The Saturday Rumpus Essay: Waiting for the Tape to Rewind

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The first time watched Leonard Nimoy die, I was four or five. My dad wasn’t a full-suited Trekkie; he didn’t practice the Vulcan salute, but he thought of Spock and James T. Kirk as old friends. And he wanted to share these friends with me, whether or not I was old enough to meet them.

Wrath of Khan, for instance, isn’t necessarily kid’s movie. There is a lot of death: bloody corpses hanging from rafters, charred bodies, suicide by phaser. Spock, played by a 50-something Leonard Nimoy, dies from radiation poisoning after repairing a warp drive, sacrificing the needs of the one for the needs of the many. His coffin is unknowingly shot into a regenerating planet called Genesis, while his soul is transferred into someone else’s body.

As young brains tend skip over things they don’t understand, I saw the radiation scene and the funeral scene in The Wrath of Khan, but I was oblivious to the significance. When Spock’s skin turned into a grey-green paste, my dad said to me, presumably because he had already seen The Search for Spock, “Spock’s just sick. He’ll be back.”

“How?” I asked him

“Well, it’s a little like magic.”

When I heard that Nimoy died, my first thought was: He’ll be back.

*

My father was the analog version of BitTorrent. He had—it would be a little facetious to say owned—nearly every movie I could think of on VHS. Most of the movies were copied from cable or his dual VCR system—playing one VCR while recording it on the other. If I said that I wanted to see a movie, the next weekend, it would show up on the shelf the title written on the white label in his tight but loopy script.

He preferred the 6-hour SLP videocassettes so that he could squeeze several movies into one cassette. Sometimes, those groupings made sense (An Ewok Adventure and Ewoks: The Battle for Endor), and sometimes Care Bears piggybacked on the same cassette as Clash of the Titans.

Since his tiny Western Pennsylvania town was at least twenty miles from the nearest movie rental, friends would borrow movies from him. If someone borrowed a movie for too long, he became impatient and made another copy for himself. He wanted people to see movies. I wonder if it made him feel like a VHS Robin Hood, valiantly giving an economically stunted community the movies they deserve.

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Nimoy played characters that didn’t just live long and prosper in the cultural memory, but they could even cheat death. In the cult TV show Fringe, Nimoy played the sometimes villainous, sometimes virtuous scientist William Bell, who crossed universes so many times that the atoms in his body were bombs waiting to explode. Even though Nimoy only appeared in 11 episodes of Fringe, his character died three times.

Fringe was obviously too 21st century to make it on to VHS, but it’s the kind of show that has a VHS-mentality. The technology on is Fringe is often cobbled together with analog parts lying around a lab. When it needed a way to yank someone back from a parallel universe, it didn’t use lasers—it used magnets. It seemed like a show my dad would appreciate.

Fringe started out as a monster-of-the-week, X-Files knockoff, but it quickly evolved into one of the smartest, gutsiest sci-fi TV shows. Despite constant danger of cancellation, the show managed to squeeze out five seasons. Because it lived as if each episode was its last, the writers weren’t afraid to take risks, to completely break narratives and worlds by adding parallel universes, alternative present and future timelines, and fudgy science. It wasn’t afraid to ask you to believe in the possibilities of a giant killer porcupine-human hybrid “manimal” or a techno-organic semi-human from an alternate universe.

But the characters were the glue that held Fringe together. The show featured a smartly-written, under-appreciated female protagonist, Olivia Dunham. Joshua Jackson (Pacey from Dawson’s Creek) played Peter Bishop, the son of Walter Bishop, an LSD-loving, mad scientist who broke two universes. When the writers needed someone to play William Bell, the mysterious ex-partner of Walter Bishop, they didn’t settle for anyone less than sci-fi royalty.

It was only when Nimoy appeared at the end of the first season of Fringe that I thought about giving the show a chance. It had been awhile since I’d seen this old friend of my dad. I started watching as if I were dropping by to say hello.

*

Though we think of it as a dead technology, VHS was revolutionary in its time. It opened up the possibility of watching whatever you wanted in your home—if you had the money. Children had more access to movies than in the past, especially movies they weren’t supposed to watch. People could hold an entire movie in their hands. Born four years after VHS, I don’t remember not taking these things for granted.

When I visited my dad on the weekends, we spent most of our Saturday watching videos from his VHS collection. He even bought a separate rewinder device so we wouldn’t waste ten minutes waiting for the tape to rewind. His wasn’t a house of many rules, but you always had to rewind.

I didn’t really like Wrath of Khan as much as my dad assumed I would. The Voyage Home was always my favorite of the series. In the fourth movie of the franchise, the crew of the Starship Enterprise saves the earth from an alien probe by bringing back two humpback whales from the twentieth century. With an old/new Spock in tow, the crew navigate the streets of 1987 San Francisco. The Voyage Home was about more than just the Enterprise crew finding their way back to the future; it was also about the journey that Spock takes to become himself again. I was fascinated by the disconnect between who he used to be and who he thought he was.

I can see where the The Voyage Home sat on my dad’s VHS shelf. The label had gold star stickers, so that everyone could tell that it was my preferred Trek. It was, coincidentally, directed by Nimoy.

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William Bell, played by Nimoy, dies in the second season of Fringe. Trapped in the alternate universe, he harnesses the power of his unstable atoms, sacrificing himself to send Olivia and Walter back to their universe. His atoms tear apart and he vanishes into a futuristic golden, streaky light. I’d even use the word magic.

