On Friday afternoon I got an email alert while I was teaching. It’s my custom to place my phone on my lectern – an old habit I picked up to get constant information feed from home.
As I casually glanced over at my email page, I saw three words in the subject field of an empty email:
Spock is dead.
It floored me. I mean, I knew that he had been in and out of the hospital, but that Leonard Nimoy was gone still took me by surprise and interrupted my lesson delivery. I looked at my kids and told them that Mr. Spock from Star Trek was dead. My student teacher asked me if I was okay and three colleagues called up to my room or popped their heads in to see how I was doing.
I am a Kirk fan… the last name should indicate that, but there is no disavowing Leonard Nimoy’s iconic presence in Star Trek. Shatner may have been the leading man, but everybody knew the character with the pointed ears, arched eye-brows and split-handed salute; even my minimally pop-cultured teenaged students knew who Spock was, even if they termed him “Old Spock.” Whatever… that’s generational reach.
Star Trek is my particular geek-medium. I have memorized the words of every TOS episode ever since I was old enough to watch television. When I was a kid, I used to record episodes on an old audio tape recorder and play them back over and over until the next time I saw another re-run. I grew up being called Captain Kirk and even when it was meant as a tease, I still reveled in the knowledge that I was lucky enough to share the same last name as my hero. Captain Kirk’s best friend was a subject of great interest to me. A complicated character to study, he was enigmatic to portray.
79 episodes of the original series, 22 animated, one feature performance in Star Trek: TNG and eight full-length motion pictures make up Nimoy’s contribution to Star Trek. He was there from the very beginning in first pilot episode (“The Menagerie”) and was in the most recent re-boot by J.J. Abrams. Nimoy ran the full gamut of Trek, more so than even Shatner.
Watching Spock as long as I have for all these years, it now falls to me to explore why this actor’s passing means so much to me in this little tribute.
I was fortunate to have met him once, but our conversation was short, in order to accommodate the remaining legion of fans who were also waiting to meet him. It was remarkably uneventful, and after getting the autograph, the perfunctory handshake and unsatisfactorily few words, I was immediately ushered over to William Shatner’s table to presumably receive the same.
After getting an amazing reception from Shatner, I stopped as I was leaving, turned and looked back over at Nimoy and shouted “that’s all I wanted!” Of course, this was in good humour. Nimoy looked back at me, smiled and waved his hand in the Vulcan salute. “Live long and prosper!” He shouted back as I walked back down the exit.
Spock was present in every episode and featured prominently in most of them. The character that Nimoy brought to life was important not simply from a casting choice but served to illustrate the spirit of diversity in Trek by personifying the concept of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations.” Nimoy commandeered science and logic and demonstrated their power on a ship that not only explored the stars but humanity itself. Spock was the second in command of the premiere ship in Star Fleet, the highest ranking non-human to achieve such a rank and epitomized the science aspects in this science fiction show that captivated the imaginations of millions of fans world-wide.
Amazing to think that one character could portray all of that, but that was Nimoy’s legacy. Spock was a character that had epic ramifications portrayed by a legendary actor.
If we break this character down we get a sense of what Nimoy had to display. A seemingly emotion-less half-human/Vulcan with superior strength, superior intellectual capacities, telepathic and was possessed of the legendary nerve-pinch that could incapacitate enemies. His race had a distinct culture that was mystical and historical in nature. This was a tall order by any stretch of the imagination.
We learned most about this character from the classic episode “Amok Time.” In this episode, Kirk was forced to discover the secrets of the Vulcan race, their home planet and risk his life in mortal combat with his first officer in an enraged, berserker fury.
Out of loyalty and a sense of friendship, Kirk has to risk his command and his life for the sake of his first officer. While in a mindless rage, Spock believes he has killed his captain and drops his logic when the truth is revealed. Nimoy has a huge range of emotion to show in this episode, yet managed to believably convey this character’s remarkably variable demands.
