I have only watched up to Season 1, Episode 23 "A Taste of Armageddon", so my knowledge on the show is limited.

Let me begin by sourcing this article, entitled Star Trek: A Phenomenon and Social Statement on the 1960s:

Racism and Improving Race Relations

Star Trek does have a strong vein of racism running through it, but this racism is not directed towards the minority regulars (that would have caused major problems), Instead, this racism was directed towards Mr. Spock (portrayed by Leonard Nimoy), the half-Human half-Vulcan first officer and science officer of the Enterprise. Spock is the only one of his people aboard the Enterprise. His pointed ears, green blood, and devotion to pure logic set him apart from the rest of the crew. As a Vulcan, a fictional race of beings, scathing comments regarding his ethniticity (and especially his pointed ears) could have been made with virtual impunity while similar comments directed toward recognized minority groups would have been greatly frowned upon. The relationship between Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy makes this point clear. During practically every episode, McCoy badgers Spock about everything from his pointed ears to his green blood.

There are quite a number of instances in which Kirk and McCoy comment on Spock's logical nature, ethnicity (pointed ears, blood) and lack of emotion. While it is understandable that the men have ideological differences (McCoy seems to be at odd with both Kirk and Spock at times), McCoy makes it a point to make the insults personal. Similarly, Kirk makes mean-spirited remarks towards Spock frequently, although it is ambiguous whether or not these playful remarks are meant to be derisive.

I can't tell what the purpose of it is other than to repeatedly allude the audience to Spock's character, yet they seem to exaggerate the offensive nature just a tad to the point where it seems racist. The show does acknowledge it a couple of times. i.e., Kirk's clever "half-breed" memory, one of the crew members not liking Spock after they discover what the Romanulans look like, and Spock saying "I do not see why you find it necessary to insult me".

On one hand:

  • Spock does not react to these comments with outrage. He's an emotionless being driven by logic. This could also be the show's cue that the remark is not to be taken seriously.

  • The crew members are close friends. Friends tease each other.

  • Kirk is just being playful and it is his way of "humanizing" Spock. McCoy simply has ideological differences and likes to show it.

The other hand:

  • Spock's lack of response to the insults make it rather one-sided. The audience doesn't feel any "closure", just uncomfortableness, as the insults are not confronted with an equal response.

  • McCoy seems to badger Spock like the article says. Maybe this is just a part of his character, but as I said before, McCoy seems to like to make it a point to make it a personal insult.

Is there anything more to it or am I just a sensitive viewer?

  • 9
    For the record, Spock is pretty damn offensive about humans too.
    – Valorum
    Dec 22, 2014 at 11:46
  • 2
    I've always understood it to be mostly the second bullet point, plus that McCoy just doesn't like opening up that much (hence why so much of it comes from him)
    – Izkata
    Dec 22, 2014 at 12:41
  • 4
    My impression was that it was a reaction- Vulcans have a bit of a superiority complex and the others like to take him down a notch. Dec 22, 2014 at 14:18
  • Not so much a "sensitive" viewer as someone who is viewing 50 year old material for the first time in 2014 :-) Meanwhile, can you be a bit more clear about what "something more" you're asking about? I think I have an answer in mind for you, but "something more" is not really a good question... Dec 22, 2014 at 22:20
  • I'm unsure what the question is. Are you just wanting to discuss the insensitivity of TV writers in the 1960's?
    – Valorum
    Dec 25, 2014 at 21:50

1 Answer 1


Star Trek was conceived of by Roddenberry, as much Science Fiction was and still is, as a way to hold a mirror up to modern day problems. From that perspective, Star Trek was not about the future; it was about the present, with all its imperfections.

At the same time, Roddenberry did want to highlight a hopeful vision of the human future. This philosophy made explicit only once that I can think of, at the end of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with the tagline, "The Human Adventure is Just Beginning".

In the original series, leaving specific character interactions out for a moment, we see this mainly in the composition of Federation starship crews -- overwhelmingly Terran-human. "The Immunity Syndrome" suggests that other major Federation members basically have their own ships, such as USS Intrepid being crewed exclusively by Vulcans. When you realize that this was intended as deliberate and not just a consequence of slim make-up budgets, Spock's presence on Enterprise becomes more significant. Despite being half-human, Spock, with his predominantly Vulcan outlook, can be seen as an intruder, an interloper, in what is intended to be a human endeavor.

