A legend has truly passed with Leonard Nimoy dying this past week at the age of 83. His Spock character was one of the truly great characters to come out of the world of Hollywood entertainment, going from TV cult hero to fan fiction fixture to movie franchise stalwart. And at every turn that he played him, Nimoy made the character endlessly fascinating.
Spock, despite playing second banana to Captain Kirk, was the breakout character of the “Star Trek” television series almost as soon as it debuted on NBC in the fall of 1966. Nimoy became a phenomenon, and a cult figure, all because of his portrayal of the complicated half-human, half-Vulcan character who was the chief alien in the science fiction series.
Nimoy was so good and his character such a big deal, that he garnered three Emmy nominations in each of the show’s three seasons, and was the only actor to be recognized for the series. The success of the character launched Nimoy into huge international fame and it led to a heralded stint on “Mission: Impossible” after “Star Trek” ended, a recording career, roles on Broadway in big plays like “Equus”, the opportunity to direct movies, and of course, the legendary “Star Trek” movie franchise.
Spock and Nimoy became so inextricably linked that even when J.J. Abrams rebooted the franchise on the big screen in 2009, he felt the need to bring back Nimoy, even though he had his newly cast Spock in Zachary Quinto. (Funny, but Abrams still didn’t have enough confidence to let his new cast stand on its own as he brought back the original Spock for a cameo yet again in 2013’s “Star Trek Into Darkness”.)
The Spock character had many standout episodes during the original series’ 1966-1969 run. “Amok Time” surely is one of them, as Nimoy got to portray a different side of his logical and cool character – that of the Vulcan in heat. Nimoy did incredible work in dramatic episodes like “City on the Edge of Forever”, “Shore Leave”, “Mirror, Mirror” and “Journey to Babel”, but he also excelled in the more comedic ones. His witty flair made Spock delightfully droll in episodes like “A Piece of the Action” and “Mudd’s Women”. Spock may have only run the emotional gamut from A to D, but those four letters were incredible in the hands of Nimoy.
Part of what made Spock so intriguing, and appealing to play for Nimoy, was the fact that the character was always trying to suppress his human side. At times he was a virtual computer, spouting facts and figures with a dry delivery that HAL 2000 would envy. But Spock was only half Vulcan, and the race that eliminated overt emotionality from their psyches could not always prevail on Spock. He was half human too, and that always made him, as Kirk put so eloquently in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”, the “most human of souls”.
And indeed, as great as all the TV episodes were, and even the other films often were, it is that legendary second film where Nimoy and his character became as ginormous on the big screen as Spock was on the small one. (For those of you who’ve never seen the second and best “Star Trek” film, spoiler alerts will now be coming at warp speed.) Why did Spock become so fabled in “The Wrath of Khan”? Quite simply, because he dies. Heroically. Tragically. His sacrifice for the needs of the many proves fatal and he dies as his captain and best friend Jim looks on.
When I saw that incredible movie back in 1982, and watched Spock die, it felt like a family member had passed. His death had to happen in the incredibly smart story, but it still was a gut-wrenching punch to everyone. It carried so much weight because Spock was so beloved by so many.
People sometimes forget this but the original series was incredibly political. Gene Roddenberry ensured his show continued in the vein of Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” by making sure that his science fiction was really about the times he lived in. That’s why the stories on “Star Trek” echoed issues like the Civil Rights movement, women’s rights, even gay rights. The show dealt with themes of prejudice, ecology, anthropology and psychology, just like the world was dealing with in that turbulent decade. “Star Trek” commented on socialism, fascism, communism and totalitarianism. And Spock represented anyone and everyone who was discriminated against for being different.
It’s shocking to see just how badly Spock was continually bullied on the show, being called a “freak” constantly by his enemies and even by friends. (Shame on you, Dr. McCoy.) Spock represented the foreigner, the different one, the other. He represented the black man in America, and all others who weren’t treated as equals yet by the majority of the population. Women, the handicapped, immigrants, homosexuals, lesbians, Muslims, atheists, you name it – Spock stood in, and up, for all of them.
“Star Trek” was also incredibly hopeful about getting past such prejudices and trauma. This was a science fiction show that didn’t subscribe to the doomsday warnings of sci-fi like “The Day The Earth Stood Still” and such. “Star Trek” believed in a better tomorrow. A future where the folks on the bridge of the ship came in all colors, sexes and sizes. The show portrayed a mankind that got past the threat of nuclear proliferation. It showed a united world – the Federation – going out into the galaxy to explore strange new worlds and welcome others into the fold. And Spock became a symbol of that more tolerant world, of a more global community where all kinds of different people could be accepted and yes, loved.
Thank you Leonard Nimoy, and your singular character, for all that. You helped teach us to look to the stars and be bold and prosper.