Mike Blake/Reuters

Leonard Nimoy's Spock represented the aspirational, utopian thinking that Americans are still desperate to see accomplished in their lifetimes—and in their cities.

Twenty-two years after his last television appearance as Spock on Star Trek, Leonard Nimoy returned to the role for a two-part episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. By that time, back in 1991, Nimoy had already donned the Starfleet tunic for several films. The next one, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, would hit theaters just one month after Spock's stint on The Next Generation, in fact. Think of 1991 as The Year Spock Broke.

Spock's return to television was a big deal. Make that a huge deal. Maybe the cameo's timing was commercially suspect, coming as it did on Star Trek's 25th anniversary and a month before the latest film, but more than 20 million viewers nevertheless tuned in for each of the episodes, marking "Unification" as one of the brightest points in the history of television, period. By comparison, 4.2 million people saw the recent series finale of NBC's Parks and Recreation. Both of those Next Generation episodes earned far higher Nielsen ratings than even Saturday Night Live's epic 40th-anniversary bash.

Leonard Nimoy in 2013 (Fred Prouser/Reuters)

Leonard Nimoy, the actor behind the half-Vulcan, half-human explorer, died this morning at 83. His great contribution to the culture has loomed large as a force for peace and rationality for almost 50 years. Ratings alone can't explain why; that requires more than numbers. Logic dictates that we start there, but ultimately, the character's humanity explains his truly universal appeal.

"Insufficient facts always invite danger," Spock warns in "Space Seed," an episode from Star Trek's very first season. Back in 1967, the show did not seem destined to emerge as a cultural phenomenon. Looking back, though, that episode illustrates why Star Trek will always be remembered above all for Spock's utopianism.

"Space Seed" is memorable for introducing one of the greatest villains in cinematic history, Khan Noonien Singh. The crew of the Enterprise would go on to spar with him again in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), launching the immortal William Shatner meme. Khan was more recently revived by Benedict Cumberbatch in Star Trek: Into Darkness.

But it was in "Space Seed" that Spock parried with Khan for the first time, one of the highlights of any Star Trek franchise. In the original Star Trek continuity, Khan led a band of genetically modified Augments to victory in what came to be known as the Eugenics Wars of 1992–96. (Think of the Dan vs. Dave Olympics as a parallel conflict from our own timeline.) When the Enterprise discovers Khan and his people, they've been cryogenically frozen for centuries. Spock, seeking to puzzle out Khan's place in history, quizzes him about the wars of the 1990s.

Spock: There was the war to end tyranny. Many considered that a noble effort.
Khan: Tyranny, sir? Or an attempt to unify humanity?
Spock: Unify, sir? Like a team of animals under one whip?
Khan: I know something of those years. Remember, it was a time of great dreams, of great aspiration.

In 1967, the U.S. found itself at the nexus of simultaneous crises. The nation was edging toward détente with the Soviet Union, but the Cold War was far from over. The Supreme Court overruled anti-miscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia—the year before a Star Trek episode depicted television's first interracial kiss—and got its first black justice in the form of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. The late 1960s also saw the decline of urban renewal—the ebbing of the great dreams and aspirations that would have terrible consequences for our cities.

It might be going too far to characterize Khan as the Robert Moses of the Alpha Quadrant. Spock, on the other hand, most definitely represents the aspirational, utopian thinking that liberal Americans were desperate to see accomplished in their lifetimes—and in their cities. His character married strict Vulcan logic with suppressed Terran emotion. Over time, Spock came to embrace Captain James T. Kirk's faith in the human condition. Spock felt hope for humanity—despite the forces that sought to destroy it, namely people themselves.

Above all, Spock always projected supreme confidence that logic could prevail. Humanity and its works were ultimately perfectable: This was a project worth pursuing, no matter the costs. "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one," he says, stoic in the face of the sacrifice he must make after his second encounter with Khan, during Star Trek II. A little on the nose, maybe, but Star Trek was nothing if not earnest.

Nimoy's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (Kevork Djansezian/Reuters)

Star Trek—or Star Trek: The Original Series, as it's come to be known, in light of the many spinoffs and feature films it inspired—debuted in 1966. It lasted just three seasons; most of the films that followed were commercial flops. Yet in 1991, Spock was enjoying a victory lap. Perhaps that's because Spock's brand of Vulcanism had proven enduring and inspiring. Logic had not (and has not) yet prevailed, but Spock might say that it was only a matter of time. And he would believe it. (Fittingly, during the Next Generation era, Spock serves as a Vulcan ambassador-at-large, working to reunite the long-separated Vulcan and Romulan peoples.)

There are countless other reasons to remember Nimoy, of course, beyond the single character he played: as an artist; musician; poet; and, by all accounts, as a gentle person. All of those better qualities are what Spock represented. Space was never the final frontier. The undiscovered country was never somewhere out there. The Enterprise was searching for the humanity inside of us and how it exhibited itself around us. (Again: a very earnest show.)

"Live long and prosper" is a phrase that has traveled far beyond the world of Star Trek obsessives. The standard reply is a little less familiar: "Peace and long life." May Nimoy have enjoyed it, and may we one day enjoy it, too.

Security gates along Hollywood Boulevard in 2012 (Mike Blake/Reuters)

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