Spock, an iconic presence on the original Star Trek series and its multiple incarnations over the next 50 years, might have been another all-but-forgotten TV character, like Alf or Doby Gillis — if not for Leonard Nimoy.
As written, Spock was supposed to be logical, emotionless. But Nimoy imbued the alien with a striking humanity telegraphed through tiny gestures — an eyebrow raise, a furrowed brow.
Spock was Star Trek‘s only full-time, half-breed character. On the surface, he was a Vulcan; underneath, he was constantly struggling to keep his human half and its emotions in check.
That struggle made for great television. It didn’t hurt that he was also playing against a character, William Shatner’s James T. Kirk, who wore his own emotions on his yellow sleeve.
Nimoy struggled with the public’s inability to separate him from his most famous character. He wrote books about how he both was not and was Spock. But either way, it’s clear that you can’t tell the story of Nimoy — who died in 2015 at the age of 83 — without also telling the story of the Vulcan.
The new documentary For the Love of Spock, which premiered in New York on Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival, threads that needle while adding another critical and unique strand: the perspective of Nimoy’s son.
Director Adam Nimoy expertly uses the film to explore his own sometimes difficult relationship with an icon everyone thought they knew.
Adam, whom I spoke to last week, told me that his Kickstarter-funded documentary is a great way to “say goodbye, and a great way for me to show my gratitude for all the things we’ve done together.”
Their lives were “an incredible journey of ups and downs.”
The ties that bind
For the Love of Spock is three stories woven together into a solid, emotionally charged strand. There is the story of a gifted actor — a renaissance man, as he is described in the film — and his journey from bit player to fame, fortune and permanent pop-culture icon status.
It’s also the story of a character who sprang from the mind of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, but became flesh and blood — and Vulcan salutes — in the hands of Nimoy. And finally, it’s the story of a father and son and their decades-long journey toward love and mutual acceptance.
There’s no way to fit 83 years into a rather fast-paced 100 minutes. As a consequence, huge swaths of Nimoy’s life and career are mentioned all-too-briefly (his directing career) or not at all (Star Trek V and VI, and much of his latter TV career).
This doesn’t diminish For the Love of Spock. Instead, it keeps the narrative more firmly focused on Spock himself, and Nimoy’s emotional connection to his craft and those around him.
The documentary has numerous notable voices, including the surviving, principal Star Trek Original Series cast members: William Shatner, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, and George Takei.
All speak lovingly of Nimoy, sharing anecdotes like the time Nimoy spoke up for Takei, Nichelle and Koenig, saying he wouldn’t do the early 1970s animated Star Trek series without their participation.
Adam Nimoy also wrangled virtually the entire principal cast of the Star Trek movie reboot series, including Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg and Zachary Quinto. Adam told me that he interviewed most of them in Vancouver while they were shooting Star Trek: Beyond, the third installment of the reboot — and the first not to feature Leonard Nimoy.
Everyone there, Adam said, “bent over backward for us.” The production lent Nimoy set pieces from Beyond to use as backdrop. They provided crew support and even scheduled the interviews.
“They were very much energized by Dad’s presence, decorum, friendliness, support of [the] project. They felt that his spirit was carried on throughout the project. It’s till resonating with them now,” said Adam.
Interviews with the cast of Star Trek: Beyond illustrate just how present Nimoy was as an actor, well into his late 70s. He also had some real grit.
Star Trek director J.J. Abrams said that, during filming, Nimoy fell and broke his nose. Abrams was devastated, but Nimoy waved him off and insisted they keep on shooting.
Nimoy at work
Adam Nimoy makes ample, effective use of original series clips through the documentary. Though it’s not a comedy, there is one laugh-out-loud moment when the director overlays Leonard Nimoy’s classic, bizarre Ballad of Bilbo Baggins music video with original series’ Main Bridge footage.
CBS actually didn’t approve the use of original series footage until just a couple of months ago. Nimoy said they just wanted to see what was going in the final edit.
Even so, Nimoy told me that both Paramount and CBS “have been very much on board.” After all, with the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek series coming this fall, the timing of the documentary couldn’t be better.
Adam also got tremendous support from Zachary Quinto, who plays Spock in the current Star Trek films.
“Zach was a driving force behind [the documentary],” said Adam Nimoy. “He got involved as soon as we started trying to put the product together.
Originally, Quinto was going to narrate the film. But in the end, Adam found he had so many archival interviews and voice recordings that he didn’t need an overarching narration. Instead, Quinto appears as one of the many people sharing insights and memories of the actor.
The real Nimoy
While Nimoy’s work as Spock sits at the core of the film, For the Love of Spock paints a full portrait of man, detailing his somewhat restless and taciturn nature. Nimoy had many interests, including home improvement, a lifelong passion for photography, singing, stage acting and even piloting an airplane.
The film also looks at Nimoy as an absentee parent and his struggles with drinking. The demise of his first marriage is barely addressed, though. His second wife, Susan, was with him until he died, but chose not to appear on camera. (Adam said that she completely supports the project.)
The documentary works because it is, ultimately, a universal story: a boy seeking the love and attention of his father, a man honoring his relationship with a complicated icon.
The physical manifestation of that relationship is a handwritten letter Leonard Nimoy wrote his son in 1973. Adam Nimoy reads the emotional and revealing dispatch throughout the film.
Nimoy said he made the documentary as a sort of culmination of his journey with his father, which, in the third act of Leonard Nimoy’s life, was extremely close.
“I did it for my love for him and love for the character [of Spock],” said Adam, who added that the film’s title actually has two meanings. The filmmaker also made his moviefor Leonard Nimoy’s love.
Even more than a year after his death, there is no shortage of love for Leonard Nimoy or Spock. This expertly crafted, thoroughly entertaining documentary serves as a fitting tribute to both.