Miller,” along with “WKRP in Cincinnati,” too.

        Well, I did not expect you to like “Grey’s Anatomy,” but sometimes I like to choose due to the characters and following their story, melodramatic sometimes but mainly growth and change. There has been in the main characters… Oh well, you say ‘to-mah-to’ and I say, to-may-to!’ or do you say peh-can and I say pee-can? smiles

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Indeed. Different strokes for different folks. I tend to lack any interest in “soap opera” storylines — I get enough of that in real life, I don’t want to watch it on TV! I want adventure, laser guns, rocket ships, dashing heroes and warrior maidens! 😀

        Princess Bride is a classic!! (If you haven’t, you definitely should read the 1973 original book by William Goldman!) The movie has some of my favorite movie quotes:

        “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” ~Inigo Montoya

        “They were both poisoned. I spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder.” ~Man in Black (That whole scene with the poison is just too much fun.)

        “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.” ~Westley

        And of course:


  • dianasschwenk

    I hadn’t even noticed the Vulcan ‘fall’ in later star trek episodes Smitty! But you’re right…
    Diana xo

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I think I may have been sensitive to it because I realized from the beginning that Spock (and McCoy) represented two poles of an idealism. As the various series came by I looked at them, in part, from the framework of the “Crusty but Compassionate Medical Officer” and the “Alien Computer-Brain with Weirdling Powers.”

      The Next Generation brought us Dr. Crusher (who wasn’t crusty) and Dr. Pulaski (who was and was much more McCoy’s true avatar). In the Spock slot, we had Data (literally a computer brain) and Troi, an alien with mental powers. And the Vulcans in that show were fairly close to type, although I seem to recall thinking they didn’t quite get them right sometimes.

      Deep Space Nine offered us Dr. Bashir, who was a fairly good McCoy, but no real Spock avatar. Jadzia Dax and Kira Nerys were about as close as they got, but those two (especially Dax) seemed more in line with the “eye candy” tradition begun by Troi. (And Troi and Dax share that I never bought them as the professionals they supposedly were. At least Kira and Beverly Crusher were very good at what they did — total professionals.)

      When we finally arrive at ST: Enterprise, we have T’Pol, who is barely a Vulcan and runs around in a skin-tight uniform (with various unclothed scenes thrown in to boot). I never watched ST: Voyager, but I’ve seen Six of Nine (Teri Ryan), and she’s just more of the same. Adolescent fantasy women; I didn’t go for that even when I was an adolescent!

      More to the point, in ST: Enterprise we learn that Vulcans are lying rat bastards, and that, for me, was a huge black mark for that show.

      I’ve heard the excuse that the Vulcans of the Enterprise era (circa 2150) hadn’t advanced as far as they had by The Original Series (circa 2260). The problem with that is, firstly, we’re talking only 100 years, but secondly, they’d apparently back-slid by The Next Generation era (circa 2360) — another 100 years later. So… from total asshats to the height of nobility and then back down a few notches?

      Captain, that is not logical!

      The truth is the fall follows the chronology of the making of those shows, the chronology of our own society, and that’s the stick in my craw. That we apparently just can’t have nice things on TV anymore. 😦

      (Well, we can, obviously. I cited other examples, but I’m dismayed at the scarcity and low expectations we have of heroes now, and I’m appalled at what is common fare on TV these days.)

      • dianasschwenk

        My brother says asshats! I thought he made that up!

        I loved Captain Janeway on Voyager. She was tough and fair. And although 7 of 9 was a hottie, she was also a good mensch – I liked her!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Nah, “asshat” is a whole meme — you can even buy them, I think (at least I’ve seen images of what look like real ones). Just do a Google Image search for “asshat” — and then send a few to your brother. XD

        It was cool having a female “Captain Kirk” — she was probably the one character on that show I would have liked (it was a little weird seeing Mrs. Columbo as a starship captain, though 🙂 ).

        Oh, 7 of 9? Shows what I know. Teri Ryan came along after I’d given up on the show, so I never saw any episodes with her in them.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yep. We never saw Columbo’s wife on his series, and we never saw him on her series, but yep. Her series didn’t do well, and the producers increasingly tried to distance the show from Columbo. They changed the name from Mrs. Columbo to Kate Columbo to Kate the Detective and finally to Kate Loves a Mystery. They even changed her name to Kate Callahan and mentioned she was divorced. But the show clearly originally meant her as Lt. Columbo’s wife.

        Kate Columbo
        Captain Kathryn Janeway

      • dianasschwenk

        oh yeah! Now I remember. You pointing out it was a separate show kick-started my memory!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        An ill-fated show, unfortunately — only 13 episodes. I remember it well, because my love of detective fiction is second only to my love of science fiction, and Columbo was one of my all-time favorites. So naturally a show about his mysterious wife was appealing!

      • lamont-granquist

        7 of 9 actually got a lot better in later episodes. She was clearly introduced as eyecandy, but some of the best writing in the later episodes is between her and Janeway around 7 of 9 trying to regain her humanity.

        Found this article because I was googling around looking for critical analysis of what happened to Vulcans. I’ve been rewatching every episode, and I’m up to the second season of Enterprise now, and its been bugging me a lot. Tuvac on Voyager always seemed to be bitchy which I constantly found jarring and non-Vulcan. T’Pol and the Enterprise Vulcans are pretty awful. Qunto’s spock seems like such a breath of fresh air, and he’s pretty flawed as a Vulcan as well.

        I find myself trying to psychoanalyze Berman and wondering if he had contempt for often-aspy fans of Star Trek that look up to Vulcans as role models, so he kind of destroyed them…. He clearly didn’t understand why Spock was a role to so many…

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Hello! Welcome to my blog, and thanks for commenting! You’ll find a lot of Star Trek posts here. (Although in the last decade or so I feel like I’ve moved on from Trek to Doctor Who. As much as I’ve loved my Trek, the Doctor kind blows it out of the water in many ways.

        “Tuvac on Voyager always seemed to be bitchy which I constantly found jarring and non-Vulcan.”

        Yeah, Tuvoc was one reason I just couldn’t get into Voyager. And the holo-doctor. And Neelix. I’ve wondered if part of the problem is that Vulcans are hard to write. You have to think on a very different plane, and we live in increasingly visceral times. Maybe more recent authors simply lack the knack?

        As you’re noting, the whole Vulcan thing gets really bad by the time of Enterprise.

        “Qunto’s spock seems like such a breath of fresh air, and he’s pretty flawed as a Vulcan as well.”

        Yeah, Quinto was the only thing I liked even a little bit in the J.J. Abrams films (still haven’t seen the second one, actually — I loathed the first one). I’m not a fan of Mr. Abrams. 😀

        “I find myself trying to psychoanalyze Berman…”

        Given the number of fans who’ve applauded and defended the idea of asshat Vulcans, I suspect Mr. Berman was in that crowd. He just wanted — what he and others perceived as — more interesting Vulcans.

        The real psychoanalysis might be in failing to see highly rational beings as potentially interesting. Or my pet theory, a subconscious desire to tear down anything superior because it reflects on perceived inferiority.

        There’s no question Roddenberry was an idealist. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. (I’m a big fan of Aaron Sorkin, too! 😀 )

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Heh! You can tell this is a subject that gets under my skin! Messin’ with my Star Trek is Not Smart! XD

  • Wyrd Smythe

    RIP Leonard Nimoy! (Damn… I thought Vulcans were supposed to be long lived!)

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