Mark Clark, author of two Star Trek books for the Applause FAQ series, pays tribute to both Leonard Nimoy and his most famous role.
I knew it was coming. Leonard Nimoy was 83 years old and had been in declining health, suffering from chronic pulmonary disease. He had officially retired from the screen years ago, although he continued to make occasional cameo appearances, including in the two J.J. Abrams-directed Star Trek movies. Nevertheless, when word of the actor’s death arrived this afternoon, I was stunned. It seemed unreal, impossible. How could immortal face of one of the greatest entertainment franchises in history, a source of comfort and inspiration for millions of fans, really be gone? Wasn’t there some way to ship his body to the Genesis Planet for regeneration?
That’s when I realized that I was confusing Nimoy with his most famous character.
I was hardly the first to do this. Even Nimoy struggled to keep his personality separate from that of his Vulcan alter-ego, as evidenced by his two memoirs, one titled I Am Not Spock and a second titled I Am Spock. The confusion is understandable. Nimoy was not Spock, but Spock is Nimoy. Although created by Gene Roddenberry, the half-human, half-Vulcan first officer was animated by Nimoy’s personality – intelligent, unflinching, analytical, yet approachable. The actor improvised many of Spock’s trademark expressions and gestures, including the FSNP (“Famous Spock Nerve Pinch”) and the split-fingered Vulcan salute (derived from a rabbinic gesture of blessing); the character’s indomitable spirit was Nimoy’s too. And Spock, more than any other character, came to embody the essence of Star Trek.
Although Nimoy is gone, Spock remains. He stands as an eternal testament to Nimoy’s ability to craft a complex, nuanced, believable character.
However, Spock is far from the only testament. I wrote extensively about Nimoy’s life and career in my books Star Trek FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the First Voyages of the Starship Enterprise and Star Trek FAQ 2.0: Everything Left to Know About the Next Generation, the Movies, and Beyond. As I noted there, although none of them earned him fame, Nimoy authored several remarkable performances in television roles prior to Star Trek (on shows like M Squad, Combat!, and The Lieutenant) and he did the same in later, non-Trek movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). He also had a successful career as a writer, producer, and director, helming Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, along with the comedy smash Three Men and a Baby, among other pictures. Nimoy declined the opportunity to create what became Star Trek: The Next Generation due to the demands of his feature film career. And movies were only one of Nimoy’s pursuits. He was a restless, polymorphously creative individual who also enjoyed careers as a recording artist, poet, and fine art photographer.
The pressures that arrived with fame led him to alcoholism during the making of the original Star Trek series. But he eventually found sobriety, and in later years always seemed to have a smile and a handshake ready for fans and castmates alike – even his onetime rival, William Shatner, with whom he belatedly developed a deep and abiding friendship. I confess that it brings a smile to my face to picture Nimoy being reunited, somewhere, with DeForest Kelley.
Surely Spock must be embarrassed by the outpouring of emotions displayed by fans and colleagues today, following Nimoy’s passing. But Nimoy, I’m certain, welcomes and appreciates all the affection.
The Wrath of Khan offers everything its predecessor promised but failed to deliver. It’s a thrilling, fast-paced sci-fi adventure rich in both sustained suspense and character exploration. The story wades into meaningful thematic currents on the way to a powerful emotional payoff. Not only is Khan a worthy successor to the television series, but in some respects it represents an improvement on the classic program. Not only is the movie far superior in all technical aspects (sets, costumes, special effects), as almost any feature film would be, but it’s also better scripted, directed, and performed than the vast majority of the seventy-nine original episodes.
