Like most people, I actually remember very little of the early years of my life. I remember my first day at school; a childhood accident; a trip to the seaside; the faces and voices of some older relatives, now long dead; my first viewing of Star Wars, and Disney’s The Jungle Book; Kate Bush; Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2), and the smell of my grandad’s pipe. After that, it’s pretty much all a blur until I turned eight years old. There is one other thing I remember very clearly, though: the first time I watched an episode of Star Trek.
I have my mum to thank for it, really. She loved – and still does, actually – what she referred to as “space adventures”. She actually suggested going to see Star Wars when it came out, Although I had already developed a fondness for dinosaurs and “monsters” by the time Star Wars was released, it wasn’t even really on my radar as a five-year old. She thought it would be fun, so we went – and right there and then, my lifetime fascination with this thing we call Science Fiction was well and truly sparked.
So when my mum told me one evening that “an American space show” she had “heard a lot about” was going to start being shown, I was as keen as she was to see what it was like. So we sat down on the sofa in front of the TV that night – my grandparents, who we lived with, were out for the evening – and watched the first episode of Star Trek I had ever seen. The episode in question was The Man Trap, and we watched, transfixed, for the next 50 minutes or so.
We were both instantly smitten with it. The crew were sympathetic, engaging characters that you were able to root for immediately, and the salt-sucking space vampire that formed the episode’s antagonist was brilliantly conceived. The original Star Trek episodes managed to do exactly what the best episodes of Britain’s own – rather more eccentric and weird – Doctor Who managed to do, which was present relatively simple stories in an unhurried and atmospheric way. The cinematography and soundtrack work worked beautifully, and both me and my mum exclaimed in dismay and self-conscious horror at the demise of each red-shirted crewman. When the episode ended, we looked at each and simultaneously said, “that was great. Shall we watch again next week?” We rarely missed an episode after that until the run of repeated episodes was complete.
One question that my mum frequently asked me over the weeks and months that followed was, “who’s your favourite?” She was referring to the crew, of course. I think she expected me to like Captain Kirk best – the swashbuckling – yet thoughtful and empathetic – hero who was invariably at the centre of events; or perhaps the irascible but kindly Dr. McCoy, who she adored (this may or may not have had something to do with the fact that she was a nurse herself, although I’m sure DeForest Kelley’s immortal Southern charm might also have had a lot to do with it); or even Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, who had the same fondness for computers and machines that I had begun to display myself. But no – it was the Vulcan First Officer, Mr. Spock, that rapidly became my favourite character on the show.
Psychologically I’m sure that there’s fertile ground to be explored there. I think Spock’s struggle with his half-Vulcan, half-human racial inheritance struck a chord with a large number of kids who watched the show as they were growing up – specifically his struggle with his own very powerful emotions, something that most kids have probably struggled with themselves at times. Spock, confused by his own emotions and struggling to keep their worst excesses in check, frequently displayed his own puzzlement at the expressed emotions of his comrades – many times his inability to tackle emotional issues in an effective way was a chief plot point of an episode. I suppose I felt a kind of kinship with Spock: here was a character who seemed almost childlike in his own way, sometimes a victim of his own emotions (nowhere is this more clearly evidenced than in the episode Amok Time), and other times struggling to deal with the emotions of his crewmates (notably his very logical approach to events in the episode The Galileo Seven leads to near mutiny as his crewmates can’t understand Spock’s apparently unfeeling behaviour).
At the same time, Spock was also an aspirational figure, whose brilliant mind and great physical strength set him apart from his crewmates. Superheroes are popular with kids for good reasons – who doesn’t want to feel empowered in a frequently brutal and unfair world? – and if Spock wasn’t a superhero, he was also larger than life. He was also part alien, which of course is deeply cool. Especially to kids.
The habitual Star Trek viewing that my mum and I enjoyed continued, as we watched the revival of the franchise through feature films after the TV show had come to an end. I don’t think I need to describe here just how upset I was by Spock’s demise at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, where he sacrifices his own life to enable his comrades to escape a deadly trap left them by their dying adversary, the ruthless Khan. I cried. I wailed. I was genuinely heartbroken. For all that, though, I was by then old enough to realise that Spock’s actions were admirable, which only endeared the character to me still further. You can similarly imagine my delight when Spock was miraculously resurrected through a combination of an accident of science and an ancient Vulcan ritual in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Once again, I cried. I wailed. I laughed. And in the sacrifices and efforts of his crewmates to return Spock to life, I gained a new respect for all their characters as well. I think it was at this point that I realised Star Trek was, at it’s heart, about a family – and that was when I realised that I had become that most maligned of things: a Star Trek fan.
As the years passed by and Star Trek‘s legacy was passed to new sets of actors with Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise, and then the recent J.J. Abrams-helmed feature films, Spock would occasionally re-appear – after all, Vulcans were famously long-lived and Spock was such a hugely popular character, why not? Always his presence would bring a grin of delight to my face. Even his brief cameo in the latest of the long series of Star Trek films, 2013’s Star Trek: Into Darkness, was the cause of an actual outbreak of cheering at the cinema when I went to see the film. I will admit to cheering myself.
If Spock was the only character that actor Leonard Nimoy had given life to, it would have been enough. Spock is not just a dearly beloved character on a very popular show, he is also a genuine social phenomenon, his every utterance rendered into catchphrases, his iconic look copied time and time again, and his character informing other characters in the series, from Star Trek: The Next Generations much-loved android Data, to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s taciturn and emotional Odo, to Star Trek: Voyager‘s indigenous ‘reclaimed’ Borg, Seven of Nine. But Nimoy’s work went far beyond Spock – as the title of Nimoy’s first biography stated, I Am Not Spock (a second volume was entitled I Am Spock, which was endearing in itself). He was a versatile and talented actor who filled any number of memorable roles. One of his most memorable turns was as the chillingly crazy William Bell on the TV series Fringe, a role as wonderfully hissable as Spock had been sympathetic. Watching Fringe, I had actually exclaimed “Oh my god!” and practically leapt out of my chair when Nimoy first appeared as Bell. Nimoy inspired these kind of feelings: it was a mark of the respect he was held in as an actor. When he appeared on screen, you knew you were in a pair of safe hands; you knew, in short, that no matter the role, he would make you care, one way or the other.
Today I and the rest of the world discovered that Leonard Simon Nimoy had died, at the age of 83. Predictably, social media was jammed with tributes to the man and his work (he was a noted photographer in addition to his acting, and even found time at the height of his notoriety to make some entertaining – if cheesily comedic – albums). Upon hearing the news, I sat in genuine shock for a few minutes. I tapped out a brief tribute to post to Twitter, hit enter, and then was surprised to find that I was crying. Not quiet, thoughtful tears, but actual chest-heaving sobs. I’m not one of these people who is deeply affected by celebrity death: after all, these days it is almost omnipresent thanks to our increased connectedness. Nimoy’s death hit me very hard. Why? Because a character he had carefully developed and performed with such care had taught me so much. Because that character had helped to shape my worldview. Because Nimoy had poured so much of himself into Spock’s character – his strength of character – that I felt I knew the man well even though I had never met him.
Goodbye, Leonard. Our lives were the richer for your presence in them, and you will be deeply missed.