My first indication that this was going to be a thing was when a co-worker came up to me on Friday and said, “I’m so sorry.”
My initial reaction was that she was talking about one of the several household disasters we have had to deal with in the last three weeks– I won’t bore you with the litany of car trouble and medical crap and so on we’ve been dealing with since Julie got laid off at the end of January, but our run of bad luck recently has been such that sympathy from someone at work was not unreasonable.
But then she added, “I heard Leonard Nimoy died.”
I’ll level with you: my first response, that I had to really work hard to bite back, was Are you kidding me? THAT’S what you came to express sympathy over? Where the hell were you when Julie was in the hospital, or…
But I didn’t say it, because the woman was absolutely NOT kidding. She was sure I was devastated and she genuinely wanted to be helpful.
Three more people came up to me over the course of the day and expressed similar wishes. It was starting to get weird by evening– because it was everywhere. The internet was blowing up with tearful memorials from writers and fans and Hollywood folks, and many of them were being sent to me directly. Did you see this? So sorry to hear about…. and so on. Even the President had weighed in. I was starting to feel like I was damaged somehow because I wasn’t grieving hard enough.
Now, before anyone accuses me of being a mean old man, I assure you, I was a huge fan of Mr. Nimoy and his work. I loved him in Star Trek… and also in Mission: Impossible, Baffled, The Man From UNCLE, and all the other stuff he did.
I read his books– and they were undoubtedly HIS books, not ghosted– with tremendous interest and enjoyment.
I even looked into his comics on the strength of his name alone, though I have to admit that I found them disappointing, and it appeared he had little to do with them.
And I admired Leonard Nimoy personally, I thought he was probably the hell of a guy. He was an enormous talent. He seemed to be invested in doing genuinely creative work and also in doing his best to use his celebrity to contribute to the betterment of the world. He was aging gracefully– unlike a lot of other actors who’ve appeared in nerd-cult TV shows. He’ll be missed. There’s no question about it.
But…. I didn’t know him.
Never met him, not even at a convention. Julie saw him speak once at Emerald City a few years ago, but I had to miss it because I was busy at our table. There are a couple of people tangentially connected to Star Trek that we know well enough to say hello to, and I’d count them as at least friendly acquaintances… but Leonard Nimoy was not one of them.
Neverthless, the people around me were all expecting me to… I don’t know. Throw a wake. Host a Star Trek marathon. Ask for a moment of silence at lunchtime. Something. It was making me uncomfortable. I felt awkward because despite the expectation that I should be grief-stricken, I just wasn’t. Truthfully I thought putting on some sort of show of sadness would be dishonoring the friends and family that did know him and were genuinely grieving. And the fact that I was getting more sympathy at work for losing “the guy that played Mr. Spock” than I had gotten for, I dunno, any one of a dozen actual real life things in the last year was just odd. I nodded and smiled and tried to accept all of these well-meant murmurings of sympathy and comfort with good grace, but it was freaking me out a little.
Yet I couldn’t shake this feeling that I was standing outside of something I should be a part of.
When I got home and actually had time to look at the internet, and saw all the various tributes and memorials and homages, it struck me how many of them were talking about Mr. Spock… even President Obama’s. Most of the obits were running Spock pictures… a lot of them used Old Spock from the Abrams movies. The ones that weren’t doing that were running Trek quotes.
In interviews, both George Takei and Walter Koenig struggled heroically to make the point that Leonard Nimoy was a guy who didn’t just play a beloved character, he was a decent and caring man apart from Star Trek who worked tirelessly to better things in the real world, not just on board the Starship Enterprise. They both talked about Nimoy’s political activism, his charity work, his advocacy for his fellow castmates. But the interviewers kept steering them back to Star Trek.
And the thought hit me– they think it’s like Spock died.
Then I finally figured it out, I think. I wasn’t taking it as hard as everyone else because my experience of Mr. Spock has always been primarily as a literary figure. I first got to know the character from books and comics. That was how I became a Trek fan. First through the James Blish and Alan Dean Foster paperbacks adapting the shows…
And then later through the original novels and comics that sprung up when the paperbacks ran out of episodes to adapt.
Remember, when I was a kid, there was no home video, no boxed sets or Netflix or anything like that. They did it all on paper. I didn’t SEE an episode of Star Trek all the way through until I’d read most of the books. Books and comics are still the way I get my Star Trek fix for the most part. Just finished these, in fact.
But I’m probably the exception.
Most people experienced Mr. Spock through Leonard Nimoy, period. The initial concept of Spock was Gene Roddenberry’s, but he didn’t really have much at the beginning… just the pointed ears and the idea that he was endlessly curious. It was Leonard Nimoy’s performance and constant on-set refinements that resulted in the Spock we know. It’s certainly fair to credit him as a co-creator of the character (for the record, I think the other primary architect of Spock was Dorothy Fontana, who wrote most of the best Spock episodes and gave him parents and a backstory.) Even the new JJ Abrams movies included Nimoy’s Spock and the character is referred to there as Spock Prime… that is to say, THE guy. Zachary Quinto is never going to be anything other than New Spock, and Abrams was smart enough to know that there had to be some sort of symbolic handoff scene or viewers would reject him.
So for the vast majority of Star Trek fans– and that includes, I’ve discovered, many, many people who would never pick up a Trek novel or attend a convention– Nimoy was their only Spock. For them, the loss is huge. And since casual fans like my co-workers felt that loss, they assumed that I, the nerd-in-residence, would feel it more.
But for me Spock is a separate entity from the actor that played him. I’m grateful to Mr. Nimoy for what he gave to that character and I get it that there probably would BE no enduring Star Trek phenomenon without what Leonard Nimoy brought to it. But Spock’s not dead. He’s right here to my left in multiple incarnations.
I think it’s reached the point where Mr. Spock will be around long after I’m gone. If that was Leonard Nimoy’s only legacy, that would be plenty; but he did lots of OTHER good stuff too and you should check it out if you haven’t already.
In the meantime, let’s let Mr. Spock himself have the last word.
Live long and prosper, everybody, and I’ll see you next week.
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