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One Trek Mind #59: Bones' Best Banter

One Trek Mind #59: Bones' Best Banter

Star Trek's future technology shows how replicators can create virtually anything out of reconstituted matter, but there's something that no advanced computational array could ever reproduce: the grumblings and grouses of a fundamentally good-natured grump.Dr. Leonard H. “Bones” McCoy, the old country doctor with a near-fanatical dedication to his Hippocratic Oath, was a space adventurer and a hero, but he was also a little bit of a grouch. As performed by DeForest Kelley, who would have turned 93 this week, this seemingly contradictory behavior manifested on screen in, if I may be so bold, one of the all-time great fictional characters in the history of this or any other multiverse.When Star Trek first started, Kelley had the most notable resume of any of the cast members. He'd made his mark in Westerns, and had a great turn as Burt Lancaster's brother Morgan Earp in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. While William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were certainly no slouches when it came to comedy (Spock's reaction shots, if watched in the right mood, can be uproarious) it is clear that Trek's writers knew that if they gave Kelley the good lines he'd nail 'em.Here, then, I offer my ten favorite McCoy comedy moments. If you don't like what I've picked, all I can say is “SHHHH!”10 – “In simpler language, Captain, they drafted me!”

During the long, long, (long), long first act of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, we watch as each member of the crew slowly resumes his or her post. Just before the Enterprise Refit leaves spacedock, our favorite Chief Medical Officer is begrudgingly beamed aboard. Yanked from retirement, McCoy is sporting a hippie beard and isn't too happy to be there. When Kirk prods him about his return to Starfleet, he explains, in no uncertain terms that it wasn't his idea. (He also barks at the captain when told there's a “thing” out there. “Why is any object we don't understand called a THING?”)

9 – “I'm a doctor, not a bricklayer!”

Okay, this old warhorse. Bones gave variations of the “I'm a doctor, not a _____” five different times, and if you want to broaden it to “surgeon” or “what am I a doctor or a ______?” you can really go nuts counting them all. My favorite, however, is the first. In “The Devil in The Dark” Kirk orders Bones to heal the silicon based lifeform known as the Horta. It's a blob of rock and lava and one false move and it'll kill ya! (Though exactly how, I'm not quite sure. It was always offscreen.) Bones is understandably taken aback by the request and blurts a retort that has never quite left our pop culture lexicon.8 – “If you're going to get nasty, I'm going to leave.”

Many of McCoy's best moments are against his counterpart Mr. Spock. (And vice-versa.) As Kirk's diametrically opposed advisors, the Kirk-Spock-Bones troika is, no question, the key ingredient that made the Enterprise Starfleet's premier vehicle of exploration. Deep down, Bones and Spock loved each other, but like so many great pairings they REALLY got on one another's nerves.During “Return to Tomorrow,” Kirk and McCoy are spitballing ideas to stem the trouble of that episode's time-travel misadventure. When McCoy somewhat uncharacteristically suggests retaining Captain Christopher in their time period and “retraining” him, Kirk zings him by saying “Now you're sounding like Spock.” Without missing a beat McCoy fires back with the line quoted above, but it is the WAY DeForest Kelley delivers the line that really sells it. It isn't shouted, it isn't overblown, it just slides out of his mouth in the most wry and inside-joke manner, almost like they are sharing cocktails in the back of a lounge somewhere. It's a terrific moment.7 – “Well at least I lived long enough to hear that!”

There's a big difference between being a First Officer and being in charge. (Anyone who watched Battlestar Galactica and saw how Saul Tigh fared in the center seat knows what I'm talking about.) In “The Galileo Seven” Spock's Vulcan style of leadership doesn't go over quite so well with his marooned crewman. It's a big learning experience for everyone, Spock and Bones especially. But even when it looks like there's no hope left, there's still time for one last zing.When Scotty uses Spock's line back on him (“You said a while ago there were always alternatives”) and Spock fatalistically responds that he “may have been mistaken,” Bones happily remarks that he'll at least meet his maker with the comfort of hearing Spock say he was wrong.6 – “I like them… better than I like YOU.”

