Saturday 23 September 2017

Ed Power: 'I felt a cold tingle of almost-grief when it was announced that Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy had died'

Actor Leonard Nimoy in Beverly Hills, California. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)
Actor Leonard Nimoy in Beverly Hills, California. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)
Ed Power

Ed Power

You're going to think this ridiculous but I felt a genuine pang – a cold tingle of almost-grief – when it was announced Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy had died yesterday. Spock was gone and, as a lifelong Trek devotee (who refuses to submit to the sneery designation of Trekkie/Trekker), the fact was hard to process. Emotionally I'd been zapped with a phaser set to 'stun'.

Spock had been a beloved character since childhood. I remember watching the original Star Trek, in one of its countless reruns, at home with my mother. Amidst the gray netherland of late '70s Irish telly Star Trek represented a wormhole into another dimension. It could be scary, sometimes silly – but was consistently smart and always took the viewer seriously. Even the truly ridiculous episodes – notorious season three opener Spock's Brain for instance – were sprinkled with gutsy brio. At a time when Ireland was properly dully and decrepit – I think everyone's memories of that period have retrospectively acquired a milkweed hue – Star Trek was vivid and bright.

It was also blessed with one of the enduring triumvirates of screen protagonists in Kirk, McCoy and Spock. On their own each would have suggested a clunky grab-bag of cliches. The jousting alpha male, the cranky Deep South medic, the buttoned-down alien with a streak of passion prone to occasionally bursting, lava-like, to the surface.

Put together, however, they were endlessly watcheable. Though the actors' off-screen relationships were said to be occasionally bumpy, their characters clicked from the outset, each the perfect foil for the other two. It helped that some of the greatest science fiction novelists of the era were on the writing team, furnishing Spock, Kirk and McCoy with sparkling dialogue. Are there other catchphrases from the 60s that have endured as vividly as 'are you out of your Vulcan mind?' or 'live long and prosper'. No there are not.

When Star Trek: The Motion Picture opened in cinemas in 1979, I hinted loudly that my parents take me. But the reviews were unkind – it was apparently quite an odd movie, with a slow-moving plot and a baffling ending. I think we may have seen something by Disney instead.

Years later, I received Star Trek:TMS on VHS as a Christmas present and understood how much I had missed out in not watching it on the big screen. Yes, it was frosty and bonkers, more Kubrick than Gene Roddenberry. However, it was also Spock's movie – Nimoy's performance rooted the picture, drove it forward.

By the late 70s William Shatner (Kirk) was showing the first signs of early onset overacting, a condition that would turn full-blown circa TJ Hooker, while Deforest Kelley (McCoy) and the rest of the crew seemed merely baffled to be back on board the Enterprise a decade after Trek had been canned due to poor ratings.

It was Nimoy, who had for years wrestled with ambivalence over the degree to which he was synonymous with Spock, that saved the picture. He was grave and furrow-browed yet with flashes of impulsiveness, reminding us of the compelling irony that set Spock apart. Here was a half-alien who, in struggling to make peace with the Earthbound part of his nature, understood more deeply than anyone what it was to be human.

But it was the next movie, Wrath of Khan, that took Trek to the next level. Smart and fast-moving, where the TMP was thinky and ponderous, Khan was stuffed with space-battles and climaxed with one of the most memorable of cinematic death scenes, as Spock, realising the Enterprise was doomed, exposed himself to lethal engine-room radiation in order to reboot the malfunctioning Warp Drive.

Nobody will claim Nimoy or Shatner were among the outstanding thespians of their generation –  nonetheless, the sequence in which Spock, boiling alive on the other side of the engine-room Plexiglas, seeks confirmation that the ship is out of danger is a lump-in-throat moment for the ages.

"I have been, and always shall be, your friend," Spock tells Kirk as the end nears. It's a sentiment worth revisiting this morning: Spock has been, and always shall be, one of the great characters of cinema and television – and we will remember him forever.

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