Live long and prosper

February 28, 2015 • 10:45 am

by Greg Mayer

Jerry of course has already noted the passing yesterday of Leonard Nimoy, and many readers have weighed in with memories and encomia in the comments. Jerry was not a big Star Trek fan, so I thought I’d add a few thoughts here above the fold.

Star Trek, with Spock at its moral core, became a cultural touchstone for multiple generations. In a statement yesterday, President Obama (perhaps thinking of himself a little too!), said

[Spock was] Cool, logical, big-eared and level-headed, the center of Star Trek’s optimistic, inclusive vision of humanity’s future.

It is this latter aspect of Star Trek— it’s vision– that I wish to comment on here. Star Trek‘s basic message, continued over 36 years of films and television shows, is this: When sentient beings of good will act together, there is no problem in the Universe that cannot be overcome. The Star Trek world was a meditation on, and most often a celebration of, humanism, in the broad philosophical sense– the capacity of the human species, by reason and reflection and good works to come to know the world and to establish a just social order. What Nimoy’s Spock gave to this world was, among other things, its inclusivity. It was not just for us, or just the human species– it was for everyone.

The Star Trek world did not come to the full realization of this ethos on first pass, but like all human institutions, grew into its fuller development over time. It was at the end of the film The Undiscovered Country from 1991, after concluding peace with the Klingons, that Captain Kirk repeats Star Trek‘s mantra, but alters it: “To boldly go where no man– where no one— has gone before”, not as a reference to the decreasing usage of “man” in the sense of the whole species, but as the inclusion of all sentient beings– including the previously implacable foe, the Klingons– in the community that was to be grown and perfected. Star Trek maintained this optimistic, inclusive vision for over three decades.

(The Star Wars universe, introduced a decade after Star Trek, paled in comparison– it was, at best, Nordic in it’s resignation in the face of humanity’s inabilities and failings, but in fact nearer a mystical cult in its Colbertesque obeisance to the “force” as a feeling in the gut, to be embraced against the false lure of skill and reason.)

While many (including me) have commented on how Nimoy’s Spock served as an inspiration to budding scientists, some have also commented on his later hosting of a rather wacko show devoted to pseudoscience and paranormal claims called In Search of…. I’ve never investigated Nimoy’s personal views on these subjects, nor much watched the show, but I would like to think that Nimoy’s views are reflected in his guest appearance on one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons, a parody of the paranormal police procedural, The X-files, in which Nimoy also parodies In Search of…:

Star Trek, and Nimoy in particular, have given us (including here at WEIT, where you can get your evolutionary biology and Star Trek jokes all in one place) much to enjoy, and to think about, over the years. To paraphrase T’Pring, we have been honored.

64 thoughts on “Live long and prosper

    1. You know who is definitely not the best ST captain is the young Kirk in the current crop of movies. Which is nothing to say against acting chops – as an actor he’s fine, plus he’s handsome, likable and all – it’s believable that he would grow up to be William Shatner – but I don’t find the plots and dialogue very convincing, nor do they feel consistent with the other ST universes. And so somehow consequently the Kirk character seems smaller and less charismatic than the others.

      Is it in the second installment he throws himself a pity party because he lost his command or something? He’s drinking too much and he wakes up in the morning with two alien girls in his bed? Even in his youth, I might have thought Kirk would be tougher than that.

        1. Well, for sure, insofar as youthful arrogance is concerned.

          He certainly is a smash success playing his character, perhaps too successful – I can barely stand to watch/listen to him.

      1. I like new young Kirk. Remember, this is also altered time-line Kirk – the one that had the really dysfunctional upbringing with the mean step dad.

    1. I think he was an agnostic, verified by his Wikipedia page (never wrong, of course! 🙂 )

      He was definitely a humanist.

      1. But not a materialist. He and the show embraced a wide range of woo include ESP, immaterial minds, and a teleological view of evolution similar to that of Teilhard de Chardin.

