The Contradiction of Mr. Spock

It’s always been difficult to know exactly where Leonard Nimoy ended and Spock began. The actor himself struggled with this as evidenced by the titles of his two autobiographies: “I Am Not Spock” (1975) and “I Am Spock” (1995). He even released an album called “The Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy” (1968) on which one side represents Nimoy and the other side Spock. Nimoy said that during the original series he had a hard time letting go of the character on non-shooting days—he was becoming Spock.

And yet Nimoy visited other worlds, worlds far away from Spock, in numerous acting roles and as a director, writer, musician, and poet. The real contradiction lies in the character of Spock—half alien, half human, and 100% complex. Spock fights a quiet but constant struggle between the logical and emotional sides of his brain, leaving him distant from his family and co-workers alike.

Nimoy once said, “Spock understands the trauma of human existence, for he is not home with earthmen or Vulcan; he can function only in the fabricated and neatly ordered society of the Enterprise. There, he knows who he is; he relates to his role very specifically, and this gives him a kind of cool.”

And Spock is cool, not just in his temperament but in his appeal. In 1967, Spockmania took over the country. Nimoy received more than 10,000 letters a week. He basically invented the idea of geek-cool. He explained his newfound status as a sex symbol like this: “Down comes a stranger—tall, dark, thoughtful, alien, and exotic. Somewhat devilish in appearance. He has a brilliant mind, the wisdom of a patriarch and is oh, so cool. With one raised eyebrow, he suggests he is above game-playing and role-playing—which are just hangovers from Earth's Victorian Age—that he and he alone understand the deepest needs and longings of the Earth female.” Wow.

Nimoy took understandable pride in what he brought to Spock’s character. He contrived the Vulcan nerve pinch as a more cerebral, less barbaric way of subduing someone. He invented the Vulcan hand salute by borrowing from a rabbi blessing. It’s ironic that Nimoy brought remnants of his Jewish faith to a character that has done so much to teach people about reason as a tonic to blind faith. Just the idea of someone being a Science Officer had an impact on scores of future scientists.

Ultimately, the secret to the success of the character lies in the way Nimoy played him. One could have been tempted to over-act, but Nimoy brought subtle layers of complexity—logic, humanity, vulnerability, curiosity, confusion…  Spock expresses volumes with a raised eyebrow or one ‘fascinating’ deadpan word. Spock pretends to be emotionless, as though he is ashamed of having feelings. But it’s his human side that bales him out again and again. He can’t really explain concepts like loyalty and friendship but he exudes these qualities.

Just think of how one dimensional and annoying Spock may have been in the hands of a less gifted actor. No offense to William Shatner, but the contrast in acting styles between he and Nimoy may explain why Mr. Spock has always been more popular than James T. Kirk. Spock will live on in reruns, Star Trek conventions, action figures, and in the minds of children discovering him for the first time. But in losing Leonard Nimoy, we’ve lost forever the man that gave Spock his allure, depth, and soul.