How does a fictional character eclipse his real-life creator and become embedded in the fabric of popular culture? I have been pondering the question while watching the widespread outpouring of grief and nostalgia in the wake of the death of Leonard Nimoy, the man who gave us Mr. Spock.
When my older brother Dan called me on a cold Friday afternoon to share his favorite memories of Mr. Spock, I felt sad that we had lost Nimoy yet grateful for the enduring gift of Spock. As a child growing up with Star Trek via reruns in the 1970s, I admired Spock’s Vulcan logic, unbending loyalty to his friends, and the dignified way he carried the burden of being half-Vulcan, half-human. Nimoy essayed a character who found a way to reveal keen emotion bubbling beneath the surface of his steely calm demeanor. To borrow one of Spock’s catchphrases, I found Spock fascinating. And I still do when I watch Star Trek, both the TV series and the film adaptations, at home with my daughter.
Obviously, I am not alone. Spock has legions of fans even though the original Star Trek series lasted just three seasons and was canceled in 1969. Nimoy’s death February 27 was covered widely in the mainstream news media, ranging from Mashable to The New York Times. In reporting Nimoy’s death, The New York Times captured the essence of Spock:
[I]t was as Mr. Spock that Mr. Nimoy became a folk hero, bringing to life one of the most indelible characters of the last half century: a cerebral, unflappable, pointy-eared Vulcan with a signature salute and blessing: “Live long and prosper” . . .
The White House reacted, too: President Barack Obama issued a statement professing his own admiration of Nimoy and love for Spock. Social media exploded with tributes, such as the fan-made photographs of the Vulcan “Live long and prosper” symbol on Facebook and Instagram. The tributes came from both Baby Boomers and digital natives who were not alive when Spock first explored strange new worlds with Captain Kirk, Bones, Scotty, Uhura, and the crew of the USS Enterprise. The reaction was similar to the one we will experience when Sean Connery leaves us with the legacy of James Bond. Clearly, Spock, like 007, is a cultural touchstone. But why?
I believe we admire Spock because he represents an all-too-rare cultural archetype: the beloved hero. Yes, Spock does heroic things: his actions on Star Trek, both on the television series and in the popular film adaptations, save countless lives and thwart evil. But there is also a purity and moral goodness about Spock, which was largely missing from our recent fictional heroes until Harry Potter came along. Spock carries himself with integrity and dignity. He exhibits an undying loyalty and selflessness captured effectively in the 1982 movie adaptation Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, when Spock sacrifices himself to save the lives of his crewmates (“Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”). James Bond is a hero, but he gets his hands dirty in a way that Spock would not.
And yet, there is something else about the way Nimoy portrayed Spock that has captured our hearts: Spock makes being uncool cool. Spock is forever on the outside, failing to understand the nuances of humanity, often a step behind Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy when the two crack the occasional joke. His lack of familiarity with social norms creates moments of awkward humor, such as the scene in the TV episode “A Taste of Armageddon” when he distracts an opponent by saying, “Sir, you have a multi-legged creature crawling on your shoulder.”
But Spock accepts being uncool, which is what makes him cool. He’s not an outsider trying to fit in but forever failing. When Kirk tries to explain the meaning of a human joke to him, Spock invariably shrugs his shoulders and returns to his own world, which famously includes a devotion to science but also reveals some interesting surprises, such as his prowess playing the Vulcan lute.
Leonard Nimoy’s acting is crucial in defining Spock — such as the slight puzzlement in his facial expressions when he encounters the foibles of humanity and the understated, “take it or leave it” way he indulges in his own interests. Mr. Spock is a master of three-dimensional chess. But do you think he cares whether you believe three-dimensional chess is too nerdy?
The legacy of Spock has been helped by the industry that launched him, including the recent J.J. Abrams-directed Star Trek film reboots. But the essence of Spock’s character — his moral rectitude and his own sense of cool — is what makes him a part of the childhood of multiple generations, including mine and that of my daughter, who was born in 2001 and met Spock shortly thereafter. Spock shall live long and prosper.
Lead photo credit: “Leonard Nimoy William Shatner Star Trek 1968” by NBC Television – eBay itemphoto front photo backpress release. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.