Thirty-three years ago, the death of Mr. Spock seemed intolerable. That was the gist of a feature article I wrote back then for the Mankato Free Press. I was responding to 1982’s brand-new movie, Star Trek II : The Wrath of Khan, which ended with the scene of Spock’s coffined body on the newly fertile soil of planet Genesis. I prophesized that we would not only see Spock’s return but many more iterations of this character. As a young literature professor, I also tied in some of the Star Trek novels of Vonda N. McIntyre, an award-winning science fiction author.
To set the context further here, this was before any of the Star Trek live action offshoot series—Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise— had debuted. I and other fans had only seen the original 1960s Star Trek series, which first aired when I was a high school sophomore, and perhaps caught episodes of the Saturday morning animated series first broadcast for two seasons in the 1970s. Today, I smile ruefully as I realize that there have now been twelve Star Trek movies made, not just the five my article predicted.
While I was right about Spock’s return, I did not foresee that years later the death of Leonard Nimoy (1931 to 2015), the actor who embodied Spock, would seem just as intolerable as Spock’s demise. In part that is due to Nimoy’s continued association with the Star Trek franchise and fan phenomenon, but in large part this heartfelt loss is due to Leonard Nimoy’s own sterling qualities. His advocacy for tolerance and individual rights—the Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination (IDIC) Star Trek popularized as Vulcan philosophy—was also Nimoy’s own personal philosophy and way of life. As our Jewish mothers might have said, “What a mensch!” Nimoy had long ago explained how Spock’s signature Vulcan greeting—hand held high with fingers spread apart—was based on Judaism’s traditional gesture of priestly blessing. And Nimoy in turn ultimately embraced the way his most famous acting role gave him an entrée into the lives of thousands of followers, typically ending his calls-to-action and encouraging Tweets with the Vulcan wish that they “Live Long and Prosper” (LLAP).
With news of Leonard Nimoy’s passing last month, the Internet revived magazine features about his kindness to isolated teen fans; videos about his passionate involvement with Yiddish, the language of his youth; and accolades about his support for Jews and other minorities world-wide, along with his warmth as friend and family member. Nimoy’s sense of humor and wry self-mockery circulated again in a commercial he had made with Zachary Quinto, the actor who in 2009 received Nimoy’s approval to play a young, alternate timeline Spock. Glowing tributes to Nimoy poured in from human fans around the globe and even one from outer space. We have yet to decipher any condolences that other galaxies and their inhabitants may have sent our unheeding way!
In memory of Leonard Nimoy, I reproduce here my July 8, 1982 feature piece, “‘Star Trek’ book guarantees long life for Spock.” In retrospect, I might as accurately have titled the piece “Leonard Nimoy guarantees long life for Spock.” And now memory and story take up the mantle.
The gleaming, oblong form nestles in its green bower like a yet-to-be discovered jewel. The camera slowly withdraws, revealing more of the Edenic setting of planet Genesis, the newly created world on which Mr. Spock’s space-travelling casket has come to rest. As the movie audience participates in these final moments of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, we begin to realize that Spock’s sacrifice of his own life to save the Starship Enterprise and its crew may not be a permanent one. The film’s close, prolonged focus on this unharmed, gem-like casket; its panoramic survey of these new, idyllic surroundings; and the pronouncements of Admiral Kirk and other grieving cast members about “new life,” “new beginnings,” and “rebirth” suggest that the popular Mr. Spock may well be resurrected in some way for eager audiences of Star Trek III, IV, and V.
But marketplace factors are not the only reason why Mr. Spock will never “really” die. And Star Trek III, IV, and V are not the only media in which we may hope to see him. As devoted fans of the often-rerun 1960s TV series know, a multi-media industry has sprung up around its cast of characters. Star Trek: The Movie and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan are merely the most expensive and elaborate of the series’ spin-offs. At fan conferences around the country, one may buy Star Trek paraphernalia, talk with guests of honor invited from its original cast and production company, or play related video and board games. One may also purchase any number of Star Trek novels that have been written in recent years. It is the latest of these novels, Vonda McIntyre’s not surprisingly titled Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, which firmly convinces me that Mr. Spock will never die.
McIntyre’s novel is a book that would secretly please that enigmatic Science Officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Obviously promoted to capitalize and reinforce the success of the Paramount Picture’s film, McIntyre’s novel boldly goes beyond this commercial mission. It captures many of the reasons for Star Trek’s—and Mr. Spock’s—massive continuing audience appeal. As a result, the novel is even more faithful to the ideals of the original series than this latest, entertaining film.
Characterizations and unresolved conflict lured viewers of the original Star Trek. Part-Vulcan, part-human, Mr. Spock was someone with whom many could identify. He was an alien in two cultures—just as society-at-large often labels members of racial, ethnic, religious and sexual preference minorities, as well as the female majority of our population and young adults, as aliens or less-than-human “others.” Spock was also trained in Vulcan logic to be detached from human emotions. Those of us who have learned to “shut off” our feelings while watching the 6 o’clock evening news could further relate to this frustrating life-style. We watched Spock and then-Captain Kirk with interest as they struggled with troubling emotions and Starfleet Commands that did not always meet individual needs or situations.
The film Star Trek II revives many of these conflicts. Regulations vs. human needs are an issue from its first cadet training simulation to Spock’s final, “illegal” self-sacrifice. Even while dying, the supposedly unemotional Science Officer is prevented by a glass barrier from touching the hand of James Kirk, his closest friend. Vonda N. McIntyre’s The Wrath of Khan reproduces all of these gripping scenes—and then does more.
As in The Entropy Effect, her first Star Trek novel, McIntyre focuses on relatively minor characters to explore the ideas represented by the major characters of Spock and Kirk. In The Entropy Effect, she concentrated on Mr. Sulu, whose Asian background both strengthens and complicates his experiences in Starfleet, and on two women Starfleet officers of her own creation. In The Wrath of Khan, McIntyre expands the film’s portrayals of Lt. Saavik, Cadet Peter Preston, and the Project Genesis scientists slain by Khan. Through these characters, she examines the concept of “alienness,” and the issues of law vs. justice, and individual vs. collective survival.
McIntyre’s Saavik, like Mr. Spock, is a person torn between two cultures. In this novel, we learn that Saavik is half-Vulcan, half-Romulan—the unwanted child of Romulan invasion and rape of a Vulcan scientific colony. McIntyre details the student-teacher relationship between “logical” Saavik and Spock fully and compassionately. We see that Spock’s isolation is not a unique experience but one that is continually recreated by social circumstances. Saavik is brutally shaped by her heritage just as Spock is affected by his. Peter Preston, the youngest cadet aboard the Enterprise, is the first friend Saavik has ever had. He is also Chief Engineer Scotty’s nephew, and must struggle with the burden of this personal relationship as he tries to make good on his own. By drawing full portraits of Preston and the Genesis scientists (two of whom are also “aliens”) McIntyre intensifies the impact of their deaths in the fight against Khan. Her novel makes us realize the value and loss of each individual life in a struggle for collective survival in ways that the film does not.
Vonda N. McIntyre is one of many science fiction writers in the last 15 years whose works explore the humanistic issues highlighted in 1960s commercial science fiction by Star Trek. This “social science fiction” movement, strongly influenced by feminism, emphasizes human and social relationships rather than future technology. The continual growth of such social science fiction is ultimate proof that Mr. Spock will never die. His hopes and fears, dilemmas and triumphs, have become an irrevocable, central part of America’s popular culture.