Friday, February 27, 2015

Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most...vulcan.

So I want to talk about Spock as portrayed by Leonard Nimoy.

Mr. Nimoy died today of end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at the age of 83.  As a response a lot of people are quoting the eulogy Kirk gives Spock in the movie where Spock dies.

It's not a long speech.  It's quite short.  This is the full thing:
We are assembled here today to pay final respects to our honored dead. And yet it should be noted that in the midst of our sorrow, this death takes place in the shadow of new life, the sunrise of a new world; a world that our beloved comrade gave his life to protect and nourish. He did not feel this sacrifice a vain or empty one, and we will not debate his profound wisdom at these proceedings. Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most *voice breaks* human.
Of course in the next movie the new life and new world explode because Kirkson took shortcuts in his science while Spock's death would be undone (spoiler).  So pretty much all of that is invalidated, but that's not the point.

Anyway, people aren't quoting the whole thing, just the last line, often only part of the last line:
of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most ... human.
Lonespark noted that that's somewhat problematic.  (And by somewhat I mean ... more than somewhat.)

Here's why: He's not human.

Spock as portrayed by Nimoy was a complex character and great credit has to be given to Nimoy for crafting that character given that, especially in the beginning, the writing on Star Trek kind of ... sucked.  The layers to Spock (Vulcans are like onions) are due to two things.  First, the writing got a significant upgrade with The Wrath of Khan and while it never managed to sustain that upgrade (looking at you Star Trek IIIStar Trek V, Generations, Insurrection, X, and Nu-Trek not to mention various episodes from every series) it did keep on hitting some pretty good notes.

The second was Nimoy himself.  Even when he didn't have that much to work with he managed to put a lot into the character, and he worked with the writers when he thought the character wasn't being used well enough.  (Though not even he could prevent ... "Spock's Brain"† *horror movie music*)

As I said, Nimoy deserves enormous credit for what he did with his portrayal, I'm not going to do any more hammering of that point because I don't want this to be me pulling out a thesaurus for synonyms of "great" (tons of, huge, inestimable, unfathomable, ginormous, metric fucktons of, colossal, really fucking huge...) to put in front of "credit".

Other people will eulogize Nimoy better than I ever could, I want to talk about the character he played, so here we go:


Spock is half human but he identifies as Vulcan.  There's a tension in him where he has to biologically admit that he's part human, and he loves his mother (his human parent), but he always stays away from identifying as human.

Listen to Spock talk about himself and one could be forgiven for completely missing the fact that he's part human in the first place.  He is the anti-Star Lord.  Instead of being a half-alien who identifies as completely human he's a half-human who identifies as completely alien.

Part of this may be that he was raised on Vulcan where, presumably, other than his mother he didn't have many humans to emulate, but a lot of it has to be chalked up to personal choice.  Spock chooses to be a Vulcan.

[Added: Well, he chooses to identify himself as a Vulcan and I'll touch on the difference between the two things further down before retreating from the matter because I don't want to go down the rabbit hole of interpreting intentions behind expression of identity so much as point out the importance of respecting said expression.]

He could wear a headband that covered his ears and correct anyone who has the nerve to act like he isn't human, but he doesn't.  He is, by choice, a Vulcan first, foremost, and almost exclusively.

He is not someone who struggles with which part of his heritage to embrace, he's made his choice and he identifies as a Vulcan, not a Vulcan-Human or a Human-Vulcan.  The noun isn't hyphenated or split, it isn't watered down with the adjective "half".

In the original series†† Spock is on an almost exclusively human starship where even his closest friends make racist anti-Vulcan jokes at his expense.  In this environment he has every reason to run away from his non-human heritage but he does the opposite.  He embraces it.

Nimoy's portrayal gives you room to argue that he clings to being a Vulcan because other people think he should be ashamed of it, or that he owns the identity in spite of that, or even (and this is where I come down) a bit of both, but what it makes very, very clear is that --whether you view it as a response to or defiance of prejudice, whether you view it negatively or positively, whether you view it as weakness or strength (clinging and defiance are intentionally charged words)-- his identity is that he is a VULCAN.

Spock is half Vulcan half human by birth.  Spock is Vulcan by choice.

Literally the child of two worlds, he has chosen one of those worlds as the one he identifies with.

