As most people reading this are probably aware, Leonard Nimoy died last Friday, 27 February 2015. Obituaries have noted the breadth of his artistic pursuits, including poetry and photography as well as acting and directing; but inevitably the bulk of tributes have focused on his importance to Star Trek. Here, some contributors to and friends of Strange Horizons add their voices and thoughts.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: Across Vast Distances
Somewhere in my house there’s a videotape of me, playing Spock, on the Enterprise bridge. I was fifteen years old, at Universal Studios, acting out a scene in front of a green screen; the final version had Kirk, the rest of the crew, and the bridge set in it. I was such a terrible actor that I was only able to bear to watch the video once, and it’s a little surprising that I didn’t just burn the damn thing. But I didn’t, because it featured me—as Spock! My teen heart was fluttering almost as fast as a Vulcan’s.
I first fell in love with Spock in the 70s, watching re-runs on our first tv. My dad and I watched together, both of us immigrants from Sri Lanka. I don’t know what he thought of Star Trek, but I was completely smitten. I wanted to be Kirk, bold captain of the Enterprise, beloved by all—that was the role I dreamt of, the leader of men. But Spock was the one I actually identified with.
One of the smartest kids in the class, a loner, an outsider, the bookworm, the one with glasses who read on the playground—I might have filled his role regardless. I was a nerd long before geeks were cool. But there was an added layer to my identification with Spock; I’d been born in Sri Lanka, came to the U.S. at age two, and was the only South Asian in my entire school. Spock and I shared a special bond, forever strangers in a strange land, and no matter how well we mixed with the locals, how well we managed to pass, he and I knew that we were really aliens under the skin. When he bled green blood, I bled with him.
I grew up in Polish Catholic neighborhood; I could never pass for one of the locals, even after studying four years of Polish and attaining a modicum of fluency. Dzień dobry, good day. People would be startled, hearing the words fall from my brown lips—once, I thanked a restaurant server in Polish for the pierogies she’d handed me, and she almost dropped her tray. They’d be impressed, amused, even charmed, and that was certainly better than a hostile response. But I grew up always marked as Other, as different.
Spock was that for all of us, but perhaps especially for the immigrants, those of us who came across vast distances, to find our memories of the homeland fading a little more each day, supplanted by the constant overwhelming presence of the new land. Eventually, we found community; I found one of my best friends in high school over a Star Trek book, Diane Duane’s The Wounded Sky—we bonded over our mutual enthusiasm for the story. She was Kirk to my Spock, the beautiful blonde popular girl and I her shy alien sidekick, grateful that she was willing to accept me as I was, for all my strangeness and differences.
Star Trek helped us with that, with its hope for infinite diversity in infinite combinations. We grew up on those books, that vision of the future, one that Leonard Nimoy helped to shape with his often heart-wrenching portrayal of an alien from a distant world. Always a little separate, a little apart—but also able, finally, to find true friendship and great love among those who valued him for himself, and who eagerly called him to join their adventures.
Wherever my adventures take me now, I carry Spock with me.
Keguro Macharia: Spock and Intimacy
I had imagined this piece would start differently. Perhaps with my first memories of Spock—those arched eyebrows, the pointed ears, the measured voice. Perhaps with the enduring memory of the Vulcan mind meld: Spock's fingers splayed gently across a range of faces—humanoid and non-humanoid—intoning those famous words, "my mind to your mind, my thoughts to your thoughts." Perhaps with that famous Vulcan grip that caused so many to faint, that grip so many of us tried to master as children. But loss undirects us. It leaves us wandering, unsure of our sentences, unclear about our intentions, unable to fulfill our promises.
After moving, restlessly, through several clips on YouTube, I landed on the third Star Trek film, The Search for Spock (1984). It starts with Spock's death, a scene that, this time, was more difficult than ever to watch. Because, unlike in the film, there is no planet Genesis, no new world where he will be revived.
I'm trying to find the right sentences, the ones that will sound less like keening, the ones that will convey Spock's significance in my life. I don't know where to find those sentences. I am keening.
Spock offered a vision of intimacy. Although he was famous for declaring that statements or actions were not rational, and so might have seemed cold and distant, and was, in fact, sometimes described that way, he was always reaching out: "my mind to your mind, my thoughts to your thoughts."
The Vulcan mind meld went beyond telepathy, at least, beyond telepathy as it is generally understood. It was not distant or invasive—an alien species reading one's thoughts, manipulating one. Instead, Spock would lay his fingers on another's face, gently, always gently. Sometimes he'd say, "my mind to your mind, my thoughts to your thoughts." Other times, he'd remain silent.
And, he opened himself to risk. Sometimes the intelligence he encountered would overwhelm him. In "The Changeling" (1967, Ep. 32), Spock mind melds with an electronic probe, Nomad. Once he loses physical contact with it, he continues to intone its thoughts, "sterilize, sterilize," trapped in its imagination. Mind melding, we learn, is not simply reading another's thoughts, not an extractive process, it requires submitting to another's imagination. While it can be used to manipulate others—in "Requiem for Methuselah" (1969, Ep. 21), Spock helps Kirk forget the female android Rayna Kapec—most often, mind melding is about learning how to be vulnerable to others, how to be with others.
The mind meld offered a way of being together, a way of listening for and to others, that was unfiltered. Perhaps that is its appeal.
Across a range of thinkers, from Jacques Derrida to Frantz Fanon to Eve Sedgwick to Sharon Holland, and across fields ranging from French philosophy to Afro-Caribbean anti-colonialism to Queer studies to Woman of Color feminism, touch has been theorized as transformative. For some thinkers, touch bridges the distance created by vision: touch disturbs barriers. Perhaps that was Spock's appeal, the appeal of the Vulcan mind meld, the willingness to touch.
Spock touched us. So many of us. Across geographies and histories, across age groups and generations. Perhaps because he was the only visible alien on the Enterprise bridge, he spoke to those of us who always felt a little different, a little isolated. Perhaps he spoke to us because he understood how touch could speak across difference—a touch that spoke to silicone life forms, humanoids, and whales. Perhaps he gave some of us the courage to touch each other. Perhaps he touched us because he gave us a way to imagine thriving: live long and prosper.
Perhaps I should be writing about Leonard Nimoy. But I knew Spock. I loved Spock. And now, every time I re-encounter him, it will always be with a deep sense of loss.
Thank you for the worlds you helped us to imagine, for the ways of being together you helped us imagine.
Octavia Cade: Mothers and Daughters and Spock
My sister and I learned about Star Trek from our mother. One day when we were kids, she bundled us off to the video store, ostensibly so we could pick something to watch, but it wasn't long before an ulterior motive became apparent. Suffice to say, us kids did not get to choose and we came home with Star Trek. It was the beginning of—the continuation of—a long and fruitful relationship.
Mum had also watched Trek when she was young. Older than we were when she started, I think she had a bit of a crush on Mr. Spock. What she did not have in her science fiction explorations was the support of her mother. Nana did not have a crush on Mr. Spock. He had pointy ears and pointy eyebrows and looked a little too much like the Devil.
I'm not even kidding. Mum demurs now when I remind her of this. Says she doesn't remember it being like that, but I remember her telling me so, long ago. It was so ridiculous to my then child-mind I couldn't forget it. Still, Nana's been dead a long time. I think that softens things. My maternal grandparents had . . . issues with religion. Somehow, against all reason and compatibility, my Irish Catholic Nana had married a Protestant man from the North. Now you'd hope that being on the other side of the world in a small New Zealand farming community would soften the pair of them up. You'd hope wrong, and in the absence of IDIC incompatibility degraded into armed camps.
Still not kidding.
One of Mum's earliest memories is watching her parents decide her religious education at (literal) knife-point. Nana didn't win. She was the only one who was sorry about it, poor woman, and I'm not entirely sure she ever got over it. Certainly seeing her teen daughter gushing over some untrustworthy blue-shirted science officer must have been difficult. If he'd at least been a redshirt . . . Luckily, Mum had more sense than to listen to intimations of Satan in her science fiction. Spock, with his pointy ears and eyebrows and science, might have been a bit closer to false idols than mass permitted, but I'm not entirely sure Mum was permitted mass at that point so the point was moot. Spock was there to stay.
A generation later, he was still there. Mum raised two atheist daughters, both of whom are science fiction fans, both of whom learned early to do the Vulcan salute. Both of us were drawn to the sciences. I don't put this all down to Spock, specifically, and I can't speak for my sister, but the real draw for me in Star Trek always was the science. Not the technobabble, of which there was always a little too much, but the idea of it—that a life devoted to scientific exploration was a valuable thing. That whole fleets of starships would be built and that science would be a primary purpose—more than war, more than simple transport and the logistics of governing solar systems. (It's no coincidence that my favourite of the Trek captains would be the one who started life as a scientist.)
