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.

So "Beam me up, Scotty" can help your marriage or destroy it. You could wind up celebrating your anniversary dancing with your beloved to "Beam Me Up, Scotty," by Tom Rush, or nursing the blues in that bar outside Area 51 staring into the bottom of your fifth Beam Me Up, Scotty. "This phrase works in almost any situation," Dave Marinaccio writes in All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Watching Star Trek.

For example: You've forgotten your spouse's anniversary. At the moment your spouse discovers your blunder, you simply say, 'Beam me up, Scotty'… 'Beam me up, Scotty' is just a way of saying the world is beyond my control."

Marinaccio argues that it's a pithier version of "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change …" and a less vulgar and stupid version of "Sh*t happens"—though this suggests a degree of fatalistic acceptance one would not associate with, say, the expelled Representative James Traficant's frequent congressional deployments of the term:

"Mr. Speaker, today Congress will debate two bills. The first bill is partial-birth abortions. The second bill is wildlife and sport-fish restoration. Unbelievable. Kill the babies but save the trout and the titmouse. Beam me up. In fact, beam me up, Scotty."
"Think about it. While sixty percent of taxpayer calls to the IRS go unanswered, the IRS agents were watching Marilyn Chambers do the Rotary International. Beam me up here. It is time to pass a flat fifteen percent sales tax and abolish this gambling, porno-watching IRS completely."

With the Congressional Record awash in "Beam me up, Scotty's," somebody eventually decided it was time for Star Trek to belatedly put the famous words in Captain Kirk's mouth. So after the best part of a quarter century he delivered them to his engineer in the fourth Star Trek movie. By then Scotty felt about Kirk the way Jim Traficant felt about IRS porn junkies. Jim Doohan never cared for William Shatner, the ranking Canadian on the bridge of the Enterprise, and would gladly have beamed him out for good. He was unable to flip Shatner the finger, because his middle digit had been shot off in the war, but he metaphorically gave it to him at every opportunity. At fan conventions Shatner would be backstage bemoaning the obsessiveness of Trekkies/Trekkers while Jimmy would be onstage cheerfully doing shtick at Shatner's expense. For instance, he'd attempt to beam Kirk up but only Kirk's toupee would materialize. Doohan aged better than most of the crew: in the nineties, avuncular, moustachioed, burly, and bleary, he looked more like a Scotty than he had in the sixties. Unlike many of his colleagues, he was at ease with the very precise niche celebrity that Star Trek had brought him. It was a life, though far from the one he'd once known.

Conceived in Ireland and born in Vancouver, Doohan spent his childhood in Sarnia, Ontario, where his father was a dentist, a veterinarian, and an abusive drunk. After high school Jimmy enlisted in the Royal Canadian Artillery, and on D-Day he scrambled ashore at Juno Beach. He took eight bullets that day—four in the leg; three in the hand, costing him his finger; and one in the chest, which was stopped by a silver cigarette case—after which he spent the rest of the war with the Royal Canadian Air Force. As a result of D-Day they had to get a body double in for finger close-ups in Star Trek; but then again, it was a Scots officer who first gave him prolonged exposure to the accent that would make his fortune.

So an Irishman who fought with the Canadians against the Germans became a Scotsman who fought with the Americans against the Klingons. Doohan helped invent the Klingon language, and he got more credit for it than most kilted purists were willing to give him for his Scottyisms—"Have a bonny trip!", "That'll put the haggis in the fire," and other innovations yet to pass the lips of any pure-blooded haggis eater. But the obvious criticism of Star Trek is that its intergalactic lingo was too unchanged: in the episode in which Scotty makes his debut, another crew member lies in the sick bay and complains that Kirk is making him read all this "longhair" stuff. It seemed unlikely even then that "longhair" would have survived the centuries as a synonym for "intellectual," and Scotty's neologisms at least have the merit of being potentially spoken in the distant future.

Come to think of it, they're being spoken now. Last year a fellow in Florida sent me an e-mail about Iran's nuclear program with the subject header "That'll put the haggis in the fire." Indeed, as the years went by, James Montgomery Doohan's fake Scots engineer became more real than most Scots and most engineers could ever hope to be. Awarded an honorary doctorate by the Milwaukee School of Engineering, he was amazed to discover that in a poll many of its students claimed to have been drawn to the field by Scotty's TV adventures.

Meanwhile, in memory of Doohan, the West Lothian Council wants to erect a plaque in Scotty's home town of Linlithgow—the first time a memorial has been put up in someone's birthplace 217 years before he was born. If, indeed, Scotty was born in Linlithgow. The Aberdeen councilor Pamela MacDonald claims he was born in her town, on Constitution Street, and the Elgin councilor Keith Sands and Lesley Hinds, the lord provost of Edinburgh, have staked claims on behalf of their own municipalities. While Doohan's ashes are to be fired into space and scattered among the stars, poor Scotty remains unbeamed and ensnared by the surly bonds of earthbound jurisdictions.

A beamer by nature as well as by trade, James Doohan was an easygoing working thesp content to be known as the all-time great beam-movie actor. There's a Star Trek convention somewhere or other every weekend, which means we'll be hearing "Beam me up, Scotty" on Earth for some decades yet. And as radio waves go on eternally bouncing around in space, hither and yon, right now in some distant galaxy some 1967 crew member is demanding that "Mr. Scott" (Captain Kirk's preferred formulation) beam him up, to the bemusement of any aliens within earshot. It's just a phrase; no author crafted it; but it growed like Topsy, and the man to whom it's addressed will be beaming forever in reruns and among the stars. Play it again, Scotty.