The Empty Chair: A Eulogy for Leonard Nimoy and Spock
March 5, 2015
The Empty Chair: A Eulogy for Leonard Nimoy and Spock
I asked my client, R B Kelly, to write this eulogy on the passing of Leonard Nimoy, who played the character Spock in Star Trek. I too have my personal memories of Leonard, but since I met my client, in a way, because of Spock, I will defer to her eloquence on what Leonard and Spock meant to so many of us.
In one of my earliest memories, I’m sitting on a squeaky, leatherette sofa in the sitting room of my parents’ friends, trying not to fidget, because it’s a warm summer’s day and my bare legs have cemented themselves to the seat below me, and the sensation of separating skin from fabric is one that I won’t adequately be able to describe until the joys of waxing catch up with me in my teens. The television is on, but muted so that the grown-ups can talk. I’m a child in a child-free house - an appendage, a distraction - and I’m bored.
And then I happen to glance up at the screen. I don’t know if it’s something I see in the corner of my eye or it’s just that the midday news has finally segued into something more interesting than talking heads and reams of text, but the little sixteen-inch screen is suddenly full of a world I don’t recognise: a world of reds and blacks, fire and stars. In the middle of it, a man walks alone through a dreamlike desert, shrouded in simple linen robes, tousle-haired and pointy-eared. I can’t hear the words he speaks to the woman in front of him, but I don’t need to hear them: they appear on the screen below him, and my media-savvy, film-literate childhood self recognises this as a translation. It doesn’t occur to me to think that the language they’re speaking is terrestrial; the world they inhabit is not, and this leaves only one conclusion.
Was this when I fell in love with science fiction? I can’t say for sure. I was the child of a questioning household, a place where ideas were nourished and celebrated, and a love of speculation is practically hard-wired into my DNA. But I remember the feeling that gripped me as I watched, enraptured, so many years ago: that sense of absolute satisfaction, peculiar to the very best sci-fi, of observing a fully realised new world; a world filled with an extraordinary new race, possessed of a home and a language and a culture, with flesh on their bones and a history in their books and a sense of themselves and their place in the universe. It would be a long time before I could articulate it as such, but it’s the first time I remember connecting with the richness of the genre, of the sheer possibility encoded into its tropes and conventions.
And so, boredom forgotten, I watched that silent screen for as long as my mother’s conversation endured, and then, not long afterwards, I watched my pointy-eared alien, tousled hair now wrestled into geometrically precise lines above the elegant contours of his face, puzzle his way through a series of computerised tests at breakneck speed only to falter at a simple, “How do you feel?” I remember the fascination with which I devoured his backstory: the child of two worlds, raised among his father’s people but with his mother’s blood flowing through his veins; the outcast who learned how to embrace his difference among those who accepted him wholly as he was; the sharp intellect and scientific rigour that masked the soul of a poet; his struggle to reconcile the warring halves of himself; the peace that came with accepting who he was. And I remember, like so many others around the world, recognising myself in him, and feeling a little bit less alone.
Leonard Nimoy was not Spock. To conflate him so completely with one character played in a long and active creative life is not only to do a disservice to the artist himself, but also to his loved ones, who have lost a very real husband, brother, father, friend. And yet, for all he often struggled to differentiate himself from his most iconic character, he was also able to negotiate Spock’s cultural resonance into a powerful force for good. Over and above the provocative, difficult stories Trek was able to map onto the body of a green-blooded extraterrestrial - questions of race; of Otherness; of exclusivity; of the dangers of adopting a singular, hegemonic narrative and denying the legitimacy of the minority perspective - Nimoy was able to recognise the voice that his character gave to the outsiders, the misfits, the folks (like me) who didn’t really know where they belonged. Famously, in 1968, he wrote to a young fan, the child of a Black mother and a White father, who’d written to Spock that she felt ostracised and persecuted because of her mixed race. “I guess I’ll never have any friends,” she wrote. Nimoy’s reply, published in teen magazine Fave, used Spock’s experiences to speak to the girl’s loneliness, to remind her that, while different isn’t an easy thing to be, one can choose to make it beautiful.
“Popularity,” he said, “is merely the crumbs of greatness. When you think of people who are truly great and who have improved the world, you can see that they are the people who have realised they didn’t need popularity because they knew they had something special to offer the world…. It’s all in having the patience to find out what you yourself have to offer the world that’s uniquely yours.”
No, Leonard Nimoy was not Spock, and his contribution to the world - his “something special” - runs deeper and more profound than a pair of pointed-ears and archaic speech patterns, but surely it’s not unfair to suggest that, in the hands of this accomplished and compassionate man, Spock became a vehicle for his “something special” to shine?
It was some years after I watched The Voyage Home that I finally saw The Wrath of Khan. It wasn’t a deliberate omission; just the by-product of a world in which VCRs were the exception rather than the rule, and television channels were slow to programme the sci-fi classics when there were game-show re-runs to repeat. Looking back now, it’s a good thing that my sensitive childhood self had already seen the happy ending before the tragic denouement unfolded, though I can’t say - even now - that it robs the scene of its emotional gut-punch to know that it’s all right in the end, and that Mr Spock returns to quirk another eyebrow. In the wake of last Friday’s sad news, I went back to the second movie in the franchise and watched again, tears blurring the screen, as the icon we’ve loved, collectively, for half a century slipped away behind the glass wall of the radiation chamber. I watched and wept for a man I never met, and I pretended to myself that there’s a Genesis planet circling a new-born star up there in the heavens above us, where Leonard Simon Nimoy need never grow old, never suffer, never die.
“He’s really not dead, as long as we remember him,” said Bones to a devastated Captain Kirk as he gazed out over the world that his friend’s great sacrifice helped to create, and, at the end of the day, that’s where true immortality lies. The Science Officer’s chair may be forever vacant now on the USS Enterprise, but the work that Nimoy left will live on.