        1. In fairness, I don’t think the ESP stuff had yet been nearly as thoroughly debunked as it has today, and there were serious people in academia (Stanford) and government (the CIA) taking it seriously.

          It’s because of what came out of people taking it seriously that the door slammed shut on that sort of thing, but that wasn’t until later.

          You’ll find ESP in hard SF of the era. Heinlein especially comes to mind, but also Bradbury. They sometimes established it with some sort of hand-wavey physics explanation, but they also did that for their rockets and their computers and their telecommunications devices and the rest.


          1. ESP gained a foothold in SF not because the science was considered credible, but because John W. Campbell, the most influential editor of the time, was a True Believer who insisted on it. If you wanted to get published in Astounding, you had to write stories about ESP.

            Campbell was also a friend of L. Ron Hubbard and an early promoter of Scientology.

            1. I should hasten to clarify: I’m not at all suggesting that ESP was credible, merely that it took especially the Stanford experiments to definitively rule it out.

              Some science fiction authors love to play with the “but it’s not definitely impossible, even if the odds are rather long” ideas. At the time, ESP reasonably fit in that category. Shortly after, it no longer did.

              That era also defined many of the standard tropes that the genre wound up adopting and / or setting the “bibles” which the various universes had to work with. So, while we now know that faster-than-light travel almost certainly isn’t possible and most emphatically isn’t even hypothetically possible at the energy levels and in the manner described in the Star Trek universe, it’s basically impossible from a storytelling perspective to try to retroactively fix that. No warp drive, no Star Trek. The transporter, too; no way, no how — but then, no Trek.

              Similarly, that we now know that there aren’t any remaining loopholes for ESP…well, ESP is integral to the Spock character and would be an unavoidable characteristic of any other Vulcan. At the least, it would be necessary to explain why a Vulcan didn’t have ESP…and you couldn’t do that without bringing attention to at least one other incredibly famous Vulcan who certainly did.


  1. They say that if Roddenberry was not an atheist he was at least a humanist/agnostic. He certainly was the guy behind all the star trek success. He was also a bomber pilot in WWII.

    The network executives at NBC must have been some sharp duds as they told Roddenberry to get rid of the guy with the ears. They also tried to put a Christian Chaplain on the crew. Roddenberry was against all of this. He apparently believed that religion would be gone by the 23rd century so there is something to look forward to if the planet lasts that long.

    1. So happy Roddenberry stuck to his guns on that! I was a little kid living in Japan when the original Star Trek series aired, but in the ’70s it became part of my family’s routine to watch it in syndication most weekdays, usually just before dinner — and most times just after an episode of Gilligan’s Island. From silly shipwrecked Minnow hijinks on a deserted island to sophisticated sci-fi on the Enterprise in the depths of space each afternoon.

      A wistful farewell to Mr. Nimoy, who did live long and prospered.

      1. The Wellingtons sang the original version of the “Gilligan’s Island” theme.

        Now that your lives are complete having heard that . . . .

  2. I was addicted to (the original) Star Trek as a kid. More recently though, I give some thought to the whole ‘Prime Directive’ thing. Kirk and his crew went boldly forth doing nothing but interfering in alien culture; imposing humanism on the worlds they visited. Good intentioned colonials, but was it right?

      1. Not just the green women, I remember a male US airforce pilot from the 1960’s that Kirk made eyes at. Kirk boldly went places no human had gone before.

        As a side note, I went to a Star Trek themed Halloween party a couple of years ago as the bastard child of Kirk and a rock monster.

    1. You are correct.

      And, if I remember correctly, it was originally supposed to be Spock kissing Uhura according to the script, but Shatner insisted that he be the one who got to do the kiss.

      Not that I can blame Shatner for wanting to kiss Nichols…I think any warm-blooded male (or suitably-minded female) would have wanted that role. But, still….


      1. I remember reading that Shatner intentionally screwed up the other, more subtle, takes so that the show would have to show the more risque kiss.

