Leonard Nimoy, Spock, and our final frontier
When I was a little kid, I asked my mother what she thought the future would be like when she was my age. That week, we had learned about possible Mars colonies in our Weekly Reader and I wanted to know if she felt the same excitement I did. Her answer, as always, was honest. “I thought it would be like the Jetsons. I thought we’d have moving sidewalks and live in saucer houses.” I found myself laughing, but then growing serious when I realized that I saw none of those things either. I grew more grim when I wondered if we would ever colonize another planet.
With the passing of Leonard Nimoy this past Friday, I find myself thinking again of what the future holds, and I made the realization that we are in it. This is the future and thanks to people like Mr. Nimoy, it’s a little more bearable for the rest of us.
When people think of the future, they think of flying cars and weather control. But what we don’t often recognize is that our society has moved forward in ways that many would have not thought possible. In 1968, Star Trek aired what was to be one of their landmark episodes, “Plato’s Stepchildren”. This episode featured the world’s first onscreen interracial kiss, taking place between Captain James T. Kirk and Lt. Nyota Uhura. Three years after the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and just seven raw months after Martin Luther King was assassinated, this episode made cultural history and gave many a glimpse of a future they had never thought they would see. Forty years later to the month, our first African American President took office. That’s the future.
Regardless of how you feel about the man’s politics, there’s no denying the cultural implications of our first black President doing the Vulcan salute. The child of mixed race himself, the leader of the United States might have a little more in common with Mr. Spock than previously realized. President Obama has been criticized often for his cool “Vulcan” demeanor, sometimes to the chagrin of his constituents, and upon his first meeting with Leonard Nimoy, was the only candidate to turn to the man who brought Spock to life and extend to him the non-verbal, Vulcan signal.
That salute itself has its roots in Jewish culture. Himself Jewish, Nimoy appropriated the split finger gesture from an experience in Temple when he was young. Years later he suggested it to “Amok Time” episode director Joseph Pevney. Upon meeting others of his kind, Nimoy offered that Spock should put forth a Vulcan greeting. Actors have to be students of humanity and culture and Nimoy recognized that people greeted each other in certain ways. Wishing to add a cultural history to Vulcan society, Nimoy recalled his own heritage and through the genre of science fiction, he gave it to the world.
As mentioned previously, Star Trek was ahead of it’s time when it came to politics and race relations. It was the first television show to feature a multi-cultural cast, a fact that was not lost on a generation of viewers. Because of this responsibility, many of Star Trek’s cast would go on to change people’s lives in very personal ways. Leonard Nimoy was no exception, and when a young mixed race girl wrote to Mr. Spock about feeling alienated via a teen magazine, Nimoy responded. From the perspective of Spock, Nimoy wrote a lengthy response, giving her the best advice anyone could have given:
“He said to himself: ’Not everyone will like me. But there will be those who accept me just for what I am.’”
You can read the article in it’s entirety over at My Star Trek Scrapbook. I highly suggest you do so. However, Nimoy’s response illuminates struggles in our society that have certainly gotten better, but remain struggles nonetheless. In an age when we are still dealing with questions of acceptance, sexual orientation, ethnicity and cultural understanding, the allegory of Mr. Spock and his diverse crew mates shines ever brighter, letting us know that the future doesn’t have to do with spaceships and communicators, we have them already. The theme that goes through every science fiction story ever told and certainly the main theme of Star Trek, is our relationship with those around us, from person to person, country to country and culture to culture.
In a crew of officers, engineers, and scientists traveling in a highly futuristic spacecraft, Nimoy’s character Mr. Spock existed as an intellectual among intellectuals. A character ruled by logic to sometimes comic effect when played against the all too human Captain Kirk. Throughout the course of the series, Spock was the character who everyone turned to when they needed cold, hard facts. This brand of interaction and outlook, though sometimes awkward for those unfamiliar with Vulcan bedside manner, proved invaluable to the crew of the Enterprise. Spock’s character taught a generation of kids that it was okay to be an intellectual and that the socially awkward can be valued friends and teammates. Through the course of eight films we got to see Spock grow from cold scientific mind to warm friend and elder thanks to his friendship with Kirk. Spock taught about mixed ethnicities in a time when this may have been a foreign and undesirable concept. Leonard Nimoy, Mr. Spock, and Star Trek taught us about acceptance of others and learning from one another.
It is now 2015, the year we recognize, thanks to a constant barrage of memes, as that of Back to the Future II. We have made it past the existential hell of Kubrick’s 2001, and every futurescape and alien horror Hollywood can concoct. Our moving sidewalks exist only in airports, the only saucer house I have ever seen is in Golden, Colorado, and 23 years after I read that Weekly Reader article, we have recruited candidates to colonize Mars. I have my own child now and oddly enough when I think about his future, I don’t think about technology or aliens, hell, we’re still looking for intelligent life here on earth. I think about how he will greet his fellow beings, how he will deal with the differences inside himself as well as those of others. This, above all is perhaps Star Trek’s greatest gift to our culture and certainly Leonard Nimoy’s, the recognition that the final frontier isn’t in space, but within ourselves.
Live long and prosper.