Star Trek Club: Vulcans
March 13, 2019 12:04 AM - Subscribe

So what do we think about depictions of Vulcans and how they have changed across the franchise, ranging from Mark Lenard's Sarek to James Frain's Sarek?

This is in response to something mwhybark was interested in talking about: how perception of the Vulcans changed across the franchise from TOS (where they are repressed vegetarian pacifists) to ENT, where they're set up as stuffy parental surrogates for Earth to rebel against, and how these various interpretations are being used or misused in DSC.
posted by mordax (10 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Thanks for kicking this off. I will swing by later today with a link or somethin citing my prior remark and try to restate the point with greater elgance or clarity or something.

mordax and I have also occasionally run into a need for a cross-franchise discussion on other aspects of Trek, such as the awkward and mostly-unexamined use of the term "race" on the various shows, the way that Klingon depictions change over time to serve perceived entertainment needs of an American audience, and so forth. This seems like a good place to see how that conversation might start.
posted by mwhybark at 5:40 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]


This is one of those rare areas where I think ENT did a pretty good job. A pretty good job, mind you, not a great job. Reimagining the Vulcan "character" didn't feel like a retcon so much as it felt like a perspective shift. I think they might've gone a bit too far in the direction of Vulcans just being total dicks... and obviously the catsuits and sexy Vulcan massages were fuckin stupid (thanks for that, Trekbros) but overall I appreciated the effort.

Spock remains one of my favorite characters in the franchise, as does Sarek, but a respectable bronze metal goes to Solok. That guy was a *perfect* specimen of asshole.
posted by duffell at 6:40 AM on March 13 [3 favorites]


That's interesting, duffell, and I'm glad to hear a different point of view on the matter. "Trekbros" is fine shorthand for certain shifts in the franchise's material under the leadership of Berman and Braga. It sort of umbrellas the catsuit stuff, the Vegas stuff, the development of the Temporal War narrative, the introduction of Section 31 in DS9, the shift toward casting Vulcans as the antagonist in ENT and so forth.

so: some promised reiteration.

Here and here I said, in the context of a pull and cite conversation with a prior post (by mordax, remarking how he was displeased by ENT's treatment of Vulcans, something I heartily share).

"Unfortunately DSC has explicitly reiterated many of the foolish choices around the villanizing of Vulcans in ENT this season. I mean, yes, TOS explicitly shows Starfleet personnel interacting with Spock expressing bias against him. But fuxake, the objective of this in TOS was to demonstrate the foolishness and uselessness of these attitudes. In ENT, the intent appears to be to validate them."
posted by mwhybark at 4:31 PM on March 13 [3 favorites]


Apologies, I pondered for a moment and took an hour's nap, thereby consuming my remaining posting and composition time for the day.
posted by mwhybark at 10:41 PM on March 13


Apologies, I pondered for a moment and took an hour's nap, thereby consuming my remaining posting and composition time for the day.

It's cool. We've been at this for years, like you said. Come back later. And good luck in the new gig. :)

So I've been noodling on this a bit since you brought it up, and have a few thoughts:

* Vulcans started out as pretty insular.

In TOS, Vulcans seem to be doing their own thing a lot of the time. Spock's presence in Starfleet is specifically a point of contention with his family and his people at large: it's a rejection of Vulcan. We also know from McCoy that at least some of this is humans being bags of dicks to them.

* TNG shows better Vulcan integration.

This is just march-of-time stuff, I feel, but there are a lot more Vulcans in Starfleet by the TNG-era, and that made sense to me.

* DS9 turned my view of Vulcans sideways.

Watching Solok (good callback, duffell - he was specifically on my mind as well) and Senator Vreenak of Romulus made me realize that Surak was wrong: Romulans are non-Surakian Vulcans, and while they live in a totalitarian state, they haven't all died off. In point of fact, they're a power to rival the entire Federation. So the Vulcan insistence on self-denial is rooted in some alarmist and incorrect ideas. Also, it doesn't do much to prevent Vulcans from being assholes.

This totally blew my mind. Happened during a rewatch, too.

Unfortunately, this establishes the notion that Vulcans can not only be antagonistic, (something true since The Undiscovered Country), but that they might actually enjoy it in their own way. While I think this was fine in DS9 and perfectly consistent with TOS (Sarek sure could be a jerk), I think it required a fairly deft hand to navigate well.

