The death of Leonard Nimoy was not unexpected – those of us who pay attention to such things already knew that he had been hospitalized, and that, despite a persistent boyishness about him, he was well into his ninth decade. So when death came it was not a surprise. Still, when he died there was a great outpouring of appreciation in social media and front-page coverage in the major media outlets. Even President Obama commented on it, tweeting, “I loved Spock.” For many people Spock was the reason they watched Star Trek. Certainly, as a boy and teenager in the’70s watching it in syndication, it was all about the Vulcan.
Nimoy talked about how his portrayal of Spock immediately made him a sex symbol for certain types of women, and he claimed it was all due to those pointed ears. But I suspect there was also a need by some maternal types to want to take care of Spock. Because, as we all learned, it wasn’t that Spock did not have emotions, but that they were utterly suppressed by Vulcan culture and training in favour of “logic”. On occasion we saw those emotions escape – in The Naked Time Spock goes all wobbly when Nurse Christine Chapel confesses her love for him. In Amok Time we learn that Spock is really a salmon, and every seven years he has to swim upstream the courses of space to the home planet and mate, a period during which he is overcome with great emotions and has a rather obsessive love/hate relationship with his spouse. The only positive emotion Spock shows in that episode is when he realizes that Kirk is not dead, and smiles with joy, if only for a moment. In This Side of Paradise we finally see the Vulcan in a happy relationship, although only because his Vulcan training was taken down by euphoric plant spores; free of the spores, Spock chooses his work over love.
The rest of the time Spock was presented as a cool, rational humanoid. Spock was the ultimate example of the Id suppressed by the Super Ego, and some women just wanted to release all those pent-up feelings. We all despised Nurse Christine Chapel, not only because she got to spend time with Mr. Spock, but she was so bad at appealing to his emotional side, creating irritation instead of liberation or quiet satisfaction. Whatever Amanada Grayson, Spock’s human mother, had elicited in Sarek, his Vulcan father, was utterly absent in Nurse Chapel, and the sooner she could be eaten by a Gorn the happier we all would be.
As a heterosexual adolescent I wasn’t interested in making it with Mr. Spock, but I did want to be something like him. In the 1970s science was seen as THE noble profession, and I did my best to study physics, biology, chemistry, and mathematics. If I did all that perhaps I could one day be on a starship and be as cool as Mr. Spock.
In time I realized that Spock had a strange understanding of “logic”. He used the term rather imprecisely, as anyone who has studied symbolic logic would appreciate.
Of course, Spock was so interesting because he was the polar opposite of Captain James T. Kirk. William Shatner’s performance of Kirk was brash, confident, and not a little arrogant, and Spock’s cool demeanor was only enhanced by Kirk acting on his gut, throwing discretion to the wind, and always eyeing the interns (I mean, yeomen, or alien women).
Of course, Spock wasn’t a pure Vulcan, and this is also what made him interesting. He was half human and half Vulcan. When a full Vulcan was introduced in Star Trek:Voyager in the person of Tim Russ, Tuvok, he was kind of dull and bland compared to the original. Tuvok also struggled a bit with his emotions, but it wasn’t the same. Similarly, Star Trek: The Next Generation had Data the android who had no emotions. He was also fascinating, but the conflict inside Spock was completely absent. Where Data was simply Pinocchio, Spock was the unpredictable ocean of emotions kept bottled up in a fragile bottle.
Many people have compared President Obama to Mr. Spock, presumably for his cool detached demeanor. One observer noted that Spock’s human-Vulcan presented a biracial character at a time in the 1960s when it was still illegal in many states for black and whites to marry; Henry Jenkins suggested that a mixed race TV character prepared the way for a mixed race president.
And then there is the theological question – does the fact that Spock is both human and Vulcan have anything to say about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, who is both human and divine?
J. J. Abrams rebooted the franchise with the movie Star Trek (2009) and decided to have no fewer than two Spocks – a younger one played by Zachery Quinto and the older one from the future, played by the now elderly Leonard Nimoy. At the end of the movie the older one counsels the younger to set aside logic – obviously the result of the older Spock’s experience with humans, and a final reclaiming of his human side. While the older Spock did show up in a cameo in the reboot sequel Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013), this scene in the previous movie was really the fitting conclusion to the character, and to the most enduring role that Nimoy ever played. Live long and prosper, indeed.