Jedi Knights and Vulcans Both Suck Now. What Happened?
Something strange happened to both Star Wars and Star Trek around twenty-five years ago: both franchises suddenly became disillusioned with their spiritual, selfless bands of heroes.
The Jedi knights and the Vulcans had been an essential part of these iconic universes from the very beginning, and twentieth century viewers would have come away with a mostly positive impression of them. That changed drastically in the late 1990s, when both Trek and Wars started portraying their respective bands of detached, disciplined seekers of truth as uptight jerks. It was a jarring transformation, and I'm still wondering what exactly happened.
Star Trek had featured the lovable Mr. Spock, and we mostly saw Vulcan culture through his eyes, as a bewildering-but-noble exercise in pursuing pure logic through a variety of rituals (and occasionally, hand-to-hand combat with big pointy shovels.) True, we occasionally heard rumblings that Spock had been judged harshly for being too human and for wanting to join Starfleet, but Spock's dad, Sarek, usually turned out to have a heart of gold. Voyager gave us Tuvok, a full Vulcan who was still noble, self abnegating, and frequently wise.
I know what you're going to say: Yes, Obi-Wan Kenobi is a congenital liar. But I would argue Obi-Wan's habit of bending the truth plays into a long tradition of unreliable mentors, who hide key facts from their proteges for reasons. And Obi-Wan does a wonderful job of making the Jedi knights sound awesome — heroic, epic, refined. He's generally a good mentor who encourages Luke to believe in himself, and sacrifices himself for others. And Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back is a prankster monk in hiding, a delightful source of wisdom wrapped in playfulness. Back in the twentieth century, everyone wanted to be a Jedi Knight.
I'd argue that Vulcans and Jedi occupy a pretty similar space in both Star Trek and Star Wars. They are the wise counselors, who advise the hero(es) on how to navigate frustrating situations. They are the other — but a friendly other, something to which we can all aspire. And they both borrow heavily from Eastern traditions, including Zen Buddhism and Daoism. They come out of a time when Alan Watts and other European people were repackaging, reinventing and commodifying Asian beliefs for white people. Above all, both groups wear cool robes and spout cryptic wisdom.
And then? Everything changed.
The Vulcans first start morphing into jerks with that baseball episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, in which a group of Vulcans challenge Sisko and his crew to a not-so-friendly game. But it's really with Star Trek: Enterprise that the Vulcans begin to seem like judgmental assholes, who try to hold humanity back and harbor severe doubts that we belong out there in the galaxy. Captain Archer regularly butts heads with the Vulcan command, though he grows to have a decent rapport with his one Vulcan officer, T'Pol. The J.J. Abrams movies take this idea further, showing Spock being bullied and mistreated as a child on Vulcan — something the Animated Series had hinted at, but hadn't delved into. In Abrams's Star Trek, it's pretty much taken for granted that the Vulcans have sticks up their butts. Star Trek: Discovery takes this even further, introducing the idea that Vulcan has a faction logic extremists, who are willing to resort to violence in the service of pure logic. (This doesn't feel very logical to me, but the needs of the plot outweigh, yadda yadda.) Finally, on Star Trek: Lower Decks, we see how T'Lyn is bullied by her crewmates on a Vulcan ship for displaying curiosity and taking initiative, in ways that actually appear quite logical, and which contribute to saving a lot of lives.
And then there are the Star Wars prequels, which show us a functioning Jedi order for the first time -- and it's terrible. Where are the noble sages that Obi-Wan and Yoda had let us to expect in the original trilogy? Not only that, but Jedi teachings seem a lot worse than what we saw in A New Hope.
Obi-Wan to Luke: Trust your feelings!
Obi-Wan to Anakin: Under no circumstances should you ever trust your feelings.
The plot of the prequels also requires the Jedi to be hopelessly naive and ridiculously hawkish, not to mention utterly lacking in humility. The Jedi come off even worse in the animated Clone Wars series, where they rush to judgment after Ahsoka is framed for bombing a Jedi Temple. When the Jedi aren't being reckless warmongers, they behave like mindless bureaucrats.
So what happened? I have some half-baked theories.
For starters, we can't ignore the increasing cynicism of pop culture in the late twentieth century. In comics, creators like Alan Moore and Frank Miller made huge waves, mostly by turning the simplistic good-versus-evil fantasies of superhero comics into something more morally gray and disturbing. You see this across all of pop culture — geeks who grew up loving colorful stories set in worlds of Manichean ethics got older, and they wanted those worlds to reflect their adult disillusionment, instead of letting them appeal to the next generation of young fans. The 1990s saw the rise of grimdark fantasy, for example.