* VOY's inconsistency about Vulcans muddied the waters and displayed a lack of concern for detail.

VOY never really knew what it wanted to say about Vulcans. Does experiencing emotions cause brain damage to Vulcans? Are Vulcans really still successfully hiding medical data about the pon farr from Starfleet Medical? What is even going on here?

It became clear in the Trekbro era, (awesome term, using that from now on), that the new powers that be didn't really care about depicting Vulcans in a consistent or sympathetic way.

Based on all that:

* ENT's treatment of Vulcans was probably inevitable.

Given that we know Vulcans had a dim view of human endeavors in the TOS-era, superior technology and physical abilities, and had been in space for ages longer than humans, friction between humans and Vulcans is actually a very sensible plot beat in ENT, in principle. If I were writing a Trek prequel, I would take some version of this idea for granted.

Where this becomes a bad thing is authorial intent: as we saw in VOY, Trekbros don't love Vulcans.

Add to that the fact that ENT is the most conservative and reactionary Trek ever made, and the xenophobia is generally a sincerely held belief by the creators. As a result, the differences between the two races paint Vulcans in a genuinely bad light instead of allowing this to be the result of culture clash and a very shaky new alliance. The fault has to be with The Other.

Another problem that I feel goes on here is that ENT has a weird view of the past, where people in historical eras (even fictional future ones) can't be as mature or sophisticated as 'modern' people, and so Earth is populated by what amount to rebellious teenagers. Vulcans become a weird parental stand-in as a result.

The whole thing is just... bizarre.

* DSC has made some weird fucking choices here.

So on the one hand, I want Michael Burnham on my screen. I love having a no-nonsense black woman as the protagonist of a Star Trek. However, making her a part of Spock's actual family came across as pretty fanfic-y from the jump, and it has definitely doubled down on 'Vulcans as parental surrogates' from ENT because it is literally true about the most important character in DSC-era Trek. This shoehorns Sarek into a number of plot beats that do feel uncomfortably close to ENT's view: he's obliged to be flawed about stuff in that dramatic Hollywood parent way (most recently vexing in his willingness to trust Section 31 despite that making less than zero sense).

I personally Do Not Like This.

Unrelatedly, I think, DSC wants a bunch of political intrigue and has pulled Vulcans into it because they're fair game for that now, and woohoo, let's have more Vulcans.

I'm still thinking about this, but I think that's how the progression went: DSC was probably always going to have at least one S31 aligned Vulcan since Valeris, but ENT's entire run and Burnham's backstory have added a whole layer of yuck to the whole thing.
posted by mordax at 9:45 AM on March 14 [3 favorites]


Wow, that is kickass. I need to reread this a couple of times I think but damn, that is good stuff! I think I want to see at least one direct quote statement about xenophobia being a "sincerely held belief" from those guys but yeah, it sure seems to be encoded into the material.

I'm not sure how much I can convey the delight I took in reading this analysis. I love criticism pretty much as much as I enjoy narrative entertainment and this was just wonderful.
posted by mwhybark at 9:08 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]


Wow, that is kickass.

*tips hat*
Thanks. :)

Hope other people have stuff to say. I really am curious how people are feeling about these sorts of franchise-wide issues. (I hope we end up doing a series of these kinds of discussions as themes come up.)

I think I want to see at least one direct quote statement about xenophobia being a "sincerely held belief" from those guys but yeah, it sure seems to be encoded into the material.

I admit I'm making a jump there, but offhand:

- They hired Jamake Highwater for VOY, which I'm going to put in the category of 'low grade hate crime.'

- Brannon Braga's comments about LGBT characters have been deplorable. I admit this isn't the same as racism, but bigots gonna bigot. Per an article at Airlock Alpha:
After “joking” that the show did have a gay character, Cmdr. Riker from TNG, Braga did try to get serious. “It’s a good question,” he said at the time. “To introduce a character and to call attention to it? There has to be a reason [for that character] to be [in the series] without seeming obvious or to be catering to people.”

