Leonard Nimoy died yesterday, at age 83, felled by tobacco even though he quit smoking 30 years ago. Star Trek’s Mr. Spock is dead, for good this time – unlike in the movies.
Although I never met Leonard Nimoy, I did meet James Doohan, one of his co-stars in the original Star Trek series. In the early 1980s (I think it was), between acting gigs, Doohan toured university campuses. He would give a lecture of sorts, answer questions and he had a blooper reel, outtakes from the series. That sort of stuff was rare back then. Today you can find it on YouTube. Doohan came to the radio station I was working at to do an interview about his show, and while I wasn’t the interviewer I made sure I was there to meet him. As a science fiction aficionado I had mourned the loss of the TV series and had been excited by the idea of Star Trek movies (even though most of them aren’t very good in my opinion). I remember being most amused by Doohan’s suggestions of what his character might have sounded like if his character, “Scotty,” had been another ethnicity; my favourite was the one with Indian accent. (I should mention I have another Star Trek connection, though a little farther removed: My mother went to high school with William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk.
After portraying Mr. Spock on television for three seasons, Nimoy was typecast; he couldn’t get away from the role, at least in the public’s mind. His 1975 autobiography was titled I Am Not Spock as he vainly attempted to distance himself a little from the character. By 1995 he had come to terms with it – the sequel was titled I Am Spock.
Star Trek was not the first time that Nimoy had portrayed someone from another planet. In 1952 he played a Martian in Zombies of the Stratosphere. A couple of years ago, in a fit of nostalgia, I bought a copy of Zombies, remembering how much I liked in in my childhood. I’d describe Nimoy’s performance as wooden – but I think that was the point; the bad guys weren’t supposed to be likeable, and the Martians were definitely the bad guys. Nimoy isn’t in the trailer for the film, (well, he is but not recognizably) but I’ve included it below anyway.
When television network executives cancelled the original Star Trek after its third season I am sure they thought that was the end of it. They could not have envisioned another four television series and 11 (I think, I didn’t look it up) feature films. They didn’t know what they had – they thought of the series as it had been originally pitched to them “Wagon Train to the stars.” (Wagon Train was a popular TV western of the time.) But the message of Star Trek resonated beyond the television audience. Using a science fiction setting it tackled hot topics like racism, the environment, technological progress and total war – always presenting a future filled with hope (providing the lessons were learned). In the 1960s, with war raging in Vietnam, different types of social unrest and the underlying fear of nuclear annihilation, people were drawn to a message of hope. Those people wouldn’t let the series die when the network cancelled it, and the rest is entertainment (and social) history. Leonard Nimoy was a big part of that. His Spock character, half human half alien, the two temperaments at times warring within, resonated with the times and a culture that frequently found itself in the same predicament.
Star Trek has been reimagined of course; the actors from the 1960s are mostly dead; but a younger generation has replaced them. The movies make money, but somehow it is not the same. To my generation Zachary Quinto will never really be Spock. Leonard Nimoy defined the role. He will be missed.