By Trevor Busch
He lived long and prospered, but in the end, Leonard Nimoy (aka “Mr. Spock”) failed to achieve the fabled lifespans of the fictional race he so ably portrayed on the small screen for three mythical Star Trek seasons in the late 1960s.
Nimoy, 83, was beamed up to Vulcan relatively peacefully last week — “Peace and long life” being the less well-known prompt for the iconic “Live long and prosper.” He will be sorely missed by the legions of Star Trek fans that inherit his legacy, and inhabit his traditional blue tunic as science officer of the good ship NCC-1701, better known to those of you that don’t strap on a pair of pointy ears, as the Enterprise.
Nimoy was one of the “big three” (Dr. Leonard McCoy, Capt. James T. Kirk, and of course first officer Mr. Spock) on the original Star Trek series, which aired from 1966-69 on NBC before being ignominiously cancelled for low ratings after only three seasons. Gaining a cult following in syndication in the 1970s (somehow “cult status” just doesn’t seem big enough to describe the titanic pop culture phenomenon known as Star Trek) the series has since gone on to inspire countless scientists, nerds and geeks alike to reach for the stars — although some might still be reaching for the remote in their parent’s basements.
As a member of the “big three,” Nimoy wasn’t the first to go (DeForest Kelley, who played Dr. McCoy, died in 1999) and Canadian William Shatner might not be far from embracing the great starry beyond, about to turn 84 on March 22. Of the other major characters from the original series, James Doohan (also Canadian, who played Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, or “Scotty”) passed away in 2005. George Takei, who played helmsman Hikaru Sulu, continues to advocate for gay rights and other causes at the ripe age of 77, while our token communist (it was the late 1960s, after all) Pavel Chekov (played by Walter Koenig) continues to flub his “wubble-ues” for fans. Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Nyota Uhura, still has a metal communications device hanging out of her ear at the age of 82 (or so devoted fans would love to have us believe).
Much more than just a Star Trek actor, Nimoy was also a director, poet, singer and songwriter, although he will always of course be best known for his work on the series. Although almost all the casting choices made on Star Trek might be considered some of the finest ever made for a television series (some would say the same about Star Trek originator Gene Roddenberry’s later series Star Trek: The Next Generation) Nimoy has to rank as one of the most easily recognizable the world over. There was something about the gangling Jewish actor that must have fit the image that Roddenberry was searching for, and the rest is now history. Played impeccably by Nimoy, the character of Mr. Spock — a semi-emotionless half-human, half-alien, who learns to embrace the best of both worlds — became a remarkable hero, not only to “half-breeds,” but millions who seemed to identify with the idea of being an outcast alien, barred from the full acceptance of both worlds, but determined to carve out his own destiny through his intelligence, his unflinching loyalty, and an unswerving commitment to duty.
There are few series that have so drastically shaped the entertainment collidescope of the past 50 years, influencing so much in the science fiction genre that it is almost beyond measure. Those who harbour a seething hatred for the franchise — and there are many, Star Wars fans for instance — seem unable to comprehend why the little series that could, cancelled after only three seasons, has become the watershed science-fiction TV program of the 20th century.
So what accounts for this transcendental phenomenon? Although this question has probably been bandied about just about every comic-con and Star Trek convention since the 1970s, the answer depends — in myriad forms — on the viewer themselves. Some love the characters, the actors, the stories, the alien races. Others just embrace the quirky weirdness, even the sometimes glaringly cheesy, that embodies Star Trek like a cloak of defence against all criticism.
Beyond the surface, and what most fans agree on, is that fundamentally Star Trek represents a view of the human race that was startlingly lacking in the Cold War cauldron that was 1960s America. Instead of a grim future of war, economic collapse, or the contemporary conservative backlash against hippie culture that personified the 1960s, Gene Roddenberry chose to envision future humanity at the head of a coalition of like-minded alien races who choose peace and co-operation above all else, and that have done away with war, poverty, and disease in favour of helping each other no matter what the cost.
In other words, Star Trek is a utopian idea, a vision of what might be, if we all worked hard enough to set aside our petty hatreds and racial bigotries. In Star Trek “societies,” there usually isn’t even currency, and the pursuit and accumulation of wealth is no longer the driving impulse of most. With such socialist ideals, it’s a wonder the series made it past the 1960s censors without being labeled communist propaganda.
It is important to note that utopias have been proven to be mostly fallacies, both in literature and unsuccessful practice — remember the Soviet Union? Still, their attraction remains undaunted in the 21st century — the perfect society, perfectly executed, the ultimate pursuit of perfection. People continue to dream. And who knows? If we choose something, want something bad enough, more often than not as a species we have the remarkable knack of achieving it. That was what Gene Roddenberry saw in us. The question is, can we see it in ourselves?
Star Trek in inextricably linked to unbounded positivity. It simply wouldn’t be Star Trek without it. The message it sends (and is still sending) is that anything is possible if we believe enough in it to achieve it. It’s a simple message, but it is one that is still unfortunately lost on many of us, as we continue to quibble and scrap over the finite resources of our precious world, or grasp to maintain our privileged positions over others. If the alien worlds of Star Trek actually exist, no wonder they haven’t lowered themselves for a visit.
The original series, of which Leonard Nimoy’s character was a major part, has spawned no less than four sequel series and innumerable films, including Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space 9, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise. For more than 10 years, there has been no Star Trek series on TV, and frustrated fans have blamed everyone from Scott Bakula to the Devil himself for this sinful omission. Upon the conclusion of the unfairly-maligned Star Trek: Enterprise after four seasons in 2005, franchise-owner Paramount apparently stated that it would “never be involved in the production of another Star Trek TV series.”
That knife in the heart of rabid fans has been extracted of late, with whispers of various new series ideas fabled to be on the drawing board, as well as speculation that Netflix might be ready to bankroll a new series, based on the immense popularity amongst streaming patrons of all Star Trek series.
For now, we bid a final and fond farewell to that hero of nerdy kids with bloody noses (who probably received them after bringing their replica phaser to show and tell) who taught the world that it was OK to be a science-fiction nut. As I ponder on the enigma that is Spock, I’m reminded of one of the final scenes in 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (easily one of Nimoy’s finest cinematic moments), when Kirk learns of his friend’s fatal sacrifice in the engine room and rushes to be by Spock’s side as he slips away:
Spock: “The ship…out of danger?”
Spock: “Do not grieve, Admiral. The needs of the many, outweigh…”
Kirk: “The needs of the few.”
Spock: “Or the one.”
That simple maxim says more about the idea, the man, and the franchise than this humble narrator ever can. Rest easy, Spock. We have been, and always shall be, your friend.