Tuesday 14 April 2015

In Memoriam: Leonard Nimoy. Best of Spock

The world is quick to move on, it seems. Last month, the science fiction and fantasy community lost two of its most beloved legends almost at once. As a longterm Discworld fan and new but ardent Trekkie, it was one blow after another. When a public figure dies, there is an outpouring of grief for a day or two, but the world keeps turning, and soon goes back to normal for most of us. As a fan, I wouldn't want to claim a greater share of a grief that belongs to the bereaved friends and family. But I would like to take a little time to pay my respects to someone I admire.

For some reason, I've found it harder to get my head around Leonard Nimoy's death than that of Terry Pratchett, despite having been a fan of Discworld for at least half of my life, while only discovering Star Trek two years ago. And the publication of April's SFX and Sci Fi Now magazines, with their memorials of both men in one issue, made me sad all over again (as well as muttering like a mad person in the supermarkets that it's just ridiculous for one issue of a magazine to contain two important obituaries.) So here's my lengthy, slightly belated tribute to Mr Nimoy in his most famous role, as well as a few others. I would prefer not to have to write any more of these posts in the near future!

I am aware that my Star Trek review posts tend to get a little unbalanced and fangirlish when it comes to Spock.  My love for the Vulcan science officer came as a huge shock even to myself. Why would a cold, emotionless alien from a cheesy '60s science fiction show capture my affections so much? Of course, it is all down to the way Mr Nimoy played the role, his skill as an actor to portray a character with huge depth of emotion hidden beneath the surface, subtly revealed through a raised eyebrow, or the delivery of a line. His friendship with the Enterprise's Captain, James Kirk, based upon respect and loyalty, and with the Chief Medical Officer "Bones" McCoy, which is characterised by bickering, provide the series with its emotional centre. Leonard Nimoy brought so much heart to the role of Spock that what could have been a two-dimensional character has become one of the most beloved nerd heroes, not just of the Star Trek series, but of all fiction.

 My top twenty Spock moments mark the evolution of the character, and are not a bad place to start if you want to familiarise yourself with Star Trek's original series and characters.

1. "The Naked Time" (S.1) Not to be confused with the Potter Puppet Pals video of the same title. The Enterprise's away team brings back an infectious disease which exposes the crew's most hidden, suppressed sides to themselves. Sulu neglects his duties to enact his swashbuckling fantasies. (This is one of Sulu's finest moments.) Another crew member succumbs to his horror and despair about exploring space's furthest reaches. Nurse Chapel declares a long-held love for Mr Spock, who in turn breaks down from the strain of a lifetime of controlling every emotion, regret for being unable to show love, even to his human mother. This early episode gives a deep insight into the inner life of the Enterprise crew.

2. "This Side of Paradise" (S.1) A magic - sorry, sciencey - plant brings out a softer side to Mr Spock, enabling him to fall in love, climb trees and disobey orders, to Captain Kirk's dismay. The effects are only temporary, of course, but at the end of the episode Spock reveals, matter-of-factly, "For the first time in my life, I was happy."

3. "The City on the Edge of Forever" (S1.) One of the best all-round episodes of the entire series, with a solid storyline, time-travel, a moral dilemma and heartbreak - but what I like best about it is Kirk and Spock pretending to live a normal life in the 1930s, sharing an apartment while trying to find a way back to their own time.

4. "Amok Time." (S2.)
Concerning... biology. Vulcan biology. The biology... of Vulcans.
Spock acts very strangely, and it is revealed that he must mate or die. But when he, Captain Kirk and Dr McCoy beam down to Vulcan, Spock and the Captain are matched in a battle to the death... This episode shows a rare glimpse beneath the emotionless mask that is not influenced by outside factors.

5. "Mirror, Mirror" (S2)
In which Captain Kirk and some of his crew find themselves in an alternative universe, aboard a scary version of the Enterprise. In place of the peaceful Federation is a ruthless empire. Shipboard discipline is brutal. And Spock has a beard!

6. "Journey to Babel" (S2) Introducing Spock's parents, Sarek and Amanda. Spock is faced with an agonising dilemma when forced to take command of the Enterprise at the same time that Sarek falls gravely ill. Presenting a new insight into Spock's dual nature.

7. "Friday's Child" (S2)
In which Dr McCoy has to deliver a baby. It's his episode really, but Spock gets a couple of wonderful moments at the end, responding with bewilderment to what the captain calls "an obscure Earth Dialect" ("Ootchy-wootchy-kootchy-coo".) And his response to learning that this baby will be named after the Doctor and the Captain could so easily be misinterpreted as jealousy or indignation, if those were not emotions. "I think you're going to be insufferably pleased with yourselves for at least a month. Sir!"

