Across (at least) two universes, three shows, and two separate movie franchises, Amanda Grayson has gone through a lot of portrayals. She is a fan-favorite character, and a fascinating one at that: the human mother of the alien Mr. Spock, a woman who fell in love with a man who lives a life devoted to logic, and an integral part of the soap opera drama that composes Spock’s expanding extended family tree. (Two previously unmentioned chaotic siblings and counting!) Through it all, Amanda has been a guiding force, straddling the complicated line of Spock’s half-human, half-Vulcan upbringing and complicated relationship with his father, and providing her whole family with the love, and sometimes sharp wake-up calls, that they need.
So it was incredibly disappointing to see in the 2009 reboot movie of the franchise that Amanda Grayson, along with the entire planet of Vulcan, was unceremoniously killed so that Spock would be forced to display the only emotion that recent movies seem interested in letting break through his shield of logic: rage.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, JJ Abrams has said that he didn’t like Star Trek growing up. It is impossible not to see similarities to a movie franchise he actually does like in Star Trek (2009). From the destruction of Vulcan to reliance on a one-man starcraft making the killing blow against a massive technologically superior superweapon, the fingerprints of Star Wars are all over the first film. Just slot in Vulcan for Alderaan, and that’s your character motivation.
And, to be absolutely fair, functionally it works as a story beat. Jim Kirk has personal stakes in hating Nero because of the death of his father, and now Spock has one because of the death of his mother. Amanda Grayson’s death paints a sympathetic face on the destruction and loss of Vulcan, which is otherwise just an orb in space to the audience that isn’t a fan of the series.
However, not only is this a criminal underuse of the incredible Winona Ryder whose deleted scenes give a peek into what we could have had, but it’s completely unnecessary. Are we to believe that Spock would not be properly motivated to revenge by the literal, actual genocide of his people? Why is Spock not allowed more than a few moments of shell shocked grief for his planet and his mother before we skip right to anger?
Why destroy Vulcan at all? Star Trek (2009) presents on purpose a more militarized Starfleet, which is an interesting choice that unfortunately also makes me feel like I’m watching an extended Mirrorverse episode in places. Again, this is more Star Wars than Star Trek, and reeks of the thinking that the source material is in some way “boring” or won’t resonate with modern audiences. Blowing up planets is a spectacle, and flashy, and fun, and killing off planets and mothers works well enough as an audience shorthand for “main character hates villain personally.”
But that’s not very Star Trek. We’re supposed to have long philosophical discussions about what it means to be human, and characters like Amanda Grayson are integral to that. Spock’s journey is one of self-acceptance and love, warring with two philosophies made literal in him — logic vs emotion, calculation vs impulse. Is it possible to be 100% logical in all situations? If Vulcan were almost destroyed, rather than completely obliterated, what ramifications would that have had on a society that professes itself to be 100% logical? What would happen if fear were to take hold?
Personally I think that if we absolutely had to kill off one of Spock’s parents in Vulcan’s destruction, it ought to have been Sarek, Spock’s estranged father, with whom an emotional through line could have been set up with his trying to reconcile never having felt like he made his father proud, and provides a nice mirror to Kirk’s own attempts to live up to his lost father. Does Spock turn more toward the logical side in memory of what his father wanted of him? Does Spock try to abandon it in his grief? And for Amanda Grayson, the woman who loved and spent so much of her life on Vulcan, how would she cope?
This is to say nothing of the inclusion of Spock Prime, Leonard Nimoy reprising his role as the actual Spock we all know and love from the original series. The movie kills off Spock’s mother, and we are given no chance to absorb this incredible blow from Spock Prime — whose mother lived a long, long life — whose presence has thrown the timeline of the universe off track. Her death is included solely as motivation for the new alternate universe version of Spock’s rage, and is not otherwise impactful on the story as it should have been.
Fortunately, Amada Grayson has been “revived” in Star Trek: Discovery and given more of a role to work with than “loving mother, immediately killed for maximum plot sadness.” The fate of the alternate movie universe is in limbo at the moment, though as of right now it appears that Star Trek: Beyond might be their last film.
For the record, I do enjoy Star Trek (2009) for what it is. But the death of Amanda Grayson has always and probably will always irk me. Perhaps I am like alternate timeline Spock, because when it happens, instead of grieving for an amazing woman killed too soon, I skip right from shock to rage. There were so many other ways to motivate Spock to hating Nero, they just decided to fridge an incredible character as a shortcut.