Leonard Nimoy: The Consummate Vulcan – a Tribute
Author’s Note: Leonard Nimoy, famous for playing Spock in the Star Trek franchise passed away on Friday, February 27. He was 83 years old.
Star Trek was the franchise that brought science fiction, with all of its unique terminologies and intricacies, into the mainstream. Leonard Nimoy was the man that made that Star Trek great.
Oh sure, many people could (and, indeed, should) be credited for making Star Trek what it has become. You can start right from the source, with Gene Roddenberry, it’s creator, and then continue to list any one of the producers and actors along the way. Through all of its highs and lows, this franchise made science fiction accessible to the public, offering the profound, “hard sci-fi” ideas with enough depth to make them worthy to be placed next to the works of the great novelists of the genre (indeed, many of the genre’s greatest minds wrote some episodes and offered their thoughts) while not forgetting to bring some whiz-bang fun and relate-able humor to the proceedings at the same time. All of these various talents together made this franchise so compelling to the even casual viewers because they made it about humanity itself. Each of us in the audience, whether we’ve poured through every single episode in this sometimes cheesy, sometimes profound franchise looking for some challenging stories, or whether you couldn’t care less about space or planets and just happened to hear about the show in passing, have all understood at some level that Trek was, in fact, all about the both the greatness, and the limitations of what it means to be human. With those notions always forming and rebuilding themselves in the mind, anyone could watch nearly any episode and take something of value from it. (Keep in mind, however, that there are a few truly deplorable episodes mixed in. Oh well.)
And so, among all of those people who contributed to making this franchise what it was and what it has become, there was Nimoy. He portrayed his most famous character, Spock, with just combination of understatement and earnestness. He basically succeeded in making this character so iconic by merely him straight, and always giving an honest performance. The scripts were quick to remind us that Spock was, indeed, not human – or not “quite” human, as it was (the notion of having a non-human character on network television in the 60’s when Star Trek aired was quite profound for the time) but Nimoy carefully attenuated his performances to give us a character that was still a man, someone that still had empathy and compassion (as much as Spock himself might deny it). Spock was someone that had value to the crew because he was different, and his logical and rational outlook on every situation was a huge help in every adventure. His shipmates respected his importance, and he respected them. Nimoy knew how to play this character in such a way that was free of histronics and gimmicks – he didn’t “play up” his “alienness” so that he could steal the screen from the others. He merely played the character in a very realistic, often understated way. He was part of the team. Even now, there aren’t too many examples of filmed science fiction wherein the chemistry of it’s lead characters and how they interact would define the show so much. Special effects weren’t important to Star Trek: it’s audience were waiting with baited breath for the next interesting discussion to happen more than they were for the next “kewl” explosion.
Nimoy’s pitch-perfect performance of the Vulcan served as the blue print for how that race would be portrayed in all future installments of the franchise, but I also feel that it also served as inspiration for other performers in the franchise who were charged with the task of playing other types of aliens. Often, these actors were given very minor prosthetics (just as Nimoy was distinguished as a Vulcan merely with pointed ears and a Moe-like haircut, many Star Trek aliens were only given minor adjustments to their human appearance, such as forehead bumps, nose ridges, or antennae) so whether or not their characters would be at all compelling was dependent on their performances. The best actors in the franchise, from Michael Dorn (Worf) to genre favorite Jeffrey Combs (Weyoun, Shran) all no doubt studied Nimoy’s acting rhythms in order to ensure that their performances would be in keeping with the tone of the story being told. Nimoy set the precedent for how a “strange” character can be played in a serious manner, not just on Star Trek, but in all of film and television. Spock might be his most famous role, but through the evolution of that character, he basically served as a guide for any and all actors since as to how to play such roles – and how to get them “right.” Nimoy’s contributions to acting cannot be understated.
Nor can his contributions to popular culture. In light if Nimoy’s death, another famous man observed that “long before being nerdy was cool, there was Leonard Nimoy.” Now that popular culture has opened up more to science fiction and comic book-style entertainment, the impact of Spock and all that Nimoy brought to this character also cannot be understated. Most people, even those who were never fans of the Star Trek franchise, understand who Spock is, at least at the most basic level. Like Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker, they are aware of the basic “hook” that makes his character interesting and enduring, and they, too, will understand and even laugh when the character of Spock is being referenced and parodied.
