The Spock Factor

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I was there at the beginning, when Star Trek first aired in 1966. I am not sure I “got it” until midway through the second season, but by the time the show was canceled in 1969, I knew I had been watching something special. And it wasn’t the science.

As a budding pacifist trying to find my resistance voice during the Vietnam War and my high school years, Star Trek, and especially the character portrayed by Leonard Nimoy, that of First Officer Spock, gave me the path to find that voice. Here was a world where war, poverty and disease had been eliminated. A world where money had no meaning (except to Mr. Mudd). A world where a Russian (by implication, a “Communist”), a black woman, an Asian, a Scotsman, and even a green-skinned alien (although his skin never looked that green to me) co-existed with nary a problem. But it was Spock especially, an alien who was also a pacifist as well as a vegetarian (I didn’t go that far), who enthralled me. Here was someone who had a deep inner life, a being who did not believe in killing, who took the humans on board to task when the discussions turned to war and the savage killing history of humanity. Here was someone unafraid to speak the truth. Here was someone who meditated, who sought inner peace and wisdom, and more than anything else, someone who was constantly fighting an internal battle to maintain his emotional discipline, something he had to deal with due to being half-human and half-Vulcan, just as I grew up half Irish and half Puerto Rican. He was an extraordinary and exquisite character, and probably without really truly realizing it, he crept into my subconscious and had more than an outsized influence on the manner in which I would shape my own beliefs and philosophies on life.

He continued to follow me through the first two years of college as Star Trek went into syndication. Almost every evening, from 6-7PM, the Riggs Hall dormitory rec room, where the one TV in the building was located, would fill with maybe 2/3 of the dorm’s inhabitants M-F to watch the evening’s re-run of Star Trek. By now we had come to realize how corny some of the special effects were, and as more sophisticated college students we could see through the ham acting of William Shatner. But Spock never failed us in this regard. In fact, Spock’s life philosophies only became clearer, more concrete, wiser. His was the voice of reason mixed with an other-worldly sense of compassion. His faithfulness, loyalty, and sheer strength of character became, for me, the standard by which any reasoned human being should live life.

I feel that in today’s society we have too much passion for things that are too insignificant. We are struggling to create many of the things that Star Trek presented on the screen – a society without hate, fear or prejudice. Yet we approach our struggle with a self-conscious and self-righteous passion, and with emotions that only get in the way of our solving them. We all could do with a little more Spock in our lives, but with the passing of the actor who gave this incredible iconic character its life and breath, I wonder whether that can ever take place.

His NY Times obituary included one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite episodes. In Episode 24, “This Side of Paradise” (D.C. Fontana and Nathan Butler wrote this episode), Spock is temporarily released from the constraints of his logical side through the effects of “spores,” and falls in love with a woman, Leila, he once knew on Earth. He is, in fact, in one shot seen hanging upside-down from a tree. But the effect of the spores wears off, and when he returns to himself and meets Leila in the final scene, he says this to her:

“I am what I am, Leila. And if there are self-made purgatories, then we all have to live in them. Mine can be no worse than someone else’s.”

It’s a quote worthy of Samuel Beckett: we are what we are, and we suffer because of it. Yours is no worse than mine. We would honor Mr. Nimoy’s life well if we were to keep that in mind as we make our own way through our own particular purgatories.

Live long and prosper; peace, and long life.

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