An outpouring of grief is highly inappropriate, of course, but Leonard Nimoy’s death is a significant event. If nothing else, we might note that the cast of the movie Boyhood recently wowed critics by essaying the same characters for twelve years, but Leonard Nimoy was Spock for fifty. And Spock, in that time, evolved as a character, grew old and died. Although not, as it happens, in that order. Spock was portrayed with care and nuance by an actor who embodied a role like few actors ever have. He had a relationship with the character as up and down, as tempestuous, as Richard Burton did with Elizabeth Taylor, and who wrote two autobiographies about that struggle.
Spock’s character was assembled on the fly, his devotion to logic, his ‘half-breed’ (it was fifty years ago, the term was used) nature, his perpetual state of comradeship and yet simultaneously utter alienation … none of these were part of the original plan. They emerged in performance, Leonard Nimoy taking on a role that saw him caked in make up and glued on ears, and somehow being the most dignified presence on the screen. The writers loved him, the kids loved him, a whole new form of love called ‘fandom’ had to be created to express the response a portion of viewers had for Spock, and characters like him.
This is, for some of us, an event with the same sort of moment as the death of a monarch, or the assassination of a President. If the internet had state funerals, then we’d be lining the route. An exaggeration, surely? Wasn’t this guy just someone from an old TV show? No. Social media today is full of responses from some of the hundreds of thousands of people who met Leonard Nimoy, talked to him, were inspired by him. Spock’s example helped them cope when they were lonely children, or inspired their studies and career, brought them into a community and camaraderie that spans the globe, or just gave them some catchphrases they could bandy around with their mates. If nothing else, it gave a lot of people who are by temperament not the emotionally expressive type a good cry at the end of Wrath of Khan.
Entertaining a billion people, inspiring millions … this is significant. There are those artistic or historical figures who will endure. The author Ken MacLeod has a nice phrase for it: ‘the names that will be remembered on the starships’. Leonard Nimoy was, to coin a phrase, in a starship before most of us were in diapers.