Whenever tense situations arose during the U.S.S. Enterprise’s missions, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy never hesitated to voice his opinion, underline his expertise, and emphasize the fields in which he did not specialize. The chief surgeon’s signature “I’m a doctor, not a…” catchphrase (as well as its variants) became a staple for DeForest Kelley on Star Trek: The Original Series, with Karl Urban continuing the tradition throughout the three Kelvin Timeline films.
Ranging from direct statements to humorous declarations, these legendary lines reflected the predicaments faced by the Enterprise crew in the particular episodes and movies in which they were spoken. Let’s look back on McCoy’s memorable remarks and examine their place in the Star Trek pantheon.
“I'm a doctor, not a coal miner.” – “The Empath”
After arriving on Minara II to evacuate a research station, an away team consisting of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy suddenly found itself transported to an underground cavern over 100 meters below the surface. Trapped by beings known as the Vians, Spock managed to acquire an alien device that he hoped to analyze so that it could be used to beam them back to the surface. As the science officer worked, McCoy became anxious about their foes stumbling upon their plans and expressed his uneasiness about being imprisoned underground. When the doctor stated that being so deep within a planet was unnatural, Spock pointed out that many beings spend extended periods of time laboring in mines. Dissatisfied with the Vulcan’s explanation, McCoy replied with his coal miner quip.
“I'm not a magician, Spock, just an old country doctor.” – “The Deadly Years”
During the annual check-in with a science expedition on Gamma Hydra IV, Kirk and his crew discovered that most of the scientists had passed away due to the sudden onset of rapid aging. Back on the Enterprise, the same affliction began to overtake the officers who had visited the planet, with the exception of Ensign Chekov. While affected to a lesser extent, even Mr. Spock felt mild symptoms, such as chills and decreased eyesight, consistent with Vulcans over a century old. As Spock’s condition progressed, the science officer experienced additional discomfort with the temperature and asked the doctor if anything could be done to correct it. Unable to supply a cure, McCoy offered up his “old country doctor” response.
“I'm a doctor, not a–” – Star Trek Beyond
Switching over to the Kelvin Timeline, the U.S.S. Franklin pursued Krall and his swarm of drone ships in an effort to prevent the former Starfleet captain from attacking Starbase Yorktown and deploying a weapon that would wipe out the station’s entire population. Hoping to discover a way to disrupt the signal coordinating the drone fleet by beaming onto one of Krall’s ships, Spock became dismayed when Kirk hesitated to sanction the attempt due to the severe wound the science officer had suffered on Altamid. Since McCoy was familiar with the Vulcan’s injury and previously flew in a swarm ship, Spock “volunteered” the doctor for the excursion. The decision aggravated McCoy, who expressed his displeasure as Scotty beamed him away. We can only assume that the doctor would have completed his sentence with a colorful metaphor.
“I'm a doctor, not a mechanic.” – “The Doomsday Machine”
With several solar systems in the local sector completely destroyed, the Enterprise found its sister ship U.S.S. Constellation damaged and adrift. Kirk located Commodore Decker alone on the abandoned vessel, and the senior officer described a massive ship that broke planets into rubble. Upon further investigation, Spock deduced that the craft was an automated weapon headed into the most densely populated portion of the galaxy. When Kirk asked McCoy if he had ever heard of a doomsday machine, the doctor stressed that he lacked a mechanic’s credentials. This exchange led Kirk to describe the object they faced as a weapon that was never meant to be used, but one that had nonetheless been unleashed.
“I'm a doctor, not a physicist!” – Star Trek (2009)
Having employed red matter to eradicate Vulcan, Nero set course for Earth so that the Narada could commit the same atrocity against the Federation’s primary seat of power. The Romulan miner held Captain Pike captive in order to pressure the Starfleet officer for information about Earth’s defenses, so Spock assumed temporary command of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Discussing the Narada’s superior weaponry, McCoy asked where the Romulans could procure those advanced systems. Spock theorized that such technology could also be used to create a tunnel through spacetime, indicating that the Romulans were from the future. The doctor’s frustration boiled over at this surprising revelation, prompting his response about his unfamiliarity with physics.
