Film/TV » TV Features

Leonard Nimoy’s legacy made the world more logical.



There is a tradition in science fiction of using aliens to comment on humanity. Pulp writers called it the "Man from Mars story." In the 1960s, TV's best take on the concept was Ray Waltson in My Favorite Martian. Then came Star Trek and Spock.

Spock was created by Gene Roddenberry and fleshed out by screenwriter Dorothy "D.C." Fontana, but he will be forever identified with actor Leonard Nimoy, whose passing at the age of 83 last weekend was deeply felt by millions. A Boston native, Nimoy went to Hollywood where he first played an alien in the pulp serial Zombies of the Stratosphere. He was a prolific stage actor and director who was running his own acting studio when he was hired to play the green-blooded, half-Vulcan science officer of the starship for the pilot episode "The Cage." When NBC rejected the first pilot, Nimoy's Spock was the only character to survive a retooling that installed William Shatner's James T. Kirk into the starring role. Spock was promoted to First Officer, and ships' doctor Leonard "Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelley) was introduced as his foil. Spock represented logic and reason; McCoy compassion and emotion, Kirk the leader was constantly trying to walk the line between the two.

Leonard Nimoy
  • Leonard Nimoy

The show debuted in September 1966, and in the first season it became a cultural phenomenon. The character's appeal may not have been instantly apparent to NBC, but the geeks immediately recognized Spock as one of their own. In 1967, when NASA's Mariner 5 probe flew by Venus, the guys in Mission Control donned paper Spock ears for luck. Before computers were cool and Asperger's syndrome was part of every parent's medical education, Spock gave brainy weirdos a hero and a role model. The complexity of human emotion, the little clues and signals that went over his head, perplexed him. But Spock was not emotionless, as he claimed. Nimoy said the first time the character really clicked was when Spock, analyzing a deadly threat, said, "Fascinating." He was devoid of fear, not of wonder.

Appearing in 82 live-action and 22 animated TV episodes, as well as eight movies, Nimoy subtly evolved the character over the years. When the script called for Spock to knock out Kirk with a punch, Nimoy improvised the Vulcan Nerve Pinch as an alternative way to render inconvenient characters painlessly unconscious. Spock, like Nimoy, considered violence the last resort of the incompetent — which is why the climactic scene in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek Into Darkness, where Spock has an extended fistfight, was a betrayal of the character.

Spock never entirely fit in. As the first Vulcan in Starfleet, he encountered and overcame human prejudice. In 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, we see him rejected by a Vulcan monestary for his human emotions. Spock taught us to choose our own paths. By 1991, he had learned enough compassion to say, "Logic is only the beginning of wisdom, not the end."

Nimoy was excited to be at the center of a successful franchise, but he was reluctant to become an icon. He had an incredibly varied film career, directing not only two Trek movies but also Three Men and a Baby. But things always circled back to Spock, whose resonance only grew throughout the years. Actors from Kirstie Alley to Zachary Quinto have played Vulcans on Star Trek, but they could only ape Nimoy's gravitas, which elevated the goofiest of scripts. Even Robin Williams breakout role, Mork, was a comic take on Spock. Trying to break free of typecasting, Nimoy and the Trek producers conspired to let him go out in a blaze of glory in 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Nimoy, the method actor who never expressed emotion, delivers a death scene among the greatest in cinema history. In a way, the scene rehearsed us for this moment. But there will be no plot contrivance to bring him back this time.

Nimoy did, of course, come to embrace Spock as his legacy. A photographer, writer, and poet, he was active and curious until the end, reaching out to the next generation of fans through Twitter. His final tweet, sent from his hospital bed, said: "A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP" Live Long and Prosper.

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