Even non-Star Trek fans know who Mr. Spock is. Originally played by Leonard Nimoy in the original Star Trek TV series, Spock has become a pop culture icon. People everywhere are familiar with the impassive pointy-eared Vulcan (who had a human mother), while his famous lines, “Fascinating” and “Live Long and Prosper” have become common catch phrases.
Despite this, many misconceptions exist about Spock – particularly the idea that he has no emotions. Actually, Spock – like all Vulcans – has very strong feelings that could make him very emotional and even violent if left unchecked. To counter this, Spock suppresses his feelings under a mask of cool logic. Every now and then, however, some of these emotions slip out, and viewers are left with disconcerting scenes of Spock lashing out in homicidal rage or breaking out in fits of laughter.
This makes Spock a very challenging – and fascinating – character to portray on screen. At least three actors have played Spock in TV shows and movies. While fans may debate over which actor embodied Mr. Spock best, let’s take a look at what each performance brought to everyone’s favorite Vulcan.
Leonard Nimoy originated the character of Spock and, despite writing an autobiography entitled I Am Not Spock, would continue to make appearances as the Vulcan up until his death in 2015. (Nimoy would also write a sequel to his autobiography entitled I Am Spock.)
Playing Mr. Spock over almost fifty years gave Nimoy a chance to explore aspects of the Vulcan’s personality in ways no other actor to date ever could. Nimoy first played Spock in the original Star Trek pilot “The Cage” before William Shatner joined the cast as Captain Kirk). This Spock actually cracks an uncharacteristic grin in one scene, showing how Nimoy was still developing the character.
Over the next few seasons, Nimoy would help create many key characteristics of Spock, including his famous “Vulcan nerve pinch” (a nonviolent way for Spock to incapacitate foes) and the Vulcan hand salute (based on a Jewish blessing gesture).
Nimoy’s Spock was coldly logical most of the time but also showed great compassion – sacrificing his life for the crew of the Enterprise in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
As Nimoy aged, his Spock became mellower and attempted to broker a peace between the Vulcans and their estranged sister race the Romulans. By his final appearances in J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek films appeared to have found a comfortable balance between logic and emotion.
Zachary Quinto next played Mr. Spock in Abrams’ new Star Trek films. Quinto’s Spock actually came from an alternate timeline accidentally created by Nimoy’s Spock when he traveled back in time. This Spock saw the destruction of his home planet Vulcan which also killed his human mother Amanda (Winona Ryder).
As a result of this trauma, Quinto’s version of Spock was more frequently emotional – lashing out in anger at Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and later brutally beating Kirk’s murderer Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness. On the flipside, this Spock also dealt with the challenges of expressing love thanks to his romantic relationship with the Enterprise’s communication officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana).
Ethan Peck appeared as Spock in the second season of the CBS All Access television series Star Trek: Discovery. Although this Spock was from the same timeline as Nimoy’s original Spock, he behaved very differently.
Introduced as a fugitive wrongfully accused of murdering multiple people, Peck’s version of Spock first appeared as a bearded man struggling to hold onto both logic and sanity. Later episodes showed him reconciling with his estranged sister Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), causing Spock to show his angrier and more sarcastic side as he dealt with years of sibling rivalry.
While Spock returns to his usual appearance and demeanor at the end of the season, Peck’s performance shows there are still aspects of Mr. Spock’s personality that have yet to be explored. It’s a testament to the strength of Nimoy’s original performance that actors continue to eagerly re-interpret the Vulcan for new audiences and show how relevant this pop culture icon still is.