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Leonard Nimoy, Liberal Cold Warrior

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Leonard Nimoy, RIP.

"Star Trek" -- the original series, the movies, the later versions -- has always been intensely political. The original series was a blast of  Cold War liberalism just as that consensus was about to fall apart. A few years after the death of John F. Kennedy, Kirk, Spock and McCoy brought the former president to the galaxy with their showdowns with the Klingons and Prime Directive for third-world planets.

"Star Trek" reminds us that from 1932 through 1967 an aggressive and collaborative foreign policy was central to liberalism -- the United Federation of Planets (the United Nations) and Starfleet (NATO) were just as important to Harry Truman or Hubert Humphrey as the ethnic diversity and other liberal values that "Star Trek" prized.

One of the fascinating things about "Star Trek," the series, is just how frayed that consensus already was. Sometimes, the Klingons were flat-out bad guys, and defeating them was, while perhaps mixed with regret, absolutely necessary, no matter the consequences to anyone caught in the crossfire. Sometimes, however, the show would pull a reversal on us, and show (“Errand of Mercy” or “Day of the Dove”) that both sides were wrong to embrace the fight.

Spock was crucial precisely because he didn’t always choose the side of peace. Yes, the Federation (metaphorically speaking, the U.S.) always turned out to be the good guys. But it was still important to convey that fighting the Cold War wasn’t just emotional; it had to be logical, too. So it’s important that Spock, though he understood the futility of war, was nevertheless a Cold Warrior (and sometimes, as in “The Enterprise Incident,” a particularly cold-blooded one). That's why Spock would say that the doomed Edith Keeler, prophet of peace, “was right. But at the wrong time.”

When it was the right time, Spock was there to argue for a negotiated end to the Klingon Empire. But that was long after Cold War liberalism had stopped being the consensus, and the more complicated foreign policy liberalism of the 1980s and 1990s took over, as with the Federation of Planets in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and especially the wonderful "Deep Space Nine."

Nimoy, of course, was the linchpin: If Spock didn't work, the show never would have gotten off the ground. We can see that happening in the failed first pilot, when Nimoy doesn’t quite have the character down yet. I love William Shatner, but it’s not impossible to imagine Jeffrey Hunter’s Captain Pike being part of a successful "Star Trek" series. But the real difference between “The Cage” and subsequent first season episodes is Nimoy’s fully formed Spock.

A fine actor and a fine director. He’ll be missed.

  1. I highly recommend his Columbo episode, which features him in full I'm-not-Spock mode, emoting all over the place.

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net