Being Leonard Nimoy

Somewhere around third grade, I developed a habit of clasping my hands behind my back, “at ease”-style. I took to saying “Fascinating” whenever the situation even vaguely warranted it. And if I squinted one eye and tilted my head, I could just about fake raising a single eyebrow.

Armchair psychology tells me I identified with Spock because I, too, was the “other,” the outsider, the new kid. But come on – the logic, the dry humor, the ears. What’s not to love?Spock as Wisdom Figure

As I watched Star Trek reruns after school, my loyalties sometimes shifted. Kirk was the best. Scotty was the best. I even underwent a long stretch of naming the seldom seen transporter chief Lt. Kyle as my favorite. But I always came back to Spock, the science officer, the emotionless, super-competent alien.

Eventually, the show itself was not enough. So I bought books. Armed, for the first time, with money that was actually my own – earned by cashing out a savings bond given to me by my grandfather – I begged my mother to drive me to the mall. I made a beeline for Waldenbooks (or was it B. Dalton?) and left with three precious volumes that remain on my shelf today – The Making of Star Trek, The World of Star Trek, and The Trouble With Tribbles.

I devoured them, relishing the reprinted memos, the stories of backstage pranks, and the myriad details that emerged from inside the production. The life I read about on the soundstage was almost as interesting as life depicted on the Enterprise. Pretty soon, though, I started reading boy detective novels and my imaginative adventures began to change.

Yet Leonard Nimoy remained.

As an obsession with bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster and Chariots of the Gods took root, Nimoy appeared on TV to fuel it. In Search Of… provided an infuriatingly catchy theme song as well as frightening speculation behind mysteries that, when looked at now, don’t seem all that mysterious. Yet it pushed me to read even more, to explore, to weigh the evidence for myself.

I discovered Nimoy’s memoir, I Am Not Spock. Inside were photos of the actor in other roles. I was particularly taken by his appearance as King Arthur in Camelot, and vowed that I, too, would one day play that role.

Nimoy starred in Mission: Impossible for two years, including the single most memorable – to me – episode of the entire series, “Submarine.”

He wrote and starred in an acclaimed one-man play about the brothers Vincent and Theo Van Gogh. I followed news of it and could not wait to see the videotaped version run on HBO.

He recorded albums that I both treasured as cheese and fully enjoyed. One song, “You Are Not Alone,” from his debut album, Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space, became one that I introduced to college friends. They found it hilarious while also joining me in singalongs.

After watching the first several episodes, I gave up on William Shatner’s cop show, T.J. Hooker. But I tuned back in for Nimoy’s guest appearance.

I memorized a poem from one of Nimoy’s numerous poetry collections. Common wisdom says everyone should know one poem by heart, and mine is titled “Rocket Ships Are Exciting.”  I once shouted it aloud, over and over again, from the back of a parade float we titled “Trailer Full o’ Poets.”

When I spotted a memoir by Adam Nimoy, Leonard’s son, I instantly bought it and read it, heartened to learn that Nimoy was fully human, a good if sometimes too career-driven father.

I still find myself clasping my hands behind my back, Spock-style. If someone flashes me a peace sign, I respond with the Vulcan salute. One of my very few pieces of original art is a framed line drawing of Spock.

I guess all of these things, taken together, begin to explain why, for the first time in my life, I cried at the death of a celebrity.

Though I’ve yet to play King Arthur, I did get to perform another role that was, in the long run, much more memorable for me. While still in high school, I put together a cutting from the book I Am Not Spock that encompassed several imagined dialogues Nimoy devised between himself and his alter ego. I performed the piece for a statewide “solo acting” competition. For those few minutes on stage I became, quite literally, both sides of my hero.

It ended with this:

NIMOY: Don’t forget that I’m real and you’re only a fictitious character.

SPOCK: Are you sure?

Written in March 2015 for Shelf Unbound magazine. Later reprinted in the book Spockology.

Boldly Go

In fourth grade, I sold tribbles to my classmates. On Star Trek, they were cute alien creatures that gave Captain Kirk and his crew no end of trouble. In real life, they were balls of fake fur stuffed with foam rubber, sewed together with Mom’s help and marketed to my friends as ideal gifts. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even mention the TV show in my sales pitch. I didn’t need to – the tribbles thee584_star_trek_propaganda_posters_3 (1)mselves were a great idea.

At its heart, Star Trek revolved around ideas and inspiration. On screen, the tribbles were just a bit of fun, but their story can be seen as a commentary on population control and diplomacy. At its best, Star Trek specialized in social and political commentary. Some have even argued that the series as a whole represents America’s idealistic faith in the universal appeal of liberal democracy.

A somewhat mystical approach fueled the show’s first reinvention, 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which tried to marry 2001: A Space Odyssey’s cerebral pace and cinematic visuals to a character-based adventure. Unfortunately, while the result is watchable – largely due to the power and majesty of Jerry Goldsmith’s stunning musical score – the movie failed to capture the spirit that made the original series so beloved.

On the other hand, 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was everything the first movie wasn’t. Well-paced, well-acted, and centered around one of the series’ best episodes, the second Star Trek film raised the stakes for the characters and the franchise as a whole. 1984’s underappreciated Star Trek III: The Search for Spock played almost as Wrath of Khan part 2, while Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) embraced a lighter approach that translated to broader public appeal.

In 1987, Star Trek returned to television with a new generation of stars and a continued embrace of culturally relevant stories. On the big screen, the original crew stumbled with Star Trek V: The Final Frontier before going out in a blaze of glory for 1991’s détente-themed Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

The Star Trek: The Next Generation crew’s first foray into movies, 1994’s Star Trek: Generations, gave us an unsatisfying (and probably unnecessary) melding with some of the original crew, while their next film, the somewhat derivative Star Trek: First Contact (1996), gave them a better chance to shine. Their final two films, 1998’s Star Trek: Insurrection and 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis, attempted some depth and originality, but nearly killed the franchise with tepid box office returns.

In 2009, JJ Abrams re-envisioned Star Trek as a straightforward action picture. While it made some fans angry, I thought it was a rip-roaring good time – then again, I may have let the tribble cameo sway me too much. The most recent entry, 2013’s Star Trek: Into Darkness, attempts a small return to social commentary while also ramping up the action. It’s also, much to its detriment, slavishly tied to Wrath of Khan. Like Nemesis before it, there seems to be too much looking backward, almost to the point of pastiche.

The original series sought to “boldly go” forward, and ended up inspiring people to become astronauts, to invent flip phones, and, in my case, to make their own tribbles. I have to wonder: will kids today get the same charge from the current action movies that are called Star Trek? Will today’s generation boldly go into the final frontier, or just munch some popcorn and move on to the next fad? Let’s hope that any future entries will once again explore strange new worlds.

Image from Think Geek.

Star Trek – The New Movie

So, rather surprisingly, I got out of the house and made it to a movie theater. On an opening weekend. It’s harder than you think with my two kids. They’re high energy, they’re fun and they like to do everything together as a family and by the end of a day it’s all I can do to drag myself into bed.

But I wanted to see Star Trek. I’d hoped to see it sooner rather than later, but it was proving tricky. I didn’t really want to go by myself (although I was ready to resort to that). My wife decided from the promos that the film was aimed at 18 year old boys and would be “too much” for her. The friend I have in town who’s closest to a Trek fan already had plans to go see it with his girlfriend. I figured I’d get to see it at some point with another friend – and, frankly, I had no idea of his history with or opinion of the Trek franchise. But then he called Friday evening. “You want to go see it tonight?”

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