Leonard Nimoy, who died today in Los Angeles, was the godfather of geek subculture. As the rational Mr. Spock on NBC’s science fiction dramatic series Star Trek, he was a voice of reason at a time in American history when audiences desperately needed to hear one. His character was both a contrast to William Shatner’s heroic Captain James T. Kirk and DeForest Kelley’s emotional Dr. McCoy and Spock emerged as a central figure on Gene Roddenberry’s show. Nimoy, a Jewish poet, actor and director (Three Men and a Baby) should be remembered for his distinguished career in show business, too, not merely for his role in the Star Trek franchise, including early performances for dramatic television that predate Star Trek.
But it is for his embrace of the genre and spirit that defines the Spock character that sets Nimoy apart and for reasons that transcend the iconic series. First, the 1966-1969 series, which heralded the “voyages of the starship Enterprise” and sought to “boldly go where no man has gone before” was a radical departure from traditional TV programming in many respects. Second, it was a commercial and critical failure, being cancelled for low ratings and largely dismissed or ridiculed by critics and dominant intellectuals. Third, the part of Spock, who was an alien though also part human, was so distinctive that Nimoy became indelibly associated with it once the cancelled series earned new fans through 1970s syndication (which, incidentally, is where I discovered it with my brother). Nimoy’s first book, I Am Not Spock (1975), was published at what was thought to be the peak of the cult success of the Desilu/Paramount produced series. It would be years before Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) would be released and it hardly took Hollywood by storm.
In the intervening years, Nimoy carried on and memorably so in the 1978 remake of the nonconformist science fiction picture Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a psychiatrist. He later played in an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, hosted the syndicated series In Search of… (1976-1982), played in the Marco Polo telefilm and portrayed Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s husband opposite Ingrid Bergman in A Woman Called Golda for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award and of course he played Spock many more times after the Star Trek movies started to gain a wider audience. Nimoy appeared in the mediocre reboot in 2009.
Leonard Nimoy had helped bridge the gap between the wasteland of the late 1960s and the emergence and legitimization of geek culture in the 1980s. By the time the technology revolution launched in the 1990s, Star Trek was an established, respected brand in movies and television. Such acceptance may have fueled and ignited many an imagination for what huge and exciting industrial advancements were to come and Star Trek, with Spock, Kirk and McCoy in particular, led the way in cultivating an American, pro-Western, pro-industrial, pro-reason sense of life. In the words of Mr. Spock, and the late Leonard Nimoy had a hand in this, too: “Live long and prosper.”
These days, with the White House refusing to name an Islamic worldwide barbarian invasion as Islamic, it is all too rare to encounter such a blatantly pro-Western civilization, pro-capitalist, secular-rational-selfish formulation and his remarkable career on and off screen is as uniquely subversive and unusual as the roles he chose to portray (and he apparently did choose to portray Spock). May his Mr. Spock and what this iconic character means—the lone voice of reason defined by volition, not by blood, tradition or religion, acting on his own judgment, often against the collective and refusing to just follow orders—inspire future generations to be bold and radical in the spirit of uncompromising enterprise and may Leonard Nimoy rest in peace.