News broke earlier this week that “Star Trek Discovery” has recast the role of “Spock” yet again, and the actor they’ve chosen is Ethan Peck (grandson of legendary actor Gregory Peck). This isn’t the first time “Star Trek: Discovery” has recast a previously established role for the new series.
Mark Lenard was the original actor to play “Sarek”, the father of Spock, in TOS’ “Journey to Babel”, the movies “Search For Spock” (1984), “The Voyage Home” (1986), “The Undiscovered Country” (1991) as well as two episodes of “The Next Generation” (“Sarek” and “Unification” part 1). The role would also be played by Ben Cross in “Star Trek” (2009), and is now being played by James Frain (right) in “Star Trek: Discovery.” Both Cross and Frain did somewhat different takes on the character (Cross even used his native British accent), but both retained the essence of Lenard’s emotional frugality and seemingly distant (yet potent) paternal love for his son. Frain expands on that to show Sarek had similar feelings for his adopted human daughter, Michael Burnham (played by Sonequa Martin Green). Sarek’s human wife Amanda has also been recast several times; from the original’s Jane Wyatt to 2009’s Winona Ryder to Mia Kirshner in Discovery.
Season one also saw a recast TOS villain “Harcourt Fenton Mudd,” with “The Office”’s Rainn Wilson taking over for the late Roger C. Carmel. I had issues with how Harry Mudd was portrayed in Discovery, but those issues had nothing to do with Wilson’s choices as an actor. My issues were more with the character being an incongruously turbocharged version of himself. Hard to believe a mere ten years would see him go from the dangerous, Federation starship-hijacking hacker-genius seen in “Star Trek: Discovery” to the bumbling, inept space pimp we see in TOS’ “Mudd’s Women”. See:“Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad.”
Oh well. Moving on…
There was also casting news surrounding the enigmatically unnamed Enterprise first officer, “Number One”; originally played by the late Majel Barrett-Roddenberry in the Star Trek pilot, “The Cage.” Number One will now be played by “The X-Men”’s original “Mystique”, Rebecca Romijn. Romijn’s character in the X-Men movies was herself recast with Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence.
This came after the news that the role of previous Enterprise captain, Christopher Pike, was also recast yet again (beyond Bruce Greenwood’s portrayal seen in the “Bad Robot” movies).
The new Chris Pike is to be played by Anson Mount (previously seen on AMC’s “Hell On Wheels”).
I recently saw Mount in person at the Las Vegas Star Trek convention, and he certainly looks the part. He could easily pass for the late Jeffrey Hunter’s son.
Now “Star Trek: Discovery” has the seeming audacity (or courage, depending on one’s perspective) to recast the role yet again. Spock was already recast for 2009’s “Star Trek” with “Heroes” costar Zachary Quinto, who brought a slightly more emotional take on the character. That interpretation was fitting, since Quinto was playing a younger Spock who didn’t quite have the control over himself that Nimoy’s incarnation had in TOS. Quinto played Spock in several of the JJ Abrams produced Star Trek movies, from 2009 to 2016.
The Bad Robot Star Trek movies movies recast all of the iconic TOS characters, and while some of the physical casting was uncanny, others were a bit less so. What was more impressive to me was how the new cast members brought their own mojo to the roles, rather than simply lapsing into cheap, SNL-style impersonations. The characters felt close enough to their original counterparts, yet exhibited enough newness (brought on by their different life experiences, via the films’ alternate timeline) to make them seem fresh again; even after 50 years. I have mixed emotions on the three Bad Robot Star Trek films, but casting is one area where the films truly hit it out of the park.
The original Star Trek characters have also been recast in Star Trek fan films, such as “Star Trek: New Voyages/Phase II,” and again in the more consistently successful Star Trek Continues.
The first time Star Trek ever recast a role on-camera (sans reboot) was with the character of Lt. Saavik, played in 1982’s “The Wrath of Khan” by Kirstie Alley (“Cheers”) and in 1984’s “The Search For Spock” and 1986’s “The Voyage Home” by Robin Curtis. Alley brought a certain firebrand intensity to the role, while Curtis was arguably closer to a more typical Vulcan characterization. Lt. Valeris (played by Kim Cattrall, of “Sex and the City”) was originally supposed to be Saavik in 1991’s “The Undiscovered Country,” but negotiations for Alley’s return to the role fell apart, and (for some reason) Robin Curtis wasn’t an option, so rather than recast the role a third time, writer/director Nicholas Meyer simply changed the character’s name.
