If you haven’t heard, Spock smiles in the latest trailer for Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 (also seen in this sneak peak). Star Trek has a long, proud tradition of Spock smiling, and I am glad to see that Disco will be continuing it with their interpretation of a younger Spock, played by Ethan Peck.
Where does this smile fit into the history of Spock contorting his face to express a positive emotional response? What could it mean for Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 and this new incarnation of Spock? Don’t worry, friends. I’m about to break it down for you.
A History of Spock’s Smiles
While there can sometimes be an idea in Star Trek fandom that Spock never smiles, this is not the case. This character, while typically very reserved in his emotional expression, smiles more in The Original Series then you might think. Here are some examples of Spock smiling…
“The Cage”/”The Menagerie”
Reason for smiling: Singing flower.
Kind of smile: Relieved.
Spock first smiled in “The Cage,” the original pilot for Star Trek: The Original Series. Many changes were made between the production of this pilot and the production of “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” the pilot that would eventually be shown, but TOS uses much of “The Cage”‘s footage for its Season 1 two-parter “The Menagerie.”
The in-universe explanation for Spock’s smile here, per the screenplay for “The Menagerie,” is that Spock was relieved that the source of the musical, flute-like sounds they were hearing was a plant and nothing sinister. But, let’s be real, he was also probably super delighted at finding some native flora to gush over. Spock is a total nerd like that. This may be the purest Spock smile.
Leonard Nimoy gave some behind-the-scenes insight into this moment with this tweet…
“Where No Man Has Gone Before”
Reason for smiling: He thinks he’s about to checkmate Kirk in three-dimensional chess. (He’s not.)
Kind of smile: Smug.
Spock loves his games of three-dimensional chess, and prides himself on his logical gameplay. This is why he is so happy when he seems to be beating Kirk when they play in “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and so grumpy when Kirk makes an “illogical” move that totally throws him off his game.
Reason for smiling: Discovering that Kirk is not dead.
Kind of smile: Overjoyed/relieved.
This is no mere smile. Spock basically jumps for joy when he finds out that he did not, in fact, kill Captain Kirk during his Pon Farr. “Jim!” he exclaims, before reigning his emotions in a bit. “I am… pleased to see you again, Captain. You seem… uninjured.”
McCoy looks on, smirking. It’s too late, Spock. He saw it.
“This Side of Paradise”
Reason for smiling: Spores.
Kind of smile: Drug-induced.
This episode gets Spock smiles bonus points because he not only smiles, he straight-up laughs.
When the crew of the Enterprise lands on Omicron Ceti III to investigate what happened to a Federation colony, they find the colonists alive and very well. Their happiness is the result of an indigenous spore that put those infected into a state of peace and euphoria, and also make them unwilling to leave the planet.
The result? A very happy Spock, who falls in love with a botanist named Leila, climbs trees, and generally shirks all of his duties in favor of fun. Frankly, it’s pretty delightful to watch.
“Return to Tomorrow”
Reason for smiling: Body inhabited by telepathic alien.
Kind of smile: Not real Spock smile.
In my opinion, this one really shouldn’t count as a Spock smile because Spock’s body is inhabited by this telepathic alien name Henoch. Thusly, this is really Henoch smiling, not Spock. It’s nice to see Leonard Nimoy get some facial exercises in, though.
Reason for smiling: Forced to by telekinetic aliens.
Kind of smile: Not real Spock smile.
In this episode, the crew of the Enterprise meets a bunch of telekinetic aliens who are obsessed with classic Greek society. In an attempt to get McCoy to stay on the planet as their physician, the Platonians, as they have named themselves, use their powers to make Kirk, Spock, and other members of the crew do things.
For Spock, these things include laughing and crying. The Platonians coercion of the crew members is disturbing to watch. This Spock “smile” definitely doesn’t count.
“All Our Yesterdays”
Reason for smiling: Telepathically-influenced by contemporary barbaric Vulcans.
Kind of smile: Love-y.
In “All Our Yesterdays,” Spock travels back 5,000 years on the planet Sarpeidon to a time before Vulcans had learned to master their emotions. Telepathically-influenced by the barbaric Vulcans of the time, Spock becomes a much more outwardly emotional version of himself, falling in love with a woman named Zarabeth, attacking McCoy in anger, and, yes, dear reader, smiling.
Conclusion: Spock smiles.
The above examples are from from the only examples of Spock smiling in The Original Series, as noted in a genius, no doubt time-consuming fan edit of Spock smiling across TOS and into the films. As you’ll see, it was not uncommon for Nimoy to imbue his performance as Spock with the hint of a smile, or even something more, when the context called for it.
What does this mean for Star Trek: Discovery Season 2?
Well, for one thing, it means that Discovery may be lightening things up more in Season 2. It also tells us even more about Peck’s interpretation of this iconic character.
One of the things I really liked about this smile from Peck’s Spock is that it is very reminiscent of a Nimoy smile in its subtley. Though Nimoy sometimes went for a more pronounced smile, most notably in the “Amok Time” smile noted above, most of his smiles were glimmers of amusement or affection that only play as smiles in the context of this outwardly stoic character.
Peck’s Spock’s smile in the trailer is the kind eye-twinkling we saw all of the time in TOS Spock.
Another important canon context for Spock’s smile in Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 is the acknowledgment that Vulcans are meant to gain additional emotional control as they age.
The Spock we will meet in Disco Season 2 is younger than any of the Spock’s we’ve met before in this timeline, aside from Spock in “The Cage”/”Menagerie” and the Spock in The Animated Series‘ “Yesteryear.” If Disco wanted to go in this direction, it would make sense that Spock would be slightly less controlled in his emotions than the Spock we know and love from TOS.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 premieres on January 17th. Read more about Season 2 here.