What’s a Vulcan?

Two Star Trek virgins boldly go where they’ve never gone before.

Zachary Quinto as Spock in "Star Trek IZachary Quinto as Spock in Star Trek Into Darknessnto Darkness"
Zachary Quinto as Spock in Star Trek Into Darkness

Courtesy of Zade Rosenthal/Paramount Pictures

Slate sent two staffers who have never seen a single episode or movie in the Star Trek franchise to see J.J. Abram’s Star Trek Into Darkness. Note: Spoilers galore below, insofar as our intrepid viewers understood what was going on. Click here if you’d prefer to read Dana Stevens’ spoiler-free review. 

Aisha Harris: Well, Katy, besides having heard of Spock, Kirk, and, as a kid, hearing my dad recite the line “Beam me up, Scotty!” whenever my sister or I were irritating him and he wanted to be left alone, the Trek universe was completely foreign to me—until now. And now I know, after watching Star Trek Into Darkness, that Scotty is, in fact, a “real person.” Crazy, huh?

Katy Waldman: Hi, Aisha! I too was amazed to meet Scotty in the flesh, especially when he opened his mouth and spoke with a Scottish accent. In fact, I was distracted—in a good way—by the question of where on Earth or in the universe all these characters were from. The apprentice ship technician appeared to be Russian, and Spock was … Vulcan? Half-Vulcan? Did that have anything to do with why he was sent into a volcano at the beginning?

AH: Spock was my favorite character by far. He kind of reminded me of Abed from Community. Like Abed, Spock is very monotone, stoic, and essentially has no filter, making it difficult for him to sustain “normal” relationships with other people.

KW: Spock is infinitely logical, right? Which, I think, occasioned some of the funniest dialogue in the movie.

AH: One question I had: Why should I never trust a Vulcan? (Captain Kirk said I shouldn’t, at one point.) Is that a slur? Is being Vulcan frowned upon?

KW: You should never trust a Vulcan, Aisha, because even after you save his life (Her life? Are there female Vulcans?), he will still report your breach of regulations to the admiral. That said, Spock was definitely my favorite character too. Can we unpack that scene with his father? Everyone in the theater started clapping! And I had no idea what was going on.

AH: What scene with his father? Do you mean the future Spock?

KW: The one who was also named Mr. Spock … oh dear … that was future Spock?

AH: Yes, I think so!

KW: Wait, how? What?

AH: I knew at least that that was Leonard Nimoy, the guy who originally played Spock. The point, I think, is that Into Darkness is a prequel. These are the younger versions of the original Star Trek series characters from the ‘60s.

KW: Present Spock didn’t know how to fight Khan, so he dialed up future Spock? He knew the whole time that he wasn’t going to die, even when Kirk was tearfully apologizing for putting everyone in danger?

AH: Right. So young Spock somehow managed to talk to future Spock, who tells him all about Khan.

KW: This is so lame. In the volcano, Spock says something like, “I am, surprisingly, alive.” Big fat surprise.

AH: Here’s what I understood: Young Spock asked future Spock whether or not Khan would be defeated. And then future Spock replied—and I wrote this down in my notes in the theater—“At great costs.” Khan’s apparently a big deal to Trekkies.

KW: Yes, when he announced his name was “Khan,” everyone in the theater gasped. And I did too, to be polite. You know, I’m kind of upset about this ghost of Spock-mas future thing, because, other than that, I was really congratulating myself on how well I had caught on to the Trekkie Verse. I scribbled “pretty accessible!!” in my notes, at one point.

AH: I also thought this movie was pretty easy to follow for newcomers, though I know there were also a lot of in-jokes and moments that may have made more sense if I was familiar with the mythology.

KW: Yes, I’m sure many Easter eggs rolled by me unnoticed. For every joke that poked fun at something visible (like Spock’s pointy ears), there was some gibberish about the Prime Directive that flew completely over my head.

AH: Oh yeah, I was completely confused by that opening scene. Spock said something along the lines of “You violated the Prime Directive,” and I couldn’t tell if that’s Trek speak, or actual military speak that I should be aware of. And those creatures at the beginning of the movie, with the white bodies and colorful body paint—I think they were these things called Klingons?

