Yes, it's true. He must.

Yes, it’s true. He must.

When I first saw the news, I literally gasped. Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, had died at the age of 83. Nimoy’s death surely marks the end of an era. He had been a vital part of the Star Trek universe from its beginnings almost 50 years ago. You could even say that it was his character—the logical half-human half-Vulcan—that really made the series something unique. The pointed ears, the Moe Howard haircut, the nerve pinch—there was nothing like that on TV in the 1960s. The character was so unusual, in fact, network publicists airbrushed the points off his ears for the first press kits because they were so worried about the reaction. Spock, of course, became a pop culture sensation, even though his popularity was not enough to keep the series alive for more than three seasons. Unlike most failed series, though, Star Trek enjoyed an afterlife that made it even bigger than it had been before.

Today I honored Nimoy’s memory on my morning walk by listening to the soundtrack from the Star Trek episode called “The Doomsday Machine.” It’s about a huge space vehicle of unknown origin that looks like a cornucopia wrapped in tinfoil. As it makes its way through the galaxy, the machine chews up any solar systems it encounters. It also tries to eat a Federation starship called the USS Constellation. The only survivor is Commodore Decker, played by William Windom. (As the Ahab-like Decker, Windom chews up scenery the way the doomsday machine eats planets.) Captain Kirk gets stuck on the Constellation, while Decker takes over the Enterprise and plans a doomed attack on the planet killer. Dr. McCoy and Spock contrive to get Decker relieved of command, Kirk gets beamed back to the Enterprise at the last possible second, and Decker’s self-sacrifice when he flies a shuttlecraft down the alien vehicle’s maw provides a clue to the way to destroy the machine. It’s an entertaining episode, and deep thinkers can even find parallels to the Cold War doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction.

“The Doomsday Machine” was one of the last of the original Star Trek episodes that I caught in syndication. I remember it well. It aired late on a Friday afternoon. My family was heading up to our camp near Moosehead Lake that day, and I knew we would leave for the two-hour trip north as soon as my father got home from work. Still resentful from the time my parents refused to come home early from Moosehead one weekend so I could catch Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster at the local theater, I doubted they would delay our departure just so I could watch an episode of Star Trek, but they did. I sat in front of the TV with my cassette recorder so I could tape the show’s audio. Remember, this was in those prehistoric days before VHS tape, much less TIVO and “watch on demand.”

I have the music from this episode on my iPod because I recently bought a boxed set of Star Trek soundtrack CDs as a birthday present for my friend, and fellow Trekker, Bill. Before I gave them to him, though, I burned one of the disks. (I did not burn them all because I am a nerd, not a crazy person. But now I kinda wish I had. I would like to have the fight music from “Amok Time.” I’m sure some of you know exactly what I mean.)

Yes, I am an official citizen of the United Federation of Planets. Give me a break! I was only 12. And that does appears to be a genuine Gene Roddenberry signature.

Yes, I am an official citizen of the United Federation of Planets. Give me a break! I was only 12. And that does appears to be a genuine Gene Roddenberry signature.

I am a Star Trek geek from way back. I was too young to appreciate the series during its initial run from 1966-69, although I do recall watching a bit of the episode called “A Private Little War.” I saw this weird white ape with spikes on its back and a horn on its head, and that was enough. It scared me at the time. Now it makes me cringe. Let’s just say “A Private Little War” is not Star Trek’s finest hour. Among other things, the episode includes horrible wigs and an orange mohair vest.

I really started watching, like so many others, when Star Trek became syndicated. I remember becoming transfixed when I tuned into “The Arena” during a family trip to Newport, Rhode Island. While my parents attended a cocktail party, I stayed in the hotel room to see how Captain Kirk could manage to defeat the big plastic lizard he was pitted against. (Spoiler alert: He makes gunpowder.)

My well-thumbed copy of The Making of Star Trek.

My well-thumbed copy of The Making of Star Trek.

I was hooked. I bought plastic Star Trek models. I ordered as much memorabilia as I could afford from an operation called Lincoln Enterprises. I joined the Star Trek fan club and received a certificate signed by series creator Gene Roddenberry. I wrote to Paramount on the Star Trek letterhead I had purchased and asked that the studio bring the series back. I bought all the paperback adaptations by James Blish. I tracked down a book called The Making of Star Trek by ordering it directly from the publisher, Ballantine Books. When I was bored in class, I occupied myself by drawing the Enterprise.

Years later I was working for Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine, with offices right in the National Air and Space Museum. I could wander around the museum on my lunch hour and gaze at the actual Enterprise model filmed for the series. In 1992 the museum opened a big Star Trek exhibit. My wife and I got to attend the opening gala, a fancy affair attended by the original cast members. I managed to photograph them all, except for William Shatner. I enjoyed the exhibit, too, although I had to wonder why it was in the National Air and Space Museum. I loved the show and I really liked seeing all the props and costumes, but I thought it was a bit of a stretch putting it in NASM alongside the Apollo 11 capsule and spacesuits that had actually been on the moon. Yes, I know that Star Trek fans had successfully campaigned to get the first space shuttle prototype named Enterprise, and I’m aware that people have entered the aerospace field because Star Trek had inspired them. Truthfully, though, Star Trek was as much about space travel as Willy Wonka was about  the confectionary industry. I still think the National Museum of American History would have been a better venue.

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Leonard Nimoy at the National Air and Space Museum in 1992.

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Jack Valenti talks to DeForest Kelley, George Takei, and Nichelle Nichols at the National Air and Space Museum.

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Walter Koenig and James Doohan sign autographs.

I’ve maintained my interest in Trek over the years. I’ve watched the Star Trek movies as they came out. I enjoyed some of the spin-off series but lost interest in most of them. I liked the reboots. Occasionally I watch an episode of the original series on Netflix. Last night, my wife—who does not share my love of Star Trek—watched “The Naked Time” as a way to honor Nimoy. That’s the one in which the crew of the Enterprise gets infected with a virus that makes them act crazy. Spock gets overcome with his human emotions. Kirk confesses his love for his ship. Sulu goes fencing. It’s a pretty good episode, and it gave Nimoy a chance to stretch his acting chops a bit. He was no William Windom, though.


A “portrait” of the starship Enterprise I bought from Lincoln Enterprises. It cost me 50 cents.

I will admit that Spock was not my favorite Star Trek character. Nor was Kirk. Or McCoy. My favorite character was the starship Enterprise, the coolest spaceship ever. There’s something about the design that’s just perfect—the big saucer, the twin engines on their nacelles, the antenna on the front. I was saddened when Mr. Spock died at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. But I was truly shocked when Kirk destroyed the Enterprise in the next movie, The Search for Spock. They eventually found Spock, but nothing could replace the original Enterprise.

Well, nothing will replace Leonard Nimoy, either. He lived long, he prospered, and, in his own pointed-eared way, he made the world just a little bit better.