Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Reflections on the Passing of a Cultural Icon: Leonard Nimoy

By Maura Grady, Assistant Professor of English

Last week, actor, photographer, writer, and activist Leonard Nimoy passed away from complications of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) at the age of 83. He is one of 15 million American sufferers of this disease, chiefly linked with long term exposure to tobacco smoke. Scientific American reports that 6% of deaths (more than 3 million deaths) worldwide can be attributed to COPD[1]. Every one of those lives lost to COPD is precious and every one of those deaths causes grief. This COPD victim in particular touched millions around the world, as the outpouring on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and other online gathering spaces demonstrates. Nimoy had a long and productive acting and directing career, performing in television series such as Fringe and Mission Impossible and directing films such as Three Men and A Baby and The Good Mother, though he was most beloved for his role as Spock, the half-Vulcan first officer of the USS Enterprise, in television and film series Star Trek.

Star Trek was groundbreaking television in a number of ways. Yes, England’s Doctor Who beat Star Trek to a number of punches (popular show starring a humanoid alien encountering new cultures, nerve pinches rendering foes unconscious, etc.), but unlike Who’s delightful lack of regard for the laws of physics, Star Trek was beholden to science as much as possible, at the insistence of series creator Gene Roddenberry. Among the show’s most devoted fans were members of the United States nascent aerospace community, and Nimoy’s Science Officer Spock was a particular favorite.

In 1967, only a year into the series, Nimoy visited Goddard Space Flight Center in Washington DC, and wrote a letter to Roddenberry describing the enthusiasm he had encountered there.

I do not overstate the fact when I tell you that the interest in the show is so intense, that it would almost seem they feel we are a dramatization of the future of their space program, and they have completely taken us to heart—particularly since you and the rest of the production of Star Trek have taken such pains in the area of scientific detail on our show. They are, in fact, proud of the show as though in some way it represents them.[2]

This photo shows NASA scientists sporting Vulcan ears for the Launch of Mariner V in 1967.
And this week, as a tribute to Nimoy, International Space Station astronaut Terry Virts (@AstroTerry) tweeted this image of the hand salute over Nimoy’s birth state of Massachusetts.
Nimoy’s insistence on Spock’s consistent use of logic and benevolence as an alternative to violence and impulsive action influenced not just his performance but the direction and tone of the show. The famous Vulcan nerve pinch was an improvisation by Nimoy in response to a direction in the script for Spock to hit another character over the head with a phaser. Nimoy reasoned that surely, by the 23rd century, we would have found a better way.[3]

Nimoy also contributed the now iconic Vulcan hand salute, which he explained came from observing a blessing at his Synagogue as a child. The hand movement is in the shape of the letter “Shin” in the Hebrew alphabet. In an interview with the Yiddish Oral History Project,[4] Nimoy commented that it was a “very interesting letter in the language. It’s the first letter of the world Shaddai [the Almighty or God], the first letter in the word Shalom [peaceful greeting], it’s the first letter in the word Shekinah, which is the name of the feminine aspect of God, who supposedly was created to live amongst humans… the legend is that during [this particular] benediction, the Shekinah comes into the sanctuary to bless the congregation” and the congregants are not supposed to look at the rabbis. Nimoy notes that as a curious little boy, he peeked and saw the rabbis making this sign.

When shooting the episode “Amok Time” in the series’ second season, Nimoy noted: “it was the first time that we were seeing other Vulcans, other members of my race. So I was hoping to find some touches that could develop the story of the Vulcan [culture], so I said to the director, I think we should have some special greeting that Vulcans do” and suggested the hand sign. Nimoy recalled, “Boy, that just took off through the culture. It was amazing. Within days of when the episode aired, I was getting it from people on the street…People don’t realize they’re blessing each other!”

My affection for Star Trek started early, heavily influenced by my late mother, a huge fan of fiction of all kinds, including science fiction. We watched re-runs of the TV show together and I attended my first Star Trek convention at the age of 10, when my family was living in Texas for a year. I was obviously thrilled to meet Grace Lee Whitney, who played Yeoman Janice Rand on the series.
A young Dr. Grady meeting Grace Lee Whitney
I idolized Nichelle Nichols’ Communications Officer Lt. Uhura, one of the first starring roles for a Black woman on American television. My mother, a neonatal nurse, was in college when the show premiered in 1966, and told me about how she and her friends would sit in the basement of their dorm watching it on a very small TV. They loved the attention to science on the show and optimistic picture of the future it depicted—a future of equality for all kinds of people—a future earned by adherence to principles of scientific inquiry and respect for other cultures. The show featured the work of female screenwriters, a rarity for the genre even today—writer DC Fontana contributed 8 scripts and 4 story concepts for the series, including some of the most beloved and well-regarded episodes: “This Side of Paradise,” “Tomorrow is Yesterday” and “Journey to Babel,” the episode that introduced Spock’s parents, Sarek and Amanda. And female fans were behind the first conventions for the show.[5]

I now research and write on what is called Fandom Studies—the scholarship of Fans, Fandom and Fan Communities. I am on the editorial board of The Journal of Fandom Studies, and it’s no coincidence that the founders of the journal, Kathy Larsen and Lynn Zubernis chose a photograph of the Vulcan salute for its cover image.

Fans of Star Trek waged a letter-writing campaign to convince NBC to give Star Trek a third season after cancellation was announced and successfully lobbied NASA to rename one of its shuttles Enterprise, after the Star Trek vessel. [6] [7] Those early fans, people like my mom, who gathered together in person in those long ago pre-internet days to discuss their passion for science fiction, made it possible for all of us today to geek out on what we love

Fan culture is mainstream culture now, as an increasingly segmented and fractured media environment demands that producers of entertainment target their projects to very specific audiences. Most network executives today would kill for the “low ratings” that the original Star Trek series earned in 1967, but more than that, they would certainly kill for the kind of cultural penetration the show achieved at a time when the only way fans could communicate with one another was in person or by mail.

Nimoy often praised his character Spock, who espoused a philosophy of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations” and parted ways with the blessing “Live Long and Prosper” (Nimoy signed all of his posts on Twitter with LLAP). His last Tweet left us with the words: “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP”[8]

Leonard Nimoy, like castmates DeForrest Kelley (Dr. McCoy), James Doohan (Lt. Commander Scott), and series creator Gene Roddenberry, is gone now. The legacy they gave us, individually and collectively, is a vision of a better, brighter future.

Dr. Maura Grady is an unapologetic fan of genre fiction. She teaches writing, screenwriting, film studies, and literature at Ashland University. You can see a personalized signed photo of Mark Lenard (Sarek) hanging in her office.