The struggle within.

Photograph: CBS via Getty Images

Leonard Nimoy, Always Spock, Always Human

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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“Star Trek” premiered the year I started seventh grade, and lasted exactly as long as my time in junior high school. I can’t speak to what happened elsewhere, but at Alice Deal Junior High in Washington, the boys were falling all over themselves to imitate Mr. Spock.  It wasn’t his lack of emotion that we admired -- at least, looking back, I don’t think so -- but his struggle with emotion, his determination to remain in control of his feelings rather than letting them control him. In other words, the half-Vulcan, half-human Spock reminded us adolescents of ourselves. One of the very last episodes of the show, “The Way to Eden,” played on the affection Spock generated among the young, when he alone is able to empathize with the guitar-playing hippies the Enterprise takes aboard.

Plus, he was always right. We liked that, too.

Leonard Nimoy, who died Friday at the age of 83, wrote later in his poignant memoir, “I am Not Spock,” about his efforts after the show was cancelled to escape the beloved character he had created. He told the story of visiting a college campus, and meeting a young woman who got upset when he couldn’t use his Vulcan powers on her. Maybe she was kidding around, maybe she was disturbed, maybe she was flirting. But the encounter depressed him.

For a while, Nimoy tried to escape. He joined the cast of “Mission Impossible” for two years, did some legitimate theater, and appeared in a series of forgettable films. But what revived his career was the move of “Star Trek” to the big screen. After the deadly dull “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” in which Spock had little to do, Nimoy sparkled in Nicholas Meyer’s “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” widely regarded by Trekkers as the best Trek film of them all. He directed, wonderfully, the next feature, “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” in which he barely appeared. His next directorial outing, “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” was less successful cinematically, largely because it was so weighed down by its own save-the-whales seriousness. But Nimoy’s acting was brilliant, as he wandered 20th-century San Francisco, fully in Spock character, and nobody noticed anything odd about him.

Or not until it turned out that he could talk to the whales.

“Star Trek V: The Final Frontier,” was designed as a showcase for Nimoy, but the story was too weak to hang together, and Laurence Luckinbill, as Spock’s half-brother Sybok, pretty much acted circles around everyone else. The final film for the original series, “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” was written by Nimoy, and included enough clever plot twists to keep the audience guessing. But by then the cast was a bit long in the tooth, and it was time to hand off to the films to “The Next Generation.”

And yet even as the Trek franchise spread, Nimoy’s tracks were everywhere. He pretty much invented what the Vulcans were like, and Vulcans kept popping up -- as regulars in “Enterprise” and “Voyager,” and as the insistent undercurrent in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” where Commander Data, as the android who wanted to be a human, offered a lighter and less divided version of the character Nimoy had created.  The Vulcans were crucial if largely hidden players in “Star Trek: First Contact” -- the only really good film from “The Next Generation” universe -- and are ubiquitous, and vital, in the many Trek video games and novels.

Trekkers were delighted when Nimoy showed up as a major character in J.J. Abrams’s 2009 reboot of the franchise, and the handoff of the role to Zachary Quinto was accomplished with elegance and grace.  Quinto, for his part, is so letter-perfect that he sometimes seems to be playing Nimoy as much as playing Spock.

Not long afterward, Nimoy announced that he was done playing Spock. The decision was easy to understand, but lifelong Trekkers like myself could hardly believe it. By then we all knew about the alcoholism he suffered through while starring in the original series, and the struggles in his personal life. But his retirement from the screen was like losing a friend; and his death, although not entirely unexpected, has hit Trekker Universe hard.

There’s a lovely moment near the end of “Amok Time,” consistently ranked by fans as one of the best episodes of the original series. Spock has gone home to Vulcan, thinking he is going to mate with T’Pring, his betrothed. Instead, she claims the ritual of kal-if-fee, leading to a series of events that conclude with Spock believing that he has killed James Kirk, his commanding officer and best friend. As Spock prepares to return to the Enterprise, Vulcan power-broker T’Pau offers the familiar “Live long and prosper.” Spock, certain that he is to be court-martialed and executed, replies, “I will do neither.” But of course Kirk isn’t really dead, and Spock lives on, and prospers. As did Nimoy.

We older Trekkers will miss him, and I hope the younger fans will too. Not just the original series but the entire franchise would have been impossible without Nimoy’s fantastic and inspiring work during a period of more than four decades. I can think of no other actor of his or any generation of whom the same can be said.

  1. OK, it wasn’t a guitar, and later the hippies hijack the ship.  But you see my point.

  2. Not Trekkies.  Let’s keep the nomenclature straight.

  3. Spock, played of course by Nimoy, appeared in “Unification,” a two-part episode in the fifth season of the series. This was his only appearance in any of the successor television shows, except for voice-overs in the short-lived animated version.

  4. Nimoy also appeared, to great acclaim, as a recurring character in J.J. Abrams’s “Fringe.”

  5. True Trekkers also remember this episode as the first in which we see the Vulcan V-salute.

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To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net