One Trek Mind: Tuvok & The Vulcan's Mysterious Game, Kal-toh

One Trek Mind: Tuvok & The Vulcan's Mysterious Game, Kal-toh

It took until the fourth Star Trek series -- Voyager, of course, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week -- before we got a female captain, but it also took that long before we got a second full-time Vulcan. Even people who like to pretend they don't know anything about Star Trek know about Vulcans. “Yeah, yeah,” they say as they brush us aside to reach for their Phantom Menace Special Edition Blu-rays, “Dr. Spock and and the Vulcan grip.” Other than the ship itself, there's no greater visual symbol for our beloved franchise than Leonard Nimoy and those pointy ears.

Were Trek's producers wary of putting another green-blooded regular on the bridge for fear of diluting Spock's mystique? Maybe, but it eventually happened with Tuvok, played by Tim Russ as Captain Janeway's most-trusted advisor and, in many ways, Voyager's moral compass.

There was a lot about Tuvok that was familiar. Maybe he wasn't as funny, but perhaps that's because he wasn't half-human (or maybe because Bones wasn't around as a zing-riffic target.) In time, we grew to love him on his own. There are a few things that always spring to mind when I think about Tuvok.

For starters, it's just very exciting to me that he served under Captain Sulu on the Excelsior. (Tuvok is old!). When this was revealed in the third season (in the amazing episode “Flashback”) it was one of the greatest gifts of fan service we ever got.

Here's something else: he's married! Not a lot of our Star Trek heroes had families. Not having a family was, like, the central struggle in Picard's life. Kirk left his wife and son to go be a space cowboy. Jennifer Sisko's death during the Battle of Wolf 359 was core to Captain Sisko's character – but he kept their son Jake with him at Deep Space Nine. When we learned that Tuvok has a wife (of 67 years! Did we mention Tuvok was old?) and four children back in the Alpha Quadrant it was a complete shock to our expectations.

But strangely, the thing I most associate with Tuvok is Kal-toh. Kal-toh, if you don't remember, was kinda-sorta like Space Jenga.

The very first scene of the Trek's pilot re-do “Where No Man Has Gone Before” features Spock at a gaming table. (Yes, yes, nit-pickets, I know full well that the first episode aired was “The Man Trap,” but stay with me here.) Spock defeats Kirk in an “irritating” game of three-dimensional chess. Our Vulcan Science Officer may know all the complex moves, but he's still easily confounded by simple language. “Irritating? Ah, yes. One of your EARTH emotions,” he chides.

Perhaps due to Tuvok's full-blooded Vulcan nature, his game of choice is less social and more inward. Kal-toh features a jumble of magnetic rods called t'an. Just watching it's a little hard to understand fully how the game works, but from the way it is described, each move of a singular rod affects the ones around it. The ultimate goal is to place them in harmony, wherein they transform and create a perfect structure called the kal-toh. (For you geometry buffs out there, the kal-toh is in the shape of an icosidodecahedron, which has 20 triangular faces and 12 pentagonal faces. Maybe if you stare at it long enough you beam directly to Sha Ka Ree, who knows?) When Harry Kim referred to it as “Vulcan chess” in the episode “Alter Ego,” Tuvok set his phasers to diss. “Kal-toh is to chess as chess is to tic-tac-toe.”

Kal-toh is by-and-large a solitary game (you know, with a candle burning and maybe some light bowls or gongs resonating on the hi-fi), but it can go head-to-head, too. Turns out Seven of Nine took to the game easily, using her Borg instincts for “spatial harmonics” to whoop Tuvok's nacelles. And in a Holodeck scene, the legendary Vulcan elder T'Pau was seen playing opposite Greek philosopher Socrates. (Not sure who won, but here's a tip – don't drink whatever Socrates is serving until he has a sip first.)

Maybe it's silly for Kal-toh to feature so prominently in my thoughts about Tuvok. But isn't it the small, personality-driven moments that separate the show from all the others? Isn't the richness of the world what we love so much about the franchise? What do YOU think about when you first think about Voyager's Security and Tactical Officer? Let me know in the comments below.

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Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, ScreenCrush and Badass Digest. On his BLOG, Jordan has reviewed all 727 Trek episodes and films, most of the comics and some of the novels.

 

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