In his autobiography I Am Not Spock (1975), Nimoy attempted place a degree of distance between him and the character. This received a great deal of negative reaction as it seemed like he was repudiating all of the acclaim and admiration he had received from his fans. Years later, he wrote another book with the notably antithetical title I Am Spock (1995). In this volume, Nimoy sought to put this reaction to rest by citing all the similarities between him and the character he had portrayed for about thirty years at that point. In the book he talked about his directorial endeavours, behind-the-scenes anecdotes and even personal relationships with other members of the cast. His friendships were an integral part of his experiences but also helped to inform his character. Nimoy was Spock in the end.
The relationships that Spock cultivated with the other characters of the show formed a fundamental part of Spock’s appeal. The fact that this powerful and superior alien could demonstrate such loyalty to seemingly less capable and emotionally chaotic inferiors left television viewers with a sense that perhaps there was something worthwhile in humanity. We believed in the utopian future that Star Trek presented because Commander Spock told us that we had achieved it.
Captain Kirk also could not have been the accomplished captain he was without the assistance of his Vulcan first officer. In “City on the Edge of Forever,” one of Nimoy’s greatest performances, we see a more emotional and compassionate Spock who not only warns Kirk of the danger of being emotionally involved with a figure in history who must die in order to preserve the future. When Kirk is forced to let Edith Keeler die, it is strangely Spock who offers a sympathetic voice and not the compassion-driven Dr. McCoy. Kirk may have been the lever for this episode, but it is Leonard Nimoy’s performance that is the fulcrum.
What Nimoy excelled at was showing friendship. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan remains the most resonant film in the franchise. It is Spock who shows us that sometimes logic can be ignored when the needs of the many are at stake. The scene with Spock and Kirk saying farewell to each other is one of the most iconic and recognizable images in Star Trek history. Not only is it a dramatic conclusion to the film but it solidifies the concept of friendship between these two characters. Spock and Kirk have had a close relationship that has been explored in the television episodes, films and novels. In the novels The Price of the Phoenix and The Fate of the Phoenix we see this friendship reinforced with even a dead Captain Kirk is not enough to stop Spock from using the Phoenix Process to resurrect his friend.
In the episode “The Tholian Web,” it is Spock who stands firm against counsel and advice of the other officers who urge Spock to move the Enterprise out of the area. He risks interstellar war with the Tholians, the mental health of the crew of the Enterprise as they suffer the effects of interdimensional space and even the integrity of the ship itself in order to remain on station to rescue Kirk. It is Kirk’s final orders that McCoy and Spock, as his closest friends to work with each other. While McCoy apologizes for his behaviour it is Spock who offers forgiveness.
Spock was a better friend and it was Nimoy who interpreted this for us. While Shatner and Nimoy may have had their rivalries and less than professional moments in real life, they were still able to project on screen for us the very model of what friendship should be. In real life though, they were still friends to the end with Shatner exclaiming that Nimoy was like a brother to him. Their relationship was still one of a deep and respectful nature.
When I think about Leonard Nimoy means to me, I think about the nature of that friendship that both Captain James T. Kirk and William Shatner benefited from. Nimoy’s friendship to both these figures makes me wonder about my own life. If I was called Captain Kirk, growing up, I regard the friendship Nimoy showed and ask the question: who was my Spock?
But Nimoy’s passing is a loss of the only Spock that I’ve ever known. He was someone who represented a ruthlessness in the way Spock pursued his friendship with Kirk. He risked everything, observed and secured his friend’s welfare and always ensured that he was there when his friend needed him. He is an example of the type of friend everyone needs in his or her life: someone who will dispassionately tell you the truth when you need to hear it and also fight fiercely in your corner.
We are diminished by the loss of this man in the sense that the loss of any life is tragic. Nimoy was also a father, grandfather, husband and companion and those in his circle are also left with a void they can never replace. But the world is diminished by the example this man set for us in the way he showed us the full range of what a friend can and should be.
“I have been, and always shall be, your friend,” has never meant so much than it does on this occasion.
Godspeed, Mr. Nimoy. May we all live long and prosper.
Leonard Nimoy (March 26, 1931 – Feb. 27, 2015)