He Is Not Spock
Author of Future Perfect:
How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth
Taken from the chapter
"He Is Not Spock"
…Nimoy recalls two specific incidents where translation had a direct impact upon the popularity or perception of Star Trek. The first occurred in France, years after TOS aired in America. Nimoy tried to find out, at Paramount’s request, why the original series had done so poorly there. He learned that, early on, Paramount had cut corners by importing the Canadian, Quebecois-dubbed version of Star Trek to France. One can imagine how the French reacted; the show went over like yak-wool panties.
The second incident occurred in Japan, during a promotional tour for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, in 1984. On his way to a bookstore signing, Nimoy met the translator of the Star Trek novels in Japan.
“We had an interesting conversation, to say the least.” Nimoy laughs, a gesture that transforms his entire appearance. “He was extremely chauvinistic. He said—” Nimoy frowns, and furrows his brow like a Hokusai samurai— “ ‘I must make changes in the Star Trek novels, for Japanese audience!’ I said, ‘What kind of changes?’ And he said, ‘Aaahh! Too much, ah, familiarity with crew and captain! Japanese culture does not accept this kind of easy familiarity: Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock with Captain Kirk! Authority figures demand more respect. Not appropriate conversation in Star Trek!’
“I told him that one of the things Star Trek was about was the camaraderie between these people. ‘Not acceptable for Japanese audience!’ said he.
“I came back and told this to Gene Roddenberry. I was shocked by it. I thought, this is an amazing misuse of power by this man—to decide how Star Trek should be interpreted for Japan!”
As Nimoy speaks, I find myself stealing glances at his ears. They are large ears, beautifully shaped, and, for the moment, perfectly human. They may be, I realize, the most notorious ears in history. Nearly every book about the making of Star Trek describes in exquisite detail the agonies these poor ears have suffered: the endless plaster castings, the rubber molds, the fittings with foam rubber and glue; month after month of trial and error, culminating at last in the otherworldly appendages familiar to everyone from Dennis Rodman to the Dalai Lama. Seeing those famous ears this way—in their natural, unguarded state—is vaguely shocking, like seeing God without his beard.
“You know,” I say, “what you’ve done may be unique in the history of entertainment. You’ve created a mythological character as compelling as any in world literature. But have you given any thought as to why Spock strikes such a universal chord? What is it about Spock himself that resonates so deeply with people?”
“I think it operates on a lot of levels,” he reflects. “Early on, when the show first went on the air, I was receiving mounds and mounds of fan mail from little kids. They couldn’t have had any concept of what Spock was about, except that he was a strange and interesting-looking man, one who didn’t frighten them.”
The children sent him thousands of drawings, all of Spock. Something about the Vulcan’s image—the ears, the eyebrows, the bowl-cut hair—was tremendously compelling to them.
“Which was very interesting, because NBC was very trepidant about the ears and the eyebrows.” Nimoy leans back, his arm draped casually behind his head. “They especially thought Spock might be problematic in the Bible Belt, where people would see him as a devilish character.” He smiles faintly. “It was quite the contrary, of course…And then there’s the aspect of Spock’s distance, Spock’s coolness,” Nimoy continues. “Which played well in the ‘60s, when ‘cool’ was important. I’ve also read pieces by women, that describe Spock as someone whom women wanted to nurture, as he seemed to need the warmth that a woman can offer. There was also the challenge of, ‘Could I be the one to “awaken” Spock? Could I be the one who can help him get in touch with his sexuality, and with intimacy?’ ”
I was hooked on Spock at twelve—but it obviously wasn’t about sex, or nurturing. And although I never trotted out my Vulcan Green Crayola, he definitely got under my skin. He’s there still —and I admit as much to Nimoy. He nods sympathetically.
“That’s because there is also a sensitive side to Spock, to which a lot of people, male and female, responded. Also very important—at least I thought it was, because it was what I was constantly playing—is the yin/yang balance between our right and left brains. How do you get through life as a feeling person, without letting emotions rule you? How do you balance the intellectual and emotional sides of your being? I think people identified with that and understood that, in that sense, Spock is a very human character. He chooses to downplay, ignore, deny, his emotions—but he has them.”
Nimoy scratches his chin, and I notice his arm. He’s wearing, of all things, a Mickey Mouse wristwatch. The juxtaposition of these two characters, these two familiar icons from the American mythos, is transcendentally weird. I try to imagine the reverse: Steamboat Willie, whistling off to work with a Star Trek lunch pail.
“I think Spock was a proud alien,” Nimoy concludes. “Proudly alienated. And kids still identify with that. I see kids today with strange hair, strange piercings, tattoos; this is all about alienation, and establishing a separate identity. ‘I am not one of the crowd. I am different. I am special.’ And Spock always was different and special. Jokingly, to Dr. McCoy [DeForest Kelley], he would say, ‘This is the way I am, and I don’t have a problem with it. If you do, it’s your problem.’ I think that resonates for young people. Teenagers, adolescents, who are trying to play out their own identity in the world, without getting sucked into the mass culture.”
But it is mass culture, of course, that has given them Spock in the first place. Beaming from television sets and theater screens from Darwin to Dubuque, Nimoy’s alter ego was the harbinger of a future world in which logic would reign over emotion, and rational thought triumph over blind faith. He was a digital being in an analog world, the Pied Piper for the wired generation.