When Star Trek’s Spock Met PLATO

The first thing they noticed was the ears. They were just plain wrong. They seemed tiny—really, really tiny—when they were supposed to be big and pointy. That would be strike one against him: the absence of that universal trademark, his Vulcan ears. And he wasn’t wearing his regulation blue shirt, black pants, and black boots. No Federation logo in sight. No communicator, phaser, or tricorder either. And what was he doing with that scruffy beard? What was that about? It was like he’d gone AWOL. It was against regulations—and his hair! The whole image was wrong. What were those things on his face—glasses? Glasses? Gone was that distinctive, trim, straight-as-a-ruler, Federation-issue haircut so familiar to millions. Instead, this mere human’s hair was longer, scruffier, one might say, normal?

From The Friendly Orange Glow by Brian Dear. Copyright © 2017 by Brian Dear. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, a Division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

Strike two against him was the distinct whiff of alcohol that followed him around during the visit, at least that’s how many who were there at the lab that day remember it—for some of them it was the first thing that came to mind when asked about the visit decades later. “He was drunk,” says Bill Golden. “There’s no question.” Even Bitzer remembered the alcohol smell.

Spock without his Vulcan ears. A few days’ start on a beard. Smelling like booze.

It was Tuesday, May 7, 1974. Actor Leonard Nimoy was in town, on a press junket, meeting with reporters, grabbing a bite in the back room of a local restaurant (where Nimoy, more interested in talking about his serious acting, grew aloof at reporters’ incessant *Star Trek* questions—didn’t they realize the Trek series had ended five years earlier?), stopping by the television stations for even more meet-and-greets and promotional interviews, shaking hands with local dignitaries, all these hi-how-are-ya’s an effort to fill the seats for his “raunchy” (according to one newspaper review) stage performance as the rebellious lead character R. P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Little Theatre on the Square, an hour’s drive to the south in the tiny Illinois town of Sullivan. The show had just opened a few days before and was going to run for a couple of weeks. Nimoy wanted the world to know he was a serious stage actor—and what a run he was on during this time: Oliver!, Camelot, Fiddler on the Roof, The King and I, and, now, Cuckoo—but the throngs who still watched Trek reruns religiously on TV were saying: Not so fast.

And now here he was in the Construction Engineering Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois. The voice was the same. It was him. But it wasn’t. Those tiny ears! Nimoy and his entourage made their way down the first-floor hallway, past classrooms full of terminals, and then he spent a lot of time admiring the fish in CERL staffer Susan Rankaitis’s office aquarium. The entourage, led by university vice president Barry Munitz (the same Munitz largely responsible for the university administration reorganization that led to Dan Alpert’s removal as dean of the Graduate College), eventually made its way up the stairs to the fifth-floor penthouse, home of Sherwin Gooch’s music lab.

They entered an office shared by Doug Brown and David Woolley, who watched as Nimoy wryly commented on an ASCII printout (of a naked woman) taped to the wall. Connie Brown, a UI undergrad at the time, remembers Nimoy being cranky—everyone wanted the green-blooded, pointy-eared, exceptionally logical Spock, not this mere man, this actor named Leonard-something, this down-and-out, can’t-get-a-movie-deal, struggling actor who would, only a year after this visit, publish his bridge-burning autobiography entitled, fittingly, I Am Not Spock. Nimoy wasn’t giving them what they wanted.

They sat him down in a chair in front of a PLATO terminal to bask in its Orange Glow and witness the future. They showed him games, including an early version of Empire, PLATO’s multiplayer space war shoot-’em-up game with its tiny little Federation starship. Sherwin Gooch showed him how PLATO played music through his Gooch Synthetic Woodwind. Revolutionary at the time, this was a music synthesizer connected to a PLATO terminal through which one could write and play music, even view musical notes in their full graphical glory on-screen, and touch the notes and hear them played over speakers or headphones. It was inconceivable, like so much of PLATO at the time. So far ahead of a future people weren’t ready to comprehend, they often simply didn’t comprehend it.

A local newspaper photographer snapped a picture of Nimoy watching the PLATO terminal’s screen. Along the office wall rose a stack of countless crates of empty soda bottles, which the denizens of the PLATO penthouse collected until someone got around to taking them all the way downstairs to the soda machine on the first floor. Usually no one got around to taking them downstairs, and so the pile grew until it stacked up to the ceiling. The stack itself was a thing to behold now, so why mess with it?

While Gooch and the others were demoing PLATO’s music capabilities to the star, Nimoy mentioned to the onlookers that he had recorded albums of his own. The penthouse gang politely stayed mum about Nimoy’s oddball, campy album Mr. Spock’s Music from Outer Space, wherein “his serious tone and refusal to break character makes this a first-rate experiment in comedy,” according to one review. “I remember I was too embarrassed,” says Gooch. “We had the record there in the office, and he was so bad.

And then came strike three. Nimoy could not play chess.

That was the last straw. “We had heard he was a big, real-life chess fan,” says David Frankel, at the time the youngest member of the CERL systems staff. While Nimoy was seated down in front of the terminal one of the things they showed him was the PLATO chess program. No ordinary chess program, this. A marvel at the time, considering that the PLATO chess program featured a fully graphical display, replete with pictures of kings and queens, rooks, pawns, bishops, and knights, but in fact all that sizzle was nothing compared to the steak behind the scenes: PLATO’s chess was a mere front-end program, like a web browser or smartphone app of today, a client program, connected to a remote server running “Chess 4.2,” a then renowned chess program created by Larry Aikin and Dave Slate at Northwestern University that ran as a separate program on CERL’s mainframe, independent of PLATO, but connectable thanks to a programming interface they’d hacked together. This was not a toy, this was the real thing, and when it came to chess, this computer was good. And, if you were not careful, hard to beat.

But to the shock and dismay of the gathered onlookers, the ultra-logical Spock in real life knew nothing about chess. “I didn’t expect Nimoy to actually compete with the computer,” says Frankel, “but I figured he’d move a few pawns around and be amused that the computer could interpret his actions and respond. Plus our graphics were pretty sweet—most chess programs at the time were purely alphanumeric.” Nimoy’s Vulcan counterpart was celebrated as not only an expert at playing chess, but an expert at 3D chess. To discover that in real life the actor didn’t know chess at all was devastating to the gathered Trek fans. “People kept staring at his ears because they looked really, really small,” Sherwin Gooch recalls. “We had him there at the terminal, we logged him into chess, and he said, ‘Oh, I don’t know how to play chess. Everybody thinks I know how to play chess but I don’t know how to play. . . . But I know how most of the pieces move,’ and then we all of a sudden went like, uggghhhh.

“We had a tough time getting any real action out of Lenny,” recalls Frankel. “He kind of nodded at the screen and our demo was very brief. He wasn’t very talkative and he looked like shit.”

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