The Actor, Boldly Going With the Flow

Keeping the franchise's engine running:
Keeping the franchise's engine running: "Star Trek IV" starred, from left, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan and William Shatner. Doohan died yesterday at 85. (By Bruce Birmelin -- Paramount Pictures)
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 21, 2005

The real tribute to James "Scotty" Doohan, 39 light-years after he first saved the USS Enterprise's heinie (and did it many times over), is that it's now almost impossible to have a boyfriend or husband who can't do a somewhat reasonable impression of Doohan's famously stressed-out burr: "We've got nuh powrrrr, Cap'n!" Or "She cannuh take much moor."

Men say these things when copy machines are jammed. They say it about an overstuffed Diaper Genie, or a '91 Honda with an expired inspection sticker. The world is full of chief engineers, and oh, the things they could do, if they only had a wee more dilithium and a little more time. Ask your man right now to do some chore: He'll do it, but maybe not without some Scottytalk. (If you want to tick him off, ask him why he's doing Sean Connery.)

Doohan: Imagine a life where no matter where you go, someone is ready with a bad "Beam me up, Scotty!" joke. (It's the dork version of a "Hang in There, It's Almost Friday!" poster of a cat. Most "Star Trek" fans know that "Beam me up, Scotty" was never actually uttered; it's the "Play it again, Sam" of perpetual incorrectness.) Doohan wasn't really Scottish (he was mostly Irish, and by nationality Canadian), and he didn't much care for William Shatner. For decades, no "Star Trek" convention was complete without him, and when he appeared at his final con, last August in Hollywood, they sent him off with a day of tributes and a Walk of Fame star.

The actor died yesterday at 85 from pneumonia-related causes. (And he had Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's, diabetes and lung fibrosis, and suffered a heart attack 20 years ago -- too much, Cap'n!) Doohan was among the first of "Star Trek's" accidental icons to realize that it was better to embrace that universe than resist it. In 1972, just as the original (and abysmally rated) late-'60s television series was finding its own strange, new life form in syndicated reruns, Doohan started accepting speaking gigs on college campuses.

He had been upset after "Star Trek" was canceled (it was before Paramount Pictures started making movie sequels in 1979, seven of which he would co-star in) because no one in Hollywood would cast him in anything but Scottish roles, of which there weren't many.

"Star Trek," it seemed, had ruined him and the other cast members -- a weird accident of pop culture in which they could somehow be washed up and unforgettable.

But a new age was coming, one of comic books for grown-ups and limitless cult status for favorite characters. In this world, the mission of "Star Trek" never ended -- and Gilligan would always irritate and the Brady Bunch would never move.

In that world, there was no limit to the goodwill between actor and fans, and fetishization would set in for shiny objects (toys, costumes), relics (autographs, ephemera) and most of all, the chance to see and speak to and touch and hug the B-list actors who'd chanced into it all. Once the stars of "Star Trek" recognized their roles in this particular hereafter, their lives got happier, and so did ours.

Doohan would learn that it would be possible to turn Scotty on and off, in as many paid appearances per year as he could manage. In real life, this man had stormed the Normandy beaches on D-Day in the Royal Canadian Artillery -- and lost the middle finger of his right hand. He later somehow wound up doing radio dramas, then moved to Hollywood to act in bit parts, landing the "Trek" pilot at age 45, only to see the rest of his life overshadowed by a fictional spaceship engineer born in the year 2221. (That was 60 years after the formation of the Federation of Planets, don't ya know.)

As Doohan and other cast members navigated that murky area between their own lives and the fictional lives that fans so desperately wanted to connect to, an even stranger thing happened: "Star Trek" improved, got deeper, taught philosophy and diversity. Even the movie versions got briefly better -- the screenplay for "The Wrath of Khan" (1982) has an almost Hemingway tautness.

Doohan showed up for "Khan" more visibly aged and heavier than the rest of the cast, but no less game. He broke our hearts three times in that adventure, on a voyage that really took it out of poor Scotty: He weeps when his cadets die in a torpedo attack from Khan; he begs Spock not to sacrifice himself to save the Enterprise from certain cataclysm; and he gets out the bagpipes for "Amazing Grace" at Spock's burial-at-space ceremony. (Ask your boyfriend what he wants at his funeral: "Amazing Grace" on bagpipes, please. Space-torpedo coffin optional.)

In spite of a generation of derision from those who never quite understood it (or its devoted fans), "Star Trek" took on an aura of class, and Doohan reveled in it. The cultural phenomenon would, in a way, bring him his third wife (who'd waited, groupie-like with a friend, to meet him backstage at a play he was doing in San Francisco), a marriage that lasted 30 years, until his death.

Doohan was Scotty; Scotty was Doohan, and an archetypal employee/colleague/friend was given a name: Scotty is the person in your office who swears that a project cannot possibly get done by deadline, then somehow pulls it out at the last minute. His favorite words: can't, won't, need more, impossible, losing power, can't, won't, overloaded, no way.

You have to let the Scottys blow off steam, and you have to remember what they always say in the end: Aye, aye, sir.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company