Apparently, Braga always found reasons to include heterosexual characters without catering to people, but never found a reason to include a gay one.
In my experience, that sort of attitude is never reserved for just one kind of minority. He might've been too canny to get talking about nonwhites that way on the record, but... *shrugs* I will refer back to Jamake Highwater and the subsequent portrayal of Native Americans embraced by VOY.

- If a white writer uses the 'foreigners smell bad' trope, I'm confident in my conclusion. As you know, Bob, that's a serious racist dogwhistle. (Trekbro use of this idea dates back at least as far as VOY, during the whole 'Miral Paris is the Klingon Messiah' plotline, and I've documented it in ENT as we go as well. The idea seems to be dropped by S2, but it was a recurring theme for a whole season.)

So I guess they've retained a little plausible deniability and all, but - as I went on and on about in that last thread - I can pretty much only deal with the text in front of me, and the Trekbro era is definitely the most racist Trek to date.
posted by mordax at 9:51 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]


FF has never felt more like Usenet than it does right now ^_^

First off, and not to be too arcane, but: just so I'm clear, does "Trekbro era" = VOY/ENT = Braga in charge? Or does it also fold in the JJ movies?

Romulans are non-Surakian Vulcans, and while they live in a totalitarian state, they haven't all died off. In point of fact, they're a power to rival the entire Federation. So the Vulcan insistence on self-denial is rooted in some alarmist and incorrect ideas. Also, it doesn't do much to prevent Vulcans from being assholes.

What's funny about this (canonically correct AFAICT) conclusion is that it's not something the franchise seems to have set out deliberately to establish. It's like it retconned itself, most directly in that one multi-part episode on Vulcan in one of ENT's later seasons IIRC.

Of course, as a counterpoint, Romulans are also portrayed pretty consistently as being much bigger assholes than any Vulcan, and as having a society that's not just totalitarian but also deeply sick to its core (but I repeat myself). So, a Vulcan sociologist could certainly argue that "Ya see, Surak was right" while gesturing to the great galactic terror that is the Romulan Star Empire.

Can I just take an aside here and mention how fascinated and guardedly excited I am by the news that the Picard show will heavily involve Romulans?

On that topic: I'm rewatching TNG right now as a balm against ENT and to satiate my impatience between DISCOs, and we just got to the excellent episode "The Defector." It's reminding me that, as much as TNG dealt with Romulans, they simultaneously seemed downright gunshy about Vulcans, at least until the last couple seasons. I assume the showrunners wanted to avoid rehashing Spock, the most popular alien of the franchise at that time. And DS9 likewise had maybe two? significant Vulcan characters, and none that recurred!

Which is another way to say, I personally would be cautious about overgeneralizing the franchise's view of Vulcans from TNG or DS9, despite them being such foundational texts for us.

VOY's inconsistency about Vulcans muddied the waters and displayed a lack of concern for detail.

Very true, despite Tim Russ doing so very well at countering those problems. Which means we have to add VOY to the "hesitate before overgeneralizing" list IMO.

friction between humans and Vulcans is actually a very sensible plot beat in ENT, in principle. If I were writing a Trek prequel, I would take some version of this idea for granted.

Very much agreed here. In fact, I recall the friction in the pilot being one of the things I found promising about ENT when it aired.

Another problem that I feel goes on here is that ENT has a weird view of the past, where people in historical eras (even fictional future ones) can't be as mature or sophisticated as 'modern' people, and so Earth is populated by what amount to rebellious teenagers. Vulcans become a weird parental stand-in as a result.

Which is of a piece with the American religion of progress and the corollary belief that the past must always be worse and more backward than the future. One could argue (and maybe we have, in another thread?) that this is a hangup for the franchise overall, though it manifests perhaps more strikingly with ENT's Vulcans than elsewhere.

So, if my feelings are justifiable, we're left basically constructing the franchise's view of Vulcans from:
- ENT overwhelmingly
- TOS for basic foundations
- key moments of TNG, i.e. the one where Picard and Spock go to Romulus, the one with the ancient Vulcan psionic weapon
- approx. one scene each from TMP and TVH
- very little at all from DS9 or VOY
- DISCO-thus-far a teeny bit, though it's proved fairly slavish in following depictions that came before (e.g.: the Vulcan academy dude behaving xenophobically fits with lots of other moments where Vulcans are all concerned with maintaining their cultural integrity, which is itself possibly a reflection of the writers' xenophobia in that they assume it of a largely homogeneous alien society).

