I was in Portugal on Friday when I heard the sad news of the death of Leonard Nimoy and whilst very saddened was not entirely surprised given his recent health problems. I shouldn’t have been surprised that his death was featured quite heavily on Portuguese television and made the front pages of their newspapers on Saturday morning.
It was all slightly surreal as the reports on Mr. Nimoy were all heavily interlinked with that of his onscreen character, Vulcan science officer Mr. Spock. It shouldn’t be a surprise though as there can surely be few other actors so identifiable with the character they created and less still have acted that same part for 50 years. Spock and Leonard Nimoy are forever intertwined with a shared identity, one that even the actor himself struggled with as can be seen with his “I am not Spock” biography that was changed decades later to “I am Spock”.
The 1980’s and 1990’s saw Star Trek as the most globally recognised identity after Coca-Cola and Captain Kirk as the second highest individual on the planet after Jesus. So it says a lot that Mr Spock was probably to many, more recognisable than both.
It’s easy to look at modern-day Hollywood and the modern-day Star Trek blockbusters as huge corporate machines but it was entirely different in the beginning. Star Trek was anything but a sure-fire hit. It’s creators took the creative risk of penning intelligent science fiction for an adult audience. This was a departure for the time and though some stories are obviously dated, the best 30 or so clearly stand out as being classic stories and superior than 99% of current day science fiction or indeed of television generally.
The team behind Star Trek had to create everything from scratch and even though during its first year it had a large budget, the budget shrank continuously and was never sufficient. Production designers couldn’t just buy a Tricorder or a Phaser or even a 23rd century chair, light or alien plant. It all cost money and it was all done on the fly by a team of geniuses who had to invent everything as they went on a very tight budget.
One of the things that was created at this time was that of our favourite Vulcan, Mr. Spock. Originally he was going to be a Martian with red skin who spoke in a British accent. Actor Leonard Nimoy wasn’t overly impressed. He was a serious up and coming actor and didn’t want to look an idiot prancing around screen with pointy ears and sprouting logic. In fact he had already been assured that his character would have plastic surgery to have human like ears after a few episodes if the audience poked fun at him. As it happened, he had no need to worry. The audience of the 1960’s loved Leonard and Spock.
Though of course much credit must go to the team of writers, in the case of Spock, his character development was more than matched by the work put in by the actor himself Mr. Nimoy. He created the tenets of not just the most famous alien in the world but also an entire race and civilisation. It was he who decided intellectual Vulcans would not lower themselves to physical violence so introduced the famous Vulcan neck pinch. Likewise he came up with Mind Melds and the general Vulcan philosophy, much of which tied in to the actors Jewish heritage.
In a busy TV show, much of the work is shared between the core team of writers and producers and those brought in on an irregular basis to keep things running each episode, often these irregulars would bring their own style of things and would want actors to say lines a certain way or do things in a certain style. Like several others on the show Leonard continuously fought for the integrity of his character and the show in general. Over three years it obviously paid dividends as fans of sci-fi generally have a better idea of what Vulcans are than any other invented race or indeed actual races. If Spock had changed from one year to the next or one show to the next then the audience wouldn’t believe in Spock or Vulcans. If his character had remained as sketchy as it first was and never grew then Spock would be written off as a robotic figure of ridicule played by a less than accomplished actor. Instead Spock was consistently portrayed with just enough quirks and foibles to make him and the race he represented seem real.
All the best characters and actors need others to interact with, that is how they grow and develop and Spock was lucky he had the equally legendary charters of Kirk and McCoy to play off with. Their characters could almost be said to be showing the three sides of humanity with Spock standing for science, logic and intelligence, Kirk for bravery, brashness and physical prowess and McCoy as the selfless, caring, humane and emotional one. Together they tackled subjects that at the time were revolutionary and even today are topically way more interesting than the majority of television. Where else can religion, science, war, peace, the arts and various aspects of the human condition be played out in an hour of television?
Of course, part of why Spock is so well-loved is his sheer longevity. Appearing in the pilot episode of Star Trek made in 1964 and then in 79 subsequent episodes before the show was cancelled just weeks before the TV ratings system was modernised making the widely thought mediocre Star Trek to actually being the most highly rated show on American network television was just the start for Spock.
Plans were soon put in place to bring back the show in animated format but the studios in their typical manner wanted to save money by not hiring all the actors. Leonard Nimoy took a stand and refused to sign a contract until his colleagues were on the show. This wasn’t the first time he had stuck his neck out. Back in the 1960’s, series regular Nichelle Nichols who played the revolutionary black female Communications Officer Lt. Uhura was being paid much less than her fellow regulars. It was Leonard Nimoy who took matters into his own hand and pretty much forced the studios to pay Nichelle her rightful fees or risk losing their alien star.
Towards the end of the 1970’s, throughout the 1980’s and into the 90’s a series of Star Trek movies were made. In some ways these are what cemented the Spock legacy. Always torn between his Human and Vulcan halves, Spock gave up his goal of achieving total logic to rejoin with his ship mates where the most alien alien on television made that most human of sacrifices to save his friends at the cost of his life in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.
In the real world this was being done because Mr. Nimoy wanted some time away from Spock and having his character die was the only way he could be tempted to appear at all. This being Star Trek though, the character was resurrected as Leonard started his directorial career that covered not just Star Trek films but main-stream movies too including the big hit Three Men and a Lady.
Mr. Spock was one of the original characters who then appeared in the 24th century in his case Star Trek: The Next Generation double parter Unification with Captain Picard and in some ways his successor, Mr. Data.
