Nimoy and not Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy’s death last month is particularly sad news. He (or should I say Spock?) was my hero in those wonderful years between ten and thirteen, back in the 1970s. I would have denied it, of course. Anyone who falls in love with Spock’s role – no, anyone who falls in love with Nimoy’s role (he played Spock), this particular role of intellectual independence, will deny that he has ever been in need of a role model – let alone a fictional one, half man, half alien with a funny haircut and apparent emotional deficits.

His emotional deficits were most certainly the coolest thing to fall in love with. The future was the second best thing. It is difficult to explain how obsessed we all were with the future back in the 1970s. (The series took off in Germany in May 1972.) My personal life in the future had begun four years earlier in 1969. I was seven back then and my family had just moved from a small town in Northern Germany stuck in the 1950s to Cologne, the city of the Catholic Church, of Carnival, and of this smell of chemical industry and pollution. Even the Rhine smelled toxic. Satellite cities mushroomed and my father, a teacher who tried to sell patents for electronics that would assist teachers in the classroom, was openly fascinated by these 15-storey houses. They would solve the global population problem, so his forecast. Once we had moved in – the 13th floor of a building in Cologne’s western colony – it dawned on us that we were to become participants in an exciting experiment of modern social engineering. Cologne concentrated its poor in our settlement. Families of civil servants, postal workers, the employees of the nearby chemical plants were to become the social background into which these, we called them without further thought the Asoziale, would have to blend. A single bus line connected our new suburb to the next tramline, so that it would have been easy to cut off the entire settlement should that become necessary. The western horizon gave a great picture with its distant skyline of brown-coal mining. Power plants blew spectacular clouds into the air. The second promise was the colour TV my father had finally bought so that we could see the moon landing in all its splendour. We did not know then that it was to reach us in old-fashioned black and white pictures. Colour remained an advantage, though, in the footage of the climaxing Vietnam War. My personal task in Cologne’s social experiment arrived in the person of my first friend. I had picked him up downstairs: one of those kids with a short haircut against lice. He would ring at our door after lunch. My mother would tell him that I had to do my homework first. He would promise to wait in the hallway until he would be let in. And then he would stand there in our apartment and watch me play until my mother would send him home in the early evening hours. All this was perfect for about two weeks until he introduced me to his elder brothers and their friends on the playground in front of our house. I was beaten up and did not really understand what I had just experienced. My mother gave me a lecture on “social tensions” which would structure my life from then onwards. I understood with the maturity of my seven years that my future would most certainly be different from theirs, not because we were rich (we were not) but because Germany was a country, where education made a huge difference.

Violence was omnipresent in our new environment and I developed a special sensorium, the sensitivity of a silent observer in order to anticipate any outbreak. One of these days one of my classmates was pushed around in the school yard by a bunch of 16 year olds, when suddenly things spiraled out of control. One of these older boys lifted him by his head. I saw that the young fellow’s feet were dangling in the air; his face was swelling red. Was I the only one who had learned that death by hanging was caused by a disjuncture of the neck’s vertebrae? I was sure the older boys would be surprised by what they had done. These kids were not wise. (My little sister had brought our guinea pig to kindergarten where the other children placed it on top of a cupboard and then pushed it over the edge, once, twice, a third time until it was dead.) They eventually let my classmate down. He coughed – still alive, and I raised an eyebrow with the realisation that my fact base had been inconclusive.

All this might explain why Spock became my hero – instantaneously. All he needed to do was raise an eyebrow, frown in disbelief, look startled and that was it. I understood what he was thinking and not really feeling.

Three years had passed by then. I was now ten and I knew: the future would be utterly different from anything we were presently experiencing. The Club of Rome’s report was to appear later that year and told us that growth was not unlimited and that we were heading towards a global environmental catastrophe. Our teachers kept adding the second and far more terrifying scenario: the Third World War. Atomic bombs would obliterate all major cities around the globe within minutes as soon as the Americans or Russians pressed the button. Billions would die and an age of nuclear fallout would follow with mutations and diseases. Biological and chemical warfare would make things worse. The year 2000 sounded far away and it appeared in all these terrifying colours strangely imminent. We would wear space suits in 2000 AD and eat artificial food on a devastated planet.

