Home > Culture, Current Affairs, Film, History, Television > Spock as Icon: Leonard Nimoy – 1931-2015

Spock as Icon: Leonard Nimoy – 1931-2015

That small hiccup of lag you might register on the internet today is not due to fugitive llamas or a roaring debate over the indistinct colours of a fuzzily-photographed dress. No, if you notice the slightest of bandwidth slowdowns today, it may well be traced back to the millions of science fiction fans the world over watching and linking to their favourite YouTube clips of the death and funeral of Spock from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The actor who first and most memorably played Spock on the original Star Trek television series in the late 1960s and in the subsequent franchise movies in the 1980s passed away much more quietly today. Leonard Nimoy, actor, director, writer, singer, and larger-than-life icon, was 83.

This last term will be applied most gratuitously in reports and eulogies of Nimoy in the popular media discourse over the next few hours and days. And yet it applies in this case not only as a conventionally-circulated term of praise and endearment for a prominent cultural figure but in strict definitional terms as well. “Icon”, the Greek word for “image”, was first and most commonly applied to the flat images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or saints venerated in Orthodox Christian faiths. The implications the word acquired from these practices, however, became much deeper and more significant. The icon was a familiar, quotidian object, a focus of identification and aspiration that made the distant, mysterious, unknowable realm of the divine personal and identifiable to the common faithful. Through icons, the unintelligible became not only intelligible but close-by, intimate, relatable.

Cultural icons of our modern age function similarly, and performers in the mass media make very fine examples. We do not know them but feel like we do, conceive of these icons in familiar and intimate terms, weaving not only their performances but also their apparent personalities and characteristics into our visions of our own identities. In the 20th Century and into the 21st, speculative and imaginative narratives are the defining texts of the discourse, and the icons that features within these texts are among our most popular icons, figures that stand for far more than the sum of their textually-contained parts: James Bond, Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Big Brother, the Wizard of Oz, and, yes, Spock.

Many observers will point to Leonard Nimoy’s other non-Trek work – “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins”, 3 Men and a Baby, his striking photography – to demonstrate that he was more than a pair of pointy ears, blue shirt, and upraised eyebrow. But as Nimoy himself came around to admitting in his book title progression from denial to acceptance, he was Spock. But millions of others were Spock, too. Nerds, creative types, thoughtful children, and color_nimoy_headshotlogical devotees across the globe venerated Nimoy’s iconic character as an ideal whose example of cool-headed steadiness and unwavering consistency of morality, honour and intellect they could aspire and strive towards in a world of overheated passions and emotional decision-making. One of their number is currently President of the United States.

Nimoy seeded Spock with pieces of his own identity, certainly. His Jewish heritage loomed particularly large: Spock’s famous Vulcan salute and accompanying motto “Live Long and Prosper” were both lifted from childhood reminiscences of priestly blessings from the synagogue. The isolated primacy of logic and intellect in Spock’s worldview when compared to the lusty passion and physical bravery that underlay Captain Kirk’s embodiment of power and heroism was in some ways a textualized metaphor for the Jewish social and cultural experience as an internal Other in gentile societies for centuries. The Jewish people survived in commonly challenging and often hostile milieus by their mental and practical skills, maintaining a stubborn dignity in the face of inborn bigotry, as did Spock on the Enterprise, where he had influence and vital importance but was also a minority, facing prejudices both subtle and blatant.

But icons are icons because those who are devoted to them see their own identities – be they actual or imagined, current or future – projected onto these idealized images. Star Trek owes much of its continued cultural relevance to its image of a hopeful future, a vision of space travel and exploratory cooperation that was not quite utopian but certainly not dystopian either. Spock, a man of science and logic and curiosity (“Fascinating” was nearly as well-known a catchphrase as “Live long and prosper”), was the key to this vision in the original Trek (although the cultured Captain Picard and his antiseptic neoliberal space-borne condo complex in The Next Generation is perhaps a purer distillation of this vision from franchise doyen Gene Rodenberry’s twilight years). It was Spock who wanted to document, investigate, and understand the universe, an inquisitive, interstellar, alien Joseph Banks to Kirk’s sex-crazed, ready-to-fight mutation of Captain James Cook‘s imperial vanguard.

In a popular culture increasingly conquered not by Kirks but by Spocks, Leonard Nimoy’s iconic creation has gained a greater cultural currency. Although Spock is a super-strong, super-smart, usually emotionless extraterrestrial space traveller from the (ever-less) distant future who sometimes regarded his human counterparts as something resembling living laboratory experiments, many of those same features made him an icon to millions. His alterity was subsumed by his proximity, his unintelligibility rendered intelligible by recognizable and relatable traits that people hoped to intuit in themselves as well. The passing of Leonard Nimoy does not mean the end of Spock; Zachary Quinto has crafted a flattering if sharper-edged tribute to Nimoy’s unforgettable performances in J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek films, and those original performances are only a DVD or YouTube link away too, after all. But the loss of the original model indelibly fades the icon’s glowing inner light.

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