DeFlip Side #68: Scotty’s Final Flight

DS68.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

It is perhaps Star Trek’s most poignant moment: Spock’s funeral, and burial in space, his photon tube streaking away from the Enterprise accompanied by strains of Amazing Grace, as played by Scotty on the bagpipes.

Well, in a case of life imitating art, the remains of the real-life Scotty, James Doohan, were blasted into space last weekend from a launch site in New Mexico.

Doohan’s ashes accompanied those of Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper and Star Trek Original Series writer-producer John Meredyth Lucas, as well as some 200 others, aboard a rocket dubbed the Legacy Flight, sent up by a private company that specializes in memorial space flights. In so doing, Doohan has followed in the trajectory of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, whose remains went skyward in 1997.

Also carrying on the tradition was John Meredyth Lucas, whose writing credits include the Star Trek Original Series episodes “That Which Survives,” and two of my favorites: “Elaan of Troyius,” which features high points in both Kirk’s misogyny and Shatner’s overacting, and “Patterns of Force,” better remembered as Nazi Planet.

But it’s especially ironic that Lucas accompanied Doohan on this postmortem flight, since he was the one who first killed Scotty way back in 1967, when he wrote the Original Series episode “The Changeling.” It’s the one where the Enterprise finds the lost Earth probe Nomad, which has become an augmented machine intelligence intent on finding its creator. (Can anyone say Star Trek: The Motion Picture?) Once aboard the Enterprise, Nomad kills Scotty for being imperfect. The probe, of course, resurrects the Chief Engineer, one-two-three, no overly-elaborate funeral-slash-rebirth sequences needed. Take that Spock!

Still this does not give Scotty the distinction of being the first Enterprise crew member to die and be resurrected. That honor goes to McCoy, who bought it in the Original Series episode “Shore Leave,” and was brought back to life with equally little fuss. And in another case of life imitating art—this one decidedly creepy—the original series actors are dying in the same order as their fictional counterparts. First DeForest Kelley; now Doohan. Nimoy had better start watching his back.

Yet it wasn’t his errant death that defined Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, but rather his exuberant love of life, something that came through whenever Doohan was allowed to have his character do more than crawl around in Jefferies tubes and get drunk.

It is especially evident in “The Trouble with Tribbles,” one of the few Original Series episodes that realized the potential of the full ensemble cast. It was also the episode that established Scotty’s deep devotion to the Enterprise. Kirk may have represented the Enterprise’s soul, but Scotty was her heart. And while this is one of the central dynamics underlying the Trek mythos, it was never really intended, as Doohan explains in this interview:

“I had one line in the pilot. So the engineer wasn’t very much, you know? But they finally found out that the engineer was a very important person. I mean, I’ve had scientists from all over the world tell me that, ‘How could Gene Roddenberry not have thought that an engineer was vital to a space ship?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t know.’ But hey. I did become valuable to the space ship. And I know very well that it’s not only valuable in that way, but it’s also valuable to the editor. He had someplace to cut to (laughs) okay?”

His self-deprecating humor aside, I’d say the discovery and subsequent evolution of the value of the chief engineer was due entirely to Doohan’s acting flair and likability. Without him, Scotty would have been nothing more than a slightly glorified redshirt.

And Doohan’s lasting contributions to Trek weren’t limited to his on-screen persona. He was crazy about languages and doing voices, and he was the one who developed the Vulcan and Klingon languages, as both were heard for the first time in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Mark Okrand would later expand on Doohan’s initial stab at Klingonese, and turn it into a full-fledged language.

Doohan also did voice work, some credited, some not, for around twenty episodes of the Original and Animated Series, including the voice of the U.S.S. Enterprise’s first captain, Robert April.

This penchant for voices isn’t surprising when you consider that before he landed the role of Scotty, Doohan made appearances on more than 4,000 radio shows. He was a fixture on the airwaves long before becoming a fixture in outer space.

But James Doohan was apparently destined to become inextricably linked to the stars, even in death. He died on July 20, 2005, the 36th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. And last weekend’s memorial flight further honors that connection.

Unfortunately, the final frontier won’t be Scotty’s true final resting place. The Legacy Flight is a small rocket, designed to achieve a sub-orbital trajectory and then parachute back to Earth. Doohan’s remains were recovered and returned to his family. But he and everyone else on the flight have achieved symbolic astronaut status. Which is a fitting tribute to a man whose symbolic role as an astronaut inspired millions to try and go where no man has gone before.

Rest in peace, Mr. Doohan.

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