And here I sat in front of our still quiet new colour TV. The moon landing had been in dreary black and white yet this was real – true colour. I was transported into the year 2300, transported into a future that could look back onto the 1990s, the years of global devastation. In 2300 all this destruction would be a thing of the past. The future was bright. It had the smooth surfaces of the Citroën DS that had been my favourite car in the 1960s. Computers were at our fingertips, and we would travel through space to encounter unknown civilisations. I was thrilled.

Science Officer in a World that Defied Gravity

Kirk and the rest of the crew were all-American heroes. They lived in their military ranks, happily, since it was fun on a peace mission, a mission of scientific exploration. A “prime directive” told these modern heroes not to influence the primitive cultures they would meet – a directive not worth the bits and bytes with which it had been penned: They liberated any population still suffering from conflicts which mankind had solved. What exactly was it that was driving Kirk? What was driving these red shirt crew members who usually met an unexpected death once on a new planet, just in time to warn their superiors of the imminent danger? Kirk, Bones, Scotty, Uhura, Chekov, and Zulu needed a bit of applause every now and then, Kirk needed the extra applause of ladies who crossed his path. Yet then it was clear that they would be back on their positions to continue their mission. It was enough that they were born-survivors, always ready for the next challenge, simply good at what they were doing.

It was not that clear what Spock was doing among these future Americans. The crew’s feedback could not mean much to him. He knew that he was suspected of treason, of a secret desire to be the captain himself – he was after all so much superior. And yet he did not aim at the commander’s chair. Did he sense that he would not enjoy the crew’s love – a love he confessed he did not need? Spock’s merits as a scientist were rather peculiar. The entire Star Trek universe did not really call for a scientist to explore it. Scientists had created this future. They had solved all of mankind’s major problems. But once out there in space it was clear that this universe was not ruled by static physical laws. Spock himself would continuously use his special mental powers to defeat physics and to outwit medicine – and he knew that he could not explain any of his peculiar abilities. Not even Bones, the doctor, would understand what Spock did to a neck to make his opponents pass out when he was supposed to fight. As a researcher Spock was more or less a failure. He did not conduct tedious experiments; he hardly documented his work, and he lacked the creativity to make a first wild guess which could then be turned into a hypothesis, to be then systematically tested. Vulcans are not capable of wild guesses and approximations. And anyway: Spock was not looking for rational explanations. He would read data from his tricorder and realise that they were inconclusive, illogical – “fascinating”.

Gene Roddenberry, the mastermind behind Star Trek has been lionized for his atheism. Scriptwriters had to accept that his was a future without religions. Religion offered, so Roddenberry’s conviction, nothing to solve our global problems. The crew would not carry religious symbols nor would anyone kneel down in his or her last moments. One has to consider a last trick that could save all their necks – and that trick was found episode after episode.

Vulcan logic was a dubious construct anyway. Vulcans were miraculous stoics who could control their violent emotions. They would otherwise, logically, use all their paranormal powers and practice telepathy, psychokinesis and other psi-phenomena whenever needed. Vulcan marriage rituals were strikingly illogical. Their architecture remained a mixture of megalithic masonry and ancient Egyptian mystery. And Spock, in the middle of all this his messy heritage, was apparently on a rather personal quest.

One might say he was looking for a deeper understanding, to be precise: for an empathic understanding. Yet, then again, this should not have been the job of the science officer. Scientific observations are supposed to be strictly independent from the observer’s personal view and scientific laws universal… Spock was exploring his personal integrity – and this was the quest Nimoy would insist on in the movie sequels he personally directed. Would Spock still be the same, even if he had to transfer his mind into a new body? Was this an egotistic quest or rather a test of strictest loyalty – the friend’s loyalty, and how could a rational being develop such a bond to a rather unreliable character like Kirk?

Nimoy and not Nimoy

A whole team of scriptwriters presented situations no serious actor would have accepted as consistent. Nimoy, however, accepted the challenge. There had to be a way Spock would react in these situations – a way in which Spock would remain Spock. Would Spock use Asian martial arts in a fight? – so the initial proposal. The Karate knifehand strike was popular in 1960s spy movies, the shortest way to end a fight, yet Nimoy refused the cheap acting and offered an alternative chiropractical grip, which Spock could apply almost with compassion. A man as composed as Spock would not devote himself to acquire the skills of a karate black belt. He would defend the logical perspective that the end of a fight – the adversary’s incapacity – was a medical problem and would act accordingly. Vulcans needed a greeting among themselves – again something the scriptwriters had not considered – and Nimoy offered again a personal solution: he smuggled a gesture of his personal religion, Judaism, into the atheistic universe and was amused about this subversive act for the rest of his life.

