Star Trek Discovery season 2, boldly going on the CBS All Access streaming service, is a success. After cramming a Klingon war, a weirdo mushroom-based propulsion system and an encounter with the Mirror Universe into one season 1 arc, the successor’s slower pace is welcome, and Anson Mount’s Captain Pike is already a fan favorite.
But even with the warp core purring, Discovery isn’t getting complacent. The second season’s seventh episode, “Light and Shadows,” takes its biggest swing yet by recasting one of the principal pillars of nerd culture — again.
[Ed. note: this article contains spoilers through the seventh episode of Discovery]
This week we finally meet the second Spock of the decade, and the first as a television regular since the original series. And Discovery is ready to play with expectations; as revealed in “Lights and Shadows,” Starfleet’s most famous science officer is dyslexic.
Unlike with the 2009 J.J. Abrams-led “reboot” (or, eleventh film in the series, if you want to get technical, and by Kahless’ shroud I sure do), Leonard Nimoy is not here to offer his benediction to actor Ethan Peck. Instead this new Spock is traversing the galaxy on his own, after apparently killing a doctor during a sanitarium breakout (!?) and pursuing red flashes throughout the galaxy he believes to be a “Red Angel” he’s had visions of since he was a child (!?!?).
The latest episode reveals that Spock evaded the U.S.S. Discovery and Section 31 and found his way to Amanda on Vulcan. She put him in a sacred crypt containing Katra Stones that shield it from even Sarek’s telepathic links. For days he’s been roiling in emotion, muttering and mumbling and scratching numbers (and a rendering of the Red Angel) on the wall. Not quite the Spock we’re used to!
Or is it?
I may occasionally (and jokingly) refer to Leonard Nimoy as “Real Spock,” but there have been more Spocks along the route than we may realize. And, no, I don’t mean an “outsider” character unable to handle human interaction that appeals to the typical Trekkie’s crypto-Asperger’s inclinations in every series (TNG – Data, DS9 – Odo, Voyager – Seven of Nine, Enterprise – T’Pol, Discovery – Saru). I mean that Spock evolved.
Let’s look at the timeline.
In “The Cage,” the Trek pilot shot in late 1964, Gene Roddenberry cast Leonard Nimoy (with whom he has worked on The Lieutenant) as a Mephistophelean alien. He was not the second-in-command; that was Roddenberry’s future wife, Majel Barrett, who would later play Nurse Chapel, and then Lwaxana Troi. Instead, Spock was the Science Officer, and, once Captain Pike was endangered, was at the forefront of the away mission to rescue him.
The differences are major: Calm, dispassionate Mr. Spock has the volume turned to eleven from the very first scene. (When the Talosians yank the female crewmembers from the transporter pads, he famously yelps “The Women!!!”) He’s also positively giddy at the odd plantlife on Talos IV. He doesn’t raise an eyebrow. He giggles.
Though NBC rejected “The Cage,” the material remains canon. Roddenberry repurposed scenes for the flashback scenes in The Original Series’ first season two-parter “The Menagerie.” All the characters from “The Cage” were scrapped saved Spock. Even though he wasn’t fully developed, the pointy-eared guy showed promise.
The second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” brought us Kirk and the bright red ring on the Enterprise’s bridge, but not all of the show’s pieces snapped into place yet. Spock wore tons of makeup, his eyebrows frighteningly steep, and a gold tunic with a thick collar. He’s also a bit of a dunce. When Kirk says that Spock’s style of playing chess can be irritating, this alleged genius on a mostly-Earthling vessel looks puzzled, takes a beat, asks “Irritating?” then brightens with an “ah, yes, one of your Earth emotions.”
Spock’s true nature quickly emerged. In the next episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver,” featured a scene in which everyone on the bridge is rightly freaked out by a giant, powerful Rubik’s Cube in space. Nimoy had his “aha!” moment on set when he delivered his line in a peculiar way. With a little bit of humor and perhaps a whiff of braggadocio, he meets this curiosity as a scientist, raises an eyebrow and simply says “Fascinating.”
From then on, Spock, who tamped down all emotion, ironically became the heart of the show. Nimoy was television’s least likely sex symbol, and his “fan mail” (still a metric for success in those days) dwarfed that of the show’s leader, William Shatner. The fame caused consternation until Roddenberry was somehow able to convince his leading man that the pair worked in tandem, and without Kirk there could be no Spock, and that however high the Vulcan’s star rose, he’d still be giving him orders.
Spock, the next generation
Star Trek was famously cancelled after three seasons, but success in syndication brought it back, albeit briefly, in animated form. Much of is silly, but a few episodes are legit. The episode “Yesteryear,” written by TOS staffer D.C. Fontana, is widely considered a high point, and was the first time someone besides Nimoy got to play the role of Spock.
Young Billy Simpson voiced a child version of Spock, who thanks to time travel, we see preparing for his kahs-wan ritual. The line readings are ... atrocious, as if he’s hearing the words milliseconds before he’s saying them. There are awkward gaps and the cadence with which he repeats the phrase “yes, father,” is hilarious. It’s a solid episode, but very hard not to goof on this kid. Fun fact: Simpson did a bit more acting as a tyke, then as an adult segued into becoming “Whimsical Will,” part of radio weirdo Doctor Demento’s extended circle.
