This is not a review of the new Star Trek, which I like very much (especially because of Karl Urban’s brilliant take on Leonard “Bones” McCoy). As we all know, this reboot of Star Trek is predicated on creating an alternate, future timeline for some of the most beloved science fiction characters of our time. All that is well and good, especially if you’re a fan and want to revisit the world of classic Trek.
One element of classic Trek, both in the series and the movies starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, as well as in the fan mythology about Kirk and Spock, is the intense and emotional friendship between the two men. In the world of popular culture, we would be hard pressed to find a friendship between men as strong and emotional as the friendship between Kirk and Spock. The original Star Trek movies were particularly invested in mining this “bromance”, especially when Spock dies in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and in Star Trek III and Star Trek IV, which are about recovering Spock and reigniting his connection with Kirk. Fan fiction has been obsessing over this friendship since the 1970’s, when stories about Kirk and Spock romancing, seducing and sexing each other became popular (the genre is called “Slash” fiction). Now, Kirk/Spock Slash has migrated to the web, both in text and video mashups. Be that as it may, it is clear that the friendship between Shatner’s Kirk and Nimoy’s Spock has been a challenge to traditional definitions of masculinity. Spock’s devotion to Kirk is undying, and outlives a trip to the grave. Kirk is equally devoted. Who can forget Kirk’s eulogy for Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? “Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most…human.” Spock’s death scene and Kirk’s response to it are the equivalent of a male weepie, and it taught younger male fans of the series that deep, emotional bonds between men were desirable and even admirable.
Spoiler Alert. Don’t read on if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want a surprise to be ruined. So, here we are, 2009, and we have a new Trek. But something is very different. Spock is involved with Uhura! If this relationship endures in the new Star Trek mythology being built by director J.J. Abrams, how will it affect one of the most famous pop culture bromances of all time? It seems like it would have to lessen the bond between the two men. Spock’s asexuality –periods of Pon Farr aside– was intrinsic to his intimacy with Kirk. After all, it was Shatner’s Kirk, not a female partner, who mourned Spock more than anyone else, and later took it upon himself to oversee Spock’s regeneration and recuperation. And it could be argued that Spock’s emotional center was always modulated by his enduring friendship with Kirk. If Spock loves Uhura, how can he be as devoted to Kirk as the Spock in the older mythology? The two men can still be buds, but that obsession that they seemed to have had with each other in their Shatner/Nimoy incarnation must necessarily be transformed into something more conservative.
In a broader sense, the new version of Spock is different in another way. At the outset, the emphasis is on his humanity, not on his alien quality. In original Trek, expressions of Spock’s humanity creeped out more slowly, reaching a zenith in the original movie series. In the old days, Spock was much more of a mystery, and his friendship with and loyalty to Kirk were the most important clues to his repressed “feelings.” This paradoxical combination of Spock’s Vulcan hermeticism with his resolute commitment to Kirk made their friendship compelling and believable. In the new Trek, the audience learns immediately that Spock is a boiling cauldron of emotion. The veneer of logic is much more fragile and transparent in Zachary Quinto’s Spock than in the days of the classic series, when Spock’s rejection of emotion seemed much more formidable. This too, alters the Shatner-Nimoy dynamic in important ways.
In closing, I’d like to reiterate that I like this new movie a lot. But I worry that maybe we’re seeing the closing of a very important door in the Star Trek Universe: the emotionally intense friendship between Spock and Kirk. The film makers have fussed and changed a lot of things that Trekkies are familiar with, but perhaps nothing as important as the mysterious chemistry and formulation of the Kirk-Spock friendship. Maybe this is part and parcel of what Abrams thought was necessary to make Star Trek more “universal” to the non-initiated. If that’s the case, it’s kind of sad. Some kinds of bromances are worth honoring and maintaining.
More on Kirk/Spock Slash:
“Where No Man Has Gone Before” by Paul Constant (Newsweek)
Cultural studies (1992) by Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, Paula A. Treichler
Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (1992) by Henry Jenkins
The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties (1998) by Rosemary Coombe
Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet(2006) by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse
Encompassing gender: Integrating International Studies and Women’s Studies (2002) by Mary M. Lay, Janice J. Monk, Deborah Silverton Rosenfelt
Decoding gender in science fiction (2002) by Brian Attebery
NASA/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America by Constance Penley
“The Third Generation of Genre Science Fiction” by Brian Stableford (Science Fiction Studies, 1996)
“Sex and Star Trek” by Karin Blair (Science Fiction Studies, 1983).