Leonard Nimoy passed away on Friday, February 27th 2015. In lieu of an attempt at levity, I would like to take a moment to discuss my take on his contributions to Star Trek and his use of that platform to contribute to the world.
I grew up with Spock as a household name. I was a little too young to be fully on board with the Original Series, but we were a solidly Star Trek household, and Spock would have been one of our household gods if we’d done that sort of thing. I was actually lucky enough to see Nimoy live, when he was touring for “I Am Spock,” the sequel/correction/clarification and companion piece to an earlier book, “I Am Not Spock.” He gave a talk in that instinctively recognizable voice in which he spoke about all the good times with Shatner on the set of Star Trek and the practical jokes that went back and forth between the two of them.
In Star Trek, Roddenberry tried to present a vision of the future in which humanity has overcome petty differences between each other and banded together to explore the never-ending frontier. In doing so, he challenged the networks in a lot of ways that are (in no small part because of Star Trek) now outdated and kind of embarrassing. Did you know that fifty years ago, you would have had to fight to give a black woman an important role on a primetime show? You would have lost to the network trying to make the captain character female.
But more than that, in an era where aliens were uniformly bug-eyed monsters intent on enslaving mankind and ravaging our wimminfolk, Star Trek gave us a United Earth Space Probe Agency that slowly transformed into an interstellar Federation between like-minded civilizations, and the most visible member of that alliance was Spock.
Spock was a perpetual outsider and an icon to outsiders. There’s a letter making the rounds now of Nimoy’s answer to a young woman who was being bullied because of mixed heritage. Why is this important, other than showing the kind of person Leonard Nimoy was?
Because Spock created the tradition of the Outsider that, in my mind, is one of the strongest themes running through all of Star Trek. He did it so well that in 1989 this archetype was reprised by no fewer than two new characters. Worf and Data begin to permit us to explore themes that Spock hinted at – what it’s like to be an alien with your own culture in a largely homogeneous population, what it’s like to not fit in, what it’s like to not understand. Because of the depth Leonard Nimoy brought to a role in an era where things were not always as… nuanced… as they could be, Spock stands out as providing an extremely rich vein to mine.
Come Deep Space Nine, we’ll see this trend continue with Odo, Quark, and Kira as outsiders not just to humanity, but to the Federation itself. We’ll see some other outsider relationships develop as the show progresses. In Voyager, we’ll see Seven of Nine and the Doctor as well as… sigh… Neelix pick up this torch, and Enterprise will bring us around full circle with T’Pol.
There’s a lesson here that Star Trek has tried to each us since the first time Spock’s alien nature is referenced: Whether we’re exploring beyond our star, our country, our own front door, it’s vaster than you can imagine. Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, and if you manage to find anyone out there you can communicate with… what does it make you, if you don’t try?
Nimoy has been a constant in the Star Trek story, from a brief role in TNG through the rebooted movies and even doing voice work for Star Trek Online, as well as his production company Alien Voices with John DeLancie reading full-quality production dramas of classic Science Fiction literature with other voices of Star Trek. Also, if you have the chance (and you do, this is the Internet) listen to a little audio drama called Spock Vs Q.
Nimoy has been one of the constant shepherds of Star Trek, and the unvierse feels just a little colder without him. But he left a legacy that anyone would be proud of. We will mourn, yes, but we shouldn’t neglect to learn from everything Leonard Nimoy… and Spock… dedicated their lives to teaching us. We pay tribute to a giant, but the thing about giants is that even after their passing, you can see farther if you can stand on their shoulders.