Major aspects of the franchise were upended for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The entire aesthetic of the film is very 1970s, very “new age.” As such, Spock’s demeanor is serious and sparse. It’s a style that rubbed a lot of people as being quite dull. Things got back to normal in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but by this point Nimoy was through. He only agreed to do the movie if he would get killed off.
And yet … he was convinced to return. Primarily as director. Nimoy stayed behind the camera for almost all of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, but there is plenty of Spock on screen. As the Genesis planet kickstarts the life cycle of Spock’s katra-free body (just work with me here) we check in with speechless Spock at age nine, 13, 17 and 25.
Carl Steven, who played the nine-year-old version of Spock, is primarily tasked with looking timid. Weirdly enough, Steven would later play another younger version of a Leonard Nimoy character in the 1991 television movie Never Forget. (He was also in Teen Wolf, but died in 2011 at age 36.)
Vadia Potenza plays the 13-year-old quasi-Spock who, I must confess, I never really noticed wasn’t Carl Steven until now. As 17-year-old Spock, Stephen Manley is the angry, freaked-out Vulcan in physical discomfort. Even as a little kid I somehow intuited that the mindless, rapidly aging Spock was undergoing raging hormonal agony. Spock needed to vent the airlock! Manley continues to work, and does so regularly, in movies with names like Rogue Warrior: Robot Fighter.
Joe W. Davis rounds out the group, and his Spock had an even more shattered psychology. They needed to get the Spock body off the Genesis Planet and back to Vulcan where a High Priestess could initiate the Fal-Tor-Pan and bring it together with Spock’s Katra that was inserted into Bones McCoy. Obviously.
The last scene of Star Trek III shows Spock dazed — but everyone gets a little spaced-out after surgery — so in Star Trek IV, Nimoy plays his character as half-“himself” and half a confused fool. It’s Starfleet by way of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. “You really have gone where no man has gone before!” Bones sighs. It is fantastic.
Spock is completely back to normal by V and VI, and seems the same but older when he appears opposite Captain Picard (and Data!) in the episode “Unification, Part II” on TNG. Same goes for the Nimoy scenes in the J.J. Abrams 2009 Star Trek. But what about his younger counterpart?
Star Trek beyond ... the original cast
When casting was announced, Zachary Quinto, who was known for the TV series Heroes seemed like the biggest coup. I mean, he really looked like Spock. Chris Pine was a big question mark and, Karl Urban was the dude from Xena and Simon Pegg was definitely funny, but could he be Scotty? With some distance now, if I had to rank the casting of the “Kelvin Timeline” crew, I’d probably put Quinto down near the bottom.
His version of Spock is pouty. Until Star Trek Beyond, he never quite nails the humor. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but something about Quinto leads me to feel that he thinks he’s just a tiny bit “above” the role. The fact that he and Nimoy became genuine friends toward the end of the elder Spock’s life really carried a great deal of Altair water with me, and probably with other fans, too.
(Oh, there was another kid version of Spock in the 2009 film, Jacob Kogan, and he was great. Plus, in the deleted scenes, there’s a shot of an infant Spock, too – a little baby with pointy ears!)
Before getting to Ethan Peck’s big moment, Star Trek Discovery season 2, introduces us to a grumpier kid Spock in the form of actor Liam Hughes. (This guy also played a young Barry Allen on The Flash, so let’s hope he’s a bonafide nerd in life.) Whereas Kogan’s version was sympathetic (as was the Animated Series’), Hughes’ Spock is something of a jerk when we see him earlier in the season, then a bit sadder in episode 7’s flashback with Michael Burnham.
Peck’s big debut (other than his voice, which is deeper than Quinto’s) is something of a bait and switch. He’s definitely there and gets his close-up, but he’s rambling, repeating the First Doctrines of Logic, and freaking out in a Surak-enhanced catatonia. But even without Peck getting into it with Sonequa Martin-Green with scene work there are some surprises with Spock 3.0.
Canon purists will be surprised to learn that Spock returned to Talos IV (or at least appears to be heading there after episode 7) after “The Cage” but before “The Menagerie.” (It also appears that the Burnham-Spock team-up in the first Discovery tie-in novel Desperate Hours has officially been memory holed, too.) But the bulk of fandom will be most interested to learn that the most famous Science Officer in Starfleet is actually dyslexic. On Vulcan the rare condition is called l’tak terai, and the implication is that he inherited the trait from his human side.
This is unexpected, but in line with Discovery’s stated goal of being the most inclusive iteration of Star Trek yet. There have been some examples of neurodiversity in the franchise — Lt. Barclay, while not officially diagnosed, could likely be considered — but Spock’s new layer is one clear enough to start a dialogue about highly functioning people with learning disabilities. (Though using it as a gag to discover a code (“the numbers are backwards!”) is another story.)
A preview for next week’s Star Trek: Discovery teases even more Spock, and even more twisting of Trek canon. If you think you know everything there is to know about this Vulcan, consider the past, present, and future: the conclusion that there’s a “Real Spock” is nothing short of ... highly illogical.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer and member of the New York Film Critics Circle. His work can be read in The Guardian, New York Daily News, Vanity Fair, Thrillist and elsewhere.