The Words in Spock's Mouth

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Title: “The Words in Spock’s Mouth”
Creator: Harlan Ellison
Date(s): spring 1968
Medium: print
Fandom: focus on Star Trek, but insults fans of all faiths
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The Words in Spock's Mouth is an essay by Harlan Ellison. It was printed in 1968 in the fan newsletter Chatter Boxes and later reprinted in Ellison's book "Over the Edge."

The essay was written in response to Peggye Vickers after she mistakenly credited D.C. Fontana for writing the Star Trek episode "City on the Edge of Forever", rather than Harlan Ellison, in the Winter Journal of Chatter Boxes (1967), a Leonard Nimoy Association of Fans newsletter she edited.

Despite her polite retraction in the next issue, Ellison wrote her a letter, part of which was printed in Chatter Boxes #7.

A similar essay, written a year later by David Gerrold, is The Awful Offal.

Letter Excerpt

Excerpt from Ellison's letter to Chatter Boxes:
We live in a time when the slavish adoration of the performer subjugates all attention to the artists who create for the performers. Writers who create in totality the images and words the actors convey over the Kallikak Tube are less than ignored by "fans" such as yourself. It becomes rather annoying to those of us who slave for three months over a script so that Len can have decent lines to speak, consistent with his character, enriching both to him as an actor and to you as a viewer. After laboring in that vineyard, the script is taken from us, given to production personnel, directors, set designers, costumers, makeup men, actors and God knows who all else, and the writer is politely told to screw off. He is literally cut off from the creation of his soul and mind. Then, the only recompense beside money (which is a fleeting commodity and not one-millionth as valuable as a nod of approval from those who see his work onscreen) is the credit he gets when the segment is shown. For his contribution to have been so minimal and unimportant to a viewer such as yourself that she did not even bother to check out who had written it, explicates an insult so stinging any writer would be 'irritated to great extreme'... Granted, having an actor of Len's extraordinary capacities is a benefit to any script, still it is an inescapable truth that the actor cannot surmount inferior script material; and as Len and I have discussed it on many occasions, I know he feels approximately the same way, though very probably not to the same degree. If "The City On The Edge Of Forever" was a good enough show for you to remember and enjoy it, then it should behoove you to at least take casual cognizance of the people responsible for it...if you respect Len, you should respect and honor the people Len respects and honors, who have banded together to make his acting possible, and possible on a higher level of art. The richness you derive from Len's excellent performances does not spring full-blown from thin air. It is a symbiotic product of many people's creativity. Should you ignore this salient fact, you do disservice not only to those who labor in Len's and your behalf, but to Len and yourself.

Vickers states that "I was so impressed with this educational explanation that I immediately asked Mr. Ellison if he would allow me to present his thoughts on the subject in this publication, and he graciously consented to do so. The following article is a result of that request."

Excerpts from "The Words in Spock's Mouth"

a page from Ellison's essay
We live in an age where personality is king. The inept toe-tapper who graced a hundred grade "b" films becomes a U.S. Senator. He is a personality. The emcee of a late-night talk show suddenly becomes the arbiter of Constitutional values and public morality. He is a personality. The bad novelist who cannot write her way out of a parking ticket does saturation TV and her book suddenly soars to the top of the bestseller lists.[1] She is a personality. The "image" becomes the thing; the facade, the front, the public face, the mask is more acceptable to the masses than the less-glittering reality of truth, the possibility that one's heroes are merely men and women, even as you and I; and so, are subject to the same terrors and frailties as you and I. The lie is more acceptable than the bitter truth; the shadow is more supportable than the reality.
I am a writer. I write books. I also write television and films. I know Leonard Nimoy, for I have worked with him on STAR TREK. I don't worship him, because he is a human being, and the folly of worshipping a personality is hardly less demeaning to the personality than to the worshipper. But I know Leonard, and he is a good man, a frank and honest man, and were I to have to draw a judgment as to whether he deserves the adoration of a large mass of fans, I would be compelled to agree that far better Leonard than many other choices open to the public. I have worked at Synanon — the recuperative facility where junkies regain their dignity and their lives — where Len taught an acting class, and they speak of him with deep warmth; I have discussed Len with other actors in Hollywood, and to a man they laud his intimacy in friendship and his forthright manner- It is this very dichotomy between the deep well of personal warmth and humanity which Len possesses, and the chill, precise character he plays in STAR TREK, that is (I feel) in large part responsible for the force with which Spock comes across in the series. It is impossible, even in the guise of an emotionless alien, to quell the sunshine of Len's personality. So it gives me pleasure to see Leonard Nimoy adulated by thousands of Spockettes. I feel no slightest twinge of jealousy at the acceptance by millions of a man who is as entitled to such acceptance as any good man. I give Len all of this, and the vast amounts of money, and the personal satisfaction, and everything that goes with it. Without holding back a fragment of delight.
Yet I wonder if those who worship the personality are as ready to worship the man. And finding that question in doubt, I wonder if these smiling fans are aware of the expertise and years of drudgery that went to make the man first a good man, then an actor, then a good actor, then a personality, and finally, a good personality? While it is true that Len is by no means a John Kennedy or a Ghandi or even a George Lincoln Rockwell, he is a role model for many youngsters, a symbol, an image, and while he is not adored on the level these others have been, nor for even remotely the same reasons, he has a responsibility to this fans and to himself, to be the sort of human being he seems to be. But Toulouse-Lautrec once ventured, "One should never meet a man whose work one admires, the man is always so much less than the work."

