Month: February 2015

‘Of all the souls…’

Leonard Nimoy directs Robin Curtis (Lt. Saavik) in Star Trek III.

Leonard Nimoy directs Robin Curtis (Lt. Saavik) in Star Trek III.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the soul of Star Trek just died.

That’s not to denigrate the performances of the other six cast members. There was diversity unlike anything else on TV during the 1960s and everyone, to a person, had their moments. When you look at it, though, from the early 21st century they were really just standard issue humans on a spaceship.

But not Spock, and the job of making Spock nonstandard fell to Leonard Nimoy.

Like a lot of Trekkies (or Trekkers as Nimoy preferred calling us), I came to

Spock in his office.

Spock in his office.

Star Trek years after the original series had been canceled. I wasn’t even born yet when it aired its last episode in 1969. And, like many, the thing that drew me to the series wasn’t the ship or the rayguns or the space battles. It was that pointy-eared fellow with the funny haircut.

A good friend of mine, Wes Flinn, wrote today that “if you were different in any way, you had Spock as someone to look up to.” Spock set the standard for science fiction. He was the alien character who served to reflect humanity, and even American culture, back at itself, seen through the prism of an intelligent alien.

Spock's parents, Amanda (Jane Wyatt) and Sarek (Mark Lenard). I can't believe network executives let this scandalous interracial marriage be on television.

Spock’s parents, Amanda (Jane Wyatt) and Sarek (Mark Lenard). I can’t believe network executives let this scandalous interracial marriage be on television.

Well, half-alien. Spock was human on his mother’s side and Vulcan on his father’s side, but as much as this flies in the face of the paranoiacs at Homeland Security and the CIA, we’re all alien to somebody.

I doubt there’s accurate polling data to support whether people would have tuned in to Star Trek if Spock was not on the show, but I probably would not have. I was surprised to learn, when I was researching Star Trek’s history for a speech I had to give in a college class, that NBC wanted to axe the Spock character because with his pointed ears and upturned eyebrows he appeared too satanic.

Mister Spock, cleaned up for the Bible Belt.

Mister Spock, cleaned up for the Bible Belt.

Indeed, in the publicity stills released before the series aired, NBC had airbrushed out Spock’s pointed ears and eyebrows for fear of offending some viewers. I view that as an anthropological curiosity about American

corporate culture in the 1960s that they would worry about offending an audience segment that probably wouldn’t watch the show to begin with. “If you don’t like our resident alien, you’re definitely not going to like our African communications officer or our Asian-American (Sulu was born in San Fran) helmsman. And hang around for season two, where you will lose your shit over our commie navigator.”

That’s a not-so-polite way to say that Star Trek isn’t for everybody.

It’s difficult to write about what Spock, and by extension Leonard Nimoy, meant to me without writing about Star Trek itself. As I postulated above, I believe Spock, with Nimoy as his conduit, was the soul of the show, there to reflect our human (and American) values back to us, warts and all. He was the good at his job, yet he was a misfit, a man without a country, neither fully Vulcan nor fully human. Put in the context of growing up in the 80s, he was a nerd in a world of jocks and preppies, and I think that’s why those of us who never felt like we were “standard issue humans” gravitated toward Spock, Nimoy and the show. If it were not for the lack of longevity that would allow me to live into the 23rd century (and not be a blubbering senior senior senior citizen), I would have wanted to be Spock when I grew up. It seemed to be a better gig than cop, fireman or race car driver, and you got to do more traveling.

But you can’t be Spock. None of us can. Leonard Nimoy already did it, and he put his signature on it. He invented the Vulcan salute and the customary Vulcan “blessing” (I can’t think of a better word…admonition, maybe?) to “live long and prosper.” When a script called for Spock to brawl with an evil duplicate of Captain Kirk, Nimoy objected. He rationalized that Vulcans, steeped in logic and general emotional control (no one ever said they did not have emotions) were above such primitive fisticuffs. Thus, the Vulcan nerve pinch was born. It was a nonlethal maneuever by which Spock would apply pressure where the neck meets the shoulder, rendering a foe unconscious without unnecessary and excessive force. I’ll never forget the first time I saw it in action. It was at my granny and granddaddy’s one weekend. They live in Cox’s Creek, which is a few counties over from Louisville, so they picked up Louisville television stations. WAVE 3 aired Star Trek reruns on Sundays. My granddaddy and I were watching and Spock felled some poor soul with the nerve pinch. Granddaddy looked at me and said “that Spock’s got a helluva grip, huh?”

Gene Roddenberry may have thought up Spock, but Leonard Nimoy made him true, from the measured cadence and controlled tone of his voice to the way he carried himself, to the way he sat at his station on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise. It’s hard to say goodbye to the guy who gave birth to one of the most – if not THE most – iconic characters of American television.