Spock lives!

The Thinker by Rodin

When us denizens of the Internet yesterday weren’t debating whether a certain dress was gold and white or blue and black we were mourning the death of actor Leonard Nimoy, famous in his portrayal of the logical and taciturn Vulcan (well, half human-half Vulcan) Mr. Spock in the original TV series Star Trek, not to mention a bunch of Star Trek movies and even some animated episodes in the 1970s. It was unclear to me which topic won the day, but I do know which topic will endure: Leonard Nimoy’s outstanding portrayal of our favorite Vulcan. Spock, and by extension Leonard Nimoy who defined him, has become immortal.

Here’s the truth about Star Trek: it was always far more about Mr. Spock than it was about Captain Kirk. This was because Leonard Nimoy could act and William Shatner could not, unless he had a really good director (e.g. Nicholas Meyer, who directed Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982)). But of course it was also because Spock was a far more interesting character. He was deep and mysterious, in spite of his projected lack of emotions and clockwork-like brain. He was different but somehow cool, an outsider but someone most of us secretly wanted to emulate. He was Sherlock Holmes on steroids, a super outsider fighting for truth, justice and the United Federation of Planets. He was virtually flawless: an intellectual giant that specialized in synthesizing disparate information for the benefit of good. His only flaw to my way of thinking was his dopey, over the top and undeserved loyalty to James T. Kirk, his friend for life who frankly deserved his scorn, not his admiration.

Unsurprisingly, Nimoy was thrice nominated for an Emmy for best supporting actor for his role as Spock while Shatner never got a single nomination. Maybe it was the 1960s, but we couldn’t get enough of Mr. Spock. Women in particular were fascinated by Mr. Spock. In a time when women were required to tightly reign in their passionate sides, Mr. Spock gave them a safe channel to vent. In particular women were fascinated by the Kirk-Spock relationship, mainly because it hinted that two men could have a relationship of great depth during a time when men’s relations with other men were typically superficial. Women knew there was something deeper there that us men did not see: a homosexual context. Perhaps Kirk was a repressed homosexual, or at least a bisexual. Spock’s puppy dog admiration for Kirk hinted that Spock’s ultra logical personality was a mere projection. Inside he was a cauldron of passion for his true love: Kirk, and certainly not Nurse Christine Chapel.

Spock was the infectious character of his time. While the series died in 1969 the character simply would not go away. Star Trek lived principally because of the subtext of the Kirk-Spock relationship. It was women more than men who kept the show in their hearts and petitioned Paramount for movies and spinoffs. When the movies became successful (and they did when the Kirk-Spock relationship became front and center in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan) of course the demand would spin off all sorts of Star Trek themed shows, some good, some not so good.

The emotional subtext of Spock aside, we grooved on Spock because of what he stood for. Our world today is far messier than it was in the chaotic late 1960s. But Star Trek producer Gene Roddenberry laid out an idealistic but somehow hopeful vision of humanity’s future where we had overcome issues like racism and classism. We lived in peace and in something close to utopia, except for the Klingons, Romulans and other another assorted unenlightened species we encountered exploring brave new worlds that wanted to do the United Federation of Planets harm. Star Trek inspired us. It inspired me. The Prime Directive (which Kirk often ignored) was an enlightened way that acknowledged the greater forces at work shaping civilizations. Maybe it inspired the Beatles to create their song Let it be. It shaped my thinking on our war in Iraq and how we should handle our current conflict with ISIS. It was Spock, not Kirk that modeled this new and enlightened universe. As long as this half-breed could maintain his civility and logic, there was hope. I often think that President Obama channels Mr. Spock, so much so that I wrote a post about it. Due to Nimoy’s death, the post has surged to the top of my most popular posts list.

It was Nimoy of course who impressively pulled off a plausible and coherent character that the rest of us could latch onto. Unsurprisingly, Nimoy developed a love/hate relationship with his character. It caused him write a book, I am not Spock and years later another book, I am Spock where he wrestled with his feelings with being saddled by the character. However, it was Nimoy that really brought Spock alive. The character brought Nimoy huge celebrity and also drove him to drink, but like it or not it made him and his character immortal.

Nimoy quickly became typecast by Spock, which put a serious dent on his acting career. He wanted to be more than Spock, but for the most part he wasn’t allowed. He dabbled in directing and summer stock. His most impressive non-Spock role was as Morris Meyerson, the husband of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. He was nominated for an Emmy for his performance, but didn’t feel too bad for losing, as he lost to Laurence Olivier.

Nimoy is gone but Spock has endured, and was most recently portrayed by Zachary Quinto, who was tutored in the role by Nimoy himself. At one time (2003) I was convinced that Star Trek was dead. These newest Star Trek movies proved me wrong, thankfully, because they were done so well. However, the reason they survived was because Spock, not Kirk, proved too popular to die. After all Spock died in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan and we had to resurrect him, just like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has to resurrect Sherlock Holmes from certain death.

Nimoy, a Jew, did not believe in resurrection but his character is likely to endure and may prove as immortal as Sherlock Holmes in the decades ahead. It would not surprise me if when the 22nd century dawns that portrayals of Mr. Spock will still endure on popular media and Star Trek, in it’s 22nd century projection, will as well. United Federation of Planets, here we come! And here’s hoping that Spock will be in charge.

Spock in charge

The Thinker by Rodin

In case you haven’t noticed in the last five years, we seem to have a Vulcan in the Oval Office. Spock is in charge.

