Friday, February 27, 2015

Peace And Long Life: Remembering Leonard Nimoy

It's the hardest part of growing into an adult -- watching bits of your childhood remind you that time continues to march onwards. Neighborhood stores close, things shut down, authors stop writing, places in which you spent your childhood get knocked down or remodeled. Whether you're ready for it or not, sometimes life will take a moment to remind you that it goes on.

For millions of people who grew up watching Star Trek, one of those moments arrived this morning with the news that Leonard Nimoy, best known as the series' iconic Mr. Spock, had passed of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and a part of our childhood, perhaps, went with him.

The first time I remember watching Star Trek is when I was very little. My brother, who is about sixteen years older than me, was an avid watcher of The Next Generation; he'd gone to college when I was about two, but occasionally, when he was home, I'd peek over his shoulder and see an episode. I was a science fiction fan from a young age, preferring games of Lego starfighters and flying ships in my make-believe over cops and robbers, but while I found the few bits of TNG that I can remember interesting, I didn't have the context to really understand it when I was, well, maybe five years old.

Most people my age started with Next Gen or Deep Space Nine, introduced to the world that Gene Roddenberry created through its newer, sometimes more optimistic and sometimes edgier iterations. I probably would've been the same, if I'd started with the series when it aired...but then, some enterprising network -- pun absolutely intended -- decided to air a marathon of episodes from the Original Series.

I don't even remember why I made my father tape it. I vaguely remember being fascinated by an episode of Reading Rainbow in which LeVar Burton talked about the processes that went into making Next Generation; maybe that was what finally piqued my interest. Maybe it had to do with knowing that my older brother was a fan. Suddenly, though, our house was full of VHS tapes with Original Series episodes, and I was hooked for life.

It's been years since I watched some of those Star Trek and Next Generation episodes, and sometimes I don't realize how deeply they, and Roddenberry's underlying philosophy, have stuck with me as I've gotten older. After, all, for so many people growing up, we were Spock, too.

The modern geek experience, and its movement towards an attitude of inclusivity, has many roots in our shared experience as outsiders growing up; being the person who, for whatever reason, found themselves looking in and trying to reconcile their different approach to life, interests, books, media, gaming, or any of a hundred other things with the sometimes unappreciative people around them.

Mr. Spock, as a half-human, half-Vulcan science officer, always gave the impression of being something of an outsider -- while the rest of the human crew on board the Enterprise had an innate and shared understanding of human customs and ceremony, Spock had only an intellectual, studied understanding of the culture with which he was surrounded.  Instead of the instant and instinctual grasp of human psychology and emotion that was Dr. McCoy's hallmark, Spock had to address each situation from the approach of "Well, I've read about that one."

For those of us that began with the original Trek, Spock is a distant character, one with difficulties relating to the people around him and with whom the more human-minded, passion-driven crewmembers clash frequently. Spock takes a different tack towards the processes of the ship; he deals in logic and analysis, remains pragmatic, and avoids letting his heart influence the smart decisions of his head, even when Kirk and McCoy's more impulsive actions would seem to prove him wrong.

This is only part of what made us love Spock, though, and, easily by extension, the incredibly talented Leonard Nimoy.

It's the undercurrent of humanity that Nimoy infused into his portrayal of Spock; the occasional biting wit, the clever timing in his lines, the laconic "Fascinating" of judgment or surprise, the warmth in each time he and Kirk and McCoy were able to call each other friend. In contrast to Shatner's scenery-chewing approach to Kirk, Nimoy offered a portrayal of an understated character that was able to say hundreds of words in a single raised eyebrow, and in doing so, sometimes seemed like the most human member of the Enterprise crew.

Spock's development echoes our own growth as geeks and outsiders in the community. Spock begins as a character designed, at its core, to be alien to the rest of the crew; through time, he grows to find acceptance and understanding with his fellow crew members, and that transition has everything to do with Leonard Nimoy's brilliantly nuanced portrayal.

Remembering Nimoy as Spock reminds us why Nimoy came to title his second autobiography I Am Spock -- to recall him as the actor that carried out Gene Roddenberry's vision of diversity, acceptance, and an ongoing quest for knowledge in a distant, united future. It means embracing an understated but genuine warmth, covered by a logical, pragmatic, and dry approach to the universe.

No, we aren't all bleeding-heart McCoys or fiery, proactive Kirks, but both need a intellectual, reserved, diversity-embracing Spock to have a place of necessity and value in society for all three to succeed.

Of course, to remember Nimoy as Spock is to forget so many things that showcased the man's many interests; his poetry and ear for language, his photography and the camera he rebuilt himself at thirteen years old, his love for music, his background in method acting, even his many later appearances from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Fringe to The Pagemaster to Civilization IV to Star Trek Online to Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon.

Where we appreciated Spock for his underlying, subtle humanity, Leonard Nimoy was someone that we grew to love for the creative soul that he so often chose to open up and show us in his work. Over time, he opened up about his struggles with being shoehorned into Spock's role, the identity crisis it created, the ways his own Jewish background influenced his work, and even the ways in which he found some of Spock's philosophies had come to influence the man behind the role.

Leonard Nimoy was unabashedly human, and our reaction to his passing can only hope to be as human as he allowed himself to be.

To address Leonard Nimoy's passing is to acknowledge that a part of our childhood has gone with him, to acknowledge that time marches on.

To look back at Leonard Nimoy's life, however, is to understand the many ways in which he's influenced our own -- to consider the ways in which Star Trek, Spock, and Nimoy have helped shape our own worldview, to examine the ways in which his work has taught us about the people and culture we aspire to become.

To look back at a part of our childhood leaving is to embrace the ways in which we, ourselves, have grown, and learned, and lived and loved since then.

Live long and prosper, Leonard.

Ben Fried-Lee is a writer and long time Trekkie who lives and works in San Francisco. He may have fixed your iPhone once.

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