KW: No, no, they were a different type of alien! The Klingons (which makes me think of super-futuristic clingy pantyhose) were the red guys with knobs on their faces.

Can we talk about the purpose of the Federation? I sort of assumed it was military in nature, but then it seemed that they were out to “explore and observe.” And some of them were horrified at the prospect of having torpedoes aboard the Enterprise, even though they had guns and shields. Also, they certainly fought like trained soldiers.

AH: Wait, the Federation?

KW: Oh, maybe there is no Federation. I think I meant Starfleet.

AH: One other thing I was confused about was the random alien-like creatures. They were just in the background, they never said anything, but some of them wore Starfleet uniforms, and one looked like a Stegosaurus. Is it like Star Wars, where they all just cohabitate peacefully among one another?

KW: Right! Who was Scotty’s mute pal? I think they must, except for the enemy Empire of the Klingons.

Was there a rhyme or reason to the uniforms? At one point, a character in a yellow shirt was told to put on a red shirt, and that was some form of promotion? (And those poor women onboard, in the pleather miniskirts. Yeesh.)

Back to Mr. Spock for a second: Can he read minds? He was able somehow to feel a dying man’s feelings, and then he seemed to be defending himself against Khan by placing a finger on Khan’s forehead. I could be misremembering that. What are the superpowers of the Vulcans, if any?

AH: He seems to be respected by everyone, but his Vulcan-ness is also a constant source of ribbing and annoyance for everyone. And his inability to feel seemed to be linked to his Vulcan-ness as well, leading to that intense conflict with Zoe Saldana’s character.

KW: Yes, La Guerta. (I’m sure her name isn’t La Guerta, but that’s how I remember it, because Dexter.)

AH: I wonder, presuming Saldana’s character is all human, if they have kids, what will that make the child? Will it inherit any of Spock’s powers? Spock seems to be the only one on the Enterprise who actually has “powers.” Everyone else is just really skilled in whatever they do.

KW: Good question! One-quarter Vulcan, three-quarters human? (Because isn’t Spock half-human?) I was a little frustrated by La Guerta/Saldana though. She—along with the admiral’s daughter—seemed so limited by her role of “eye candy” and “romantic interest.” Did you notice that absurd, protracted butt shot, when she was negotiating with the Klingons? Glad they’re putting the magic of 3-D to good use.

AH: I don’t think any of it, except the opening sequence, needed to be 3-D. And I could see Kirk’s pores as if I were standing on them. Ridiculous! I’ve kind of given up hope a bit when it comes to these action movies and dealings with women, though. In Iron Man 3 (spoiler), the lead female character comes in at the last minute to ultimately vanquish the bad guy. But only after the male hero has already worn him down through a long, arduous fight.

KW:  I would argue that the women of the Marvel universe have more to do than the Trekkie women. I wasn’t sure how useful Saldana’s character was, even at the end.

So one preconception I had about Star Trek was that the franchise is super-cerebral, unlike Star Wars, which is all wars and explosions. I was surprised the film was so action-packed.

AH: Yeah, you’re right. It felt less science-y than I imagined, too.

KW:  I expecting more lingo—more “raise the shields and activate the di-hydrogenated fusion projectiles.” I guess there was that business about warp speed, which as far as I can tell just means really, really fast.

AH: A final observation—I can see why the relationship between Kirk and Spock is so loved by Trek fans.

At least in this movie, they had a really good rapport.

KW: Absolutely—their warm relationship seemed like the heart of the movie. Even I could understand that.

AH: That being said, while enjoyable, I can’t say I’ll ever be convinced to watch another Star Trek episode or movie. It was a pleasant-enough experience, but Klingons and Khans and future Spocks are just not my cup of tea—though I can see how others can get absorbed into the world easily.

KW: Yes, I’m more likely to trek into the upcoming Superman flick. But as sci-fi and fantasy movies go, I enjoyed this one a lot more than The Hobbit. Katy out.