Personally, I’d wished they’d found a way to bring Robin Curtis aboard for that one, since Saavik betraying the Federation and her shipmates would’ve had far more gravitas than some anonymous new Vulcan we’d never seen before. It would also give Spock’s personal feelings of betrayal a bit more heft as well. In hindsight, it’s really not that important, since Kim Cattrall is excellent in the role of Valeris, with or without any previous connections to the Star Trek universe.
Star Trek is, of course, not the first big ticket sci-fi franchise to recast an iconic role or two…
“Doctor Who” (1963-present) first recast its lead character of “The Doctor” over 50 years ago. In fact, recasting is part of Doctor Who’s design, since the character frequently ‘regenerates’ either through aging or through trauma/shock/death. The first time such regeneration was seen was in 1966, when original actor William Hartnell‘s increasingly fragile health forced him to step down from the role, making way for the younger Patrick Troughton, who brought a fresh take to the role. His energy and more humorous take arguably ushered in the series’ longevity. Frequent recasting is now a much-anticipated part of this series.
The series recently made its own history with the announced recasting of the Doctor with Jodie Whittaker stepping into the TARDIS later this year.
After years of attending Doctor Who conventions and seeing many inspired female cosplayers doing their own takes on the Doctor, I think this casting choice was both a logical and arguably long overdue new direction for the character.
Not to mention that “Missy”, the villainous Master’s newly female incarnation (played to perfection by Michelle Gomez) recently established that gender is subject to change during Time Lord regeneration as well.
As a longtime Whovian myself, the regeneration has become a ritual of mixed emotions. There is the typical sadness at the loss of the outgoing Doctor, whom we tend to grow quite attached to after a few years. However, there is also a bit of giddy anticipation for the incoming version as well. It’s this built-in cycle of loss and renewal that makes Doctor Who such an interesting and exciting exception to recasting issues. We’re not supposed to ignore or forget the previous actors in the role; because all of them are the same being. Some interpretations of the Doctor are more successful with fans than others (that’s a never-ending argument in Whovian circles), but they’re all part of the complex tapestry of the character. Sometimes elements of previous incarnations manifest themselves in unexpected ways, but each new actor always adds his or her own touch as well.
Of course, big ticket recasting is hardly exclusive to science fiction (or any genre of screen entertainment). I’m also a fan of both the James Bond and Sherlock Holmes franchises, and have seen each of those recast multiple times within my own 50 plus-year lifetime.
Does the recasting bother me? It’s a case-by-case basis.
When I was 12, I went to see my first big-screen Bond adventure; the ‘Bond-goes-to-space’ adventure “Moonraker” (1979). I enjoyed the mix of spy shenanigans combined with the giant end battle aboard Drax’s space station. As a newbie to Bond at the time, I had no idea what constituted a ‘real’ Bond movie. I didn’t realize that the campy, Roger Moore-starring space-parody was hardly typical of the earlier Bond films. It wasn’t until I began watching the Sean Connery’s Bond movies on TV broadcasts and rented laserdiscs (yes, my family bought heavily into those… don’t judge) that I realized “Moonraker” was something of an aberration in the Bond franchise. It was basically a spacebound version of the previous entry, 1977’s “The Spy Who Loved Me.”
Bond movies were typically somewhat grittier than the bloated space opus I’d seen at age 12. No disrespect to the late Roger Moore, who made a fine ‘gateway’ Bond, but it was also clear that Connery was born to play the role. The man moved like a panther on the prowl. Despite the urbane sophistication of Connery’s Bond, there was something dangerous and even predatory about him that was simply missing from Moore’s 007. I would stay with the Bond movies through several other Bonds, including Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and current Bond, Daniel Craig, who’s something of a throwback to the more dangerous Bonds of yesteryear.
I also went back and saw “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969), featuring the onetime Bond performer, former Australian model George Lazenby. While Lazenby looked quite a bit like Connery, he arguably lacked the sheer power of his predecessor, but I enjoyed him in the role nevertheless. I had the chance to meet Lazenby at 2009 San Diego Comic Con, and I liked him immediately. He told a couple of funny on-set anecdotes, and his thick Aussie accent seemed both earthy and warm.
There is a rumor brewing that Idris Elba is in consideration for the Bond role, and I would very much welcome that choice. I’ve been a fan of his since I first saw him in 1998’s vampire miniseries “Ultraviolet”, where he played the pragmatic, no-bullshit veteran soldier/vampire hunter “Vaughan Rice.” He’s was also one of the few bright spots in the otherwise messy Ridley Scott sorta-ALIEN prequel “Prometheus” (2012). Elba has both the urbane smoothness and danger that have characterized some of the better Bond actors, like Connery and Craig. This is an intriguing rumor if true, and I hope it pans out.
Sherlock Holmes is another instance of revolving door recasting. I read some of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories as a kid (thanks to a teacher who turned me on to “The Hound of the Baskervilles” in 8th grade). I also remember being holed up in my old bachelor apartment once, back in the 1990s, watching a “Turner Classic Movies” channel marathon of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films from the 1940s. Those films, like the classic Universal monster movies of the same period, seemed to take place in some weird nether-time. Some of the clothing and architecture in the movies was very specifically Victorian, while the double-breasted suits and other stylings were recognizable as contemporary 1940s vintage. Despite the strange mishmash of period stylings, the films were terrific.
Back in 1985, I remember going with a friend to the see “Young Sherlock Holmes” at the movies. While the movie took a few harmless liberties with the biographies of Holmes (Nicholas Rowe) and Watson (Alan Cox, son of character actor Brian Cox), it was a perfectly benign gateway to the world of the characters for newer fans. Yes, the story borrowed heavily from 1984’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” but with less violence, gore and more adventure. It also featured then-revolutionary CGI FX of a stain-glass knight that was a showstopper 33 years ago. It was, to me, the “Harry Potter” of its day.
The less said about 2009’s “Sherlock Holmes” (with “Iron Man” star Robert Downey Jr.), the better. The movie seemed less an ode to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and more of an excuse to shovel a red-hot action star into a second moneymaker franchise as soon as possible. Downey is essentially playing an English Tony Stark. The film, and its sequel (“Game of Shadows”), are a waste of the talents and resources of all involved. Jude Law is also very much miscast as John Watson; he arguably would’ve made a better Sherlock Holmes.
It wasn’t until I discovered reruns of Jeremy Brett in the role on A&E (Arts and Entertainment network) sometime during the mid-to-late 1990s in “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1984-5), as well as a series of sequel TV movies. When I first watched my first few episodes, my brain seemed to say, “That’s it! Look no more.” Brett was simply perfect. He was the character, leaping straight off of the pages of the books. The series had two actors in the role of Doctor Watson (David Burke, Edward Hardwicke), both of whom blended effortlessly with the wonderfully mercurial Brett. The stories were picture-perfect adaptations of the books I’d read in school, and it was very exciting to see them so perfectly realized onscreen.
Currently there are two versions of Sherlock Holmes on television at the moment; only one of which I actually care for, to be honest. Benedict Cumberbatch (Holmes) and Martin Freeman (Watson) star in BBC’s “Sherlock” (2010-present); a smart, totally 21st century updating which adapts many of the old stories into contemporary settings (surprisingly faithfully, considering the original era of the books). “Sherlock” also smartly mixes and matches elements of different stories into each other, while simultaneously managing to make a concurrent, all-new Holmes mythology. Cumberbatch plays Holmes with near-alien detachment (“I am a high functioning sociopath!”), with only occasional, subtle flickers of warmth. Freeman is the Watson I’ve always envisioned in my mind’s eye; a somewhat more cynical army-vet physician than the more jovial, cliched portrayal (“I say, Holmes!”) typically seen in other adaptations. “Doctor Who” veteran writer/producers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (who also plays Sherlock’s older brother “Mycroft”) give the 130-year old characters a truly vibrant coat of fresh paint. The series, whose immediate future is in doubt (sadly), only released a few episodes a year, though each were feature-film length.
I’ve also tried watching CBS’ “Elementary” with Johnny Lee Miller (Holmes) and Lucy Liu (Watson), but I simply couldn’t stand it. The plots were pedestrian, typically made-for-TV stories; more “Matlock”/“Murder, She Wrote” than Sherlock Holmes. The performances, while decent, didn’t hold a candle to the chemistry of Cumberbatch and Freeman’s perfect pairing.
Ironically, even “Star Trek” has taken a stab into the Sherlock Holmes mythos, with the beautifully realized (if maddeningly nonsensical) “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode, “Elementary, My Dear Data” (1988) and its sequel, “Ship in a Bottle” (1993). “Elementary, Dear Data” has some of the most exquisite production design of the entire TNG series (especially when seen on the remastered blu-ray sets), but is hindered by a story that falls apart under scrutiny. Just how does Data remove paper from the holodeck when other holodeck-created matter can’t leave the room? How did the Enterprise computer suddenly have the ability to create a sentient holographic being? Why can’t Geordi simply override his own ‘misspoken’ command (which apparently undid the holodeck’s safety protocols)? At any rate, it’s a gorgeous looking episode; with Victorian London streets and “221 B Baker Street” sitting room sets detailed enough to work in a Sherlock Holmes feature film.
So going back full circle; why does Star Trek seem to have such a difficult time with recasting its iconic roles than say, Doctor Who or Sherlock Holmes?
Doctor Who’s solution to that problem is woven into the fabric of the show with its ‘regenerations.’ Simple, elegant and arguably the best answer to this sort of issue; making casting changes a literal part of the story itself.
Sherlock Holmes and James Bond simply reboot their franchises every time; with a new actor who is just accepted as the same man we’d seen before, no questions asked. Daniel Craig’s Bond shared the same “M” (Dame Judi Dench) with Pierce Brosnan, but there is never any nagging issue over whether he is the same James Bond. Clearly, he isn’t. Craig’s Bond is newly minted as a double-0 agent in his 2006 debut, whereas his predecessor Brosnan was an outmoded “dinosaur,” according to Dench’s M. So Craig’s Bond isn’t supposed to be Brosnan’s Bond, despite a common M. Oddly enough, the tragic death of ‘Tracy Bond’ (Diana Rigg), seen at the climax of 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was carried over (however minimally) in the opening prologues of both 1971’s “Diamonds Are Forever” and 1981’s “For Your Eyes Only” with Connery and Moore in the Bond roles, respectively.
Lead actor regenerations and constant rebooting wouldn’t really work for Star Trek, since Star Trek’s 52 year mythology, despite continuity goofs everywhere, is supposed to be the same mythology; the same shared universe (with the exception of the Bad Robot Star Trek movies, which take place in an alternate reality).
Even a corner of the Trek universe as seemingly unrelated as that of “Deep Space Nine” still connects with the original 1960s TV series; as seen in the beautifully realized 30th anniversary episode “Trials and Tribble-ations” (1996), which is a love letter to the original series’ “The Trouble With Tribbles” (1967).
So recasting characters within Star Trek’s complex, interconnected universe would seem to burst that universe’s bubble of reality a bit too much for the comfort of some Star Trek fans. I can certainly understand that feeling, even if I don’t necessarily share it. It seems like a dismissal of one’s own fond childhood memories of the franchise; as if the producers are trying to tell us, “Oh no, Captain Pike and the Enterprise didn’t really look like that…they looked like this. You just remembered it wrong.”
And now we have Ethan Peck playing Mr. Spock, following where the irreplaceable Leonard Nimoy and Zachary Quinto have gone before… not to mention the many actors who played Spock at various ages in “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock” (1984) and “Star Trek” (2009).
Is this recasting of the Spock character an homage to, or further sacrilege against, the works of the late Leonard Nimoy? I prefer to think it’s the former. Yes, Leonard Nimoy established that character, and his characterization is immortalized in 79 episodes of the Original Series, 22 Animated episodes, 8 feature films, and 2 episodes of The Next Generation (“Unification” parts 1, 2). No one would, or ever could, take any of that away from Nimoy. In fact, Zachary Quinto worked closely with Nimoy when he first played the role. Reportedly, the two actors became good friends.
Nimoy had no issues with sharing the role, because however memorable the actor’s contribution, the bottom line is the character. Is the Spock character important enough to warrant survival, or should the role simply die with the actor?
If the latter choice had been the case for other iconic roles, we’d have never had a “Doctor Who” series beyond William Hartnell, or no more James Bond movies after Sean Connery left. I cannot imagine the loss to pop culture if new interpretations of classic roles were never allowed.
Spock, like Star Trek itself, is far more than just a group of actors and a mock spaceship; it’s become as much an aspirational lifestyle as a pop entertainment. Star Trek, with its depiction of a diverse United Federation of Planets reaching for the stars, is something to dream toward, even if it’s unachievable. It’ll outlive all of its original performers, just as it will outlive devout older fans such as myself. New fans will discover it for themselves, just as I’ve seen people in my own circle discover Star Trek anew through Next Gen, or even the Bad Robot movies.
At the annual Las Vegas Star Trek convention a couple of weeks ago, I talked to a young fan who, through his dad, was just discovering Star Trek via “Star Trek: Discovery.” Now, he’s curious to see all of the older shows as well. “Discovery” was his gateway Trek, just as Roger Moore was my gateway Bond.
No doubt Ethan Peck will be his generation’s Spock, just as Leonard Nimoy’s has been, and always shall be mine. May the character of Spock, and Star Trek, continue to live long and prosper.