A year ago today, one of the most iconic actors in science fiction died. It’s a strange thing to look back on. On the one hand, I’m stunned to think it’s only been a year; on the other, I feel like we never truly lost Leonard Nimoy.
Nimoy was special. Even though he’s primarily known for just one role in science fiction, he played that character to the hilt. He breathed life into Spock. No insult to Zachary Quinto, but I don’t think anyone could have given us the same character; anyone else who plays him is a variation on a theme, even more so than the other characters from the franchise. Without Spock, I firmly believe Star Trek would not have existed. And without Star Trek, where would science fiction be today?
It’s important to remember that Star Trek was unusual. It was progressive, even; the true kind of progressive, that builds on what came before and doesn’t seek to tear it down. In an era where most people were convinced civilization would soon end in nuclear fire, Star Trek gave us a world where Earth was united and at peace, and even the dreaded World War III was practically a footnote in its history. At a time when racial tensions were high, war with the USSR seemed imminent, and anyone under 20 remembered World War II, we saw a starship with a black communications officer, a Russian navigator, and a Japanese helmsman; and it was all presented without commentary or fanfare.
The closest we had was Spock, who could serve as a safe metaphor for such conflicts; and yet Spock was so much more than that. Unlike Uhura, Chekhov, and Sulu, his heritage and cultural differences were constantly referenced; but he was never merely the stand-in for social commentary. He served as both foil and mirror to the other characters, challenging them by his very presence, forcing us to think about what it means to be human, and all while fulfilling the full functions of a Starfleet officer. He was by far the most complex character on the show, and again, only Nimoy could have brought that to life.
Last year, I posted my thoughts on Nimoy over on Novel Ninja, including the following:
To be honest, I think that while we’ve lost Nimoy, we haven’t really lost him. How many people can truly sit back and enjoy the feeling that their work is done, and things are proceeding without them in a good way? His work was done, but he also didn’t sit on his laurels. He enjoyed what came after him. And he delighted in being part of a larger phenomenon.
I can think of a few people who can claim the same thing. They made the world better, though politics, war, art, religion; but among that number, even fewer did it with such delight even into old age. He could have retired and done whatever he wanted decades ago; but that’s not astonishing, because exactly what he did. He continued going to conventions and engaging with fans, because he was doing exactly what he wanted.
He made the world a better place, not because he changed the fate of nations or spoke out in favor of this political idea or that philosophical concept; but because his joy was infectious, and he liked sharing it. Chesterton may have had a bigger impact on the world, but he’s the only one I can truly compare Nimoy to.
And while both are dead, neither of them are truly gone.