Many people have highlighted Spock-centric scenes or quotations on social media following Leonard Nimoy’s death this past Friday. I’d like to recognize a particular Spock performance that I think has been overlooked throughout the years. It’s from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Yes, that Motion Picture. Conventional Trekkie wisdom says TMP is, well, bad. That it’s sterile and ponderous. That the uniforms are ugly. (Which they are.) But they’re neglecting the emotional journey that Spock takes in that movie. It’s not without its flaws, sure, but it’s one of the most important and misunderstood entries in the Star Trek franchise. Spock’s story in the film is central to its message and to Star Trek as whole.
By 1979 Star Trek had been off the air for over ten years but had been kept alive through a hugely successful run in syndication and a passionate fan base. In the wake of Star Wars, Trekkies were finally going to get their due when Paramount green-lit The Motion Picture after several false-starts throughout the decade. And the film we ended up with does something rather bold. Rather than picking up the status quo of the TV series, it starts out with the crew of the Enterprise split up. Even Captain Kirk isn’t Captain Kirk any more—he’s an admiral now—and the newly-redesigned Enterprise is no longer in his charge.
But more surprising than that is where we find Spock at the start of the film. Long-haired and on his home planet of Vulcan, Spock has been studying the discipline of Kolinahr, a Vulcan ritual that purges all emotion in favor of pure logic. As he is about to undergo his final rites, a consciousness from space calls out to his mind and reveals his emotional side to the elders. They tell Spock that he will not attain Kolinahr and must find what he seeks elsewhere.
The consciousness from space is V’Ger, a massive spaceborne entity that’s been destroying everything in its path and is on a direct course for Earth. Admiral Kirk uses the emergency to get the Enterprise back along with his old crew, even drafting the now-retired (and bearded) Dr. McCoy. On their way to intercept V’Ger, Spock manages to catch up with the Enterprise and asks to join the mission. The crew is overjoyed to have Spock back, but this is not the Spock they (or the audience) knew from the TV series. This Spock is colder, more aloof, barely acknowledging his former comrades and the friendship they once shared. McCoy wonders aloud if Spock could be using the Enterprise to reach V’Ger for his own means; a notion Kirk rejects outright. “I could never believe that,” he tells Bones of his old friend.
But when the Enterprise encounters V’Ger, Spock steals a spacesuit (neck-pinching a guy with an awesome 70s ‘stache in the process) and makes direct contact with the entity by himself. Kirk goes after him and finds an unconscious Spock floating in space; the result of an overpowering mind meld he attempted with V’Ger.
When Spock awakes in sickbay, he laughs. “I should have known,” he tells Kirk. V’Ger, having amassed all knowledge in the known galaxy, is now questioning its place and purpose in the universe. All the knowledge in the universe isn’t enough. It’s asking questions that it can’t answer on its own. Spock grabs the hand of his best friend, telling Kirk that V’Ger is unable to grasp “this simple feeling” of friendship. Through V’Ger, Spock discovers that in order to achieve true wisdom, he must embrace the emotional part of himself which he had previously tried to bury. It is through his understanding of V’Ger that the Enterprise is able to save the day. With Spock whole again, so too is Star Trek.
Spock embodies the values at the core of the Star Trek franchise; the merging of the rational and logical with the passionate and emotional. The pursuit of truth and enlightenment can be neither a purely rational nor purely spiritual one. The struggle between logic and emotion is personified in Spock. His struggle was central to Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek. Indeed, besides the Enterprise herself, the Spock character is the only carryover from Trek’s first pilot (“The Cage”) and the TV series. Beginning the first movie with Spock in crisis, and making it about the journey he takes to reconcile his dual nature, is nothing short of a bold reaffirmation of Star Trek’s mission statement.
There’s not another entry in the Trek franchise that so totally encapsulates Spock’s journey as The Motion Picture. Not “Amok Time,” not The Wrath of Khan, not “Unification.” We get glimpses in those, but nothing shouts as loudly or as clearly as TMP. We need both parts of ourselves, the rational and the spiritual, the logical and the emotional, in the pursuit of discovery.
Spock is as much a creation of Leonard Nimoy as Gene Roddenberry. Nimoy’s death is a great loss to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider or that they didn’t belong. Because through Spock’s example, we learned that we must look inward and accept who we are before we can truly understand the world in which we live. And that is a legacy that will outlive all of us.
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