The Undiscovered Country

There were many sides to Leonard Nimoy. But there was one you may not have expected.


in Blog


First Bones died, then Scotty, now Spock. That is, DeForest Kelley, who played Dr. McCoy (“Bones”) in the original Star Trek cast, died in 1999, then James Doohan, who played the ship’s engineer with a Scottish brogue (“Scotty”), died in 2005. In 2008, Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, who played many parts in various incarnations of Star Trek but was perhaps best known as the voice of the US Starship Enterprise’s computer, passed away. Now, on February 27th, 2015, Leonard Simon Nimoy, who played the half-human, half-Vulcan second in command (“Spock”), has died at the age of 83.

Nimoy was initially plagued by people’s association of him with the “pointy eared” half-Vulcan character, and in fact his first autobiography was titled I Am Not Spock (1975). The fierceness of the fan reaction to that title led to his second autobiography’s title, I Am Spock (1995), where he explains that Spock was his favorite character, and that much of his own being went into that character, but…they are not identical. I have started this essay in memoriam by placing Nimoy in the context of his fellow Star Trek actors because, despite a wide range of television, movie, stage, and radio productions as actor, writer, director, and producer, Leonard Nimoy is primarily known to me as Spock.

In the original series (1966-69), Spock was in counterpoint to Captain James T. Kirk, the libidinal, Iowa-born commander of the Starship Enterprise, as the superego is in counterpoint to the id. Kirk, of course, was highly intelligent and had a civilized self-control, but Spock inherited from his Vulcan father’s genes and culture a strict adherence to logic, and an inability to be overwhelmed by emotion. Kirk was the “regular guy,” while Spock was the classical science-fiction rational scientist. He was constantly saying things like, “That is not logical, Captain” when Jim would use one of the reasons that the heart has, but that reason knows not.

A fascinating early performance by Nimoy, preceding Star Trek by three years, is of the character Roger, in the American film version of Jean Genet’s The Balcony, directed by Joseph Strickland (1963). While fierce combat among various parties in a civil war is raging outside a brothel, inside the prostitutes are acting out various fantasies with the patrons; the chief of police, played by Peter Falk, sets up one of the customers, played by Nimoy, in a scenario with the brothel’s accountant, who is wearing a glittering, diaphanous gown, tempting him in a stark, rocky setting that evokes one of the planetary landscapes found later in Star Trek. As long as Nimoy/Roger resists the woman’s temptations and shows no attraction to her, Falk/Police Chief is satisfied; evidently, this is his fantasy. However, when Roger embraces and kisses her, the Chief loses his temper, breaks the fourth wall, and intervenes, resulting in the two men fighting each other, rolling on the ground. At the madam’s order, the rest of the prostitutes pull the men apart and stop the fight; at the madam’s insistence, they take off their uniforms, which are the brothel’s property, and must leave the building clothed only in a towel around the waist and an officer’s hat. Even in this early work, there is a tension between sensuousness and control, although the sensuousness will come out in Spock’s character only in the 2009 Star Trek re-boot, with Zachary Quinto playing the young Spock, and Zoe Saldana, as the young Uhura, the love interest.

No pon farr required

Like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Kirk and Spock are two characters that make up a composite being, the ego of the Enterprise, which hovers in the magnetic field between them. Without Spock, Kirk by himself would be too lightweight to carry the authority needed to explore the “final frontier” of space, which, given Star Trek‘s resonance with the contemporaneous New Wave of science fiction, had a much more social and political focus than the hard science fiction of the 40s and 50s. Although there were quasi-scientific sounding terms thrown out from time to time, particularly when Scotty was agonizing over problems with the warp drive, the series basically confronted the crew with human problems that had emerged in contemporary consciousness. One of these is the relative valuation of heart and mind, or emotion (Kirk) and intellect (Spock).

Nimoy’s bearing communicated gravitas, with a mask-like face that only conceded an emotional reaction through a radically arched eyebrow, signifying the Vulcan equivalent of astonishment, or possibly skepticism. His voice, deeply resonant and his language supremely articulated, was iconic.

Both Nimoy and Spock evolved and grew after the initial series’ final and third season. Although Nimoy was ready to leave the franchise and thus let himself be killed off at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), he subsequently was led to accept the focal role in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), in which his spirit, having “possessed” Dr. McCoy at Spock’s death, is reunited to his body, literally resurrecting Spock. Nimoy, perhaps because of the increasingly high-level moral issues involved in the film series, wrote and directed, as well as acted in, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which has a pronounced environmental message. Nimoy has said of that film that, as opposed to most “Space Opera” science fiction narratives, Voyage does not have a specific “bad guy,” but is a more generalized critique of human shortsightedness.

Nimoy’s and Spock’s gravitas emerges profoundly in the 2009 Star Trek film, where he is in a counterpoint with his younger self, with dignity and wisdom, as well as subtle humor, combined in good measure. To have seen such a character develop, in the most positive sense, from a one-sided half-human into a Wise Old Vulcan over the past half century has been a privilege indeed. • 2 March 2015

Photo via Wikimedia Commons