But I also think there's just a lot more cynicism going into the late 20th century. Polls showed a decreasing level of trust in institutions among Americans. One of the most influential political films of the late 1990s was Wag the Dog, in which a U.S. president starts a war to distract from a sex scandal. (Also, early readers of this essay pointed out that there was an increasing distrust of experts around this time, along with a general suspicion of rationality and restraint. Going with your gut was cool; pausing to reflect was not.)
But also, I think we have to go back to the thing I mentioned earlier: the popularity of heavily sanitized and commodified versions of Asian spiritual and religious traditions in the West, which probably peaked in the 1960s and 1970s. The late twentieth century saw increasing paranoia about Asia, first directed at Japan and then at China.
But there's also just the fact that familiarity breeds contempt. Mostly benevolent, aloof icons are only really palatable in small doses. The more we saw of the Vulcans and the Jedi, the likelier we were to start noticing all of their negative qualities. The Time Lords on Doctor Who were never as lovable as either the Vulcans or the Jedi, but they went through a similar process of demystification, going from powerful and mysterious gods to venal, petty creeps in the space of just seven years.
To be honest, I don't really have a single compelling explanation for the jerkification of both Jedi and Vulcans about 25 years ago. But I do think it's kind of sad: We lost two aspirational symbols around the same time.
The thing that unites the Vulcans and the Jedi is their extreme capacity for negative emotions like hatred, and their determination not to succumb. Vulcans, as every Star Trek fan knows, have stronger and more extreme emotions than humans, but they learned to control those emotions through severe mental discipline and a devotion to reason. The Jedi, meanwhile, seem constantly tempted to fall to the Dark Side of the Force, which happens when passion and in particular rage overtake you. The Jedi only achieve benevolence thanks to training and constant self-awareness. These are two rare examples in pop culture of people choosing mindfulness over mindless rage.
There's a stock scene in 21st century pop culture: a hero who has been pushed too far defeats a sneering bad guy and winds up crouching over their defeated opponent, beating them across the face and shoulders over and over again with mind-numbing savagery. I can't tell you how many times I've seen this sequence in the past twenty years. Generally, we're supposed to understand that the hero has snapped, and this is not a good thing -- but it's understandable, and cathartic, and maybe beating your enemies to a pulp is sometimes the only way. I can't help fearing this is what we get when we stop believing in Space Buddhists.
Music I Love Right Now
I've been loving Sheryl Lee Ralph's incredible performance as Barbara, Janine's mentor, in Abbot Elementary. So I flipped when I listened to a compilation of 80s dance music and found the title track from Ralph's debut album, In The Evening. I've since listened to the whole album, and wow. It's some top-shelf mid-eighties synth-funk, and pretty much every track is a banger. It's produced by Trevor Lawrence, the saxophonist and arranger/producer who also helped to produce the Pointer Sisters album So Excited!. Here's the Cinderella-themed music video for the title track.
This Saturday, I'm going to be at the Pride on the Page festival in Palm Springs, CA, along with some incredible queer icons like Armistead Maupin, A.M. Homes and tons of others. I'm taking part in a panel about gender and writing from 2 to 3 PM on Saturday. Come say hi!!!
I helped to create Escapade, a trans superhero, for Marvel Comics, and all of her adventures should be on Marvel Unlimited by now. Start with Marvel's Voices: Pride (2022) #1 and then read New Mutants #31 through 33 (or New Mutants Vol. 04), and finally New Mutants: Lethal Legion (or you can pre-order the Lethal Legion collected edition!)
I have a story in the new anthology From a Certain Point of View: Return of the Jedi, about the almighty Sarlacc pit.
I have an essay in the upcoming anthology Critical Hits: Writers Playing Video Games, edited by Carmen Maria Machado and J. Robert Lennon. I'm writing about movies where someone from the real world goes inside a game, from Tron to Jumanji.
I wrote a young adult trilogy, and the final book (Promises Stronger Than Darkness) came out in April. It's basically the gayest shit ever, featuring a team of outrageous queers saving all of the worlds with the power of creativity and getting each other's pronouns right.
I'm still doing the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz, all about the meaning of science fiction, science and futurism. For our latest episode, I watched every single episode of the 2003-2009 reboot of Battlestar Galactica.
I'm reviewing science fiction and fantasy books for the Washington Post, and you can read all my reviews here. My October review roundup should be up any day now.