Leonard McCoy: The Mom Friend

Back in 2016, when I rewatched Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness in anticipation for the Blu-Ray/DVD release of Star Trek: Beyond, I began noticing parallels between scenes in the first two Kelvin timeline films and Beyond. Parallels that place Leonard McCoy in a critical position in both Spock and Kirk’s lives.

Of course, it’s been long established that these three characters are important to each other. The “heart, mind, soul” triumvirate has been a part of the canon since 1966. Yet, due to the events of the first of the Kelvin films, certain character dynamics have been altered. McCoy is still a critical part of the crew, but it’s not until Beyond that we’ve seen him be a critical part of Spock and Kirk’s personal lives, and he does so by filling a position left vacant by the events of the alternate timeline: parental guidance.

The Enterprise’s Captain and First Officer have gotten the short end of Fate’s stick when it comes to parental figures. Each of them have had one distant and up to three dead parental figures each, and the scenes given to Leonard McCoy in Beyond ends up taking the place of and even paralleling the scenes in Star Trek that were given to said parents.

Let’s begin with Spock.

“HOW DO YOU FEEL?”

As we’ll get to in a moment, Jim’s father is his reason for joining Starfleet, and that is a clear-running thread throughout the three Kelvin movies. A subtler thread is Spock’s reason, but it’s still very much present. For him, his motivation is his mother, Amanda Grayson.

In a critical moment in his life, when Spock must choose between a future with the Vulcan Science Academy and Starfleet, it is the snub of his mother that causes him to reject, in-turn, the Science Academy. Ultimately, his decision was based in emotion, a trait given to and cultivated in him by his mother, and it is emotion which has him continue in Starfleet even when logic dictates his departure.

When Spock attempts to leave Starfleet for the first time, he is counseled by his older counterpart, who stepped up to the role of parent to say, “Set aside logic. Do what feels right.”

The encouragement of emotion was, during the first film, explicitly tied to his mother, not just for being his human half, but also as the reason for his emotional reactions.  Amanda is the reason he breaks in front of the bullies. She and her death are the reason he breaks in front of Jim on the bridge. She’s the reason Sarek himself encourages Spock’s anger and confides his true reason for marrying her.

It could be argued that Amanda then becomes the reason he double-downs on his attempt to rid himself of emotions in Into Darkness, namely in regard to death. Here, it’s Uhura who counsels him on the need for emotion, especially in how it affects her. With the two of them in a romantic relationship, they mirror Spock’s parents – a Vulcan and a human – and Spock must do better than Sarek did with Amanda and learn to acknowledge human emotions with respect.

This push towards experiencing and respecting emotions often fell to McCoy in the original series, and while the 2009 film and Into Darkness both gave lip service to this dynamic, the doctor was never involved in the Vulcan’s emotional journey until the third film. In Beyond, McCoy is passed the duty of guiding Spock through an understanding of emotions, again in regard to death. This duty is passed to McCoy by way of witnessing Uhura and Spock’s break-up at the start of the movie, which invests the doctor in Spock’s emotional health over the course of the film.

Once again, Spock is hung up on the concept of death and doesn’t how to emotionally process it. His people are endangered, and he feels the need to help repopulate them, which puts his relationship with Uhura at risk. Spock Prime has passed, which means he has lost another parental figure for emotional guidance. So by the time he has his heart-to-heart with McCoy, he has pushed aside his emotions and has decided, logically, to leave Starfleet and return to his New Vulcan.

Like Amanda, Spock Prime, and Uhura before him, McCoy is the one to point out that Spock’s impact to the people on the Enterprise is equally important, if seemingly less logical. And it’s McCoy’s words – “I don’t know what [Jim] will do without you.” – that keep echoing with Spock. It’s a final message left by Spock Prime that seals his decision to stay in Starfleet, but it ties in with McCoy’s advice. It’s not just the end goal but also the people involved that make decisions important.

Just as McCoy is the audience’s surrogate for seeing Uhura and Spock’s relationship breaking, he is also our surrogate for seeing it restored at the end of Beyond. A nice thematic touch and quite probably a passing of duty not only back to Uhura, but to Spock himself, who is growing far faster than his Prime counterpart did in embracing his emotions.

However, Spock isn’t the only one to have hang-ups about identities and parental figures. So let’s talk James T. Kirk.

