The passing of an aging celebrity is always a melancholy milestone for fans of a certain age, but the loss of Star Trek icon Leonard Nimoy hits harder than most.
His iconic role as Mr. Spock was more than just the crowning achievement of a long and varied career. (Give his poetry a try sometime.) He nailed something about the human condition with this half-human character. He was the voice of lonely, misunderstood outsiders for generations to come. He taught the most introverted and anti-social of nerds to value their humanity, their connection to the rest of their kind, even as ordinary people processed their thoughts slowly and fussed over silly, mundane diversions. And Mr. Spock was the best best friend anyone ever had.
The Spock saga is one of modern literature’s greatest parables of tolerance — the real deal, not the Orwellian nightmare of enforced conformity and grievance pyramids the term has become associated with. Humanity’s great gift in the Star Trek universe is its ability to empathize with, and learn from, nearly every alien race it encounters — even the implacable adversaries we have no choice but to defeat. The original series had no problem with advocating strong defense and strategic initiative; aliens were advised to strike up a friendly conversation with Captain Kirk when he instructed Lt. Uhura to open those hailing frequencies, or he was likely to start talking with phasers and photon torpedoes instead. But even in battle, humanity strove for understanding.
The original series demonstrated its maturity by showing that such understanding was not easy to come by, as you could see from the ribbing Spock received from the mostly-human crew of the starship Enterprise. Certainly a great deal of what we learned about the Federation in those early years of the show was dictated by budget constraints, and if series creator Gene Roddenberry had been working with the sort of budget and effects technology he would enjoy today, the Enterprise might have been more species-diverse, but Roddenberry made his point by having the human crew be racially diverse, in a joyously casual way.
In a future where the many tribes of Earth were absolutely comfortable exploring the unknown together, Mr. Spock was the outsider that had trouble fitting in. He didn’t really fit in with other Vulcans, either, since he was half-human. Spock took it all in stride, displaying a serenity and confidence that has been comfort food for generations of young people. Some of the ribbing Spock took from Dr. McCoy would bring a swarm of diversity counselors down upon the good doctor these days. The static he caught during the occasional trip to Vulcan was even worse — how could a society founded on supreme logic be so unsympathetic to Spock, so slow to appreciate his value? Perhaps there’s a statement to be found, in all those years of accumulated Spock lore, about how ice-cold reasoning isn’t quite enough to overcome prejudice. It requires an emotional commitment as well, a demonstration of character from both society and the outsiders it instinctively pushes away.
That’s the greatest thing about the character of Spock: he’s a man of tremendous ability, determination, and character. He’s been seen wrestling with a bit of anguish about his position as a man of two worlds (and a spot of bother stemming from his half-Vulcan biology) but he never complains about it. He never demands understanding or compassion. He proves himself as a scientist, a member of his crew, a loyal friend, and a man of integrity, over and over again. Instead of telling each other to “cowboy up” when times are tough, maybe we should tell each other to “Spock up.” Rarely has an upper lip been stiffer through the most outrageous adversity. (His reserve slips now and then, most commonly under the influence of mind-altering substances or when James T. Kirk is pushing his buttons, but that just emphasizes how Spock’s achievements require effort and willpower — he’s not automatically serene and confident.)
To generations of intellectual outsiders, Mr. Spock was the voice of reason protesting against unreason and demonstrating the humility to admit that sometimes the boundaries of reason needed to be stretched a bit. Like every brainy kid who enjoyed his adventures, Spock occasionally fell prey to arrogance, but that’s why it was so great to have best friends like Kirk and McCoy to bring him down to Earth. Spock demonstrated the value of intellect, an ideal young fans could admire long before the computer revolution ushered in the “triumph of the nerds.” He remains one of the best pop-culture idols to cite for teaching energetic but unfocused young people the value of self-discipline, which is one of the trickiest lessons to learn.
He was even a good guy to have on your side during one of the absurdly frequent fistfights that mark original Star Trek so clearly as a product of its era. Vulcans are pacifists who took the wise precaution of learning how to knock people out instantly with a neck pinch. There are many lessons to be taken about the true nature of pacifism from that metaphor. Also, it’s significant that Vulcans are depicted as inhumanly strong and terrible in their rage if their self-control slips. That’s another metaphor of great significance to young Star Trek fans, and it’s an important element of the Vulcan character that they choose to be peaceful and constructive, despite their capacity for destruction and often-referenced violent history.
The terrific characterization of Mr. Spock depended heavily on Nimoy’s creative gifts and acting talent. He had a great deal of input in how Spock and his corner of Star Trek lore evolved — try watching a few early episodes of the series, especially its original pilot, to appreciate the scope of his contributions. He understood this character before anyone else, and the rest of the enormous volume of Star Trek lore — indisputably the most detailed and optimistic projection of future history ever undertaken — shifted around the clearly-cut jigsaw puzzle piece Nimoy helped to fashion.
Even when Nimoy wasn’t actually involved with a Star Trek project, he was there. At the end of the 1996 film First Contact, a time-travel caper that brings the Next Generation crew of the Enterprise (and some very unpleasant hitchhikers) back to the moment of mankind’s first contact with extraterrestrial life, the final scene reveals to casual viewers that the extraterrestrials in question were Vulcans. I glanced around the theater during that moment, and saw everyone in audience nodding and whispering “of course.” Of course it was the Vulcans who invited humanity into the stars. Of course it was Mr. Spock, in spirit if not in the flesh… and of course the Vulcans looked like they needed a stiff drink five minutes after meeting the human race.
It’s not easy being the best of best friends. It’s not easy to combine reason and intuition, accurately drawing the boundaries and then taking one impossible step beyond them. It’s not easy to find your place in the world, but Leonard Nimoy made it a good deal less painful and confusing for countless young people who saw themselves reflected in the extraordinary character he brought to life.