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Highly Illogical: Why Every Incarnation Of 'Star Trek' Needs A Spock

He'll do in a pinch: Leonard Nimoy as Mister Spock in the television series <em>Star Trek</em>.
The Kobal Collection
He'll do in a pinch: Leonard Nimoy as Mister Spock in the television series Star Trek.

You say you're fixing to make a new Star Trek show? Or film? Or novel, comic book, videogame, song cycle, stage play, puppet show or series of cave paintings? Great! Here's what you'll need to get started — the five essential building blocks of Trek:

1. A Cool Spaceship

... Duh. It's called Star Trek. It's about trekking. (Or in the case of Deep Space Nine, which is a space station and not a spaceship, getting trekked to and from). Don't forget the nacelles.

If you don't know what nacelles are, rethink your involvement in the project.

2. Transporters

Yes, they're technologically impossible. They're a great big dollop of high-fantasy magic in the middle of your serious science-fiction, but look, if you're making Star Trek, "scientific accuracy" is a concept with which you should expect to enjoy only a passing acquaintance. And anyway transporters are an efficient, ruthlessly expedient way around a host of narrative/logistical roadblocks. Just accept them, you'll be thankful later.

3. Tight Uniforms

In space, no one can hear your Spanx.

4. Bumpy Foreheads

Productions budgets are a fact of life, even in the lifeless void of space. And as cool as it'd be to have your crew interacting with blobby tentacled Lovecraftian CGI space creatures whose very non-Euclidian dimensions defy the human brain's ability to blah blah blah, you won't have the time or money for any of that noise. Grab a dayplayer, slap a hunk of spirit gum between their eyebrows, paint 'em Prussian blue and shove 'em in front of the camera. Welcome to Trek.

5. A Spock

Which is to say: a character who exists to offer an outsider's perspective on the nature of humanity.

Every past incarnation of Star Trek has featured one or more of them, and any future incarnation needs them as well; they're more integral to what Star Trek stands for than hand phasers, photon torpedoes, stardates, haplessly doomed red shirts and the Prime Directive combined.

To call Trek "philosophical" would make my dour old philosophy professor choke on his Hegelian schemata, but there has always been something ruminative, at least, about the franchise: a high-minded commitment to asking questions about what it means to be human. Those questions haven't always been answered deftly, or at all, but the asking of them, amid all the swashbuckling (or in the case of the randy Captain Kirk, swash-unbuckling) is something coded into the franchise's DNA.

Here's a quick look at the various Spocks over the years, and how their outsider status has colored the Trek universe.

Star Trek: The Original Series (and the First Six Star Trek Films, as Well as the Last Three Reboot Films)

Name: Spock. No last name. You know: like Cher.

Nature: Half-human, half-Vulcan

Money Quote: "Highly illogical."

What's His Deal: Not, as many believe, a being without emotions, but a being struggling to control his emotions. A Vulcan who venerates logic, he exists on the show as a mouthpiece for a pragmatic approach to crises — essentially Kirk's superego, in perennial conflict with Dr. McCoy, Kirk's id.

Attitude Towards Humanity: Complicated. Outwardly, bemusement mixed with arch condescension. But his buried human half is a persistent presence, whenever he's onscreen.

Attitude Towards His Captain: Outwardly, eyebrow-cocking respect. Inwardly, brotherly love.

Star Trek: The Next Generation (and Star Trek films VII through Nemesis)

Name: Data. No last name. You know: like Charo.

Nature: Android

Money Quote: "Intriguing."

What's His Deal: The producers of Next Generation doubled down on the humanist aspects of Trek by creating a character who expressly longed not only to understand humanity, but to become human. If Spock spoke to the dawning computer age, and the wider culture's first attempts to grapple with the implications of machine logic, Data reflects a more sophisticated acknowledgment that humanity will ultimately be forced to reckon with the nature of artificial intelligence.

Attitude Towards Humanity: Eager curiosity bordering on adoration.

Attitude Towards His Captain: That of a naive child, seeking attention and advice.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Name: Odo. No last name. You know. Like Yanni.

Nature: Changeling

Money Quote: "I'm sorry if I made you feel unwelcome. It's just my way."

What's His Deal: The ultimate outsider. A shapeshifting alien who longs not to be human, but to get the hell away from them, and find his own people. Gruff, surly, and possessed of a suspicious nature, he assumes a vaguely human shape to function as the space station's head of security. And he's none too happy about it.

Attitude Towards Humanity: Disinterest and, when he is temporarily relieved of his ability to transform himself into other shapes, despair.

Attitude Towards His Captain: Grudging respect. Grudging everything.

Star Trek: Voyager

No shortage of third-person viewpoints on humanity here. There's Tuvok, a Vulcan security officer, and The Doctor, a hologram who grows increasingly independent and experiences many of the "what is humanity?" storylines that Next Generation gave to Data. But easily the series' the breakout character, and chief outsider, was:

Name: Seven of Nine. You know: like Anne of Green Gables.

Nature: Cyborg

Money Quote: "Irrelevant."

What's Her Deal: Once a humanoid, then a cyborg linked to a hive mind, now a cyborg on her own. Introduced to add conflict to a series that hadn't seen much of it, Seven questions pretty much everything about her situation, and does so in a coldly logical manner that comes off as imperious. If on the surface she seems little more than Data 2.0, she substitute his naive nature for a more guarded, suspicious one.

Attitude Towards Humanity: Impatient tolerance.

Attitude Towards Her Captain: Initially, resentment. Eventually, that of a fiercely independent daughter.

Star Trek: Enterprise

Name: T'Pol. You know: like the smoker's tooth polish.

Nature: Vulcan

What's Her Deal: An unusually emotional Vulcan who, through a combination of space-disease and space-drugs, grows increasingly so, even questioning the basic tenets of Vulcan life and philosophy.

Attitude Towards Humanity: Initially, trademark Vulcan condescension. Eventually grows curious about various aspects of human culture and enters into a romance with a human crewmate.

Attitude Towards Her Captain: Fierce loyalty.

We don't know much about Star Trek: Discovery, the 13-episode Bryan Fuller/Alex Kurtzman limited series coming in January. We can be reasonably certain, however, that there'll be a Vulcan/Android/Cyborg character in the mix, because Star Trek exists in the tension between volatile human emotions and cool, logical intellect.

What it does with that tension has varied widely over the years. But as a franchise, Star Trek has always advantaged its beating human heart.

Crucially, however, it knows that we'll only tolerate an emotive, operatic, scenery-chewing Kirk soliloquy ("We ... humansNEED ... love ...") if we know that, once it's done, there'll be a Spock nearby to deliver a withering, and perfectly timed, eyebrow-pop.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.