I expected the news. I think I had been expecting it for a while; after all, time eventually catches up with us all, allowing nobody an escape. Though, yes, some have eluded Time’s final tick of the clock by saying goodbye early. We think of James Dean and Jayne Mansfield and the collisions that took them as they were in their prime, we think of Marilyn Monroe drowning depression and self-doubt with barbiturates, we think of the bullets that silenced John Lennon as he was returning to music. But somehow we see these as the tragedies they are. We see the potential of something great now lost, instead of the oft-examined life now fulfilled. For some of us, we imagine that a specific person has been around so long that Time may cut an individual a break, that somebody we admire may cheat the end until after ourselves have gone. Such is our view of immortality.
So when I learned that Leonard Nimoy had been hospitalized, there was a part of me that knew what the outcome would be. Inevitable though the outcome might be, however, I somehow convinced myself that he would beat the odds. Spock, his best-known character, the one we forever will associate him with, did not gamble; but a very childish part of me wondered if the next time I would hear Nimoy’s name, it was because paparazzi staking out his hospital room informed us that he was going home to rest.
We all foresaw the outcome, however.
Which lessens none of the pain.
I paid almost no attention to television until I was six years old, when my mother allowed me to stay up late one night to watch a television show called Star Trek. At the time, my primary pop cultural diet consisted of comic books; by the time I sat in front of her small black-and-white tv set to hear the opening bars introducing this new television show, almost everything I knew of the fantastic came from Superman, Batman, and Action and Detective Comics. I’m certain she sought some antidote to the childish paneled fantasies shaping my view of the world, and saw Roddenberry’s space opera homage to the western Wagon Train as an antidote, a means of broadening my perspective in a way that other things simply could not. (I came from a religious family, and it likely was obvious early on that Sunday school lessons weren’t taking.)
Regardless of the reason, the show transfixed me. Shatner’s scenery-chewing offered the operatic quality of the best four-color art, the stories provided me a glimpse of the universe I did not know existed, and the situations satisfied my incredible hunger for fantasy in a way that could explain how Superman received his powers. (I would not learn the term “science fiction” until later.)
Mostly, however, I was (wait for it) fascinated by the character of Spock, who captured almost everything I felt and how I wanted to think. As a character, he stood outside of the experiences shared by his peers, due both to his biology and his insistence of reason and logic as a means of overcoming obstacles. His ability to think through any challenge brought to him meant that he understood alternatives to violence, while his appeal to the rational meant he was less susceptible to emotion than his fellow humans.
I needed to hear these things. I grew up in the mid-1970s, a time when, even to my own young, impressionable eyes, the world’s mind appeared to unravel synapse by synapse. The news, when it occasionally played on television, horrified me, its parade of armies locked in conflict and anger seething beneath the civilized veneer of politicians. My own family dynamics slowly disintegrated, leaving me few coping mechanisms, and almost no way to make sense of what was happening. The world felt not just chaotic but insane. So when I suddenly saw this character, an alien whose intelligence and ability to cut to the intellectual root of a problem suddenly became a regular part of my late Saturday nights, my concern that the world’s senselessness lessened, and I began to think that we could make sense of things.
I ventured down side tracks, as do most. I watched In Search Of… primarily because Nimoy’s measured narration intoned a degree of knowledge to bizarre ideas that obsessed me until my exposure to Cosmos. I’m sure I begged my mother to take me to see Phillip Kaufmann’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers when I was ten, and learned terror as Nimoy (playing a psychiatrist who wanted people to get in touch with their feelings, an irony I couldn’t appreciate until my teens) transformed into one of the very pod people Sutherland and Brooke Allen tried to escape. Nimoy appeared in other things—a murder on an episode of Columbo, for example—but my interest never wandered far beyond science fiction. I bounced around our family living room with glee as both Nimoy and Shatner appeared on a syndicated episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. a month before the opening of Star Trek: The Motion Picture…which probably was the first time I ever learned I could be disappointed in a movie. Three years later, in the spoiler-free days before the Internet, I discovered that I could be shocked and saddened by the death of a beloved character as James T. Kirk delivered Spock’s eulogy at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. As I entered college, I found pride when Nimoy, in full Spock makeup, appeared on the cover of Newsweek during the release of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
I never paid much attention to Star Trek in any of its guises after I started college. Cyberpunk grabbed my imagination in ways that this televised space opera never could, opening even more imaginative possibilities than I thought possible. By the time the original crew dispersed in the early 1990s, I felt little sadness but an odd comfort. They had had a good run, and I believed I was putting away childish things. Besides, at the time, all of the original cast members were still alive; surely there might be one last voyage, even if it meant putting warp nacelles on William Shatner’s wheelchair and zipping him down the hallway of a nursing home.
Star Trek no longer played a part of my imagination or how I viewed the future, but that didn’t stop me from finally seeing J. J. Abrams’s Star Trek when it premiered in 2009. Though most of it made me shrug—no, Chris Pine, you are no Captain Kirk—my cynicism melted when this youngish James Tiberius suddenly came face-to-face with Nimoy in a cameo. The warm, affectionate gasps reverberated throughout the theater in a wave.
I think about that, now that Nimoy, whom I always felt was my guiding light, is gone. I heard stories of his generosity, of his decency and kindness. Even as I grew older, I would hear of such things despite no longer being much interested in Trek, and still smile fondly. He seemed even more gracious, even more of what I had hoped people would be, in reality.
The evening after the announcement of Nimoy’s passing, we turned on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as a kind of tribute. When Nimoy pressed his hand against the glass wall separating him from Kirk, my family and all raised ours in a Vulcan salute. I’m not sure how we all were able to hold back the tears.