Star Trek: Discovery takes an admittedly leisurely approach to storytelling, particularly in S1, but that’s frankly part of its appeal. It’s very much a character-driven show, taking the time to explore complex emotions and relationships. As we wrote in our year-end roundup, “When Discovery shines, it’s like a supernova against the night sky—and much of that light comes from the stellar cast.” One of of those sources of light is actor Ethan Peck, who plays Spock on the series. Peck recently sat down with Ars Technica to talk about the challenge of stepping into some pretty big shoes to portray the canonical character.
(Some spoilers for first two seasons of Star Trek: Discovery below.)
Discovery is a prequel to the original Star Trek, set roughly 10 years before Captain James T. Kirk and his intrepid crew took over the USS Enterprise and boldly went where no man had gone before. It stars Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham, an orphaned human raised on the planet Vulcan by none other than Sarek (James Frain) and his human wife, Amanda Grayson (Mia Kirshner)—aka, Spock’s parents, which makes her Spock’s adoptive sister. (Certain purists might object that this violates Star Trek canon; Ars’ own Kate Cox prefers to call it “sanctioned fanfic. There was undefined room around the edges to fill in, so they did.”)
In S1, Michael has a promising career as first officer of the USS Shenzhou under Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh)—until a desperate act to prevent a war with a united Klingon race drives her to defy orders and essentially commit mutiny. Lots of casualties ensued. The season’s broad narrative arc is partly her redemption story, as she joins the crew of the USS Discovery at the behest of Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs). The rest of it involves fighting the Klingons and traveling to a mirror universe, with some pretty major consequences. The final shot showed Discovery meeting up with the USS Enterprise, no doubt igniting excited “squees!” from diehard fans.
For the second season, Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) has temporarily replaced Lorca as captain of the Discovery, while the Enterprise is undergoing repairs. There was more of a return to the classic standalone episode structure, with a season-long arc involving mysterious appearances of a “Red Angel” and a rogue Starfleet AI called Control who seeks to wipe out all sentient life in the universe. That’s where Spock comes in: he has had recurrent visions of the Red Angel since childhood, and teams up with his estranged sister, Michael, and the rest of the Discovery crew to foil Control’s nefarious plan.
Peck readily admits to feeling considerable trepidation about taking on such an iconic role, following in the footsteps not just of the original Spock, the legendary Leonard Nimoy, but also Zachary Quinto, who portrays the Vulcan in J.J. Abrams’ rebooted film franchise. “I was initially kind of in denial about it, because you never expect that kind of role to come around,” Peck told Ars.
Once he snagged the role, “I had to overcome a lot of self-doubt,” he said. “I wasn’t sure I was ready to take on that much responsibility. I knew it could change my life dramatically. On the one hand, I’d dreamed of something like this. On the other, when you get your dreams, that’s when the real work begins, and you have to figure out what you’re made of.”
Fortunately, the actor thrives on tackling difficult challenges, and rose to the occasion. He found inspiration in past Spock portrayals, and in the 1984 film, Starman, which starred Jeff Bridges as an alien grappling with his new human body and the messy world of human emotions. And as he settled into the character, a bit of Spock started to rub off on him, particularly when it came to wasting mental energy on self-doubt.
“I realized Spock would never think this way,” he said. “With Spock I learned the importance of honing your own programming. There was a culling of thoughts that were bad for my preparation for the role. That really came from always thinking, ‘What would Spock do?’ As an actor, you have to weasel your way into minds that are not your own.”
“What makes Spock so compelling is the perpetual conflict within him.”
Part of that challenge lies in conveying emotion and Spock’s essential human side, when the character is famous for being logical, precise, and distrustful of emotion. Nimoy was a master of the expressively arched eyebrow. While Peck says he, too, has “articulate eyebrows,” he was hampered in exploiting that feature by the fact that his makeup called for “eyebrow blockers”: a prosthetic placed over his actual eyebrows, in lieu of shaving them into the classic Vulcan shape. “I had to make sure I raised my eyebrow enough every time I had to do that,” he said.
Instead, he focused on the eyes and vocal cadences to emphasize the character’s thoughtfulness and introspection. “What makes Spock so compelling is the perpetual conflict within him,” said Peck. “The conflict between logic and emotion, between Vulcan and human. I always saw in Nimoy’s eyes a depth of understanding of the emotion around him, and an empathy with those around him. That wasn’t always communicated verbally. But you see it in the time he takes to consider moments or situations. That, I think, expresses his humanity very well.”
The gradual humanization of Spock arguably began in the 1980s with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) after (spoiler alert!) Spock’s death and resurrection, becoming more pronounced in the Abrams franchise. Discovery‘s incarnation of Spock is probably the most humanized to date, best characterized by his difficult relationship with his estranged adoptive sister Michael—a key thematic arc for the season. We don’t actually meet Spock until well into S2, when Michael finds him on Vulcan, psychologically tormented by the return of his childhood visions of the Red Angel.
“As I understood it, Spock had spent so much time compartmentalizing his humanity that it was now harming him,” said Peck. “I think Michael really teaches Spock about his humanity. Her childhood of abandonment of him is what forces him to close off his feelings, plus he’s raised on a planet that’s not accepting of emotion. So when they do reconnect, it’s a bit of a re-education that emotion and instinct give us something above pure logic.” In other words, Michael helps him to become the best version of his dual-natured self.
Alas, Spock seems unlikely to play a role in Star Trek: Discovery‘s forthcoming third season, since in the S2 finale, the spaceship was forced to travel over 900 years into the future to defeat Control. Spock was unable to join Michael and the rest of the crew on that journey, if for no other reason than to preserve the canonical timeline. The good news is that a spinoff series featuring Pike, Number One (Rebecca Romijin), and Spock, together on board the USS Enterprise, is already in development— likely also a prequel to TOS, given what we know of Pike’s ultimate fate.
While there’s no guarantee such a series will eventually transpire, and the current pandemic has put the brakes on everything in Hollywood for the time being, Peck would be delighted to reprise the role, relishing the opportunity to further explore the character’s inner world. “I would love to continue playing this character and being a part of this world,” he said. “Sure, I am biased by now because I’m part of it, and I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, but there’s almost something religious about Star Trek. Its ideology provides a hope that people can hold onto. Just look at the community it’s created. It celebrates what makes us special as human beings, illuminates what makes us great.”
Maybe we need Star Trek now more than ever. So go on, get your Trek on this weekend with a Star Trek: Discovery marathon. It’s still streaming on CBS All Access, along with Picard and seasons past.