On Recent Deaths

death I have way more pride than is good for me sometimes. For instance, I’ve always stuck to my guns pretty rigidly when it comes to my one year gap and my lack of any content besides SF/F reviews of stuff I care about, for no good reason other than the title would sort of ring hollow for me otherwise. But within a month, three luminaries in their fields have died: legendary wit Terry Pratchett, legendary actor Leonard Nimoy, and also Sam Simon, the unknown driving force behind one of the most legendary works of our time. And it’s clear that The Grim Reaper cares about pride about as much as he does anything else.

OK, yeah, he cares about cats. And the Death of Rats. And his family. And...humanity, I guess.

OK, yeah, he cares about cats. And the Death of Rats. And his family. And…humanity, I guess.

I’ll be honest: None of these guys are at the top of the list of “People who raised me despite me never meeting them” If, say, Terry Gilliam, John Lasseter and Dick DeBartolo were all to die within a month of each other I’m honestly not sure if I could function in my life. But even so, the collective loss so soon to each other is hard for me to handle and even harder for me to process. These are three very important people, in long-view cultural terms, and I’ll go into why for each of them.

LEONARD NIMOY

LEONARD NIMOY

Yeah, he was Spock. But that doesn’t really say a whole lot special about Leonard Nimoy as a person in his own right. Culturally significant characters are on TV all the time, and in many of those cases the success is all down to the writers’ creativity and ability rather than that the actor. For the first example off the top of my head, look at Ron Swanson of Parks and Rec. Nick Offerman is perfect as the old school, Theodore Roosevelt-esque man’s man, but another similar actor in that role probably would have captured America’s hearts to the same degree. But on the other hand, it’s impossible to overstate either how much Leonard Nimoy brought to the character of Spock, or how much of an effect that had on culture afterward. Sure, the “stoic smart guy” is a character archetype older than dirt, but the spin Nimoy put on the character – having raging emotions he was constantly keeping in check, the mixed feelings he had over being ostracized by the normies, the matter-of-fact smugness and snarkiness – they colored literally every subsequent portrayal of that archetypal character. Perfect example of this: Let’s just take a look at the most anticipated movies of the year. The Avengers 2? You got that brand new character, Robot Rutabaga, what everybody’s talking about because Paul Bettany isn’t in nearly enough these days (that’s sincere, by the way – he’s a great actor).

He was created by the Avengers to fight the villainous forces of Robot Red Onion, and his Onion Patch!

He was created by the Avengers to fight the villainous forces of Robot Red Onion, and his Onion Patch!

He’s apparently going for the “human-robot hybrid with an identity crisis”, and was created at the height of Star Trek’s popularity in the late sixties. Anyone got any ideas what inspired him? Other anticipated movie: your reboot, your Terminator: X-Sodos. This one’s going to have Ahnold in it, reprising his evil robot turned good role that still represents the pinnacle of his acting career. An emotionless man who nonetheless learns how to feel from protecting his surrogate family? Hrrrmn… Star Wars 7 – Ten Flying Alligators? I don’t even need to say a word more. They even got the dang guy who updated Spock for a new generation to make it! I think there are only five other people, in the entire history of recorded acting, who can say this of themselves – that they took a brand new and unknown character and not only made it their own, but made it an icon even up to today, and altered every future portrayal of a similar character. In chronological order, and by the character type they defined:

Bela Lugosi as Dracula - creepy powerful man with a dark secret

Bela Lugosi as Dracula – Creepy powerful man with a dark secret

Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden - dumb, lovable, blue-collar everyman

Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden – Dumb, lovable, blue-collar everyman

Sean Connery as James Bond - Upper-class secret agent

Sean Connery as James Bond – Upper-class secret agent

Douglas Rain as HAL 9000 - Evil computer

Douglas Rain as HAL 9000 – Evil computer

Bruce Willis as John McClane - Older, everyman action hero

Bruce Willis as John McClane – Older, everyman action hero

Honestly, that’s it. It feels sort of weird to reduce a century and a half of constantly shifting culture and art down to these six guys, but these are just the best of the best of the best. And Leonard Nimoy was one of them. Live long and prosper.

SAM SIMON

SAM SIMON

Yeah, this will entirely be about the Simpsons. It’s not like any of the obituaries said “Philanthropist Sam Simon dead”, folks. Being the closest thing to a single creative voice for The Simpsons will do that. So yeah, I’d like to take this opportunity to venture a unique if not unpopular opinion: The Simpsons is already over. Hear me out here. I know there are quite a few people out there who still watch and even enjoy The Simpsons, but even they would agree the show isn’t contributing anything to the annals of pop culture, the way it did for more than a decade. In recent years they’ve done permanent character death, pretty huge celebrity appearances, and even a marathon of every single one of their episodes…and sure, people talked about it, but you’d be hard pressed to find a whole lot of non-fans who really cared or even remember it. I just think that the only thing they could possibly do that the general population would have some genuine interest is ending for real.   Let me amend what I said a bit ago: The Simpsons isn’t, but it’s like an elderly king whose advisors really have all the power and are keeping him alive so they don’t have to worry about politics or oversight (In this scenario, I guess the scheming advisors would be the decent-to-enjoyable Bob’s Burgers and the strangely retrograde Modern Family). And to tie things into our next author, the right way to deal with this isn’t to kill the king but to beat the advisors at their own game, and replace with the benevolent democracy of…I dunno, stuff like Rick and Morty and Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Unbreakable Kimchi Dish (the last which I haven’t seen, honestly, so I may go back on that if I don’t find it up to snuff).

TERRY PRATCHETT

TERRY PRATCHETT

This guy was the least popular of the three I’m talking about here, but that just makes me like him more – he was a niche author with a broad appeal, and I’m always one for the little guy. He also wasn’t exactly influential as the term can be generally applied, but he was like the Tesla or Leonardo da Vinci of speculative fiction – for the past few decade people have basically been redoing all his work at a much slower pace. As the most omnipresent example, Frozen is a very Terry Pratchett-esque story, poking fun at Disney’s own old standard tropes while also justifying their existence in a more realistic setting. For extra points, they even borrowed the depiction of trolls pretty much wholesale from Discworld, altering them only to make them cuter, which is OK because you probably won’t sell many Sergeant Detritus toys to five-year-olds. But it’s hard for anyone else to do stuff like Terry Pratchett, because Terry Pratchett’s stuff was about so much else. He was about stories, and about humanity, and about how the two were inextricably tied to each other in so many different and surprising ways. Not everything he wrote was perfect – although all of his stuff that I really don’t like is from back in earlier in his career, when he was one of the earliest writers in the now-ubiquitous genre of Fake Douglas Adams – but everything of his tied into those two concepts of stories and humanity in one way or another.

But seriously, everyone is writing fake Adams these days, with the strange exception of Eoin Colfer.

But seriously, everyone is writing fake Adams these days, with the strange exception of Eoin Colfer.

And that’s the real legacy of Terry Pratchett. Not innumerable imitators, but like-minded people – people who want to say the same things in ways he didn’t. That’s why he initially wanted his daughter, video game scribe Rhianna (who’s a decent writer) to take over the Discworld series, although even he would later realize how fruitless that was. And there’s really not much else to say about him, since he pretty much said it all already. Go look at his TVTropes quotes page, if you like. Good note to end on, since if you actually do click that link you’ll be stuck on TVTropes all day and I won’t have to entertain you anymore.

Advertisements
Previous Post
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: