With the 2017 launch of Star Trek: Discovery, viewers met Michael Burnham, “the mutineer,” portrayed by The Walking Dead‘s Sonequa Martin-Green as an adult and by Odd Squad‘s Arista Arhin as a youth. Burnham’s existence proved controversial from the moment her character was announced. A woman named Michael—and raised by Sarek? Since when did Spock have a sister, fans wondered? What the heck was going on here? (See Sarek of Vulcan: Star Trek’s Worst Father.)
The melodramatic outrage began, as such outrage often does, long before viewers had watched even a single frame of the new series. The show was positioned in the original canon—that is, before the timeline was changed in the 2009 Star Trek film—yet Michael had never before been mentioned. But was the criticism aimed at Burnham’s addition to Trek canon fair? Was her absence from established lore truly the continuity-breaker it was made out to be?
Back in 1967, The Original Series‘ “Journey to Babel” introduced Spock’s parents, Sarek (Mark Lenard) and Amanda (Jane Wyatt). It would be another two decades before his half-brother, Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), would be added to the mix. Since then, the family tree has grown increasingly complex.
Sarek has had at least two other wives or mates besides Amanda: T’Rea (Sybok’s mother, a Vulcan priestess, who’d divorced him to pursue kolinahr) and Perrin (a human, whom he’d married following Amanda’s death). What’s more, he raised two foster-daughters: Saavik (according to DC Comics, as well as the novel The Pandora Principle and Marvel’s Untold Voyages) and, as we now know, Michael Burnham.
Despite Discovery‘s success (the series received widespread acclaim, breaking CBS All-Access’s record for subscription signups), a contingent of the Star Trek fan base nonetheless rejected Burnham’s existence, due to what they viewed as the shoehorning of her character into Spock’s family history. However, while it’s true that the idea of Sarek raising a heretofore unreferenced human child raises a few eyebrows, it’s also consistent with Spock’s personality and history to have neglected to mention her.
In fact, Spock having a human foster-sister was just the latest thing among many that he’d failed to tell anyone about until the need to do so arose. He was also dyslexic, for example, as revealed in Discovery‘s “Light and Shadows,” a fact he’d never mentioned before that point. But that’s just the tip of the spaceberg. Here are a dozen other secrets Spock previously kept private from even his captain and his best friends.
His Fiancée—and His Need to Have Sex with Her or Die
As a species, Vulcans are highly private individuals by nature, so when Spock feels the stirrings of pon farr in “Amok Time,” he is mortified at having to tell his friends about it. The time of mating is “a deeply personal thing” that his people normally do not discuss with others, particularly with outworlders. With Spock’s emotional barriers eroding due to his biological imperative, his crewmates are stunned to learn that Vulcans must mate every seven years or die from unreleased sexual tension. Let’s call it what it is: the entire planet suffers from a deadly case of green balls.
Moreover, the crew discovers Spock has had a fiancée, the beautiful T’Pring, since he was seven years old. They’re taken aback by the news of his betrothal (though Nyota Uhura and Christine Chapel should both have been aware of this, per Strange New Worlds), no doubt recalling in confusion his sexual dalliance the previous season with Leila Kalomi, in “This Side of Paradise,” which they now come to realize was an extramarital affair. (Much like how Han Solo probably felt after learning Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa were brother and sister, once he thought about their non-sibling-like tonsil-sucking in The Empire Strikes Back.)
The Importance and Influence of His Family
When Spock returns to his home-world in “Amok Time,” deep in the throes of pon farr, Kirk and McCoy are surprised to see none other than T’Pau officiating at Spock’s wedding. As the only person ever to turn down a seat on the Federation Council, the Vulcan elder is considered among the most famous and respected citizens of her world—as Kirk puts it, “all of Vulcan in one package.”
The two human officers, whom Spock calls his “closest friends” in that same episode, are taken aback by T’Pau’s presence, and Kirk even comments, “He never mentioned that his family was this important.” Star Trek: Enterprise would later reveal why she was so admired: during Jonathan Archer’s era, T’Pau had reformed Vulcan society by bringing back Surak’s original teachings after civilization had strayed from his philosophies. Spock never having mentioned this could be chalked up to mere modesty, of course, but it does fit with his overall pattern of secrecy.
His Full Name—Which He Wouldn’t Tell Others, Not Even a Lover
Spock met Leila Kalomi six years prior to “This Side of Paradise.” It’s unclear whether he had romantic feelings for Leila at the time (perhaps Strange New Worlds will eventually address that question), but she clearly loved him—and it seems like he may have returned that sentiment. “On Earth, you couldn’t give anything of yourself,” she says. “You couldn’t even put your arms around me. We couldn’t have anything together there. We couldn’t have anything together anyplace else.” Note the emphasis on couldn’t, rather than didn’t.
While affected by bliss-inducing spores, Spock proclaims, “I can love you,” indicating he did, indeed, care for her in the past, but would not allow himself that indulgence until freed of emotional constraints. And yet, he declines to tell her his full name, neither six years prior nor during their present-day love affair. In fact, when she asks what it is, he simply replies, “You couldn’t pronounce it,” and keeps it to himself. How typical. No wonder she addresses him as “Mr. Spock” even while begging him to love her.
Incidentally, the novel Ishmael, by Barbara Hambly, gives his full name as S’chn T’gai Spock, which hardly seems unpronounceable—say it out loud, and you’ll see what I mean. Surprisingly, an early promotional poster for Strange New Worlds even used that name before CBS issued a retraction. D.C. Fontana, according to the fanzine Spockanalia, had intended for his family name to be Xtmprsqzntwlfd—which, on the other hand, is so difficult to pronounce that it might cause a brain aneurysm if someone were to try. Though never established onscreen, this name appears in the U.S.S. Enterprise Officer’s Manual, by Geoffrey Mandel and Doug Drexler.
His Estranged Relationship to His Father, Vulcan’s Ambassador
Given his family’s importance, as well as the life-threatening nature of pon farr, two people are curiously absent from Spock’s marriage ceremony: his parents. That oversight is explained soon thereafter, in “Journey to Babel,” which reveals that he has long been estranged from his father. His friends are clearly unaware of this prior to that episode, given Kirk’s offer to let Spock visit his family before the starship leaves orbit.
The episode includes yet another secret that Spock has kept from his friends: that same estranged father happens to be Ambassador Sarek, a highly respected Vulcan diplomat. Not only is Spock’s family connected to the likes of T’Pau, but he’s also the son of an esteemed ambassador, yet his friends know about neither. It’s like finding out your best friend is the daughter of Eleanor Roosevelt and a family acquaintance of Britain’s Simon Featherstone, yet she has never thought it worth mentioning.
Taking this a step further, as Sarek’s son, Spock is the grandson of noted scholar Skon (who translated Surak’s teachings into English, according to Star Trek: Enterprise‘s “Two Days and Two Nights”) and the great-grandson of Solkar, Vulcan’s first ambassador to Earth (briefly seen in Star Trek: First Contact, exchanging greetings with Zefram Cochrane, and in “In a Mirror, Darkly,” being murdered by same). Since Spock hadn’t told his friends about Sarek, T’Pau, or T’Pring, it’s a good bet they don’t know about these historically significant ancestors either.
His Mother’s Species—and His Love for Her
Spock’s father being a noted diplomat is not the only secret Spock harbors regarding his parentage; his mother, Amanda Grayson, is human—long a source of shame, despite how deeply he cares for her. In “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” Spock notes that “one of [his] ancestors married a human female,” noticeably neglecting to mention that the ancestor and human female in question are, in fact, his parents. He even feigns ignorance of human emotional states in that episode, to distance himself from his heritage. “Irritating?” he asks. “Ah, yes. One of your Earth emotions.”
As a half-human hybrid raised by an Earth woman, Spock is certainly well aware of “Earth emotions,” so his comment about irritation must be mere façade, meant to obscure the truth about his bloodline. As both The Animated Series episode “Yesteryear” and the 2009 Star Trek film illustrate, he is quite capable of irritation, particularly if someone dares to insult his mother. Plus, he emotionally smiles while saying the line—not to mention his vast array of emotions on display in “The Cage,” including irritation.
In “The Naked Time,” Spock weeps with regret at having never told his mother he loved her, due to the repressed cultural norms his father imposed on him from an early age. However, he only admits this while infected with the Psi 2000 virus; normally, as with everything else, he keeps such feelings to himself. Apparently, the best way to get Spock to discuss personal matters is to rip away his emotional barriers. Then he starts pouring out secrets like Twin Peaks‘ David Bowie tea kettle.
His Highly Emotional Half-Brother
When it comes to Spock’s family history, the 800-pound gorilla in the room has pointed ears, a beard, a messiah complex, and a tendency to laugh a lot. 1989’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier introduced Sybok, the first (but not last, thanks to Enterprise) Vulcan shown onscreen to openly embrace emotions. Sarek’s firstborn son by a Vulcan priestess, Sybok is deemed an outcast and revolutionary on his world for daring to seek knowledge and experience forbidden by Vulcan belief systems.
Though a gifted and intelligent child, expected to one day take his place among Vulcan’s greatest scholars, Sybok rejects his logical upbringing, believing emotion to be the key to self-knowledge. For this he is banished, and he leaves Vulcan to find Sha Ka Ree, a fabled site in Vulcan mythology from which all of creation is said to have originated.
Spock never tells his friends about his well-meaning but embarrassingly bonkers brother, and Kirk refuses to believe it when he finds out in Star Trek V, since the idea of Spock having a sibling no one knew about is too much for him to accept. (Sound familiar?) Even though Sarek and Spock were both recurring characters on Discovery, Sybok was never featured or even mentioned. However, Strange New Worlds‘ “The Serene Squall” finally brought the laughing Vulcan back into the fold, setting up what looks to be an intriguing storyline for a future season.
Contact with the Talosians
When Christopher Pike is so badly injured that he is relegated to a life-support chair, permanently paralyzed and unable to communicate, Spock risks a court-martial, Kirk’s ire, and even the death penalty out of loyalty to his former captain. Reaching out to the Talosians, a species of pulsating-headed, illusion-casting telepaths with whom the Federation has outlawed any contact, Spock arranges for them to offer Pike a pleasant fantasy life, freed from the immobile confines of his ruined body.
To that end, Spock falsifies orders, commandeers the Enterprise, and brings the starship to Talos IV, without letting Kirk or anyone else know what is going on until the Talosians are ready to make their offer. At any time throughout his trial, Spock could reveal what he knows, but he withholds that information until the most dramatic—er, strategically opportune—moment. Even when his life depends on it, Spock still keeps secret his contact with the telepaths, rather than taking the easier path.
Communication with V’Ger
After resigning from Starfleet to pursue kolinahr, during the years between The Original Series and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Spock finds his attainment of that discipline interrupted by mental contact from the machine mind known as V’Ger. He senses a consciousness—a force more powerful than he has ever encountered—and is so drawn by its thought patterns that he returns to the Enterprise to find out if V’Ger holds the answer he seeks to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.
Does Spock tell his crewmates this vital piece of information—that he has been in contact with the very entity threatening Earth’s existence—since it might prove useful in alleviating the imminent danger? Well, yes… but not before being ordered to do so. Until that moment, he keeps it to himself, per usual, risking the destruction of Earth and every carbon-based unit infesting it, all for the sake of maintaining his privacy.
The Transferring of His Soul to McCoy’s Mind
Following Spock’s death in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Leonard Nimoy agreed to return to the role he’d just killed off, and Paramount of course found a way to make it so: mind-melding. Building upon a scene in The Wrath of Khan, in which Spock renders Bones unconscious, holds a hand to his temple, and says “Remember,” the filmmakers revealed, in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, that Spock had transferred his katra (his soul) to McCoy’s mind, to be delivered back to Vulcan.
Now, McCoy would gladly have taken on the duty of preserving his friend’s soul, no matter how much the two might bicker. But Spock does this without asking permission, knowing full well that it will leave the good doctor in a state of mental instability. Moreover, he neglects to tell anyone about this Vulcan practice in the first place, making it unlikely Kirk would know how to alleviate McCoy’s pain and save Spock’s katra. Had Sarek not asked Kirk about it, Bones would have remained in an insane asylum. Spock’s secretive nature, in this case, almost ruins McCoy’s life.
Peace Negotiations with the Klingon Empire
The Klingon moon Praxis explodes, and Spock, at the behest of Vulcan’s ambassador, opens a dialogue with the High Council’s progressive, peace-desiring Chancellor Gorkon, resulting in the commencement of treaty negotiations after seven decades of hostility. It’s an inspiring idea, but Kirk and his senior officers are surprised by this turn of events, since they don’t learn of Spock’s activities until a month later, when they are called to a meeting with Starfleet’s commander-in-chief.
