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Star Trek: Prick up your ears

Cool, judicious and sensible, Mr Spock and his fellow Vulcans are more than a match for the dark forces of the Star Trek universe. Can passionate, impulsive earthlings learn from their culture? John Walsh salutes a superior species

John Walsh

Published 23/04/2009|10:00

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Zachary Quinto as Spock in the new Star Trek film

Who'd want to be a human? We smell, we bicker, we weep at middle-aged ladies singing about dreams on television, we start wars, we poison our atmosphere, we give all our money to crooked men and we live for only 70 years. It's a farce. Not only that but, as a race, we have no consistency of mood.

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You can't say to an alien, "You'll find human beings are kind, warm and charming" but nor can you say, "You'll find human beings are suspicious, chilly and hostile." We are many things, but mostly we're capricious and perverse. Even the aliens have spotted this. In Star Trek's fourth season, Soval, the Vulcan ambassador to Earth, lays it on the line:

"We don't know what to do about humans. Of all the species we've made contact with, yours is the only one we can't define. You have the arrogance of Andorians, the stubborn pride of Tellarites. One moment you're as driven by your emotions as Klingons, and the next, you confound us by suddenly embracing logic."

How much better it would be if earthlings were as simple as the intergalactic races invented by writers of science fiction! From their earliest experiments with utopias, writers have invented races which are defined by simple, sometimes monolithic, traits. Jonathan Swift's Gulliver, in the land of the Houyhnhnms, found that the horses were all calm, logical and passionless, while the Yahoos were uniformly savage, filthy and given to crapping on strangers. HG Wells's Time Traveller fast-forwarded through Earth-time to AD 802701, to discover that humans had become Eloi, a race of herbivorous humanoid rabbits who are preyed on by Morlocks, equally undifferentiated fur-covered humanoid savages. In Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the Guide defines the Vogon race with dismissive curtness: "Vogons are extremely ugly, extremely officious and generally not much fun to be around... They generally become bureaucrats in the galactic government. Their unpleasant demeanour makes them ideally suited to such employment."

Star Trek introduced a Sixties audience to scores of new interplanetary races in the course of its 40-year reign. At its heart, however, lay a relationship between a human (James T Kirk, played by William Shatner) and a half-Vulcan (Mr Spock played by Leonard Nimoy,) the former brave, headstrong and passionate, the latter cool, judicious and sensible. The dynamic of many episodes lay in the different approaches taken by each man to whatever galactic crisis lay before them. As the new film of Star Trek hits the nation's screens, the friendly rivalry of Kirk and Spock (now played by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto) continues the heart-versus-head moral struggle. But what, after four decades, do we know about the Vulcans who provide a constant corrective to the Earthling point of view? And could we learn from them to be better people?

The first thing to know about Vulcans is that they're not natural paragons of emotionless logic. They are far too emotional for their own good. Their natural disposition, we learn in the original TV series, is erratic, volatile and quick to anger. Like certain Glaswegians, they can move from icy calm to homicidal rage in seconds. They have to police their natural feelings by superhuman mind control. Clearly this is something earthlings should emulate, especially when caught in the current half-hour traffic jam around Parliament Square. Some Vulcans strive to eliminate all emotions from their make-up by undergoing the Kohlinar discipline, a purging of all feelings, learned at the feet of the Vulcan masters. In an early episode, Spock goes on the course, but fails it because he feels a vestigial stirring of emotion for something from the V'Ger Entity (but let us not go down that murky galactic path.) The point about Spock is that he's half-Vulcan, the offspring of a human schoolteacher called Amanda Grayson, and a Vulcan father, Sarek. His human blood is always in danger of letting down his striving for unemotional clarity. Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock from the pilot to the new movie (in which he plays 'Old Spock,') described his character as, "struggling to maintain a Vulcan attitude, a Vulcan philosophical posture and a Vulcan logic, opposing what was fighting him internally, which was human emotion."

It's significant that the Vulcan word for emotion-purging is 'arei'mnu,' which means 'control of emotion'; the ideal Vulcan mindset, then, is an iron discipline about feelings - a rather Buddhist freeing of the self from disturbing impulses.

If they give in to their feelings, Vulcans don't indulge in brutality. Their philosophy embraces non-violent engagement - but if their opponents fail to see sense, they're not above a little martial arts, characterised by the crisp manoeuvre called the Vulcan nerve pinch, which involves a tiny clasping of the neck's subclavian nerve, strangely similar to the karate chop which rendered scores of burly opponents unconscious in 1960s TV shows such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Many viewers have wondered over the years about Spock and romance. Could someone so chilly and logical ever fall victim to the dizzying enslavement of love? Could we imagine his pointy-eared, black-fringed face wreathed in foolish adoration as he proposes to a Vulcan babe? Again, we probably misunderstand the nature of Vulcans. They marry in order to procreate, a course of action much favoured for centuries by the Catholic church. Their marriages are arranged by the parents, a tradition popular with the Hindu faith. But unlike Catholic and Hindu practice, the betrothal bond can be cancelled if a rival Vulcan male challenges the bonded male. The outcome is either a fight to the death, called 'Koon-ut-kal-if-fee', or the challenged fiance can simply release his proposed bride and choose another. Female fiancees do not seem to share this privilege, but the Vulcan approach to civil partnership is refreshingly liberal and dramatic. Should you fight to the death to hold onto your fiancee, or dump her and choose a different one? That should sort the human romantics from their Vulcan counterparts.

