Mr. Spock And Us

When I saw that Leonard Nimoy had died, I thought, oh, boy, here comes another social-media meltdown. Sure enough, Facebook and Twitter did not disappoint. 

For about 12 hours last Friday, about half the posts on my Facebook and Twitters account were about Leonard Nimoy, or, more accurately, about Mr. Spock.  This was the biggest reaction to a celebrity death since last summer’s outpouring of anguish and grief after Robin Williams’ suicide.

In some respects, the response to Nimoy’s death was pretty illogical, as Spock would have put it. This was an actor who’d had second billing on a low-rated and short-lived TV show from the mid-‘60s, and a respectable -- but not particularly remarkable -- career after that.  By contrast, Robin Williams had been a major star for decades and was still actively involved in his career when he died, so the visceral reaction to his sudden death was more comprehensible.

But ratings or box-office aside, someone like Leonard Nimoy is the perfect candidate for a big social-media sendoff. First, in Spock, Nimoy created a major figure of nostalgia for Baby Boomers, who still pull many of the country’s cultural strings even as they themselves begin to contemplate their own mortality.  



Second, almost everyone knows who Spock is, but hardly anyone outside the hardcore “Star Trek” fan base was so emotionally involved with him that they would be rendered grief-stricken by the news.  Instead, the reaction was a bit rueful, bittersweet and affectionate, as if a favorite third cousin had passed away.

Nimoy’s Spock was a creation of television and movies -- those most personal and intimate of the plastic arts -- and most of us had encountered him in pre-adolescence, at a time of wonder, before we were stricken with the cynicism and knowingness of our teens.  I am pretty sure that those who first watched “Star Trek” as adults were wondering what all the hullabaloo was about.

But not every TV star from the ‘60s gets a page-one obituary in the New York Times. There was something about Spock’s core make-up that touched a nerve.  According to the mythology of “Star Trek,” Mr. Spock was half-Vulcan and half-human.  Since Vulcans lack emotion and are driven solely by reason, Spock always struggled to understand human feelings – something we can all relate to.  In her excellent New York Times appraisal, the critic Alessandra Stanley argued that it’s hard to think “of a television character that so embodied and defined a personality type. … Spock was dispassion personified.”  Like Sherlock Holmes before him, Spock had no use for intuition or the subtleties of human emotion.

The affection that viewers felt for Spock is particularly striking because since the 1960s, American culture has had little use for logic and reason.  On the show, another “Star Trek” character, Dr. Leonard (“Bones”) McCoy, embodied the id to Spock’s ego, and was always needling Spock for his lack of passion.  Most viewers probably agree with McCoy that pure unadulterated reason is a dangerous force, and that morality and humanity must play a role in the way we live our lives and make decisions.

And yet, although Dr. McCoy is a relentless advocate for a full-bodied humanity and in many ways speaks for our contemporary values, I had to check IMBD to see whether DeForest Kelley, who played “Bones” on the show, was even still alive.  He’s not, having died in 1999 without the front-page obituary.  “Bones” might be our spokesperson, but we are fascinated by Spock.

What was so special about Spock wasn’t so much that he was half Vulcan but that he was half human (in truth, the Vulcan genes must have been dominant because he always acted about 90% Vulcan and 10% human).  Fortunately, when Spock displayed human emotions it was rarely the destructive side of humanity (jealousy, pride, greed, selfishness, avarice). No, Spock’s humanity usually manifested itself with the best qualities of the human race: love, sympathy, a willingness to sacrifice. 

Also, we always felt a little sorry for Spock when he suffered from his human emotions, just as we have special empathy for a small child who doesn’t understanding his feelings or know what to do with them.   

In the end, though, I think we all wish we were a little bit more like Spock: dispassionate, less prone to mood swings and flights of emotion.  Spock is actually a throwback to the pre-‘60s, when discipline and self-control were more highly regarded.

Our fascination with Spock is similar to our affection for those TV dads of the 1950s.  We might not want to reverse course and abandon the Age of Aquarius for the Age of Vulcan, but we can’t help but think that a little more Spock might not be a bad thing.

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