RIP Leonard Nimoy

spock

Long ago, before the geeks inherited the Earth, before “Big Bang Theory” ruled the airwaves and superhero movies ruled at the box office, before everyone and his brother had a Dr Who t-shirt, “nerd” was not a label we wore with comfort, let alone bragged about.  Being a nerd meant being ostracized, teased and bullied.  Back then, your love for science fiction or comic books was something you kept to yourself, until, through some secret signal or other, you connected with a fellow traveler, thereafter to spend your lunches in the school cafeteria together, gleefully — if quietly — comparing notes on favorite Bradbury or Asimov stories, debating whether the Flash could outrun Quicksilver, or trying to figure out the science (if any) behind warp speed and photon torpedoes.

If there was an icon for us in those days, it was undeniably Mr. Spock, the ultimate outsider, the only one of his kind on a crowded ship where everyone else fit in.  Like us, he was defined by his otherness. His brain worked differently from his peers, which gave him satisfaction and a sense of identity but also loneliness and pain.   Where we stuck out as different with our thick glasses or braces or bad skin or never-quite stylish clothes, for him it was those pointed ears; at once cool and unsettling, weird and mesmerizing, they set him apart from everyone else, which could be a good and bad thing, often at once.  And that’s why we “grokked” Spock.  We may not have come from the planet Vulcan, but we knew what it was to be alien.  In the end we were vindicated as Spock’s logical mind often saved the ship, or whole worlds, and intelligence was revealed not as a liability but in fact a superpower.  (And just for good measure, he was the strongest guy on the ship, even if his pacifism kept all that power in check.)

Under the makeup and ears was Leonard Nimoy, an actor of considerable intellect and ability who worked hard to preserve his character’s dignity and saw it pay off as he and Spock grew into cultural icons.  Fifty years later, with Star Trek such an integral part of popular culture, it’s easy to forget what a hugely courageous act it was to put on those ears for the first time.  Like any actor, Mr. Nimoy must have wanted to be respected for his work, and to get more work, but both respect and future employment were on the line if the gamble failed, if no one would see beyond that odd makeup to the soul of the character.  Today even Academy Award winners line up to shave their heads, paint their faces and apply fake noses, brows, ears and hair for superhero and science fiction films, but Nimoy took up the challenge in an age where most celluloid science fiction involved zippered, rubber monster suits, giant insects and wobbly flying saucers. There were no guarantees he’d come out on the other end of Star Trek with any kind of career at all.  It was to his great credit that he saw the potential in the character and was willing to put so much on the line to bring it to life.  Everyone making millions today off of nerd-friendly movies and TV owes him a Vulcan salute.

Of course, there was a lot more to Nimoy than Spock. He was a talented poet and photographer and directed non-Trek films like Three Men and A Baby and The Good Mother, for starters.  But it’s a testament to the talent and sincerity he poured into Star Trek that, for once, it doesn’t seem disrespectful to link a real person to a fictional character.  For many, thanks to Nimoy, Spock was as real as anyone they knew.  Which, on the downside, kind of makes this a double loss.

The last reel of Wrath of Khan, still and probably always the best of the Trek films, is filled with three-hanky moments as  Spock sacrifices himself for the ship, says goodbye to his best friend and is given a “burial in space,” but the moment that always hits me hardest is when McCoy calls up to Kirk, still on the bridge, and tells him he’d better come running.  Until now, Kirk has been so wrapped up in his battle with Khan that he hasn’t even noticed Spock’s left the bridge, but as soon as he hears that cryptic plea from McCoy, he knows what’s happened.  He looks over to the science station to see Spock’s empty chair and the truth hits him like a punch to the gut. That image of the empty chair is more powerful in its understatement than all the gory makeup or teary dialog that follows.  Today the chair is empty again, but unlike in the movies, and with due respect to Mr. Nimoy’s nominal successor in the role, that’s the way it’s going to stay.

Rest in peace, Mr Nimoy, and godspeed on your new voyage.

spocks chair

 

6 thoughts on “RIP Leonard Nimoy

  1. Such good points you make throughout about the actor and the era, his courage and dignity.

    >> being ostracized, teased and bullied. Back then, your love for science fiction or comic books was something you kept to yourself <> If there was an icon for us in those days, it was undeniably Mr. Spock, the ultimate outsider <<

    I'm still thinking about this. Spock was powerful (we were helpless). He was the strongest guy around. He could touch a bully and they would fall down. He could bamboozle anyone with his smarts. It's curious how for you he was an icon yet for me he was untouchable; I never identified with him.

    Great actor, great character. Legend.

    Anthony

  2. (For some reason, your comment form cut out lots of what I wrote. Here is the rest.)

    quote: “being ostracized, teased and bullied. Back then, your love for science fiction or comic books was something you kept to yourself”

    Ain’t it the truth. Those halcyon days of misery. Imagine not even being in the States, but Downunder, as far from the culture as you can possibly get. Did it make me a better person in the long run?

    When I was really young, and we played Star Trek, I always had to be Kirk. Spock was always the sidekick. Now I have a different perspective… You couldn’t have Kirk without Spock. They were perfect foils. Kirk is always “doing” while Spock is “being”. However, Spock is a phony, because he is not truly being himself, and he is (I think) fascinated by Kirk and his self-granted freedom to express everything, to let it all out. I see Spock as a tragic character in some ways. He’s like the poster boy for all the men who suppress their emotions to be good at their jobs.

  3. It’s true Spock was sort of a “have your cake and eat it too” character for nerds: he was the square peg socially, but he was also, as you say, the strongest guy in the room. But even that appeals to the nerd experience; the conviction, deep down, that you’re actually superior to your peers. (“The real reason they all hate me is because I’m better than them.”)