Ah, “The Trouble With Tribbles.” It really does have everything. Political intrigue, action and comedy. When Spock is busy tsk-tsking the Enterprise crew for their illogical love of Tribbles, he and Dr. McCoy get into a debate about their usefulness. Then Bones just drops the bomb on him. On paper, McCoy's comment is straight-up mean and nasty, but when the old country doctor tells the First Officer how he really feels about him in compared to the little furry breeding machines he knows it'll be accepted as merely light ribbing.5 – “I should have never reconnected his mouth.”

Spock's Brain” is not the worst episode of TOS. No way. It is daffy and fun and filled with dozens of little joys. While Bones' most famous line from this oft-maligned moment in Star Trek is the horrified “his brain is gone!,” all you need to do is dig a little deeper to find some real chestnuts.After McCoy re-inserts Spock's brain into his head (don't ask) there's the usual close-of-episode banter. Even though McCoy's surgery procedure was enhanced by a spin under the “Teacher,” he's still ready to take the credit. And the blame.4 – “How can you be deaf with ears like that?!?”

If you want to get technical (and Trekkies always do) you could argue this wasn't McCoy talking. This was McCoy under the disorienting effect of holding Spock's katra.Apart from being a nice explosive moment for DeForest Kelley, I love this scene from Star Trek III: The Search For Spock because it shows that, even in the utopian future, people will still be a little taken aback by weird aliens. When McCoy tries to hire a charter to the forbidden Genesis planet and the proto-Ferengi who talks like Yoda starts shouting in the bar, it is a great moment of reality in the series that always suspends its disbelief.3 - “You really HAVE gone where no man has gone before!”

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is a nonstop freight train of comedy traveling at Warp Factor Fun. Everyone is hilarious in it, but none so more than McCoy. His trip through the hospital to rescue Chekov is one of the best things in Trek ever. Of all his lines, though, the one that did the biggest number on me when I first saw it was when he approached Spock on their return flight from Vulcan. It's something of a triple joke. He's remarking on the fact that Spock is among the few that have “died” and been reborn, but he's also winking to us that, oh, man, Spock is really acting spaced-out. And, of course, it is a direct lift from Star Trek's opening credits. (A line that would later – or do I mean earlier? - become canon from Zefram Cochrane in “Broken Bow.”)When I saw this in the theater as a kid (take that, younger readers!) the line destroyed the audience. A full-on photon torpedo shot direct from the screen. We couldn't even hear Spock's comeback. 2 – “Shut up. Shh. SHHHHH!”

Journey to Babel” is one of the juicier Spock episodes, but the ending is all Bones. With Spock, Sarek and Kirk confined to biobeds, Dr. McCoy is finally in control. As the gang all start quipping at one another, McCoy's eyes widen and his voice grows deep. Eventually, his determination to instill peace and quiet becomes non-verbal. “SHHHHHH!” With that, he gives the camera a wry little smile and says “Well, what do you know? I finally got the last word.”1 – “Who's been holding up the damn elevator?”

I bet many of you were thinking my #2 pick would be #1, but I have to be honest – this moment from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is without question my favorite. It is a complete afterthought, a goofy moment that does nothing to propel the narrative, but does wonders to express just what it must be like to share a starship with Leonard McCoy.Saavik's decision to have a heart-to-heart with Kirk on the turbolift (note, not an “elevator”) causes her to delay its travel two times. When the doors finally swipe open (and the tension is thick between the Captain and the female Vulcan) McCoy's big mug is there and – WHAM – without missing a beat he blurts out this line in all his grumpy glory.Not only is it funny, but I usually forget it is coming, and it always gets a laugh.With a character as great as DeForest Kelley's Dr. McCoy there's no question I left some great zingers off the list. What are some of your favorite Bones comedy moments?


Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on, ScreenCrush and Badass Digest. On his BLOG, Jordan has reviewed all 727 Trek episodes and films, most of the comics and some of the novels.