Happy 80th Birthday Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner

Space Shuttle Enterprise with Star Trek Cast

Eighty years ago this week, on March 22nd and 26th respectively, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy entered this world in near simultaneity. Almost forty years later, starting in 1966, their lives became intertwined with the cultural phenomenon that is Star Trek. In the forty-plus years since the first airing of Star Trek on September 8, 1966, Shatner and Nimoy have variously rejected, embraced, and come to terms with their iconic roles as Captain James Tiberius Kirk and Science Officer Spock.

Leonard Nimoy (Photo by Kelly Walker)

Both men have had notable successes in recent years. Nimoy’s turn as William Bell on Fringe was well received and widely advertised as his swansong. Some have interpreted his exit speech and actions in the season two finale, “Over There,” as an homage to his Needs of the Many speech (see below) in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. This linkage is no surprise considering the producer of Fringe, J.J. Abrams, also directed the Star Trek franchise reboot. To our way of thinking, Spock’s speech was a more singular moment than Kirk’s equally famous (and more often invoked) “KHAAANNNN!” scream in the same film.

Nonetheless, that moment when Shatner’s Kirk turns the name of his enemy, Khan Noonien Singh, into an execration, well suits the bombastic end of William Shatner’s range as an actor. Shatner later channeled and morphed that same brand of bombast into his role as Boston Legal legend Denny Crane. Shatner’s tenure as the self-eponymous Denny Crane was a scheduled weekly ritual in our home, and Boston Legal was the inspiration for one of our first adventures here in California.

As Boston Legal came to a close, we spent one happy Saturday at David E. Kelly Studios rummaging through clothing worn on that and other DEK shows. Among our purchases was a Screaming Eagle American flag tie that must have been for uber-conservative Denny Crane. Whether or not it was worn by William Shatner is open to debate. But in our family’s lore, we know he wore it, Mary Lee!

As happy as we are for both men’s late career success, it’s the childhood memories of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy as their alter-egos Kirk and Spock that we cherish. Those memories of the roguish Kirk, the ascetic Spock, Bones, Scotty, and all the rest are now part and parcel of our larger popular culture birthright.

For Doug, the obvious choice for a role model would have seemed to be the all-American, all-Id Kirk. Kirk was even born in Riverside, Iowa, just a stone’s throw (and almost two-hundred years in the future) from Doug’s own Illinois home. What red-blooded, land-locked Midwestern boy wouldn’t dream his way through junior high school science class, transfixed by the possibility of the future version of himself traveling at warp-speed through the cosmos? The fact that Kirk also got most of the ladies didn’t escape Doug’s notice as an adolescent watching the series in syndication.

William Shatner (Photo by Jerry Avenaim)

In fact, the series’ adherence to a philosophy of cosmic pluralism gave Kirk the opportunity to canoodle with females born on different planets (Miramanee in “The Paradise Syndrome” and Shahna in “The Gamesters of Triskelion”), in different timestreams (Edith Keeler in “The City on the Edge of Forever”), and from different species (Marta in “Whom Gods Destroy”). Kirk’s amorous activities were wide and varied enough to also include non-carbon-based lifeforms such as androids (Andrea in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”). Who knows how to classify the body-invading entity Thalassa (“Return to Tomorrow”), but the final analysis suggests that the man’s tastes were profoundly catholic.

That said, the green that most captured Doug’s attention wasn’t the skin of the Orion women, but the color of Spock’s copper-tinged blood and all of the strength (mental and physical) and perfection of character that it connoted.  Spock’s implacable appeals to rationality and logic may have had a more explicit moral undercurrent in the turbulent sixties, but they also spoke directly to the chaos that is a teenager’s worldview. Then as now, faith in science offered both a worldview and a hope for a better future.

The differences between the Kirk and Spock characters were never more clearly on display than in those episodes that called for the characters to become somehow alternate, opposite versions of themselves. This had an unanticipated effect in the case of Kirk, for when Kirk’s darker-side was trotted out in the alternate-universe episode, “Mirror, Mirror,” it took no real imagination or effort to measure the moral distance between the two Kirks. However, when Spock cut loose—such as “This Side of Paradise,” where Spock fell in love—it got your attention, peaking at the episode’s wrenching end when Spock reveals that, for the first time, he was happy.

In the end, though, what’s most memorable about Kirk and Spock isn’t their differences, but the sense of wholeness—of complementarity—in their long-lived friendship: Spock’s calm, cool yin harmonizing Kirk’s incandescent yang. As friends, the two are greater than the sum of their parts. It’s odd that this blending has never played out as well in the show’s fervent fan base.

We probably risk a huge chink in our nerd-core armor by admitting that we never got the Trekkies vs. Trekkers thing and would have to go to Wikipedia to get a sense of who is who. Debating the merits of Kirk vs. Picard never held much currency for us either; it was apples and oranges, Jean-Luc Picard being an avuncular teacher, not a warrior king. One even wonders if the creators of Star Trek: The Next Generation consciously sought to distribute Spock’s defining characteristics over two characters: Riker playing the role of the Captain’s trusted confidant and Data absorbing the cold, calculating mental space of Spock’s enormous brain (add in Deanna Troi’s psychic bent as analogous to Spock’s Vulcan mind-melding).

Michael Collins, Apollo 11

What an odd sequence of circumstances in the universe must have conspired resulting with these two men—Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner—being born four days apart. Or perhaps not so odd after all, as original Apollo 11 moonman Michael Collins noted in the preface to the 2009 edition of his book Carrying the Fire: “On my tombstone should be inscribed LUCKY because that is the overriding feeling that I have today. Neil Armstrong was born in 1930, Buzz Aldrin in 1930, Mike Collins in 1930. We came around at exactly the right time.”

Collins’s statement could apply equally well in the in the case of Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. Not only did they luckily come into this world at the right time, to meet up later in what would become Star Trek, during the nation’s race to the Moon. Shatner also reprised his astronaut role by waking up the crew of Discovery. That they were born the same week allows us, too, to write a single post that wishes them both a happy 80th birthday, and many more.


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