The notion of dismantling all space stations and starbases along the Neutral Zone does not sit well with Kirk, and his anger is compounded when he hears that Spock volunteered the Enterprise to rendezvous with a Klingon vessel bringing Gorkon and his staff to Earth. Spock has not discussed any of this with him, and Kirk is caught off-guard in front of his superiors, which could have been avoided with a little less secrecy.
Reunification Between Romulus and Vulcan
As an older man, Spock leaves Vulcan to aid an underground movement on Romulus, in the hope of reunifying his people with their long-lost brothers and sisters in the Empire. Despite the nobility of his efforts, which would certainly have positive consequences for both the Romulans and the Federation, Spock—by this time a celebrated ambassador in his own right—leaves no word with anyone regarding his destination. He simply gets up one day and leaves, regardless of his high-profile prominence.
As such, Starfleet intelligence understandably worries about his intentions when he is spotted on the Romulan homeworld soon thereafter. The Enterprise-D is thus dispatched to determine whether Spock has defected to the enemy. By not telling anyone of his mission and whereabouts, Spock needlessly endangers Captain Picard’s entire crew.
What’s more, the episode “Sarek” revealed that Picard had attended the wedding of Sarek’s son. Since it can’t be Sybok, and since there don’t seem to be any other sons of Sarek running around (though, hey, anything’s possible with this family), we can assume the son in question was Spock—which likely means he didn’t bother to tell his wife either.
Michael Burnham, the Mutineer
In “The Tholian Web,” the Enterprise finds the missing USS Defiant, the crew of which inexplicably seems to have gone insane and murdered each other. This bizarre revelation takes Pavel Chekov by surprise, and he wonders, “Has there ever been a mutiny on a starship before?” Spock’s immediate response: “Absolutely no record of such an occurrence, Ensign.” Let that sink in for a moment.
At the time that the episode aired, there was no reason to question the truth of Spock’s reply, but given the events of Discovery‘s two-part pilot, his words retroactively take on a whole new meaning. Assuming Spock is aware of his foster-sister’s actions aboard the USS Shenzhou (and there’s no reason to believe he’s not, since everyone seems to know who “Michael Burnham, the mutineer” is), then surely he must know that a mutiny did, in fact, occur a decade prior—carried out by a member of his own family, no less.
Michael’s mutiny likely brought even more shame to Spock’s family than Sarek did by marrying a human, or than Sybok did by becoming a giggling, wild-haired zealot, or than Spock himself did by declining an invitation to attend the Vulcan Science Academy. Given Spock’s track record of keeping things close to his Vulcan vest, his secrecy here is actually understandable. (Plus, he could be telling the truth, as the mutiny might have been kept out of official records, for whatever reason.)
The Best-Kept Secret
Considering the above points, one truth becomes clear: although viewers had never heard of Michael Burnham prior to Star Trek: Discovery, her status as Spock’s foster-sister is not the jump-the-space-shark moment that some fans made it out to be. Spock has several times claimed Vulcans do not lie, but that is itself a lie, as we’ve heard him do so on more than one occasion, whenever he has deemed it the logical thing to do.
When it comes to lies of omission, Spock has a long-standing pattern of not sharing aspects of his life with even his closest comrades. If Kirk and McCoy didn’t know about his parents, his bride-to-be, his brother, his T’Pau connection, katras, pon farr, or even his full name—not to mention his contact with the Talosians, V’Ger, the Klingon Empire, and the Romulan underground—then why should anyone be surprised to learn he also never mentioned a mutinous sister? Frankly, when it comes to his personal life, Spock is as tight-lipped as an Aldebaran shellmouth.
Secrecy is simply in Spock’s nature. It’s how he operates. His life is not merely a closed book; it’s a closed and triple-locked book, wrapped up in four-ply duct tape and tucked away safely inside a maximum-security vault—one tested using the most intelligent and resourceful person that its designers could find.
Yet learning new things about the characters we love is at the very core of enjoying any franchise, particularly Star Trek. In other words, it’s all about discovery, which is inherent to exploring strange new worlds. With the branching out of Sarek’s ever-growing family tree to now include Michael Burnham, the closed book of Spock’s life has a whole new chapter to open, discover, and explore.