And so behind the facade of actor and personality, lies the truth of Leonard Nimoy. Unless a fan is willing to separate the shadow from the reality, the man from the image, the adulation is empty, witless and adolescent.

And to thus separate image from substance, one must understand that when Leonard Nimoy stands before the camera, begins to interact with the others in a script, he does not stand alone. He has not sprung full-blown from the forehead of the television industry like Athena from the forehead of Zeus.

He has received a script, and he has received direction, and he has been made-up, and he has been costumed, and if he fights he has taken fencing lessons, and all of it is backed by his lean years learning his craft.
One of Len's most eloquent fans made (what was to her) a marginal error. She credited a script I had written for STAR TREK to someone else. When the error was pointed out to her at first, she found it somewhat incomprehensible that I should take severe umbrage. Later, when the underlying emotions and precedents of the situation were explicated, she understood. And she asked that these words be set down to inform and enlighten the other Nimoy fans who might be guilty of the same error. For, you see, without the ideas and imaginations of the men and women who conceive the stories and lines Nimoy speaks--who plot those intricate and grandiloquent journeys through space and character—Leonard would be naked before the merciless eye of the television camera. It is not necessary here to enumerate the joys of having an actor of Len's capacities to speak the lines: that is understood. But adulation for the actor is to be found in abundance; at this point I speak of the writer.

I have stood on shooting sets when tourists from The Real World have come to visit, and upon being introduced as The Man Who Wrote The Show, the kindly little old lady from Poughkeepsie has smiled at me and said in a voice vaguely reminiscent of Jonathan Winters as Maudie Frickett, "Oh, do you write them words they say into the air out of their faces, too?" Yes, ma'am, I reply. I write them words, too. "And do you tell them cameras to go up and down and back off like that?" Yes, ma'am, I do all that, too. Every camera angle. "And it must be nice for you that the actress had such a good idea for this story, isn't it?" And what do you say? Do you say, you jerky little old uninformed illiterate you! What makes you think that nitwit starlet with rice pudding between her ears has the brains to have an idea about anything, much less the intricate plot of an entire story? No, you just smile wearily and say, Yes how nice it is that all those stories on all those shows are thought up by the actors.

It seems incredible to me that people can be so ill-informed as to read books and not remember the name of the author (much less the title, 90% of the time), and then to be so abysmally stupid, and so painfully smug as to pooh-pooh it with a wave of the hand and a casual, "Oh, I never bother looking at who wrote it."
It seems equally incredible to me that people who are slaves to the Idiot Box consider all those names that come on after the teaser of a television segment to be a tine-waster planned to allow them extra seconds for getting the Ritz Crackers and milk settled before they hunker down to suck up their night's entertainment. There is a reason for the WRITTEN BY credit at the beginning or end of a show. It is there to say to all of you, this man labored out of the maelstrom of his own imagination to form a coherent story that would pleasure you.

Much better if trumpets sounded, and gongs were struck, and the music of sackbut, lyre and dulcimer drew the beady eyes and beetle-brows of most TV viewers from their inattention, and proclaimed:

The writer in the core of the television industry. Without hie ingenuity ind his expertise, all the hardsell producers and all the clever-eyed directors and all the great strutting and fretting actors would be called upon to muddle up their own lines and stories. And we have only to look around the scene to see how well they do at the task. I can only think of two actors who have any real talent as writers: Peter Ustinov and Robert Shaw. All the others trick themselves up with hackneyed situations and think they have devised a story. Then they call in a real writer and say, "Here, all you have to do is develop this." Sure, Charlie. All the writer has to do is insert motivation, logic, characterization, tension, consistency, social impact, conscience, pace, progression, humor, internal rationale and a million other unnameable things it took him years of banging a typewriter to understand even by feel. And the actor thinks he has given the writer merely a "clean-up" job.

Let him tackle a novel if he thinks it is that easy.

So, we come to a conclusion, and the tone of bitterness has been allowed to creep in despite efforts to bury it. Not bitterness at Nimoy, nor at the lady fan who made the original error, but at the entire corrupt system that lobbies in favor of inattention and stupidity on the part of the Great Mass of Watchers. Bitterness that there is not a modicum of generosity and appreciation in the hearts and minds of those who spend endless hours before The Tube, to honor the men who dream the expert dreams.

For that's all Art truly is: dreams.

The more perfectly the dreams are devised by the dreamers...the more closely the work approaches Art. It is unfortunate that in television the dream must be manhandled by so many intermediaries before it passes the distance between the mind of the creator to the mind of the viewer.

But it is a simple matter to correct.

Watch the credits.

Understand that WRITTEN BY precedes the name of the man who sat long hours alone and concerned, to create a dream for an actor of Leonard Nimoy's stature to work with. And remember the names of the writers who have done their work well. Honor them. And when the writers have been bad, then condemn them. For a man who mutilates his craft is less than dirt. He is a traitor to all the holy chores Man has even been entrusted with...

And for me, the holiest chore of all is writing.

Fan Comments


  1. ^ Possibly a reference to Jacqueline Susann as this is similar to the sarcasm and contempt he repeatedly expressed about her at the time this article was written.