Everyone who was in the original “Star Trek” TV series eventually came to terms with its pop-cult status, starting with the fact that “Star Trek” is a life sentence.
Surrender is the most logical choice. George Takei (Mr. Sulu) has happily reinvented himself as a sort of Oscar Wilde of the fast Facebook post. William Shatner (Captain Kirk) seemed to have exorcised the last of his “Star Trek” demons long ago in a still famous 1986 sketch on “Saturday Night Live” in which he played out his exasperation with the obsessed attendees of yet another “Star Trek” convention at yet another Holiday Inn.
Leonard Nimoy, who died Friday morning at 83 from obstructive pulmonary disease, also struggled for a while with the notion that no matter what else he did in his life and career (acting, directing, reciting “Desiderata”), he would always be Mr. Spock, the logically driven Vulcan he first played in the original “Star Trek” TV series nearly 50 years ago.
His first memoir was titled “I Am Not Spock.” Twenty years later (once the “Star Trek” movie franchise had validated his and his co-stars’ work and legitimized Trekdom for all) he wrote a second memoir, titled “I Am Spock.”
Who could begrudge any of the original crew members of the USS Enterprise a moment (or a decade, or a lifetime) of identity crises? They signed up for Gene Roddenberry’s prime-time science fiction drama in 1966, and the show did all right and lasted just long enough (79 episodes over three seasons on NBC) to sell off in syndicated rerun-ville.
[“Star Trek” cast members mourn Nimoy’s death]
What Nimoy and the others did not know was that they would become the central icons in a new sort of religion, one that stood for science, logic, diversity and universal peace. In this religion, which came with an ever-expanding canon, Nimoy’s Spock served a role that was at once rabbinical and monastic, wise but not preachy, certain but not vain. Rarely has a character in that much makeup felt so perfectly in sync with the actor picked to play him.
It’s hard to remember, but there was a time when Spock was intimidating, especially to young children. Later, a few years after the show was first canceled (and the cartoon version, too), he and the rest of the Enterprise’s crew became dolls. (If you can remove his uniform and find him in flagrante delicto with Barbie and G.I. Joe, then it’s not an action figure; it’s a doll.) You could put him in a transporter and spin it around and send Spock and his friends off to any backyard planet you could imagine.
And so Spock gradually lost some of what made him exotic; he became one of the family, a brand, like Superman or Mickey Mouse or the Tin Man of Oz. When Spock died, sacrificing his own life to save everyone else in 1982’s unimpeachably brilliant “The Wrath of Khan” (“I have been, and always shall be, your friend”), I happened to be in a multiplex with three other 14-year-old boys and we wept for him. We cried more than we’d cried for “E.T.” that same summer, with a genuine grief. It was hard to shake off, Spock’s utter selflessness.
Later we learned — thanks to the quiet gratitude of people like Leonard Nimoy — that this sort of fame can be a good thing. Nimoy and his co-stars taught us the real meaning, or maybe just the Hollywood meaning, of Spock’s trademark, green-blooded salutation: Live long and prosper.
In that phrase fans can hear hopes for good health and success, but all these years later, we can hear something about giving in and being grateful for what you have.
That includes prosthetic ears and shaved eyebrows. That includes signing autographs for hours on end in a crowded convention hall. That includes honoring the multi-movie contract deal even after you’ve delivered your character’s greatest performance (in “Khan”) and now they want you, as a resurrected Spock, to commune with time-traveling whales (in 1986’s cheesy “The Voyage Home”). It was a marvelous career and, weirdly enough, a life lesson in dignity.