by Michael Salop
THE TEXT CAME IN ON FRIDAY, February 27, at 1:09 pm. “Spock died.” It was a fitting way to find out that Leonard Nimoy had shuffled off this mortal coil — via a bit of technology that would have been considered science fiction when Star Trek first ran in the 1960s.
But it was also a jarring way to find out, and it left me a little dazed. Spock dead? This time it was real. He wouldn’t leap back to life after the commercial break. There was no Genesis planet to resurrect him. His days of cameos in the new incarnation of Star Trek, in Priceline commercials, on The Big Bang Theory, were over.
I first discovered Star Trek late one night when I was quite young — I couldn’t have been more than 5. After a day of eating Cap’n Crunch for breakfast, pizza for lunch, and steak for dinner, all washed down with copious amounts of Pepsi-Cola — how glorious it was to be a child in the ’70s! — I, for some reason, couldn’t sleep. It seemed very late — perhaps it was. It was late enough that I emerged from my room to find my mother and sister watching Star Trek.
I fell in love with the show. Everything about it. Outer space, phasers, fighting. Ominous aliens who turn out to be friendly, and friendly aliens who turn out to be ominous. A doctor who gives shots without actually piercing the skin. Sets, clearly on loan from Paramount’s back lot — why else would this space opera try to force its plots so they could involve an episode that takes place at the O.K. Corral, and another in ancient Rome?
And the characters — I fell for them too. And none more than Mr. Spock.
Why Spock? Why not take charge, can-do, shoot from the hip Captain Kirk? Or the cantankerous Dr. McCoy, who can cure any disease within an hour? Or even the greatest mechanic in the galaxy, Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott? Well, Kirk’s a bit too alpha for my taste, McCoy is a little too angry (and I faint at the sight of blood – even in the 23rd century, a doctor has to deal with blood), and the last time I tried to “fix” something there was a small flood in my bathroom. But feeling like an alien, that I understood. Who doesn’t?
I won’t go too deeply into my own experience of alienation. Suffice to say that Freud, Groucho, Woody Allen, and I all share an intense skepticism of clubs that would have us for members. But Spock either had no such aversion or got past it, being the only Vulcan to join Starfleet.
His character was written as a being of pure logic, no emotion. Nimoy wisely realized that such a character wouldn’t be interesting. So, Spock, being half human, would not be a logical, robotic automaton, but a being struggling to keep his emotions in check.
Superman (in the guise of Clark Kent) might be the ultimate pop culture metaphor for assimilation, passing as human, keeping his background a closely guarded secret. But Spock is the immigrant who doesn’t give up his culture. He doesn’t try to pass. He is proud to be Vulcan, and is forever trying to reconcile that with being a Starfleet officer.
HIS SHIPMATES DON’T ALWAYS MAKE IT EASY. Quite a few episodes end with playful teasing at the expense of his Vulcan heritage, from dismissing a culture built on logic to simply mocking his pointy ears. And Spock, the stoic outsider, not immune to emotion, but always repressing his feelings, endured it.
Nimoy’s own Orthodox Jewish roots infused much of the character. When asked about the split fingered Vulcan salute he came up with, he’s told the story (more at the end of the article) of being a boy in the synagogue, and being told to close his eyes, as the men on the bima prayed and wailed. He peeked — and saw the men with their fingers split between the middle and ring fingers. Later, he discovered this was symbolic of the Hebrew letter shin (representing El Shaddai, meaning almighty God), and was the gesture of the “priestly blessing,” recited by the Kohanim in synagogue (“May the Lord bless and keep you…” etc.) and sometimes engraved on Jewish tombstones.
But his performance is more interesting during those moments when he’s being picked on for his heritage. We’ve all been in situations where we have friends or people we have to deal with who are insensitive to our viewpoints, beliefs, backgrounds. You can choose to argue with them, banter with them, calmly correct them, tell them they’ve hurt your feelings. You can ignore them, but even that’s an active choice. Nimoy, being Jewish in America in the 1960s, surely would have dealt with some form of intolerance. And that understanding comes through in his performance. And here’s where his choice, to think of the character as repressing emotion rather than not having emotion also comes through. These barbs don’t just bounce off him. Sometimes he’s annoyed, sometimes he banters back, picking on humans and how silly their emotions are. But through it all, we can see how hard he’s trying, trying to fit in in the human world, trying not to lose his temper — how un-Vulcan-like that would be — and that he wants to be an exemplary member of his race. The same scenes could play out with a Jewish copy-writer at a gentile Mad Men-esque ad agency, circa 1966.
Nimoy’s Jewish background informed the choices he made for Mr. Spock, but the feeling of alienation, of being the outsider, is a universal feeling — as much as anything it is the human core of the Star Trek universe, and an eminently logical reason for its enduring popularity.
More from the Wexler Oral History Project‘s interview with Nimoy:
Michael Salop is a lifelong Star Trek fan and Kinderlander. His writing has been published by Splitsider and The First Line.