The death of Leonard Nimoy a few days ago at the age of 83 has opened the floodgates of memories for the many people who were entranced by Star Trek. I was not in the US during the heyday of the show and so was not sucked into the intense fan loyalty that it generated. But I had seen a couple of episodes here and there and appreciated the fact that its basic message was a very positive one, ahead of its time especially in the way that it treated diversity, and Spock’s mixed parentage offered opportunities to explore that dimension.
In “A Journey to Babel,” an episode that aired in 1967, the show explores Spock’s half-Vulcanness (or as the writers put it, “a half-breed”). We learn that Spock’s Vulcan father is upset about Spock’s decision to join Starfleet, which is led from Earth, by Earthlings. A crisis later requires Spock to give his father a blood transfusion, and in another indication of his otherness, we see that Vulcan blood is green.
Other characters on the show helped promote Star Trek’s racially progressive message; you had Uhura, who shared with Captain Kirk the first televised interracial kiss; a Russian tactical officer in the midst of the real-world Cold War; and a Japanese pilot.
Spock was of course the single most iconic figure in the series and while it must have been hard for an actor to be so closely identified with a single character, Nimoy, after an initial struggle, learned to deal with it graciously because he realized how important that character was to his fans, and to be dismissive of his creation would be rude. Nimoy as a person was noted for being gentle and kind and wearing his fame lightly and apparently would unfailingly answer the same questions from his fans over and over again as if they were original.
As Charles Pierce writes in an appreciation:
He respected the indelible character he created, and one of the ways he did that was not to take himself or the character too seriously, but always to take seriously the love that fans had for that character.
Pierce says that the fact that Spock was a biracial character with Vulcan and human parents was an important part of its appeal, because it enabled him to tackle the issues of being different and an outsider.
It’s extraordinarily hard to imagine American TV without Sarek and Amanda’s kid who, like the current president of the United States, was the child of two worlds, in Spock’s case, quite literally. (The series debuted in 1966, nine months before the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Loving v. Virginia. The show always was ahead of its time.) … Spock faced bigotry. He faced his status as an outsider, even among a universe of people who were outsiders in one way or another.
NPR’s weekend All Things Considered host Arun Rath said that as a biracial child himself growing up in America and struggling with his own sense of identity and being perceived as different and an outsider, he identified with Spock and learned from him how to deal with it. Rath gives a touching appreciation.
Leonard Nimoy lived long and prospered, as should we all.