Leonard Nimoy was a beloved cultural icon, but I don’t need to tell you that. When news broke Friday that the 83-year-old actor, director, photographer, and all-around good guy had died in Los Angeles, the outpouring of grief from all corners of the Internet was overwhelming. By now you’ve probably read (or at least scrolled past on Twitter or Facebook) every possible tribute and think piece about the man who breathed life into Spock, the stoic alien first officer aboard the USS Enterprise on the original incarnation of Star Trek…that is, every think piece except this one.
Here’s a thought to chew on: Though he hailed from Boston, and the character that made him famous originated on a fictitious planet called Vulcan, Leonard Nimoy, through Spock, embodied the spirit of New York City.
I know that may sound like a stretch, but before I explain, I have something awkward to admit: I’m a Star Trek fan, and a rabid one at that. I say it with trepidation because there’s nothing cool about Star Trek. While plenty of other sci-fi and comic book stories have crossed the threshold of geek-dom and into the mainstream, I can’t help but feel that, despite five TV series, 10 feature films (including a J.J. Abrams reboot), and the elevation of Spock, Captain Kirk, Jean-Luc Picard, and many other characters from its 50-year history into the zeitgeist, the Trek franchise is still seen by many as inaccessibly nerdy. And admitting to be a fan, as am I, can be social Kryptonite.
Yes, being a nerd is now considered somewhat cool…as long as you’re the right type of nerd — a Star Wars fan. Sure, it’s cool to idolize the evil Darth Vader, but who the hell ever heard of The Gorn or The Borg Queen or The Dominion? Building your own mock lightsaber will win the praises of your fanboy friends, but if you build a phaser or a tricorder it’s, “man, have you ever even touched a girl?” Even William Shatner famously poked fun at Star Trek fans — commonly referred to as Trekkies or Trekkers — in a now classic SNL sketch that characterized them as obsessive, parents’-basement-dwelling virgins. Quite frankly, saying you’re a nerd because you like Star Wars is like saying you’re a drug addict because you smoke weed. Star Trek’s no gateway drug; it’s the real shit, and I’ve been mainlining it since I was a toddler.
The genius behind Star Trek, like The Twilight Zone and other groundbreaking science fiction series of the day, was its ability to comment on social issues that hit too close to home, by putting characters in a setting that wasn’t close to home at all — outer space. There, creator Gene Roddenberry could tackle sexism, racism, genocide, and all the other ills of 20th century Earth from a safe distance, while fooling viewers (and the network, NBC) into thinking they were watching a fun interstellar romp about encounters with far-flung alien species. Spock was central to this idea. As a Vulcan, Spock had cleansed himself of all emotion, leaving only pure logic to drive his decisions. We saw all the foibles of humanity through his discerning, critical lens as he tried to make sense of the impulsiveness of his foil, James T. Kirk. But Spock was only half Vulcan (his mother was Human), and his struggle to reconcile the demands of his mind with the desires of his heart is a struggle that’s innate to us all. And to New York.
Both Spock and the City are a hodgepodge of competing cultural outlooks in which a mixing of races has given birth to a completely unique way of looking at life. As busy New Yorkers, we, like Vulcans, can be logical to a fault and devoid of emotion — but never compassion. Our remaining humanity informs our logic, reminding us that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Spock gave his life to save his crew in Wrath of Khan; first responders rushed into the Twin Towers as they burned. To live in NYC is to be forever inquisitive, brave, and loyal to those around you — the same qualities the first officer of the Enterprise must too embody. The City, like Spock, is a commentary on the human condition, and also a reflection. We see ourselves in it, and it in us.
Most of all, through Spock, Leonard Nimoy taught us to be proud of who you are, even when you’re the only alien on a starship…or the only awkward Star Trek fan in the room.
Though it’s already been said many times, live long and prosper, Mr. Nimoy.