Where did Dr. Leonard McCoy’s “Bones” nickname come from in Star Trek, and how did J. J. Abrams alter its origins for the 2009 movie reboot? Despite premiering over half a century ago, the Star Trek franchise has rarely been in ruder health. Progress may have stalled on the big screen (although Quentin Tarantino may soon see to that) but on television, there are no fewer than 6 Star Trek projects currently running or in production, and the release of a Star Trek: Picard trailer at San Diego Comic Con 2019 proved that Gene Roddenberry’s creation captures the imagination as strongly as ever.
Even before Jean-Luc Picard’s Star Trek debut, however, the franchise’s success began with William Shatner’s James T. Kirk, Leonard Nimoy’s Spock and DeForest Kelley’s Dr. McCoy, travelling through space in the trusty Enterprise to meet alien races, fight alien races and, more often than not, watch Kirk romance women from alien races. While only running for 3 seasons, the cultural impact of Star Trek is almost immeasurable and a large part of that success rests of the shoulders of its central trio. The friendship and chemistry demonstrated between Kirk, Spock and McCoy encapsulated the Star Trek ethos – 3 beings with different backgrounds, personalities and beliefs coming together for the common good and building lifelong friendships.
While each character dynamic within that triangle was different, Kirk and McCoy’s relationship represented the Enterprise’s humanity, with both men largely ignoring the boundaries of captain and doctor. One way this partnership manifested on-screen was with Kirk’s endearing nickname for McCoy: “Bones.” Used in even the direst of situations, the nickname demonstrated familiarity between the duo and became a recognizable, oft-quoted line from Star Trek: The Original Series.
Like several other elements within the Star Trek universe, the “Bones” nickname is taken from U.S. military tradition. In the 19th century, Civil War surgeons were often referred to as “Sawbones” because of the many battlefield amputations they would carry out. Captain Kirk truncates this phrase to “Bones” for his chief medical officer – an ironic sleight given the technology and expertise available on the Enterprise.
This 19th century military callback fits in neatly with Kirk’s established interest in U.S. history, and the captain’s admiration of Abraham Lincoln proves his knowledge of the Civil War period. The evolution of the “Sawbones” tag is just one of many instances where Starfleet mirrors the structure and traditions of the real-life U.S. military and season 3’s “The Savage Curtain” makes several allusions to the Civil War in particular, including a comparison between the tactics of Kirk and Ulysses Grant.
J. J. Abrams rebooted the original Star Trek crew for his 2009 movie, casting a crop of younger characters in the iconic 1960s roles and, once again, Chris Pine’s Kirk refers to Karl Urban’s McCoy as “Bones.” On this occasion, however, an explanation is provided for the nickname, and it doesn’t derive from U.S. military lore. When Kirk and McCoy first fly out to space, the good doctor explains why he signed up to Starfleet, joking: “Yeah? Well, I got nowhere else to go. The ex-wife took the whole damn planet in the divorce. All I got left is my bones.“
In Abrams’ alternate reality Star Trek, it’s this line that inspires Kirk’s nickname, but the deviation wasn’t intentional on the director’s part. In the DVD commentary track for Star Trek 2009, Abrams explains that Karl Urban added the line during filming, with the “Bones” reference not originally scripted. As a fan of the Star Trek franchise, Urban was aware that the original McCoy character was a divorcee and worked this trait into his updated iteration, simultaneously giving Kirk a motivation to call him “Bones.”
While Star Trek purists may prefer Kirk’s original Sawbones reference, both stories behind McCoy’s nickname fit neatly within the canon and the updated version of events works better for the Abrams’ movie. In the 2009 Star Trek, the audience sees Kirk meet McCoy for the first time, and it would be jarring for the future captain to immediately develop a nickname for his new pal without a clear explanation.
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