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TV URBAN LEGEND: Were Dr. McCoy’s medical instruments on Star Trek really just fancy salt shakers?
Envisioning what products and clothes might look like in the future is always an arduous task, as all we ever have to really go on is our own information in the present, and who knows how predictive that is? Like our recent legend about the 1988 ad predicting the future of VCRs in the year 2012. That didn’t go so well. Heck, if you were to ask almost anyone in 2003 what typical cell phones would look like 10 years later, hardly anyone would guess they’d actually be bigger than most of those at the time! This was the day-to-day challenge presented to Irving A. Feinberg, the property master on the original Star Trek television series. Read on to learn how Feinberg’s attempts to come up with what salt shakers would look like 300 years in the future instead resulted in Dr. Leonard McCoy’s surgical tools!
The first episode of Star Trek to actually air (but not the first filmed) was “The Man Trap,” which dealt with an alien shapeshifter who was obsessed with salt (it actually drains the salt out of people, killing them in the process). In one scene, the alien (who has impersonated a crew member and has made its way on to the Enterprise) sees Yeoman Janice Rand taking a food tray to a crew member. The alien is supposed to act creepy and obsessed when it sees the salt shaker on the tray. So, obviously, creator Gene Roddenberry needed the prop master Feinberg to come up with what kind of salt shaker the Enterprise would use. Years later, in The Making of Star Trek, Roddenberry recalled the strange turn of events that happened next:
[Feinberg] went out and bought a selection of very exotic-looking salt shakers. It was not until after he brought them in and showed them to me that I realized they were so beautifully shaped and futuristic that the audience would never recognize them as salt shakers. I would either have to use 20th Century salt shakers or I would have to have a character say “See, this is a salt shaker.” So I told Irving to go down to the studio commissary and bring me several of their salt shakers, and as he turned to go, I said “However, those eight devices you have there will become Dr. McCoy’s operating instruments.” For two years now, the majority of McCoy’s instruments in Sick Bay have been a selection of exotic salt shakers, and we know they work, because we’ve seen them work. Not only has he saved many a life with them but it’s helped keep our prop budget costs low
Roddenberry is slightly off in his recollection, in the sense that there were nine such devices, not eight, and Feinberg only actually bought two shakers (in the Danish Eames style). He then just used the two original salt shakers (one had a base painted green and one had a base painted reddish-orange) as the inspiration for the other six devices, which the prop department created itself.
Therefore, every time Dr. McCoy had to perform surgeries, these devices would be used. Some of the devices would also occasionally be used by the engineering staff. Essentially, any time someone needed a little device to act like they were doing something (whether it be performing surgery or trying to bypass a computer), they could just grab one of these little cone pieces.
There is an especially good shot of the pieces in the episode “Mirror, Mirror.”
By the way, in the end, they just ended up using a somewhat-stylized plain glass salt shaker for the scene in “The Man Trap.”
Thanks to Greg Schnitzer, Co-Executive Producer of Star Trek Phase II, for the excellent research done on this topic.
The legend is…
STATUS: True (although, as noted, only two of the nine devices were actually salt shakers)
Here is a link to a wonderful Schnitzer piece with even more images of the “shakers” in action!
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Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!