8. "The Trouble With Tribbles" (S2.)
If "The City at the Edge of Forever" was the best dramatic episode, "The Trouble With Tribbles" is the best comedy, in which the Enterprise is overrun with cute and fluffy creatures which multiply faster than you can blink. Spock picks up one of the tribbles and observes its soothing effects on the human crew members. "Fortunately," he says, a hypnotic glaze spreading over his face, "I am immune." No one is convinced, and he puts the tribble back in a hurry.

9. "A Piece of the Action" (S2)
In which Kirk (enthusiastically) and Spock (reluctantly) play at being gangsters, and are hilarious.

10. "The Enterprise Incident" (S3)
The only season 3 episode I'm featuring here - there were a few good episodes in that series but for the most part the stories vary between mediocre, hilariously bad, and tragically bad. But in "The Enterprise Incident" Spock goes undercover aboard a Romulan ship and seduces its beautiful commander. Underhand, yes, but you do get the impression that they have a lot of respect for each other even when Spock is exposed as her enemy.

11. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Spock has been away from the Enterprise from years, desperately trying to rid himself of all emotion and be a true Vulcan. He fails, and returns, but is colder and more distant than ever. But as he mind-melds with a computer, he finally comes to value emotion: joy, love and friendship alongside the logic his people hold so dear.

12. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
"I have been, and always shall be, your friend." Spock sacrifices his life to save that of his ship and crew, and breaks everyone's heart in the process.

13. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Thankfully, he doesn't stay dead - as if the title didn't give that away! Kirk and his crew steal the Enterprise (and blow her up) rescue Spock's body and return it to Vulcan to resurrect, though with no guarantee of success. Dressed in his ceremonial Vulcan bathrobe, he walks towards his friends with no sign of recognition, but slowly his memories return to him as he is reunited with his Captain. "Jim. Your name is Jim," he realises at last. His friends gather around him, he raises an eyebrow, and you know he's going to be all right.

14. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (the one with the whales)
The Enterprise crew find themselves in 1980s San Francisco, and Spock and Kirk exchange their starship for a public bus, where an obnoxious punk blasts music at full volume. Most of the public are too intimidated or polite to ask him to turn it down, and Kirk's request is rudely ignored. Spock, however, takes the logical course of action and knocks him out with a nerve-pinch, much to everyone else's delight.

15. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (the one with the whales) part 2
Spock attempts to fit into 20th century Earth by using "colourful metaphors." In fact, let's just count everything Spock does while wandering around San Francisco in his bathrobe and headband.

16. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (the one with the whales) part 3.
At the beginning of this film, Spock's mother is anxious when her son is unable to answer the simple question: "How do you feel?" But by the end, he sends a message back to her through his father. "Tell her - I feel fine."

17. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Kirk, Spock and the crew are ready to retire. They have survived one final adventure, successfully begun negotiations with the Klingon Empire, and are unceremoniously summoned back to Earth by Starfleet. "Is that it?" they all think, but it is up to Spock to break the silence.
"If I were human, I believe my response would be, 'go to hell,'" he says. Everyone turns to stare at him. "If I were human," he repeats, innocently. The Captain makes his decision. "Second star to the right, and straight on till morning." A beautiful, poignant finale for this crew who served together for so long, together for the last time.

18. Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Unification." (S.5)
The original Enterprise crew may have retired from Starfleet, but it is not the end of Spock's career; he takes on the role of ambassador to the Romulans, and in this two-part episode, plays a key part in attempting to bring unity between the Vulcan people and the Romulans, who live by very different philosophies, but who have a common ancestry. His decision is seen as foolish, even treasonous, but Spock has always been a stubborn man, and age, it seems, has made him even more so. Captain Jean-Luc Picard travels to meet with Spock and give him a message from his dying father, and gets caught up in the political chaos. This episode sets the scene for the events of Star Trek: Nemesis as well as being the catalyst for the 2009 reboot film.

19. Star Trek (2009)
James Kirk is marooned on a frozen planet, is about to be eaten by a monster. Then a cloaked figure shows up and chases away the creature, before turning around and revealing his face. Yes, this is Spock, the real Spock, ancient, wise, irreplaceable. Leonard Nimoy's presence in this film made it more than well-made fanfiction, it welcomed it into the Trek universe, and he passes on the wisdom that will shape James Kirk's character and set the events back onto their correct course... if only Kirk will listen and believe him.

20. Star Trek (2009) part two.
And finally, we get to see Spock the elder and Spock the younger come face to face, in a passing on of the torch that is heartwarming, humorous and, especially now, poignant. The elder Spock advises his younger self to carry on in Starfleet, and watches from afar as the Enterprise sets off on its five-year mission. His days of gallivanting around the galaxy seeking out new life and new civilisations, etc, are behind him, and yet for another version of himself, they are only just beginning. There is a mixture of wistfulness and joy as, with Spock, we watch with anticipation of all the adventures that lie ahead, and hear him softly reciting the "Space, the final frontier" monologue that preceded every episode.