…Um, what about TAS? :) Wasn't there a pretty major Vulcan-related episode or two there?

I think I want to see at least one direct quote statement about xenophobia being a "sincerely held belief" from those guys

I feel like mordax is not overstating this, or at least not by much. There's so much textual evidence for it in VOY and ENT, not even including Highwater etc. I mean, it's not as though Roddenberryesque IDIC-ish pluralism would have been that hard to fake. More often than not, it seems like they didn't try—that, if it was even in the text at all, it was more just handwaved in the general direction of. Not the same thing as trying to make it the moral center of your storyline. If that makes sense.

Now, that said, it is possible that the milieu in which they were working was much less sensitive to xenophobia of the ENT-ish type than ours is now, such that their lapses were truly more difficult for they themselves to notice, but (A) that doesn't let them off the hook in a "just blame the system" sense because of IDIC being a real, stated thing in their franchise and (B) just hire some damn women and POCs in your writers' room ferchrissakes, it's the 21st century.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 5:32 AM on March 15 [2 favorites]


FF has never felt more like Usenet than it does right now ^_^

Right? Haha.

First off, and not to be too arcane, but: just so I'm clear, does "Trekbro era" = VOY/ENT = Braga in charge? Or does it also fold in the JJ movies?

I just mean B&B, so I may actually have to preface that or be more specific after all. (IMO, JJTrek isn't a 'real' part of the franchise, and there's some support from on high for the position since it occupies an alternate timeline even within canon.)

Which is another way to say, I personally would be cautious about overgeneralizing the franchise's view of Vulcans from TNG or DS9, despite them being such foundational texts for us.

Hm. I need to mull that over, but that's a fair point.

…Um, what about TAS? :) Wasn't there a pretty major Vulcan-related episode or two there?

I remember so, so little of TAS, but IIRC, this is correct, yeah. Vulcan's inhospitable conditions (as seen in ENT, and Burnham's childhood brush with death) are based on the cartoon, I believe.

(B) just hire some damn women and POCs in your writers' room ferchrissakes, it's the 21st century.

If nothing else, having more on the crew might've helped, as actor input has factored in other shows. I remember Avery Brooks having some impact on racism on DS9, and Nana Visitor is the reason Kira/Dukat never happened (I still owe her one on that). Indeed, we know it worked on ENT too because Scott Bakula is the reason Novakovich didn't die in Strange New World.

Just having more non-white voices on the cast might have made a difference.
posted by mordax at 5:16 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


FF has never felt more like Usenet than it does right now ^_^

I keep wanting to reference Jammer's Reviews! I totally remember anxiously awaiting his next take after a TNG ep dropped.

(I have told this story on the Blue before, I think, but in period of TNG's greatest reach at broadcast, like, say, s05 or so, a vintage 1960s tavern on Capitol Hill in Seattle, The Canterbury, began tuning into the early first showing of TNG, like at 7p on a Saturday, on a single 24" color TV located literally on top of the eight-person capacity bar. The Canterbury has exposed beams, a boar's head above a fireplace, hippy murals of medieval characters nicked from Gilbert Shelton, and a suit of armor. After only a month, maybe, literally hundreds of long-haired grunge kids made the Canterbury into the default pre-func stop on Saturdays. The place was waaaay too crowded to really watch the show after the crowd started showing up, but before it got packed out, it was AWESOME, because we were watching sometimes-great Trek together. Jammer was posting at this time and as far as I recall it was the first time that I was exposed to this particular style of fan discourse. His reviews are idiosyncratic and when he started writing I don't think he had ever really been exposed to any literary criticism, although I might be wrong, and reading him working his way toward a more holographic understanding of the value and meaning of criticism is one of my actual lodestar reasons that TNG is my favorite Trek.

ECC is this weekend and I look exactly like Gandalf and have a pro-grade cosplay rig I made a couple years ago and I can't go, because I have to secure our retirement healthcare benefits via a new gig. It's cool, I am still the wizard. I will buy you a beer at the Canterbury any time you roll through and we can make it work, MeTrek.

IDIC, LLAP, and like that there.)

B&B

Broman & Broga
posted by mwhybark at 9:02 PM on March 15 [2 favorites]


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