A Vulcan Alone: Human Exceptionalism in the Sci-fi Genre

What Ho Wee Readers, I hope you’ve all been keeping optimistic in these troubling times of ours. I know it’s difficult, and with any hope there’s not a World War been declared by the time you’re finally reading these words – but still, I think it’s wise advice to live by. Let’s try and be optimistic, reality doesn’t need to factor into the equation. And if there was ever a shinning beacon of optimism for the future, it’s Star Trek – or at least the original show. To be honest I’ve never watched Next Generation, and the later shows were too busy poking holes in that initial optimistic federation, for much of their own optimism to sneak in. Not that that’s bad thing on a story level, it’s actually quite interesting – and something I’d quite like to get into later – but there was something so hopeful about the Original Trek, that none of those later shows could quite capture.

Just the idea that humanity has not only finally managed to put aside its differences – and grow beyond its prejudices – and has come together to reach for the stars, is a very nice thought. Especially with people so dived as they are now. And not only have we managed to reach and travel through the stars, but we find that we are not alone in the universe. There are others out there, different perhaps, alien, but intelligent and friendly. People that we can work with to build an even great galactic civilisation, a federation if you will.

And this, Wee Readers, is where we come to my favorite character in all of Trek: they call him Mister Spock. He is an alien – or at least mostly. While he does have a human mother, for the most part his role in the narrative is to expresses the alien view of the federation. Sure, there might be other alien characters that the crew meet along their journey, but in regards to the main cast Spock is pretty much the only alien on the ship. In fact, scratch that, he is the only alien on the ship period – something that’s once again pretty much unique to the original series of Trek in particular. That is while the other shows feature and focused on a predominantly human cast as well, they often will have more than a single non-human entity in the main cast. Even Discovery had other alien crew members in bit parts – I’m assuming, I lost interest half way through season one.

And I think there’s a reason for this, that is why the original serious would choose to focus on a crew of a ship that is predominantly human in origin – despite the federation actually being made up of many species. And it’s more than just the affects and make up budgets – although I’m certain that was a contributing factor. No when you watch through the series in rapid successes – as I am doing now – you begin to pick up on a theme that I never realised was there before. The theme of humanity, what makes us what we are – and if we were to go into space, live inside spaceships how much of our humanity might we lose?

This is why – to an extent – when it comes to talk about non-human members of the federation and beyond, they’re more focused on how they reflect back against humanity. How does the Vulcan culture, which values logic and suppression of emotion – not lack of them, suppression of emotion – hold up against raw human gut instinct, and embrace of our emotions. Often, at least in the first series of the original show – it does not. Not I feel because the creators were arguing against logic and rational based reasoning, but because in its heart, Star Trek is a show about Humans traveling through space. And thus, the question, of what makes a human a human, or what makes us worthy to travel through the stars is infinitely more important to the narrative, than what makes a Vulcan worthy. Thus – again at least in season one – Spock is there to add opposition to the purely human advice of Dr. Mccoy to Kirk, and perhaps to acknowledge – at least passively – that there are aliens that we can call our close allies.

I would like to reiterate that this is not a bad thing – humans after all, are Star Teck’s primary and only demographic thus far.  However, while I can acknowledge the reason why such decisions were made, and even their narrative strength, their existence implies some uncomfortable realities of the show’s universe.

For instance: while narratively the reason why McCoy is constantly challenging, and dismissing Spock’s Vulcan logic – and by extension heritage – is because his purpose in many of the episodes is to argue for the power of humanity, and emotionality – let’s take a look at his actions ‘in universe’. He loudly, and repeatedly, chides his superior officer – often stepping into actually insulting him – based on said officer’s different cultural background. He is insubordinate, and undermining of Spock whenever the Vulcan is in command, and strangely enough for a doctor working in space, very hostile to Spock’s alien biology. Now, you might say that that last one is just McCoy’s frustration on not being able to treat his patient as well as he could, if he were purely human. And while I could fire back that McCoy is a Starfleet Doctor, he should be at least partly used to treating non-human patients without throwing a hissy fit each time, I would never insult you like that. Besides, either way – what we are left with is a man whose actions make him seem hostile to one of the founding species of the Federation. A man, who most troubling of all, is never reprimanded for said actions.

