Friday, 27 February 2015

A few thoughts on Leonard Nimoy

I’ve been meaning to write a new Star Trek blog for some time now. Tonight I have finally run out of excuses. For tonight is the night of Leonard Nimoy’s death. I will soon post about Star Trek (TOS) Season Two, but until then I must present a few words on a wonderful, underrated performer with a classy sense of humour.

The fact is that Leonard Nimoy played a crucial role in my development both as a viewer - because he kept surprising me - and as a writer, because he helped show me the great depth science fiction stories can have.

My first encounters weren’t encouraging. I think the first Trek movie I saw in the cinema was Star Trek 5 (which is an awful snooze no matter how you slice it) and shortly after I discovered his Bilbo Baggins music video. Neither created the impression of someone to be taken seriously. It was easy to dismiss him as little more than a vessel for those ears, the lucky bearer of an iconic part anyone could have played.

But he kept cropping up during those teenage years, that period of life when your taste really crystalises, and he kept startling me - offering excellent performances in places I didn’t expect to find them. He was such a revelation in Wrath of Khan (more of that later) that my friends and I sought out his other work. So it was we discovered Invasion of The Body Snatchers, a beautifully bleak science fiction remake, shaped around Donald Sutherland’s lead and Leonard’s cool, unflappable Doctor David Kibner.

Then there was TV. I had a deep affection for 70s Colombo during my late teens and early twenties, appreciating this most formulaic of formulaic shows mostly for its brilliant cars, clothes and reassuringly familiar devices. Occasionally there was an episode that did something a little special - usually marked by an outstanding performance. Leonard Nimoy guest starred in one such show, delivering a stony portrayal of a killer so calculating he actually causes Colombo to lose his cool - a rare occurrence of the detective breaking out of character.

Then there was Leonard’s Simpsons work. He was one of the first celebrities to have the self-confidence to send himself up in the show, and remains one of the very few cameos to be funny in his own right. Where others draw laughs as objects for Homer’s scorn/lust/admiration, Leonard makes his own funnies – check out his introduction to the X-Files episode. Of course this is largely due to the writers, who worship the man like a God, but the fact remains that when I saw his episodes at school I was hugely impressed by his wit, and by his class.

So Leonard helped make me more tolerant and inquisitive as a viewer. More importantly, Leonard taught me that science fiction could be truly moving.

Wrath of Kahn was a major event in my movie history. The film delighted me, providing everything I had always wanted from space opera - humour, spaceships (fighting each other) and at least a nod to the sublime – but added a startling extra: a genuinely moving, human scene, hinging on a broken yet dignified performance by Nimoy.

It might sound daft, but it was a moment that really spoke to me. It was one of the first occasions that I found science fiction touching. Alongside three or four other early experiences, it bred an ambition to write something even half as accomplished.

I’m ashamed to say that I’m only beginning to discover Star Trek The Original Series now, which is the very definition of doing it backwards – but, as always with Leonard, the experience has been a revelation. He may be gone, but I’m still getting to know him.

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