Priority One Alert: Leonard Nimoy 1931-2015

“Live long and prosper.”-Mr. Spock and Leonard Nimoy, too many times to count

I’ve spent a great deal of time today not only processing the news that Leonard Nimoy has died today, but on just how to adequately eulogize the man. Most of the world, of course, is remembering his time as Spock, and maybe also his run on Mission: Impossible as Paris, or his directorial career (which of course intersected with Star Trek). Transformers fans, predictably (and I mean that both kindly and unkindly), are choosing to remember his turn as the movie voice of Galvatron. And the contrarians are remembering In Search Of…, though I’ve also seen mention of his narration of the cult Sega Dreamcast classic Seaman, and NESN (the New England Sports Network, which broadcasts Red Sox and Bruins games) has pointed out that Nimoy, ever the Boston native, publicly declared himself a Patriots fan on at least one occasion.

All of this seems so horrendously reductive. One of the main themes that is going to run through Star Trek Debriefed is just how utterly integral Leonard Nimoy was to Star Trek. Practically everything that makes Spock unique was a result of Nimoy’s performance. The Vulcan Nerve Pinch (referred to by the Star Trek staff as the FSNP, or Famous Spock Neck Pinch). The Vulcan Mind Meld. The Vulcan salute. The raised eyebrow. “Fascinating.” “Interesting.” In emphasizing the alienness of Spock, Nimoy ironically created the most human of all of the original Star Trek characters.

It should come as no surprise, really, that Star Trek‘s original and most passionate fans were fans of Spock. Nimoy’s performance was an instant revelation, and the constant alienation that Spock feels (as revealed most famously in “The Naked Time” and “This Side of Paradise”) spoke, and continues to speak, to everyone who has ever had a difficult time “fitting in”. William Shatner’s Captain Kirk was the hero we always hoped to be, and DeForest Kelley’s Dr. McCoy was the embodiment of our conscience and compassion. But with his performance as Spock, we saw ourselves. Better yet, Spock epitomized cool, and nearly always stole the show with the best lines.

So, it is not terribly shocking that the mourning has been deeper and more public for Leonard Nimoy than for any of the other key Star Trek personnel. He was the heart and soul of an international phenomenon, Spock and yet Not Spock to so many. Spock is, and probably will always be, an icon for the geeks, the outcasts, the minorities, the loners, and the alienated. And Leonard Nimoy, having lived a rewarding life with an impressive career in motion pictures, will always be the face of that icon. And, to borrow a line, he’s not really dead….so long as we remember him.

Guardians of Forever: Alexander Courage

The final phase of production for any movie or TV show is the score. For the pilot of a TV series, the stakes are even higher, as the all-important theme song for the show is composed for the pilot. There are other things about scoring to consider like instrumentation and tone, but the theme song is such a key piece of a television show’s marketing and identity that it dominates even the strongest of scores.

After whittling down a list that was a virtual who’s who of film composers (including Elmer Bernstein, Lalo Schifrin, and John Williams, among others), Gene Roddenberry’s choice was Jerry Goldsmith. Even in 1964, Goldsmith had built an impressive resume, scoring for shows like Playhouse 90The Twilight Zone, and Dr. Kildare, and films like Freud: The Secret Passion (which was nominated for an Oscar). However, Goldsmith turned Gene down, but he and/or Wilbur Hatch, Desilu’s longtime musical director, suggested Alexander Courage, who accepted the position.

Courage, while not known for his composition skills at the time, was a highly experienced orchestrator and conductor for feature films, having served in that capacity for such films as Oklahoma!Annie Get Your Gun, and Guys and Dolls. A successful gig on Star Trek could (and since we’re discussing him, quite obviously did) represent a huge break for his career. The only possible catch? As Courage would later relate, “Roddenberry told me, ‘Listen, I don’t want any of this goddamned funny-sounding space science fiction music. I want adventure music.”

Roddenberry was clearly referring to the astonishingly overused tendency for science fiction productions towards using the theremin, an odd music instrument well-known for its wailing, “ooooo-eeeeeee-oooooo” sound. Its overuse in B (or worse) level films made it synonymous with cheap, cheesy, and awful science fiction. But just how would Courage manage to create a relatable score when the material before him was generally unlike any science fiction production ever attempted? The answer to that question will come next time with the review of “The Cage”.

Guardians of Forever: The Howard A. Anderson Co.

“There is an energy barrier at the rim of your galaxy….”

“Yes, I know. We’ve been there.”-Rojan and Captain Kirk in “By Any Other Name” discussing the famous purple barrier from “Where No Man Has Gone Before”

To produce a TV show about spaceships and laser guns and transporters, it goes without saying that someone is going to have to create the special effects that will make the whole thing believable. Luckily, Desilu had one of the oldest special effects houses in Hollywood on site as an independent contractor, and they were eager to work on Star Trek.

The Howard A. Anderson Co. was founded in 1927, barely a decade and a half after the first studio in Hollywood, Universal, had opened its doors. Unfortunately, since films did not regularly credit outside contractors (or, to be brutally honest, much of anyone) until the mid-’50s, I can’t relate much of their accomplishments from those times. One credit that I can dispute is that of Anderson creating the opening credits for I Love Lucy, which is reported by Inside Star Trek and Memory Alpha, the main Star Trek Wikipedia clone on the internet. The original sequence was animated by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera in secret (as the two were still subject to their exclusive contract with MGM). If anything, they handled the syndicated “satin heart” opening, which featured minimal animation work. The company is credited with effects work on The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (“special photographic effects”), so the Anderson Company certainly had a long-standing relationship with Desilu beside renting space on the studio lot.

