atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,
atomic_fungus
atomic_fungus

#5243: What is wrong with Mr. Tuvok?

John C. Wright has an excellent piece up today talking about how Hollywood is ruining good hero stories. It's a really good read, and makes a crapton of good points; but then he says this:
...[I]f the writer wants more blacks in STAR TREK, having Spock played by a black actor in the latest remakes would be an insult to the character. Nothing stops the filmmaker from having a dark skinned Mr. Tuvok as in VOYAGER, or a female Vulcan officer as in T’Pol in ENTERPRISE. The difference is that if you make a new character, you have to do something creative to make the character memorable. But Black Spock is as dumb an idea as Girl Thor.
That reminded me of Voyager, which was easily the worst series ever to come from the Star Trek universe. It was the worst because it was the most politically-correct. Tuvok was a symptom; and my discussion here actually dovetails nicely with Mr. Wright's.

"What is wrong with Mr. Tuvok?" He's black. And vulcans can't be black.

"You're racist!" No, I'm not. Look:

40 Eridani A is a K1-class main sequence star about sixteen light years from Earth. It's much cooler than our sun is (our sun is a G2, and spectral classes run from top to bottom O B A F G K M N R S) and its light is more red. It produces less ultraviolet than our star does.

According to the canon of Star Trek, the universe was seeded with DNA by an ancient race and evolution was allowed to proceed on a bunch of planets in parallel. That's why humans and vulcans and klingons and cardassians and bajorans and-and-and can all interbreed. It's why Kirk could have sex with the Orion slave girl.

But all these instances of parallel evolution--while resulting in highly similar species--also resulted in them having great differences. Vulcans, for example, have hemoglobin that's based on copper, rather than iron, which is why their blood is green. (And of course their internal organs are arranged differently, as is the case with klingons.) It's why they can differentiate races, in the show, with different forehead and nose appliques while claiming they also have highly different biochemistries. All these characteristics were due to different evolutionary environments.

So far we're in good shape. There's no reason for life--even life started from the same basic seed--to be the same everywhere; I mean, look at Galapagos, for crying out loud. We've cataloged one planet's biodiversity and we've found that even minor changes in environment can make for big differences in physiology. That's where we have the problem, in fact.

You see, Earth's sun puts out a pretty good amount of ultraviolet light, which is ionizing radiation. There's enough UV in sunlight that life on Earth's surface has to have defense mechanisms against it. We get sunburn if we stay out in sunlight too long; the skin turns darker in response. The pigmentation of the dead epidermis blocks UV from reaching the living cells underneath, which could be harmed by the radiation (and which could become cancerous). But we're not all dark by default, which would seem to be a natural trait in such an environment. Some of us are lighter in color because our ancestors inhabited places which get less sunlight over the course of a year, and defaulting to dark skin is unnecessary. Some of us are darker because our ancestors inhabited places with a lot of sunlight year-round.

But that's for a planet warmed by a G2 star.

For a planet warmed by a K1 star, melanin is much less important. The UV output of 40 Eridani A is less blue, more red, and so vulcan life would have comparatively less UV protection, because it would need less than terrestrial life does. And where there is no need for a trait, it doesn't appear (or rapidly vanishes if it does). That's Natural Selection 101.

You or I, we could walk on the surface of Vulcan all summer long and never need a drop of sunscreen. I'm white as a sheet, near enough, but the melanin present in my skin would be sufficient and I would never get a sunburn there. My skin might darken a bit, lose the pallor due to too many days spent indoors, but I wouldn't get a very dark tan there. I couldn't; there just isn't enough UV in 40 Eridani A's light.

So, why is Tuvok black?

Tuvok is purebred vulcan, so he's not getting his skin color from one of his parents. Vulcan life doesn't need that level of UV protection, so his skin color didn't come from genetics--that's science, for crying out loud--and as far as I can recall he is the only example we've ever seen of a black vulcan.

That only leaves a few possibilities. One, Tuvok lied about his past and is actually a human who had surgery to make him look like a vulcan--but no, he's not trans-species, because he's got the telepathic abilities and everything else that says he's pure vulcan. Two, he had some kind of disease when younger which permanently stained his skin. But if that were so, we'd have seen more like him, wouldn't we? Even if it were rare? Three, he's a mutant.

"Mutant" checks all the right boxes without checking any of the wrong ones. Lucky for Mr. Tuvok, his mutation is a benign one, one that makes his job (Starfleet officer) a bit easier without causing him any trouble since no one cares about skin color in the 24th century, unless they're aliens-of-the-week who are there to be the foils of this week's morality play.

I don't really care about whether or not there are black vulcans. It's a TV show with a bunch of near-magic technology in it, so one little thing here or there doesn't really matter. What bothers me about Tuvok isn't that he was black, but that they cast a black man to play a vulcan solely because they wanted a black man to play a vulcan. It was a selling point: "And in this series, the vulcan will be black! And it's about time we had a black vulcan. It's a triumph for equal rights!" There was no justification for it other than "The only reason we've never seen a black vulcan before now is RACISS THAT'S WHY YOU BIGOT"

Tim Russ did a great job playing Tuvok; he's a competent actor and he could have done any role on that show equally well. But if we're going to purport to be telling a science fiction story, we need to at least remember the science.
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