Leonard Nimoy passed away on February 27th at the age of 83. It’s odd when someone you literally grew up watching on television and in movies dies. In the last two days others have written extensively about Nimoy’s numerous, varied accomplishments throughout the decades. I would certainly recommend taking a look at the piece by Darren at the m0vie blog. Darren has written some of the most insightful, intelligent reviews of Star Trek that I have ever come across, so of course he offers a worthy appraisal of Nimoy’s life & career.
For my part, I am going to just offer some brief thoughts on Nimoy’s amazing portrayal of the character of Spock on the various incarnations of Star Trek, the science fiction series created by Gene Roddenberry and developed by a variety of talented writers such as Gene L. Coon & D.C. Fontana.
Leonard Nimoy did amazing work bringing Spock, the half-Vulcan, half-human First Officer of the Starship Enterprise, to life. The original Star Trek was broadcast from 1966 to 1969. This was an era when television series were extremely episodic, characterization was one-dimensional, and there weren’t any sort of extended arcs that developed long-term subplots or depicted the evolution of the characters over a period of time. Within these constraints, during three wildly uneven seasons of Star Trek, Nimoy nevertheless succeeded in communicating the continuing struggles of Spock to reconcile his Vulcan and human backgrounds, to adhere to the Vulcan ideal of non-emotion while finding a place among a crew of highly emotional human beings. Spock was in a number of ways the perennial outsider. He was a character who I expect a great many viewers could identify with.
The chemistry between the three leads in Star Trek was very apparent. Nimoy as Spock, William Shatner as Captain Kirk and DeForest Kelley as Doctor McCoy all possessed an excellent rapport. Whereas Spock represented logic, McCoy was the personification of human sentiment, of acting upon feeling, and the two had a very contentious friendship. It fell to Kirk to listen to Spock and McCoy’s two disparate world views and to strive to find the correct balance between intellect and emotion that was necessary to resolve each episode’s crisis.
Nimoy’s portrayal of Spock was often very moving. Certain moments invariably stand out, such as from “The Devil in the Dark” written by Gene L. Coon, broadcast on March 9, 1967. That episode was one of the best examples of Roddenberry’s hopes for a future where humanity would learn to embrace tolerance, understanding and open-mindedness. Coon’s script sees the Enterprise crew working to prevent a mysterious, deadly alien from destroying the Janus VI mining colony. As the episode progresses, we learn that the Horta is no savage, mindless killer. Rather, it is a mother attempting to prevent the accidental destruction of her nests of eggs by the miners.
Spock’s mind meld with the Horta, when the truth about the entity is uncovered, is one of the most iconic moments from the original Star Trek. Nimoy’s acting in it was an absolutely crucial component in making this scene genuinely believable, in helping to convince the audience that a living rock pile that resembled a giant pizza pie was a thinking, feeling, sentient being. It is one of the best examples I know of where intelligent writing and quality acting more than overcame the hurtles of primitive special effects and a shoestring budget.
Just a week ago I was watching “The Enterprise Incident” written by D.C. Fontana, originally broadcast September 27, 1968. I think that “The Enterprise Incident” is one of the most morally complex, cynical episodes of the original Star Trek. Fontana’s script sees Starfleet sending Kirk and Spock on a covert mission to steal a cloaking device from the Romulans. In the process they violate the treaty with the Romulan Empire and engage in overt acts of espionage.
(There are some fans of the series who believe that the sixth Star Trek movie and the 1990s spin-off series Deep Space Nine portrayed Starfleet and the Federation in an unfavorable light contrary to Roddenberry’s original intentions. I would argue that certain episodes of the original series such as “The Enterprise Incident” demonstrated that there was always a morally ambiguous, harshly pragmatic side to those institutions.)
“The Enterprise Incident” features one of Nimoy’s best performances from the original series. Spock’s stoic devotion to logic and duty is apparent in his carrying out his orders and performing Starfleet’s dirty work. At the end you also witness the tangible regret that he feels at having been required to assume the devious role of a spy & double agent, in deceiving the Romulan Commander (Joanne Linville), who he had developed a genuine fondness for, in order to help Starfleet achieve its goals. At the end, reflecting on how all of Starfleet’s machinations have probably only achieved a temporary strategic advantage, Spock acknowledges to the Romulan Commander “Military secrets are the most fleeting of all. I hope that you and I exchanged something more permanent.” Nimoy’s delivery of the line was very effective and thoughtful.
Nimoy’s wonderful portrayal of Spock continued within the Star Trek movies. Spock’s striving towards the purging of all emotion, only to realize the emptiness of pure logic, was one of the few strong points in the uneven Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Although his character was not a central focus in The Wrath of Khan, Spock’s sacrifice the save the Enterprise at the end of was incredibly moving. Under the superb direction of Nicholas Meyer, Nimoy and Shatner played the scene perfectly.
Nimoy slipped into the director’s chair for the third and fourth movies, doing quality work. In the later, The Voyage Home, Nimoy’s performance as the resurrected Spock, once again seeking to find the balance between his dual heritages, was very good. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country saw the characters of Spock and Kirk at odds with one another over the possibility of a future where the Federation and the Klingon Empire could be at peace. Once again directed by Meyer, both Nimoy and Shatner turned in solid performances as Spock and Kirk contemplated the idea of growing old, and of the universe moving on without them.
On a more personal note, as someone who is Jewish, as a child I remember being pleasantly surprised when I learned that Leonard Nimoy was of that faith. Nimoy very much embraced his heritage, and was proud of his Judaism. Yet he never let that pride blind him. He recognized the importance of people from different backgrounds working to find common ground and understanding. As the co-writer of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Nimoy was inspired by looking at the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as the hostility between Israel and the Arab nations of the Middle East, and by his hope that these different peoples could one day learn to peacefully co-exist.
Nimoy’s character Spock often expressed the sentiment “Live long and prosper.” Those are certainly words that Nimoy himself lived by. He will be missed.