To prepare us for the new movie, Matt Zoller Seitz has a “fascinating” video essay on the character of Mr. Spock. It’s really two essays in one, because the full text of the essay is printed below the video. You can’t ask for a better introduction to the social issues that are built into the character, as well as his ancestors in popular culture.
Like Othello, Spock is a driven individual who donned a uniform in order to define himself — not to reconcile his human and Vulcan ancestry, but to contain or neutralize it — to make it quite beside the point. He is dependable to a fault: the officer to whom the captain, the crew and the series all turn to in order to make sense of the inexplicable; the man with the answers and the plan.
(Link via Todd.)
However, I think the popularity of Spock, along with some of Shatner’s weirder career choices, have caused Kirk to be a little underrated compared to Spock, but in some ways, I think Kirk was Star Trek‘s best achievement and the hardest role to play. He’s a less unusual character than Spock, but that’s what makes him hard to bring off: he’s the brash, self-assured, ladies’-man hero that many adventure stories have in some form or another. Spock is a high-concept character; Kirk is a very traditional character. Spock is a person struggling to achieve the right balance; Kirk, as the hero, is the guy who’s already in balance, who knows how to balance reason and emotion. It’s very impressive that Shatner and the writers managed to figure out that character without making him a perfect, sanctimonious bore or a disgusting pig. None of the other Treks ever managed to pull off an old-fashioned hero character like that (most didn’t even try), and similar characters, like the young heroes on the first Battlestar Galactica, just don’t compare to him. Kirk is actually a heroic character; most TV “heroes” are not.
But here’s a reason why William Shatner’s fine work on the original and best Star Trek is often forgotten — because he spent the ensuing years doing a lot of stuff like this. It’s not quite as much of a WTF masterpiece as “Rocket Man” and “Taxi,” because the song itself — a show tune originally sung by Richard Burton — actually lends itself to talk-singing.