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. Continue reading