Obama as Mr. Spock
Obama as Mr. Spock

Oh, I know what some of you are thinking: we have an atheist/Muslim, Kenyan-born unnatural American in the White House instead. All that stuff about Barack Obama being born in Hawaii is faked, and even if it isn’t, Hawaii was barely a state in 1961, so he’s still not a naturally born American, and thus is not qualified to be president! The good news is that if Obama really is Mr. Spock, well, then we do have an imposter for a president, since anyone with knowledge of Star Trek canon knows that Spock is a Vulcan from the planet Vulcan.

Not so fast! There is the minor matter of Spock’s mother Amanda, who happened to be human, which means Spock is a product of a mixed-species marriage. Curiously, Obama is a product of a mixed-race marriage. It’s unclear from Star Trek canon whether Spock’s mother Amanda was born in the United States, and it’s also very unclear whether in the 23rd century world of Star Trek there is a United States. It sort of sounded like in Gene Roddenberry’s imagination we had evolved past nation-states. However, Spock’s mother Amanda was white and spoke English with a flawless American accent. If she had a son on Vulcan and was a member of a 23rd century United States, why, Spock would be no less eligible for the presidency than Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) is for being born in Calgary, Canada to American parents. Hmm.

So I am going with this assumption, because President Obama is so much in mind and temperament like a Vulcan in general, but Spock in particular, that I figure Spock is real. He figured out a way to transport himself back to our time, got a little plastic surgery on his ears and otherwise inserted himself seamlessly into our national consciousness around 2004 when Obama made that famous speech at the Democratic National Convention. I mean, Obama is a dead ringer for Spock anyhow: tall, thin, highly logical and low key. I don’t know where the Barack Obama before that speech is, but I figure he is deep in a holding cell somewhere out of the way, probably in Guantanamo. Maybe he will be released after Spock finishes his term in 2017.

Some rabid Christians believe in the antichrist, and many suggest that Obama is the antichrist. If the opposite of religious is secular, then Obama seems to qualify. It is true that he belonged to a predominantly black church in Chicago, but since assuming the presidency he and church have been strangers at best. He had not joined any of the local churches. His attendance is sporadic at best. Vulcans don’t need no stinkin’ churches. They are entirely logical and that certainly describes our president.

Obama, more than any president I can recall, is a relentlessly pragmatic politician, which means that he is driven by logic, not emotion, just like a Vulcan. It is borne out in so many ways, but most importantly to Americans perhaps in Obamacare. It was an imperfect law at best but the main thing was that it could get through Congress, although it just barely made it out of Congress. When it arrived it quickly showed imperfections. However, its imperfections were not as important as the fact that Obama and Democrats in Congress had at least moved this political football down the field, an accomplishment that eluded many past presidents and congresses. Obamacare was certainly not the best health care legislation, but it was doable. It was the logical choice as opposed to doing what so many others had done: nothing.

I find Obama/Spock’s pragmatism welcome. I see it not just in the Affordable Care Act, but in lots of other actions Obama/Spock has taken. The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars were good examples. Mr. Spock would look at these wars and say, “There is no way to win these wars. We need to get out quietly, set up some fig leaf governments that suggest that we care about the inevitable mess we’ll leave behind, but basically just go. We can’t afford them anymore.” And so we did. For the most part, even the Republicans who started these wars aren’t complaining. They have moved on to other issues that excite their base, like cutting spending in general.

The Hindus recognize the god Shiva, whose job is basically to destroy things. This is because life is about change. If it didn’t change, it wouldn’t be life. Curiously, Republicans who claim to not want things to change seem to be channeling Shiva, eager to destroy pretty much all the social legislation of the 20th century. Obama/Spock seems to be trying to cope with change, to build on what has worked in the past to make for a better tomorrow, making him in some ways conservative. The Affordable Care Act demonstrates this principle at work: build a health care system on top of our existing private health insurance market to minimize the shock of change. It’s highly logical in the context of where we are today, which is why Obama/Spock supported it.

Obama himself has repeatedly spoken about his intent on playing a “long game”. He tries to ignore the ups and downs of the moment and keep his eye on the far end of the field where the goal line is. Whatever it takes to move that ball down the field is fine with him. As quarterback though Obama prefers to rush instead of pass. He may start out with a pass, as he did with the Affordable Care Act, but once it proved politically impossible to get a single payer system through Congress he found it less risky to rush instead. He got his first down, which was the Affordable Care Act. Some other quarterback will get to the goal line: a single payer system. Obamacare makes this conversation possible in the future. Without it, it could not happen at all.

Obama is obviously not a perfect president, so the Spock analogy is imperfect as well. But I find his relentless pragmatism quite refreshing. At times it gets him in trouble, such as in national security matters with electronic eavesdropping and the use of drones to kill terrorists. Spock though would fearlessly make these choices. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one,” he has said in various TV shows and movies. Disconnects like these can happen when you elect left-brain presidents. What is logical is not always what makes the most political sense, and it can come back and bite you from time to time. Overall though, I prefer a left-brain president to a right-brain one.

We face terrible problems from overpopulation to climate change. No Messiah is going to come down from the skies to solve these for us. We made this mess, and only we can clean it up. We need clear thinkers and people of practical action to pull it off, if we can pull it off at all. The odds are very long.

So I for one am glad that Spock is in charge.