Despite how iconic his catch phrase was, Dr. Leonard McCoy, more commonly called “Bones” by his friends only said “I’m a doctor not a ( insert impossible task here)”a total of eleven times over the course of the original series, and twice in the two newer films. However, despite its limited use and conveyed a sense of how out of his element this country doctor was when put in a situation that went beyond his training. In fact the spin-offs and later films even had Dr. Julian Bashir on Deep Space Nine, The Doctor from Voyager, and Dr. Phlox on Enterprise had to echo the statement.
In the second pilot episode for the series, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” the
Enterprise actually had a different doctor. However, in the following episodes that doctor was replaced with McCoy, played by Deforest Kelley. Initially he was only listed in the end credits, but Kelley’s character became so integral that by the shows second season he was listed in the opening credits alongside William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.
Surprisingly, the character of Bones was included in Rodenberry’s original pitch for Star Trek, and while much like Kirk, while the name may have been different at the time, the central core of the character remained the same. The short paragraph would go on to describe everything fans would love about “Bones”. As Roddenberry noted,
“…An unlikely space traveler. At the age of fifty-one, he’s worldly, humorously cynical, makes it a point to thoroughly enjoy his own weaknesses…”Bones”..considers himself the only realist aboard, measures each new landing in terms of relative annoyance rather than excitement.”
Despite much fan criticism of the newer reboot films, one thing they can agree on is that they perfectly captured McCoy’s character well. Not only did Karl Urban appear as a dead-ringer for the late Kelley who played the role on the original series, his performance was so good, that it brought Nimoy to tears. It’s not hard to see why. Right in his introduction McCoy is as cantankerous, distrusting of technology, and cautious of space travel as he was on the original series. As the younger Bones told the younger Kirk,
“Don’t pander to me, kid. One tiny crack in the hull, and our blood boils in thirteen seconds. Solar flare might crop up, cook us in our seats. And wait till you’re sitting pretty with a case of Andorian shingles. See if you’re still so relaxed when your eyeballs are bleeding! Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.”
Most notably when it came to technology, McCoy did not trust the transporter units, fearing they would scatter his atoms all over. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture he refused to be beamed aboard and insisted on taking a shuttle. Considering they were using a new system that still needed to work out it’s bugs, and the first two people they beamed aboard died, his fears are not entirely unfounded. Yet despite his reluctance to accept any new technology, he also knew that in some ways it made his job as a doctor much better.
This was best seen in the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home when the crew travels back to the last 1980s to bring back two humpback whales in order to save the Earth from being destroyed by an alien probe that wished to communicate with them. During their time in the past, Chekov was injured and taken to the hospital. While there he heard doctors talking of a woman on dialysis, using chemo therapy and surgery to treat cancer, and other practices that he equated with the Dark Ages and The Inquisition, things that could be treated with something as simple as a pill in his time.
Then when they found Chekov, a doctor was ready to perform a fundoscopic examination and open his brain to relieve pressure. McCoy told the doctor,
“Fundoscopic examination is unrevealing in these cases!… My God, man, drilling holes in his head’s not the answer. The artery must be repaired. Now put away your butcher knives and let me save this patient before it’s too late!”
Perhaps as coincidence, actor DeForest Kelley actually wanted to be a doctor in his youth, like his uncle. Biographer Terry Lee Rioux notes in From Sawdust to Stardust: The Biography of DeForest Kelley, Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy, that,
“ DeForests’s uncle…was certainly present in DeForests’s memory as he created a physician for the twenty-third century. The memory of the dignified and very capable surgeon was surely mixed with the abruptness that marred the healing nature of so many good physicians, especially surgeons. Dr. Kelley’s matter-of-fact declaration of his mother’s terminal case must have been the abrasive sand DeForest used as he created the demeanor of Dr. McCoy.”
