Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Spock Is Dead, and He’s Not Coming Back

Jim Morrison is DEAD and he’s not coming back and that’s IT. Got it?” —a button I used to own in 1985 when having a bunch of these all over your backpack in college was a thing.

We knew this was coming as far back as last year. I scarcely recognized him as Old Spock from the Parallel Universe in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot; he more resembled a black-eyed, demon-possessed thing from the Supernatural TV series—and that was nearly six years ago.

Still, losing Leonard Nimoy hit hard. Of all people, it was Seth McFarlane, the reigning king of cruel humor for people who watch too much TV, who summed up Nimoy’s career best:

Yes, Nimoy was a poet, songwriter, director, zombie of the stratosphere, etc. But it was his creation of the character of half-human, half-Vulcan Spock that will define him for the ages (the one we have left, anyway). From his dry, droll manner to the neck-pinch, to the “Vulcan salute” he cribbed from a rabbi he watched during services in childhood, no one else can recreate that perfect counterpoint to William Shatner’s James T. Kirk.

The word that caught my eye in McFarlane’s tweet was “noblest.” You don’t see that word used often. About the only time I ever hear the word “noble” at all is in sarcastic retorts, e.g., “Well, that’s very noble of you.” In a mediascape of “loveable rogues” whose roguishness is excused by flashes of nobility demonstrated at proper beats in the narrative, Spock was simply noble.

There was a sweet spot in between external lack
of emotion and a mile-wide sarcastic streak that even
Nimoy lost the ability to portray by the time the movies
came around to stink up the canon.
It’s almost impossible to imagine a character like that today. So impossible, you can’t get a contemporary actor to properly reproduce Spock as he is known and loved in the original 1966-1969 television series. Nimoy himself lost his grip on the character in the movies. In J.J. Abrams’ Gold Key Comics-style adaptation/reboot of the series, Zachary Quinto, bless his heart, could only come up with a crude, Saturday Night Live-style approximation that went heavy on a bitchiness that was completely alien to Nimoy’s original portrayal.

Of course, that first, best portrayal was in the can before the year 1969 was a week old, when the last frames of the original Star Trek series were filmed. With Nimoy’s death, we’re reminded that nothing new is being created. That the old masters who brought us such great things in the past are old, if not dead already,  and there’s no one coming in to replace them.

Maybe when all the old TV actors and musicians are dead by mid-century something new will come about. Then again, maybe by mid-century there will be all kinds of yammering about the centennial of I Love Lucy, and which the latest Taylor Swift/Beyonce clone will go through makeup to give her best bad imitation of Lucille Ball.

I expect to be dead by then, too. I’m not all that curious to find out.

Thanks for the memories, Mr. Nimoy. There are some things only one person can pull off, and you pulled off one of the all-time greatest. I feel privileged to have seen all that when it was really happening, when classic characters and stories and songs were being made before our very eyes and ears like just another Tuesday at the office.