I was born in 1960, so the original Star Trek was a first-run series for me. The show and its characters were constant presences during my childhood and adolescent years, first during its original broadcast on NBC from 1966 to 1969, and then in endless syndicated reruns in the years after, all the way up to the advent of the home video age, when I of course bought the series as soon as it became available.
Star Trek, even at its best (the first two years, before the disastrous third and final season, when changes in production personnel made every week a turkey shoot) was a very uneven show. Just doing an evaluative run down of the season two episode list makes it clear how different the show was from standard network fare, and how difficult it was to write well for: excellent episode, decent, excellent, one of the best, stinker, excellent, terrible, so-so, so-so, excellent, stinker, stinker… and so on.
These evaluations are naturally highly personal and different fans will have their own judgments, but I think most people who love the series will have to admit that the truncated “five-year mission” had a lot of flat tires along the way. (Stranded one hundred light-years from the nearest filling station — that’s trouble. No, wait a minute — that’s Voyager.)
Arguably this doesn’t reflect the challenges of an offbeat show like Star Trek so much as it does the grind of network television in those days, the relentless production pressures that turned the medium into what Stephen King has called “the bottomless pit of shit.” (In looking back at the Twilight Zone, Rod Serling reckoned that a third of the episodes were pretty good, a third were only fair, and a third were just terrible… and he figured that all things considered, that was a decent ratio, or at least about the best you could hope for given the limitations of a commercial medium.)
Great, good, or god-awful, though, I loved Star Trek. I knew the plots backward and forward, could recite reams of dialogue, hummed the music cues. When Bantam started publishing the James Blish short story collections based on the episodes, I snapped them up and carried them everywhere with me, and I was there for the very first Star Trek novel, again by Blish, Spock Must Die. (I didn’t like it. It wasn’t enough like the show.)
I stuffed myself with behind-the-scenes detail and lore by reading and re-reading The Making of Star Trek by Stephen Whitfield and The World of Star Trek by David Gerrold. I would have sold my soul for a toy phaser (like the one I have on my desk now).
Was I a “trekkie”? Nah. Living in a blue-collar community in the pre-internet stone age, I was unconnected with any kind of fandom. I would never have considered showing up at school with a funny haircut (funnier than my normal one, I mean) and pointy plastic ears — I would have gotten the crap beat out of me. I just loved the show.
Because I loved Star Trek, I found — and still find — things to enjoy and appreciate even in the worst episodes: a nice character moment, a good bit of dialogue, a fleeting scrap of something original or funny or stirring. And, as is the way with the productions of popular culture, sometimes the badness mixes and congeals and forms something that’s almost better than what’s actually good — “The Way to Eden”, anyone? (Out of all three seasons, there’s only one episode that I find utterly irredeemable, thoroughly unwatchable — the third season’s “That Which Survives.” It’s such a bomb I can’t even think of a good joke to make about it.)
It is hard for younger people, living in this time when “geek culture” has conquered the world, to appreciate what Star Trek meant to us grizzled veterans of the sixties, but take it from me – the world then was not what it is today, when the President of the United States is a fanboy, grandmothers wear Doctor Who tee-shirts, and the science fiction/horror/superhero axis literally owns Hollywood. None of that was even dreamed of back then.
So how extraordinary it was that, for an hour a week, you could leave a world where the best you could hope for was to see Shirley Jones wear a somewhat shorter skirt than usual or watch Joe Mannix get pistol-whipped (again), and travel into the future! Truly, at its best, Star Trek took you where no man had gone before — certainly where no one else was going that week in 1968. It was a show like no other on television.
For me (and I think for most of those who passionately loved the series), the key figure was the Vulcan Science Officer, Mr. Spock, indelibly played by Leonard Nimoy, who died a few days ago at the age of eighty three. Time and again it was the character of Spock and Nimoy’s sensitive portrayal of him that elevated the show to a different, unprecedented level.
Certainly William Shatner’s Captain James T. Kirk is one of pop culture’s great heroes, strong, handsome, decisive, irresistible to the ladies of any Class-M planet. But let’s face it, I was not going to be James T. Kirk. (Fans are by definition far gone in fantasy, but I wasn’t that far gone.)