DADMIRAL PIKE

While we, the audience, do get to meet George, Jim never does. Instead, Christopher Pike ultimately becomes Jim’s father-figure throughout the first movie. When Jim meets Spock Prime on Delta Vega, Spock says the following about George Kirk: “You often cited him as your inspiration for joining Starfleet, and he proudly lived to see you become captain of the Enterprise.”

In this alternate universe, the “him” in this statement best fits Pike. It is true that George Kirk was this ultimate goal that Jim had in mind upon joining Starfleet, but Pike was the one who gave Jim that goal. Furthermore, rescuing Pike from Nero – a symbolic redemption of Jim losing George to the same man – allows Pike to proudly see himself relieved as captain of the Enterprise.

Pike has two heart-to-heart scenes with Jim in the first two films, both taking place at a bar. The conversations vary from film to film, but the core message is the same: Pike believes in Jim. He believes Jim can make it in Starfleet. He believes Jim can one day become a great captain. Even though Pike dies in Into Darkness, Beyond’s Jim also has a heart-to-heart at a bar, this time with McCoy.

RAISE A GLASS

Now taken into the context of the Star Trek franchise, this scene can be read as a call back to the history of the series. Star Trek has a long history of bartenders as counselors for starship captains – starting with the original, rejected pilot – and the ship’s doctor frequently acted as the tender.

“Sometimes a man will tell his bartender things he’ll never tell his doctor.”

This relationship was passed on from Dr. Boyce and Captain Pike to Dr. McCoy and Captain Kirk once the show began proper. Multiple times throughout the show and movies, McCoy – both with and without a drink in hand – stepped in to comfort or advise Kirk in his duties as a captain or his struggles as a friend.

Many people have pointed out the similarities in the scenes from “The Cage” and The Wrath of Khan to the moment in Beyond. The dialogue and parallels are all there, the sharing of a drink, Pike and Kirk questioning their position in Starfleet, the doctors urging them to continue on, many more moments ready to be picked apart. With such parallels, the Leonard McCoy in Beyond is painted as a trusted friend and advisor, but not a parental figure.

“Dammit, Jim, what the hell’s the matter with you? Other people have birthdays; why are we treating yours like a funeral?”

However, the reasoning for Kelvin!Kirk’s doubts have a different root than Pike’s and Prime!Kirk’s. Whatever Pike and Prime!Kirk are struggling with in “The Cage” and The Wrath of Khan, it is not about their past in Starfleet. Tired or hiding, they still have no doubts as to their choice to join, no doubts that – at least for a time – the Fleet and the Enterprise was their home and calling. In the Kelvin timeline, Kirk has no such security; his doubts run far deeper.

KIRK’S IDENTITY

In their essay “In Defense of The Reboot – what the new generation of Trek Movies brings to the canon,” Tumblr user anifanatical broke down what made the Kirk of the Kelvin timeline (or Reboot, as it is called in their essay) different than the Kirk of the Prime timeline (TOS):

It is noteworthy that our first “introduction” to James T. Kirk in ST.XI is via name alone as George and Winona say their goodbyes. The writers are banking on that name, banking on the fact that you know who “Jim Tiberius Kirk” is. You’ve come to this movie with an image in your head. Even if you have never seen TOS, you remember James T. Kirk from Earth’s history. He’s the intrepid golden captain of the starship Enterprise – adventurous and passionate, charismatic and romantically irresistible, brave and loyal. (And let’s not forget, “a stack of books with legs.”) Sure he had his struggles, but he was stronger for them in the end. “James T. Kirk was considered a great man.” And most importantly, he believed in Starfleet, in Starfleet’s message and its mission.

That romantic image, instilled in us from the classic era of TOS, is shattered in the next scene in ST.XI where little Jimmy crashes his father’s car and impetuously sasses a police officer. Where the deleted scene with Sam would have more clearly underscored the canonical transition between TOS Kirk and Reboot Kirk, it is no less important that the two are fundamentally different. Behind his adrenaline-junkie facade, this alternate Jim Kirk is angry, sulky, and directionless. He doesn’t believe in the ideals of Starfleet, scoffs at its pillars of “peacekeeping” and “humanitarianism” when Pike tries to convince him to enlist. He has the capability of being the larger-than-life Jim Kirk of TOS – he’s quick-thinking, charismatic, a “genius level repeat offender” – but somewhere along the lines, this alternate Kirk has lost sight of the lofty vision that defined the classic Star Trek.