When it came to his medical prognosis, McCoy was always very frank and matter of fact. He never minced words or tried to paint a rose colored picture for the captain. If things were grim he would tell him so. One of his most common catch phrases after his proclamation of being a doctor and not whatever task Kirk asked him to perform that seemed out of his comfort zone, was to inform the captain, “He’s dead, Jim.”
It would not take long after his debut in the series for Dr. McCoy to become the third part of the triumvant of the Star Trek universe that comprised himself, Mr. Spock, and Captain Kirk. In modern day mythologies they will almost always revolve around some sort of power trio. In the Marvel universe it is Captain America, Iron Man and Thor. In the DC Universe, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Star Wars revolves around a series of threes, most notably Obi-Wan, Anakin and Padme in the prequels, Luke , Han and Leia in the original films, and even making one of the closing shots of Return of the Jedi the trio of Obi-Wan, Anakin and Yoda. In Star Trek, Kirk, Spock and Bones are such a trio.
Some may attribute this to the three Freudian archetypes of id, ego, and superego. Others may trace this back to the Christian background for the Western world which revolved around a Trinitarian doctrine. Whatever the origin was, the fact remains, these stories focus on three characters with distinct personalities who compliment the other. Very often with this trio one character is the mind of the group, the other the heart, and the third one comes somewhere in between balancing both ends of this spectrum. Too much logic and you lose the heart, too much heart and you lose the mind. A soul is needed in between the two.
While Kirk often came down making more impulsive decisions, and Spock favored logic, Dr. McCoy met them somewhere in the middle ground. As a doctor he was trained to look at the facts to make a prognosis, thereby requiring science to do his job. However, this also meant that he knew firsthand how important compassion was in his profession as he had to care for the whole person.
As Mary P. Taylor notes in “I’m a Doctor, Not an Excerpt”-Leonard H. ‘Bones’ McCoy” from the book Star Trek: Adventures in Time and Space,
“It is Impossible to think of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock without also thinking of Dr. Leonard H. “Bones” McCoy. McCoy was gentle, kind, compassionate, and loving. Commentators often have observed that McCoy and Spock stood for opposing aspects of Kirk’s personality, with Spock the intellect and McCoy the emotional side, the “human” side. I have been puzzled by the separation of the intellect from the “human” side, as though intellect is somehow foreign to someone who is truly human, while only emotions symbolize a person’s humanity. This is especially puzzling because McCoy was not intellectual slouch. Although he often described himself as “an old country doctor.” There was never any doubt that he was a brilliant physician, surgeon, and space psychiatrist. The intellect and emotions were both well represented in him. Even so, he often acted as Kirk’s conscience, while Spock was the voice of cold reason, and in this , they were emotion and intellect in conflict.”
This inevitably led him to conflicts with the more logical Mr. Spock, whom he called a “Green blooded Hobgoblin”, and other assorted insults. To some outsiders, especially in 2016, his behavior seems to make him a bully. He is treating this valued member of the crew like he is subhuman by insulting him because of his appearance and heritage. This is best seen in the episode “Bread and Circuses” in which they found a world that seemed like 20th Century America except it was ruled in a fashion similar to ancient Rome, complete with the spread of Christianity. McCoy admits to Spock that he would love to come down and announce to some developing world that he is the Archangel Gabriel which Spock sees no humor in. McCoy points out,
“Naturally. You could hardly claim to be an angel with those pointed ears, Mister Spock. But say you landed someplace with a pitchfork…”
However, as Amarpal Biring notes in “Star Trek: Dr. McCoy’s 10 Point Guide to Being the Best Doctor in Starfleet” from What Culture,
“Since the 60’s as society and attitudes change, a minority of Star Trek fans have started to voice their concerns about some of the comments made by McCoy. It is true that script writers now would be wary to include lines like this for a character in fear of him being labeled racist. And for a show that is about exploration to discover new species, a seemingly xenophobic character is at odds with that vision. But that is what made Star Trek interesting, as much as it is about discovery and peaceful exploration, it is also about everything that makes us human and that includes all the bad stuff. I don’t for a second think McCoy was racist or xenophobic but he wasn’t politically correct and that is part of his charm.”
