In some ways, Ethan Peck has it the hardest of all adult actors who have played the iconic Star Trek character Mr. Spock. While Leonard Nimoy and Zachary Quinto were able to play Spock’s eventual emotional outbursts as a kind of shocking crescendo, Peck’s Spock is the reverse: He starts out as a crying mess in the back of a cave. In the just-aired Star Trek: Discovery episode “Light and Shadows,” we’ve finally gotten our first glimpse of the new Spock, and he’s not the calm, collected person Trek fans have known for so many years.
SYFY WIRE talked to Peck about the new episode, why he thinks fans love seeing an emotional Spock, and whether he’ll be around for Discovery’s third season.
**SPOILER WARNING: There are spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery Season 2, Episode 7, "Light and Shadows," below.**
“It was terrifying to jump into the role this way,” Ethan Peck tells SYFY WIRE. “To start in this place where he’s in a psychotic break was very challenging. Spock doesn’t emote as humans do. So, to do that in a truthful and authentic way and to be true to who he will be in the future, it was a very delicate balancing of process and exploration.”
After six episodes of searching for Spock, Michael Burnham finds her brother hidden away in a cave on the planet Vulcan, being protected by their mother, Amanda. Though all of this emo-Spock stuff might feel radical to some fans, the history of Spock having deadly emotional outbursts is part of why people love the character. In fact, some of the most beloved episodes of the original series are about Spock acting, well, out of character. In “The Naked Time,” Spock cries much as he does in the new Discovery episode. And in both “This Side of Paradise” and “Amok Time,” Spock tries to kill Captain Kirk in fits of emotional rage.
The point is, an emotional, volatile Spock is perhaps the most classic Trek move Discovery can pull. But why does this trick always work? Why do fans love seeing Spock flipping out?
“I think we love Spock flipping out so much because what makes him exciting to watch is his level of control over himself and his emotions,” Peck says. “I think we realize he really is so full of emotion, and to see it burst forth is thrilling.”
As preparation for the role, Peck said he read Leonard Nimoy’s first memoir, the 1975 book I Am Not Spock, in which Nimoy saw the singer Harry Belafonte perform on stage. “[Belafonte] started on stage singing, standing utterly still for about 20 or 30 minutes. And then in the crescendo of the music, he raised his hand suddenly,” Peck says. “And for Nimoy, that contrast between stillness and this great gesture inspired some of Spock’s control. So I think that’s always a compelling thing to see that control that has been sustained for such a long time to be broken.”
As the grandson of legendary actor Gregory Peck, Ethan Peck also understood that part of taking up the role of Spock was connected to a family legacy, one that he says felt echoed the acting legacy he inherited from his grandfather. "I was thinking about this when I was driving to meet the Nimoy family for the first time. I thought this was like the passing of a torch or a lineage, and that I think comes with a lot of expectation," he says. "So, in a weird way, I was prepared for all of this just by being my grandfather’s grandson. And here I was taking on another yet another legacy. It was really frightening, but in a way, I’ve been doing this all my life."
After meeting Nimoy's family — Adam Nimoy, Julie Nimoy, and their spouses, Deep Space Nine alum Terry Farrell and David Knight — Peck said that he was more "curious" about Spock than he had been before and set out to “internalize the spirit and soul of Spock." This means he spent a lot of time watching the original Star Trek, particularly the first season. “It’s very specific what he [Nimoy] did as an actor,” Peck explains. “So I wanted to pay attention to that, but I also wanted to study the musicality of the voice and the cadence, his gesticulations.”
Much like co-star Anson Mount, Peck isn’t out to “mimic” Nimoy's performance. But he still felt that the burden of playing such an iconic character required a decent amount of research. Which is interesting, of course, because Peck was in the dark at first that he was even auditioning for Spock at all. And it turns out that what he was given to read in his secret Spock audition isn’t too far off from his first scene in the new episode.
“That audition was so abstract!” Peck explains. “It was Michael Burnham approaching an Andorian, in a cave on some planet. And the Andorian is running through this abstract narrative in his brain. He’s reciting lines from Alice in Wonderland, he’s talking loosely about this angel character, and it seemed to me the alien was going through an existential crisis. As though he were experiencing emotions for the first time and could not intellectualize them. Now, from here, that sounds just like Spock, but I never would have dreamed I would be reading for him.”
Hardcore fans might find the Andorian bait-and-switch funny, if only because it’s a huge shout-out to an episode of the 1973 animated Star Trek series called “Yesteryear.” In that episode, history is changed when Spock dies as a young child, which means that in the future, an Andorian by the name of Thelin is serving on the Enterprise in Spock’s place.
These days Spock’s future again seems to be threatened, not only by the time-traveling Red Angel driving him insane but also by the fact that it’s unclear just how long Ethan Peck’s version of the character can remain on Star Trek: Discovery without messing up the established timeline. This week the series was renewed for a third season, but what does that mean for the characters? Anthony Rapp and Doug Jones both say they’re in for the long haul, but what about Ethan Peck’s Spock? Will he be in Season 3?
“You know I can’t answer that!” Peck says with a laugh. “I wish I could. For now, I’m just pinching myself. I’m now a part of a greater community and family. Star Trek, for many people, is a really safe place. Like a beacon of hope. I don’t want to say a place of faith, but in a way, Starfleet represents this ideal notion of unity. And it’s a really beautiful sentiment.”
Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 airs its remaining episodes over the next seven weeks on Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET on CBS All Access.