He was, ultimately, the heart and soul of the whole thing. The core and moral conscience of the congeries that was Star Trek. Mr. Spock was what the entire thing was about. That’s why they could never leave him alone, set him aside, get beyond him. Even when he wasn’t on screen and really could be nowhere near the given story, there was something of him. They kept trying to duplicate him—Data, Seven-of-Nine, Dax, others—but the best they could do was borrow from the character.
I Am Not Spock came out in 1975. It was an attempt to explain the differences between the character and the actor portraying him. It engendered another memoir later entitled I Am Spock which addressed some of the misconceptions created by the first. The point, really, was that the character Spock was a creation of many, but the fact is that character would not exist without the one ingredient more important than the rest—Leonard Nimoy.
I was 12 when Star Trek appeared on the air. It is very difficult now to convey to people who have subsequently only seen the show in syndication what it meant to someone like me. I was a proto-SF geek. I loved the stuff, read what I could, but not in any rigorous way, and my material was opportunistic at best. I was pretty much alone in my fascination. My parents worried over my “obsessions” with it and doubtless expected the worst. I really had no one with whom to share it. I got teased at school about it, no one else read it, even my comics of choice ran counter to the main. All there was on television were movie re-runs and sophomoric kids’ shows. Yes, I watched Lost In Space, but probably like so many others I did so out of desperation, because there wasn’t anything else on! Oh, we had The Twilight Zone and then The Outer Limits, but, in spite of the excellence of individual episodes, they just weren’t quite sufficient. Too much of it was set in the mundane world, the world you could step out your front door and see for yourself. Rarely did it Go Boldly Where No One Had Gone Before in the way that Star Trek did.
Presentation can be everything. It had little to do with the internal logic of the show or the plots or the science, even. It had to do with the serious treatment given to the idea of it. The adult treatment. Attitude. Star Trek possessed and exuded attitude consistent with the wishes of the people who watched it and became devoted to it. We rarely saw “The Federation” it was just a label for something which that attitude convinced us was real, for the duration of the show. The expanding hegemony of human colonies, the expanse of alien cultures—the rather threadbare appearance of some of the artifacts of these things on their own would have been insufficient to carry the conviction that these things were really there. It was the approach, the aesthetic tone, the underlying investment of the actors in what they were portraying that did that. No, it didn’t hurt that they boasted some of the best special effects on television at that time, but even those couldn’t have done what the life-force of the people making it managed.
And Spock was the one consistent on-going absolutely essential aspect that weekly brought the reality of all that unseen background to the fore and made it real. There’s a reason Leonard Nimoy started getting more fan mail than Shatner. Spock was the one element that carried the fictional truth of everything Star Trek was trying to do.
And Spock would have been nothing without the talent, the humanity, the skill, the insight, and the sympathy Leonard Nimoy brought to the character. It was, in the end, and more by accident than design, a perfect bit of casting and an excellent deployment of the possibilities of the symbol Spock came to represent.
Of all the characters from the original series, Spock has reappeared more than any other. There’s a good reason for that.
Spock was the character that got to represent the ideals being touted by the show. Spock was finally able to be the moral center of the entire thing simply by being simultaneously on the outside—he was not human—and deeply in the middle of it all—science officer, Starfleet officer, with his own often troublesome human aspect. But before all that, he was alien and he was treated respectfully and given the opportunity to be Other and show that this was something vital to our own humanity.
Take one thing, the IDIC. Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination. It came up only a couple of times in the series, yet what a concept. Spock embodied the implications even in his trademark comment “Fascinating.” He was almost always at first fascinated. He wanted before anything else to understand. He never reacted out of blind terror. Sometimes he was on the other side of everyone else in defense of something no one seemed interested in understanding, only killing.
I’m going on about Spock because I know him. I didn’t know Mr. Nimoy, despite how much he gave of himself. I knew his work, which was always exemplary, and I can assume certain things about him by his continued affiliation with a character which, had he no sympathy for, would have left him behind to be portrayed by others long since. Instead, he kept reprising the role, and it was remarkably consistent. Spock was, throughout, a positive conscience.
On the side of science. I can think of no other character who so thoroughly exemplified rational morality. Spock had no gods, only ideals. He lived by no commandments, only morality. His ongoing championing of logic as the highest goal is telling. Logic was the common agon between Spock and McCoy, and sometimes between Spock and Kirk. I suspect most people made the same mistake, that logic needs must be shorn of emotion. Logic, however, is about “sound reasoning and the rules which govern it.” (Oxford Companion to Philosophy) This is one reason it is so tied to mathematics. But consider the character and then consider the philosophy. Spock is the one who seeks to understand first. Logic dictates this. Emotion is reactive and can muddy the ability to reason. Logic does not preclude emotion—obviously, since Spock has deep and committed friendships—it only sets it aside for reason to have a chance at comprehension before action. How often did Spock’s insistence on understanding prove essential to solving some problem in the show?
I suspect Leonard Nimoy himself would have been the first to argue that Spock’s devotion to logic was simply a very human ideal in the struggle to understand.
Leonard Nimoy informed the last 4 decades of the 20th Century through a science fictional representation that transcended the form. It is, I believe, a testament to his talent and intellect that the character grew, became a centerpiece for identifying the aesthetic aspects of what SF means for the culture, and by so doing became a signal element of the culture of the 21st Century.
Others can talk about his career. He worked consistently and brought the same credibility to many other roles. (I always found it interesting that one his next roles after Star Trek was on Mission: Impossible, taking the place of Martin Landau as the IM team’s master of disguise. As if to suggest that no one would pin him down into a single thing.) I watched him in many different shows, tv movies, and have caught up on some of his work prior to Star Trek (he did a Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode in which he played opposite William Shatner) and in my opinion he was a fine actor. He seems to have chosen his parts carefully, especially after he gained success and the control over his own career that came with it. But, as I say, others can talk about that. For me, it is Spock.
I feel a light has gone out of the world. Perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but…still, some people bring something into the world while they’re here that has the power to change us and make us better. Leonard Nimoy had an opportunity to do that and he did not squander it. He made a difference. We have prospered by his gifts.
I will miss him.
One comment on “We Prospered: Leonard Nimoy, 1931 to 2015”
Well said, Mark.
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