Why did we love Spock? A Leonard Nimoy tribute from a Star Trek nerd

What made so many people identify with a character who showed no emotion and had pointy ears?

You don’t have to be a sci-fi nerd or old enough to have seen the original series when it was on in the 1960s to love Mr. Spock, although I admit to being both. Sorry, Capt. Kirk, Capt. Picard, and all the other actors and characters, but when you think Star Trek, you think Spock and Leonard Nimoy.

When someone makes the comment “Fascinating,” you think of Spock and can almost hear the echo of Nimoy’s voice. When you hear the words “Live long and prosper,” your middle and ring fingers automatically separate. And don’t you wish there was an actual way to do the Vulcan mind meld?

For all of the praise and tributes deservedly being given in Nimoy’s memory, for his talents as an actor, a writer, a director, and a humanitarian, it was Spock and the whole show’s concept that became a part of us. All of us who have ever felt like outsiders — which I guess means most of humanity — identified with Spock, even though he was half human and half Vulcan. He felt like one of us. He always remained an outsider even though his character was fully accepted and appreciated by the crew for his leadership and his intelligence.

Full nerd disclosure: I attended a Star Trek convention once, as a reporter for my college newspaper in the 1970s (It was a hoot; the convention’s security personnel were all dressed as Klingons); I have seen every episode of the original series (Sorry, Tribble fans, best episode was “City on the Edge of Forever”); I have seen every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (Best episode: “Yesterday’s Enterprise”); I have seen quite a few episodes of Deep Space Nine and Voyager, although I never much liked the prequel Enterprise; I have seen all of the films; and I have argued passionately with other fans that the new J.J. Abrams movies aren’t following the established Star Trek logic of time reverting to previous history once the problems caused by time travel were corrected (as evidenced in the two episodes mentioned). Until I just accepted the alternate-story-and-universe theory. Oh, and my family once gave me a communicator pin that lit up and played the distinctive sound, although I have resisted buying it for my phone’s ringtone.

President Obama says he loved Spock, too, and it wasn’t just because of a shared characteristic of oversize ears. “Long before being nerdy was cool, there was Leonard Nimoy,” said Obama’s statement on Nimoy’s passing. He was “cool, logical, big-eared and level-headed, the center of Star Trek’s optimistic, inclusive vision of humanity’s future.”

The inclusiveness certainly was apparent. After all, Star Trek was the first program to show an interracial kiss on TV, between the white Capt. Kirk and the black Lt. Uhura. Or kisses between humans and alien life forms. We met humanoid and non-humanoid beings (and other life forms harder to characterize) on the original show and its multiple spinoffs — many of them crew members. Heck, by the time Star Trek: TNG aired, the Klingon Worf was on the Enterprise crew instead of being an arch enemy.

Star Trek gave us an optimistic and better view of the future. The original Enterprise crew had a black Uhura in the real civil rights era, an Asian Ensign Sulu during the Vietnam War, and a Russian Ensign Chekov while America was stuck in the Cold War. In Next Gen, we were told that by the 24th century, there was peace, no more poverty, almost no disease, no pollution. When you use dilithium crystals for power to achieve warp drive, there’s no carbon footprint (unless you accept the argument in the Next Gen episode “Force of Nature” that using warp drives harms the fabric of space).

When the first show ended after three seasons, the show’s influence grew in scientific as well as popular culture. The flip-phone model of early cell phones mirrored communicators. The flat pads the characters used look like today’s computer tablets. NASA named its first space shuttle the “Enterprise.” NASA even hired actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, to try to convince African-American women to become astronauts. It paid off with astronaut Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to fly in space.

Through it all, there was Spock. Spock was the character used in multiple spinoff series episodes and multiple films, even in the 2009 first prequel film by director Abrams. Of course, it helped that the Vulcan lifespan is more than two hundred years, making it logical to use the character of Spock when other characters would presumably by dead. And where would a Vulcan character be without logic? Of course, we can’t pay tribute to Nimoy and Spock without a deep appreciation for the Great Bird of the Galaxy himself, series creator Gene Roddenberry, whose ashes were fittingly carried into space.

“Are you out of your Vulcan mind?” Dr. McCoy asks Spock at the end of The Wrath of Khan, when Spock sacrifices himself to save the crew by absorbing the energy of the radiated warp core. “No human can tolerate the radiation that’s in there!” Spock, of course, answers, “As you are so fond of observing, Doctor, I am not human.”

“I have been, and always will be, your friend,” he tells Kirk before he dies.

We can only be grateful that we got to go along for the ride.

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