This February saw the passing of Leonard Nimoy, known to millions of “Star Trek” fans as Mr. Spock. If “Trek” is a religion, for its legions of adherents (including this author), Spock is something of a patron saint. Spock’s death at the end of “Star Trek II” inspired more anguish than any fictional death since that of Sherlock Holmes; the death of Nimoy, Spock in the flesh, has left a wound in the imaginations and hearts of millions of fans.
For Nimoy, this mythological status was at times a reluctant burden. His 1975 memoir, “I Am Not Spock”, attempted to disentangle the man from his character—and was summarily rejected by diehard Trekkers. But slowly, inevitably, Leonard Nimoy became inseparable from Mr. Spock, a fact that Nimoy first accepted then (at least publicly) celebrated. A contrite follow-up, “I Am Spock”, was published in 1995.
Perhaps it is not surprising that Nimoy, who had serious artistic ambitions outside of Trek, once wished to disassociate himself from the pointy-eared Vulcan. Most critics quickly dismiss Star Trek as camp. Often the show’s idealism became preachy and the sci-fi allegories stupidly transparent (cf. Nazi Planet and Garden of Eden Planet). On occasion, Nimoy’s costar Shatner chewed up the scenery faster than the planet-killer from “the Doomsday Machine”. And after it came out in 1977, “Star Wars”’s spectacular space battles made Trek’s styrofoam rocks and velour costumes look cheap.
But “Star Trek” has an earnest, unvarnished optimism—absent from the slickly commercial “Star Wars”—that defies cynicism. The profound loyalty that “Trek” commands from millions of intelligent fans suggests that there is something artistically honest and essentially true about it. And whatever that thing is, Leonard Nimoy’s thoughtful, serious portrayal of Spock certainly had a lot to do with it.
Spock could very easily have been the emotionless automaton that he is often reduced to in “Trek”’s numerous parodies. But Nimoy gave Spock life, an understated wit, and a comforting wisdom that reached beyond the bounds of cold logic. Spock was no paragon of pure reason; his half-human heritage gave him emotions that his logical Vulcan side could not hide. What critic Roger Ebert called “Star Trek”’s essential question—the line between what is human and what is not—found its central battleground in the soul of Mr. Spock.
Watch Nimoy’s performance in “This Side of Paradise”, an episode where psychedelic spores—these were the 60s, after all—induce Spock to finally let loose and fall in love. When cured of the spores’ effect and asked about his experience, Spock wistfully responds: “I have little to say about it, captain. Except that for the first time in my life, I was happy.” At that moment, years of repressed feelings subtly lurk beneath Nimoy’s gaunt face.
Or see “Amok Time”, the classic episode that introduced the Vulcan salute and the accompanying “live long and prosper” (the former was Nimoy’s own invention, based on a Jewish priestly gesture of blessing). After a rare defeat in a battle of wits, Spock wryly notes to his victor that “having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”
As the series went on, Spock grew with Nimoy, and Nimoy with Spock; in a late interview, Nimoy noted that Spock’s reason and calm influenced his own personality. Spock the character eventually learned to balance logic and his emotions, maturing from a scientist suspicious of his feelings into a sort of Stoic sage. In classic “Star Trek” fashion, the answer to conflict was not total victory (a la “Star Wars”’s fable of good and evil) but understanding.
That Spock’s catchphrases have become so ubiquitous, his mannerisms instantly recognizable, has obscured how complex a character he was. Here was a character richly drawn. Spock’s reconciliation of his human and Vulcan halves formed the heart of the Enterprise’s original voyage. Nimoy’s inspired portrayal bridged another divide—the gap between camp and art, between the mundane and the sublime.