Leonard Nimoy passed away last Friday morning.
I’m not an enormous fan of the phenomenon whereby individuals experience shades of grief at the death of famous figures, but I have no choice but to admit a rather surprisingly deep well of sadness at hearing the news. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised; I do run a podcast that talks about Star Trek, and my memories of watching the original cast films are mostly memories of watching films with my father. Being a “nerd” is something else entirely in 2015, mostly shorn of its outsider characteristics, but science fiction has always seemed to me to be something enjoyable but not universally celebrated and thus in a small way easier to possess as something personal, owned and kept. Star Trek has been an ultimate expression of this for me and for millions of others. Within that, we have the triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and Bones. Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley.
Kelley passed away in 1999, and Shatner long ago embraced the absurdity of his own cultural relevance in a fecund hybridization of nostalgia and post-modernism. That leaves us with Nimoy, who famously wrestled with whether he was or was not, in fact, Spock to serve as a favourite with whom we could identify, a grandfatherly figure for some and for many an increasingly confident and composed talent. When J.J. Abrams took aim at the film franchise with 2009’s Star Trek it was Nimoy that became centrally involved, and not Shatner. It was Nimoy that stood in front of an audience at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas and jokingly inquired of an audience ready for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan if they had any interest in seeing Abrams’ new film.[ref]Inspiring of course an immediate joke playing on the presumed panic arising in some from not actually being able to see Wrath of Khan that evening after all.[/ref] It was Nimoy that waded into twitter and turned up on “The Simpsons” and sang about Bilbo Baggins and hung out with The Bangles without losing any of the gravitas he borrowed from the reserved alien that he had played so well.
As a child growing up in Ireland, I had no concept of Nimoy’s identities as a human being. His Judaism, which was important to him, was something as alien as the rites and rituals that faced Spock from time to time for a Catholic boy in a country full of Catholic boys and girls.[ref]I am of course guilty of over-simplifying, but I was much more conscious of anti-Catholics than I was of anything outside of a social dichotomy dominated by my religion.[/ref] I was too young to know about or understand the in-jokes inherent in those famous autobiography titles. Nimoy was not Nimoy, but Spock. I saw no dilemma.
By the time I was old enough to understand the central problem, Nimoy had found his solution, or at least shared with the public that he and the Vulcan had always been at peace and were confidently intimate. Nimoy’s interrogation of his public identity and his easy celebration of his singular fame bled wonderfully into a twenty-first century public sphere of social media and ginger recycling of the stories of our youth. Shatner was brazen, determined to be T.J. Hooker as much as Captain Kirk in our memories and apparently undaunted by the inherent madness of such an idea, a force of nature in many ways who somehow managed to create a public persona equally at home crafting enjoyable guest appearances on television dramas and shilling discount travel costs. Nimoy seemed at peace, his generous but meaningful role in “Fringe” confirmation of his belonging within the worlds and stories of science fiction. Both men have been important in the lives of science fiction fans and both will be remembered, but Nimoy garnered a different aura, received his adulation in a different key.
Abrams’ Star Trek was perhaps the coronation of such an identity, but it was nothing new for his fans. Spock was an immensely popular character because the conceit of an alien race that chose to distance itself from the unpredictability of human emotion (so ably displayed by Shatner’s Kirk), the consistent writing of the character in both television and film, and Nimoy’s portrayal merged beautifully. Spock is at the core of the Genesis Trilogy, the sequence of films that anchored the original cast productions. Spock’s death, his absence for much of the Enterprise crew’s attempts to recover his body, his hurtful emotional distance from his companions following his return so beautifully undercut by the decision to once more call his captain and friend “Jim”: these are fundamental moments for fans of a variety of ages. They certainly were for this one.
So, in my own little way I’d like to say goodbye to Leonard Nimoy, the son of immigrants, the Yiddish-speaking Jew, the photographer, the filmmaker, the documentarian, the actor; Mr. Spock. Thank you for making me think of my father and my childhood and for helping (alongside many others) in teaching a child to dream.