Further, Spock can dish the insults back just as much as he can take them. The insults then are more like the kind of thing a friend can say to another, just so long as they don’t cross a line and make it to personal. Thus the two argued, the bickered and all too often they disagreed. For a brief window time, due to such concerns that McCoy seemed racist and xenophobic, this had subsided in season two. However, come the summer of 1968 when they got ready to produce what would be the show’s third and final season, Rodenberry had second thoughts. As he noted in a memo to the production staff,
“The single most numerous and most consistent complaint from fans of all age groups and levels has been the fact that Spock and McCoy no longer “battle” as they once did…We simply didn’t realize how much the fans loved the bickering between our Arrowsmith and our Alien. No one believes for a moment that they do not secretly like each other, but let them show it and we invariably are deluged with irritated fan responses. Another way, I suppose, of the fans saying they don’t want an exercise in fellowship…they want our characters to be proud individuals with differing points of views and perspectives. They want our people to be men who have the guts to differ without necessarily in the last falling tearfully into one another’s arms and apologizing for earlier harshly speaking to each other.”
This is what made Kirk, Spock and Bones such a great trio. They may not have always see eye to eye, they might have irked each other, but like all good friends, they had each other’s backs. This is especially true in regards to McCoy’s attitude versus that of crew member Stiles in “Balance of Terror.” Throughout the episode Stiles casts disparaging remarks towards Spock for no other reason then Spock, as Vulcan, looks like the Romulans, even questioning Spock’s loyalty. Kirk even calls Stiles out, telling him to leave the bigotry aside. While McCoy may poke at Spock for his apparent lack of emotion, McCoy would never question Spock’s loyalty to the captain, the crew, the mission, or the Enterprise. He may not agree with Spock’s logical view of the world, but he would never doubt his ability as a science officer.
McCoy would even say of Spock in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, once they had recovered their unconscious and friend to return him to Vulcan so they can put his Katra back inside Spock’s mind,
“I’m gonna tell you something that I… never thought I’d ever hear myself say. But it seems I’ve… missed you. And I don’t know if I could stand to lose you again.”
He could give Spock a compliment just as much as he could insult him. For example, in “Journey to Babel” he commented on Spock and Sarek’s condition saying that their combined pig-headed Vulcan stamina helped them pull through. If anything his sparring with the Vulcan came more from a moral standpoint. While both were always bound to want to do the right thing, Spock would always choose what was logically necessary.
However, sometimes this would mean allowing a person to die in order to do so. This was the case in the Star Trek episode “City on the Edge of Forever” in which Kirk and Spock stopped McCoy from preventing the death of Edith Keeler and in the process saved billions of lives in the future. For McCoy, as a doctor, he is dedicated to preserving life. He knew that deep down, as half human, Spock would not want to see a person die.
He even called Spock out for what he perceived as faux-bravery when faced with possibly dying in a gladiator game in the episode “Bread and Circuses”. Spock admitted he did not fear death, to which McCoy said,
“Do you know why you’re not afraid to die, Spock? You’re more afraid of living. Each day you stay alive is just one more day you might slip and let your Human half peek out.”
For Captain Kirk on the other hand, actress Grace Lee Whitney, who played Janice Rand in the original Star Trek series noted in her memoir The Longest Trek: My Tour Across The Galaxy that for the dynamic of Kirk and McCoy,
“Part of the unique characterization and chemistry of Star Trek is DeForest Kelly’s role as Captain Kirk’s friend, personal bartender, confidante, counselor and priest. He was also a damn fine doctor.”
While Spock may have been the one to give Kirk the logically sound direction, McCoy was the person he went to when he needed to talk about the problems that vexed him, to vent about Federation protocol, or just to chat. In fact while most of the crew, including Spock, tend to refer to Captain Kirk by rank, at least while on duty, Bones will call Kirk “Jim”, indicating an informal dynamic to their friendship. Time and again, McCoy saved Kirk’s life whether its’ from illness, or as is the case in “Amok Time”, he was the one to inject Kirk with a neuro-stimulant that would make it appear Kirk was dead so to save his life as he knew Kirk could not win in a fight against Spock.
