In the climax of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” James T. Kirk discovers that his old friend Spock is about to die, having exposed himself to lethal doses of radiation in order to save the Enterprise and all others aboard it.
“Don't grieve, Admiral,” a pained Spock tells Kirk. “'Twas logical. The needs of the many outweigh…”
“…the needs of the few,” Kirk replies, completing the quote from earlier in the film.
“… or the one,” Spock adds.
Spock would eventually return from the dead in the next film, and “Star Trek” remains an ongoing concern more than 30 years after “Wrath of Khan,” with a new movie in development with the rebooted cast that includes Zachary Quinto as Spock.
News of Leonard Nimoy's death unsurprisingly makes me think of the on-screen demise of his famous alter ego, and the ways in which Nimoy's singular contribution to the franchise echoed that iconic exchange between Spock and Kirk.
For “Star Trek,” the success of the many was largely fueled by the work and imagination of the one.
With all due respect to William Shatner or even the series' creator Gene Roddenberry, if not for Nimoy's work as Spock, “Star Trek” is not a thing that survives cancellation to become a beloved, generations-spanning institution.
Roddenberry created Spock, though the character went through many iterations early on. The original concept was of a “half-Martian with a reddish complexion,” and in the original “Star Trek” pilot “The Cage,” he's much more emotional and expressive than the character we would come to know and love. NBC executives were wary of a character one of them referred to as “the guy with the ears,” and asked Roddenberry to eliminate him from the show. (Early publicity stills of the character airbrushed away the pointed ears, for fear they would scare away viewers.) But Roddenberry wanted the Enterprise to have an alien crew member – later revised to be half-alien, half-human, which generated so much of the inner conflict that came to define the character, and that Nimoy played so wonderfully over the decades – and saw in the lanky, angular Nimoy an actor who could give his new show some sci-fi credibility even with relatively minimal makeup.
Without Spock, “Star Trek” might have still had its initial three-season run on NBC, but it likely would have become another half-forgotten space opera from that period, rather than something that would be revived with fan conventions, an animated series, and then movies, spin-offs and everything else. Spock was what was special about “Star Trek,” offering an outsider's perspective and an insider's at the same time, coolly reacting to situations that made Mr. Chekov panic or Dr. McCoy sputter with rage, yet never feeling wholly a part of either the Enterprise crew or his home world of Vulcan. It was that sense of otherness that drew in so many sci-fi fans – many of whom deal so often with their own feelings of otherness – and that inspired them to writer letters to NBC to keep the show on the air, and then to write articles and fan fiction (some of it involving Spock as the only true love of Captain Kirk's life) in the years after the show was canceled.
It took a while for the creative team to fully understand what they had in Spock. In a memo Roddenberry sent to his writers at the start of work on the third and final season, he notes, “In the beginning of STAR TREK episodes, Mr. Spock was a fellow who occasionally said 'Illogical,' and that was about it. We all worked very hard to build him into a fully dimensional character, and a lot of people, including Leonard Nimoy, deserve credit.”
It was Nimoy who came up with many of the most famous pieces of Vulcan culture, including the “live long and prosper” salute (inspired by the Jewish priestly blessing) and the Vulcan nerve pinch (which he wanted to do because Spock punching out opponents seemed undignified). And it was Nimoy who so wonderfully embodied the alien and human sides of Mr. Spock – the former on the surface, the latter often lurking right below – and made him compelling even when, as Roddenberry noted in that memo, he wasn't always written well.
It's not coincidence that all the TV spin-offs featured some variation on Spock the outsider trapped between two worlds, belonging to neither, like Data and Worf on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” or Odo on “Deep Space Nine.” Nor is it a coincidence that those were often the audience's favorite characters.
Captain Kirk is, of course, also beloved, but it was the dynamic between the two of them – the impetuous hero to whom everything came easily, and the logical sidekick whose existence was a constant balancing act – that elevated him above other swaggering pulp heroes.
It's Spock whose character arc is at the heart of the first “Star Trek” film (even though it's, ironically, about Spock's quest to divorce himself from pesky human emotion once and for all), and whose death and rebirth is the defining element of the next two films. (“Star Trek II” is mainly about Kirk's fear of growing old, but that fear is given painful form with the sacrifice of his dearest friend; in “The Search for Spock,” Kirk's own son is murdered during the quest to bring Spock back to life, and the film seems to ultimately view that as a fair trade.) And when J.J. Abrams and company rebooted the film franchise a few years back and managed to contort the plot just enough to bring back one original castmember, it was Nimoy they chose. Some of that is that Shatner in this century brings with him a very different, often comical connotation that might not have served the new films well, but I think it's mainly that Spock ultimately defines what's unique about “Star Trek” as a whole. He wasn't conceived of as the main character, and probably wouldn't work if thrust into that position without Kirk around, but he's more crucial to separating the series from all others like it than anyone else.
Nimoy struggled at times with the shadow the role cast (even though he had a long and varied career as both actor and director in the years after the show ended), but eventually learned to embrace it, whether titling his second memoir “I Am Spock,” becoming one of the greatest self-mocking celebrities in “Simpsons” history, or throwing his weight behind “Fringe” for a while as the mysterious William Bell.
One of the reasons that Spock's “Wrath of Khan” death scene is so powerful – beyond the way the import of the moment inspired the best acting Shatner or Nimoy would ever do – is that he spends much of the film seeming as at peace with himself as he ever had (or as he would after his resurrection). After all this time, it seemed, he had finally learned to balance the two sides of his nature, and to feel like part of the group, as well as someone who should be in a position to teach young officers like Lt. Saavik. Because so much of the film is about Kirk becoming an old man, the film doesn't hit you over the head with Spock's transformation, but it's clearly there in every scene he's in. For that to be the point at which he has to give his life to save the ship and all his friends felt especially cruel. And it's a mark of how Nimoy and all those he worked with made a glorified background player into the emotional core of the series that it would be that painful.
Rest in peace, Leonard Nimoy. I have been, and always shall be, your fan.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org