Looked at this way, McCoy's mistreatment of Spock is holding a mirror up to the ways human beings today -- and more so in the 60s -- mistreat each other for similar reasons. Sometimes their arguments are truly just differences of philosophy, the kinds of heated arguments even good friends can have about deeply held beliefs. Other times, McCoy lapses into ad vulcano attacks against Spock personally. In the end, frankly, this can only be put down to sloppy writing in the atmosphere of institutionalized racism that was the 60s. Given that Spock also makes it clear in, for example, "Amok Time", that he considers McCoy one of his closest friends, the actual personal attacks are hard to reconcile as anything else.

All of this, of course, is putting a good face on what is ultimately some pretty poor behavior that is mostly absent from major character interactions in later series. Quark, for example, gets a lot of crap, not for being Ferengi, per se, but for being something of an asshole by the standards of the people around him. The fact that his behaviour is driven in part by his culture and beliefs is explored on occasion from his perspective, but in the end, other Ferengi who harmonize better with Federation ideals (notably Nog and Rom) are treated fairly well. This is arguably still fairly racist--or assimilationist, but again, it's holding up a mirror. This is how we treat immigrants today. The ones who assimilate are more likely to succeed. That might suck, and maybe we'll want to change if we see it for what it is, but it's today's reality.

Star Trek's writers occasionally demonstrate consciousness of these contradictions. Azetbur in Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country complains that "...the Federation is nothing more than a homo sapiens only club...". Michael Eddington taunts Sisko with the idea that the Federation are worse than the Borg, who at least tell you you're going to be assimilated; and both Quark and Garak have a very memorable scene in they admit, through a discussion of the "cloying, bubbly, and happy" human drink root beer, that Federation polyanna-ism is insidious, in as much as other people actually start to kind-of like it, or at least respect it, after continued exposure.

In the Expanded Universe, some efforts have been made to present somewhat altered pictures of what the Federation and Starfleet could be like. Diane Duane's books, in particular (which for good or ill need to be considered an alternate universe from the one we commonly see on television and in the movies), highlight the idea of Kirk's Enterprise as a haven of multi-cultural, multi-species collaboration and friendship. In these books, Spock and McCoy's bantering is kept almost entirely philosophical, not racial, and never gets particularly nasty. Many of the aliens are truly alien -- not just humanoids with strange skin and bumps -- because of course, Ms Duane doesn't have to worry about make-up budgets! In short, her books tend to be able to focus more on the idealism and potential for an organization like the Federation.

  • 3
    I've always taken the original Ferengi stereotype to be a thinly veiled anti-semitism or example of Jewish self-loathing. If I remember correctly, Ferengi is Arabic for stranger. The money-lust, the huge ears (noses), the distain and sneers from Star Fleet officers on TNG, as someone with a Jewish heritage, all that rubbed me the wrong way. DS9 moderated that, slowly at first, but then with increasing strength through story lines dedicated to various Ferengi. But I guess every show reflects the time of its creation. Mar 20, 2016 at 10:41
  • 3
    "Legends of the Ferengi" memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/Legends_of_the_Ferengi provides a lot of interesting stuff about their world-view. At one point Sisko tells Worf "[Quark] has his rules, and he follows them assiduously. Once you understand them, you understand him". He was right. Oct 19, 2016 at 4:49
  • 3
    Rereading this recently, one thing I think is worth noting is that Sisko, who we learn as the series progresses is very conscious of racial issues of the human past, almost never treats Quark with anything other than respect for his culture. Sisko knows the Rules of Acquisition, and sometimes exploits them (but Quark, as a Ferengi, expects this and sees it as normal). Even his initial blackmail/plea bargain to get Quark to stay is entirely within Ferengi cultural norms! The closest Sisko ever comes to dissing Ferengi is when Nog is trying to get his recommendation to the academy. Feb 28, 2017 at 18:18
  • 2
    "other major Federation members basically have their own ships, such as USS Intrepid being crewed exclusively by Vulcans. When you realize that this was intended as deliberate and not just a consequence of slim make-up budgets" - I am not convinced it wasn't primarily just that, slim make-up budgets. As far as I remember, said Intrepid was the only such all-<non-human-species> Starfleet ship ever mentioned (and note how it even has a Terran name), and in the episode in question, I perceived it as more of a plot device to justify why Spock could sense the destruction of the ship. Jan 25, 2018 at 5:06
  • @O.R.Mapper DS9s baseball episode had an all Vulcan ship as well. I personally conclude that TOS era starfleet is not actually integrated despite the number of aliens in pseudo prequels. I believe Spock is on a United Earth Space Probe Agency human ship because he applied as 1/2 human. And the equivalent Vulcan, Andorian, etc. Fleets cooperate and share technology and shipyards but don't mix crews. It is a bit much for this answer to claim a Vulcan crew not even seen has nothing to do with makeup budget so I second your comments. Dec 6, 2023 at 0:28

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