This August, to celebrate the upcoming release of Star Trek: Into Darkness on DVD and blu ray, we’re taking a look at the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast. Movie reviews are every Tuesday and Thursday.
We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the movies with tie-ins around (and related to) the films. We’ll be doing one of these every week day. This is one such article.
A Question of Loyalty is essentially a Star Trek character study, comparing and contrasting the two young Vulcan female characters to appear in the film franchise, providing a meeting between Valeris and Saavik, Spock’s two young protegés. The production history of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is interesting, as there were early plans to include Saavik. For a variety of reasons, this didn’t work out and director Nicholas Meyer and his writers decided to cast a new role, Valeris. A Question of Loyalty allows the two characters to come face-to-face, and offers both some character motivation for the under-developed Valeris and a fond farewell for Saavik.
Valeris is a relatively shallow character in the finished version of The Undiscovered Country. We never find out what her investment in the conspiracy is. After all, one would assume that peace between the Federation and the Klingon Empire is only logical. There have been various attempts to explain her motivation in tie-in media. James Swallow’s Cast No Shadow gave her a back story involving a traumatic formative encounter with the Klingons to justify her prejudice and her hatred of the species, in an attempt to justify how a member of a seemingly logical species could justify starting a war that cost countless lives.
With A Question of Loyalty, writer Steve Wilson does something a bit bolder. He doesn’t offer some Fruedian excuse for Valeris’ involvement in the conspiracy or a convenient justification for her murder of two crew members to cover up the assassination of Gorkan. Instead, Wilson suggests that Valeris is operating according to her own sense of logic. She believes that she knows the best way to create a logical and ordered universe, even if that path involves the slaughter of countless innocents in the short- to medium-term. “Do you believe Vulcans are superior to all other races?” McCoy asks her. Valeris replies, “In all measurable ways, we are.”
Wilson brings Valeris’ attitude to the fore using Saavik’s half-Romulan heritage. Of course, Valeris is quick to point out that she’s not being racist here. After all, she still respects Spock. “The difference is cultural, and your irrational behaviour today proves that you are part of the undisciplined culture into which you were born.” It’s a very cold and very rational viewpoint, one which doesn’t judge an individual based on their biology, but on the culture they ascribe to.
It’s easy to imagine the response of Wilson’s version of Valeris to the destruction of Praxis. It would seem to represent the opportunity to end the Klingon Empire once and for all. As she asks Saavik, “Consider the predominant non-Vulcan races in explored space — the humans, the Klingons, the Andorians — savages all. They plunder the resources of space. They wage war on each other, and they draw us into their wars. Is there value in such behaviour?”
Valeris’ own internal logic isn’t compromised. There’s no outside factor clouding her judgement. Indeed, when Kirk and McCoy express concern at her attitudes, Spock responds that they are perfectly Vulcan. In fact, Valeris’ problem isn’t that she’s an atypical Vulcan, it’s that she’s too Vulcan. “Still, unlike Saavik and myself, she does not have the advantage of mixed ancestry to teach her tolerance towards other races.” The implication is that Spock and Saavik might be more predisposed to Valeris’ way of seeing the universe if they were pure-blood Vulcans, untempered by outside influences.
The implications are pretty profound, and Wilson hits on a very clever piece of canon only suggested here, but eventually played out across the spin-offs. Quite frankly, Vulcans are not nice people. While Sarek was hardly pleasant in Journey to Babel and the local politics in Amok Time seemed downright cynical, the portrayal of Valeris in The Undiscovered Country represented a massive shift in how the Star Trek franchise would portray and develop Vulcan characters. Vulcans were no longer merely the stoic elder statesmen of the Federation. They would become arrogant, self-righteous and condescending.
While Spock remains the idealised Vulcan in popular consciousness, the steadfast right-hand man with implacable trust in his friends and crew mates, he would become very much the exception rather than the rule. Take Me Out to the Holosuite would reveal that Benjamin Sisko was the victim of a Vulcan bully. It seemed like the Star Trek: Voyager writers could not write for Tuvok without downplaying his Vulcan attributes (it’s telling his character-centric stories frequently see his control compromised – Gravity, Riddles, Meld). Star Trek: Enterprise portrayed a cynical and corrupt Vulcan High Command sneering at human efforts to enter the cosmos.
