Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
TV URBAN LEGEND: Were Dr. McCoy’s medical instruments on Star Trek really just fancy salt shakers?
Predicting what products and clothes will look like in the future is always an ardurous task, as all we ever have to really go on is our own personal 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 did not go so well. Heck, if you were to ask almost anyone in 2003 what a typical cell phone would look like ten years later, hardly anyone would guess that they’d actually be bigger than the typical 2003 cell phone! This was the day-to-day challenge that presented itself 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 three hundred years in the future instead resulted in Dr. Leonard McCoy’s surgical tools on the TV series!
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, Gene Roddenberry needed the prop master Feinberg to come up with what kind of salt shaker that 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 just made themselves.
For the first two seasons, every time that 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 and use them.
There is an especially good shot of the pieces in the episode “Mirror, Mirror.”
They’re also in this publicity shot…
By the way, here is what they ended up going with for the salt shakers 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!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.