At the same time, McCoy was often times annoyed equally annoyed with Kirk as he was with Spock, due to the captain’s risk taking attitude. When Spock was attacked and severely wounded in “Journey to Babel”, McCoy urged him to rest, having had a punctured lung and other injuries. If Kirk wasn’t careful he could start to bleed again. However, Spock had decided against helping his father to assume command of the ship while Kirk was incapacitated.
Kirk would only reassume command long enough to capture the real assassin and allow Kirk to place Scotty in command. As McCoy expected, both Kirk and Spock eager to return to work after their painful surgeries, only for McCoy to pull rank on them as chief medical officer. The two noticed that McCoy actually seemed to enjoy being in charge of them, and never looked happier. After telling them both to shut up, McCoy leaned over the fourth wall and commented to the audience that he finally got the last work in with those two.
Because of the dynamic between these three characters, every Trek series that followed tried to replicate the “Kirk-Spock-Bones” trio, to varying degrees of success. However, the one thing that made that original trio stand apart was the clear fact that Kirk did not see Spock and Bones as merely his crewmembers but his best friends. Kirk would even say of the two of them in Star Trek V, when McCoy expressed outrage over Kirk and Spock’s recent shenanigans and asked Kirk if he considered the possibility he could die in his attempt to climb the mountain.
“It crossed my mind….And, as I fell, I knew I wouldn’t die…. I knew I wouldn’t die because the two of you were with me…I’ve always known …I’ll die alone.”
It is because of this inseparable bond that many longtime Star Trek fans were annoyed that McCoy had been demoted to more of a supporting role in the 2009 relaunch of the franchise in favor of emphasizing a manufactured romance between Spock and Uhuru. In fact the new films even saw Uhuru taking his role as the third member of Kirk and Spock’s trio. Despite the chemistry between the actors involved, fans can’t help but feel that something is missing without McCoy as the third part of Star Trek’s power trio.
As Emily Asher-Perrin noted in “Dear Star Trek-Please Pay Attention to Dr. McCoy Now” from Tor.com that addressed the McCoy demotion, in particular in Star Trek Into Darkness,
“When Doctor McCoy is missing from a Trek narrative, you already know you’ve lost something essential; you’ve lost your complexity. And Star Trek is meant to be complicated. Not logistically, but morally, philosophically, humanistically. It’s easy to love the duo of Kirk and Spock because they’re bonded to the end of the universe. They exist to bolster each other, to make each other the best versions of themselves. And for that reason, people often forget that the duo of Spock and McCoy is just as important…Kirk is a captain, right? He exists to be a control node, to funnel information and tactics to their most useful location. Essentially, he’s a project manager….(W)hen you’re managing things, you need the best possible people feeding you perspective. Spock is a First Officer, so that is part of his function by default. And he is excellent at feeding Kirk logical, practical information. He is also a little repressed. And that repression calls for a balance to counter him. That’s where McCoy comes in… McCoy is the ultimate humanist of Kirk’s crew. He values quality of life and emotional variables and the flaws bound up in human nature. He expects the unexpected. He questions humanity’s right to everything they attempt.”
This attitude of Dr. McCoy’s is best seen in Star Trek V. While on some much needed shore leave, Kirk, Spock and Bones decided to go camping in Yosemite National Park, and Kirk, despite his age decides to be a daredevil and climb El Capitan. Spock distracts Kirk and he loses his footing and nearly falls to his death, only to be caught by the Vulcan. Later, over their campfire dinner McCoy rebukes Spock for distracting Kirk and Kirk for taking the unnecessary risk to climb El Capitan in the first place, telling them,
“The you two of you could drive a man to drink…What did you do? You piss me off. Human life is far too precious to risk on crazy stunts. Maybe it didn’t cross that macho mind of yours that you should have been killed when you fell off that mountain.”
