Thursday, January 22, 2009

Trekkin'


For three years, twelve hours a day, five days a week, approximately ten months of each year, I functioned as an extraterrestrial.
--Leonard Nimoy,
I Am Not Spock

It was the poster for Star Trek: The Motion Picture that grabbed me, that great image of Kirk, Spock and the gleaming bald head of Persis Khambatta cast in a rainbow light with the vastness of space shimmering behind them. At the tender age of six, I thought it promised a lot-- and was bitterly disappointed when it failed to deliver. I remember going on a wintry day with my father and older brother, and almost falling asleep waiting for something to happen. I was not, it seemed, destined to be a Trekkie.

It may have been a doomed cause, anyway-- Star Wars had already won my geeky heart-- but it made another worthy attempt with The Wrath of Khan three years later. Had the films changed, or had I? I was now a worldly nine-year old, and perhaps more patient, better prepared for Trek's blend of action, character and philosophical exploration. But the movie itself was much tighter, funnier, action-packed and gripping than its predecessor (it remains, I think, the best of all Trek films, due in large part to screenwriter/director Nicholas Meyer, who would be involved in various capacities on most of the good Trek movies). As I headed into adolescence, reading the Trek-friendly Starlog, I was more and more intrigued by the movies, and the show that inspired them. By the time Star Trek IV was released to acclaim in 1986, I knew my Star Trek trivia well, and even had the proper fanboy response of suspicion to IV's humorous take-- laughter? What? This is serious science fiction, dammit!

Heading into high school, my enthusiasm dimmed, and while I watched the first season of the brand-new Next Generation, I wasn't grabbed by it. I let my Starlog subscription lapse. My waning interest felt confirmed by the pallid Star Trek V two years later. Kirk wouldn't officially die for five years, but my passion died as I heard William Shatner declaim, "Why does God need a starship??"

(Two years after, I was in college, and the enjoyable-if-slight Star Trek VI opened. I took delight in my friend Chad's report that, on opening night at the theater he attended, Shatner's name was hissed during the credits: "Boo! He directed V! Boo!").

"I like, I don't like: this is of no importance to anyone; this, apparently, has no meaning. And yet all this means: my body is not the same as yours," Roland Barthes wrote in Barthes par Barthes in 1975. "Hence, in this anarchic foam of tastes and distastes, a kind of listless blur, gradually appears the figure of a bodily enigma, requiring complicity or irritation. Here begins the intimidation of the body, which obliges others to endure me liberally, to remain silent and polite confronted by pleasures or rejections which they do not share."

(I wonder if there were any Star Trek V partisans in that opening night audience in 1991, silently keeping their own counsel for fear of appearing even nerdier than the folks around them).

Barthes was writing of his image-repertoire, crafting not so much an autobiography as a sensuous intellectual self-portrait whose playful fragmentation into alphabetic segments became his entry point for thinking about the he-within-the-text ("Barthes" rather than Barthes). Highlighting his own subjectivity, his own desires and rejections, was one more way to deconstruct the unspoken agreement that "academic discourse" was somehow a scientific and ideologically correct business, rather than one of personal investments.

(Incidentally, when searching for the above quote online-- I'm on the road, and my own copy of Barthes par Barthes is at home--I stumbled across an academic listserv discussion about Barthes, where one participant responded to a claim that Barthes was "laughable" by defending him thus: "Academic discourse is not about likes and dislikes." I like to think Barthes would've appreciated the irony).

I thought of Barthes par Barthes and its deliberate sequence of playful digressions when I stumbled across another self-portrait published in 1975: Leonard Nimoy's I Am Not Spock. I guess the upcoming J.J. Abrams re-imagining has re-sparked my interest, and when I saw it on the shelf I couldn't help but pick it up. Nimoy is not a semiologist, but he was facing a similar dilemma to Barthes' in the mid-1970s: How do you overcome an image that has attached itself to you, that's not you, but is you in some ways? Should you overcome it, or find a way to wrestle with it?

Back to Starlog: I remember reading about this book in that magazine back in the early 1980s. The periodical's readers were shocked at the very title of the thing, and Nimoy's supposed "betrayal" of the fandom that had made him (and, it was implied in their tone, could break him, etc., etc., etc.). I was always curious about it, and I think reading these exchanges
colored my image of the Vulcan, making him seem more imperious and distant than he perhaps really was.

Looking at the book all these years later, I now wonder how many of those angry Starlog correspondents actually read the thing. Nimoy is very clear about his love and gratitude for Trek and its fans, but he's also intrigued about the relationship between the private man and public persona that a popular actor must grapple with. The title becomes a play on this split, the first step into Nimoy's image-repertoire, or what he later calls (paraphrasing Katharine Hepburn), "my box of tricks."

It's fairly clear right from the opening:

I am not Spock.

But I am close to him. Closer than anyone. How much closer can two people be than to stand in the same body, occupy the same space?


He continues:

And it's more complicated than that. Perhaps worse than that. The question is, without Spock, who am I? Do I, or would I, exist at all without him? And without me, who is he? I suspect he might do better without me than I without him. That bothers me. Or more accurately, it concerns me.