My father and Nimoy both died from 20th-century illnesses, my dad at 63, Nimoy at 83—from heart conditions that were caused, or at least assisted, by years of smoking. I read that Nimoy quit smoking, but my dad didn’t believe in letting go of something he enjoyed. After his second heart attack, he switched to American Spirits, because they were more natural. He didn’t stop the smoking indoors habit—his dining room walls were covered in a nicotine film.

While Nimoy had a few different lives—photographer, author, director, champion of women’s rights—my dad sunk further into his small world. Once his body started to deteriorate, he stopped driving long distances, avoided crowds, and stopped visiting most friends. Instead of exploding for the needs of the many, my dad’s atoms atrophied alone.

I keep thinking of the alternate timeline, or the alternate universe, where my dad might have quit smoking, picked up several hobbies, bought a DVD burner, and lived to be 83. Would we have watched Fringe together?

*

William Bell wasn’t written off the show when he died. Though Nimoy announced his retirement from acting, Bell came back the very next season, just not in his own body. In one of the nuttiest plotlines of Fringe (which is saying something), William Bell’s conscience is called back through microscopic devices called soul magnets. This exemplifies one of the core tenants of Fringe: The physical body is one thing, the conscience is quite another.

Bell possesses Olivia, while her consciousness goes into a long sleep. It requires the actress who plays Olivia to do a spot-on Leonard Nimoy impression, complete with a cracked cadence and a raised right eyebrow.

The laws of the universe in Fringe are stricter than Star Trek, so in a way, that makes them seem more realistic. There is always a price to pay for science. The brain cannot accommodate two consciousnesses for long, and Olivia’s soul starts losing its bearings. To save her, Walter and Peter venture into Olivia’s consciousness through brain probes and LSD-laced sugar cubes. They find an animated version of Bell in her mind. Bell realizes that he must sacrifice his soul for her to live, and Olivia accepts that she must reclaim her own mind. In this episode, the animated Bell is voiced by Nimoy, who apparently had as much success staying retired as his characters had at staying dead.

*

After he died, my dad was constantly in my head. Not only was I grieving—calling his phone number just in case, seeing him in the faces of other men on the street—but I had to focus mental and physical energy on cleaning up the unfinished business of his life. I had to pay off his credit cards, close his bank accounts, and wade through 60 years of stuff.

The house was a museum of our old family. Along with old shotguns, multiple wide lapel suits, and wedding presents that my mom didn’t take with her, I found four VCR players stockpiled in their original, unopened packaging. Stacked next to them were ten to twenty shrink-wrapped VHS tapes. It was his version of a doomsday survival kit, as if the real apocalypse was the extinction of videocassette technology. Though my dad loved movies about future technologies, he was not interested in evolving with the technology of his century. He had never seen the Internet, never bought a CD, and had certainly never touched a DVD. The physical-ness of the VHS was important. He knew how to cover up the record notch with a piece of tape on a factory-made VHS, and how to untangle the magnetic tape with his finger. He would often lift the lip of the VHS and blow and the white dust streaks on the screen would disappear.

I remember thinking, as I cleaned out his stockpile, that it didn’t really surprise me that he died the year film studios officially stopped releasing new movies on VHS. Besides smoking, there wouldn’t have been anything he still enjoyed at home: my mom was gone, I was gone. It’s as if he’d come to the end of the videotape, and was too tired to rewind.

The Yale University Library just acquired 2,700 VHS tapes to build the first VHS collection in the country. In an interview, Yale librarian David Gary said, “Future historians will want to study the labels that were put on tapes, or the tape stock, or the plastic case. All that stuff tells a story about how it was produced and where it came from.”

When my dad’s VHS collection was auctioned in the estate sale, I had someone else divide the cassettes into boxes. I don’t know if Star Trek stayed together or if the four Superman movies were organized into different destinies. I imagined strangers unpacking all the Saturdays from my childhood, wondering who put The Adventures in Babysitting with Predator. What stories did they make up about us?

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The third time Nimoy dies on Fringe is even more ludicrous than the idea of soul magnets. Coming out of retirement again, Nimoy plays a version of William Bell from an alternate timeline, plotting to crash two parallel universes together and ride out the destruction in a literal ark filled with “manimals,” a drug that makes the human brain an energy source, and a lot of mumbo jumbo about “neogenesis.” His plans are foiled, and to escape, he rings his namesake—a bell—and evaporates into thin air. Leaving the question: where exactly did his atoms go this time?

When I rewatched Wrath of Khan two decades after I had seen it with my dad, I was floored that Spock actually dies. Not only does he die, but he dies from radiation poising, something so Cold War, 20th century—not 23rd century. It did not seem very magical anymore.

I wonder if this was my father’s way of teaching me about death—a healthy way talk to children about death is using simple words, not hiding your emotion, but explaining it in ways they can relate to. Maybe this was the simplest way he could think of.

And maybe it was how he thought about death: The idea that we can be alive in an alternate timeline, or a parallel universe, or our soul can be transplanted, is not unlike the concept of what someone might call heaven. It’s the same kind of wish fulfillment, the same kind of magical thinking. It offers comfort—a way to believe that we still live on, even when our atoms explode.

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Featured image, image #3, image#6 . All other images provided by author.


Jen Girdish lives in Washington, DC, with one very tall husband and two average-sized cats. Her work has appeared in the The Morning News, The Awl, and McSweeney’s, among others. More from this author →