Tom’s Unpopular Opinion: Spock should’ve stayed dead
So here’s a question for you: why is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan widely considered the best Star Trek movie? I mean sure, there may be new fans who like the J.J. Abrams stuff, and there are fans of the Next Generation era films. But considering how Khan “liberally inspired” two films from those respective franchises, the 1982 classic seems much more enduring. And why is that?
There are numerous articles and videos out there talking about the movie, and I don’t think I could add a whole lot more to those opinions. I think I can break down a few of the fundamentals, though: you have a great villain; you have what feel like some real stakes; you have a fantastic space battle that tries to be something different from Star Wars instead of attempting to emulate it; and Spock died.
If you didn’t see Wrath of Khan in theaters back then, I think it’s hard to describe what that death meant to fans. Or what it meant to me. Redshirts croaked all the time, so death was nothing new in Trek. But the core crew usually escaped relatively unscathed. Going in to see Wrath of Khan, I honestly wasn’t expecting any of the big names to die, which is why Spock’s sacrifice had such a huge impact. It was a memorable scene, and both William Shatner and Nimoy nailed it, giving it the gravitas it was due. So yeah, both Into Darkness and Nemesis had their dramatic death moments, but after it was already done once, the other Star Trek movie deaths just feel forced, especially seeing how the deaths turn out to be largely meaningless; in one case Kirk’s only gone for, what, fifteen minutes? And in the other, Data backed up his hard drive into B-4 for… reasons, so fans were pretty much expecting Data’s return in some form. Ah, you might be saying; isn’t that a parallel too? Yes, and more on that later.
The point I’m making here is that at that time, it seemed like Spock was gone for good. He wasn’t, of course; a couple years later Star Trek III: The Search For Spock came out, and we got our favorite Vulcan back, only this time we lost David Marcus and the Enterprise itself.
And then Star Trek IV came out and we got a new ship that looked exactly like the old Enterprise, and all those losses from Star Trek II and III (save for David) were undone.
The magical reset button had been pressed, and the older I’ve gotten, the more time I’ve had to reflect, and looking back I think Spock should have stayed dead.
Blasphemy!, some fans may cry. But I’m serious; in the long run, would Spock’s absence from the franchise have been that bad? And indeed, had his return actually been detrimental to the franchise as a whole, setting up a pattern where death and loss became less important, where consequences meant less, and the idea that anything could happen was pretty much tossed out the window?
I’m not saying death doesn’t happen in Star Trek. In Next Generation, we lost Tasha Yar, but we know the reason there: Denise Crosby wasn’t happy. Yar’s death had little to no long term impact, and while it was nice to see Crosby reprise her role once more and come back as the villainous Sela, Yar’s demise didn’t hit us the way Spock’s had—not even remotely.
Years later on Deep Space Nine, Jadzia Dax died… but not entirely, as Nicole De Boer came on board as the new Dax host, Ezri.
Here again was the over-reliance on the status quo, in that it seemed the producers felt they needed a Dax, and I think it showed terrible short-sightedness.
Imagine if Spock had stayed dead; Khan would have been considered the Greatest Star Trek Villain of All Time. No other bad guy could have come close to touching that. And imagine if Dax had stayed dead? Completely, 100% dead? Imagine how much more menacing Gul Dukat would have been for it. Instead, both Spock and Dax returned in some form and hence the weight of the villain’s actions were lessened.
What would Star Trek had looked like with Spock’s permanent demise? Star Trek III would have been a very different film, and its possible Kirstie Alley could have been able to renegotiate a more favorable contract if Saavik had been made Enterprise’s science officer the way she had in the 1984 comic.
Spock’s death could have opened up a lot of possible storylines and subplots regarding the rest of the cast. The earlier films could have been more ambitious in scope; for example, we could have seen Captain Sulu a couple of films earlier. With Spock being gone, the producers would have had to have gone bigger, and thought more creatively. I mean heck, by the sixth film (which came out in ’91), would a time-traveling crossover with The Next Generation have been out of the question? Could we have seen a new cast of young characters pop up? And if all this seems unlikely, or if it just feels like fanboy speculation, bear in mind Paramount was ready to move on without Spock at one point back when they had begun work on the aborted ’70s series Star Trek: Phase II. Back then, they had prepared three newer, younger characters: Decker, Ilya, and Xon, Spock’s replacement.
