We talk a lot about the classic troika — Captain James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock. Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy — and how they align themselves with the classic Freudian designations of id, ego, and super-ego. (Well, maybe you don't talk about this a lot, but I do.) Still, things get interesting when pairs break away. Kirk/Spock and Kirk/Bones have a natural function; the decision-maker using logic and the decision-maker investigating his conscience. When the primary focus is away, however, well, that's when we can have a great deal of fun.
Spock/Bones spats are always a delight, and more often than not, a TOS episode will conclude with a little volley between the two as goofy music plays on the soundtrack. (I did my due diligence, the official instrument of “Spock and Bones are zinging one another” is the bassoon!)
Sometimes their interactions do get serious — their philosophical discussion about the Genesis Device in The Wrath of Khan almost crosses the line from friendly disagreement to plain old impolite — but, by and large, all Spock/Bones spats reinforce the idea that these two space-faring individuals love and need one another to keep the engines moving.
In between the Cold War intrigue and adventure in “The Trouble With Tribbles,” which might still be the best introductory episode for a TOS newbie, there is no shortage of levity. This is a story that concludes with fuzzballs bouncing off our captain's head, after all.
When Dr. McCoy and Spock are analyzing the swiftly breeding pests, Spock expresses frustration about the human desire for “soft, furry, pleasant” creatures. Suddenly, Bones announces he's made a discovery. “What is that, Doctor?” Spock asks. “I like them better than you,” he fires back, in a way that says that he's kidding but also maybe kinda not.
One Spat Beyond
The Kelvin Timeline films didn't ignore this corner of Star Trek lore, and actors Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban sank their teeth into the rivalry best in the third film, Star Trek Beyond. The Enterprise is destroyed and the crew is rolled out like dice on Altamid, a planet in the Necro Cloud nebula. Spock and Bones end up together, and engage in some bickering wherein Bones cries out, “Cut the horseshit!”
But Spock is injured. Luckily, Bones is a doctor, as he's reminded us in every timeline. He also figures yanking a piece of shrapnel (causing green blood stains) will hurt less if Spock is temporarily perplexed by a seemingly random question (“What's your favorite color?”).
Anyhow, after Spock howls in pain, he lays out one of the most-Vulcan sentences ever heard across all of Star Trek. “If I may adopt a parlance with which you are familiar, I can confirm your theory to be... horseshit.”
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is, bar none, the funniest of the Star Trek films. Its central conceit is the fish-out-of-water premise, with our heroes of the future coming to our time. (Nowadays, our past, but you get me.) With the comedy bar raised, the Spock/Bones patter had to be at Warp 10, and luckily, writers Steve Meerson, Peter Krikes, Nicholas Meyer and Harve Bennett were up to the task, as were Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley.
When the post-Fal-Tor-Pan Spock rejoins the crew, Bones tries to engage with his ol' chum, especially since he carried his katra through the whole last movie. The newly reborn Spock is all business, seemingly less able to pick up on human social cues than he ever was. “Come on, Spock, it's me!” he shouts to the stone-faced Vulcan. “You really have gone where no man has gone before,” he sighs.
Reconnected His Mouth
Some like to bury their head in the quadrotriticale, but for me, “Spock's Brain” is something to revel in, not ignore.
And it concludes in a cavalcade of weirdness. Spock's brain has been stolen and placed in some sort of vat where it can power the underground civilization of women in thigh-high boots. (Hey, it could happen.) Bones sticks his head under a futuristic hair dryer called “The Great Teacher of All The Ancient Knowledge,” and, for a time anyway, is able to conduct the complicated re-braining surgery.
When it is done (and after the crew has been through a lot of mayhem), Spock won't stop babbling about his experience. “It it all began thousands of years ago when a glacial age reoccurred...”
“I knew it was wrong, I shouldn't have done it,” Bones mutters. “What's that?” Kirk asks.
“I should never have reconnected his mouth.”
Finally Got The Last Word
There are times when others will get caught in the crossfire of a good Spock/Bones volley. Case in point, the ending of “Journey to Babel.” Kirk, Spock and Sarek are all in biobeds, with Amanda and Nurse Chapel as witnesses. And for all the verbal banter we've enjoyed, Bones falls back on an old reliable to get everyone to listen to him. “Shut up!” followed by a “Shhh” and an even more forceful “Shhhh!”
It's a great example of how sometimes less is more.
With more than 50 years of Spock and Bones bickering, I'm sure I left out some great spats. Let me know your favorites @StarTrek on all things social.
This article was originally published on February 17, 2019.
Jordan Hoffman (he/him) is writer, critic and former host of Engage: The Official Star Trek Podcast. His writing can also be read at Vanity Fair, The Guardian and Times of Israel. Bones is his favorite.