This week on the Star Trek Into Darkness Countdown, we're all still reeling from William Shatner’s surprise return as Captain Kirk this past Sunday night at the Oscars. And, I’m sure more than a few of you noticed that when Chris Pine and Zoe Saldana were introduced, they used the wrong Star Trek theme song.
Oh well. They’ll never understand like we will.
What we can all understand is the love we share for the characters featured in the voyages of the USS Enterprise, so I thought it might be fun to pick one out and do a bit of a profile on them: as they were then, and as they are now. We'll start with the randomly selected...
“All I got left is my Bones…”
Dr. Leonard H. McCoy
. The irascible, yet extremely effective country doctor is one of the most identifiable characters in the entire Star Trek
universe, and is also the first true example of the sci-fi doctor that was able to hit such a resonant in practically every single one of his appearances. Other sci-fi doctors, though different, really owe a debt to Dr. McCoy as one of the first really great examples of what a character in his position can add to a story.
Regardless of the timeline or the appearance, in many ways Dr. McCoy works really well for the Star Trek
universe in a very similar way to what made Han Solo such a great character in the Star Wars
universe: though inhabiting that fantastical vision of a spacefaring human race, McCoy, like Solo, always seemed to have a slightly greater distance from the mythology than even the more Solo-like Captain Kirk. In several episodes of the original series, and even in one of the films, McCoy lacks a particular familiarity with alien anatomy and even applies a normative value to differences between aliens and humans (“Your blood pressure is practically nonexistent, assuming you call that green stuff in your veins blood…
Beyond some hilarious aversions toward Vulcans and Klingons, though, Dr. McCoy is a very good man at his heart. In later series we find out that McCoy innovated many practices that would be commonplace for the medical professionals of the next century. His medical expertise would help make up the Emergency Medical Hologram
of the late 24th century, in addition to McCoy’s greatly expanded life due to his inventions of artificial organs that even allow a 137-year-old McCoy to tour the USS Enterprise
-D in the pilot episode of The Next Generation
(those inventions may not exactly
be canon, but how else would you explain it?!).
DeForest Kelley: Classic Cowboy Turned Intergalactic “Country Doctor”
Much of the reason McCoy is such a beloved character in the wide pantheon of cinematic sci-fi is because of the uniqueness and impeccable dramatic skill of DeForest Kelley
. Kelley, who got his start in B pictures and Westerns, always had an undeniable earnestness and straight-faced attitude when playing McCoy. The emotion brought forth from his performances is a very significant component of what makes the character dynamics of the original series work so well. With Spock’s cold logic on one side of Captain Kirk and McCoy’s unfettered passion on the other, it gave great character moments for all three, helped define the triumvirate of that show, and, by extension, the entire franchise. That unique three-way dynamic of those characters has seen many attempts at duplication (including in later Star Trek
series), but rarely have they succeeded as well as the original series has.
Unlike what might be hinted at by the cantankerous portrayals of his character, Kelley was also a firm believer in the strength of the writing and the ideas put forth by Gene Roddenberry and the original cadre of writers. In an appearance on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow in 1976, Kelley went head-to-head with outspoken sci-fi author Harlan Ellison (who worked on the original series and the first film for a time) about the strength of the show’s writing, even calling each script he received a “challenge” as an actor. Watching Kelley give some insight into his part for that show is pretty enlightening, and can be found in the below video at around the four-minute mark.
Kelley’s importance to the success of Star Trek absolutely cannot be understated. He helped make the show the legend that it stands as today. So, when news came of a new Star Trek film revisiting the original crew with new actors, obvious doubts began to spring up in the minds of a lot of established fans, myself included.
Karl Urban Brings the Alternate Reality to Dr. McCoy
Now, as I’m sure a lot of original Star Trek
fans felt, I was virtually certain that I would completely dislike anyone cast in this role for the 2009 film. You’re going to try and have someone fill the shoes of DeForest Kelley?! Inconceivable!
When I heard Karl Urban
’s name floated as being attached to, then cast in the role soon after the story broke, I was surprised and felt even more assured in my opinion.
Then, like all sanctimonious fanboys eventually have to do, I bowed to the reality. Without taking anything away from the stellar actors and actresses featured in the 2009 film, Urban was the absolute best part of the cast. Probably more than any other actor or character in the 2009 film, Urban absolutely channeled Kelley while also giving McCoy a slightly harder edge appropriate to the new setting for the classic characters.
Not only has Urban managed to capture the character of McCoy and bring him into 21st-century sci-fi, but he also did it with a great deal of reverence. In a 2009 interview with About.com
, Urban detailed his love of the original Star Trek
series, with even Zachary Quinto jumping in for good measure to solidify his credibility as a fan.
Karl, were you a fan of the original series? When you look back at the old shows, how did you find that rhythm to play him?
Karl Urban: "Yes, I would define myself as a long time fan of the original series. I watched it as a boy, religiously, every Saturday morning. About two years before I found out that they were making this new Star Trek, I bought the entire DVD box set and watched it with my son. So, you know, sort of about the time that they started casting, I didn’t necessarily need to go back and study up. I felt that I knew the characters and the archetypes and the relationships really, really well. And so, for me, I feel a little bit like one of the lunatics that gets to drive the bus in the asylum. So, it was a wonderful experience."
Zachary Quinto: "If I may just follow up on that. Karl actually stole his son’s model Enterprise and carried it with him on tour."
Karl Urban: "I did."
Zachary Quinto: "He didn’t steal it, but he did have it with him."
Karl Urban: "And it broke so I need to get a new one. But, it was mine. It was my Star Trek toy when I was a kid and I took it around to all these locations around the world that we went to and we put it in photographs with all the cast members… You had to be there."
I'm of the mind that only a great actor that also happened to be a fan of the original material could have brought McCoy to life the way Urban did, and likely how he will again this May. In the 2009 film, we saw some great indicators at McCoy’s past that applies to both the past and current iterations of the character, as well as some great hints at what’s to come in the “alternate reality” created by Nero’s incursion. In the prologue released before IMAX screenings of The Hobbit, the banter between McCoy and Kirk is alive and well, and McCoy’s role looks to be just as, if not greater, than it was in this crew’s first outing.
So, this is the salute from the Star Trek Into Darkness Countdown to DeForest Kelly, Karl Urban and the character that brings them together, Dr. Leonard McCoy. While McCoy wasn’t known for a great deal of truly poignant and elegant summaries of the entire Star Trek experience, he did leave one which is forever embedded in the minds of Trek fans everywhere:
“Well it's a new ship… but she's got the right name. Now you remember that, you hear? ...You treat her like a lady, and she'll always bring you home."