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50 years of Star Trek: best episode and reflections on autism

The 50th anniversary of the TV show Star Trek‘s first broadcast is today. It was a formative franchise for me growing up, informing many of my first ideas about space exploration, heroism, and a collaborative society. Debates redound about the best episode of the series. However, I agree with Business Insider’s choice of the episode Balance of Terror. It’s essentially a space version of submarine warfare, for which I’ve been a sucker ever since the game Red Storm Rising for the Commodore 64. This episode has everything: Lore building of the political and technological history of the Federation, the introduction of a new opponent, a glimpse of life on the lower decks, and character development galore for multiple cast members – including a guest star.

One of the moments that always stuck with me was one in the Captain’s quarters as the Enterprise and its Romulan counterpart wait each other out in silence. Dr. McCoy comes to speak with Captain Kirk, who expresses a rare moment of self-doubt regarding his decisions during tactical combat. The doctor’s compassionate nature comes through as he reminds the captain how across 3 million Earth-like planets that might exist, recapitulated across 3 million million galaxies, there’s only one of each of us – and not to destroy the one named Kirk. The lesson of that moment resonates 50 years later and is one I like to revisit when I feel myself beset by doubts about myself or my career.

Another moment I appreciate is the imperfection allowed in Spock’s character without being under the influence of spores, temporal vortices, or other sci-fi contrivances. Already, he has been accused of being a Romulan spy by a bigoted member of the crew who lost multiple family members in a war with the Romulans decades before visual communication was possible. Now, Spock breaks the silence under which the Enterprise was operating with a clumsy grip on the console he is repairing. Is this the action of a spy? Or just an errant mistake that anyone could make, especially when under heightened scrutiny?

Indeed, this error might be expected when Mr. Spock operates under stereotype threat. Just hours earlier, he was revealed to share striking physiological similarities with the Romulan enemies, who Spock described as possible warrior offshoots of the Vulcan race before Vulcans embraced logic. This revelation caused Lt. Stiles, who had branches of his family wiped out in the prior war with the Romulans, to view Spock with distrust and outright bigotry that was so blatant that the captain called him on it on the bridge. Still, Stiles’s prejudice against Spock is keenly displayed throughout the episode, making it more likely that Spock would conform to the sabotaging behavior expected of him by his bridgemate.

On their own ship, the sneaky and cunning Romulans were not depicted as mere stereotypes of those adjectives but instead as a richly developed martial culture. Their commander and his centurion have a deep bond that extends over a hundred campaigns; the regard these two have for each other is highlighted in the actors’ subtle inflections and camaraderie. The internal politics of the Romulan empire are detailed through select lines of dialog surrounding the character of Decius and the pique that character elicits in his commander. In the end, the Romulan commander is shown to be sensitive to the demands of his culture and his subordinates in the culminating action of the episode, though the conflict between these and his own plans is palpable.

The contrast between Romulans and Spock highlights how alien Vulcan logic seems to everyone else. Spock is a character who represents the outsider, the one struggling for acceptance among an emotional human crew even as he struggles to maintain his culture’s logical discipline. Authors with autism have even remarked how Spock helped them understand how they perceive the world differently from neurotypicals in a highly logical fashion. However, given the emotional militarism of the Romulans, I believe that Vulcan logic is a strongly culturally conditioned behavior rather than a reflection of fundamental differences in baseline neurobiological processing.

There are neurobiological differences in sustained attention to different kinds of objects in autism compared to neurotypical controls. Work I did in collaboration with Gabriel Dichter has demonstrated that individuals with autism spectrum disorders have heightened attention to objects of high interest to these individuals (e.g., trains, computers) compared to faces, whereas neurotypicals show the opposite pattern of attention (access here). Based on decades of cultural influence, Mr. Spock might be expected to show equal attention to objects and faces, but Dr. McCoy, Captain Kirk, and the Romulans all would be expected to be exquisitely sensitive to faces, as they convey a lot of information about the social world.