Slightly more alarming is the Vulcan sex cycle. Because they embrace logic over feelings, Vulcans experience sex only every seven years, as a torrential mating impulse called 'pon farr'; this explosive, seven-year mega-itch means you have to find a sex partner, or die in the attempt. I think we can all empathise with that feeling. But if the mate you had in mind (like Spock's much-fancied T'Pring, who preferred the pure-bred Vulcan Stonn) goes off with someone else, you can cheat death through intense meditation, extreme violence or by receiving a terrible shock. This sexual characteristic seems far from ideal - what if your favourite partner's 'pon farr' doesn't coincide with your own? After your seven years of abstinence, are you expected to mate with the first person you see?

The closest thing to finding love, in Vulcan circles, is telepathic bonding, or 'mind-melding' in which one person's thoughts and knowledge can all be shared with another. It's an extreme, accelerated version of what humans call 'bonding sessions,' or that period of discovering how closely you share interests and passions with someone whom you newly call a 'soulmate'. It sounds extremely intimate and appealing - a fast way of getting to know someone's life and mental workings - but in Vulcan hands it's a dangerous weapon. Mind-melding can be used without someone's consent, to invade their secret thoughts and find out what's on their mind. It can violate a person's privacy, like a form of cranial rape, and can be used to erase someone's memory, just as memories are wiped out by technology in Men in Black and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. There's something alarmingly sexual about mind-melding - it's no surprise to learn that doing too much of it can give you a nasty condition called 'Pana'ar infection'.

For all their mental steeliness and unemotional rigour, Vulcans are not without an appreciation of culture, theirs or those of other races. Spock enjoys arts and literature, poetry, three-dimensional chess and music, (though it's possible he might fail to see the point of Lady GaGa) but doesn't make a song and dance about them. Likewise, Vulcans are nearly all vegetarians, except when it becomes vital to eat meat because there's no alternative, eg when trapped in a foodless alien desert with some cows. Vulcans eschew strong drink, except on special occasions, such as an intergalactic victory, when they indulge in Vulcan Brandy. When non-drinker Spock goes incognito to the planet Romulus, he drinks Romulan ale to bond with the female army commander, without beating himself up for doing so. We could learn from Vulcan appetites to free ourselves from labels and extremism ("I'm a veggie"; "I'm teetotal") and to be pragmatic about what we need to eat and drink.

The Vulcan attitude to children is a little alarming. Little Vulcanites have to spend some part of their youth separated from their parents, undergoing something called 'Kahs-wan': each child must go wandering in the wilderness or desert, fending for himself, as logic and ingenuity dictate. Sometimes, unimaginative children die on these gruelling excursions, but life goes on without them. It's a ruthless, sink-or-swim, survival-of-the-fittest philosophy - like an extraterrestrial version of the boarding school system, except with death thrown in. We may feel happier about their attitude to pets. Vulcan children are given animals, not to embrace and anthropomorphise and weep over, but in order to teach the kids about responsibility, nurturing, reliance and death.

Of all the things we might want from the Vulcans, or yearn to emulate, the most important is probably 'katra': the Vulcan concept of the extractable soul. Katra is the accumulation of thoughts, memories and experiences that make you what you are. It's a twining, triple spiral of DNA, imprinted with your personality and the trajectory of your life, and can be removed like a battery-pack. In Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan, Spock sacrifices himself in order to save the Enterprise from the evil Khan Noonien Singh but not before transferring his katra into the mind of Mr McCoy. The dying Spock is fired into outer space, but his body lands on the Genesis Planet, where it begins miraculously returning to life. In the next film Star Trek III: The Hunt for Spock, the moribund Vulcan is taken to another planet where a high priestess called T'Lar performs upon him a recondite ritual called 'fal-tor-pan' or refusion (still with me?) which extracts his katra from the haggard frame of McCoy and returns it to Spock. It's a process, in other words, which simply gives you your life back.

So what can we learn from the Vulcans? Lots of things: the need to control our feelings (without becoming too glacial in the process); to embrace non-violence; to practise arranged marriages on the understanding that they can be cancelled amicably; to prefer an intense telepathic bonding to the fraught business of falling in love; to enjoy arty pursuits without becoming enslaved by them; to take stimulating food and drink cautiously and in moderation; to send the children into the wilderness as part of their maturing process, to keep sentimentality out of the nursery; and to have an essential inner self that can be transplanted, like a liver, into a host body while you're waiting to come back to life...

That's all it takes to become a working Vulcan. Start tomorrow. Don't forget the Vulcan salutation, in which the four fingers of the right hand are extended, palm outward, with the fingers parted, two and two, into a perfect V - a gesture borrowed from the Jewish Priestly Blessing in a synagogue. And take, as your future watchword, Spock's greeting (improvised by Leonard Nimoy): "Live long and prosper!" But watch out for those alarming eruptions of 'pon farr' when you least expect them...

Star Trek is released on 8 May

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