He played second fiddle to a man who couldn’t act. Yet he was no slouch as an actor. The parts he played were varied, including Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof, King Arthur in Camelot, Fagin in Oliver, the King in the King and I, Paris in Mission Impossible, Goldman in The Man in the Glass Booth, and the title character in Caligula. But who am I kidding. Nobody remembers him playing any of those roles. Even a Mission Impossible fan like me has long since repressed any memories of his participation in that show. Like so many of his fans, I only want to recall him playing a single role. A role of a lifetime. A role that defined him to the point where he once wrote a book exclaiming that he was NOT the same person as the character he played. As one of his greatest fans, I simply refused to believe him. And ultimately, he came to change his mind.
Leonard Nimoy’s autobiography, I Am Spock, was published in 1995. I have kept a copy in my bedroom ever since, not far from a biography about another favorite pop culture icon, Stanley Kubrick. Both Kubrick and Nimoy were Jewish. Both were born around the same time (in the late 20s/early 30s). Kubrick always fascinated me because his art evoked three parts id and two parts superego. Nimoy’s Spock, by contrast, was four parts superego and only one part id. But that element of the id was always there, lurking under the surface. Without that element, Mr. Spock would never have been one-tenth as interesting.
I’m not one to make objective pronouncements about the quality of art. I see it largely if not primarily as a matter of taste. So I will make no pretense of objectivity in uttering the following two proclamations. Mr. Spock was the most human figure in the original Star Trek. He was also the most interesting character in the history of television.
My fascination with Spock was precisely because of how much he had to tell us about being human. Spock’s was a life of constant struggle. He was ostracized by his peer group as a child because, unlike them, he had a human mother. And yet he struggled to be as rational and stoic as his Vulcan peers. Like anyone who truly struggles to live virtuously, Spock strove to live up to his potential, and surely would have recognized his inability to do so. Nobody is perfect, not even a Vulcan, and Spock was not one to lie to himself.
Spock’s quest was to rise above his (half) humanity – to become, in the word of Nietzsche, an ubermensch. Of course, his stated goal was to live as a “Vulcan,” as if he felt that the residents of that planet were superior to those from Earth. But I never was convinced that he really felt that way. After all, he opted to spend his time with human, all-too-human comrades, like Kirk, McCoy and the rest of the Enterprise crew. He clearly derived energy from being around us and was 100% loyal to his human friends. So why then did this half-breed identify with his Vulcan side rather than his human side? Because he recognized what anyone with a sane mind would have to recognize in the 23rd century: that unless we ground ourselves in logic and reason, we’ll never make it to the 24th century. Frankly, we have enough data to reach that kind of conclusion even now, in 2015. Perhaps we’d all benefit from spending a few years on Vulcan studying mathematics, science, neck pinching, and mind melding.
To those of you who didn’t watch a lot of Star Trek, you may think that being a Vulcan, for all its social benefits, sounds too robotic to be worthy of a man with a human mother. But Spock was hardly a mere robot. At times, the writers of Star Trek found techniques to unleash his inner self – by having him fall under the influence of a drug, say, or an alien who could control his mind, or by having him go back in time to an era when Vulcans were savages. And then there were other instances where the 23rd century Spock, without losing autonomy, found a place for simple pleasures. We have seen him fall in love (in the episode, This Side of Paradise), enjoy the sexual companionship of a woman and the taste of cooked animal flesh (All Our Yesterdays), go into heat like an animal (Amok Time), become enraged almost to the point of homicide (again, This Side of Paradise), laugh and cry (Plato’s Stepchildren), play beautiful music (Charlie X, Requiem for Methuselah), and deceive people (countless episodes). Spock never gave up his humanity. He simply built that humanity on a foundation of logic. Does that sound so crazy to you?
Spock was a poignant character. In the old Star Trek series, he never got the glory of being a successful ship’s captain. To paraphrase one character, he was always by Captain Kirk’s side, “as if you’ve always been there and always will.” The one time he was able to lead a shuttlecraft expedition was a disaster – he almost lost his life and that of his crew. Looking back at his brief, spore-induced love affair with a character played by Jill Ireland, Spock said “For the first time in my life, I was happy.” He wasn’t exaggerating. Spock never allowed himself truly to let go – there was always that superego, tugging at him, reminding him that the human male, unrestrained, is a dangerous animal. Spock didn’t want to endanger anyone else. He always wanted to be of assistance. He was, in his own way, a secular saint.
And that’s what made Spock such a role model. You didn’t have to be a half-breed to relate to him. All you had to be is someone who is flawed, conflicted, and interested in helping out nonetheless. Oh yeah, you also had to believe in the voice of reason.
To be sure, Spock could be over-the-top in the extent to which he denied his human side. But I never believed those denials; I just took them to be silly attempts at caricaturing a great character. The real Spock – the one that the show evoked when it wasn’t engaging in caricature – would never have denied his humanity. That would be “illogical.” It wouldn’t even pass muster with the Oracle at Delphi, let alone with the Vulcan Science Academy. That academy wouldn’t be worthy of its name if it forced Spock to blot out his appreciation for his mother, a (human) teacher named Amanda. Denying our greatest benefactors is not logical. It’s not even decent.
Well, if Spock can’t engage in that sort of denial, I won’t either. Leonard Nimoy was a great benefactor of mine. He gave me and so many of friends the character of Spock. He imparted Spock’s subtle humanity, his even more subtle Judaism, and his not-so-subtle intensity, intelligence, wisdom, dignity, and humility. But above all else, he imparted Spock’s compassion. Somehow, Spock was able to convey that trait without coming across as sentimental. He didn’t have an ounce of phoniness. And I’m convinced that came from the cerebral qualities and emotional sensitivities of the actor who portrayed him.
In middle school, I attended three Star Trek conventions. But I never met Nimoy. For some reason, I never felt compelled to thank the actor for all the inspiration that his character gave me. Perhaps that was my mistake. But somehow, I suspect that Nimoy ultimately realized how many young people like me were moved by his character and by the humanism of the show in which he starred. He came to understand that the character that he gave us, the role of a lifetime, was truly eternal.
Nimoy immortalized the line “Live long and prosper.” He did both. And now he has left us, his fans, with the job of doing the same. Thanks to Leonard Nimoy, neither of those tasks seems nearly as daunting.