For three years Nimoy was Spock – five days a week. When the show was taken off air his personal life became messy. He remained an actor – though from now on he could only play Spock in his new roles as a “human actor” in cheap movies. His 1975 autobiography I Am Not Spock became a helpless attempt to rid himself of the burden. He eventually gave up. His 1995 revision I Am Spock became an admission that he had shaped this role and that this in turn had shaped him.

What would have Star Trek been without Spock? The Way to Eden, episode 20 of season 3, which aired on February 21, 1969, is for me one of the most interesting episodes vis à vis this question. A group of space hippies are beamed on board and demand to be brought to “Eden”, a planet on which they hope they will be able to live without the protection of modern technology. Though the young people appear to be anti-authoritarian peace lovers, they are little more than tools in the hands of their charismatic leader, Dr Sevrin, who had contracted a deadly virus which had been accidentally created under the sterile conditions of the future. Eden, he secretly hopes, will heal him.

A culture clash preludes the hijacking and the – disastrous – escape of the group to Eden. Kirk, Bones, and Scotty look down on their guests whilst it is Spock who begins to oscillate between the groups. Should he not reply their greeting? He does. Is he “Herbert”? Certainly not – a wise decision as it soon turns out that “Herbert” is their word for a narrow-minded bureaucrat. Spock with these two gestures of his personal intellectual independence has earned their respect. He will actually defend them in their absence in personal debates with Kirk and Bones: The modern technological era has its deplorable sides – Spock can understand the discontent. He is otherwise not at all ready to fraternise with these guests – quite the contrary: he will interact with his eyebrow raised, sceptically, reluctant, as an observer – yet open. Visited by one of the guests in his private apartment he shows his annoyance at the disturbance whilst readily accepting an invitation to a jam session. He joins the concert, though with an expression of constant irritation. Why a concert? Is it the ideal stage on which to show his readiness to engage in a constructive dialogue and his reluctance to switch sides? The entire concert is eventually used by the space hippies to bring the Enterprise under their control – their real music is in the end an ultrasound which can stun and (if applied long enough) even kill the crew.

The plotline is a drastically simple one of late 1960s confrontations. Yes, the Enterprise is futuristic, atheistic, liberal and no – it has nothing to do with the present Hippie rebellion, a rebellion of drop outs. Those who dream of an anti-authoritarian flower-power future are at best naïve. It is more likely that they are misled and manipulated by their dubious leaders.

My position in the show’s target group was precarious. I was twelve and could hardly hope to be accepted by my older cousins who had the best reasons to detest Star Trek, a product of American imperialism. They were hippies, rebels, fans of the entire palette of seductive music. I was a young boy under his father’s influence and my father was on Kirk’s side rather than on the side of my elder cousins when it came to discipline. My situation was, however, again superior if only I adopted Spock’s view: One would indeed have to understand the motifs. One could sympathise with good motifs, engage in a dialogue and yet remain a sceptic with all due respect.

Gene Roddenberry’s future would have been a sterile world of uniformity without Spock’s silent subversion – or Nimoy’s subversive creativity.

Did Nimoy and Spock discredit science? Apparently not. Nimoy’s death has been noted with sorrow by all the rationalist-, sceptic-, and pro-science websites in the ongoing “War on Science”. Nimoy created a scientist of a complexity and attractiveness that has remained unique and outstanding. Spock did not become one of the young nerds who compensate an unhealthy life style with their juvenile genius as computer hackers; and he has nothing in common with the alternative elderly Einsteinian type of Hollywood scientists, with their fuzzy hair and crazy ideas who are just as comically lost in this world of real heroes. Spock is personally capable, independent, pragmatic, openly curious, and self-aware. He could promise that intellectual independence and personal integrity can be preserved in any situation – even in the position of a science officer in the uncanny universe of Star Trek. I loved him for this independence.

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