Although piecing it together was a painful process, the film’s dramatic structure is masterful, with early scenes (especially those involving Khan) providing the initial thrust and events steadily gaining momentum as the story progresses. The dialogue is crisp and often witty, supplying both amusing bons mot (such as McCoy asking Kirk, as young Saavik steers the Enterprise out of space dock, “Would you like a tranquilizer?”), a Spock-McCoy verbal joust, and some eminently quotable ethical observations (including Spock’s assertion that “The needs of many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one”). Best of all, where the classic series often settled for heavy-handed moralizing (and The Motion Picture came off as ponderous and self important), The Wrath of Khan almost effortlessly addresses weighty, timeless concerns, such as aging and death. It also provides the franchise’s definitive statement about the self-destructive folly of seeking revenge, a theme also present in a handful of classic episodes.
Meyer’s direction is a model of narrative precision and clarity. While not renowned for his visual style, he includes several deep-focus compositions that greatly enhance the unfolding drama, particularly during Spock’s funeral, as the black torpedo-coffin slowly glides toward the camera, flanked on either side by mourning crewmates.
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In the 1980s and ’90s, Star Trek rose from the ash heap of network cancellation and soared to the peak of its popularity with a series of blockbuster feature films and the smash sequel series Star Trek: The Next Generation. Star Trek FAQ 2.0 picks up where the original Star Trek FAQ left off, chronicling the historic comeback of the “failed” series and its emergence as a pop culture touchstone. The book provides accounts of the production of every Star Trek movie (including creator Gene Roddenberry’s struggle to retain control of the franchise) and every episode of The Next Generation (and the conflicts that roiled its writing staff). It also offers profiles of the actors, directors, writers, producers, and technicians whose excellence fueled the franchise’s success, and explores often overlooked aspects of the Star Trek phenomenon, including unofficial, fan-made productions. Star Trek FAQ 2.0represents the final frontier of Trek scholarship. This book is not endorsed, sponsored, or affiliated with CBS Studios Inc., Paramount Pictures, or the “Star Trek” franchise.
Very soon, Applause Books will publish my latest work, Star Trek FAQ 2.0: Everything Left to Know About the Next Generation, The Movies and Beyond (Unofficial and Unauthorized). This volume picks up where my previous book, Star Trek FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the First Voyages of the Starship Enterprise, left off, and continues the story of the franchise up to now. Or rather, up to last fall, when the manuscript was completed. The book concludes with the impending release of Star Trek into Darkness, about which little was known at the time. Since Star Trek FAQ 2.0 covers (among many other things) all the other films in the series, I felt compelled to share my thoughts about the latest Trek movie here. Consider this an addendum to the book proper. Feel free to print this out, fold it up and slip it into Star Trek FAQ 2.0 between Chapter 40 and the bibliography. No extra charge.
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to dispense with any plot summary and assume anyone reading this article has already seen the film. (If you haven’t, what are you waiting for?) Warning: Spoilers ahead!
The bottom line is simply that if you liked producer-director J.J. Abrams’ 2009 re-boot, then you will adore Star Trek into Darkness. If you didn’t enjoy the previous film, then you probably won’t go for this one, either. All the flaws from Abrams’ first Trek outing return, but so do all the strengths – and the good stuff is much better this time around. Like the last one, Into Darkness is handsomely mounted, impeccably performed, thrilling and often hilarious. The story moves at warp speed and is overstuffed with dazzling action and visual effects sequences, including the most spectacular space battles and white-knuckle chase scenes of any Trek film. And once again, the film is strewn with inside jokes and references to classic Trek people, places and things, including a tribble in sick bay. But, as before, the frenetic pace disguises gaping holes in story logic and faulty science (for a hilarious rundown of these gaffes, visit http://io9.com/star-trek-into-darkness-the-spoiler-faq-508927844). For me, the only really bothersome lapse was that exploding 72 photon torpedoes inside a starship would not only vaporize the vessel and everyone onboard, but would also obliterate everything else in the vicinity and possibly rip a whole in space. But Abrams’ biggest mistake was casting Peter Weller as Admiral Marcus. While the actor’s work is fine, the presence of Weller – who hasn’t played a sympathetic character since the Robocop films, and already portrayed a two-faced Star Trek villain in a memorable Enterprise two-parter (“Demons”/“Terra Prime”) – telegraphs the “twist” that Federation power brokers are up to no good. This plot point would have been far more effective with someone warm and likeable (for instance, avid Trekker Tom Hanks) cast against type as Marcus.