One of the reasons for the appeal of Spock is because of his status as outsider. He is both half Human and half Vulcan and fully accepted by neither. Bullied and discriminated against by beings in many way his inferior, though Spock himself would not in any way accept his status as being better than anyone else. He was always loyal, honest, dependable and of course entirely logical. Spock made being a geek cool, decades before the internet or iPhones. Countless people became scientists because of him and the way his devotion to the sciences inspired people. Few other actors can attest to such an impact aside from other Star Trek actors of course.
Lots of people felt they could understand Spock, some felt they were mis-understood or excluded like he was, others aspired to be as good as he was. His character like much of the show was ahead of its time, Spock was a vegetarian and abstained from alcohol, he was a logical scientist but maintained a faith.
As already alluded to, Leonard Nimoy was a very principled man and that makes his death all the sadder for those who loved him from near or afar. He bowed out of the TNG era films because he didn’t like their philosophy and more production-line quality to them. He also treasured Spock and wasn’t going to have him appear unless his character wasn’t just respected but had something useful to contribute even though the actor obviously could have made plenty of money by appearing. How many films or TV shows have you seen where characters appear for no good reason or past their prime? Not Mr. Spock and not Leonard Nimoy.
Finally after the show was rather run into the ground by the studios in the quest for money, in 2009 Star Trek was resurrected with a new cast. However this is Star Trek not Batman or Superman or Spiderman or any other here-today-gone tomorrow series. Star Trek with 540 odd hours of footage and over 40 years of history couldn’t be re-written or washed over. That would disrespect the fans and all those who worked on the original show.
J.J. Abrams and his team came up with a clever idea of going back to the Star Trek crew when they were young again but in a parallel universe but they needed a link to all that history. By making Mr. Spock integral to the whole movie they managed to coax Leonard Nimoy out of retirement. Yes Star Trek is flashier than ever and slightly Hollywoodised but Spock himself remained Spock. Ambassador Spock cleverly tied up with the original show but also further his appearances in TNG by working with the Romulans to save their planet and then when it failed, being targeted by rogue Romulans and dragged into the parallel universe where they destroyed Vulcan and waited 20 years ready to destroy Earth and the crew of one starship in particular.
Leonard Nimoy and Spock managed to unite the stories together but he did more than that, he completed the character arc of our favourite Vulcan in a story that gave him purpose and then appeared again in the most recent movie to assist his younger counterparts in defeating his and their most fearsome opponent, Khan.
It was a near certainty that both Leonard Nimoy as Spock Prime and William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk would have appeared in the upcoming 50th anniversary Star Trek movie and the death of Leonard makes that sad for all fans. It’s to be hoped that some way is found to bring the sole survivor of the legendary triumvirate of actors is brought into the movie.
What makes it sadder is because Leonard Nimoy was a thoroughly good man. Outside of Star Trek and outside of the world of television and movies, he was a talented artist and photographer. He was also the writer of some incredible poetry and when I saw his last tweet on twitter it occurred to me this might be his last.
I have been a fan of Leonard Nimoy my whole life, I remember that I Grok Spock in the mid 1970’s. In fact one of my two oldest memories is of a Heineken beer advert in 1975 which featured Spock drinking alcohol. I remember thinking how funny it was and I could only have been 2 years old.
I spent many an hour watching Star Trek, probably high up in the 10,000’s of hours if not more if truth be told and I still remember every aspect of it and I rejoice when I find a new show that in some way is comparable and respectful to its audience. I can’t be the only person who with few good role models in the world brought themselves up to think “What would Kirk, Spock or McCoy do in this situation?” , in fact I know I’m not as I have met many others. There are books on Star Trek philosophy and “All I need to know about life I learned from Star Trek”.
I remember my Grandma liked Leonard Nimoy, lots of the ladies did. I was lucky to have met Leonard Nimoy on two or three occasions. The first time was at a book-signing at Forbidden Planet in Oxford Street, London. I was there from 6.50am and was number 2 in line of what would become the biggest celebrity book signing event in London. Mr. Nimoy wasn’t even scheduled to appear until 2pm and I was missing one of my university classes but it had to be done. My historic philosophers would understand, Spock might have understood, Dr. McCoy definitely would have. Anyway it was winter and cold and I waited for hours to meet Leonard Nimoy and was so glad that I did. What was just as incredible was that when I was leaving the store, who did I see queuing to get in? My university lecturer. He was missing his own class to meet his hero too. How awesome was that? We both decided not to mention it again.
I also met Leonard around 4 years ago after the release of the Star Trek 2009 movie. He was every bit as fun and grounded as I knew he would be. No amount of money would get the average 79 year old on a plane from Hollywood to Milton Keynes and even less would want to spend most of the day meeting strangers. Leonard Nimoy though like his other co-stars always loved and appreciated his fans and the feeling was mutual. I happily got myself a new autograph and my pride of place photo of me and Leonard Nimoy or should I say Spock and I?
The last few years has seen Leonard and his friend William Shatner very active on Social Media along with George Takei who must have one of the largest followings of anyone anywhere with his steady stream of good-humoured photos. It was clear that Leonard and Bill were the best of friends and seeing them together on stage was always a lot of fun, do a quick search on Google and it’s hard to find a photo of them not laughing out loud. Leonard in particular took on the role of a kindly good-natured Grandparent.
RIP Leonard Nimoy for you will always Live Long and Prosper in our memories. As for Mr. Spock as a certain Starfleet Captain once said of you “Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most human”.