It’s always either tied up with a joke at the end, often about how Spock is too stubborn to admit he has feelings (specifically emphasised human feelings) – or never mentioned at all. As a dangling plot thread, it annoys me to no end; but as micro-example of how the Federation – and in particular Starfleet – treats its non-human members, it’s actually kind of disturbing. In the first live-action series of Star Trek Spock seems to be the only non-human citizen of the federation on board of Starfleet’s flag Star ship – and he better get used to be treated like shit even by his subordinates, if he wants to remain there.

I know, I know even I can see I’m being a bit harsh with that last statement – after all, Kirk respects Spock. In fact, they’re so close that not only did they give birth to the Slash fanfiction genre, but Gene Rodenberry created a whole new word for their relationship. Personally, I think it would have been simpler just to admit that they were a bit gay for each other, but it was the sixties so maybe the world just wasn’t ready yet.

But let’s jump forward about a hundred years or so to the new era of Star Trek. For while I haven’t really watched The Next Generation yet – and hence I won’t really be talking about it here – I have watched large chunks of Voyager and the beginning of DS9 – before I got bored of that particular show and wandered off. All of which has left me with the ability to comfortably say that humanity – as presented in the nineties star trek shows – was kind of insufferable. I mean we get it, earth is a paradise, and you’ve advance so fast from the war hungering savages you once were, that it impresses all the good aliens. And the only ones who talk smack about you are either jerks, fascists or Ferengi. We get it, that’s the truth as it is presented in the show – hope for our collective future yadda, yadda, yadda – but honesty I’m on the Ferengi’s side here, that’s really annoying to sit through. It also, from a purely narrative perspective, gives the federation characters – i.e., the mostly human or heavily human aligned and codded characters – excuse to treat those who don’t align perfectly with human emotionality and current ‘ethical and economic’ standards (if you’ll pardon the language again) like shit.

Whether you’re a logical Vulcan, a driven ferengi, or an honorable warrior of the Klingons – if your people don’t align perfectly with the federation on everything from the way you dress (onesies for everyone please), to the way you express yourself (never through violence and every time we feel an emotion, we’re going to loudly proclaim it even if it’s a horribly inappropriate time). Get ready to be talked down to by a species that only mastered space travel in the last few hundred years, like you’re a toddler in a strop.

Now honestly, even as I say all this, I don’t really think the federation is meant to be set up like this – as I said before it’s a natural outcome of one species making shows, or indeed any form of entertainment about another. We might see a similar outcome even if we stay close to home – has anyone casually used the term Neanderthal to mean stupid or violent lately? Yes, I thought so. Indeed, if we look at the case of the Neanderthal, and other variations of the human species, we might even discover the source of this constant quest for validation in the sci-fi writer.

After all, why was it us that survived?

Why was it homo-sapiens that went on to win the supremacy of the species, and populate the planet with our ilk?

Are we such a violent species, that we butchered everyone else?

Or are we just that innately superior? Our brains more developed and highly skilled in some way. Maybe it was because we could talk and they couldn’t. (Not true, but go off I guess). Maybe we could dream and they couldn’t – as there are no living Neanderthals (that I know of) we’ll probably never have a clear answer beyond what we can guess at their remains. But regardless on where you lie on that debate, one thing is clear amongst these theories – there has to be a reason why.

It couldn’t just be by chance, or luck. There has to be a measurable reason why we’re still here, and they aren’t.

We’re homo sapiens.

And in one form or other, we are exceptional.

Thus, when a writer, or a producer, or an actor looks up to the stars and decides to create a piece of fiction in which we are no longer the only (perceived) sentient form of life – they must contend with this question also. There has to be a reason Humanity is worthy to go amongst the stars, to exist in a world where we are not the only form of dominant life. Surely even amongst species that have had space faring technology centuries before us, we are unique, we are interesting and worthy of fascination from beings beyond our wildest dreams.

Because in the end the most terrifying question, isn’t are we alone in the universe; it’s if we aren’t alone in the universe, what makes us so special then? Because, and here’s the true driving force of all this clumsiness in the writing of the federation – what if we’re not? What if we’re just one species amongst a thousand more, and not even a particularly advanced one. What if, we don’t matter a great deal at all in the wider scope of things?

And that, dear reader, is a terrifying thought.

If you’ve enjoyed this little delve into existential dreams, and horrible questions plaguing my mind each night why not follow the Wee Blog if you haven’t already? Also check out my Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, Tumblr, and Goodreads. And sign up for the Wee Mailing List by April 30th to find out my top five fictional aliens. Also why not pop through to my Kofi page and buy me a wee cup of coffee. Until next time Wee Readers, stay safe, stay sane, and have a very bonny day.