And the rest:

Now, please note that Leonard Nimoy had a very long and varied career, not only in acting, but also in directing, photography, even poetry and music. But I've only really "known" him from a fan's point of view for a little while, and as such this following list is very far from comprehensive. Still, here are just a few other roles I've enjoyed seeing him in:

Dr Mayfield in Columbo: 
It seems everyone who was anyone in the 1970s appeared as a murderer on Columbo, and it is no spoiler to announce that Nimoy dunnit in the classic episode "A Stitch in Crime." If you're not familiar with the shabby, bumbling detective Lieutenant Columbo, his investigations are not so much about "whodunnit" as "how's he going to catch them. Incidentally, this was one of the first episodes I saw as a kid, and one so memorable that when I recently walked in while my parents were watching this, I shouted out: "It's in your pocket!!!" Nimoy's character is a superficially charming, but ruthless and ambitious killer surgeon, and holds the distinction of being one of very few murderers to make Columbo lose his cool.

Leonard Nimoy as Himself on The Simpsons:
Most of what I know, I learned from The Simpsons. Leonard Nimoy made two cameo appearances as a version of himself on the show, once as a pompous celebrity guest of honour at the opening of the ill-fated Springfield monorail in "Marge Vs the Monorail," and the other narrating one of my childhood favourite episodes "The Springfield Files."

"The following tale of alien encounters is true. And by true, I mean false. It's all lies. But they're entertaining lies. And in the end, isn't that the real truth? The answer is no." This episode also introduced me to the main concept of The X-Files and agents Mulder and Scully. (I really want to watch that episode again now, it was brilliant! We used to have it on VHS but I expect it's long gone.)

Dr William Bell in Fringe:
William Bell was a mysterious figure throughout the first season of Fringe. Every mystery seemed to lead back to him, but he was conveniently out of the country whenever the Fringe agents wanted to speak with him. Until the very last scene of the season one finale, when Agent Olivia Dunham is transported into a parallel universe. A figure appears in the shadows, and a familiar gruff voice speaks. And I fell out of my chair.

Dr Bell appeared for a few episodes in season two, before apparently being killed off in the season finale. But death did not stop him, and nor did Leonard Nimoy's retirement at the age of 80. Anna Torv took on the role for a few episodes, and they even wrote one episode as an animated hallucination, allowing them to use Nimoy's voice without him appearing on-screen. By season four, Nimoy was un-retired enough to return once more as the ultimate Big Bad of the season.

Spock Doll Action Figure in The Big Bang Theory:

It seems as though E4 only have a couple of Big Bang Theory episodes on repeat, because every time I switch it on, I see either the episode with the table or the episode with the Spock toy. Penny buys the boys Star Trek transporter toys, and after a dream encounter with his Spock doll, Sheldon opens and breaks his friend's toy. That night, Tiny Spock confronts Sheldon once more, urging him to own up.
Tiny Spock: "If I told you to jump off the bridge of the Enterprise, would you do it?"
Sheldon: "Ohhh! If I got onto the bridge of the Enterprise, I would never ever leave."
Tiny Spock: "Trust me, it gets old after a while."
I guess if E4 do keep showing the same episodes all the time, this isn't a bad one to see over and over.

Spock vs Spock:

I hate car adverts, but I can't resist this one, which is a nerd's delight, with Zachary Quinto issuing a challenge to Leonard Nimoy: last one to the golf club buys dinner.

Leonard on Twitter: 

I am very selective about which famous people I follow on Twitter or other social media; they say it is best not to meet your heroes, or see too much of their private selves. Leonard Nimoy was the only Star Trek person I followed on Twitter. Not the busiest of social media users, his comments would be brief but wise and made me smile to see an update, always signed off with "LLAP" ("live long and prosper," of course.) His account was full of fond memories, love for his family and fans, even offering to be an honorary grandfather to anyone who needed one, and later, when he was diagnosed with the lung disease which would kill him, was full of advice and encouragement for everyone trying to quit smoking. His last update, a few days before he died, was poetic and poignant, but perhaps go some way towards helping to understand the mystery of death that seemed so straightforward when I was younger and only gets more confusing.

And finally:

Because, when the announcement came of Mr Nimoy's death, more than one of my friends shared this video on Facebook and got this song firmly lodged in my head for over a week, now I am going to inflict it on you. Ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to present the, um, classic song, "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins."

I have only been a fan for two years, but it has been an honour. Thank you.

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