[Ed. note: This post contains material from an interview conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike against the AMPTP went into effect.]
In the closing scene of Thursday’s new episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, a group of Starfleet officers socialize in the mess hall of the USS Enterprise, unpacking the events of their latest adventure. In the course of a relatively uneventful conversation, Ensign Nyota Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) takes a moment to introduce her new friend, Lieutenant Commander James T. Kirk (Paul Wesley), to her shipmate Lieutenant Spock (Ethan Peck). It’s an entirely casual encounter, far from the monumental event that one might imagine from the first meeting of two people with a lifelong friendship ahead of them.
That, however, may be exactly the point. Ever since these new interpretations of Kirk and Spock debuted on Strange New Worlds and Star Trek: Discovery, respectively, they have been permitted to establish themselves as individual characters, complete people rather than components of some prophesied “one true pairing.” By denying Kirk and Spock the expected cosmic meet-cute, viewers can be treated to something far more satisfying: organic growth befitting a real, lasting relationship.
While the Star Trek canon has never previously specified how and when Kirk and Spock came to know each other, the idea of spinning their first encounter as a grand adventure has always been an easy sell. The notion has inspired two licensed novels (Enterprise: The First Adventure by Vonda N. McIntyre in 1986 and Star Trek: Academy: Collision Course by William Shatner with Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens in 2007), but more notably became the centerpiece of the 2009 film reboot, set in its own alternate timeline. Here, the rebellious young Cadet Kirk (Chris Pine) is caught cheating at a Starfleet Academy exam, which puts him at odds with the exam’s designer, Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto).
The two immediately become adversaries, until this alternate Kirk has a chance encounter with the classic Spock (Leonard Nimoy). Kirk is baffled that any version of his rival would be so happy to see him, but Spock Prime assures him that the friendship between them will come to “define [them] both.” With that, Kirk’s attitude toward his own timeline’s Spock changes on a dime, granting their interactions an immediate gravity but robbing us the chance to actually see them become friends. We are told that their friendship is important, and we accept this because almost everyone watching already knows that Kirk and Spock are best friends.
Where 2009’s Star Trek frames Kirk and Spock’s early lives as a mere prelude to their shared destiny, the modern Trek series have never treated them as a matched set. To begin with, Spock was reintroduced as a foil to a totally different character: his foster sister, Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), on Star Trek: Discovery. We first meet Ethan Peck’s Spock in the midst of an emotional crisis, sporting a scruffy beard and a bad attitude. Spock’s story here is about the origins of his rejection of human feeling, here explained as a consequence of his fraught relationship with his human foster sister.
“My onboarding has been much longer,” says Peck, “and I’ve had a lot more time to develop my character than Paul has. I have the luxury of this very established inner world with Spock.”
Discovery’s only allusion to Spock’s future comes in Michael’s final words of advice before she is propelled a millennium into the future, never to see him again: “There is a whole galaxy out there full of people who will reach for you. You have to let them. Find the person who seems farthest from you, and reach for them. Let them guide you.”
At the time, this felt like it foreshadowed Spock’s future friendship with the all-too-human Kirk. However, after a season and a half of Strange New Worlds, it feels as if Spock has already let Michael’s words resonate in his daily life. He has a human mentor in Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), and is currently exploring a romantic relationship with Nurse Christine Chapel (Jess Bush), who’s even more of a rambunctious wild card than Kirk. We’ve now seen Spock wrestle with his emotions, deconstruct the human/Vulcan binary, and try his hand at starship command before sci-fi’s favorite Iowan even enters his life. He’s already a complete and compelling character in his own right, and his role on this series is distinct from the one Leonard Nimoy’s version performed on The Original Series.
Similarly, Strange New Worlds has deliberately kept distance between recurring guest star Jim Kirk and his future better half. Two of Paul Wesley’s four appearances on Strange New Worlds to date have been from parallel timelines in which he, pointedly, has never met Spock. His first appearance, the season 1 finale “A Quality of Mercy,” is designed to contrast an alternate Kirk against Captain Pike, not against Spock (though they do share a scene together). It’s an introduction to Kirk as an agitator, someone whose guiding star is instinct, versus Pike’s empathy. His next appearance explores him as a romantic foil to Lieutenant Commander La’an Noonien Singh (Christina Chong). This is Kirk the everyman, Kirk the charmer, the side of him that flirts and hustles chess. (This Kirk, too, has a brief meeting with an alternate Spock over a video conference, another light tease toward the idea of the two proper versions of them meeting up.)
“Ethan and I didn’t chemistry-read together,” reveals Wesley, “which is kind of surprising. I think [the writers] are just allowing it to grow naturally, and just trusting the process.”
Finally, in this week’s “Lost in Translation,” it’s Uhura, not Spock, with whom the “real” Kirk bonds aboard the Enterprise. It’s through Uhura that we finally get to know what makes Jim tick, as the ever-curious communicator coaxes out the earnest, selfless side of him that will one day make him a great captain. Their small misadventure together leads Uhura to introduce him to Spock in the ship’s mess hall, with no intent behind the gesture aside from basic politeness.
“Paul and I have talked a lot about their first meeting,” says Peck, “and for Spock, Kirk is just another Starfleet officer.”
“I think a lot of times in life, we do things without thinking about them,” says Wesley. “I think a lot of times, our instincts draw us to people when we’re missing something that we think the other person can fulfill, but it’s super subconscious.”
While this quite incidental first meeting between Star Trek’s most famous duo might seem like a missed opportunity, the truth is that the narrative did not need to make Kirk and Spock’s handshake into an important event — we, the fans, were always going to do that. Profundity is baked into the very image, thanks to 55 years of real-life baggage. Instead, the storytellers behind Strange New Worlds have done us a far greater service — making Kirk and Spock interesting enough separately that connecting them feels like a piece of their journey, rather than the beginning or the end.