Copyright ©2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Audie Cornish.

(Soundbite of "Star Trek" theme music)

CORNISH: When Gene Roddenberry created the TV series "Star Trek," the suits at NBC advised to him "lose the Martian." They were talking about Spock. But Mr. Spock went on to become the most beloved half-alien in network history. As part of our ongoing series In Character that explores famous American fictional characters, NPR's Neda Ulaby wondered what makes Spock so fascinating?

(Soundbite of TV show, "Star Trek")

Mr. LEONARD NIMOY (Actor): (as Spock) Fascinating.

NEDA ULABY: Four syllables and one arched eyebrow - that's Spock, just as much as his pointy Vulcan ears.

The first time actor Leonard Nimoy said the word was in an episode where the USS Enterprise crew faced a strange, sinister entity.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NIMOY: It was an object, a large object of some kind, that seemed to have these amazing powers to get her away whichever way we turned. There was some frantic activity.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Star Trek")

Unidentified Man (Actor): It's blocking the way.

Mr. NIMOY: (as Spock) Quite unnecessary to raise your voice, Mr. Bailey.

Mr. NIMOY: The energy was very high on the bridge and the captain was shouting orders.

ULABY: So, Nimoy shouted out his next line with the same energy:

Mr. NIMOY: Fascinating. And the director, bless him, said be different than everyone else. Do it as a scientific curiosity, and I got it. And I said, um-hum. And I said, Fascinating. I think in that moment a very important aspect of the character was born.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Star Trek")

Mr. NIMOY: (as Spock) Fascinating. Fascinating. Fascinating.

Ms. D.C. FONTANA (Writer, "Star Trek"): I think one of the things that Gene Rodenberry wanted Spock there for was to observe the human condition to make comment on it.

ULABY: D.C. Fontana was a writer for the original "Star Trek" series that ran from 1966 to 1969. She says that fascinating conveyed interest, skepticism but layered deeply in there, wonder. Leonard Nimoy found fascination in Spock's status as an outsider.

Mr. NIMOY: Gene Roddenberry, when he hired me to do the role gave me a very interesting dynamic to work with, in that Spock's mother was human, his father was Vulcan. He was sort of a half-breed.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Star Trek")

Unidentified Woman: When you were five years old, I came home stiff-lipped, anguished, because the other boys tormented you, saying that you weren't really Vulcan. I watched you knowing that inside the human part of you was crying.

Mr. NIMOY: I think that's one of the most interesting things about Spock. Which was what is hidden. It's not what you're getting, but what you're not getting, what's hiding, what he's hiding, what peeks out occasionally.

ULABY: What peeks out occasionally are emotions. One of the series' favorite gambits was to have Spock lose his mind, all this under the influence of an urge to mate, a flower spore, or a germ that eliminates defense mechanisms, as in an episode called "Naked Time."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Star Trek")

Mr. NIMOY: (as Spock) I am in control of my emotions, control of my...

(Soundbite of crying)

Professor HENRY JENKINS (Humanities, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): It's a struggle we all face.

ULABY: Henry Jenkins is a humanities professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Prof. JENKINS: Are we driven by our emotions, are we driven by our intellect? And how do we reconcile those two things?

(Soundbite of TV show, "Star Trek")

Unidentified Woman #2: I'm in love with you, Mr. Spock.

ULABY: One of the things Jenkins studies is "Star Trek" fan culture. He says Spock's struggle makes him an unlikely sex symbol.

Prof. JENKINS: Spock is sexy for a large number of people, male and female. Many of the female fans that I've studied really are attracted to the emotional depths of this character.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Star Trek")

Unidentified Woman #2: I can't lose you now, Mr. Spock. I can't.

Mr. NIMOY: (as Spock) I have a responsibility to the ship.

Prof. JENKINS: His character who, like many men in our culture, represses outward signs of emotion. Who tries to hold it all together no matter what, but who seems to be sensitive, to be sensuous at certain times, seems to have a deep affection and even passion for his relationships to Captain Kirk. This character, then, became the embodiment of the mystery that is masculinity.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Star Trek")

Unidentified Woman #2: (Unintelligible) but you do have feelings. Oh, how we must hurt you, torture you.

Mr. NIMOY: (as Spock) I am in control of my emotions.

ULABY: Star Trek debuted during a turbulent moment in history -the Vietnam War, the feminist movement - and Spock somehow spoke to the times, says Jenkins. It was rare then, he says, to see a TV character embody two very different cultures.

Prof. JENKINS: In that sense "Star Trek" looks ahead to the society we live in today, where so many people are mixed race, mixed cultural background. I've been thinking about that a lot lately, looking at Barack Obama. There's something in the mythology that surrounds Barack Obama that seems, to me, echoes some of our assumptions about Spock.

ULABY: Which are?

Prof. JENKINS: That he's someone who's been able to bridge worlds. And particularly he's indebted to a philosophy of IDIC, the Vulcan philosophy of an infinite diversity and infinite combination. That someone who is of mixed race is seen as being capable of understanding both races. And indeed being more open than someone who comes from a fixed cultural identity.

ULABY: As it happens, Leonard Nimoy supports Obama for president.

MIT Professor Henry Jenkins says Nimoy's performance as Spock was a marvel of sensitivity and nuance. But he's looking forward to a new actor playing Spock in an upcoming movie. He says like Hamlet, Spock is a character for the ages.

Prof. JENKINS: We can imagine seeing hundreds of different actors play Hamlet, and indeed the richness of Hamlet is seeing the differences and different interpretations of that character. With the new movie, we will for the first time see Spock as a character larger than an actor.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Star Trek")

Mr. NIMOY: (as Spock) Fascinating.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

CORNISH: Spock has been one of the hottest names on NPR's In Character blog where our Web community has compared him to Margaret Meade, a Tibetan Buddhist and Tolkien's elves. You can join the conversation and nominate your own favorite character at NPR.org/InCharacter.

(Soundbite of "Star Trek" theme music)

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: