A Long, Strange Trek

On the day he died, I heard NPR replay an interview with Leonard Nimoy about Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. In it, he mentioned that he wanted to try something different for a science-fiction film: that he wanted to have a story with no real villain to defeat.

“We had done two pictures in a row with black-hat heavies and I didn’t want a bad guy anywhere,” he explained in an interview elsewhere for the magazine Monsterland. “Circumstances would cause the problem. Lack of awareness, lack of concern, ignorance…these would be the problems. Not a person.”

That clicked with me. And it may be the best epitaph for the man in the pointed ears that I’ve ever heard.

I came late to Star Trek. No real surprise there. I grew up a huge Star Wars fan at a time when the fan bases didn’t overlap much and were often perversely proud of it. One was a swashbuckling space opera that found instant mainstream success; the other, an odd mix of conflict and exploration that built its following over years.

Silly, of course. To anyone on the outside, after all, a geek was a geek. But to many, the lines mattered.

But even Star Wars kids thought Mr. Spock was cool.

How could he not be? He was the intelligent outsider, the alien among humans, cool and detached without being heartless. He had an answer for everything, often accompanied by a wry remark and an arched eyebrow. To him, the universe was “fascinating” but never totally inexplicable.

He was, in short, what every young geek and nerd like me wanted to be. Apart, but still a part. Not surrendering an identity to be part of the crew, but embracing it and being valued because of it – even if it still meant we were weird.

I was grown before I found out that Nimoy spent years resenting the character. Understandable, in retrospect. Few actors like to be typecast, to become so strongly identified with a role that they can never really be seen as anyone else. For someone as versatile as Mr. Nimoy – actor, poet, photographer and more – it must have been doubly frustrating.

But over time, he came to embrace Mr. Spock. The Vulcan came to be “one of my best friends,” as he told Starlog magazine.

“When I put on those ears, it’s not like just another day,” Nimoy said. “When I become Spock, that day becomes something special.”

It did for a lot of us, too.

Today, we live in a world where the geeks won. “Game of Thrones” and “Doctor Who” are hit TV shows. “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” commanded huge film audiences; superheroes by the dozen still do. Even roleplaying became mainstream somewhere along the way – with proponents such as Stephen Colbert and the late Robin Williams – and computer gaming is so common a hobby as to barely be worth mentioning.

But saying “the geeks won” doesn’t really capture it. It’s more like the lines got erased. Maybe not entirely (there’s still some discouraging tales about how “geek girls” get treated by a small but noxious crew of self-appointed critics) but enough that the distinction no longer has the same meaning. The geeks became the cool kids, and vice versa. It’s even OK to talk about Jedi and Vulcans in the same breath.

There really isn’t a bad guy anymore.

Leonard Nimoy was a big part of that. And while it might seem like an odd part of his legacy to emphasize– “he helped make it OK to be a nerd” – there are far worse ones to have. Anything that brings people together instead of setting them apart should be celebrated; anyone who builds bridges instead of walls should be cherished … even if the bridge is that of the starship Enterprise.

Thank you, sir. You lived long. You prospered. And you helped many of us do the same.

In an often-dark world, you truly lit a Spock.

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