Science Fantasy Friday: Spock’s Hero’s Journey

The new film is out and reviews and spoilers can be found all over the net, but for the moment, would like to step back and look at what it takes to make the hero of Star Trek.

Not Kirk, but Spock.

There are no spoilers for the J.J. Abrams Star Trek film here, but there is plenty of geek speak. A spoiler-filled analysis will come another day.

The makings of an epic hero have been defined again and again by anthropologists trying to understand what makes us believe in our heroes. Joseph Campbell and Lord Raglan established some of the most widely-quoted hero “rules,” so they’ll be mentioned here. Look them up some time.

While Captain Kirk is undoubtedly the star of Star Trek, his life has always been something of an unknown (until the new movie, obviously), but Mr. Spock’s life has always been rife with intriguing details, and these details are what define him as a hero.

Raglan said the hero is descended from the gods and comes from royal parentage, but with an unusual conception. The hero is rejected at first, often with threats of violence from his father.

Spock’s parents are not royalty, but as the product of a Vulcan ambassador and a human woman his birth was certainly unusual. Add to this the suggestion that among his ancestors were the first Vulcan to officially visit Earth and a signor of the Federation Charter, and he is practically a Star Trek deity. Spock’s father never tried to kill him, but…

So human.

After this miraculous birth, the childhood of the hero is fraught with ominous signs and initiation rites. Campbell calls this the “call to adventure,” when the hero is offered the choice: continue with a normal life or become something more. Sometimes there is an interdiction, as the hero is told not to go or he decides against it, but a herald often calls him forth (a “white rabbit”), forcing him to continue.

For Spock, he was faced with a literal rite of passage, one he is not supposed to go through, but must participate thanks to the involvement of his furry friend. (Watch the whole episode)

This is particularly important, as it places Spock directly on the path to becoming a mythic hero. He receives supernatural aid in the form of his time-traveling future-self and a cross of the threshold in the form of the Forge.

Accepting his path, the hero goes on a great journey through the belly of the whale – he enters Starfleet Academy as the first Vulcan (and a half-breed no less) in unfriendly territory.

After this initiation, the road of trials continues. Spock spends eleven years serving with Captian Pike, often faced with challenges to his code of logic. Nevertheless, he faces down monsters and creatures. Facing these tests helps Spock pass both Campbell’s and Raglan’s criteria.

Accepted into Starfleet and the Federation (what Raglan calls his “future kingdom”), he is destined to marry (for Raglan, this is a “princess” and the daughter of his predecessor). For Campbell, this “meeting with the goddess” can be a benefit or temptation, Spock met both in the form of Leila Kalomi.

As a hero, Spock faces many challenges, including a brother-battle

And more importantly, a significant death and resurrection. Campbell said the hero must reach the World Navel, the place from which all life springs and remain there in this immovable spot to find enlightenment. For Spock this was all very true. He died to save the Enterprise and remained dead on a lifeless world as it became suddenly filled with life. Raglan said the death was in a high place (certainly a space ship counts) and that his body would not be buried but memorials would be held in his name.

Spock is resurrected, and in doing so helps solidify his own legend as a new force among the Vulcans. He achieves apotheosis.

It is in this role as living saint that Spock travels to the Underworld, the dark shame of Vulcan evolution – the Romulan empire.

On Romulous, Spock makes every attempt at peace, even if this dedication means he is not present when his father atones for their past disagreements.

Still, Spock finds the ultimate boon (as Campbell describes it), a lasting peace. Maintaining that peace for years (“reigns uneventfully and prescribes laws” as Raglan calls it), but he loses favor as he is unable to keep a major promise. He meets a mysterious end. He must make a “magic flight” and receive an unlikely rescue from the universe itself, crossing the threshold back to his old life in order to truly become the “master of two worlds” and gain the “freedom to live” (Campbell’s concepts in quotations).

(To learn more about the how’s and why’s of that last bit, read the comic or watch the film).

Clearly Spock is the mythic hero of Star Trek, but Kirk is obviously the main character. With a new emphasis on his childhood, the new movie does a lot to bring Kirk into a legendary light.

More on that next time.

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