Leonard Nimoy, best known for his role as Spock in the Star Trek television series and movies, passed away last week. For many of us, it was a sad event. Nimoy had created a memorable character that is an enduring and endearing part of our pop culture lexicon. While my colleague Jordan Ballor took a look last week at Spock’s “live long and prosper” tagline, I’d like to refer to the more human side of Spock and the world of Star Trek.
Stephen D. Greydanus at the National Catholic Register reflects on what Nimoy and Star Trek taught us about humanity. The series creator, Gene Rodenberry, envisioned a world where poverty had been eliminated, money was unnecessary, and creatures of very different origins learned to work together for peace and mutual respect.
Star Trek affirmed the equality and dignity of all people, extending this to nonhuman peoples of every hue and description the makeup department could supply (even when these aliens didn’t share this enlightened perspective). Fear of the unknown or alien was rejected in favor of curiosity and openness to all.
The show was also humanistic in its affinity for the humanities, for literature, art and music. Shakespeare cropped up frequently on the original series, perhaps most strikingly in a staging of Macbeth on the Enterprise in the original series episode ‘The Conscience of the King.’ Other sources of literary references include classical antiquity and the Bible.
Of course, the original television series looks a bit laughable to today’s audiences, as we are now accustomed to astonishing special effects. However, the themes that the show focused on are timeless: “reason vs. emotion; nature vs. nurture; racial and cultural mixed heritages.” The character of Spock, who was of “mixed heritage” (Vulcan and human) served as the catalyst for many of these discussions.
Greydanus points out that the show did not typically deal with religious themes. I remember once, when I was watching a Star Trek movie with my husband, saying, “It as if religion just doesn’t exist in the future. Something human beings have always had – poof!” Greydanus points out these episodes, though:
In “Who Mourns for Adonais?” (an allusion to Percy Bysshe Shelley), Kirk tells a powerful entity self-identifying as the Greek deity Apollo, “Man has no need for gods. We find the one quite sufficient” — a strikingly direct affirmation of monotheism. (In spite of this, in one episode, “That Which Survives,” a crew member of Indian descent wears a bindi, an apparent sign of Hindu heritage.)
Even more astonishingly, in an episode co-written by Roddenberry, “Bread and Circuses” (a reference to the Roman satirist Juvenal), the Enterprise encounters a near-parallel Earth with a version of ancient Rome that enslaves peaceful dissidents who apparently call themselves “children of the Sun.” In the end, Uhura realizes that they had misunderstood: “Don’t you understand? It’s not the sun up in the sky. It’s the Son of God.” In this parallel Roman empire, apparently, a parallel Christianity has arisen, enduring persecution there, as it did here.
You’re not going to find me dressing up as Uhura and heading off to a Trekkie convention, but I’m a die-hard Trekkie fan. The show gave us a glimpse of how we might shape the future, and the character of Spock, powerfully portrayed by Nimoy, is a touchstone of sorts for conversation about how we might shape the future.
Thank you, Leonard Nimoy. Rest in peace.
Read, “Why Star Trek – And Mr. Spock – Matter” at the National Catholic Register.