This regard he has for life, also means that while he will do all he can to preserve a life, he isn’t going to try something that has not been medically proven to work. This was the case in the episode “Journey to Babel” in which he strongly advised Spock against being a donor to save his father. Among his objection, Spock noted,
“Spock, we would need such great amounts of blood that, even if the drug worked on the Vulcans as well as a Rigelian, which I’m doubtful, it would still drain Sarek to a critical level…Plus the fact I’ve never operated on a Vulcan before. Oh, I’ve studied the anatomical types. I know where all the organs are. But that’s a lot different from actual surgical experience. So if I don’t kill him with the operation, the drug probably will.”
Like any good doctor, McCoy is not going to engage in such a procedure without first making sure he has all the facts in place and his patient is adequately informed of the risks he is taking. Even in the 23rd century there are still risks that can occur when performing surgery. As it says in the Hippocratic Oath, the vow all doctors take upon entering the profession,
“… Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humility and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.”
As such, he will often advise Kirk, and Sock against anything in which it seems like they are playing God. His regard for life, and preserving it at all cost came form his own personal background. When he was much younger, he was faced with the ultimate ethical choice in the medical field. This moment as scene in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, when Spock’s half-brother Sybok and his band of renegades took over the Enterprise Sybok got a foot hold in the crew by reaching into their minds, finding the most painful moment in their lives and taking it away.
McCoy’s father was dying from an aggressive illness, and in great pain. He was heartbroken as his father begged him to end his suffering. McCoy he had no other alternative, and pulled the plug. However, what made it even worse was not long after his father died, a cure for his illness was found. This lead Bones to working as hard as he could to care for life and try to save someone no matter how hard and difficult and impossible it may seem.
His training was put to the test in Star Trek VI when McCoy was tasked to try and help save the life of the Klingon Ambassador after Kirk was accused of playing a role in the assassination. However, it was one of the few moments where McCoy didn’t know how to provide treatment to a patient. As he told Kirk while trying to operate,
“Then for God’s sake, man, let me help. …I’ve got a pulse. We can move him. …I’m gonna need some light. Can we get him on the table? …Hold him! Hold him, while I stabilize him. …I said hold him! … Jim, I don’t even know his anatomy. …His wounds are not closing…He’s gone into some kind of damned arrest. …Come on, dammit! Come on….He’s not responding.”
He was arrested and tried for negligence, with his prosecutor pointing out that McCoy was due for retirement, and had drank too much Romulan Ail at the banquet beforehand. While any human jury would possibly find him innocent and no doubt have taken into account his lack of knowledge of Klingon anatomy, the Klingons were not so convinced. However, McCoy tried to testify,
“My God, man, I tried to save him! I tried to save him. I was desperate to save him! He was the last best hope in the universe for peace.”
McCoy and Kirk were found guilty and sentenced to life in a penal colony. Thanks to the help of a shape-shifter they escaped, only to be teleported back to the Enterprise as they were about to learn who framed them and why. McCoy would come in handy in the final battle of the Enterprise-A as he would assist Spock in providing “surgery” to a torpedo so it could seek out a cloaked Klingon Warbird.
Like the rest of the crew and the ship herself, McCoy would be retired. He went on to be an elder statesmen in the Federation, even seeing the Enterprise-D off on its maiden voyage in the two part pilot for Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “Encounter at Farpoint”. He would receive a tour of the ship from the Lt. Commander Data, an Android. When McCoy could recite in perfect detail everything about McCoy that he had read, he responded with his usual wit by saying Data almost sounded like a Vulcan despite looking different. Data was under the impression that they were a noble and honorable race with McCoy saying that while it was true, it didn’t eliminate the possibility that they could be annoying.