By 1964, Howard A. Anderson had retired, handing control over to his sons Howard, Jr. and Darrell. Both sons were experienced hands at the company, however, and enthusiastic to to take on a challenge like Star Trek. With schlocky films to their credit like King Dinosaur and 12 to the Moon to their credit, it’s easy to see why: Star Trek represented a potentially star-making turn. However, just for the footage of the Enterprise itself, the Anderson Company faced a huge challenge-literally. The model was a massive 11 feet, two inches long, and weighed 220 pounds. As detailed by the Smithsonian, the model was made of much more mundane materials than a modern reader would expect:

“Primarily constructed of poplar wood, vacu-formed plastic, rolled sheet metal tubes for both the engine pods from the back of the struts to the start of the nacelle caps, and plastic for the main sensor dish and detailing (light covers, etc.). The front and rear of the engine pods or nacelles are of wood. The nacelle grill plates brass. Rolled steel wires were also inserted through its original pipe support for lights.” [Note: The lights were added after “The Cage” was produced.]

Not exactly high-tech building materials, to be sure. More troubling, however, was how late the model was in being made. So late, in fact, that images of the three-foot reference model built by Richard C. Datin, Jr. being delivered to Roddenberry by Datin himself during location shooting of “The Cage”. (Datin was also responsible for the larger model, though a good deal of its construction was sub-contracted.) The 11-foot model ended up not being used that much in the making of “The Cage” as a result. However, the finished episode was ready for scoring in January, making any crises over the delivery of the model minor at best.

Next time, we’ll discuss the last element of “The Cage” before discussing the episode itself: the music.

Guardians of Forever: Leonard Nimoy

“The network told me to get rid of Number One, the woman first lieutenant, and also to get rid of ‘the Martian fellow’… I knew I couldn’t keep both, so I gave the stoicism of the female officer to Spock, and married the actress who played Number One. Thank God it wasn’t the other way around.”-Gene Roddenberry

If there is any one character that is central to the values of Star Trek and how they are presented, it is Spock. As the only non-human crew member of the Enterprise, his character would quickly emerge as the one who would comment most on humanity (both directly and indirectly) on the series, and also foster one of the more dedicated fanbases among viewers. While a good deal of this lies with the writing, there is no denying that the bulk of the reasons for Spock’s success as a character lie with the man whom Gene Roddenberry cast: Leonard Nimoy.

Leonard Nimoy was born in 1931 in Boston’s West End to Yiddish-speaking, Ukrainian Orthodox Jewish parents, and began acting at the age of eight. Not blessed with stereotypical “movie star” looks, Nimoy was already struggling when he was drafted into the Army while the Korean War was still raging in 1953. After being discharged in 1955, he was forced to take on various non-acting jobs to help pay the bills. Things started to change for Nimoy, however, when he started studying with actor Jeff Corey, who was in the process of establishing himself as an acting teacher in the face of his McCarthy-era blacklisting.

Corey cast Nimoy in a West Coast mounting of Jean Genet’s French play Deathwatch, alongside Paul Mazursky and Michael Forest. The play was incredibly successful (eventually leading to an art house film version directed by Vic Morrow with the same cast), and resulted in a lot of attention and TV roles for Nimoy. Suddenly, he was building a very respectable acting career. It was at this point that Gary Lockwood recommended Nimoy to Gene Roddenberry to play Spock.

NBC wanted a bigger “name” in the role, however, so DeForest Kelley and Martin Landau were both tapped for the role, and both turned it down flat. Nimoy was skeptical, too, for many of the same reasons as Kelley and Landau: Spock was already slated to be an alien with pointed ears and as-yet undetermined makeup. He accepted at first, but after a disastrous screen test on the set of The Lucy Show, Nimoy begged off the production. Roddenberry won the argument, and Fred Phillips’ famed ears, developed with Charlie Schram, went over far better than the initial screen test. Mr. Spock was now in place, and Star Trek had its most iconic character.

Next week, with most of the crew in place, it’s time to talk special effects.

Guardians of Forever: Majel Barrett

“Oh, Vulcan plomeek soup! And I’ll bet you made it, too. You never give up hoping, do you?”-Dr. McCoy, speaking to Nurse Chapel in “Amok Time”

For the role of Number One, the Enterprise‘s stoic and capable first officer, Gene Roddenberry had one actress in mind: Majel Barrett. Barrett, who had previously attracted the attention of Lucille Ball and even appeared on The Lucy Show in one episode, was a frequent (if largely unknown) guest performer on a variety of TV shows, including many shot at Desilu. She had also appeared on The Lieutenant.

However, as far as NBC was concerned, Majel Barrett’s most distinguishing feature was that she was the mistress of Gene Roddenberry.

Herb Solow was assigned the task of selling Jerry Stanley and Grant Tinker of NBC on the idea of casting Barrett. Neither were impressed in the least. Despite what Solow later thought was resentment on their part at being forced into a difficult circumstance, Stanley and Tinker agreed to let Gene cast Majel in the role. However, it would not be forgotten by the network.

It’s no secret that Majel would end up having a heavily important effect on Roddenberry, not only as his marriage collapsed, but for many years to come. The first instance of this was during the various screen tests, for which Barrett had happily volunteered to take part. Her role? Testing the green makeup that Susan Oliver would end up appearing in midway through “The Cage”. For three days test footage was shot, with increasingly green makeup each time, and the footage came back in normal skin tones each time. Finally, the reason was tracked back to the film lab, whose technicians kept correcting the green tint, which they thought was an error (after all, when had anyone ever seen a green woman?). The miscommunication was fixed, and Majel Barrett had the first (and most famous) of many stories to tell about her time working on Star Trek.

Next week, we’ll end our discussion of the cast of “The Cage” in the most logical fashion possible.