    But in fairness, it’s not accurate to paint Spock as the lone, tormented nerd on a ship full of cool kids. If anything, the Enterprise is a refuge for him, away from the real bigots back on Vulcan. In “Journey To Babel,” his mother says, “It hasn’t been easy for Spock; neither Vulcan nor human, at home nowhere except Starfleet.” This is a significant clue to unlocking the character. Spock has decided that in a choice between dual heritages, he’d rather identify as Vulcan, but ironically the only time he can really feel “Vulcan” is on a ship full of humans. On his home planet, he’s seen as a half-breed trying to “pass” for Vulcan. Note that in the episode, “The Immunity Syndrome,” we get the surprising (to me anyway) news that there’s a whole starship (Intrepid) manned entirely by Vulcans. Up to that point, I’d assumed he was maybe the first of his kind in all of Starfleet. So why, if there is an all-Vulcan ship, does he sign aboard a ship full of Terrans? The obvious answer is that he’s more comfortable there than with “his own kind.”

    As you say, there is a pitiable aspect to that, but I wouldn’t say he’s “Not being true to himself” because really he doesn’t know who he is. He constructs an identity for himself, the Spock he wants to be, but it’s just that: a construct. We reconnect with him at the start ST:TMP nearing the end of that phase of his personal story: trying to purge himself of all emotion. But that phase gives way, after his meld with V’Ger, to the epiphany that “Logic alone is not enough.” By the next film, he’s comfortable in his own skin, relaxed in his relationships and possessed of a wicked sense of humor (getting Saavik to “drive the family car out of the garage,” knowing it’ll freak out Kirk). He’s completed his journey as a character, ironically just in time to buy the farm.

    For the record, though, I too was always a Kirk fan first and foremost. And really, Star Trek is Kirk’s story. Spock is probably the best supporting character ever, but he’s still a supporting character, and the reason he works so well — and why we always wish for more of him — is because he is NOT the center of attention. One of the great things about Trek is that as big as Spock got, they never let him take over the show entirely, the way, say, Fonzie took over Happy Days. In fact, what’s really interesting is that when the films rolled around — by which time the whole world knew Star Trek as “the show with the pointy-eared guy,” Kirk was still very much the center of attention. “Wrath of Khan” is a Kirk film; Spock’s death is crucial, but it’s there to evolve Kirk’s character. Even “Search for Spock,” with the Vulcan in the TITLE, is still a Kirk story. People who say Trek would have been better without Kirk, or who say they love Star Trek but hate Kirk, are beyond my understanding. And when the sad day comes when Shatner leaves this mortal coil, I’ll *really* be reeling. Unstoppable force that he is, I don’t expect him to die so much as transmute, like the Organians, into a ball of blinding energy and fly away.

  4. Well, is there a subtext then? There is something primal in Spock’s story, that he cannot be at home with his own kind, his family; he is more at home with those unrelated to him, his friends, and his colleagues. How many of us can say that, at least for our first few decades?

    No, I don’t think Spock is “tormented,” and I wouldn’t use that word. Just that he is not completely well-adjusted, and how “human” is that?! This quality (I believe) he shares with James T., and so, of course, they are brothers.

    Spock, for all his complexity, is a company man, while Kirk is anything but — in spirit. Kirk wouldn’t know logic if it bit him on the behind; he runs on red blood and intuition. Spock can figure stuff out — but he is second banana; for, as the show demonstrated, the illogical, impulsive guy who risks it all can get the ship out of scary scrapes. Spock as leader, exclusively, would get them all killed during Year One. Does Spock have the Starfleet manual in his room? Probably. Kirk would have read it once, to pass an exam, then forgot about it.

    As counsel, Spock is unparalleled.

    – “probably the best supporting character ever”

    Yes.

    Anthony

    P.S. I noticed STTA forum has risen from the ether.

  5. I tend to resist the popular notion that Kirk is impulsive and rash, Starfleet’s loose cannon. Or at least, I don’t think that was the original intent. When we first meet him, Kirk is a stiff-backed, hard-nosed, by the book military man, the kind you can’t imagine in civvies even on his days off. Over time, scripts go out of their way to engineer situations where he has to weigh the rules, and duty, against the lives of his crew, or a higher morality…because that’s the stuff of drama.

    Kirk disobeys orders in “Amok Time” to save Spock’s life, violates the Prime Directive in…well, take your pick…to save ship and crew, etc and each time it’s justified, even mandated by the circumstances. But yes, the unfortunate cumulative effect is that he comes off as a maverick who, as you say, only read the rulebook once, and even then just to find the loopholes. Similarily, all those romances with space babes in tinfoil bikinis add up to make it seem like he’s some kind of insatiable horndog. But again, I don’t think that was the plan going in.

    And so now we have the current “reboot” series where the entire crew is reduced to cardboard caricatures, starting with Chris Pine’s Kirk, who’s little more than a reckless frat boy, fueled by hormones and hubris (but who, perplexingly, is unable to win a single fistfight he gets into). Meanwhile “new Spock” is unrecognizable, aside from the ears: seething with barely contained rage, conducting a hot (and public) romance with Uhura and duking it out with Khan, Marvel hero style, atop a flying car. If there was ever a pretense at “nerd identification” there, it’s gone now. It’s like JJ Abrams watched four or five episodes of TOS and said, “Kirk is a babe hound who leads by sheer instinct, got it” and “Right, Spock is a superman who can barely hold his emotions in check. Okay, let’s go!”

    Yes, STTA is back online, at least nominally, but nothing’s going on. Maybe we could liven it up if we move this discussion over there. I don’t have a lot more to say about Superman; he’s been off my radar for quite a while.

Leave a Comment