Wilson, writing A Question of Loyalty in 1994, seems to foreshadow a lot of these developments by skilfully extrapolating from Valeris’ limited characterisation in The Undiscovered Country. It represents a massive shift in how the franchise would portray Vulcan characters, with the torch being passed from the trustworthy and reliable Saavik to the compromised and arrogant Valeris. It’s a very shrewd observation, and it’s impressive how well Wilson’s portrayal of a “broken” Vulcan measures against what would seem to become the franchise’s standard template for the species.
It’s interesting to speculate how this shift might have came about. Spock had originally been conceived as the rational part of Kirk’s brain, in contrast to McCoy’s emotionalism. As Pilkington argues in Star Trek: American Dream, Myth and Reality in Star Trek as Myth, Spock was an intellectual:
Spock also became a representation and a representative of another kind of ‘alien’ in America, the intellectual. As Richard Hofstadter writes in his Pulitzer-Prize winning Anti-intellectualism in American Life, ‘The background of alienation in America made an uncompromising position of alienation seem orthox, axiomatic and traditional for twentieth-century intellectuals.’
By extension, Vulcans as a whole would seem to be a race of intellectuals. Sarek’s outfit in the movies and on Star Trek: The Next Generation seemed to be designed to evoke the robes of a classical civilisation. Vulcans are generally presented in the franchise as well-educated and venerated elders, to the point where Sybok’s “gap year Vulcan” in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is very much the exception.
The shift in the portrayal of Vulcan characters could be read as anti-intellectualism. After all many of the negative attributes associated with the portrayal of Valeris and Vulcan characters in the later shows are stereotypes associated with individuals – they are accused of being arrogant, condescending, self-assured and cold. As George Monbiot has argued in The Guardian, the roots of anti-intellectualism are easy enough to understand:
During the first few decades after the publication of The Origin of Species, for instance, Americans had good reason to reject the theory of natural selection and to treat public intellectuals with suspicion. From the beginning, Darwin’s theory was mixed up in the US with the brutal philosophy – now known as social Darwinism – of the British writer Herbert Spencer. Spencer’s doctrine, promoted in the popular press with the help of funding from Andrew Carnegie, John D Rockefeller and Thomas Edison, suggested that millionaires stood at the top of a scala natura established by evolution. By preventing unfit people being weeded out, government intervention weakened the nation. Gross economic inequalities were both justifiable and necessary.
Darwinism, in other words, became indistinguishable from the most bestial form of laissez-faire economics. Many Christians responded with revulsion.
However, this strain of anti-intellectualism is quite old. After all, Richard Hofstadter published his award-winning Anti-intellectualism in American Life in 1964, the year The Cage was filmed. As much as events like Rick Santorum’s attacks on Barrack Obama might push the issue to the fore, this is not a new phenomenon. So why would the shift in the portrayal of Vulcans begin now, when the original Star Trek celebrated Spock’s intellectualism?
To be fair, the original Star Trek television show was very much a relic of the Kennedy era, an extrapolation of Camelot into the distant future and outer space. As a result, it’s fair to argue that the original Star Trek was more likely to be shrewd and subversive and challenging. After all, the show’s handling of the Vietnam War was years ahead of its time. While it never really gave her too much to do, even casting Nichelle Nichols was a bold step.
In contrast, the spin-offs are – as a rule – a lot less provocative. The original Star Trek featured an impressively diverse bridge crew, but it’s worth noting that the franchise has never had a major homosexual or transgender in character in the years since. To be fair, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was the only franchise to make more than a token exploration of these issues, but for ever episode like Rules of Acquisition or Rejoined there was a mirror universe episode wallowing in the lipstick lesbian characters.
The most prominent homosexual character in the franchise was arguably Lieutenant Hawk, a character who was killed early in Star Trek: First Contact, with his orientation only retroactively revealed in the spin-off media. That’s not to suggest that the spin-offs didn’t offer their own insights into modern life, but a concession that they were nowhere near as bold and provocative as the original show. So the descent of the Vulcans into anti-intellectual caricatures is perhaps easy enough to explain and contextualise.
Indeed, 1994 was the year that Bill Clinton – a President argued to be one of those rare American political intellectuals “who successfully tempered their intelligence, invoked a colloquial idiom, claimed an affinity for common values and tastes” – saw his party roundly humiliated in elections to the House of Representatives due to a Republican resurgence led by Newt Gingrich. Pundits like Alan Wolfe, for example, would argue that Gingrich’s “contract with America” was just dressed-up anti-intellectualism, “market-tested, easy to swallow, simplistic.”
