Taking a large step back from what we know as fandom today, it’s amazing to imagine what things were like in the beginning — before we had the Internet to produce original material, before we had hundreds of pay channels. Long, long ago in the far away time of the 1960s, when a show reached a generation of people in a surprising new way.
The best stories sneak in moral lessons or truths about ourselves and our society, not in a preachy direct way, but couched in the comfort of fantasy and fable. “Persevere” sounds like a direct command, but “slow and steady wins the race” can be taken however we wish. Star Trek could be about racism, religion, greed or power balance, but because it was set in space and spoken in the language of science fiction, we chose how to interpret its meanings and the messages given to us by Mr. Spock.
A lot of obituaries for Leonard Nimoy, who sadly passed away today at age 83 from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, will mention that Gene Roddenberry called him “the conscience of Star Trek,” something I’d never heard before but that I can believe wholeheartedly.
Off-screen, Nimoy was dedicated to a show that featured foam rocks and monsters with rubber masks. He invented the Vulcan nerve pinch when he thought it was out of character for Spock to be violent, and the Vulcan salute based on his own Jewish heritage. He made sure that Nichelle Nichols was paid a fair wage in the early days of the show, and wouldn’t voice Spock on the animated series unless she and George Takei were also hired.
And it wasn’t just for Star Trek. He created a great deal of socially conscious art as well. The Full Body Project was a book of photography by Nimoy designed to start a conversation about the concept of female beauty and the demands of commercialization of the “right way” to look. He produced and starred in Never Forget, a film about a real-life family who took Holocaust deniers to court.
When he grew ill from smoking cigarettes for most of his life, he spoke out about it in Twitter and was honest about what the habit had done to his health. He encouraged people to quit, not in a directly commanding way, but with help and hope. Nimoy even offered to be people’s honorary grandfather on the social media site and tweeted proudly about his new grandkids.
Nimoy connected so well with the public, with geeks of all kinds, with outcasts and intellectuals, it seemed as if the Vulcan science officer we saw on the TV screen was walking among us. For a while, fans thought he was Spock, something the man behind the iconic character wrestled with in two books, appropriately titled I Am Not Spock and I Am Spock. It seems so self-important to write books dedicated to how you are your own person and not the character you play, but both meditate on popular culture, Nimoy’s place within it and our connection to it.
Now, when actors enter into a franchise, there’s more of an understanding of what you’re getting into, that little kids will call you “Iron Man” and the drycleaner might remember you only as “Bruce Banner.” Leonard Nimoy talked openly about coming to terms with his place in popular culture as an icon and a character that will long outlast him, not merely because it meant a lot to him, but it meant a lot to us.
He was an artist, first and foremost, and the best kind of art says something about a person’s soul and gives back to the world that views it. Looking at Leonard Nimoy’s body of work, from his earliest roles on The Twilight Zone to his behind-the-scenes work in film, his writing, his photography, yes, even his music, his art is passionate, dedicated and will endure after his passing. One of many reasons Star Trek was such a successful show and still is such a milestone for generations of fans is because of who Spock was, what he represented and how much Nimoy gave of himself to play that part.
As a wise man once said, “He’s really not dead, as long as we remember him.”
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