For a bespectacled, shy, bookish kid with no ability to punt, pass, or kick and a pimply complexion that might as well have been pasty Vulcan green, Spock was the ideal, the one I wanted to be, because he was the one I knew I could be, the one I already half was. (The great joke of Star Trek is that most of us — myself included — have actually grown up to be Doctor McCoy, but we’ll let that pass.)
Spock gave a lot of kids like me a peg to hang our tricorders on, and we spent countless hours practicing ironically lifting one eyebrow, or prying our fingers apart in that funny Vulcan salute, or finding just the right spot for the nerve pinch (you could get in trouble with that one), or muttering “fascinating” under our breaths.
But all of that was icing on the cake, fun to play around with, but ultimately just schtick. What made Spock real to us, what made him matter, was the fault line that ran down the middle of the character and that Nimoy showed us so beautifully. The son of a Vulcan father and a human mother (forget the biological impossibility — this science fiction was fantasy and all fantasy is metaphor), torn between his cold, emotionless, logical Vulcan heritage on one side and the needs and passions that define humanity on the other, Spock was a man always at war internally, never fully able to accept or reject either aspect of himself.
He was a man who could never relax, who never had the luxury of just being himself, because every minute of the day, he was locked in the struggle of deciding just who this person in the mirror actually was. (The conflict was never more apparent than in what I think is the original series’ best episode, “Mirror, Mirror”, in which the “evil” Spock must literally decide who he is, with about five seconds to make the choice.)
This internal battle made Spock just like us, and he was so important to us because he demonstrated how being stuck on a ship (in a house, on a street, in a classroom) with baffling aliens, people who can’t or don’t or won’t understand, is a situation that can still be lived with resolve and courage and even with ironic, understated humor. (And Spock could be very funny; much of the rich humor of the character stemmed from the fact that because of his dual nature, he actually understood Kirk, McCoy, Scotty and the rest far better than they understood him.) Mr. Spock, to a degree I don’t think is sufficiently understood, was truly the life coach for a generation that had no one else to look to.
When the character was written well (not easy to do — some writers persisted in portraying him, not as conflicted and struggling for control, but as flat, affectless, or even worse, thick or obtuse), Nimoy’s depth of sympathy and understanding for this torn and unhappy man could give us moments that were heartrending, breathtaking, and always the more moving because of the restraint with which the actor gave them to us – a restraint that that he understood was a vital part of the character.
Every fan will have his or her own list of great Spock moments, of course, but the first one that always comes to my mind is a small exchange from “The Tholian Web,” a flawed episode that is still one of the stronger ones from that fatal third season. Kirk spends most of the story missing and presumed dead, the ship is in crisis, and McCoy and Spock have been tearing each other apart, battling over every decision that the Science Officer has had to make. Spock and McCoy meet in Kirk’s cabin to play his final message to them, in which Kirk tells them to support and seek strength in each other, which is just what they haven’t been doing.
Both men are clearly moved. McCoy fumblingly apologizes: “Spock, I… uh… I’m sorry. It does hurt, doesn’t it?” Spock is silent for a moment and then he replies with perfect understatement, not coldly but with the sad, implicit acknowledgement that his nature will not permit him more, “What would you have me say, Doctor?” A great actor can convey soundless depths with one quiet line; Leonard Nimoy was a great actor.
Leonard Nimoy and Mr. Spock (“You never told me your first name, Mr. Spock.” “You couldn’t pronounce it.”) let a whole generation of young people know that while it could be hard to be different, there was also strength in that difficult place, and dignity, and that we weren’t as alone as we thought – someone understood the daily battles of definition and identity that we were going through.
The lonely alien and the actor who gave him life let us know that someone cared, and that somewhere, there would be a place for us, in the far future on the bridge of a starship… or tomorrow morning, in gym class — if only we kept up the internal and external fight to stay true to ourselves, and didn’t give up.
What an achievement; what a legacy. In the face of that, what is there to say? Fascinating doesn’t seem nearly adequate. How about… thank you. Thank you, Mr. Nimoy, and… farewell.