On balance, however, the film’s assets far outweigh its liabilities. If Abrams isn’t very good with precise, logical plots, he excels at understanding audience expectations and playing off them. Evoking The Wrath of Khan enables Abrams and screenwriters Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman to toy with fans’ preconceived ideas; the film delivers everything viewers think they see coming, but never quite as anticipated. At times Into Darkness stands Wrath of Khan on its head, with suspenseful or amusing results. Among the most refreshing of these inversions is the sight of Spock, rather than Kirk, starring in a major action/chase sequence. Considering that Vulcans are supposed to be physically stronger and more agile than humans, this should have happened before. Abrams also has a gift for eliciting fine performances from his cast, and Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg and Bruce Greenwood shine again as Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty and Captain Pike. One of the major differences between this Trek and the original is that Abrams and company don’t even attempt to recreate the Kirk-Spock McCoy chemistry of the classic series. This is a Kirk-Spock bromance, with McCoy, Uhura and Scotty as supporting characters and Chekov and Sulu for window dressing. This is intended merely as an observation, not necessarily a criticism. It’s probably smart, since I don’t believe Pine, Quinto and Urban (or anybody else) could duplicate the rapport of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley. Similarly, while Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Khan Noonien Singh has garnered much well-deserved praise, his icy take on the character couldn’t be more different from Ricardo Montalban’s alluring, romantic performance.
In Star Trek FAQ 2.0, I wrote the following about the 2009 film: “Although fans may disagree with some of the choices made by Abrams and Orci and Kurtzman, the reality is that after Nemesis and Enterprise, the franchise had been written into a corner. Abrams and his compatriots simply did what was necessary to break out of that trap, while crafting a livelier, more sensational and more emotional Star Trek with wide appeal beyond the Trekker faithful. The film may or may not mark the passing of the previous, statelier version of the franchise, but its success has assured that Trek will continue, in some form or another, for years to come.” Star Trek into Darkness only confirms that verdict. Although its opening weekend box office fell slightly below expectations (due largely to competition from Iron Man 3 and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby), Into Darkness has all the markings of major hit, and figures to keep Star Trek in business for the foreseeable future.
At the conclusion of Into Darkness, Pine’s Kirk has finally begun to mature into something closer to Shatner’s version of the character, and the USS Enterprise is set to embark on its famous five-year mission. The galaxy is wide open. The most interesting question now becomes, where does the franchise go next? And who – with Abrams busy making a new Star Wars trilogy – will lead it? Look for musings on those topics in a future blog entry.
Star Trek FAQ 2.0: Everything Left to Know About the Next Generation, The Movies and Beyond (Unofficial and Unauthorized)
This book is not endorsed, sponsored, or affiliated with CBS Studios Inc., Paramount Pictures, or the “Star Trek” franchise. In the 1980s and ’90s, Star Trek rose from the ash heap of network cancellation and soared to the peak of its popularity with a series of blockbuster feature films and the smash sequel series Star Trek: The Next Generation. Star Trek FAQ 2.0 picks up where the original Star Trek FAQ left off, chronicling the historic comeback of the “failed” series and its emergence as a pop culture touchstone. The book provides accounts of the production of every Star Trek movie (including creator Gene Roddenberry’s struggle to retain control of the franchise) and every episode of The Next Generation (and the conflicts that roiled its writing staff). It also offers profiles of the actors, directors, writers, producers, and technicians whose excellence fueled the franchise’s success, and explores often overlooked aspects of the Star Trek phenomenon, including unofficial, fan-made productions. Star Trek FAQ 2.0represents the final frontier of Trek scholarship.