If you had to boil down a hundred years of science fiction – from H.G. Wells to Philip K. Dick, from Metropolis to 2001, from Robby the Robot to Darth Vader – to a single cautionary sentence, it might be this: In the age of technology, human beings, as a race, have become so ruthlessly intelligent that they’re threatening to turn into the machines they invent. It doesn’t matter whether the sci-fi character in question is a robot, an android, a cyborg, a rogue A.I. computer, a Big Brother on surveillance camera, or a giant-headed alien invader: All are metaphors for man evolved into Automatic Man, stripped of “feeling” in an age of cerebral overdevelopment. All are pop projections of a society built, increasingly, on the cult of mind over matter.
When Star Trek first launched into network orbit in 1966, Leonard Nimoy’s quizzically handsome, slightly inscrutable, deep-voiced Vulcan Spock – a man so arch he had permanent raised eyebrows – was the most benign, and prime-time user-friendly, of these humanoid head cases. A kind of missing link between the British TV alien time traveler Doctor Who (who debuted in 1963) and Yoda, Spock, the Vulcan with the ears of an elf, the bangs of a mid-’60s turtlenecked nightclub dandy, and the manners of an extraterrestrial Zen guru, was, symbolically speaking, humanity “evolved” into a creature of ultimate, impeccable logic and wisdom. Of course, such perfection isn’t really attainable, or even necessarily desirable, which is why the flaw in Spock’s nature, his human side – the bits of emotion that niggled away at his placid demeanor – were what made him sympathetic. Yet within the temperamentally integrated rainbow coalition that was the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, Spock, the suavely rational brain man, represented something new: the coming of geek chic.
For the fans who’ve spent decades lining up at Star Trek conventions in rubber elf ears, Spock has always been, in his way, kind of cool. He’s a hero to anyone who experiences his own nature as intensely, if not overly, rational. But the whole premise of the series is that Capt. James T. Kirk is inescapably cooler. Spock is the mind to Kirk’s body, the control freak to his hothead, the rock to his roll. And so it has been for 43 years.
Until now. In Star Trek, the already smashingly popular J.J.Abrams reboot, Zachary Quinto invests Spock with a new layer ofchilly-smoldering sex appeal. Early on, when he’s still a rising cadeton his home planet, he’s told that a Vulcan should allow himself to bedominated by logic not because he has no feelings, but because hisfeelings run so deep. (It’s the same lesson, in essence, that Obi-WanKenobi delivers to Luke Skywalker: The Force will be with you if youdiscipline your spirit.) The thing is, this represents a radical, ifsubtle, expansion of the Spock mojo: It turns out that he’s not quite autilitarian logic fiend by nature – he’s just trained to be a geniusat keeping a lid on his passions. And Quinto does a fantastic job ofmaintaining Spock’s calm, no-sweat surface but getting quietly hot andbothered underneath. He makes the war within Spock as electric, in itsway, as the young Kirk’s recklessI-gotta-be-bad-because-I’ll-never-be-as-great-as-my-daddy swagger.
Geek chic, of course, is an outdated term. In the age of theInternet and the endlessly updated technologicalhome-entertainment/office-slave gadget, we’re all geeks now.And maybe it’s only in the context of a culture that has come torequire mind over matter, 24 hours a day, that a mandarin like Spockcould finally pull up even with a noble macho like Kirk in the coolsweepstakes. Or maybe even surpass him. For the first time, says thenew Star Trek, we’re no longer just all geeks; we’re all Spock.