Of course, it’s also possible that the shift is not merely linked to a resurgence of political anti-intellectualism. Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger has written about what he describes as “a new geek anti-intellectualism.” Perhaps the shifting portrayal of Vulcans in Star Trek is a reflection of that geeky anti-intellectualism. Still it’s interesting to think about why this shift in the portrayal of Vulcan characters would have come about.
Whatever the reason, Valeris marks a clear delineation in the portrayal of Vulcan characters in Star Trek, and Steve Wilson zones in on it, quite clearly. It’s an astoundingly bold piece of work. Not only does he allow Valeris to hold an objectionable opinion without providing a convenient “excuse” or “justification” for it that might make the audience more comfortable with her conclusions, but he’s also willing to call Spock (and by extension the franchise) out.
McCoy is presented as the voice of reason here, as Spock repeatedly chooses Valeris over over Saavik. “How do you think it feels to her that you’re supporting Valeris and not her?” McCoy challenges his colleague, who is unable to offer anything approaching a response. Given how Curtis has admitted frustration about how the franchise treated her (unceremoniously jettisoning her character in favour of Kim Cattrall), it’s hard to not read McCoy’s line as a bit of meta-commentary.
Barring a surreal detour involving the rescue of an Oberth-class ship, apparently forced on Wilson by editorial due to the edict that every story must feature suitably “Star Trek”-y action, A Question of Loyalty is pretty much a character-driven piece about how Saavik was squeezed out of the film series and replaced by Valeris. While artist Rachel Ketchum doesn’t necessarily work well with the characters in motion, she does excellent likenesses. There are several beautiful still shots of Saavik and Valeris, along with other members of the crew, even if their movements never seem especially organic.
A Question of Loyalty is a fascinating passing of the torch, in more ways than one. It marks a clear transition from Saavik to Valeris, but also contextualises Valeris’ betrayal in a way that fits with what would become the franchise’s default portrayal of Vulcan characters. Into the nineties, the franchise became a lot more cynical about those iconic pointed-eared aliens, with David Greven observing in Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek that The Undiscovered Country even represents a shift in how Vulcan mind melds would be portrayed, astutely observing that “what in the 1960s was a radical joining of consciousnesses becomes in later Trek an unleashing of violent will.”
Obviously, A Question of Loyalty is reacting to (and attempting to contextualise) this shift, and it offers some pretty fascinating insights.
Check out our reviews of the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast:
- Star Trek: The Motion Picture
- Supplemental: Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor by John Byrne
- Supplemental: Ex Machina by Christopher L. Bennett
- Supplemental: Crucible – Spock: The Fire and the Rose by David R. George III
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
- Supplemental: Space Seed
- Supplemental: Reign in Hell: The Exile of Khan Noonien Singh by Greg Cox
- Supplemental: Star Trek (DC Comics, 1984) #7-8 – Saavik’s Story
- Supplemental: The Pandora Principle by Carolyn Clowes
- Supplemental: Myriad Universes – Echoes and Refractions: The Chimes at Midnight by Geoff Trowbridge
- Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
- Supplemental: The Klingons: Starfleet Intelligence Manual (FASA)
- Supplemental: Star Trek (DC Comics, 1984) #28 – The Last Word
- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
- Supplemental: Star Trek Special #1 (DC Comics, 1994) – The Needs of the One
- Supplemental: Unspoken Truth by Margaret Wander Bonanno
- Supplemental: Music of the Spheres by Margaret Wander Bonanno
- Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
- Supplemental: The Ashes of Eden by William Shatner et al (DC Comics)
- Supplemental: Dwellers in the Crucible by Margaret Wander Bonanno
- Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
- Supplemental: In the Name of Honour by Dayton Ward
- Supplemental: Star Trek Special #2 (DC Comics, 1994) – A Question of Loyalty
- Supplemental: Excelsior – Forged in Fire by Michael A. Martin and Andy Mangels
- Supplemental: Shadows on the Sun by Michael Jan Friedman
- Supplemental: Cast no Shadow by James Swallow
- Epilogue: Star Trek: Generations
Filed under: Comics, The Original Series | Tagged: Andorian, james t. kirk, kirk, Klingon, List of Star Trek characters (T–Z), Multiracial, Rick Santorum, Saavik, spock, star trek, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Undiscovered Country, vulcan, Zachary Quinto |