Black Vulcans

Rather than go through the motions of reviewing Star Trek — I thought it was insanely awesome — I’d like to briefly think through the puzzle of the black Vulcans: who are they, where did they come from, and has J.J. Abrams retconned them out of existence?

Readers of a certain age will remember the late and mostly unlamented Star Trek: Voyager, which I abandoned relatively early in its run. Part of the appeal of the show was that it featured a number of Star Trek firsts, including first female captain and, as far I know, the first black Vulcan, Tuvok.

My understanding, confirmed by Wikipedia (which doesn’t fill me with confidence either, but it’ll do in a pinch), is that Tuvok is a “full Vulcan,” thus suggesting that Vulcan variation in physiognomy roughly parallels human variation. Which is a little implausible, but fair enough. Because Tuvok is one of the only black Vulcans we’ve come across in the Star Trek universe, you have to wonder: what accounts for this?

In the most recent Star Trek film, there were no black Vulcans at the highest levels of the Vulcan Science Academy. This could mean that black Vulcans are a very small minority. Yet Tuvok’s wife, T’Pel, was also a black Vulcan. And so the pool of black Vulcans couldn’t be trivially small. Or perhaps endogamy is relatively common across Vulcan ethno-somatic groups. But doesn’t this strike you as an affront to the iron laws of logic? If ethno-somatic endogamy is not particularly common, one assumes that sharp “racial” distinctions would erode over time. Maybe not. But surely this phenomenon has to be explained somehow.

The iron laws of logic do cast doubt on another hypothesis, namely that the late emergence of black Vulcans in the Star Trek universe suggests human-like discrimination against Vulcans who vary from the phenotypic norm. Granted, we’ve seen evidence of Vulcan hypocrisy before. Vulcan color prejudice would really take the cake, though — it would be in such sharp tension with everything we’ve come to know and admire about Vulcan culture as to strain credulity. Moreover, the Vulcans have been a space-faring civilization for a very long time, far longer than humans. Would they have been able to unite the planet under a cult of logic while allowing color prejudice to powerfully endure?

One plausible retcon: Tuvok is not, in fact, a “full Vulcan,” but rather a Vulcan with, say, a human grandparent raised rigorously in the Vulcan tradition. Part of Tuvok’s arc is that he went through a period of intense discomfort among non-Vulcans. Partial non-Vulcan ancestry could help account for this — a little cliched, but we’re talking about Star Trek here — though again this has a non-logical tinge.

Mild spoiler below, plus a discussion of sex roles and the complications of human-Vulcan mating. The really weird thing about all of this, by the way, is that I’m not actually that big a Star Trek fan. Instead, I am a lunatic.

The highlight of the latest Star Trek is the insane chemistry between Zoe Saldana’s Uhura and Zachary Quinto’s Spock. I think she might be one of my favorite actors. I have this long-buried idea for a post-college urban comedy — a comedy about gentrification and ghosts — in which I envisioned Saldana playing the romantic lead, though of course she’s much too big for that now.

Another highlight for those of us with an interest in representations of ethnics: during the opening set-piece, the captain of the USS Kelvin is a South Asian man with a shaved head. The Romulan villains were similarly cue-ball-headed, which I think accounts for the fact that various friends have been telling me for weeks that the film reminded them of me. I’m not sure how to take this. Do they sincerely believe that I will travel across time and space to avenge genocidal violence against my home planet? On reflection, perhaps this is a back-handed compliment of some kind. I prefer to think that I would be super-logical about the whole thing.

Also: Winona Ryder plays Spock’s mom. I have to say, we as a culture have really been “sleeping on” Winona for a long time, not least because of her various embarrassing shenanigans. This is a real shame. Ever since Edward Scissorhands, the charmingly pasty Winona has been delighting audiences with her grace and wit. A little shoplifting here and there can be forgiven. And I’ll add that Winona is quite beautiful as an extremely old lady. I found her scene with Quinto very affecting and effective. I did wonder, though, about how much of a saintly sufferer her character must have been.

Consider that in the distant Star Trek future, human gender disparities have presumably eased across a lot of different metrics — we see some evidence of this in the film, though I will say I was disappointed not to see more women in senior roles at Starfleet Academy and in Starfleet itself. My conjecture is based on a couple of powerful trends: the outsourcing of household labor; the emergence of a post-breadwinner identity for educated men in the affluent West; and the steady advent of technologies that can more equitably distribute the burden of carrying and bearing children (e.g., exowombs, etc.).

All this is to say: Winona’s character (Amanda Grayson) seems strangely deferential to her husband, Spock’s father, who seems like kind of a cold bastard, one who can’t acknowledge to his son that he married Winona because he loved her, at least not for a while. (Rather, it was “logical” for Spock’s father to marry a human because he felt obliged to learn about human culture as ambassador to Earth. That makes a lot of sense. Why don’t you just buy a Rosetta Stone CD-ROM?) Again, gender disparities of this kind in the Vulcan context seem weird, though we also have the added complication of xeno-exogamy here — it could be that this is less a manifestation of patriarchy than of a sense of Vulcan superiority to humans, which we all knows persists well into the Star Trek future.

Consider that Grayson must have come from an elite background — not everyone meets the Vulcan Ambassador to Earth, and the Vulcan Ambassador would presumably “learn more” from someone who benefits from membership in lots of elite social networks. Yet by embracing her husband’s culture — she seemed pretty down with the members of the Vulcan Science Academy — she presumably allowed her human ties to attenuate. Moreover, like Sonia Gandhi, she’d encounter serious static if she ever sought a leadership role among the Vulcans, not least because she doesn’t appear to be a rigorous adherent to the cult of logic — rather, she comes across as warm and classically maternal, perhaps accounting for Spock’s strong, and troublingly “human,” affection and loyalty. Why would she accept a permanently subordinate role?

I guess the obvious answer is “love,” though I find this answer unsatisfying in the extreme. I want answers, people!