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Star Trek – Spock Must Die! by James Blish (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry.

Spock Must Die! is notable for being one of the first Star Trek novels published. Indeed, it is the first original novel published by Bantham Books. (For trivia hounds, the young adult original novel Mission to Horatius was actually published during the show’s run.) It’s written by James Blish, the British author responsible for those Star Trek episode novelisations I have been sporadically quoting over the past month or so. Blish was a published science-fiction author before he worked with Star Trek. Reading Spock Must Die!, you can definitely sense the writer’s fondness for high concepts and metaphysical quandaries.

Indeed, one of the defining attributes of Spock Must Die! is that Blish seems more preoccupied with the logic and implications of the show’s pseudo-science (and his own elements building on that) than he is with the characters themselves. It’s not necessarily a fatal flaw, but Spock Must Die! is more interesting and intriguing as a curiosity than as an expansion or examination of the Star Trek franchise.

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To be fair, I am being a little harsh on Blish’s work here. His character voices are generally quite acceptable. His phonetic attempt to capture James Doohan’s Scottish accent might be a little ropey, but it seems like he understands at least the basics quite well. Better, it seems, than his editors. Apparently his over-enthusiastic copy-editors decided to substitute in “Doc” for “Bones” in all of Kirk’s dialogue referencing McCoy. The fact that this is probably the most obvious mischaracterisation of the book demonstrates that Blish’s own writing is relatively solid.

However, that’s not to suggest that Spock Must Die! is perfect. I’m not even sure that it is reasonably good, to be honest. There’s a strange energy to it, as Blish tries to throw everything at the wall and hopes that something might stick. It’s a short book, and one that reads relatively quickly, but Blish manages to pack a whole host of events into his narrative. These are generally world-building philosophical observations about the nature of the transporter or the Enterprise’s mission of exploration, and Spock Must Die! can’t help but feel a little hurried, as if Blish is moving us along before we can ask any awkward questions.

Still, it’s clear that Blish has a great deal of affection for the Star Trek universe, and also that he’s put a lot of thought into how it works. The book opens with a conversation about the existential implications of transporters. McCoy suggests that every time somebody is put through a transporter, it represents murder. Discussing the act of beaming from one place to another, he offers, “Now, at the other end, a body is assembled which is apparently identical with the original, is alive, has consciousness, and has all the memories of the original. But it is NOT the original. That has been destroyed.”

When Scotty offers the defense that the difference doesn’t matter (as there’s still an unbroken string of personal experience binding a person together), McCoy objects:

“No, not to you,” McCoy said, “because the new McCoy will look and behave in all respects like the old one. But to me? I can’t take so operational a view of the matter. I am, by definition, not the same man who went into a transporter for the first time twenty years ago. I am a construct made by a machine after the image of a dead man-and the hell of it is, not even I can know how exact the imitation is, because-well, because obviously if anything is missing I wouldn’t remember it.”

This is, on the surface, an early example of “taking it all a bit too seriously.” After all, the transporter only exists because the show couldn’t afford to use a shuttle craft every week. And yet it’s clear that Blish has sat down and had a nice long think about the implications of a fictional piece of technology that was originally introduced for the sole purpose of keeping the budget down. It’s safe to say that if feel like he’s taking ridiculous pseudo-science a little too serious, then Spock Must Die! is probably not for you.

Anyway, off the back of this conversation, Scotty invents a “super transporter” that will handily set McCoy’s mind at ease by creating a duplicate for the away mission rather than simply destroying the original body. You’d imagine this would raise all manner of ethical and moral issues on top the obvious philosophical issues, but the book sort of glosses over that.

Scotty invents in a magical device without any real thought to the fact that he has solved a problem concerning the destruction of a human body by creating a clone very clearly designed to die. Kirk points this out, advising Scotty not to tell McCoy about his “fix” for the doctor’s existential dilemma. “You see, Scotty, he’s likely to ask you if the tachyon replicate has an immortal soul-and somehow I don’t think you’d be in a position to answer.” And that’s as much as we get. Blish never goes into it in too much depth (though he layers on the pseudo-science quite heavily), so it’s very clear that the reader’s ability to enjoy Spock Must Die! will be directly proportional to their ability to just roll with it.

At the same time, war is declared with the Klingons. Given that Errand of Mercy established that there were god-like beings who didn’t want that to happen, any story about conflict between the Federation and the Klingons has to account for the Organians. Later Star Trek episodes like The Way of the Warrior dealt with the issue through the deft step of avoiding it completely. Blish continues his surprisingly accurate early portrayal of a zealous Star Trek fan with too much time on his hands by seeking to deal with that rather awkward little plot point head-on.

So the Enterprise decides to test Scotty’s “super transporter” by beaming Spock to Organia to figure out what the heck is going on. This doesn’t seem too far from the portrayal of the crew on the show, but it is worth pointing out how often a regular transporter (apparently a tried-and-tested piece of machinery) goes horribly wrong. So you’d imagine that Scotty would at least commit to some beta testing before loading Spock into the transporter and hoping for the best.

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Inevitably, it goes wrong. The Enterprise ends up with two Spock’s for the price of one. You’d imagine that would be pretty damn neat, but it isn’t. Because… you guessed it… one of them is evil! So evil that he starts letting the Klingons know where the Enterprise is located! Which makes no real sense, to be honest. Surely evil!Spock would just get blown up with the rest of the Enterprise? I’m not exactly sure what his endgame is, beyond being evil!Spock.

