Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Spock in the original 1960s Star Trek series and its many sequels, died this morning. As regular readers of the site have no doubt surmised, Star Trek has played a large role in my life. Since my childhood and ever since, the show has served as a model for me, representing an ideal of both individual virtues and social commitments.
Central to this vision was Nimoy's characterization of Spock. It was not Nimoy but William Shatner who played Star Trek's lead, Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise. But it was Nimoy's Spock who truly set Star Trek apart from other shows.
Kirk was curious, intellectual, humanistic and compassionate, somewhat idiosyncratic qualities for the leading man of a 1960s show about people in space. But these quirks were leavened with copious amounts of conventional leading-man attributes: Kirk was handsome, adventurous, confident and lascivious. Spock, on the other hand, hailed from the planet Vulcan, whose pointy-eared inhabitants had foregone emotion in order to live lives devoted completely to logic. He was devoted to this philosophy, yet simultaneously committed to serving on a ship with emotional humans. Spock fit in fully among neither his native people nor his adoptive home. Thus he simultaneously disdained the humans around him for their emotional indulgences, envied their free expression of feeling, and experienced powerful (but muted) emotions of his own in the form of loyalty, duty and friendship. Spock, in a word, was complicated. "If there are self-made purgatories," he said in a moment of artificially-induced emotional expressiveness, "then we all have to live in them. Mine can be no worse than someone else's." When I was a boy, Kirk may have been who I aspired to be, but Spock was who I was.
To convey all of these contradictory impulses simultaneously, Nimoy brought a wide range of gifts to the role of Spock, not the least of which were an astonishing insight and empathy. Unsurprisingly, then, Nimoy's assessment of Spock's popularity was particularly penetrating. "Spock understands the trauma of human experience," he told the New York Times in 1968, "because he is not at home with [E]arthmen or Vulcans...In spite of being an outcast, being mixed-up, looking different, he maintains his point of view...He's freaky with dignity." It is hard to imagine another actor expressing such freakiness with the dignity that Leonard Nimoy brought to the role.
At the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Kirk cribbed a line from A Tale of Two Cities in offering a eulogy for his friend Spock (who came back to life for the sequels). I hope that the captain's words on that occasion might be equally true of Nimoy today. "It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done before. A far better resting place I go to than I have ever known." Leonard Nimoy will be missed.