The movie that ends with Spock's soul being called the most human Kirk has ever encountered begins with this exchange (spoken in the Vulcan language):
Saavik: He's never what I expect, sir.
Spock: What surprises you, Lieutenant?
Saavik: He's so - human.
Spock: Nobody's perfect, Saavik.
Humans aren't the only ones who can be racist.  But the point here is not that Saavik and Spock are remarking on the strangeness of humans the way everyone else constantly remarks on the strangeness of Vulcans when discussing Spock.

The point is also not that Spock employs human expressions (something that will still be true eighty years later when he meets Data.)

The point is that Saavik comments on Kirk being so very human and Spock chalks it up to universal imperfection.  Being human is a flaw.

Some of the last words he says before sacrificing himself to save everyone still alive on the ship:
As you are so fond of observing, doctor, I am not human.
It takes dying, being resurrected, going through time, mixing brains with a cetacean, going through time again, and saving the earth just to get him to say a three word phrase acknowledging his humanity ("I feel fine") to his quite-human mother and even then he does it through the intermediary of his Vulcan father.  This in spite of the fact that rejecting his humanity carries with it connotations of rejecting his mother, whom he happens to love.

Spock is very much not on board with being human.  Don't get me wrong, he has no problem with it as a biological fact, but as an identity he's just not there.  He is, and always will be, a Vulcan.

Here's why this is important: this sort of thing doesn't just apply to people from other planets.  There are a lot of identities where this very sort of dynamic is at play.

Race, nationality, religion, all sorts of ethnicity, and so forth are identities embraced, ignored, or rejected by an individual.

Race is the one that comes to mind most quickly, and we just have to imagine someone saying that Obama possessed the most Caucasian soul they'd ever met to see where Kirk's line is a problem, but other things are just as important.

Race, in fact, only matters because in relatively recent times (some centuries, little more) we have imposed the idea of race so strongly upon ourselves and others as to turn race (a made up concept) into its own form of ethnicity.

With many things there are no visible markers.

Consider nationality.  If someone were born to an American father and a Russian mother, grew up in Russia, referred to zirself as Russian, became a national hero in Russia, became the face of Russia for those outside of Russia, and so forth, it would probably be somewhat less than ideal to eulogize them by saying they had the most American soul you'd ever encountered.

Obviously Kirk meant well and Spock would have understood that, but Kirk happens to be a racist (not that he usually notices this fact) and what he said was both appropriation (he was totally on team US) and erases Spock's chosen and maintained identity as a Vulcan.

Kirk happens to be under a great deal of emotional distress at the time and he can probably be given a pass.  Perhaps dying in winter in a place where the ground is too cold for grave digging is a good idea just so that your racist best friend will have time to to emotionally settle and thus deliver a eulogy that doesn't inadvertently trample on your identity.


Identity is multifaceted and continuous rather than discrete, so it's hard to say anything all encompassing about it.  This seriously fucks people up when they don't realize how varied it is and try to explain things to people who are not like them.

The examples that come most to mind are ones that involve sexuality and gender identity.

Some people pull out the line, "When did you choose to be straight?" only to be flabbergasted that the other person has an answer.  Just because something isn't a choice for you doesn't mean it isn't a choice for everyone.

People attempting to explain what it's like to be a trans man or woman (generally not the other types of trans people) often tell cis people to imagine their body was one of the opposite sex.  Which leads to them sometimes being floored when a cis person says in all sincerity that that wouldn't bother them in the least (depending on the exact scenario put forward there might be other things that would be disturbing.)  They've assumed that because this part of identity is important to them it's important to everybody.  In reality it seems that how much it matters varies and some people don't care in the least and are thus content to go with whatever their body seems to indicate.

I'm not sure precisely why those were the examples that came to mind, but they were.

Being Vulcan is important to Spock.  It's not just the shape of his ears, the location of his heart, and the color of his blood.  It's his culture, it's his heroes, it's his philosophy.  It's his him.

When discussing people it is important to remember that they have a say in who they are.  They aren't always the final word ("I'm not a crook," said Richard Nixon) but they've got a definite say in the matter.

Spock was a Vulcan.  He may have seen this as a choice, he may not have, but he was very much a Vulcan in terms of his identity.  Calling him the most human soul misses that fact and erases an important part of who he was.

This is not to say that having a human mother had no effect upon him.  I don't think he'd deny his human heritage, and while he has no regrets about pursuing being a Vulcan to the exclusion of being human he's still the kind of person who says, "No regrets," which is not a Vulcan expression.  (Thank you, Data, for picking up on that because otherwise we'd probably have assumed that Vulcans did have such an expression and it was just translated to the equivalent human expression.)

