Published Aug 23, 2023
Tuvok and the Vulcan's Mysterious Game Kal-toh
We take a deeper look at one of Voyager's most trusted advisors.
It took until the fourth series, Star Trek: Voyager, before we got a woman captain. But it also took that long before writers developed a second Vulcan crewmate as part of the regular cast. Even people who like to pretend they don't know anything about Star Trek know about Vulcans. Other than the ship itself, there's no greater visual symbol for our beloved franchise than Leonard Nimoy and those pointy ears.
Were Star Trek producers wary of putting another green-blooded regular on the bridge for fear of diluting Spock's mystique? Perhaps, but fears aside, Tim Russ eventually took up the mantle of Tuvok, Captain Janeway's most-trusted advisor. He was also, in many ways, Voyager's moral compass.
There was a lot about Tuvok that was familiar for audiences, and 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 to think that he served under Captain Sulu on the Excelsior. (Tuvok is old!) When this was revealed in the third season's 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 one of the central struggles 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 lived with their son Jake on Deep Space 9. 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 The Original Series' pilot re-do “Where No Man Has Gone Before” features Spock at a gaming table. 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. 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 us know @StarTrek on Social!