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AppreciationMarch 2, 2015

Obituary: Leonard Nimoy and the Power of Spock


Last Friday Leonard Nimoy died in his bed at home. He lived in Bel Air, so he had done pretty well from a life spent portraying a human/Vulcan hybrid with green blood.

Nimoy played many other characters in his career, both before and after Star Trek, but in terms of fame Spock overshadowed all of them like lava swallowing a village. Although Nimoy was to later say if he could play any character in TV to play he would still choose Spock, his relationship with his alter-ego was a complicated one. He wrote two books about playing the character, I Am Not Spock in 1975 and I Am Spock in 1995. That’s some top level Trekkie trolling right there.

Blessed with cheekbones like matching speaker plinths and a long face the camera hugged like an army drone, Nomy made an instant impression from day one on Star Trek. So much so both he and the character survived two separate pilots for the series (made by Desliu Productions at the behest of NBC), the last of which brought together the familiar bridge personnel.

This also brought colleagues, in William Shatner and DeForest Kelly, who matched Nimoy’s acting skill. In Spock Nimoy managed a tricky balancing act. Emotionally the Vulcan existed somewhere between mild bemusement at his irrational human colleagues and the cold detachment usually not seen outside of breadmakers.

According to Nimoy the part clicked for him one day on set. The company was filming an attack on the Enterprise and in the middle of the chaos Spock was required to utter the line “fascinating”. Nimoy was shouting the line, as one would on an exploding starship, but the director took Nimoy aside and suggested he pull it right down and say the line at normal volume. The final scene is complete pandemonium, but undercut by Spock who hardly registers the turmoil around him. That character element would allow Nimoy to inject Spock with a understated comic sensibility.

Star Trek exists inside a weird cul-de-sac in the pop culture hierarchy; it’s immensely popular yet socially the fandom is placed maybe only a few rungs above Bronies. However; there are numerous anecdotes of fans being inspired by the shows to become engineers and scientists. James Doohan – who played Scotty, the Enterprise’s engineer – has a touching story about helping a suicidal fan (that’s an interview from the excellent documentary Trekkies). Nimoy wrote this response to a fan who was bullied and ostracised because of her mixed race heritage, explaining how Spock dealt with his own.

People were genuinely inspired by the show. It existed at a time when the TV schedule was  even worse than it is now, when we’ve swapped cowboys and cops for Gordon Ramsey and The Bachelor. Nimoy was a huge part of its appeal. His Spock lived by reason and logic and yet he always saw the value in humanism. Whole swathes of popular entertainment never get anywhere near making such a statement.

Although Nimoy had many strings to his Vulcan lute, Spock is what he’ll be remembered most for. As legacies go that’s not a bad one.

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