Sunday, March 1, 2015

Grokking Spock

Here's the thing: I know that Leonard Nimoy has, in the past, had a slightly strained relationship at times with Mister Spock. I can't imagine what it would be like to be known, forever and unshakeably, for a part you played for three years in the sixties (and then again in several movies, and last, in your eighties, in the reboot of the franchise, as the older, alternate universe version of the new guy). I think of Alan Rickman's "Dr. Lazarus" in Galaxy Quest, forever doomed to show up in prosthetics and say "By Grabthar's hammer, you shall be avenged." After Star Trek, Nimoy was Spock, despite his directorial, songwriting, poetic and photographic achievements.

And when Nimoy died on Friday, he was mourned as Spock. There was a huge online wave of people, including me, posting our farewells with the Vulcan salute and the hashtag #LLAP (Live long and prosper). He was - and always shall be - our friend.

I thought about it before I posted that picture, knowing that, in some ways, that hand sign is Grabthar's hammer.

But I had reasons. For one thing, that hand sign and everything it represents may not really be about Leonard Nimoy the actor and director and artist. But it is the most visible signal and sign for Star Trek. Nimoy played, and helped to shape, a character who was more than just a stereotypical sixties SF alien. Spock had dignity and character and nuance. When I was a kid and the neighbourhood children played "space explorers," Spock was my role model, and I think he was for a lot of people. Kirk might have been the swashbuckler, but there was something about the way Spock represented the equal strength of science and order and knowledge and curiosity. And he had a certain tolerant, if a bit exasperated, sense of humour about humans and how illogical they could be. He was a critical lens through which you could look at humanity and, forgivingly, recognize how much more growing up our species has to do.

He also, as I learned on Friday as people wrote posts and comments, served as a role model for a lot of kids struggling with their identities - either because they were mixed-race, like Spock, or were having trouble dealing with their emotions, or felt they didn't fit in because they were quiet or nerdy or whatever. In the same way that Lt. Uhura was there for black kids, Spock was there for the geeks and freaks and outsiders.

Star Trek did many things that were not just groundbreaking, but inspiring. It told women and minorities that there was a place for them on the bridge, in the future. It said that human beings could get better, and eventually get over things like greed and violence and hatred, and use our skills for exploration and discovery. All that stuff. All the reasons that fans love the show.

And a couple of generations of future actual space explorers were watching, and listening.

We live in a world where young women go to work on the International Space Station, and they bring Starfleet comm badges.

1967: launch of Mariner V.
NASA techs in paper Spock ears.
People in the space program today grew up with Star Trek as part of their cultural story about exploration, and about science and discovery, and about what they have to do with being human. If you buy into Star Trek, you buy into the drive to discover what's out there. In the version of human history where we get better and keep exploring and striving and learning and being excited about our universe, Star Trek is part of the myth. And there's that salute, and therefore that character, to encapsulate it.

So when I posted my #LLAP picture, along with a lot of other people around the world, yes, I was mourning the loss of Leonard Nimoy - not because of what he'd done outside of Star Trek, although he did do some great things, but because he was Spock and Spock is the most obvious symbol for Trek, and Trek is a symbol for wanting better things from the human race.

It was a way of recognizing just how much our shared myth about what humans can be is owed to a story, one so familiar to us - even to the ones that aren't the freaks and geeks and outsiders, now - that I can put up my hand, and split my fingers, like that, and say volumes without saying a word.

Live long, and prosper. Peace and long life.