Still, there’s apparently no way to tell them apart, so Kirk finds himself stranded with two versions of Spock. One is his trusted confidante and his oldest friend… and the other is a psychopath. Because the ethical dilemma would be too difficult if both were perfectly reasonable beings with a valid claim to Spock’s existence. As an aside, I do love how casual Spock is about being freaked out that Kirk would be perfectly willing to kill a copy of him. “To begin with, you and I are friends – a fact I have never intentionally exploited in any duty situation, but a fact of long standing nevertheless. To find that you would agree to kill any Spock cannot but distort my judgment.”

We’re still at a base level of weirdness, though. Things start to escalate from here. Most notably, when one of the two Spocks barricades himself in a laboratory and insists that he won’t come out until the other version is killed. He’s like a sulking teenager. At one point, when Kirk solicits advice on the Klingon situation, this version of Spock refuses to do his homework… until the other version is killed.  It’s like the weirdest domestic drama I have ever encountered. And I love that Kirk is still reluctant to spot that emo!Spock is evil!Spock.

I feel like I’m just recapping the plot rather than offering any real insight. I also feel like my description is coming off a bit harsher than I might intend. I actually quite enjoyed Spock Must Die!, and not from an ironic “so bad it’s good!” sort of way. It is clear that Blish has put a lot of thought into how the Star Trek universe must logically work. He likes his high concepts and very clearly has a deep affection for trying to pull disparate ideas together. The fact that his plot is a blend of The Enemy Within and Errand of Mercy makes it obvious that he is trying to play off the familiar tropes of the show.

More than that, there are some items of genuine interest here. The metaphysics of the transporter, for example, are deeply fascinating. David R. George III would build off a similar sort of logic in his Crucible trilogy, as Kirk remembers some philosophical discussions about the transporter with his father. It’s nice to get a sense that the characters have thought about the logic of the technology they use every day, and characterising McCoy’s dislike of the transporter in such terms is a nice bit of character work.

Unfortunately, some times Blish’s analysis is a little… dated, to put it nicely. It is worth remembering that Spock Must Die! was written a year after the show went off the air, but even keeping in mind the shifting social values, there are still some awkward moments. At one point, Kirk offers a stunningly racist and not-a-little sexist explanation for Spock’s uncanny sex appeal:

What was the source of the oddly overt response that women of all ages and degrees of experience seemed to feel toward Spock? Kirk had no answer, but he had two theories, switching from one to the other according to his mood. One was that it was a simple challenge-and-response situation: he may be cold and unresponsive to other women, but if I had the chance, I could get through to him! The other, more complex theory seemed more plausible to Kirk only in his moments of depression: that most white crewwomen, still the inheritors after two centuries of vestiges of the shameful racial prejudices of their largely Anglo-American forebears, saw in the Vulcan half-breed-who after all had not sprung from any Earthly colored stock-a “safe” way of breaking with those vestigial prejudices-and at the same time, perhaps, satisfying the sexual curiosity which had probably been at the bottom of them from the beginning.

I should probably crack a joke about how Kirk’s logic is just down to jealousy, but still… that is a very awkward paragraph to read. It’s also something that is very clearly a tangent, and so its arrival feels a little strange, as if Blish just happened to be considering the question of Spock’s sex appeal and sort of threw it in there. A little racism with your story, as it were.

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There are also some rather strange dead-end high concepts that Blish raises only to cast aside. For example, apparently the evil!Spock is actually a mirror reflection of Spock, completely reversed. That ultimately turns out to be completely irrelevant, though as Vulcans just so happen to be completely symmetrical! The concepts balance one another perfectly, and keep the story exactly where it was. It’s liek a weird trivia-generating holding pattern.

And yet, I kinda like the way that Blish unashamedly grasps at these concepts. He clearly has a lot of thoughts, and he’s just going to put them all to paper and hope they work out. They aren’t all keepers, as mentioned in the above example. Most of them seem rather scattershot, as if Blish is struggling to write it all down before he starts forgetting part of it.

That said, I like the little touches, like the reference to “Eurish”, which is a very Star Trek concept. Blish also seems to be the only writer who ever acknowledged the pseudo-science of Where No Man Has Gone Before, referencing the fact that this is a universe where psi-powers actually exist:

“One hypothesis is that many humans may be telepathic at birth, but that the ability burns out almost immediately under the influx of new experience, particularly the burden of pain of other creatures around them.”

Indeed, Spock Must Die! hinges on a some rather dubious mental science. When one of the Spocks starts acting up, McCoy puts it down to basic psychology. It turns out the Klingons have developed the ultimate weapon – a thought weapon they used to subjugate Organia.

Blish would occasionally take liberties in his adaptations of the episodes, but he seems to channel the pulpy vibe of the show relatively well. Indeed, he even shares the show’s somewhat dubious sense of stellar cartography. On a research mission, it seems like the Klingon War strands the Enterprise further away than the Caretaker brought Voyager. “We’ve got the whole of Shapley Center, the heart of the galaxy, between us and home,” Uhura explains at one point, “and the stellar concentration is so high there that it makes a considerable energy bulge even in subspace.”

Spock Must Die! is not a classic story, as interesting as it is by virtue of its place in the shared canon. It’s not a misplaced iconic Star Trek story that has been forgotten by the ages. It is messy, and clunky, and it barely hangs together even if you are willing to go along with it. However, Blish’s enthusiasm for the material is palpable, and it evokes the devil-may-care attitude of some of the show’s more enjoyable final-year entries like Spectre of the Gun or The Savage Curtain.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:

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