One year ago today, Leonard Nimoy passed away. I was sitting in the control room at work when the alert flashed across my phone. I sat there and absorbed the news and hoped no one would come in as tears dampened my eyes. I’m sure Mr. Spock would not have approved, but as he so often reminded audiences in his post Star Trek career, Leonard Nimoy was not Spock…or was he?
The impact of the half-Vulcan, half-human First Officer aboard the fictional, futuristic U.S.S. Starship Enterprise can hardly be exaggerated. Up until 1965 when Spock was invented by Gene Roddenberry, extraterrestrial aliens were almost always viewed as hostile, evil forces who were bent upon invading Earth. Think “War of the Worlds,” or “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” If they didn’t want to conquer humanity, they wanted to imperiously save us from ourselves as in, “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
Spock represented a more optimistic relationship between humans and those of other worlds, embodying the notion that those of different cultures can work together for a set of common goals.
This isn’t to say that Spock embraced his human side. On the contrary. IN alignment with Vulcan culture, he suppressed it and was made to feel ashamed of his emotions. Whether intentional or not, this showcased a flaw in Spock and the Vulcan way of life. Some might disagree, but I believe that denying a large portion of one’s nature is…wait for it…illogical. Of course, many ancient Vulcans did continue to embrace their emotional nature, thereby seceding from Vulcan and becoming Romulans, a race depicted as mostly evil throughout the course of the franchise.
If the series had centered around Spock, it would not have lasted five episodes. A large part of what made Spock such a compelling character was the friendship he maintained with Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy. They were the perfect triangle; Kirk, the bold, adventurous leader who was not risk-averse, Spock, the dispassionate pragmatist who viewed everything through a logical lens, and McCoy, the antithesis of Spock, the compassionate healer who constantly wore his emotions on his sleeve. It was not the various encounters with Klingons, parallel universes or retired Greek gods that made the series so fascinating. Rather, it was the emotional core of the relationship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy that brought viewers back week after week.
William Shatner was the star of the original series, but Spock was it’s most popular and enduring character. I don’t think it’s unfair to point out that Nimoy was probably the superior actor of the three main leads. In fact, with the possible exception of Mark Lenard who played Spock’s father Sarek, Nimoy mastered the complex intricacies of the Vulcan culture and remains unparalleled to this day. From the Vulcan nerve pinch to the Vulcan mind meld to the curious split-fingered Vulcan salute, Nimoy owned the essence of what it meant to be a Vulcan. Many future actors such as Tim Russ, Kirstie Alley, Jolene Blalock, Zachary Quinto and Kim Cattrall have tried to imitate Vulcans, but they don’t even come close to the subtle nuances that Nimoy brought to the role. Russ as Tuvok on Star Trek: Voyager is particularly painful to watch. He sounds like a guy who is about to read you the stock reports on the radio. Quinto tries to portray a young Spock and he won Nimoy’s praise, but for my dough, he has the opposite problem, sounding too emotional.
The concept of Spock proved so popular that all future incarnations of the original series had to (ahem ahem( borrow from the Spock character. They did it twice in Star Trek: The Next Generation. They didn’t give us another Vulcan, but instead, we got an android named Data who viewed everything through the same emotionless lens. The twist…rather than having him suppress the humanity that he didn’t have, Roddenberry embarked Data on a quest to become more human. The other homage to Spock came in the form of Deanna Troi, the ship’s counselor who was half-human, half-Betazoid.
Future series also borrowed heavily from Spock. In Star Trek: Deep Space 9, Odo is the outsider alien who can never fit in and be happy anywhere. In Voyager, B’Elanna Torres is a half-human, half-Klingon engineer who constantly struggles with her identity. We also got a ship’s doctor who was a computer-generated hologram, thus enabling writers to continue the ‘no emotions’ trope. In Star Trek: Enterprise, we returned to the Vulcan science officer concept, along with an alien outsider doctor played by John Billingsley. All of these characters are cheap knock-offs of the original, to a greater or lesser degree.
You can talk to me all day about budgets, special effects and wooden acting, but Leonard Nimoy’s turn as Mr. Spock was a truly groundbreaking turn in television that has never been matched since in the Trek franchise. He was awarded with the juiciest dramatic moments throughout the course of the show’s history. Included were:
“The Naked Time,” in which the Enterprise is infested by a virus that causes the crew to act as if they were drunk. Spock is infected and hides in a rec room as he cries openly with shame and tries to regain control of his Vulcan side.
“The Galileo Seven,” in which Spock takes command of an away mission that goes disastrously wrong. Some of the crew exhibits bigotry toward Spock, which offends McCoy greatly. Spock also learns that sometimes, the logical way is not always the correct way.
“This Side of Paradise,” in which Spock is infected by spores that cause him to become happy and passive, along with the rest of the crew. Kirk must prod him back to duty by playing on race hatred, which triggers Spock’s own repressed anger at being a half-breed.
“Amok Time,” which is probably the best Spock episode. Spock begins to act in an atypically erratic manner. As it turns out, he’s hornie, which is something that only happens to Vulcans every seven years. To cure his lust, he must go back to his home planet, where he must get married and ultimately tries to kill Kirk. It sounds weird in writing, but believe me, it works!
“Journey to Babel,” in which Spock’s estranged parents come aboard the Enterprise during a dangerous diplomatic mission. Spock must choose between family loyalty and his duty when his father, Sarek, is suspected of murder.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” which contains the single most heartbreaking death scene in all of Trekdom. Yes yes, I know that Spock will be resurrected in the next movie, but I still shed tears every time I watch Kirk and Spock saying what they think is their final goodbye through a glass wall after Spock heroically saves the ship from danger, thereby sacrificing himself in the process.
On a personal level, I was hooked on Star Trek the original series from Junior High onward. Captain Kirk was my favorite character as a kid. And why not? He never faced a problem he couldn’t handle. As an adult, my appreciation for Spock has grown exponentially. The idea of a character who is a constant outsider and who must continually manage his inner struggle is appreciable to me. In those gloomy times after a break-up or some other loss, I harken back to Spock’s words after his girlfriend dumped him.
“She is yours. After a time, you may find that having is not nearly so pleasing a thing as wanting. ‘Tis not logical, but it is often true.”
Rest in peace, Leonard Nimoy. May your memory live long and prosper. Thank you for all of the happiness your talents have brought to me over the years.