One of the first original Star Trek novels written, “Spock Must Die” is a product of an entirely different era in Trek publishing. Veteran sci-fi writer James Blish famously adapted most of the original 79 episodes of classic Trek as short stories in a series of 12 collections. (For many fans, like myself, these collections were an essential part of our discovery of the original series in the days before we could watch any episode we wanted any time we wanted via video-tapes, DVD collections or streaming). Their success and fan letters encouraged him to try his own hand at crafting an original Trek story and the result is “Spock Must Die.”
“Spock Must Die” is a far more philosophical novel than many of the Trek tie-ins published today. It’s also a lot more sweeping in its scope than many of the Trek novels published today. And yet it weights in at just a mere hundred and twelve pages.
The central philosophical issue is raised on the first page of the story with McCoy (who is inadvertently called Doc instead of Bones due to an editing error at the time) debating Scotty on the implications of using the transporter. McCoy wonders if the person who steps into the transporter and is beamed down is the same person who arrives or if you’re just a relatively close duplicate of a person who no longer exists.
The novel spends the next hundred or so pages trying to answer that question when a transporter experiment creates a duplicate of Spock. Unable to tell which is the original, Kirk and company wrestle with the morality of the situation as well as trying to ensure that one of the Spocks isn’t a cleverly disguised Klingon agent. It’s not helped by the fact that neither Spock can break the tie and one of them attempts to blackmail Kirk into killing the other and insisting he’s the original.
All of this is set against the backdrop of the Organians disappearing and war erupting with the Klingon Empire. Blish’s novel operates under the theory that space is really, really huge and that the Enterprise really is out there alone on the edge of the frontier. It’s no quick jaunt back to Organia, but instead a six month voyage at high warp through hostile territory. That six month period gives a lot of time for debate, philosophical reflection and hand-wringing over what to do about the duplicate Spock problem and why the Organians are no longer enforcing their treaty that created the uneasy peace between the Federation and the Klingons.
There’s even a section of the novel given to the debate over what makes Spock so attractive to women.
Written in a time before there were a zillion or other so tie-in novels and stricter rules on what one could and couldn’t do in a Star Trek novel, Blish is allowed to take some risks that might not be available to writers today. For example, the novel’s end finds the Organians returning and punishing the Klingons for their role in cutting them off from the universe (and their plans to impose a similar fate on Earth) in a way that’s fairly far-reaching in scope and feels like it’s intended to be the final word on the subject.
And while “Spock Must Die” helped pave the way for other writers to dabble in the Star Trek universe, I can’t say it’s one of the better tie-in novels ever written. Philosophical debates aside, Blish’s portrayals of certain classic Trek characters doesn’t ring entirely true. While it’s admirable to see him put Uhura into the chain of command, it doesn’t ring true that Kirk would put her in command of the ship at certain points of the story when Sulu is available. At least based on the evidence from the classic episodes.
The resolution to how we determine which Spock is which also seems a bit abrupt. I’m not sure if Blish was being kept to a page count or just didn’t know the best way to write his way out of the dilemma he’d created for the story. Either way, the resolution and denouncement of which one is the copy isn’t nearly as compelling or interesting as the events leading up to it.
In the end, “Spock Must Die” is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s a harder sci-fi take on the original series, but it doesn’t necessarily always get the characters right. Blish did a lot to help invent the sub-genre of Trek publishing and for that I’m grateful. I just wish his original creation for the line had been a bit better.