Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock is Star Trek’s most important legacy

Logic is a Greek word, but it has two meanings in Greek; one is, well, logic in the sense of arriving to a conclusion via a sequence of interconnected thoughts, each of which flows into the other, and the other is reason, or the application of thought and judgement in order to comprehend. Both words are used for the attempt to make sense of the world via thought. Both are tenets that Spock, the half-human, half-Vulcan first officer of the starship Enterprise, lived by. As played by actor Leonard Nimoy on the original Star Trek series, Spock represented the ideal of rational thought. He thought before he acted and his actions were informed by logic based on his experience and judgment.

Gene Roddenberry’s universe was populated by a humanity that was above all conflict; morally and intellectually superior than us in every way. His ideal humans had transcended bigotry, inequality, war, hatred, even religion, and were focused solely on scientific advancement and the pursuit of knowledge – ancient Greek philosophers and scientists clad in velour uniforms and riding on interstellar ships. It’s telling that among them, the most interesting character who would go on to be the moral and intellectual backbone of the entire franchise, was also the one whose very nature was defined by conflict.

Spock’s diatribes about the superiority the lack of emotions conferred to Vulcans started as a cute way to differentiate the character from his co-stars week after week. In what I imagine must have been a fortuitous confluence of writer’s inspiration and actor’s contribution, this narrative device quickly outgrew its initial outsider sci-fi trope that made the character the butt of his crewmates’ jokes and evolved it into genuine character advancement.

It was eventually established Vulcans do have emotions but they actively suppress them. By exercising mental discipline and force of will, they manage to withhold outbursts of anger, fear, joy, or sadness, instead approaching each situation on the merits of logic, deduction, and rational thought. Spock’s two halves, the human and the Vulcan one put him in a position where emotion and logic were often at odds with each other and choosing the latter over the former took considerably more effort than his Vulcan brethren – making Spock’s adherence to logic and rationality that much more powerful.

The original Star Trek triumvirate, Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy, are often referred to as narrative shorthand for Aristotle’s modes of persuasion; ethos, pathos, and logos. The average episode usually reaches its resolution by employing at least two of those characters’ unique traits. Spock’s logos, especially (there’s that word that leads to “logic” again), has been a counterpoint to Kirk’s pathos too many times to count; Kirk acts on his emotions and instincts and Spock tempers his captain’s impulsive nature with restraint and rationality.

Of all the wonders of Star Trek I’d love to see in real life, this particular one sits nicely at the front of the queue. One thing Star Trek and a lot of science fiction of the time never predicted about the future is how our culture would be shaped by constant, ubiquitous communication. How, through the internet, everyone can be heard by anyone if they shout loudly enough. And while this can be a very good thing, one gets the impression it would be much more useful if we actually were this enlightened version of humanity that Roddenberry envisioned.

As things stand, it’s fascinating (if I might be allowed to borrow the word) to see how many people let their inner Captain Kirk determine their online behaviour (more accurately, the transport-copy Captain Kirk, the one bereft of morals and compassion) rather than their inner Mr. Spock. We scramble to vilify people for their political or social opinions, to harass people for holding different beliefs or being a different race or gender or sexual orientation, to gang up on and lynch people for making a mistake in public. To an orbiting starship observing us solely through our online communications, it must seem that we are a species of perpetual hatred and anger. Perhaps it would be wise to quarantine this planet, Captain.

How much of this cacophony would cease if everyone just took a minute to think before they pressed Enter? And how much could this accumulated thought do for society? How much would we gain if people attempted to listen, learn, and understand before reacting? The fact that these questions sound as naive and clueless as a beauty contestant wishing for world peace may be why Star Trek’s ideal society will remain a figment of a well-meaning imagination.

To paraphrase Neil deGrasse Tyson, the most implausible thing about Star Trek isn’t the wondrous technology or the English-speaking aliens but the fact that humanity has actually managed to transcend its worst traits as a species. Spock, as played by Leonard Nimoy, was more than any other cast member a personification of the hope that one day we’ll get there.

That is Spock’s legacy; a person always divided, but ultimately opting for morality, knowledge, and understanding. Because it’s “logical”, or simply the right thing to do. Leonard Nimoy’s Spock chose to hold back knee-jerk reactions and stray emotions in order to understand, learn, and act in the best interests of the many rather than the few, or the one.

RIP Leonard Nimoy, 1931-2015


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