It’s odd to me, to be sitting here writing about the death of the actor, Leonard Nimoy. It’s odd that news of his death has spread through the internet the way it has. He wasn’t really known as an actor as much as he was for one role in a 1960’s science fiction television show. Even within the entertainment industry, many, many of his peers led far more successful and influential careers than Nimoy did. Outside the entertainment industry, thousands of people today made a real impact on real life.
Today, seven people died in Missouri in our latest mass shooting. The horror of that tragedy was buried deep in my Yahoo news feed. The unremarkable passing of an elderly television actor led the feed.
I’m a nurse, a writer by hobby, not profession. I have nothing to add to the millions of words pushed around cyberspace tonight by people with much more to say than me. I never met the man. I have no special insight into his family or career. What need does anyone have for me to write about this?
The answer is “none”. But though a hobbyist, I’m still a writer, and writers write to get to the bottom of things. And until today I had no idea how important Leonard Nimoy has been to me. The news of his death hit me harder than it had any business doing. So, I write, to try to make sense of it. Not for you. For me.
* * *
I was aware of Star Trek in its initial run on television, but was too young to watch it then. Like most of the people I grew up with, I got to know Spock and the rest of the crew of the Enterprise in re-runs. My earliest memory of the show was shock at seeing a crew member killed off. I wasn’t used to that in the television I was allowed to watch.
But as I started following Star Trek, I thought it was wonderful. It met every requirement for exciting science fiction a young fan could ask for. And as exotic as the sets and characters were, it was the ideas the show was built around that were revolutionary to me. I loved the show’s notion that the future was a place where mankind would finally work it all out. Star Trek‘s vision of the future was one where war and crime and poverty had ceased on Earth, and we had gotten there together; by destroying the barriers that separate us and joining with people of all backgrounds toward a common goal.
And how did we get there? Through reason. Through science. Through Spock.
* * *
Mr. Spock was always my favorite character on Star Trek, my favorite TV show. I loved him. I loved that he bailed out Captain Kirk – the alpha-male, frat-boy, testosterone-fueled chick magnet – more times than Kirk was able to get himself out of a jam. I loved that he never got rattled by the screeching diva, McCoy, and never ever rose to take the good doctor’s bait. I loved Spock’s patience with humankind. I loved that you could build a better society, a better person through reason alone.
When I first started watching Star Trek, I had no idea I was an atheist. The thought of it would have horrified me. But I can see now the role model Mr. Spock was to me. In him I saw someone who was an ethical being, who always and only strove to do good, and he did it because reason compelled him to. There was no one else on television like him. Because he was an alien, a creature from another planet, he had the freedom not to follow any of Earth’s religions. His goodness, his (pardon the term) humanity was entirely self-contained. He was the first being I’d ever considered that didn’t need a god to be moral.
It’s impossible for me to imagine another actor playing Spock. Though Nimoy seemed to effortlessly take on the mantle of a super-computing intellectual who had vowed to purge himself of emotion, I never got the feeling that Spock was an unfeeling individual. It would have been far too easy to play the character as cold, but that never seemed to come across in Nimoy’s performance. I don’t know anyone who thought of Spock as callous or amoral, such was the grasp Nimoy had on the character. After Spock’s intellectual abilities, it was his loyalty that I most admired. Loyalty to his shipmates, his friends, his ideals. Loyalty to himself. If ever there was a crew member of the Enterprise you could place complete faith in, it was Spock.
Something else I didn’t know about myself as I grew up with the show: I’m an introvert. When I was a little kid, I would imagine being swooped up by the Enterprise (there was an episode, you know, that featured time travel to (then) present-day Earth). If I could pick a crew member to act as my guide to the 23rd century, it would have been Spock. Sure, he would have been intellectually demanding, but he wouldn’t have been judgmental. With Spock there would have been no drama, no need to worry about how you were being perceived. You could just be yourself. You could relax, and forget about social clues. You wouldn’t have to worry about how to broach difficult subjects. You wouldn’t have to worry about him taking offense, or hurting his feelings. Spock is the friend every introvert dreams of. Conversation and companionship without the hassle of… emotions. You can’t impress him, so you don’t have to try. He won’t hold a grudge. He won’t get all pissy on you. He’s predictable, He’s reliable.
Who wouldn’t want a friend like that?
* * *
The Knucklehead never much got into Star Trek, not as a kid, anyway. That seemed to belong more to my generation, and though I love Star Wars, that seemed to be the mythology he was growing up with. I had all the Trek movies, first on videocassette, then on DVD, even the awful odd-numbered ones. I never pushed Trek onto him, mostly because I thought he might think they were too slow or boring in comparison. If he’d been the kind of kid to respond with, “are you kidding me?! This sucks. You’re old,” I think I could have handled that. But Knucks was always a polite kid, and the condescension with which he would have patiently humored me by watching a Star Trek movie (he was capable of such condescension by age 4) would have been too much to bear.
But when J.J. Abrams rebooted the franchise in 2009, The Knucklehead was game, so we went to check it out together. I remember taking him out to dinner near the theater, specifically so I could brief him on the TV series, and the movie plotlines. The Klingons, the Vulcans, and the Romulans. The Federation of Planets. The Prime Directive. The technology. But mostly, I talked about the characters. “If you understand nothing else about the history of Star Trek,” I told him, “you need to understand the relationship between Spock, McCoy, and Kirk. Spock is the intellect. McCoy is emotion. Kirk relies on both of their input to make the decisions that neither are able to make separately. Each of these has an essential role to play. They need each other.”
But I talked about Spock a lot more than I talked about Kirk or McCoy. Spock’s just more interesting to me. The Knucklehead, knucklehead though he may be, is no dummy. He could tell it was Spock that held his papa’s heart. He could also tell I was talking to him more boy-to-boy than father-to-son. I didn’t realize at the time I was telling him more about myself than I was about a TV show.
* * *
I realized it today. I thought about how Mr. Spock was perhaps my earliest role model, long before I was aware how personally the character spoke to me. And I realized how much I had appreciated Nimoy as a caretaker of that character. I’d seen some of Nimoy’s other television work (I even have a copy of Zombies of the Stratosphere*, the 1952 serial in which Nimoy has a small part). I’d read some of his poetry. I’d read interviews with him, and stories about them, and in none of them did he appear to be anything but the decent human being everyone said he was. The more I read about him, the more I began to see that more than a bit of Leonard Nimoy must have been infused in Mr. Spock. Spock was more than just the creation of Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek‘s creator, or of the excellent writing staff that brought the show to life. I do not believe Spock would have been my first hero, or that the series would have been a success, without the guidance of the actor who portrayed him.
I should be mourning the loss of seven souls in Missouri tonight, and I do. I should celebrate the lives of nurses, teachers, engineers, firefighters, and journalists, and I do. But tonight I miss my first fictional mentor, an imaginary character of the kind we all seek out to help us make sense of the world. And I miss the old TV actor who gave him to us.
*Neither zombies nor the stratosphere figure into Zombies of the Stratosphere in any way.