That's why I'm writing this book. Maybe if I can get it all down on paper and see the words and the ideas staring me in the face I might understand. I might get a better fix on what I am and who he is. With Spock and me, it's a unique came of "I'm OK. We're OK."

I might get to know something about myself that millions of others know better than I. If I could only see myself as others see me.


Barthes deconstructed and reconstructed himself through fragments; Nimoy does it by interspersing, between more "traditional" biographical passages, an ongoing "dialogue" between himself and Spock on the show, the character and the nature of fame. When I opened the book and saw this, I laughed out loud, thinking it would be the perfect slice of 70s silliness. But it actually turns out to be a really interesting distancing device, allowing Nimoy to access acting theory that might otherwise feel ponderous.

He continues the dialogue in biography #2, I Am Spock, the two titles sitting on the shelf in perfect dialectical order. Why not? As Nimoy says in the first line of the second book (published in 1995), "I hear voices in my head," a self-deprecating acknowledgment of the multiplicity of writerly identity. It's fascinating to read the two books back-to-back: I Am Spock covers some of the same ground as the first book, but does so in a much more relaxed way. If 1975 Nimoy felt anxious to establish himself separately from the Enterprise, his counterpart in the second book seems much more comfortable in his own skin(s) (I suspect that's because of the success of his directing career, from which he shares some nice anecdotes, particularly about The Good Mother). He's also far more generous to his co-stars, and not as determined (as in the first book) to think about Star Trek primarily as The Spock Show.

"This being, this particular being, is still here in a very real sense," Nimoy writes in I Am Not Spock. "Still with me and, through me, with millions of others. He still affects my life and that of many others. Living, because of me, going where I go, doing what I do. Affecting my speech, my walk, my thinking, my life." He's not just speaking for himself (and Spock), of course: that might also be the credo of the Trekkie, or of any fandom whose "geeky" or marginalized nature might cause its denizens to unconsciously split themselves into "fan" or "non-fan" depending on the moment and the place. In creating a relaxed dialogue between his two personalities, Nimoy offers at least one model for negotiating this sense of difference, perhaps recognizing, against Barthes, that irritation and complicity are more intertwined than we might care to admit.

It's also an interesting model for bloggers, who face the same writerly/performative challenges that Barthes and Nimoy face. Am I "Brian" when I'm online? Well, kind of (or, per the Nimoy quote above, "I'm OK. We're OK."). Does this online "Brian" feel embarrassed to admit his boyhood enthusiasms and Starlog subscriptions in the same way that the "real" one does? Or is it just my job to step back, observe, raise my own (very un-Spockian) eyebrow and mutter, "fascinating..."?

5 comments:

Jonathan Lapper said...

Nimoy's not not Spock. I'm not Spock.

Anyway, you're crazy on TNG. The first season didn't grab anyone, because it sucked so bad. Start with the third season on. From 3 through 7, it rocked. Trust me. Season 5 was the best.

And I think I've said this before, but if you upload Star Trek The Motion Picture onto your computer to edit it, as I have, you can chop a lot of visual waste and get a pretty good movie out of it. Really, you can.

Brian Doan said...

Wait, I thought you were Not Batman. Or was it Aquaman?

Actually, in all seriousness, this is an interesting question for you, I think, as you've admitted that "Jonathan Lapper" is a pseudonym-- in effect, a "part" you play. I know you did it for reasons of privacy, but I wonder if-- especially with your interest in acting-- you ever feel the way Nimoy did. Should we expect a book called I Am Not Lapper? (:

Yeah, I know TNG got better, and I've enjoyed the eps I've seen from other seasons (as well as First Contact), but I've never sat down to watch them through. Thanks for the recs! You know what later Trek I really like? Deep Space Nine. I think that's the show where the whole concept of Trek-- all the philosophical and political and character-driven stuff-- really finds its full fruition.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I only ever watched the first two seasons of DS9 before my moving away from tv started. It started slowly then took over completely by about 2003 (which is the last time I've watched television, commercially outside of TCM and sporting events). I grew to hate it so much that all my tv consumption now comes in the form of DVDs and I've yet to get all the DS9 DVDs but I will eventually and then just start with season three.

I bought the TNG DVDs about four years ago and only bought seasons 3 through 7 and I love popping in a favorite episode from time to time. I also watched some of Voyager and Enterprise on DVD but didn't like either and don't plan to buy them. If I bought any it would definitely be DS9.

I am not Lapper.

Jonathan Lapper said...

"I grew to hate it so much" refers to commercial television, not DS9. Looked a little confusing when I re-read it.

I am Lapper.

Brian Doan said...

Wait, are you Lapper, or not Lapper? "You're tearing me APART!"

Yeah, the eps I've seen of both Enterprise and Voyager are bad, to put it euphemistically. I didn't realize you'd given up on non-movie, non-sporting TV. What kind of American doesn't sit rapt in front of GREY'S ANATOMY every week???

Besides me, I mean.