by Brad Nelson 3/2/15
Condolences to the Nimoy family and friends. But in this day of celebrity-reality, it would be foolish for me to pretend I knew the least bit about Leonard Nimoy, the person. For better or for worse, what was real to most of us was the character he played on Star Trek, beginning in 1964 with the making (if not airing) of the Star Trek pilot, “The Cage,” and ending with his appearance in 2013’s feature film, Star Trek Into Darkness. This is the person I have come to mourn.
I’ve read three or four tributes to Nimoy on the web. All were well-meaning. Some said he was a conservative character. But neither Roddenberry nor Nimoy were particularly conservative. What they did accomplish with the character was to look deeply into human nature, not Vulcan nature. And these days simply noticing that there is such a thing as human nature is somewhat revolutionary (and thus, by today’s standards, conservative).
A few shows, such as “Amok Time,” dealt in some detail with the Vulcan side of Spock. But we knew him best through his weaknesses and his struggle to overcome those weaknesses which he considered deriving from his human half. In the short-lived Enterprise series with Scott Bakula — a show that was abandoned soon into the first season thematically in regards to developing the early Federation backstory — the Vulcans announce themselves to the humans. I forget the exact circumstances, but although they looked down upon humans as inferiors, there was a general understanding that one day the humans would make vital allies.
So imagine a television sci-fi show which deals with racial issues, and through the soft lens of the supposed superiority of Vulcans, for Spock did all he could to suppress his human half, seeing emotion and irrationality as anathema to his very being. This is quite the reverse from today where vomiting out any and every emotion you have is considered the sane and cool thing to do.
We don’t learn, so far as I can remember, why this cold logic did not lead the Vulcans down the road of blood-thirsty conquest as was the case with their cousins, the Romulans. The best indication is probably because of the savage civil wars in Vulcan’s past that nearly destroyed them. They thus (presumably) not only learned to tame their savage emotions but developed an ethic not entirely different from Buddhism (but, of course, nowhere near as wimpy and with cool weapons).
Spock was Nimoy’s finest role by far, and one which he (or the producers of the Star Trek movies) did all they could to ruin as they turned the Spock formula on its head and suddenly decided that his human half was the better half. On my better days, I’m able to imagine that the Star Trek movies do not exist, for the original TV series presented a Spock who was interesting, dynamic, and in many ways represented the very best of the Federation.
Through the various series that came after the original we learn there are other types of Vulcans. Not all is necessarily as tranquil in the Vulcan world as was generally portrayed in the original series. And this is where you all join in and talk a little Star Trek and give us the benefit of your expertise, for my memory is not quite that of a Vulcan. But with the perspective of other types of Vulcans, or events on Planet Vulcan, we see that Spock — regardless of his human half — is an extraordinary individual in his own right. As Kirk clearly understood when he said in “Amok Time,” “Spock, you’ve been called the best first officer in the fleet.”
And although I was lukewarm on Nimoy’s work after the original series, this is of little matter, for he had the role of a lifetime and fleshed this character out to the best of his ability or of anyone’s. There has never been a better portrayal of an alien character in perhaps any series or movie, and that is saying something. Yes, the writing was good. And, yes, his nemesis, Dr. McCoy, brought to the fore the issues his character struggled with. But Nimoy put a stamp on Spock that was so artful that people, including myself, fell in love with a character who was not classically cool. He was no cowboy. He was a cold logician. And yet his character was extremely compelling.
And that is one large reason that the original series remains the best of all the Star Trek series and movies. What so many others have lost in an orgy of special effects is that mature and realistic relationship of the Big Three (Kirk, Spock, and McCoy) which anchored the series. Yes, the aliens were cool. The various adventures intriguing. But it was the Big Three’s reaction to the events that captured our attention. And the writers slipped in quite cerebral subjects in what was otherwise thought of as “Wagon Train to the stars.”
Spock’s character, because he was not fully human, allowed us to see humanity — in all its strengths and weaknesses — more fully through his eyes. In “The Galileo Seven” we see just how difficult it was for Spock to fit in, not unlike the young Vulcan his mother describes in “Journey to Babel” who would come home crying because the other Vulcan children picked on him. And we also see his unique assets as a Vulcan playing out as he grudgingly makes use of human “desperation” in a bid to save the shuttlecraft. Spock was, if anything, practical and versatile.
I was never particularly enamored by Nimoy’s acting ability on other projects, but in “All Our Yesterdays” we see Nimoy hitting his stride as he plays a Vulcan who is reverting in stages to his more savage past…while lusting after the drop-dead gorgeous Mariette Hartley.
Perhaps second only to “Amok Time” for highlighting the strengths of the Spock character, and Nimoy’s acting, is “This Side of Paradise” where at the end of the episode, Nimoy shows his intuitive sense of understatement for his character. Having recently come down from his spore-induced euphoria, he delivers one of the most memorable of all Star Trek lines: “For the first time in my life, I was happy.”
We wish Nimoy and his family all the best in the years to come. But for better or for worse it is Mr. Spock who will be missed the most. And although Mr. Spock isn’t technically a real person, that matters little in this day and age of our somewhat utopian entertainment-based culture. As William Shatner wrote in his song, “Real”:
I have saved the world in the movies
So naturally there’s folks who think I must know what to do
But just because you’ve seen me on your TV
Doesn’t mean I’m any more enlightened than you
And while there’s a part of me, in that guy you’ve seen
Up there on that screen, I am so much more
And I wish I knew the things you think I do
I would change this world for sure
But I eat and sleep and breathe and bleed and feel
Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m real
I’d love to help the world and all its problems
But I’m an entertainer, and that’s all
So the next time there’s an asteroid or a natural disaster
I’m flattered that you thought of me
But I’m not the one to call
Live long and prosper, Mr. Spock. You were real enough to me.
Brad is editor and chief disorganizer of StubbornThings.
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