When Leonard Nimoy, well-known for his role in the original Star Trek series, died last Friday, it was a loss for both the world of art and the culture of campy television.
It is undeniable that Nimoy dedicated much of his life to art. He staged theater performances and studied photography. He was an actor and a philanthropist who donated to the arts and supported the industries that brought him fame.
And Nimoy was certainly a skilled actor. He brought life to a now iconic character — Spock, a half-human, half-Vulcan first officer of Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise. Nimoy brought to the almost robotically logical character an undeniable humanity and an endearing quality that has earned him generations of fans.
Yet for all of Nimoy’s talent, it must be said that Star Trek and some of his later projects were not exactly high art. Star Trek, in many ways, relied on its campiness. The original series was taken off the air after three seasons, but it found a new legacy with constant reruns, and a growing fanbase brought cult status to the show.
Star Trek, at times, dealt with complex themes, making statements on contemporary social dilemmas as well as general examinations of humanity and choice in episodes such as The City on the Edge of Forever. Like The Twilight Zone and like great science fiction novels, Star Trek used science and fantasy to get to the heart of pressing issues in ways that more realist forms sometimes failed to do.
But for every classic episode like Balance of Terror, there are at least five episodes like Elaan of Troyius, episodes that are just plain bad. This is part of the fun of Star Trek though. It’s cheesy. It’s overdramatic. Sets look like papier-mâché rocks painted different shades of purple. This campiness, in fact, is probably a large part of what makes Star Trek enjoyable even today.
Unlike today’s campy movies, such as Sharknado, which try so hard to be ridiculous, Star Trek succeeds at true, fun campiness because you never get the sense that it is what the writers were attempting. Star Trek takes itself very seriously, at least most of the time, and Nimoy is a big part of that.
Nimoy played the straightest possible variant of the straight man archetype on the show. He was often, quite literally, incapable of feeling or expressing emotion. He played the ultra-rational, bowl-cut science officer to the hot-headed Captain Kirk and the wry Southern space doctor McCoy.
Nimoy’s serious performance exemplified the campiness of the series. He was a stoic alien, but at times he would also become crazed with sexual mania, which caused him to fight his closest friends.
Then, after Star Trek, Leonard Nimoy sang songs like “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.”
Leonard Nimoy made contributions to art. However his contributions to the silly, the tacky and the campy were just as important.
In the last decade, Nimoy appeared in ads and movie cameos that both paid homage to and poked fun at his role in popular culture. He will be remembered, and he will be missed.
Art and entertainment sometimes work in interesting ways. They are not always logical, and Spock certainly knew that.
Joe Zimmermann is a junior English and journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.