ReelThoughts: March 01, 2015

"To Boldly Go: Not an Obituary"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


"Now he belongs to the ages."

I don't write obituaries except in cases when I knew the person; I'm not about to change that policy now. So if you want a fact-based recap of Leonard Nimoy's life and career, there are countless places on the web for that. This isn't really a tribute either, although I could easily write one of those. But it felt somehow wrong to let an event as momentous as Nimoy's death occur without a few words, thoughts, and reminiscences. Star Trek played as big a part in my formative years as any fragment of pop culture could. My story is like that of thousands upon thousands of others who gravitated toward the series during the lean "rerun" years when it looked certain that the Enterprise would once again soar but before the first movie was released.

Star Trek, even more so than Star Wars, was an integral part of my development as a person and a lover of all things science fiction and fantasy. It was there for me during the late '70s and all through the '80s. I never favored one member of the triumvirate over the others. I appreciated Kirk, Spock, and McCoy equally - the first for his heroism and derring-do, the second for his cool logic, and the third for his passion. Nimoy's death makes Shatner the last man standing, and I hope they find some way to incorporate his Kirk into the next movie - a fitting way to mark the show's 50th anniversary and say farewell to an era. Like Tom Baker in Doctor Who, it feels necessary - maybe not for younger fans but for those of us who have been there going back to a time when Star Trek was Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley.

For me, Star Trek was primarily about the relationships among Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Even some of the worst episodes were rescued by their interaction. To the extent that Nimoy was or wasn't Spock, he understood how to embody the character and, like many actors, his irritation with the limitations placed on his career by a defining role turned into acceptance and affection. In the '70s, Nimoy tried to distance himself from Spock. He was the only one of the original crew not to sign on for Star Trek Phase 2 and when that project morphed into Star Trek: The Motion Picture, there was widespread uncertainty about whether he would return. Spock's death in Star Trek II was one of the great moments of '80s cinema, and was written at Nimoy's instigation. The rumor at the time was that he would only agree to appear in The Wrath of Khan if Spock was written out. Then Nimoy surprised everyone at the wrap party by saying how much he looked forward to participating in Star Trek III (which he would direct). That was the watershed moment. After that, he embraced Spock and the character continued to make appearances for years to come. The final time DeForest Kelley played McCoy was in 1991. The last time Shatner played Kirk (not counting his appearance on Seth McFarlane's Oscarcast or in TV commercials) was in 1994. Nimoy's swansong as Spock was a mere two years ago in 2013's Star Trek Into Darkness.

There is a tangible connection between Star Trek and my genesis as a movie reviewer. 1991 was a key year. For the first time since 1972, school was not a part of my daily routine. I moved into my first away-from-college apartment in January and began to experience what it was like to live on my own away from the trappings of university life. I remembered it as being a strange, heady experience - making money and being able to spend it as I saw fit. (I bought full season tickets to the Phillies even though the stadium was a 90 minute drive from my apartment - it made for some long drives and late nights during homestands.) But I discovered that it was difficult to fill all the spare time freed up by the elimination of studying. In graduate school, I typically spent about 4 hours per day in classes and another 10-12 hours studying and working problems. Now, I was working 8 hour days with nothing in particular to do before and after. So I started writing more. And seeing movies. And then, in September, I embarked on another projectů

Every Star Trek fan knew that 1991 represented the end for the old crew - one last time into the breach, so to speak. We understood this long before Christopher Plummer narrated the Star Trek VI teaser that paid honor to the 25th anniversary: "For one quarter of a century, they have thrilled us with their adventures, amazed us with their discoveries, and inspired us with their courage. Their ship has journeyed beyond imagination. Her name has become legend; her crew, the finest ever assembled. We have traveled beside them from one corner of the galaxy to the other. They have been our guides, our protectors, and our friends. Now you are invited to join them for one last adventure. For at the end of history lies the undiscovered country." With Gene Roddenberry dead, the production team was anxious to push The Next Generation crew to the fore and put the old guard out to pasture. At the time, Kelly was 71 and Nimoy and Shatner were 60. That seemed old - too old considering that "galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young."

In 1991, the Internet was in its infancy. A few years earlier, I had discovered the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.star-trek while wasting time in the college computer center. One thing in particular that I appreciated about these text-based discussions was the detailed weekly reviews of the latest Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes posted by a number of stalwarts. (The most notable of these being Tim Lynch.) I admired what they were doing and wondered whether I could attempt something similar. I had no desire to review TNG episodes but what about TOS? So I made a decision that would fill time, allow me to honor the end of an era in a personal way, and permit me to try my hand at writing reviews. I decided to watch one episode per day of the original Star Trek and follow up that viewing with a review.

The project went largely as planned although an 11th hour decision to advance the release date of Star Trek VI from December 13 to December 6 (to avoid Hook) forced me to double up. Those reviews - primitive and frankly not very good - have never been published anywhere, but I still have hard copies of them. Still, they represented the beginning of something and, once Star Trek VI came and went, I found that I missed the experience of watching then writing. Then along came Grand Canyon and Fried Green Tomatoes and things changed for me. But without Star Trek, there likely would have been no reviews. So it's not a stretch to credit Kelley, Shatner, and Nimoy for what I'm doing today. Many have written about how Nimoy's Spock led them to be an engineer, a mathematician, a scientist, or a teacher. I may be the only one who owes a career as a film critic more to Nimoy and his compatriots than to Roger Ebert.

"He's not really deadů as long as we remember him." Those words, spoken by Dr. McCoy, are true about everyone who has "shuffled off this mortal coil." They remain with us, alive in our memories. There are times, especially around the holidays, when my remembrances of my grandparents are so strong that it seems inconceivable that they have been gone for more than a decade. Most of us didn't know Leonard Nimoy but we knew Spock. And that's the gift Nimoy leaves behind. Because, although the actor's life was largely lived off camera and away from the public spotlight, his interpretation of the Vulcan will remain not only in our memories but in digitally preserved form for the foreseeable future. Nimoy played many other roles in his career, but he will be remembered as Spock. It's a legacy he would be comfortable with, and we should not presume to debate him.


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