One Trek Mind: Could The Vulcan Nerve Pinch Really Work?
By Jordan Hoffman - December 06, 2013
As a very small child first becoming aware of Star Trek there were only a few things I knew about Mr. Spock: he had pointy ears, he had green blood and he could zap you unconscious just by pinching your neck. I didn't consider what was actually happening physiologically (or from a character point of view, as we'll discuss), I just thought Spock had magic powers. Superman could fly, Aquaman could talk to fish, Spock could make anybody go to sleep just by touching him.
It has been well documented that the nerve pinch was something that Leonard Nimoy came up with while shooting the first season TOS episode “The Enemy Within.” He was supposed to bop Kirk (well, half of Kirk) over the head and render him unconscious. Nimoy felt that someone as calculating and logical as Spock wouldn't do something this brutish. A follower of Surak's logical teachings must have a more-civilized way to getting someone to drop to the floor.
The legend has it that Nimoy and William Shatner quickly worked out the choreography on their own – that Shatner instantly “got” what Nimoy wanted. This came after Nimoy ad-libbed to the baffled director Leo Penn that Spock had studied human anatomy, and so knew just where to apply pressure and had some sort of energy from his fingertips.
This explanation somewhat jibes with my youthful intuition, but isn't exactly how the nerve pinch has come to be accepted in canon.
“Pity you can't teach me that,” Kirk says to Spock after a display of nerve pinch power in “The Omega Glory.” “I have tried, Captain,” Spock replies.
This humorous back-and-forth implies that the nerve pinch isn't dependent on any sort of “special Vulcan energy,” it's just knowing precisely where to pinch. Of course, Vulcans do have a magnitude of strength far greater to that of humans – that's something we should consider if men like Kirk are unable to quite pull it off. (Same goes for Bones, a physician, who, in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, tried in vain to use the nerve pinch.) Maybe knowing just where to do it isn't enough – you need a little extra oomph.
However, Garth of Izar, a human, was able to use the nerve pinch successfully when he was appearing in the guise of Spock! But, I guess if you can teach yourself Antosian shapeshifting I suppose you can teach yourself anything. Maybe when you shapeshift into another species you also take on their abilities? Hmnnn, gotta think about that.
It wasn't until The Next Generation that we saw a plain ol' human perform the nerve pinch. Well, not just any ol' human, it was Captain Picard. But put an asterisk next to this one; consider that he showed his ability only after he had his mind meld with Sarek! That may have had something to do with it. Also consider the irony that his victim was none other than Tim Russ, but Tim Russ the jerky human in TNG's “Starship Mine,” not the Vulcan Tuvok from Voyager. (Also, Captain Archer did it too, later – er, I mean earlier, but also after a mind meld.)
However, the fact that Data was able to nerve pinch proves that there's nothing about it that is inherently Vulcan. But extra-human precision and tremendous strength may be key, and the Soong Android has both these.
The nerve pinch is up there with the transporter for culturally resonant Trekania. It is mentioned in a Beastie Boys song (“If you try to knock me you'll get mocked/I'll stir fry you in my wok/Your knees will start shaking and your fingers pop/Like a pinch on the neck from Mister Spock!”) and was parodied by Mel Brooks in Spaceballs. The question on everyone's mind, of course is: could it actually work?
Well, I've just spent an inordinate amount of time scouring the Internet to try and find the answer, and the one that I've settled on it. . . probably not. As one commenter on “The Straight Dope”'s message board put it, if the Vulcan nerve pinch were real, UFC fights would be a lot shorter. (Plus we'd also be inundated by now of idiot kids nerve pinching one another on YouTube.)
There is, of course, the “sleeper hold” that compresses the flow of the carotid arteries that can put someone out in mere seconds, but this is far less elegant than simply outstretching your hand and, like striking a chord on a grand piano, sending someone to sleep with your fingertips.
Something that we know is fake is the Vulcan death grip, a little bit of psyops that Kirk and Spock did on the Romulans in “The Enterprise Incident.” The Romulans, I suppose, felt like I did as a child – that the Vulcans somehow possessed magic and could kill someone just by shoving their fingers in someone's face. “There's no such thing as a Vulcan death grip!” was the famous Nurse Chapel line, followed by Kirk reminding “the Romulans don't know that!”
Or . . . is it fake? Legends about the Dim Mak or Kung Fu Death Punch have been around as long as I can remember. It's like the Bermuda Triangle. (In fact, you'd think that Leonard Nimoy's old show In Search Of... would have devoted a show to it, but they haven't.) The rumor when I was a kid was that Bruce Lee died from a death punch that waited 24 hours to kill him (and that he was assassinated because he brought secrets of Kung Fu to the West. I also heard a bunch about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, too.)
Still, gripping and pinching is far superior to actually striking someone – which is why Vulcans will always have the upper hand over we humans. An upper dangerous hand.
What about you? Has the Vulcan nerve pinch held a fascination? Do you have a particular favorite nerve pinch? More importantly, should a top 10 list of nerve pinch moments be the next One Trek Mind column? If you don't think so, just come here a little bit closer so I can touch you.
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