Sometimes when you hear of a famous person dying, it is like turning another page in your life; however, when I learned of Leonard Nimoy’s passing away, it felt like the closing of an entire book.
Growing up watching the original Star Trek series, it was impossible not to be affected by the weekly mission to “boldly go where no man has gone before.” Though the voice over is done by Captain Kirk (as memorably played by William Shatner), there is also the feeling that the final frontier came into our living rooms courtesy of the green-blooded half-human Vulcan named Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) who somehow managed to make “alien” a positive word.
Spock’s logical but amiable alien nature certainly opened viewers up to the notion that all beings from outer space were not out to destroy us (as in War of the Worlds) replace us (as in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers), or give us a dire warning (as in The Day the Earth Stood Still). The character of Spock required viewers to reassess all pre-conceived notions – such as pointed ears were a sign of evil and someone from another planet was a dangerous alien. Credit Nimoy’s portrayal as one that imbued the character with wry humor (a raised eyebrow alone would be negative commentary on something a human did), acerbic wit, and a grudging pinch of humanity thanks to the blood of his human mother.
Many of us fondly remember Spock’s hand signal (index and middle finger spread apart from ring finger and pinky) and the words associated with it: “Live Long and Prosper.” They seem like a mantra now, not just for his character but also for the entire series. The promotion of harmony among all beings – not just humans on earth but all creatures across the galaxy – struck a nerve with young people like me who were coming of age and feared a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
Star Trek jumped forward to the 23rd century when Earth was an integral part of the Federation of Planets. All beings within the federation worked for a common cause and co-existed peacefully with some of them living and working together on ships that crossed the quadrants of space. To be sure there were always those surly Klingons, Romulans, and other belligerent races ready to cross the neutral zone and start up a confrontation (anyone thinking that sounds like the Cold War is right), but those conflicts qualified the importance of tolerance and working cooperatively for the common good of all planets.
A vibrant cast of characters existed aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, especially the skipper played with gusto by Shatner. It is hard to imagine a more easy to imitate characterization (usually for laughs), but I wanted to be Kirk anyway because he was the focus of the show, the guy who got the glory and usually the girl. However, looking back on it now I think I also wanted to be Kirk because he had the indispensable Mr. Spock by his side. With such a great friend and colleague, Kirk seemed fortunate indeed.
There were the other diverse characters: Dr. “Bones” McCoy (played with panache by DeForest Kelley), chief engineer Montgomery Scott (James Doohan), the all business but beautiful Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), the Russian Ensign Chekhov (Walter Koenig ), Nurse Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett), and the Chinese helmsman Sulu (George Takei). These main characters were joined week after week by many other characters from distant planets and galaxies, and it became so commonplace that as a kid I took for granted that in the future all would be as uncomplicated and peaceful as series creator Gene Roddenberry showed us in the Star Trek universe.
Unfortunately, the original Star Trek series only lasted three seasons, but through all those episodes we were left with a lasting impression regarding race, gender, equity, and power. Kirk and company were not free to just blast away aliens and planets – the Prime Directive kept them in check every time. If Kirk contemplated stepping out of bounds, Spock was always there to reel him in before he did too much damage.
A situation often utilized in the series involved Kirk “beaming down” to a planet and leaving Spock in charge. If you were the captain of any ship, you would want someone as capable, dependable, and loyal as Spock to take over whilst you were away. Spock’s logic kept things clear and by the book, but Kirk’s impetuousness also was seen as the human element that made him a better leader overall.
Spock’s nature as half-human and half Vulcan always tortured him as much as it helped him to understand the shenanigans of the humans he observed. When someone got emotional and Spock’s eyebrow would arch and he would utter “Fascinating,” well there was probably not a better reaction that could have summed up the proceedings. Spock at times seemed the outsider looking in at humans, but the fact that he was part human would be shown in subtle ways, such as his happiness (and revealing smile) when he discovered Kirk had not died in one episode.
Spock would live on after the series in Star Trek movies, and Nimoy would also direct two of them and other films, including the seemingly incongruous but very funny Three Men and a Baby, and Nimoy also became known as a serious photographer, but Spock would hover over him throughout his life and as he got older Nimoy not only accepted his alter ego but embraced it.
Perhaps one of the hardest moments to take for true fans was when Mr. Spock died at the end of the second movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, giving up his life to save Kirk and crew. The first time around the scene was extremely hard to handle because it felt like we lost a friend, but even in subsequent movies after Spock was resurrected there was no way to forget that loss of someone who more than anything remained a friend to the end to Kirk (and all the fans who were watching).
Now Leonard Nimoy and Mr. Spock are off to find that undiscovered country, or as Kirk once said when asked what course they should take, “Out there!” Space may be the place where heaven is or where God resides, but it is also a state of mind that leads the human consciousness to contemplate not just what it can see but what it can imagine in infinite wonder.
Nimoy’s Mr. Spock has inspired generations to be logical but within reasons, to be loyal to those we call friends, and to wish people well with a greeting of “Live Long and Prosper.” Now that Nimoy is gone he leaves behind the image of Spock with his hand signal, a reminder that there is not just what we know out there in the universe but stuff beyond what we have ever dreamt could be.
When summing up Nimoy’s life, perhaps his old cast mate George Takei said it best: “Leonard played an alien, but he was the most human individual I ever met.”
Rest in peace, Leonard Nimoy and know that Mr. Spock will “Live Long and Prosper” in the minds of your fans now and forevermore thanks to your indelible portrayal.
Photo credits: corbis kipa, startrek.com, wikipedia
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