Nimoy did a whole lot more than play Spock. He was a consummate actor well before landing the role in the 60’s. He also played various other notable characters in shows and films after the original Trek series went off the air (anyone ever notice that he was a part of the old Mission: Impossible show?) What’s more, he also has a number of respectable directing credits as well, including the very funny Three Men and a Baby from 1987 (which was also the highest-grossing film of that year.) To quote critic Roger Ebert, Nimoy’s directing style was one of “calm professionalism,” as he didn’t allow for over-the-top stylistic flourishes that would draw the viewers attention to the directing of the films he worked on. In the Star Trek franchise, Nimoy helmed the third and fourth films. Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock was the first film he directed, and his freedoms were restricted by an extremely tight budget and a mandate to film every scene, even those that were to take place outdoors, in the confines of claustrophobic sound-stages. (It should be noted that sequels were done a lot differently during the 80’s: studios were often reluctant to ease up the purse-strings, even for successful franchises.) In spite of these limitations and a story that, in the end, couldn’t compare to it’s predecessor, Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, Nimoy focused on those things that were always there, those things that existed in the very fabric of the story that were not simply matters of budget. These included the relationships between the characters, the sense of of sacrifice and loss that each character must face, and the operatic nature of the storytelling.
The riskiest and most poignant moment in the film, at least from standpoint of staging, directing, and acting, was when Kirk learns that his son has been killed. In shock, he takes a step back as if to sit down in the captain’s chair, but the reality of what just occurred is too new, to great to fathom, and he stumbles, missing the chair entirely to land himself on the floor. It was a risky move to have the captain “miss” when sitting on his own chair; in lesser hands it would have reflected badly on the character’s dignity and crossed the line into self-parody. That’s not what happened. The moment, as depicted in the film, was directed and performed so perfectly that no viewer could ever laugh at this scene, or ever doubt that it wasn’t what would have actually happened under those circumstances.
Even better was his direction of the following film, Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home. In that film the crew of the Enterprise are essentially fish-out-of water in the modern world, and the film itself can rightly be considered a comedy, but Nimoy understands this franchise too well: he never allows the film to cross into the realms of self-parody. Nimoy also produced – and guided the story-telling – of Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country to ensure that the original cast would have a solid, relevant story that could serve as a proper send-off. He appeared in a two-part Next Generation story as Spock that wound up being more than just memorable, as it would serve to show how this important character would serve the Federation for many years after his time on the Enterprise. Those episodes nicely set up his reappearance in the rebooted franchise in 2009 and it’s sequel from 2013.
And it’s that film, Star Trek Into Darkness, wherein Nimoy’s appearance is a mere cameo, that would mark his final film performance. Nimoy was very proud of the young man, Zacharay Quinto, who had inherited the coveted role, and as Quinto goes on to play Spock in the future, he will continue to distinguish his interpretation of the character from Nimoy (Quinto is quite good in the role and his interpretation of Spock may be the most consistently interesting thing about this new franchise). However, such was the impact of Nimoy’s portrayal of the character that both fans and the public at large will continue to see the a lot Nimoy in this younger version of Spock.
Nimoy is gone now. There had been rumors that the next film would feature both William Shatner (Kirk) and Leonard Nimoy back in their respective roles in some capacity in the film set for release next year, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the franchise. Barring an unexpected announcement that Shatner and Nimoy had already completed filming their roles, it seems that this big Star Trek event will not take place. Yet, it hardly matters: Nimoy has left us with so much. And he was as giving in the real world as he was in making those movies and television episodes: he was a photographer, a poet, and a humanitarian. He was someone who inspired millions of scientists and mathematicians as well as actors and writers.
Let’s be honest: Everyone wants a Spock in their lives to be their friend, to serve as the voice of logic and reason just when a difficult choice must be made. We want him to remind us that it’s important to consider that the needs of the many do outweigh the needs of the few. We want him to remind us of what our first, best destiny actually is. We want him to remind us that we came from an archaic zinc-plated vacuum-tubed culture and that we still have a long way to go before we can know what true prosperity is. We want him to remind us that, as important as logic and wisdom may be it, these things are merely the beginning of true wisdom, not the end. And with that idea of a Spock as our friend, it is reassuring that he has he has been, and always will remain that friend, even long after his passing.
Nimoy, as a real human being, has been all of that for us already.