Leonard Nimoy died recently after 83 years of accomplished terrestrial life with some small bits spent in Maine.
Born to immigrant parents from the Soviet Union, Nimoy grew up in Boston, attended drama classes at Boston College, and joined the U.S. Army Reserves for 18 months until leaving as a sergeant. As told during an interview with Pat Callaghan on WCSH a few years ago, Nimoy had a fond connection with Maine as a camper in his youth.
Best known as Mr. Spock from the original “Star Trek” TV series, Nimoy was a working stage, film and television actor for years before heading to space. But to me, Nimoy the man and Spock the character were both much more than those individual identities. Over time, they in fact became one: NimoySpock (the only known real-world application of the mythical Vulcan Mind Meld).
It can be argued (by me, vigorously) that “Star Trek” in its original television-series form has had a greater cultural impact that any other TV show in history. Though it only ran for three years (1966-1968) and 79 episodes, it changed the world. Or, at the very least, it changed my world.
Each episode started with a dark screen littered with a random palate of twinkling stars. Then the voice of Capt. James T. Kirk, with more than a little intergalactic acoustic echo, would boom from the heavens, “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Then over the next hour, Kirk, First Officer Mr. Spock, Dr. “Bones” McCoy, chief engineer “Scotty,” Lt. Sulu, and the crew of the Enterprise would travel throughout the galaxy at speeds ranging from Impulse power to Warp, in search of doing good deeds and helping people, planets and aliens. No distress call too faint or planet too far away every Friday night on NBC.
Kirk wouldn’t hesitate to charge the photon torpedoes when pushed into conflict by the Romulans, but more often than not, phasers set to “stun” (non-lethal) were the preferred mode of conflict resolution. And Spock was always the dispassionate, monotonic and emotionless voice of logic and reason.
What set Spock and the other characters apart from anything else then, or since, was the ever-present morality play, infused each week with hope, honor and compassion, despite that turbulent and perilous period in our history. While the starship Enterprise dealt with fictional intergalactic conflict on a weekly basis, America itself was facing even greater challenges, all very real.
In 1966, the Vietnam War was a U.S. foreign policy mess, the threat and fear of communism was at a fevered pitch, nuclear annihilation was top-of-mind with kids learning to “duck and cover” in school, and race relations in America were in a terrible and ugly place, a year after the horror of the Bloody Sunday march from Selma to Montgomery.
Not exactly the perfect time for the good ship Enterprise to beam itself into American homes. That might explain why NBC almost cancelled the series several times during its brief run, based upon its poor ratings. In a sci-fi injustice of cosmic proportions, the television series “Lost in Space” (“Danger, Will Robinson”) ran on CBS during the same period, garnered consistently higher ratings and lasted a total of 83 episodes.
The genius of “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry is frequently assigned to his visionary approach to constructing a future based in 2260, only 245 years from today, that is “trekking” along pretty close to reality – all during a period when rotary phones existed and (mass-produced) computers didn’t.
But, more impressive to me was Roddenberry’s personal humanity and philosophy.
“Star Trek” utilized technology, aliens and special effects to draw focus on the human enterprise and the complexities of ethical and moral decision-making, not on the starship itself. And in every episode, Spock was the anchor-point of abject reason. During a scene in a subsequent “Star Trek” film, when his character was facing imminent death from an act of self-sacrifice, Spock’s final line was, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” Logical.
Another element from “Star Trek” mythology was a test given to cadets, called the Kobayashi Maru. It represented a no-win situation that could only be conquered by someone willing to redefine the problem itself. It’s often cited today in business as a strategy based on changing the rules, rather than participating in an unwinnable game. (Warning: Warp jump coming.)
Maine’s economic situation is caught in a downward spiral (high taxes, high hurdles blocking capital investment, high barriers for skilled employment growth) that is our very own Kobayashi Maru. For the past decade we’ve been losing this test as our elected officials keep making the same hollow promises of “elect me, I’ll create jobs here in Maine.”
To borrow a phrase from “Star Trek,” everyone here in Maine deserves to live long and prosper. But we won’t get there with blind hope, clueless politicians or by taking the same approach that created our problems to begin with.
Let’s be as logical as Spock, as courageous in facing our challenges as Kirk, and as thoughtful and visionary as Roddenberry.