          1. I wouldn’t put it past him, and more power to him, in seeking an opportunity to kiss such a beguiling ebony lassie!

      1. 1991: L.A. Law, with its ensemble cast, is the first prime-time series is show a passionate female-to-female kiss between series regulars Abby Perkins (Michelle Greene) and C.J. Lamb (Amanda Donohoe).

        Beating ST:DS9 by at least two years …

        But you probably didn’t watch that.


  3. One of the fans’ picks for the “Fan Collection” DVDs was the Deep Space Nine episode “In the Pale Moonlight”

    “With mounting losses in the Federation-Dominion war, and the specter of defeat, Captain Sisko enlists Garak’s help to “persuade” the Romulans to join the Federation/Klingon alliance to win the war. Sisko unwittingly learns that to save the Federation, he may have to sell his soul and the values Starfleet stands for.”

  4. I think we were all inspired by Leonard Nimoy. With all the tributes for this iconic figure of our collective culture, there is little I can add. Except this one story few of you will know about. Here in Alberta, we have a small town called Vulcan. It is quite close to where we had our honey farm. A decade ago, the town was looking for some kitsch to attach to their community, maybe a chance to draw a few tourists in from Calgary (an hour away) or even beyond. With the name Vulcan, someone thought of building a space station tourist booth and constructing an Enterprise model out along the highway. It worked.

    In 2010, at the age of 78, Leonard Nimoy came to the small rural town of wheat farmers and cattle ranchers. He led the annual Vulcan Days Parade. He was humble, gracious, and thoroughly enjoyed his visit. He seemed to mean it when he said to the other Vulcanites, “I am home.” Unfortunately, I was not among the thousands who lined the street that day, but last year while I was in Vulcan, I dropped by to salute his statue and match my hand against the mold they made of Nimoy doing the Hebrew letter shin, a symbolic blessing that became his Vulcan salute for long life and prosperity. We will all miss him as we miss other symbols of our younger lives.

  5. “When sentient beings of good will act together, there is no problem in the Universe that cannot be overcome. The Star Trek world was a mediation on, and most often a celebration of, humanism, in the broad philosophical sense– the capacity of the human species, by reason and reflection and good works to come to know the world and to establish a just social order. What Nimoy’s Spock gave to this world was, among other things, its inclusivity. It was not just for us, or just the human species– it was for everyone.”
    Well said! Thank you.

    1. This post was from Greg Mayer not Jerry. And he got it right more than wrong. He used “its” four times and spaced out and used “it’s” twice.

      1. In addition to not really caring about punctuation and grammatical errors, I would give anyone a pass who’s writing on an iOS device: the it’s-its wrestling is a particular joy with AutoCorrect.

  6. I have somewhat mixed feelings about Mr. Spock. I had a girlfriend who told me that I was just like Spock (Mr. not Dr.). And she did not mean it as a compliment. It was immediately after I broke up with her – which was the logical thing to do. We were horribly mismatched. But it did make me aware that most people are not quite as analytic as I am.

  7. I don’t know that people who didn’t watch the show during it’s original broadcast can understand how iconic it was. Here was this show about our future in space being broadcast simultaneously with the Apollo program. I know the series ended a month before the Apollo 11 landing, but I’m almost certain I remember my 11 year old self watching the moon walk followed by the show, perhaps in reruns. I credit that confluence of events for my life long love of science, and science fiction.

    1. My brother and I were quite focused on an original ST episode. Our mother passed by, looked, and perfunctorily and ignorantly said, “Do you really believe that?”

      We said nothing. I was thinking, “Philistine! It’s all about possibility-thinking”

  8. Maybe someone has already noted it here or on the other post, but Leonard Nimoy was an accomplished artistic photographer in addition to his other considerable gifts. I saw an installment of his work at the Skirball Jewish Cultural Center in Los Angeles some years ago and I thought his photos were quite good.

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