“I'm a doctor, not a torpedo technician!” – Star Trek Into Darkness
Following an expedition to retrieve John Harrison (actually Khan Noonien Singh) that required the Enterprise to violate Klingon space, an act of sabotage left the Federation starship stuck in enemy territory. While examining one of the experimental torpedoes provided to the Enterprise by Admiral Marcus, McCoy and Dr. Carol Marcus (portrayed by Alice Eve) accidentally activated the device. Later, after Khan had assumed control over the U.S.S. Vengeance and threatened the Enterprise, Spock devised an ingenious solution to turn the tide against the Augment. Once the science officer asked if McCoy could repeat the activation process, the bewildered doctor questioned why and declared that such engineering skills did not typically fall under his purview.
“I'm a surgeon, not a psychiatrist.” – “The City on the Edge of Forever”
Delirious from a cordrazine injection, McCoy traveled through the Guardian of Forever’s portal and landed in the 1930s. Taken in by Edith Keeler, McCoy awoke feeling a bit confused at his predicament. Unbeknownst to the doctor, Keeler had also established friendships with Kirk and Spock, who had ventured back through time to find their comrade. Noting McCoy’s unique way of speaking about Earth, Keeler suggested that he might like to meet two gentlemen she knew who spoke in a similar fashion. Still coming to grips with his own situation, the doctor turned down the request with a variation of his “I’m a doctor, not a...” line.
“I'm a doctor, not an engineer.” – “Mirror, Mirror”
Brought to the Mirror Universe by a transporter malfunction, Kirk, McCoy, Uhura, and Scotty sought a way to return home. Consulting with the Mirror Enterprise’s computer, Kirk learned that the procedure could be reversed and requested that Scotty make preparations. Unable to handle the task himself, Scotty turned to McCoy for help. When the doctor objected by claiming not to be an engineer, the Scotsman humorously replied, “Now you’re an engineer.”
“I don't need a doctor, damn it, I am a doctor!” – Star Trek (2009)
Although this quote doesn’t follow the typical “I’m a doctor, not a...” formula, it served as the perfect way to introduce Dr. McCoy in the first Kelvin Timeline film. As James T. Kirk had finally decided to enlist in Starfleet and found a seat on a shuttle, the young man overheard his future best friend arguing with an officer who suggested that McCoy needed to see a doctor. McCoy’s hilarious response superbly captured the essence of Prime McCoy, as well as the doctor’s unique phobia regarding space travel. Of course, once McCoy met Kirk, history was made.
“I'm a doctor, not an escalator!” – “Friday's Child”
In search of a mining agreement with Capella IV, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy instead found themselves on the run from Capellans, who had overthrown their previous leader, Akaar. Pursued through the hillside, the officers were accompanied by Akaar’s pregnant wife Eleen. Although gruff toward outsiders, Eleen established a bond with the doctor as they fled their pursuers. When McCoy requested assistance with aiding Eleen across the rocky terrain, the Capellan woman declared that she only wanted the doctor’s help. McCoy immediately shot down this notion with his witty escalator comment, but ultimately ended up respecting Eleen’s wishes.
“I'm a doctor, not a bricklayer.” – “The Devil in the Dark”
On the hunt for a creature that had killed miners on Janus VI, Kirk and Spock cornered and wounded their prey in a subterranean cavern, but they soon realized that the lifeform was sentient. As Spock melded with the being known as a Horta, Kirk ordered McCoy to attempt to treat the Horta’s injury. Arguing that the lifeform was practically made out of stone, the doctor offered up his comically memorable retort which underscored the fact that he was not a bricklayer. Kirk stood firm with his command, and the resourceful chief surgeon cured the Horta by applying a silicone-based concrete that Starfleet utilized to build emergency shelters.
This article was originally published on April 19, 2021.
Jay Stobie (he/him) is a freelance writer and consultant who has contributed articles to StarTrek.com, Star Trek Explorer, and Star Trek Magazine, as well as to Star Wars Insider and StarWars.com. Jay can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @StobiesGalaxy.