By now you’ve read one of the many tributes to Leonard Nimoy, the actor who was best known for the role of Spock in Star Trek for nearly fifty years. There’s not much more I can say here to add to the great tributes. Living in the age of the Internet, it has become a tradition for dozens of pieces to pop up within hours of the announcement of a celebrity’s death. These pieces talk about how much the actor’s most important roles meant to us personally, how they changed our lives, etc. Nimoy’s death is no different. Already, I’ve had the pleasure of reading pieces about the Jewish origins of the famous Vulcan salute, Nimoy’s own advice to a biracial child in the late 1960s, the ways in which Trek and other television shows became useful fodder for cultural studies, and his standing up for fellow cast member Nichelle Nichols to be paid equally to everyone else.
Spock’s importance to the Trek mythos is unmistakable. His character was the first of several characters in Star Trek used to explore the human condition. Data in The Next Generation, Odo in Deep Space Nine, Seven of Nine and The Doctor in Voyager, T’Pol in Enterprise: all these characters are just different incarnations of Spock, the outsider struggling to understand humanity. He was the consummate outsider to the rest of the Enterprise crew. In a sense, we could all relate to Spock. When have you felt misunderstood, alone, or isolated? Or have you ever experienced being stuck between two worlds, two cultures, two distinct ways of thinking? In that case you were, for a moment, Spock.
. The impact of Star Trek on American culture, and what it says about American culture, has been written about at length. Reactions to Nimoy’s death have proven to be another example of that impact. In that sense, Nimoy’s death allows for a larger reflection on how intellectual and cultural historians should research and write about “the American mind” since the 1960s. When the President of the United States feels compelled to write a tribute to a celebrity that should tell you about the importance about said celebrity to national culture. The ways Trek served as a clearinghouse for stories relating to real world experience enabled it to become a cultural touchstone. It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: Star Trek in the late 1960s was a place where issues of racism, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War were dealt with alongside transporters and phaser fights.
Many of my closest friends in the historical profession are also Star Trek fans. Perhaps it’s because the various television shows and movies offer a reflection of the best qualities of exploration: a seeking of the truth, a fascination with discovery, the thrill of knowing something that no one else knows, and a yearning to tell everyone else about that “something.” And as historians, we consider ourselves to be explorers of the past. Or, well, maybe so many historians like Trek because it allows us an escape from both the past and the present (and consider all the times Trek has offered trenchant critiques of modern society, whether through allegory or time travel).
I don’t want to get too personal on this blog, but most of my Twitter followers and Facebook friends know me as a Trek fan. I was not surprised by Nimoy’s death—I knew he had been admitted to the hospital earlier in the week—but I was deeply saddened by it in a way I’m not when it comes to most celebrity deaths. Celebrity deaths aren’t quite the same as a death in the family or losing a close friend, or even experiencing the death of a personal mentor. They’re different for two reasons: most of us never get to meet the celebrity personally, and at the same time the mourning is never completely done in a bubble. Friday I kept cringing every time I surfed the web, because it seemed another tribute to Nimoy was just a click or scroll down away. I wanted to be away from the tributes. However, it was also comforting to know so many folks cared about Nimoy and acknowledged his importance to their lives.
When the first cultural and intellectual histories of the early twenty-first century are written, space will have to be made for the use of the web in commemorating death. DeForest Kelley (Leonard “Bones” McCoy on Star Trek) died in 1999, and James Doohan (Scotty) passed away in 2005, both before social media exploded on the web. Trek fans talked about their deaths in message boards and read the obits in their local newspapers, but we didn’t have anything like Twitter or Facebook with which to commemorate the lives of our favorite actors. We’ve had this for under a decade now, and the pattern always repeats itself. It’s a comforting pattern though, a reminder that celebrities mean more to us than simply seeing them on television or film, hearing them sing or speak. Leonard Nimoy, and his most famous role as Spock, invited us to think about what it means to be an outsider, to be misunderstood. In short, Spock invited us to reconsider what it meant to be human.
For a young kid growing up in the early 1990s who was not athletic, shy around others, and often quiet at school, Spock was a hero. Spock was heroic for me because he used his brain—and was valued for it. It’s easy to talk about Americans being anti-intellectual, but characters like Spock provide the opportunity to think about how brainy fictional figures are also important in American cultural history. Leonard Nimoy inspired many boys and girls, men and women, to embrace cultural diversity. It would be trite for me to say that Nimoy’s life and career were “fascinating”….except both were.
Tags: .USIH Blog