As the tour round up, McCoy passed the torch to the next Generation giving Data some advice that he had learned in all his adventures with Kirk and Spock on the original Enterprise,
“Well, this is a new ship. But she’s got the right name. Now, you remember that, you hear? …You treat her like a lady. And she’ll always bring you home. ”
But he also new more importantly, that a ship was only as good as the lives of the crew members on board, in particular the captain. It was only under the command of a captain who could value the opinions of both his Vulcan first officer and his human medical officer that they could return home after every mission. And it was those lives, that McCoy valued above all else. As he told Kirk in “Balance of Terro” when the ship was engaged in combat against a Romulan Warbird and they had a slim chance of success against this hidden enemy,
“In this galaxy, there’s a mathematical probability of three million earth-type planets… and in all the universe, three million million galaxies like this one. And in all of that, and perhaps more, only one of each of us. Don’t destroy the one named Kirk.”
TV SHOW: Allen, Corey (Dir.)“Encounter at Farpoint” Star Trek: The Next Generation. Starring Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Brent Spiner, Denise Crosby, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Wil Wheaton, John de Lancie, Michael Bell, and DeForest Kelley. DC Fontana and Gene Roddenberry ( writers). Original Airdate: September 18, 1987.Paramount Domestic Television/CBS Television Distribution.
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TV SHOW: McEveety, Vincent (Dir.) “Balance of Terror” Star Trek.William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Grace Lee Whitney,John Warburton, Lawrence Montaigne, Paul Comi, and Mark Lenard. Paul Schneider ( Writer.) Original Airdate: December 15,1966.Desilu Productions/Paramount Television.
FILM: Meyer, Nicolas (Dir.) Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. William Shatner, Ricardo Montalban, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley , James Doohan, Walter Koenig , Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Kirstie Alley, Paul Winfield, Bibi Besch, and Merrit Butrick. Jack B .Sowards, Nicolas Meyer, Harve Bennett, and Samuel A. Peeples ( Writers) 1982. Paramount Pictures.
FILM: Meyer, Nicolas (Dir.) Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley , James Doohan, Walter Koenig , Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Kim Catrell, Christopher Plummer, David Warner, Rosanna DeSoto, and Iman. Nicholas Meyer, and Denny Martin Flinn ( Writers) 1991. Paramount Pictures.
FILM: Nimoy, Leonard (Dir.)Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley , James Doohan, Walter Koenig , Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Merrit Butrick, Robin Curtis, Christopher Lloyd, Dame Judith Anderson, and Mark Lenard. Harve Bennett ( Writer). 1984. Paramount Pictures.
FILM: Nimoy, Leonard (Dir.)Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley , James Doohan, Walter Koenig , Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Catherine Hicks, Robin Curtis, Jane Wyatt, and Mark Lenard. Steve Meerson, Peter Krikes, Nicolas Meyer, Harve Bennett and Leonard Nimoy (Writers). 1986. Paramount Pictures.
TV SHOW: Pevney, Joseph “City on the Edge of Forever” William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, John Harmon, Hal Baylor, David L. Ross, John Winston, Bartell La Rue, and Joan Collins. Harlan Ellison (Writer). Original Aridate: April 6,1967. Desilu Productions/Paramount Television.
TV SHOW: Pevney, Joseph “Journey to Babel” Star Trek. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, William O’Connell, Majel Barrett, Walter Koenig, John Wheeler, James X. Mitchell, Reggie Nalder, Jane Wyatt, and Mark Lenard. DC Fontana ( Writer). Original Airdate: November 17, 1967. Desilu Productions/Paramount Television.
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TV SHOW: Senensky, Ralph “Bread and Circuses” Star Trek. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, William Smithers, Logan Ramsey, Ian Wolfe, Rhodes Reason, Lois Jewell, Max Kleven, and Bart La Rue. Gene L. Coon, and John Kneubuhl. Original Airdate: March 15, 1968. Desilu Productions/Paramount Television.
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FILM: Wise, Robert (Dir)Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley , James Doohan, Walter Koenig , Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Persis Khambatta, and Stephen Collins. Alan Dean Foster and Harold Livingston (writers). 1979 Paramount Pictures.
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