Leonard Nimoy, Spock and the Rationale for Space Exploration

Some personal thoughts on the passing of Leonard Nimoy

When news of Leonard Nimoy’s death broke on February 27th, it set off an avalanche of messages on social media mourning the loss of a man who at times struggled to separate himself from the role which defined his public perception. Yet for many who responded so sincerely to the sad news, it seemed that it is was still difficult to make the distinction. And there is nothing wrong with that.

From cast members of other Star Trek series, to stars of other science fiction staples such as Bruce Boxleitner and Nathan Fillion, to a flood of people engaged in real space exploration including NASA itself, the tributes came pouring in.

International Space Station astronaut Terry Virts Salutes Leonard Nimoy from Orbit

International Space Station astronaut Terry Virts Salutes Leonard Nimoy from Orbit

 

In the age of social media, this tends to happen when nearly any celebrity passes, but in this case the impact on the space community as represented in both science fiction and real life, was particularly felt.

There can be little doubt that Star Trek influenced more people currently working in the hard space and science fiction communities than any other production on television or the big screen. It may be that Trek’s influence surpasses that of Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov….combined.

We may argue over which is better, Star Wars or Star Trek, but in terms of which influenced more to choose a career in space, it isn’t even close. Equally clear, much of the success of the original Star Trek can be traced back to the character of Spock, and the man who brought this fictional half human, half alien to life in such a very real way.

Would the series have succeeded if another actor had been cast as Spock? Perhaps, but it is difficult to imagine anyone could have improved on Nimoy’s performance.

Leonard Nimoy infused the character, indeed the entire concept of being Vulcan, with such gravitas, that he created an almost impossible standard for other actors playing Vulcans in later iterations of the show. So much so, he provided Gene Roddenberry and the producers of The Next Generation with a good reason to avoid casting any Vulcan as a regular on series. Only Mark Lenard, who portrayed Spock’s father Sarek, on both The Original Series (TOS), three movies, and The Next Generation even came close. (Apologies to Jolene Blalock)

Perhaps tellingly, it was not until Zachary Quinto took up the role of Spock in the 2009 movie reboot that another Vulcan seemed to reach the standard, even with Nimoy reprising his original role as the older version of Spock. To put it another way, Nimoy created a character so real, that he transcended the actor who played him. The same could be said of many great actors and their most memorable roles of course, but for Leonard Nimoy, the difference is the degree of influence that the character he brought to life went on to exert in both popular culture and the broader world.

Nimoy’s influence extends much further than a particularly, even uniquely inspired character portrayal however. It was how that character interacted with his human counterpart, Captain Kirk, that presented a vision of deeper vision of space exploration which still resonates with so many people.

Kirk, like the over the top actor who portrayed him, was the so very familiar, “bold” face of space exploration 1960’s American style. It is easy to see “Apollo” in the good captain. It was Nimoy’s Spock however, who provided the intellectual curiosity that also drove the Enterprise. Characterized by the trademark arched eyebrow and enigmatic utterance “fascinating,” it is Spock who would be on pins and needles (although he would not admit it) waiting to see NASA’s Dawn probe arrive at Ceres later this week.

In providing a counterbalance to the flags and footprints vision of space exploration embodied by Kirk, Nimoy presented viewers a richer, longer lasting rationale for what they were doing, and what we could be as well, than might have otherwise been offered by the iconic series. He was after all, the first Science Officer.

Much has been written about the epic “bromance” found in the relationship between Kirk and Spock. To some extent, that perspective may overlook the significance of the third member of the troika, DeForest Kelley’s Dr. McCoy, but it leads to an important point nonetheless.

Image Credit: Star Trek

Image Credit: Star Trek

Part of the appeal, and the influence, of Star Trek can be found in the fact, that as has been observed time and again, it was a series which offered a positive, non-apocalyptic vision of humanity’s future. In the context of the times, it was a non-trivial point, (and may become so again.)

But for many, particularly those whose careers were in some way inspired by Star Trek, the contribution made by Nimoy, goes quite a bit further. It wasn’t just the idea that there really would be a future, and a pretty good one at that, but that it would find its best manifestation in the partnership between the alien and the human. At the heart of that partnership is the compulsion to set aside the danger, and to test the limits, to explore.

For people working in, around, or simply interested in space exploration, it is nearly axiomatic that we believe it to be among the most important endeavors the human race could ever undertake. We may disagree about the path and the means, but we intrinsically get the why. It is because we have to.

It may be that the need to explore comes from two places. One is the “boldly go” represented by Kirk, and the other is the overwhelming curiosity found in the character of Spock. And at the back of our minds, the nagging doubt that says “be careful, it’s dangerous out there,” almost certainly belongs to the third member of the trio, DeForest Kelley’s Dr. McCoy.

Compared to the softened, at times too politically correct “team centered” vision of the Enterprise crew presented in The Next Generation, the original version offered three characters, Kirk, Spock and McCoy, which together represent the human rationale for representation.

An exhausting list of factors, some legitimate and most contrived, seem to have blunted the “boldly go” aspect of space exploration. How else does one explain the fact that we haven’t gone anywhere new since the original series first went into re-reruns? But the scientific curiosity, what many would consider the purer of the two rationales, that remains remains undimmed, even if it suffers from some of the same afflictions.

It is only natural then, that in addition to mourning the passing of a “fascinating” and kindly man who was clearly beloved by those who knew and worked with him, we cannot help but feel the loss in some way, of the character which represented much of the reason we reach for the stars.

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