Humanity has left an imprint on him, to be sure, but at the end of the day if you're looking for a species to call him, he's a Vulcan.

For all of the emotional weight that Kirk's words have, they were extremely poorly chosen.

Not that I think Spock would object; as he says, "Nobody's perfect."  He's made peace with the fact that his closest friend happens to be a racist against his species.  As he's managed to do that, I think he'd take the words as intended, not as spoken.

Still, the words were bad.


The original crew of the Enterprise makes its exit thus:
Commander Uhura: Captain, I have orders from Starfleet Command. We're to put back to Spacedock immediately ... to be decommissioned.
Captain Spock: If I were human I believe my response would be, "Go to Hell." If I were human.
Commander Chekov: Course heading, Captain?
Captain Kirk: Second star to the right and straight on till morning.*
"If I were human."  Good use of the subjunctive there, Spock.

It's a brilliant bit of Spock's sense of humor because he's essentially doing, "I'm not saying, 'Go to Hell,' but: go to Hell," except flipping it inside out, but it's also clearly saying that he's not human.

It's using his claim of not being human to pull apophasis, basically, "Since I'm not human I won't say, 'Go to Hell.'" *pause as everyone looks at him* "I'm not saying it because I'm not human."

My point here is simply this: Spock ends with the same tune he's always played in the innumerable variations as delivered by the incomparable Leonard Nimoy: he's not human.  It's not really a question of biology, he's got as much claim to humanity as he has to Vulcanity, it's a question of identity.

Who he is (not what he is, though that too) is a Vulcan.


† Skipping straight to the dagger because having an asterisk footnote next to using asterisks for stage direction would be confusing.  Formatting notes aside, "Spock's Brain" is probably the "The Great Vegetable Rebellion" of The Original Series.

I will always remember hearing the story of "The Great Vegetable Rebellion"'s script being turned over by the writer.  He couldn't bring himself to hand the script to his boss.  Boss asks why he's standing there holding the script and not giving it.  The writer says because it's terrible.  Boss asks why he wrote it.  Writer responds that it's the only thing in his head.  Writer finally relinquishes script.  Thus there is a Lost In Space episode where the antagonist is a man in a carrot suit.

"Spock's Brain", the first episode to air after NBC grudgingly revived Star Trek (but with a slashed budget and in a bad time slot), tells the story of the Enterprise crew scrambling after Spock's brain is stolen.  Yeah, you heard me, the aliens of the week stole his brain.  Left the rest of his body intact and alive, but they took his fucking brain, man.

It was, if anything, worse than it sounds.  (And not just because of the aliens-of-the-week's fucked up gender roles.)

†† Not capitalized here because I'm emphasizing the originalness, not the brand-name-like tag.  The original series is, happily, called The Original Series, but it didn't have to be.  Surf II (the end of the trilogy) was not the second "Surf" movie and all sorts of things claim to be the beginning of this or that saga when they're made well after the fact.

My point in lowercasing it is to bring home the fact that this means "in the beginning" but not just in the beginning since the beginning in question lasted for three seasons.  In the beginning and onward.  My point in footnoting it is to bring that fact not just home but into the same room

* It's a sad and strange affair that Chris Pine as James T. Kirk would never be able to deliver this line properly but Chris Pine as Jack Frost would be able to sell the line so well it'd be sold out two months before an official announcement was made that it was going to go on sale.


  1. Thank you. You've expressed this so much better than I could have. (I hadn't gotten much farther than "*stares at Kirk quote* ...what an asshole", though I was confident there was more to be gotten.)

  2. Well put.

    People have made jokes about me being "off-white" before. And while, unlike Spock, I do feel a real connection to white culture, my favorite musician isn't Weird Al Yankovic, it's Tracy Chapman, and however much I admire Jack Webb's Dragnet and Joe Friday, I will always be scared if I have to deal with the police.

  3. It's the best compliment Kirk can think of.

    He ain't too bright, sometimes.

  4. Here is an interesting video where Nimoy talks about the LLAP gesture and talks about Spock as a Vulcan. I think people do often realize they're blessing each other...

  5. ...even if they don't know the details of the story.

    A lot of magical things survive and recur like that.

  6. Yeah, I was offended by that line when I first saw that movie.