Mr. Spock Was My First Crush

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Essay by Martha Nichols

A Personal Salute to Leonard Nimoy, 1931–2015

 

"Leonard Nimoy RIP" © Laurel L. RusswormI would never claim to be the only teenage girl who kept a picture of Mr. Spock in her locker. Amid all the well-deserved tributes to actor Leonard Nimoy, who died last Friday at the age of 83, I know at least a few will touch on the enduring guy-you-can-never-have quality of Spock.

When I first learned that Nimoy had passed away, my sadness felt like a gut wallop. But it didn’t surprise me. I raised a glass at dinner Friday night and said, “R.I.P., Leonard Nimoy.” My husband, who hadn’t yet heard, said, “Awww—really?” and lifted his glass in a toast: “To Mr. Spock.” Even my thirteen-year-old son, who’s more familiar with Zachary Quinto in the latest Star Trek movies, stopped glancing at his iPhone for the toast, saying, “I can’t believe Mr. Spock died.”

It’s more personal for me, though. I’m a longtime Star Trek fan, going back to high school in the 1970s, when I watched the original series in reruns every weekday night. Nimoy created a character—the resident alien of the Starship Enterprise crew, never at home with himself, always battling the human emotions his logical Vulcan half is not supposed to feel—who firmly resides in this geek girl’s interior. His struggle wasn’t just romantically appealing; it spoke to my own internal divisions at the time, including my desire not to be constrained by gender conventions.

It’s no accident that Spock resembles my own father when he was young; tall, dark, austerely handsome. My dad, very close in age to Nimoy, passed away a little over a year ago. A sensitive man, he kept his feelings under wraps and wrote poetry toward the end of his life—as did Nimoy in his later years. In 1967, when Nimoy told the Boston Globe his Vulcan alter ego was “a pretty groovy guy,” he could have been describing my father: “[Spock is] very compassionate, intelligent, curious, logical.”

You don’t need a Freudian link to a Spockish daddy, however, to be drawn to this kind of guy. For bookish white girls, in particular, this was and is catnip; Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes is just a current variation.

© Lord Jim; Creative Commons licenseFor decades, Spock romances have been a staple of fan fiction. Some of the most popular involve Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk consummating their forbidden attraction. But many a female fan has penned a story about Spock finally getting it on with Nurse Christine Chapel—who in the three years that Star Trek first aired, from 1966 to 1969, made unrequited sad eyes at him—or one of the other Enterprise crew members. In a nod to this fan fantasy, young Spock (Quinto) in the new Star Trek movies is romantically involved with Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana).

I won’t fess up to writing fan fiction, although that hardly feels like a confession these days (Fifty Shades of Grey began as Twilight fanfic, after all.) Still, in the ‘80s, at least one good friend of mine had a Spock fanfic love story accepted and published in print. And that high school locker picture of mine was not just a photo clipped from TV Guide; it was my own charcoal sketch of Spock with his eyebrow raised, based on a studio shot from a pack of Star Trek bubble-gum cards.

For creative people, the conversion of fantasies into art—popular, literary, satirical, or private—is where it begins. My brother and I were also Dark Shadows fans in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, and my brother became so obsessed with the many incarnations of Quentin Collins, the cursed werewolf born in the late 1800s, that he decked out his bedroom in Victoriana—pulling back his curtains with red velvet ribbons, hanging portraits of Quentin he’d made, constructing a gramophone out of cardboard.

Nimoy himself, the son of immigrant Orthodox Jews, channeled who he was into his most famous character, much as he tried at times to shed Spock. He often said he was the one who came up with the “Live Long and Prosper” salute. A New York Times feature in 2007 about Nimoy’s photography notes that the gesture, now a pop-culture staple, “is actually rooted in Judaism. It represents the Hebrew letter ‘shin,’ the first letter in the word Shaddai, which means God.”

In a spooky sort of synchronicity, the night before Nimoy died, I happened to be looking over far less esoteric images of Spock and crew. I was finishing an upcoming TW column that refers to one of the worst Star Trek episodes ever—“Spock’s Brain” (1968). Yet, the fact that I even remember it after forty-plus years testifies to the imaginative power of the character. As for so many Star Trek fans, my memories of the show hinge on Spock, especially in my favorite episodes. There’s “The Devil in the Dark” (1967), in which he does a Vulcan mind-meld with a fiery rock creature. There’s “Journey to Babel” (1967), where Spock’s parents first appear—his judgmental diplomat of a Vulcan father, his loving human mother.

Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner (1968); NBC publicity photoI can still recall dialogue from the "Babel" episode, including this classic from Spock's mom: "Logic! Logic! I'm sick to death of logic."

Nimoy’s passing is the right time to celebrate not only his work as an actor, director, photographer, and writer, but also the impact great fictional creations have on the way we continually re-create the world. Enduring characters like Spock have sparked generations of authors and other artists.

My sadness now is certainly tied to my father’s death, intimations of mortality, and all the embarrassing, silly things I fantasized about as a girl. But both silly and profound feelings fuel my writing—and for writers, first loves and crushes matter. I’m not a writer because of Mr. Spock. Yet, what I felt for Leonard Nimoy’s complex character, at one of the most vulnerable, identity-making times in my life, will always be part of the writer I’ve become.

 


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Martha NicholsMartha Nichols is Editor in Chief of Talking Writing. She teaches journalism at the Harvard University Extension School.

Stay tuned for Martha's next "First Person" column, which will lead off TW's Spring 2015 issue on nature and technology—and connect "Spock's Brain" to high-tech entrepreneurs.

Comments

Martha --

Martha --
This is quite wonderful. I love the way you point out the appeal of Spock-like characters for geeky girls. The live long and prosper sign comes from the priestly blessing that happens in Orthodox synagogues when the Cohanim (the descendants of the priestly class) bless the congregation.

I think for many of us the multi-cultural nature of Startrek and it's resistance to the violent solutions to problems is part of the enduring appeal.

Thanks, Carol and Joan. Carol

Thanks, Carol and Joan. Carol, you're right about the multicultural aspects of the Star Trek universe, even at its hokiest. I'd also say the original TV series and all the iterations that followed were far more focused on addressing issues of racial inequality than the current "post-racial" round of movies. We get Zoe Saldana as an ass-kicking Lt. Uhura, which is great in some ways, but then there's a very pallid Benedict Cumberbatch as the complicated villain Khan Noonien Singh. My son likes the new movies, but one of the first things he asked about the second one was why a white guy was playing an Indian. Good question. In the original TV episode with Khan, Ricardo Montalban in the role may have been as fake as Corinthian leather, but at least he looked like a brown uber-mensh. 

Joan, I've never really thought of Spock as a Byronic hero. But maybe you're right, at least on the level of the internally struggling, intellectual, charisma of the guy whom geek girls can never have.

I thoroughly enjoyed this

I thoroughly enjoyed this piece, Martha. While Spock was a savior to guy geeks, I'm glad you brought the female perspective into the mix. I love Spock, but my heart belonged to the doomed werewolf on Dark Shadows that watched on re-runs in the 70s. Anyway, great piece..Jocelyn

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