A legend passes on following over half a century of making popular culture a richer place.
THE RECENT LOSS OF LEONARD NIMOY CONTINUES TO SEND WAVES AROUND THE WORLD. That may last a while. As a definitive figure of popular culture for 50 years, it’s almost impossible to take in the impact in one go. And it’s not just Trekkies, Trekers, Geeks, Nerds and Fans. Nimoy was an actor, director, poet… And of course, a singer. He gave us Three Men and a Baby; he gave us The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins. He also secured Star Trek a long future and an incredible legacy.
Of course sadly he’s not the first major death from the Original Series cast. Sulu, Chekov, Uhura all fortunately stride on as William Shatner reaches new levels of legend every day. But the engine room went with James ‘Scotty’ Doohan in 2005. The passion of the series left with DeForest Kelley in 1999. But it was the third side of the Original Series triangle that has proved the most endearing, and the most important to Star Trek. The legendary Spock. In the rebooted films of 2009 and 2013 they just couldn’t leave him alone. And even though his appearance in Star Trek Into Darkness was largely irrelevant, his presence enhanced the film. The reborn franchise has wiped every Star Trek series from the galactic map bar Enterprise and one other crucial element. Spock, the bridge of the Next Generation universe who gets to rebuild the Vulcan race.
Yes, Leonard Nimoy was even immune to a reboot, a rare privilege well-earned in front and behind the camera. And when it came to pastiching the Original Series’ second film as this new crew went Into Darkness, he couldn’t not be there.
Nicholas Meyer’s two militaristic masterpieces gave him his finest hour of course. The death of Spock at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan set the agenda for the successful run of Original Series films. And it was Nimoy who stepped up to direct the third and fourth parts. In doing so he set the template for actors of the franchise moving behind the scenes. American television is all the richer for the alumni of Trek who have cut their shouting skills on the set of Star Trek. Of particular note is that other legendary first officer of the Enterprise, Jonathan Frakes, who in turn helmed two Star Trek films including the 1996 classic First Contact.
Nimoy made a cool $220 million with The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home and took Star Trek back to comedy drama thanks to modern day Earth and the very Star Trek motif of time travel in the latter. It was a distinctive run, where Spock formed the spine of the franchise arc. And behind the camera, it was Nimoy who destroyed the original Enterprise, gave Klingons their longest screen time, killed Kirk’s son…
And then happily handed over the keys to William Shatner for the slightly unfairly maligned The Final Frontier in 1989. Still, Nimoy’s pedigree was secure and had helped set the future of the franchise. By that time, The Next Generation had arrived, carving a brave new future and saving the most prominent gust spot to Spock in the two-part Unification. The Next Generation spawned more actor-directors in the Nimoy mould, while the Original Series cast retired in Meyer’s brilliant Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
On the bridges of various ships, later series would necessarily try to recreate what Spock represented. The Next Generation came the closest with the character of Data – again securing a top-rate actor in the form of Brent Spiner – but Spock, as proven by his refusal to leave the franchise, proved unique. Nimoy created many things, but Spock remains his definitive creation, one that occasionally and famously haunted him but one he grew at peace with.
Nimoy really was the father of Vulcans. An incredibly important fictional creation and part of one of the most distinctive and developed fictional civilisations. Others added to the mix of course, like Mark Okrand who helped shape the Vulcan language and Mark Lenard who was for many years the true Vulcan of Star Trek as Spock’s father Sarek. But Spock didn’t just steal the screen-time. He was the alien in the Homo-Sapiens club of the Original Series. And even better, he was the conflicted alien, with a half human side he struggled to suppress. In reality, Nimoy’s performance is remembered for being stridently logical and more definitive Vulcan than any other. But the fabric was there, and developed into a touching relationship with McCoy and Kirk over many decades. It was catching as well. Spock became a pointy-eared meme very quickly. He was the confusion (no, not the paediatric physician), he was the joke (“the final front ear”) but he was also the epitome of Star Trek.
Far removed from the attractive dystopia that has been with science-fiction almost from the beginning, Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek as an ideal. Here was an endless optimism and a shared future of harmony. Famine is gone, as is poverty. Money has been eradicated on Earth as humans and other races of the Federation lived for pure exploration and discovery, not lust for gold. And in the middle was Spock, the solid figure that reflected humanity back on itself. That’s pretty much the Prime Directive of science fiction. By 1982, no one blinked at Kirk when he said, “Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… Human”.
And much of that is down to Nimoy. When Star Trek Voyager introduced a full-time Vulcan, despite Tim Russ’ sterling work, it fell as flat as was to be expected. After all, Vulcans are very dull creations. Jolene Blalock isn’t given enough credit for her excellent performance of T’Pol in Enterprise, although there was not just a real need to recapture the dynamic of the original crew, but develop and alter Vulcan to support it. Few could have pulled it off like the man who did so much to define it.
The Vulcan hand gesture recalled from a childhood memory in a Synagogue became part of the character steeped in spirituality. Vulcans border on mystic, and drawing on his Jewish heritage as a first language Yiddish speaker, one of the most instinctively inquisitive of religions, made a fine start. The phrase, became wholly attached to Nimoy with #LLAP becoming his sign off on social media. There was the neck pinch played out in playgrounds across the world. There was the mind-meld, a quickly sinister addition to the character’s telepathy. Though watch Nimoy use it to save the galaxy in Star Trek VI and it’s an acting masterclass.
Geeks may have become cool in the subsequent decades. And if Spock became a poster boy for that, it shouldn’t distract from the active and significant role he played in making that happen. Leonard Nimoy may miss Star Trek’s Golden anniversary next year, but he at least made it to the 50th year of his involvement. He wasn’t just an original Star Trek member, but also the longest serving thanks to his smiling performance in 1965’s The Cage. When the third rebooted Star Trek film opens in 2016, the one that will tip the Star Trek film franchise over the $2 billion mark, they will have to stand without him, although Nimoy was happy to leave his creation in the reliable hands of Zachary Quinto.
There is a question that Spock poses in the rather thanatomaniac Star Trek VI (my film of choice to mark his passing):
“Is it possible that we… Have grown so old and so inflexible that we have outlived our usefulness?”
Thanks to Nimoy’s skill, dedication and ‘real’ ambassador role on behalf of Star Trek, that will never be said of Spock. Live long and prosper.