Leonard Nimoy was the very first 21st century man
FEATURE by Paul Constant
Leonard Nimoy was always cool. I say this knowing full well that his legacy will forever be tied to a character who is basically God Of The Nerds. What Nimoy demonstrated was that coolness had nothing to do with fashion or strength or emotional control. Instead, it was about being comfortable in your skin, confident in your strengths, and curious about the world around you.
It’s been a few weeks since Nimoy passed away, and I’ve been thinking about both him and his “green blooded, inhuman” (as his racist friend Dr. McCoy would say) alter-ego.
Nimoy was on the vanguard of a certain kind of intellectual celebrity in the late 1960s and early 1970s, alongside figures like Ray Bradbury and Carl Sagan. They wore colorful leisure suits and grew their sideburns out to disreputable lengths, and talked about things like science and poetry and aspiration. On Star Trek, Nimoy presaged a generation of astronauts like Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride — heroes who demonstrated the swagger of adventurers, but who also revelled in sharing their naked enthusiasm for science with anyone who asked.
Unlike the dickish explorers of old who conquered and destroyed and bragged, these Kennedy-era swashbucklers adhered to the scientific method, and they worked for everyone’s benefit.
Without Nimoy’s Spock, William Shatner’s Captain Kirk would have been just another dunderheaded alpha frat boy out to pee on every tree in the universe. Together, they represented the two halves of the human whole. (It’s not a coincidence that these are the two characters who inspired slash fiction; Kirk and Spock needed each other so much they were more than an old married couple — they practically shared a central nervous system.) As lovable as Shatner’s Kirk was, he represented nothing new; it was Nimoy’s brilliant performance as Spock that flipped the script on millennia of human exploration.
It’s not esoteric Star Trek trivia or anything, but non-Trekkies might be surprised to hear that Trek creator Gene Roddenberry originally intended for Mr. Spock’s skin to be a bright red. This was supposed to demonstrate an unsubtle 1960s-era moral: you can’t trust appearances. Even if someone closely resembles the stereotypical depiction of the devil, Roddenberry wanted to say, that person could prove to be the gentlest, most curious soul you’ve ever met. Nimoy even did a screen test as Spock in the red makeup, but practicality won out in the end. A large portion of viewers still owned black-and-white television sets, and on those TVs Mr. Spock’s makeup appeared as an inky black, like he was wearing blackface.
Sometimes I wonder what the reception for a more devilish-looking Spock would have been. It’s hard not to imagine some especially religious Alabama audiences threatening to burn their local CBS affiliates to the ground for spreading messages of satanism, thereby totally missing the point (and illustrating the validity) of Roddenberry’s statement. But ultimately I’d like to believe that a deep-red Spock would have proven to be just as enduring a character. Roddenberry’s concept for Spock was a brilliant bolt of inspiration, of course, but Nimoy is the real reason the character has entered the pop culture pantheon.
The reason we responded to such an alien character was because we saw the humanity inside him, and the humanity that we responded to was unquestionably Nimoy’s. It wasn’t so much acting as it was channelling a very particular facet of the human spirit: the species-wide desire to harness the full potential of our formidable intellects. Who hasn’t aspired to be more logical and less emotional? Who hasn’t witnessed some ridiculous anthropological spectacle — a drunken nightclub staredown between two meaty dudes reeking of Axe, say, or the self-conscious preening of middle-aged men trying to hide their mortality in the trunk of a shiny new Porsche — and responded by raising an eyebrow and muttering to themselves, “fascinating.”
But the dilemma of Spock was compelling, too: he was continually questing to find the balance between his body and his brain. At the risk of turning this piece into something erotic, Spock wrestled with his own inner Kirk all the time. There’s a reason why the most popular Spock episode of Star Trek is the one where he becomes a frenzied, horny animal in the clutches of Pon Farr. We love to watch Spock betray his logical self by smirking, laughing, or screaming. Even the smartest among us have to bare their fangs and get territorial every now and again.
And Leonard Nimoy, both as Spock and in his various other projects, made it okay to be yourself. It was a lifelong aspiration: in 2007, Nimoy published a book of photographs of naked, full-figured women called The Full Body Project, and in the introduction he explains that he wanted the women to be proud of themselves as they were, in their own skin.
Of course, Spock also paved the way for generations of computer nerds with poor social skills and maybe a few too many OCD impulses for their own good: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and the tens of thousands of engineers who build and maintain the virtual space we all spend way too much time in these days. In other words, the people who now rule the world. (Although the armies of Spocklings in the libertarian Silicon Valley crowd would do well to remember their idol’s edict that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” when they’re busy amassing all the world’s fortunes in their distant tech campuses.)
In a time when John Wayne still swaggered across the earth, Nimoy, unafraid of his intellect and eager to share his sensitive side, became the prototypical 21st century man.
Conservatives Versus Spock
When Barack Obama first burst on the scene as a presidential candidate, Republicans tried to make fun of his dispassionate public persona by referring to him as “Spock-like”. What was supposed to be a diminishing insult only made young voters love him more. Jesus, who wouldn’t vote Spock for president? (That supposed Spock slight also stands as one of the first cases of subliminal racism to be levied against Obama by the right; like Obama, Spock was of mixed origins, although Spock’s human-Vulcan roots are decidedly more disparate than Obama’s Kansas-Kenya bloodline.)
When Nimoy died last month, President Obama issued a statement recounting the time he greeted the actor with the Vulcan salute and a hearty “live long and prosper.” Our first post-Spock president wrote, simply, “I loved Spock.”
Conservatives still aren’t willing to embrace their inner Spocks. Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker recently refused to admit whether he was “comfortable” with the idea of evolution or not. Conservative Florida Governor Rick Scott has banned government employees from talking about climate change — a most illogical stance in a state that’s more or less poised to sink beneath the sea any minute now.
Up in your country, of course, you’ve got Stephen Harper, who’s been the anti-science leader of an anti-science political party for more than a decade. From his closure of the Experimental Lakes Area to his repeated muzzling of scientists to his government’s defunding of research, Harper seems to have made it his personal calling to abolish science from Canada. He’s not the only science-hating Canadian conservative, either. A complete list would be too long to print but suffice it to say that if you’re looking for politicians who don’t believe in evolution (like Conservative MP James Lunney), or believe the earth is just a few thousand years old (like Alberta Education Minister Gordon Dirks) or think climate change is a socialist scheme (Harper himself), you’ll find them in conservative ranks.
Whether it’s in my country, your country or elsewhere, these kinds of anti-science policymakers have something in common: they’re remnants of a distant pre-Spock civilization, back when it was okay to hate someone for being too smart.
Younger generations simply won’t stand for this kind of irresponsible thinking. Leonard Nimoy has shown them a better way. His whole career — be it as Spock, as a poet, or as a singer of Hobbit filk — stands as a testament to intellectual curiosity and boundless enthusiasm. It’s no longer acceptable to be the brash, unthinking man of action who erases all doubt and ignores the data in front of him. As Nimoy demonstrated time and again, you must be logical, yes, but most importantly of all, you have to be a human being: curious, cautious, daring, and sensitive.
It took an alien to teach us how to be better humans. Rest in peace, Mr. Spock — and Leonard Nimoy, too.
Paul Constant, a.k.a. Prairie Dog’s Official American™, is our favourite Seattle-based politics and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter: @paulconstant