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TV: Book Smart, Street Stupid.

Posted October 25, 2012 by Paul Bowler in Ramp Specials
Spock and Kirk

We love unique characters on our TVs, those quirky and singular and likely to be routinely beaten up in real life. Think Jessica Day (Zooey Deschanel) from New Girl, Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow) from Friends, Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik) from The Big Bang Theory and Sue Heck (Eden Sher) from The Middle. All can be filed under ‘kooky’, a term our dictionary defines as ‘strange or eccentric’. In TV land, it is an archetype, usually female, and usually one which inspires strong feelings of either anger or devotion in the viewer.

That’s the thing about TV land; it can and does pigeonhole uniqueness. It doesn’t set out to undermine individuality. It’s just that in an industry which annually churns out many thousands of hours of product, every single character and characteristic has already been done. The fecundity of modern TV is not solely to blame; we have been inventing characters for thousands of years and let’s be honest, we’ve been repeating ourselves quite liberally for some time now.

One of the most enduring archetypes is a partnership rather than an individual character. A partnership of two contrasting, even conflicting personality types, who ,when combined, make a world-conquering team. It’s the archetype of the Warrior and the Intellect, and one which we would suggest began with Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and Commander Spock (Leonard Nimoy) in Star Trek.

It is an absorbing and enthralling relationship: the super-intellectual Spock and Kirk, the emotionally intelligent warrior. Time and again, death is defied and the universe is saved, as Kirk, with his über-manliness and all round awesome humanity, leads Spock, a character who seems to know more, but in reality only knows more facts, and not how to live and love. Influenced by Kirk’s emotional intelligence, Spock grows in humanity.

The attractiveness of this dynamic has led to its attempted replication in many other TV programmes. Even the Star Trek franchise had another pop at it; think Enterprise, with Captain Archer (Scott Bakula) and T’Pol (Jolene Blalock).

There’s the relationship between Special Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz) and Doctor Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan (Emily Deschanel) in Bones. Super geek and amateur human being, Brennan wishes to see the world outside of her laboratory. She is partnered with the emotionally intelligent warrior, Seeley Booth. They conquer the world and she becomes more human.

In Eureka, Sheriff Jack Carter (Colin Ferguson) plays the emotionally intelligent warrior to an entire town of slightly off-kilter egg-heads. He repeatedly saves this community of effeminate super scientists from disaster after disaster.

In Stargate SG1, there is a twist. There are two warriors and two brainiacs. The undoubted leader – the special one, the supreme warrior, the all-round, fully fledged human –  is Jack O’Neill. Even the Asgard recognised his specialness, and they stopped having sex thousands of years ago, so you know they have to be very focused on what they are doing and saying and thinking.

More recently, in Rizzoli and Isles, we have come full circle. Both character types are played by women: a tomboy warrior and her shoe-loving, brainy side-kick.

What’s remarkable about this archetypal partnership is that the warrior is always the more level-headed one, and the leader. In contrast, in the Sherlock Holmes tales, the eccentric genius is the leader. His many human failings do not disqualify him from leadership. He is clearly the more intelligent, thus is in charge. Doctor Watson, with his Military Service and his ability to interact with people, is relegated to a subservient role.

They toyed with this more old-fashioned value in the Star Trek movie in 2009. In this version, Spock (Zachary Quinto) is Kirk’s (Chris Pine) superior officer. This is treated as potentially disastrous. World-endingly bad, in fact. This inverted relationship, twisting the roles whilst essentially staying true to the archetype, is curious.

So to what can we attribute the enduring success of the Warrior/Intellect archetype? Is it an American value? Or is it more primal? Is it patriarchal? Is the archetype a somewhat peculiar view of the relationship between a husband and his wife, the solid and mature warrior and his book-smart, hysterical woman?

Perhaps we are doing this archetype a disservice by not describing the relationships as partnerships. But let’s be honest; Kirk does not play second fiddle to anyone. And it’s strange that even though there’s a fetishisation of technology in the genres in which we most often identify this archetype – science fiction, crime/forensics drama – the manly warriors are in charge an awful lot.

About the Author

Paul Bowler

Writer and Trekkie from the Kingdom.

  • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

    I hadn’t really noticed it much before, but you’re right, there’s something really macho about the partnership. The traditionally “male” traits – physical strength, cunning, bravery – are seen as being more useful than the more uppity, “higher” leanings. Spock’s smarter than all of us, so we identify with Kirk, so Kirk gets to lead.

  • http://twitter.com/funkyderek Derek Walsh

    Counter-example: Picard and Riker. French-speaking, tea-drinking, flute-playing Shakespeare-reading Picard is the leader, while brash and horny Riker is his Number 1.

    • http://twitter.com/datbeardyman Paul Bowler

      Perfect topic for another article; I think Captain Picard is so revered because he is THE archetypal warrior nerd.

      • http://twitter.com/notRuairi Rú Hickson

        He also loves a light vinaigrette, and I’m down with that.

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