After Genesis: More notes on the evolution of ‘Star Trek’ and Spock following ‘The Wrath of Khan’

March 9, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 9, 2015

The recent death of actor Leonard Nimoy prompted me to watch and think about the ending of Star Trek II: The Wrath of KhanThat 1982 film, which was written by Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards and directed by Nicholas Meyer, is probably the high point of the Star Trek franchise.

(Note: As with my previous post, this blog entry contains mild spoilers. Of course, it’s for a 33-year-old movie, but anyway, you’ve been warned: There be spoilers ahead.)

There’s a very obvious reason why so many people thought about, and rewatched parts of, Star Trek II last week. At the movie’s climax, Spock — Nimoy’s character — sacrifices himself to repair the Enterprise’s warp engines, thereby saving the ship from the Genesis device that has been triggered by the villainous Khan (Ricardo Montalban).

After the starship vaults to safety, there’s time enough — barely — for the grievously injured half-human, half-Vulcan officer to have a conversation with the stricken Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Spock’s longtime friend and commander. In the next scene, Kirk eulogizes his comrade, and Spock’s body is launched in a torpedo casing toward the new planet that has just been created by the Genesis device.

But this isn’t the last we’ve heard of Spock. The final spoken lines in Star Trek II are a monologue delivered by Spock — a monologue which is very similar to the introduction given by Kirk at the beginning of every episode of the original Star Trek television series. The Wrath of Khan soundtrack album features the speech in the music to the closing credits, just as in the movie.

And even that didn’t represent the last of Spock. The franchise’s next movie, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), resurrected the character. This miracle occurred partly because of the rejuvenating properties of the Genesis wave that necessitated the Vulcan’s sacrifice at the end of Wrath of Khan and partly because Spock paused to deposit his katra — the essence of his mind — in the mind of a colleague prior to entering the Enterprise’s highly irradiated warp-drive chamber.

This is patent nonsense, pure fantasy. But The Search for Spock worked pretty well; it avoided mawkishness in part by killing off one character (admittedly, a minor one) and by requiring the destruction of the Enterprise. In one of the film’s best moments, Kirk and his fellow officers stand on the surface of the Genesis planet, watching the fiery remnants of their beloved starship break up in the atmosphere above them.

“My God, Bones, what have I done?” an agonized Kirk asks.

“What you had to do — what you always do,” McCoy replies. “Turn death into a fighting chance to live.”

By the story’s end, Spock’s body and consciousness have been reunited. In the next film, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), Kirk, Spock and friends voyage, well, home in the Klingon ship that they hijacked in The Search for Spock; en route, however, they’re forced to travel back in time to 20th-century Earth in order to retrieve a pair of humpback whales.

This heroic act of conservationism has the salutary effect in the 23rd century of persuading a mysterious alien probe to stop disrupting Federation technology and boiling off Earth’s oceans, therefore saving humanity’s cradle from destruction. As a result, Starfleet dismisses most of the charges against Kirk and his associates that authorities had filed after our heroes stole the Enterprise in The Search for Spock.

The admiral is punished by being reduced in rank to captain. He and his officers are assigned to serve together aboard a starship. They don’t find out which one until their shuttle brings them to a brand-new vessel with the registration number NCC-1701-A and the name Enterprise.

With the franchise’s core thus reconstituted, the original cast went on to make two more movies: the lamentable Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) and the excellent Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991).

This was hardly the last we’d see of the original cast. The premiere episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which debuted in 1987, had a cameo from McCoy. (“Treat her like a lady, and she’ll always bring you home,” DeForest Kelley tells Brent Spiner’s Data from underneath a geriatric prosthesis.)

Spock, the Vulcan who made the ultimate sacrifice in Star Trek II, benefited from having the extended life span of his father’s species. He’s the subject of “Unification,” a two-part episode from The Next Generation’s fifth season, which aired in 1991. Nimoy appears as Ambassador Spock, whom the Federation fears may have defected to the Romulan Empire, at the very end of the first part; he’s a featured player throughout the story’s second half.

Relics,” an episode in the sixth of TNG seasons, featured Montgomery Scott as the survivor of a 23rd-century starship disaster who had survived 75 years by being held in stasis in a transporter beam. The episode ends with James Doohan’s character being given a warp-capable shuttlecraft with which to explore the galaxy.

Moreover, Kirk, Scotty and Chekov (Walter Koenig) appear in the opening act of the seventh Trek movie, Star Trek Generations, which takes place near the end of the 23rd century on the maiden voyage of the U.S.S. Enterprise, NCC-1701-B. The film was released in late 1994, a few months after the conclusion of the seventh and final season of the TNG series.

Following Generations, Paramount mounted three additional Next Generation feature films, to diminishing returns. The crew went out with a whimper in 2002 with Star Trek: Nemesis, the 10th Trek feature film.

And beginning in 1993, with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the studio produced three more TV series based in the universe that Gene Roddenberry had created in the 1960s. The three shows followed the pattern of the TNG movies in that there were generally diminishing returns.

The last and least of the TV shows was Enterprise, situated aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise NX-01, a 22nd-century starship; it debuted in 2001 and ran three seasons. The franchise appeared to grind to a halt after this series went off the air in 2005.

But there was more to come. In May 2009, nearly four years to the day after the final Enterprise episode was broadcast, the property was rebooted with J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek, which recreated the original series by assembling a younger cast to play Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the whole gang.

This being a 21st-century science-fiction movie, Star Trek wasn’t exactly a straight reboot — nay, nay. Instead, the Abrams film is kick-started when a 24th-century rescue mission mounted by Ambassador Spock goes awry, propelling a Romulan named Nero into the past on a mission of vengeance after his homeworld is destroyed.

In the opening sequence of 2009’s Star Trek, Nero destroys the U.S.S. Kelvin, thereby killing George Kirk creating an alternative reality in which a rebellious, cynical James Tiberius Kirk grows up without his father. Nero later captures Ambassador Spock and strands him on the moon so he can witness the destruction of his home planet, Vulcan.

The ambassador, whom hardcore Trekkers (Trekkies? Take your pick, my friends) refer to as Spock Prime, goes on to found New Vulcan with about 10,000 surviving Vulcans; the colony’s goal is to propagate the species. (Its numbers do not include the alternative reality’s Spock, played by Zachary Quinto, who serves with Christopher Pine’s Captain Kirk aboard the Enterprise.)

The bottom line, however, is that Leonard Nimoy’s Spock survived not only the destruction of his body but the destruction of his universe. Spock’s death in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan grounded that movie in a deeply meaningful sacrifice and emotional maturity that helped ensure the continuation of the franchise.

Still, I come here not to bury Spock but to praise him. Nimoy’s Spock was a charismatic scientist and peace-maker, a character who provided Star Trek with a unique soul. Because Spock’s sacrifice in Wrath of Khan wasn’t final, we had the opportunity to cherish the character, and the actor, for many more years.

Both Nimoy and Spock lived long and prospered, and for that we should all be grateful.

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