(emboldening mine)

From the very beginning of this new timeline, Jim Kirk has lost the footing that his Prime counterpart had. He lacks the security his identity once had in the ideals of Starfleet. And this ties back to the loss of George Kirk:

“Kirk was driven by the anger of not knowing his father, yet living in his shadow.” – Chris Pine in an NME interview.

Christopher Pike gave Jim an outlet for his anger through Starfleet, gave him a place to find his identity, and, in doing so, took up that mantle of a father figure. For a time, Kirk was secure in who he was to be, either under Pike’s wing or in the captaincy of the Enterprise, pursuing that idea of George Kirk’s example.

Once Beyond’s events occur, however, this definition of his identity – the pursuit of George Kirk – no longer fits. He’s made his mark, he’s sacrificed himself for his crew, and he’s about to be one year older than his father ever was. The footing that Pike gave him all those years ago has once again become unstable. When McCoy meets him at the bar, Jim is again a lost man.

MR. SENSITIVE

The lack of direction that Kirk has in this scene, all ties back around to the need for a father in his life. He invokes both George Kirk and Christopher Pike in one statement:

“My father joined Starfleet because he believed in it. I joined on a dare.”

After hearing this, McCoy is quick to correct Jim, to paint him in a better light, “You joined to see if you could measure up to him,” and continues on to say “You’ve spent all this time trying to be George Kirk, and now you’re wondering just what it means to be Jim.”

The first part of McCoy’s response is an echo of the core message that Christopher Pike provided all those years ago: Leonard McCoy believes in Jim Kirk. He believes there’s more to him and his choice to join Starfleet than what Jim thinks. He believes not only in Jim’s capabilities, but in Jim’s character, which is where the second part of McCoy’s response comes in.

When Christopher Pike first found Jim, he was speaking with an immature, young man, and so to encourage growth into maturity, he gave Jim a tangible goal: do better than your father. In Beyond, Jim Kirk has grown into said maturity, and to give him a singular tangible goal would be patronizing. Thus, McCoy’s encouragement here is speaking to what Jim has become.

The combination of the bartending scenes and the reaffirmation of Jim’s identity are things that had fallen to Jim’s father figures in the past two movies. Now with the role being vacant again, McCoy steps up to the plate, and does more than what even Pike could. The final scene of the movie happens because McCoy helps Jim separate his own birthdate from the death of his father, encouraging him to celebrate his birthday without the shadow of George Kirk. McCoy becomes Jim’s father figure to push him into the next part of his life, a life supported by his past fathers, but defined by Jim’s own identity.

THE MOM FRIEND

Beyond gives Leonard McCoy his meatiest role yet in the Kelvin timeline, and it does so by placing him in key vacancies of Jim’s and Spock’s lives. By giving McCoy these missing roles in his friends’ lives, Beyond recreates the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triumvirate of the Original Series, a dynamic missing from the core of the first two movies. Of course, all change is not bad; the lack of a focus on the triumvirate dynamic helped give Uhura larger roles in all three films, one of the best improvements between the Prime and Kelvin timelines. Even when the triumvirate does arrive in Beyond, it too is changed, with McCoy entering a more parental role than he ever had in the Original Series.

By the way, Star Trek writers, producers, directors, I’ve seen what you do to parental figures in this series. This is not a hint or clearance to kill McCoy off in the next movie. He’s a doctor, dammit, not a plot device.


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1 Response to Leonard McCoy: The Mom Friend

  1. What a beautiful inspiration piece you’ve written! I loved reading your analysis of these three dynamic men from Star Trek and what they represent in the original story and the new reboot. Especially the comparison of classic dashing Kirk to the new somewhat cynical version. When you peel back the layers, alternate Kirk or not, he still has that drive to go above and beyond the stars.

    “Just as McCoy is the audience’s surrogate for seeing Uhura and Spock’s relationship breaking, he is also our surrogate for seeing it restored at the end of Beyond.” So beyond being a physician of the body, could we consider McCoy to be a physician of psychology, offering support and advice to his friends? I especially enjoy the scene when Leonard and Jim are drinking on Kirk’s birthday and he motivates Kirk to stop wallowing in self-pity for the fact that he’s getting older. “Khan” is a great movie for addressing those themes of age and death, accepting the joy of wisdom and family acquired over time.

    Like

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