Spock really was the perfect character for the science station of the Enterprise. Cool, rational, reserved . . . and yet imaginative with it. Open. Trek's mission statement has always been Go Boldly, but I've always thought that Spock was better suited to Go Openly, to go open-minded. Go to test and experiment and learn, go not so much unattached to dogma but aware of that attachment and its potential as anchor. That's what Spock is to me, and science: method and logic and reason, a way to tease apart the universe and see the glory in it. See it unencumbered by knives and old fights and loyalties best left behind, in countries discovered and found wanting.
That's something better to pass down, something better to leave your daughters. It's something that never dies.
Iona Sharma: A Child of Two Worlds
Looking back, you were always there. I grew up in an English seaside town, a long way from home, and I saw my first episode of Star Trek when I was eleven. It was the quiet time after school, before anyone else got home, so I had control of the TV remote: sometimes it was the original series, sometimes the Next Generation; and dear Mr. Spock, it was love at first sight. I loved your aloof determination. I loved your arch wit, and raised eyebrow. I loved your ears. Oh, those ears. (Love at first sight, Mr. Spock. Not logical, I know. We'd never met.)
But Mr. Spock, I knew you understood me. I was the only brown girl in my class, on my street, in my town. I had no brothers or sisters; no local diaspora community; no one I knew who was like me. I went to school every day and learned about shepherd's pie and whiteness; I came home every day and found I was forgetting my Hindi. And there you were, on television, in that quiet first hour of the evening; you, with your ears and the way you stood proudly on the Enterprise bridge, between two worlds.
And in these more enlightened days, I think we make much of these dual heritages: of storytelling from diaspora communities, of people who are bilingual, both literally and culturally, of people who really are children of two worlds. Rightly so, perhaps. I see these brown girls and women even now, the ones who have had the strength of their multiple communities behind them, and admire them: the way they casually switch between languages, the way they throw on their jeans or drape their saris, as they choose. The way they carry all that weight lightly.
But you didn't, Mr. Spock. You were not poised elegantly between. You were angry, like me. You didn't speak to your father for decades, because he had wanted you to be wholly and perfectly Vulcan, and you couldn't find that in you; you couldn't be not what you were. You took that disjunct in your nature and let it drive you towards excellence, but you rejected the humanity of your mother. You were afraid it might destroy everything that you had worked so hard to be. You joined Starfleet, but still, there was that difference between you and them: on the Enterprise you stood as a man apart.
At least, at first. We all know how that story goes. Sometimes you were pig-headed; sometimes you were wrong; sometimes you were a jerk. But you were loved, Mr. Spock. Your existence made other people uncomfortable, but not the people who mattered. You were kind, and you were brave, and you were loved so much that the good of the many, in the end, did not outweigh the good of the one. It was not easy, because a life in between is not easy, but in the end, you did not have to be Vulcan enough, nor human enough: in the end, you were Spock, and that was all you needed to be. And for the girl who was never brown enough, never white-assimilated enough, who was never enough: there you were. Right there on my TV, imperfect and angry, and a shining light. I'm grateful for Leonard Nimoy, and I'm glad that if he must pass away it was after such a long life, full of kindness and remarkable things; but Mr. Spock, who stood on the bridge of the Enterprise, and would not be what he was not—I grieve for thee.
Tim Phipps: First, Best Destiny
There are many actors who, in public perception, become indelibly linked to their roles. Typecast. Commonly, an actor will react to this with a mixture of frustration and resentment, distancing themselves from the role. Or they may embrace their success so enthusiastically that overexposure results. Often a typecast actor exhibits a messy combination of reactions, any one of which can easily lead to a loss of public affection. There is a fine line between familiarity and contempt, and it is a line that Leonard Nimoy walked with a rare conscientiousness and grace.
Many sources will suggest Nimoy was ambivalent about his success as Spock. Yet his autobiographies intermittently take the form of dialogues between Nimoy and Spock, and one is left with the impression that there was more of the alter-ego than the paycheque about Spock. These books make it clear that Nimoy had a deep investment in the development of Spock's character, particularly in the Trek feature film series. He writes openly and convincingly of the difficulties he felt with specific plot points, and their consistency with Spock's personal development. Nimoy is not reluctant to admit when money was involved, but his clear and honest understanding of—and investment in—his character rings true.
So if he was ambivalent, this would only make his treatment and custodianship of the role all the more remarkable. He suffered relatively little success as a journeyman director—Star Trek and Three Men and a Baby aside—and his willingness to return to the role of Spock is the real reason that Star Trek continues to exist. And pay attention—because here comes the science officer bit.
As a character, Spock is second only to Kirk in the original Star Trek cast. His importance and impact is such that every single Trek series involves a Spock analogue—whether it's Data, Odo, or any of the rubbish ones that followed. There were elements of Trek fandom who rejected The Next Generation until Nimoy's appearance in "Unification" came along. That title isn't just about the episode's Romulan/Federation diplomacy; it's a mission statement for the effect on fandom of his guest starring role. Most recently, he lent the J. J. Abrams reboot films their legitimacy.
Shatner couldn't have done this. Subsequent captains are a reaction to Kirk, not an attempt to recapture his essence. Shatner needed—we all needed—Kirk to have equal billing to Picard for Generations. There's no way, even excluding ego from the equation, that Shatner could appear in the new Trek films without overshadowing everything else. Nimoy was willing to take a cameo role to ensure the fictional universe, and his character within it, kept their integrity. He was able to bridge gaps in pop culture that few others could.
Nimoy's first autobiography—I Am Not Spock—haunted him for decades, so unprepared was he for the reaction evoked by the title. Yet he went on to do more than anyone else to drive Trek's characters and to unite its disparate incarnations. Perhaps he did this because, and not in spite of, any ambivalence. After all, only Nixon could go to China.
Fabio Fernandes: Remembering a Family Member
I can’t remember the exact year, but it certainly was the early seventies—Brazilian TV started to run Star Trek—The Original Series as soon as it entered syndication in the U.S.
I didn’t know how successful the series was at that time for the Brazilian audience. All I cared about was how awesome it was to me. I couldn’t have been more than five years old. To this day, I remember neither having read (I started reading well before that, at two and a half years old) nor watched anything similar. If I had been exposed to science fiction in any format before, Star Trek phased its ancestors out of existence in my memory.
I blame two things, a technical device and a character. The device was the transporter—the first time I saw the away team being dematerialized aboard the Enterprise and then beamed down to a planet I remember thinking, this is so much cooler than a spaceship! Apollo 11 and the Moon landing happened just a couple of years before, but suddenly I didn’t want lunar pods and capsules anymore. Teleportation or bust—and that was that.
The human factor was the main alien character aboard the Enterprise. Mr. Spock was my favorite among the crew from the beginning. Serious, logical, balanced—he was the perfect counterpoint to the rash, bold Captain Kirk. I liked all the characters a lot—but Spock was a mystery: he was an alien, and yet he was also half-human, and had to struggle with his human emotions all the time. He was so enthralling that I caught myself wanting to be him every time I played Star Trek with my friends (most of them wanted to be Kirk, but I had to fight several who wanted to be Spock as well). This "spockiness" would cause such a powerful effect on me that I would try to be like the logical Vulcan several times during childhood and early adolescence: I even remember telling a psychologist I was.
Even after I watched (and rewatched) every episode of The Original Series, Leonard Nimoy remained dear to my heart. I started looking out for him in other films—and I found out that he also worked on Mission: Impossible, which soon became another favorite of mine. I saw Nimoy smile, laugh, weep—I wept for him in Never Forget, as an Auschwitz survivor having to prove in court that the Holocaust really happened, and laughed with him in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
Nimoy became another family member—a distant relative, one who you happen to see only once in a while, and who brings a smile to your face and good memories to your mind and heart. I was sadder than I ever thought I would be when I heard the news of his death. He will be sorely missed.
Erin Horáková: Have Been and Always Shall Be
Readings of Spock often focus on his alienness and/or his hybridity—his struggle to live in human and Vulcan environments, to reconcile his cultural and biological heritages. While it's good to see a character at the very core of any program repping pluralistic Otherness and multicultural identity, sometimes the relentlessness with which we dwell on Spock's exoticized Vulcanness or his struggle with his hybrid identity makes me uncomfortable. To just say "Spock's alien and mixed-species" is not enough, is even demeaning—that's what he is, not who. So who is Spock, in a room of Other Vulcans?
He's intelligent and deeply loyal. He's curious and cultured (in "Naked Time" [1967, Ep. 4] he takes a moment, mid-crisis, to make Dumas jokes, and the Science Officer role at this point is at least equally a Humanities Officer position). Spock is just and decent beyond the immediate demands of logic. He respects and is interested in tradition while being possessed of an iconoclastic streak. He's pragmatic and, increasingly as the canon progresses, adaptable. Spock isn't personally ambitious, but dreams on a grand scale. Even "Mirror, Mirror" (1968, Ep. 33) hints that goatee!Spock has the gumption to take on a corrupt Empire.
Logic is always predicated on a value system, on givens. It cannot necessarily reconcile competing imperatives and eliminate conflict. It has a treacherous tendency to reinforce convenient social constructions—things you already "know." Logic is easily abused. Spock has a nuanced, canny relationship with his cultural philosophy-cum-faith because Spock is, as a person and not just as a representative of his two species, ambivalent. A compromise. That ambivalence enables him to see the limits of logic, and it's perhaps the lynchpin of a character who makes a point of being beyond such psychological vulnerabilities.
As a child, Spock hides his difference by living according to Vulcan emotional mores. He then chooses to work on a ship like Enterprise, rather than one like the all-Vulcan Intrepid. On Enterprise, this normative Vulcan identity becomes a radical Otherness. Spock tells Kirk he's ashamed of his affection for Kirk, but seeks out and deepens this friendship. Ultimately he rejects the apotheosis of Vulcan logic and identity, Kolinahr, for Kirk and a "simple feeling." When Kirk's career and whole sense of self are threatened by the prospect of intelligent ships that will render him redundant, Spock, the logical computer expert, makes a simultaneously reasonable and affective argument for Kirk's special skill and contribution—for the human element. Spock balances himself against Kirk and McCoy, rather than ruthlessly asserting that their decisions or means of thinking about situations are inferior to his logical methods. Spock is, like Sherlock Holmes, defined equally by his logic and detachment and by its failures. For all Spock's detachment, we know him best for his intimate friendships—"never and always touching and touched," as he might put it. That or, "I have been and always shall be your friend."
Spock's sense of wry humor, his inability to deal with the loss of Kirk (which, as several occasions demonstrate, is at least as profound as Kirk's inability to deal with the loss of Spock), and his interest in reconciling with the Romulans—a sort of fabulous dream of unity—all coexist with his unflagging rationalism. Even in The Final Frontier, when Spock gently tells his brother that he's not a confused little boy anymore, that he now knows who he is and where he belongs, Spock remains ambivalent—able to see everyone's point.
And so much of that is Nimoy. His performance is infused not just with his acting skill, but also with own sense of humor, his active and creative interest in the world around him, his energy and sense of fairness, his personal multicultural identity. Nimoy was so much of what made Spock who he was, and Spock was so much of what made Star Trek what it was. Spock, above all things, in his reticence and his friendships and his person, was responsible for the abiding devotion of the female fanbase that passed Star Trek material around after the show's end and agitated for its return for a third season and beyond. Whatever Abrams's revisionist "let's add babies or no women will care about Star Trek" history will tell you, a chief reason Star Trek is a lasting cultural thing is because a lot of women cared a lot. And a lot of what they cared about was Spock.
When my daddy was little, when TOS was airing, he only managed to watch a few episodes furtively. He was a gay kid in rural Missouri with hardcore Christian parents who, to this day, literally believe Star Trek is the devil's propaganda. But he loved it—it was everything to him. As an adult, daddy used his shitty VCR to copy shitty-quality eps from the shitty little local TV station that did out-of-order reruns. We crammed as many eps to the VHS as would fit on there. The eps were cut erratically, and the same three or four televangelist ads looped through the commercial breaks. We watched the tapes on our shitty ancient TV, more snow than picture, rabbit ears high. I could barely see the people.
I loved it so much. I don't know that I can tell you how important it was (is) to me—how Star Trek taught me to think about analysis and making kind, right choices, how it sits underneath so much of what I think like a language I spoke as a child, like home and memory and family. The future was challenging, but good. We were poor, but in the future there was no money. Everyone had work—good, noble work. People were complex and flawed, but reasonable, and people did better and people didn't hate anyone for being different—or they learned not to by The Voyage Home. I've grown up to live in one of the cyberpunk dystopias that always bored me, but this is still, somehow, the future I believe in. It still feels like a place I'm from. I had to call my family members to tell them Nimoy was dead because it wasn't something they should see on a newsfeed or hear callously from strangers who don't care, it was like the death of a zeyde. Of course Spock can never die, but people, like Nimoy, can similarly live on through the memory of their deeds. I cannot imagine having a child who I don't show Star Trek to—early, early, so that it sits in their hearts and helps them to be thoughtful and kind, and teaches them to want and believe in such futures, such long, rich, strange prosperities.
Thanks to Erin Horáková and Aishwarya Subramanian for their assistance in the preparation of this article.
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