Star Trek: I’m a doctor, not a lookalike

Martin's still reeling from yesterday's Star Trek footage, but very glad to see his favourite Trek character done such justice…

Doctor McCoy

One of the great pleasures of attending yesterday’s screening of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek scenes was the chance to see how my favourite Trek character was rendered in this ‘pre-boot’.

Having seen some of the reaction to both our own piece and those of some of the others who attended, I come to realise that I am very much a casual Star Trek fan, much as I may feel enthusiasm for the franchise: comment threads have been burning with Trek-maniacs threatening to commit hari-kari because Abrams might be dicking with the canon a bit by having Kirk join Starfleet after Uhura, and other such inventions which – on the basis of what I have seen – are perfectly acceptable adjustments of canon to serve a good story.

Therefore I claim – by comparison – only the broadest understanding of the ‘starry trinity’ of Kirk/Spock/McCoy, wherein I am given to understand that Kirk is man’s courage, Spock his reason and Doctor McCoy his heart. We’re meant to admire Kirk and want to be him; we’re meant to admire Spock’s superior intellect but fear his remoteness; but McCoy is us, our entry into this strange future world, asking a whole bunch of expository questions in his part-civilian capacity that no military officer would need to. He’s a privileged guardian of the inner circle, but – with the capacity to de-throne the captain – he’s also a moral watchdog and a valuable second opinion, even in non-medical matters; and, frequently, he’s impulsive old Kirk’s conscience.

Additionally McCoy is a loveable old curmudgeon who’s only out there gadding about in the transporters that he hates so dearly because he combines the curiosity of a scientist with the compassion of a GP, and he knows he’s needed.

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An old Southern gentlemen at heart, Bones (from my Brit point of view) is a kind of American Peter Cushing. There was no evidence of it in the scenes I saw, but if Karl Urban’s McCoy starts grabbing Uhura’s knockers and making blowjob jokes (as Chris Pine does playing Kirk), the whole deal’s off – McCoy is the responsible one; he can’t afford Kirk’s ambition-fuelled impetuosity and doesn’t suffer from Spock’s split lineage/personality. Even Scotty’s engineering miracles fail occasionally, but if you can’t rely on Doctor McCoy, I don’t know what the galaxy is coming to…

So having already praised Karl Urban’s take on the role, I just wanted to add how pleased I was yesterday to see so much of DeForest Kelley in his interpretation of Bones. Urban’s not a bad match, facially (though there is a better one), but he has made a big effort to recall McCoy’s gruff voice, mobile eyebrow and incessant moaning (always happily followed by practical, useful action). The way he helps a disgraced Kirk to get on board the Enterprise shows that he really likes the guy, but also that he feels this firebrand is going to come a cropper without someone to watch out for him.

A director who is taking on legacy material needs a certain amount of freedom to make a new good story work – the same freedom Bryan Singer failed to exploit in the over-reverential Superman Returns. Therefore I’m glad that Abrams has generally cast actors who are similar physical types to the TOS originals without trying for absurd mimicry. The only other cast member besides Urban to really have a go at adopting the practical essence of their   predecessors is Anton Yelchin, who goes to great lengths to imitate Walter Koenig’s often entirely unconvincing Russian brogue, and it must be said that he performs a brilliant balancing act between the imitation of a legendarily ropey performance and a movie-quality interpretation of the character.

Zoë Saldana conveys the tough, seen-it-all-before mien of Nichelle Nichols, but is so regularly undermined by a horny Kirk (in the scenes shown to   us) as to potentially be a weaker and more-exploited character than the original. This is something new to the franchise, and not terribly welcome. The problem is that Uhura is the only gal among the original templates, and blockbuster movies need some sexual tension, it seems. In the TV series, this was handled by a stream of alien lasses who wanted to know what ‘kiss’ is, and by guest love-interests such as Catherine Hicks in The Voyage Home or Persis Khambatta in TMP. Here, Abrams is trying to keep untried interlopers out of the classic dynamics between the original characters.

We didn’t really see enough of John Cho’s Sulu to draw any comparisons with George Takei, and the suitable emotional distance of Zachary Quinto’s Spock seems to be mirrored in how peripheral Young Spock was in the scenes that we saw. After all, Uhura’s not on the bridge yet, and McCoy isn’t quite the important figure that he will become in Star Trek; Spock, however, is already second-in-command to Captain Pike, and not mixing too much with these fresh-faced graduates.

There’s no evidence of Shatner-ism in Pine’s performance – he’s been chosen for his alpha-male energy, and he doesn’t do that. Pausing. Thing. Either.

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Simon Pegg’s Mr. Scott is Scotty in personality only – Pegg was cast because he’s a popular actor with good comic timing and equable gravity. He bears no resemblance to the late James Doohan and little has been foisted upon him; to boot, his Scottish accent is a lot better than Doohan’s. Pegg explained to yesterday’s gathering how much he revered the character and the actor who originally played him, and he does both proud.

So it’s right that Star Trek should be respectful of the past, yet forward-looking. I’m just glad that the one bit of mimicry seriously being attempted – and pulled off so brilliantly – is my favourite Star Trek character, and that there’s a solid actor behind it, who seems to be doing justice to a great role.

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