But somewhere along the line, a decision was made to shelve the series and go for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which allowed them to reel in Leonard Nimoy again. Based on some of the scripts, I must reluctantly admit that they might have had a point, and Phase II might have been like Space: 1999 with its hippie dippie psychedelic sci-fi aesthetic.
Still, I don’t think the producers should have gotten cold feet regarding younger cast members; after Star Trek III, it seemed all they wanted to do was focus on the original gang, and that left them with zero options by the time Star Trek VI came around. Then again, they had The Next Generation, so I suppose Paramount felt they didn’t need “youngsters” cluttering up their nostalgia-fest motion pictures.
I’m not unhappy with what we got; even Star Trek V was a guilty pleasure back then. But the fact is that while five out of the six Original Series Star Trek movies were good, maybe the latter ones could have been better. Paramount could have taken bigger risks, and I think we could have seen larger rewards. Imagine Star Trek ruling both the box office and television simultaneously, not just in those handful of years from 89-91, but further along, with us watching the younger cast introduced in earlier films as they carried on the legacy? Again, fanboy speculation I know, but I think had Paramount been thinking long term, and if they had just let Spock stay dead and moved on, who knows what the franchise would have become?
Now bear with me as I address the other issue, as it might seem I’m indulging in a pointless digression. A few weeks ago someone posted this meme on Twitter:
I think it’s a pretty good point. I got into some back and forth with people online about it, where they pointed out the three characters that had returned were not the same ones who had died. But when people watch Loki, does Tom Hiddleston play the titular character the same way? Do people watch it and think “Oh, but this isn’t my Loki! My Loki died at the hands of Thanos!” When they watch WandaVision, does Paul Bettany really portray the Vision any differently? And when Gamora shows up again (and you know she will), that character will largely be the same as she was before, sans her relationship with Star-Lord. For all intents and purposes, these are the same characters, despite the fact they really aren’t, and their existence cheapens their predecessors’ deaths to the point of irrelevancy. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least that at the end of Black Widow, we find out that at some point Natasha had been replaced by a Skrull and that’s who really died in Avengers: Endgame.
This is nothing new; you see it in comics all the time. The Captain America running around at the moment? Not the original; that one was corrupted by the Cosmic Cube and is in prison, and the other was a second Captain America created by the Cube to defeat the first. Tony Stark died years ago and was replaced by a teenager from another timeline, then another version of Stark came back during Heroes Return. I’m pretty sure Peter Parker died a final death during Dan Slott’s decade long run on Amazing Spider-Man while Doctor Octopus possessed his body. Heck, I’m pretty sure the original Doc Ock died as well. And X-Men are dying and getting better all the time in Hickman’s current story. James Rhodes was brought back with some Bendis hand-waving, Hawkeye died and got better somehow, and I’m not sure how Xavier made it back. I could go on… and on… and on…
The point is that the Spock we saw at the end of Star Trek III shares something in common with many of these characters: it’s not the same Spock that died in Wrath of Khan. The Spock we see at the end of Star Trek III is a copy, a physical being made from the matter of the deceased original. But Tom, you might say, didn’t the Vulcans transfer Spock’s katra from McCoy to the duplicate Spock, and that would mean Spock had come back? Well, that all depends on what you think a katra is. In Star Trek II, Spock tells McCoy to “remember” and basically downloads his memories into Bones’ head before going off to heroically die. So at one point there are two Spocks; one being irradiated, and the other stored in McCoy’s gray matter. So which is the real Spock, living or potential? You can’t have both.
If it’s the former, then the duplicate in McCoy’s head is just that: a backup in McCoy’s organic hard drive. If it’s the latter, then the Spock that goes off to his reward in front of Kirk is nothing more than some remote controlled puppet, and that powerful, moving scene between Shatner and Nimoy, the iconic death scene that’s arguably one of the best moments of Star Trek, is a complete and total lie. You decide. And hell, they’re still doing it; the Picard we’ll see in season two of his show is an android, and Q treats him like he’s the original!
If you want to believe Spock came back from the dead in Star Trek III, I’m not going to argue the point with you. If you were glad Spock had returned, then more power to you. And perhaps as I’ve gotten older and more cynical and have had entirely too much time to think on it and dissect my beloved franchise, I should leave well enough alone. But the thought burrowed into my head and took root and, well, here we are. Maybe it’s an unpopular opinion, or maybe it’s just something no one has remotely considered yet. Agree? Disagree? Think I’m crazy? I’m willing to die on this hill; chances are I’ll just come back anyway.