Post Mortem October 2005

Great Scott

James Montgomery Doohan (1920—2005)

Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have great catchphrases said to them. James Montgomery Doohan is an honorary member of that last category. He was the guy who spent four decades on the receiving end of the request "Beam me up, Scotty"—if not on TV, where no character on Star Trek ever actually uttered those words, at least in real life, where fans would cheerfully bark the injunction across crowded airport concourses in distant lands, and rush-hour drivers would lurch across four lanes of freeway traffic to yell it out the window at him. Elvis is said to have greeted him with the phrase, and Groucho, too. There are novels called that, and cocktails. On Highway 375 to Area 51, in Nevada, you can stop at the Little A-Le-Inn and wash down your Alien Burger with a Beam Me Up, Scotty (Jim Beam, 7UP, and Scotch).

It wasn't supposed to be the catchphrase from the show; that honor was reserved for Gene Roddenberry's portentous, sonorous, orotund grandiosity—the space-the-final-frontier, boldly-going-where-no-man's-gone-before stuff. The beaming was neither here nor there; it was a colloquialism for matter-energy transit or teleportation—or, more to the point, a way of getting from the inside of the spaceship to the set of a planet without having to do a lot of expensive exterior shots in which you've got to show the USS Enterprise landing and Kirk, Spock, et al. disembarking. Instead the crew would position themselves in what looked vaguely like a top-of-the-line shower and order Scotty to make with the beaming; next thing you knew, they would be standing beside some polystyrene rocks in front of a backcloth whose colors were the only way of telling this week's planet from last week's. "Beaming" was the special effect—the one that saved Star Trek from having to have any others.

Like all authentic pop-culture moments, the phrase was a happy accident. In September of 1966, in the first episode broadcast, they beamed without benefit of Scotty. He showed up in the third, beaming up a destroyed starship's "space recorder"—that is, a trash can on legs. Would a beam by any other name—Bud, Nigel, Paddy, Miguel—have smelled as sweet? James Doohan was a Canadian of Irish stock, and as an old CBC radio actor he had a score of accents on tap. Which, he asked Gene Roddenberry, would they like? They left it to him, and because the character was an engineer and the Scots were the great engineers of the British Empire and certainly of Canada, he chose to make his character Scottish and give Mr. Scott his own middle name—Montgomery. A minor character somehow evolved into the de facto No. 3 on the Enterprise's crew; and as the man responsible for nursing the spaceship through whatever cockamamie scheme Captain Kirk was minded to put into action, Scotty over time became the guardian and spirit of the Enterprise itself. "I cannae change the laws of physics for you!" he would protest, before gamely giving it a go.

Star Trek has famously devoted fans—Trekkies or Trekkers. If memory serves, the latter is the preferred term, though the former is the title of Roger Nygard's full-length documentary on the phenomenon. But "Beam me up" long ago beamed itself off the Enterprise and into the wider world. As great never-spoken screen dialogue goes, it's rivaled only by "Play it again, Sam"—and even "Play it again" hasn't ever demonstrated quite the versatility of its rival. In Every Man's Battle: Winning the War on Sexual Temptation One Victory at a Time, Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoeker suggest the phrase as a useful way to keep male appetites in check: if your wife were suddenly "beamed" up into your motel room, would she approve of what you're doing? Something to ponder before you buy the gal in the lobby bar that second margarita—or even press the "order" button on the adult-video channel.

On the other hand, Howard Markman, Ph.D., the head of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, uses "Beam me up, Scotty" as shorthand for a classically uncommunicative male attitude toward spousal conflict. Weary of his wife's incessant nagging, the husband rolls his eyes heavenward and murmurs, "Get me outta here, somebody." The "Beam me up" approach will only make the wife even more enraged.

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Mark Steyn is a columnist for Britain's Telegraph Group, the Chicago Sun-Times, and other publications.

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