Film and TV

A New Doc Charts a Course for the Heart of Spock — but Doesn't Go Boldly

Leonard Nimoy’s 1975 memoir I Am Not Spock stirred fan outrage: How dare the actor, who was indeed Spock in the original Star Trek series, publicly dismiss his beloved half-human, half-Vulcan alter ego? According to Adam Nimoy, Leonard’s son and the director of the heartwarming but uninventive documentary For the Love of Spock, his father didn’t write that title out of spite. Instead, Nimoy had wanted to emphasize the biographical nature of the book — to push the point that, despite his character’s popularity, he had a life of his own.

Adam's film pulls from that memoir — and from Leonard’s second book, apologetically titled I Am Spock — as well as from interviews and personal experience to tell the actor’s story. We learn that it was a guest appearance on a 1964 episode of The Lieutenant that drew the attention of Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek. We’re treated to a clip: Leonard looks trim in a tight marine uniform, his young face handsome and angular. "I saw that face and thought he'd make a great alien," says Roddenberry in a decades-old recording playing over the scene.

It may have been high cheekbones that landed Leonard the part of Spock, but it was his talent for inventing new character traits, the film argues, that kept him in the role when the rest of the cast of the original Trek pilot was let go. Roddenberry loved Leonard’s minimalist acting style, which was inspired, we’re told, by Harry Belafonte, whose slight, carefully timed gestures made audiences scream with delight. Adam’s film takes pains to show this influence in action: During a Trek scene of an alien attack, as the crew around him flails about in chaos, Spock responds with a single arched eyebrow. As any Trekkie will tell you, that slight movement became iconic. And it was much to William Shatner’s chagrin that Spock quickly became the fan favorite. (Shatner appears in interviews throughout For the Love of Spock.)

Adam tells his father’s story with love, but he resists hagiography. He delves deep into their fraught relationship and the drinking problem they shared. In the film’s best sequence, Adam takes a long, historical look at Leonard’s troubled relationship with his own father to investigate how emotional pain is passed down through generations.

The character’s interracial identity and “devilish” appearance generated complex discussions when Trek first aired, but the analysis here begins and ends with the fact that fans love him. There’s also little discussion of Leonard’s other artistic pursuits in music and photography. Interviews with present-day fans, however, are few but touching — they all speak of having drawn strength from Spock’s “outsider” status.

For the Love of Spock is for these fans — the people who probably already know Leonard’s story inside and out. If that makes little sense, consider the phenomenon of Trekkie conventions. Fans gather there not necessarily to discover something new, but to celebrate what they love — and love in all its permutations is, of course, highly illogical.
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