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Un-killing Spock

People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.

Steve Jobs

A few years ago, V’ger answered my prayers; my wife learned to love Star Trek.

This was a Very Good Thing™; I’ve loved the franchise for at least twenty years. I couldn’t wait to watch Trek with her—to see her fawn over each entry in the series. But as we progressed through these films, one uncomfortable fact became clear: as with other movies I loved as an 80s kid, most of Trek isn’t great.

The Star Trek films, at their worst, demonstrate the dangers of “fan service.” Studio suits want to protect a money-making franchise, so they steer the creatives toward audience-pleasing plots. But fans “don’t know what they want”—not really. They think they crave more of the same: more Spock. More Kirk. More Enterprise. But rehashing familiar tropes inevitable wears your storytelling thin. It strangles compelling drama. It forbids risky twists.

Star Trek III offers the quintessential example. Its predecessor, Wrath of Khan, featured one of the gutsiest plot twists in cinematic history: killing off Mr. Spock. But outraged fans protested the death of their favorite character.[1] The studio flinched, and per its direction, Search for Spock resurrects the beloved science officer.[2] The film’s denouement, in which Vulcan gurus reunite Spock’s soul with his body, serves up a feel-good ending for the fan base.

Star Trek III cheapens the genuine heartache of Spock’s death. More problematically, it also eliminates any trace of dramatic tension from the franchise. From that moment on, any tragic event could simply be undone. When the starship Enterprise blows up, we know it can’t really be gone forever. Star Trek IV wastes that bold move by introducing an entirely identical, replacement Enterprise. Or consider J.J. Abrams’ latest Trek entry, Into Darkness. That film echoes Wrath of Khan by killing off Captain Kirk. But Kirk stays dead just twenty minutes.

What if the franchise hadn’t lost its nerve? What if Spock had stayed dead? Looking back, this would’ve been a cleverer, bolder, more rewarding approach than surrendering to fan service. Make the audience feel the loss of Spock. Show us how a grief-stricken Kirk spirals out of control. Tell how his recklessness, untempered by Spock’s cold logic, eventually derails his Starfleet career. In other words, let Trek take risks.[3]

If it had, I might have shared Star Trek III with my wife less apologetically.


  1. As Khan director Nicholas Meyer recalls, “We had been getting letters from a lot of people who were very alarmed at the prospect of Spock dying. I remember I got one that said ‘If Spock dies, you die.’”  ↩

  2. Technically, the seeds for Spock’s return were planted in Wrath of Khan. But that was a late alteration to the script, resented by the film’s director, Nicholas Meyer. As he explains, “I just thought this was so unfair to an audience of people who really care about this shit, and then saying, ‘You know, oh, it was just a dry hustle.’ No, I didn’t think that was right…. At the time, I just thought that my vision of the thing was being insensitively overruled. But that’s when they made that insert, about ‘Remember’ and put him on the planet in his torpedo.”  ↩

  3. Admittedly, ST3 deserves some credit for blowing up the original Enterprise. It’s the best scene in the entire picture.  ↩

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Teasing Khan

In 2009, J.J. Abrams successfully rebooted the Star Trek franchise. This was no small task; Trekkies are notoriously picky. The filmmaker took pains to include many details that only true nerds could appreciate.

Several of these fan-pleasing scenes were cut from the final production. For example, William Shatner’s cameo apparently made it into the script but was never shot.[1] Another scene that the filmmakers considered, then decided against, was a post-credits teaser for the inevitable Khan-centric sequel.

Here’s how I imagine that scene playing out:


INT. U.S.S. ENTERPRISE BRIDGE

Close-up of KIRK, slouched confidently in the captain’s chair. OLD SPOCK stands beside him.

OLD SPOCK
Once again, Captain, I am sincerely grateful for…

KIRK waves hand.

KIRK
…Our pleasure, Ambassador. We’ll get you to New Vulcan safe and sound; it’s the least we can do. In fact—

YOUNG SPOCK (concerned edge in voice)
—Captain.

KIRK
What is it, Spock?

YOUNG SPOCK
We’re picking up a vessel off the port bow.

KIRK spins to face YOUNG SPOCK, who is staring into his viewscreen.

KIRK
Out here? What kind of vessel?

YOUNG SPOCK
I… do not know. It is… quite old.

KIRK
On screen.

Cut to shot of crude-looking ship, its hull scarred and pitted. It floats adrift, spinning slowly.

Shot of OLD SPOCK, brow furrowed—as if trying to remember…

KIRK
Life signs?

YOUNG SPOCK
Several dozen humanoids… [looks up, hint of concern in voice] Captain, their signals are quite faint.

Decision made, KIRK springs into action. He flips his chair’s comm switch.

KIRK
Bones! Meet us in the transporter room!

MCCOY (over comm)
On my way.

KIRK leaps up from his chair.

KIRK
Spock, you’re with me. Sulu, you have the conn.

YOUNG SPOCK and SULU
Aye, Captain.

KIRK and YOUNG SPOCK exit via turbolift. Camera follows SULU to command chair, then pans back to OLD SPOCK, who’s looking down, puzzled. Shot hovers on him for a few seconds, then zooms out to include CHEKOV.

CHEKOV
Look!

Close-up of OLD SPOCK as he raises his eyes to the viewscreen. His mouth drops open. Recognition and fear flood his face.

Cut to viewscreen. The unnamed vessel continues its driftless spin. As the ship turns, its name emerges from the shadows. The words are clearly legible: SS BOTANY BAY.

Cut to black.

  1. Somehow, no one has yet to splice together a fan edit of this unshot scene. Get on that, Trek nerds!  ↩