The improbably coiffed James Traficant, former congressman and jailbird, died at the weekend. He rated a mention from me in the course of my disquisition on "Beam me up, Scotty!" in Mark Steyn's Passing Parade:
Some great men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have great catchphrases said to them. James Doohan is an honorary member of that last category. He was the guy who spent four decades on the receiving end of the request to "Beam me up, Scotty" – if not on TV, where no character on Star Trek ever actually uttered the words, at least in real life, where fans would cheerfully bark the injunction across crowded airport concourses in distant lands, and rush-hour freeway drivers would lurch across four lanes of traffic to yell it out the window at him. Elvis is said to have greeted him with the phrase, and Groucho, too. There are novels with the title, and cocktails. On Highway 375 to Roswell, New Mexico, you can stop at the Little A-Le-Inn and wash down your Alien Burger with a Beam Me Up, Scotty (Jim Beam, 7 Up and Scotch).
It wasn't supposed to be the catchphrase from the show: that honor was reserved for Gene Roddenberry's portentous sonorous orotund grandiosity – the space-the-final-frontier-boldly-going-where-no-man's-gone-before stuff. The beaming was neither here nor there: it was a colloquialism for matter-energy transit, or teleportation – or, more to the point, a way of getting from the inside of the space ship to the set of the planet without having to do a lot of expensive exterior shots in which you've got to show the USS Enterprise landing and Kirk, Spock et al disembarking. Instead, the crew positioned themselves in what looked vaguely like a top-of-the-line shower, ordered Scotty to make with the beaming, and next thing you know they were standing next to some polystyrene rocks in front of a backcloth whose colors were the only way of telling this week's planet from last week's. "Beaming" was the special effect – the one that saved Star Trek from having to have any others...
But "Beam me up" long ago beamed itself off the Enterprise and into the wider world. As great unspoken screen dialogue goes, it's rivaled only by "Play it again, Sam" – and even then "Play it again" has never demonstrated quite the versatility of its rival. In Every Man's Battle: Winning The War On Sexual Temptation One Victory At A Time, Stephen Arterburn suggests the phrase as a useful way to keep male appetites in check: if your wife were suddenly "beamed up" into your motel room, would she approve of what you're up to? Something to ponder before you buy the gal in the lobby bar that second margarita, or even press the "order" button on the adult video channel.
On the other hand, Howard Markman, PhD, head of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, uses "Beam me up, Scotty" as shorthand for a classically uncommunicative male attitude to spousal conflict. Weary of his wife's incessant nagging, the husband rolls his eyes heavenward, murmurs "Get me outta here, somebody", etc. The "beam me up" approach will only make the wife even more enraged.
So "Beam me up, Scotty" can help your marriage or destroy it. You could wind up celebrating your anniversary dancing with your beloved to "Beam Me Up, Scotty" by Tom Rush or nursing the blues in that bar outside Roswell staring into the bottom of your fifth Beam Me Up, Scotty. "This phrase works in almost any situation," writes Dave Marinaccio in All I Really Need To Know I Learned From Star Trek. "For example: You've forgotten your spouse's anniversary. At the moment your spouse discovers your blunder, you simply say, 'Beam me up, Scotty'… 'Beam me up, Scotty' is just a way of saying the world is beyond my control." Marinaccio argues it's the pithier version of "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…" and the less vulgar and stupid version of "Sh*t happens" – though this suggests a degree of fatalistic acceptance one would not associate with, say, expelled Representative James Traficant's frequent Congressional deployments of the term:
Mr Speaker, today Congress will debate two bills. The first bill is partial birth abortions. The second bill is wildlife and sport fish restoration. Unbelievable. Kill the babies but save the trout and the tit mouse. Beam me up. In fact, beam me up, Scotty.
Think about it. While 60 percent of taxpayer calls to the IRS go unanswered, the IRS agents were watching Marilyn Chambers do the Rotary International. Beam me up here. It is time to pass a flat 15 percent sales tax and abolish this gambling, porno-watching IRS completely.
With the Congressional Record awash in "Beam me up, Scottys", eventually somebody decided it was time for Star Trek to put the famous words belatedly in Captain Kirk's mouth. So, after the best part of quarter of a century, he finally delivered them to his engineer in the fourth Trek movie. By then, Scotty felt about Kirk the way Jim Traficant felt about the IRS porn junkies.
On Saturday Mr Traficant was beamed up to join Scotty. The IRS, alas, is still with us.