Wednesday April 08, 2020
Movie Review: For the Love of Spock (2016)
My wife Patricia isn’t a “Star Trek” fan—kind of despises it, actually—but she watched all of the documentary “For the Love of Spock” with me the other night. It was my second viewing. My first happened in Oct. 2016 when I was staying at my sister’s place in Minneapolis shortly after my mother’s stroke. One night, laying in bed with my laptop after another emotionally draining day, I found the documentary on Netflix. I’m long past my Trekkie days but I figured I’d watch a few minutes before falling asleep. I wound up watching the whole thing. It was a balm.
Not sure why it made me feel so good. Because it was something familiar at a time when everything was so horribly unfamiliar? Because it showcases a son’s love for a parent? The doc is directed by Adam Nimoy and was originally meant to focus on Spock, the character, but became about his dad, too, after Leonard Nimoy died in February 2015. It’s my past and our imagined future—both simpler times, both nostalgic. Watching it with my wife, during the social isolation of the coronavirus pandemic, when life again is so horribly unfamiliar, I remembered things I hadn’t thought about in years. It just poured out of me:
“Hey, William Windom! From ‘My World and Welcome to It’? Late ’60s sitcom? He’s like a James Thurber type? This is from a second-season Trek episode, ‘The Doomsday Machine.’ Oh, and ‘Corbomite Maneuver.’ Who could forget that? You know who turns out to be inside this ship? You know the scary face we saw earlier? That’s Balock and that’s the image that shows up on the viewscreen, but it’s a façade. Like Oz in “Oz.” The real creature running things is this little kid played Clint Howard, Ron’s brother, a few years before ‘Gentle Ben.’”
I know. But she put up with me.
Something that’s a curiosity
Nimoy invented a lot of the character, didn’t he? “Enemy Within” called for him to deck evil Kirk, which didn’t seem very Vulcan to him, so he invented the neck pinch. In “Amok Time,” we visit Vulcan for the first time and he figured they’d need a greeting of their own, so he reached into his Jewish heritage and came up with the Vulcan salute. (Unmentioned: It would only work if Celia Lovsky, the actress playing T’Pau, could return the greeting—and she actually couldn’t do it. But she could manipulate her fingers into the salute off camera, and that’s how they made it work.)
Patricia [trying the Vulcan salute]: I can’t do it.
Me: [showing off with both hands] I think I had to practice before I got it.
Patricia: I didn’t know he was Jewish.
Me: Shatner, too. I think? They‘re both in Adam Sandler’s “Hanukah Song” anyway: You don’t need “Deck the Halls” or “Jingle Bell Rock”/ Cause you can spin a dreidel with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock—both Jewish!
The neck pinch and the salute added to the coolness factor of Spock—who was already the coolest character on the show. I particularly like the idea of coming up with a salute that’s accompanied by the phrase “Live long and prosper,” and seeing it doing exactly that.
At the same time, Nimoy keeps giving credit to others in the development of the character. He said the change from Jeffrey Hunter (an internal actor) to William Shatner (not) helped because it allowed Nimoy to pull back and emote less. Nimoy says he got a great note from the director of an early episode when the ship is being attacked and there’s all of this excitement and energy, which he got caught up in, and he says his line, “Fascinating!” full of that energy. “And [the director] said, ‘Be different,” Nimoy recalls. “‘Be the scientist. Be detached. See it as something that’s a curiosity rather than a threat.’” Nice. Since the episode they show in conjunction with this story is the aforementioned “Corbomite Maneuver,” that director was Joseph Sargent, who directed no other “Trek” episode, but went on to feature films and TV movies, including James Cagney’s final performance in “Terrible Joe Moran.” His most respected work is probably “The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three”; his least is “Goldengirl” or “Jaws: The Revenge.” It’s a nice shout-out.
Nimoy’s early admission that before “Trek” he never had an acting gig that lasted longer than two weeks makes the scrambling nature of his post-“Trek” career more understandable. At the same time, I wish we’d seen more of that pre-“Trek” career. We get a montage of shots but it lasts maybe 30 seconds? I would’ve liked a deeper cut. On IMDb he has 69 credits before “Star Trek” and some of those involve multiple episodes. He had a great, lean look, with high cheekbones, and he wound up playing Native Americans a lot: Yellow Wolf and Yellow Bear, Little Hawk and Chief Black Hawk, Oontah and John Walking Fox. He wound up playing hungry people, too. People scrapping for their last best chance.
The doc also barely touches on the ludicrous singing career—he should’ve gotten more shit for that. It celebrates the kerchiefs he wore a lot in the late ’60s/early’70s ... but no. It delves a bit into his drawbacks as a father and husband—his tendency to pick work over family. Which is understandable. He was born in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression, when the lesson was: Keep working because you never know when it’s going to go away. It's a lesson we may be relearning.
The alien in our midst
You know what I totally grooved on? Those photos of Nimoy, with Spock haircut, in late 1960s suburbia. I find them—sorry—fascinating. That mix of the future and the present—which is now our past. I always liked those episodes where they returned to our time, particularly “Tomorrow is Yesterday,” so maybe this is part of that. Or maybe I like the idea of someone so iconic hanging with us.
During its three-year run, “Star Trek” was nominated for a total of 13 Emmys and won bupkis. The noms came from what you’d expect—editing, effects … and Nimoy. He was the only actor to be nominated—and he was nominated every season. Who did he lose to? The Emmy categories were a bit odd back then. First time he lost to Eli Wallach in “The Poppy is Also a Flower”—but it’s a TV movie, a one-off, rather than a continuing series. The next year he lost to Milburn Stone, who played Doc on “Gunsmoke,” so that’s at least in the same territory. The oddity is Stone played Doc for 20 seasons and this is the only time he was nominated. At least for the ’68-’69 show, the Emmys changed the award to supporting actor for a continued performance. At the same time, they didn’t differentiate between drama and comedy, so Nimoy lost to Werner Klemperer from “Hogan’s Heroes.” So it goes.
To me, some of the best literary movements in 20th century America came out of the assimilation dynamic—Jewish-American, African-American, Southern American—and Adam Nimoy’s doc makes it clear that the power of Mr. Spock comes from that tension as well. He’s the alien in our midst. It’s why resonates; and probably why he endures more than the other characters. He's the survivor. Mr. Spock was the only character in the original pilot to make the jump to the original series, while Nimoy was the only actor from the original series to make the jump to the feature-film reboot. Spock lives long, and he continues to prosper.
Thanks, Adam, for twice helping me through tough times.
My autographed copy of the program for “Vincent,” which I saw at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 1978.