Leonard Nimoy, the man who played Spock, died yesterday.
There have been some surprisingly sensitive eulogies for him in the mainstream press, but they all merely skirted the edges of what may have been his most important contribution to popular culture: he made braininess sexy.
Journalists looking back at his life correctly note that despite James T. Kirk’s alpha-male swagger, Spock was the character that made women sigh. But they miss the full significance of this, a significance not easy to see because we live within the consequences of Nimoy’s achievement. He was the first star geek, a role model not just for Trek fans but for generations of bright kids after him.
If you are, like many of my readers, a fan of classic SF, ask yourself this: you had brainy heroes aplenty in your books (and rare that was outside of SF in those days) but who was the first one to be a live presence in media SF where he could influence the mundanes in a way print SF could not? That’s right; Spock. Leonard Nimoy’s methodical self-projection.
Nimoy made space in popular culture for intelligence as a positive quality in a way not seen so charismatically since perhaps as far back as Sherlock Holmes. By doing so, he paved the way for the post-Star-Wars boom in science fiction – and with it the gradual emergence of a relatively self-confident subculture of bright, imaginative people who in the 1990s would begin to label themselves ‘geeks’. And who, whether Trek fans or not, would half-consciously see him as a role model and universally mourn his passing.
Fast forward to 2015: Benedict Cumberbatch, today’s it guy for the thinking woman, could not have been without Nimoy. Indeed, that voice; those cheekbones; one wonders if he understands the debt he owes, and who he sometimes channels.
The historical emergence of geek culture, especially in its manifestation as the tribe of hackers, is one of my long-running themes on this blog. But until yesterday I, too, took Leonard Nimoy more for granted as a part of that process than perhaps I should have. As so often happens, his death puts his life in perspective.
Thank you, Leonard Nimoy, for making Spock so compelling. We already miss you. We mourn you – and, in that mourning, realize a little more about who we are and how very much we owe you.