3 March 2015

Back to Back with Mr. Spock: An Appreciation of Leonard Nimoy

Posted by Dan Satterfield

Guest post by Kendrick Frazier

Ken spectrum cropped

Kendrick Frazier is Editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and former Editor of Science News. Kendrick is a fellow of AAAS, and a member of AGU.

I am finding myself surprisingly affected by the death of Leonard Nimoy Friday (Feb. 27). The character of Mr. Spock he brought to life on Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry, was one of the most memorable in television, perhaps even in modern fiction generally. He certainly was original and thought-provoking.

Something about Spock’s half-Vulcan, half-human self illuminated for us all some of what it meant to be human. The Vulcan civilization once had been a violent and emotional people, headed toward self-destruction. Then they made a conscious decision to give up their emotional sides and become solely rational and peace-loving. We emotional/rational humans could see both what had been gained and what had been lost in that tradeoff.  Spock’s rationality and logic and questioning scientific attitude have extraordinary appeal to the multitudes of us who extoll those qualities. It was a lesson for our human species who constantly have to strive to keep our emotions from overwhelming our rational sides. And yet without those emotions (they are not separate but are intertwined and interact continually with our thinking), we would not be who we are, and we would not have love (nor so much else).  I doubt we would want ever to give them up.

In 1974, while editor of Science News, I was invited by philosopher Jim Christian to contribute a chapter to a book of original essays he was putting together on what might happen when and if we contact an intelligent extraterrestrial civilization. It was the first book I ever contributed to. Imagine my delight, when the book, Extraterrestrial Intelligence: The First Encounter (edited by James L. Christian, Prometheus Books 1976), came out, to see that two of my scientific/literary heroes, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, had lead essays in it. And to see that immediately following my chapter (“First Contact: The News Event and the Human Response”) was one by Leonard Nimoy. It was titled “Conversations with Mr. Spock.” 

Nimoy’s death has me rereading that essay and pondering that character he so gracefully illuminated. Nimoy had portrayed an extraterrestrial (or at least a half-ETI) and so had a singular vision. 

Nimoy was not the character he played, and for a long time he resisted being identified so strongly with Spock. But just as I and my fellow skeptics long ago forgave Nimoy for subsequently hosting that dreadful pseudoscientific, pseudodocumentary TV series “In Search Of. . .” (1976-1982), Nimoy eventually came to terms with his character and embraced Spock. 

His “Conversations with Spock” is, in part, an imagined dialogue between Nimoy and Spock. (Example: Nimoy: People like you. Do you care about that? Spock: Should I? Nimoy: Would you rather not be popular? Spock: To be concerned one way or the other is a waste of energy. And popularity does put one in strange company.”) 

But there is also in the chapter the distinct voice of Leonard Nimoy, who was a poet and writer himself. I don’t think my friends at Prometheus Books would mind my sharing with you, as a memorial to Leonard Nimoy, just a few additional excerpts from Nimoy’s essay in ETI:*

“For three years, twelve hours a day, five days a week, approximately ten months of each year, I lived the life of an extraterrestrial. . . . Six years after having completed the role, I am still affected by Spock.” . . . “[Playing Spock] has affected me deeply and personally, socially, psychologically, and emotionally. To this day I sense Vulcan speech patterns, Vulcan social attitudes, and even Vulcan patterns of logic and emotional suppression in my behavior.

At first playing Spock was difficult. Nimoy had trouble understanding the character. 

“Nevertheless, I gradually began to feel more comfortable. . . I began to develop a sense of dignity, a pride in being different and unique. . . . .”  “Above all, I began to study human behavior from an alien point of view. I began to enjoy the Vulcan position: ‘These humans are interesting, at times a sad lot, and foolish, but interesting and worthy of study.’ ” 

“College audiences are particularly responsive to Spock. If I were to select a committee to make the initial contact with an ETI arriving on earth, I would certainly include college students. Their interest, their sympathy, and their ability to empathize with new and perhaps exotic ideas would be invaluable.” 

“Why does a generation raised under the influence of Dr. Spock relate to Mr. Spock? . . . Here is an ETI of superior intelligence and abilities, capable of making difficult decisions free of ego and pressure and emotional need. . . .” “Perhaps Spock represents a wise father figure to whom humans can turn for solutions to thorny problems.”

“We must not overlook the fact that we know Spock is part human and therefore suspect him of being compassionate, even a humanist at heart. Thus we feel safe placing our fate in his hands.”

“Many people have gone to great lengths in writing to me about the effect he has had on their lives. They often tell me, movingly, that he demonstrates a dignified way for the individual to function in what, for many, is a hostile society.”

“Personally I find it an enormously exciting challenge to try to live up to the broader vision and deeper perception that I helped build into this fictional character.”

I’ll conclude with the final Nimoy/Spock dialogue:

Nimoy: If you are popular among humans, doesn’t that say something positive about the human ability to value a culture and a lifestyle alien from its own?

“Spock: That does seem logical.”

“Nimoy: Mr. Spock, coming from you I consider that a great compliment. From the bottom of my emotional heart, thank you!”

To which I add: “Mr. Nimoy, you who brought Mr. Spock to life in such a vivid and compelling way, from the bottom of my emotional heart, thank you!” 

—Kendrick Frazier   March 2, 2015

*Excerpts from Extraterrestrial Intelligence: The First Encounter, copyright Prometheus Books, 1976