Women in Star Trek

From mini-skirts to Janeway, Martin wonders why Star Trek has had such a hard struggle with women...

Marianna Hill as Dr. Helen Noel in 'Dagger Of The Mind'

I’ve just finished watching – for the first time in many years – the original Star Trek episode ‘Dagger Of The Mind’, in which Kirk investigates the possibility of nefarious mind-control techniques being used on a penal colony. Having asked Doctor McCoy to pick a trained psychiatrist from the many amongst his department (exactly how many spare shrinks does a ship’s doctor have on staff?) to accompany him on the Away Mission, Bones informs his captain that ‘Dr. Noel’ will meet him at the transporter room.

Even if you’ve never seen that particular episode, or forgotten it by now, you know what’s coming, right? Of course you do, as did I.

We cut to Kirk entering the transporter room, and the camera remains carefully trained on the extras operating the sliders until Kirk looks over to the waiting Dr. Noel, who is….dun dun DAHHHH! A beautiful woman!

The very fabric of the federation seems set to rend in twain, as the prospect of an attractive female (that’s female, mind you) psychiatrist even existing sends the normally sanguine Mr. Spock’s errant eyebrow heading for the apex of his Beatles haircut. Suddenly the show’s composer spots the curvaceous Marianna Hill on screen, puts his fag out with a splutter and sends his small orchestra into rapturous ‘girl-alert’ over-drive but – oh no! The sleazy saxophonist is taking a toilet break! They make do without him just this once (there are plenty more attractive, professional women in the series that will need to be announced with stripper-music).

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Kirk, Spock and the other space-blokes swap a series of looks among themselves that are archer than the cast of The Archers in the coliseum. The panic begins to diminish as Dr. Noel reveals herself to be a bit of a twit who has been besotted with Kirk since some un-named incident at a Christmas party, where Kirk ‘dropped’ something – which revelation the good captain does not permit the stunning doctor to finish. What was it that Kirk dropped? An ‘h’? A clanger? His trousers?

Anyway, this rapid (instant, really) avowal of Dr. Noel’s heterosexuality – accompanied with fawning lash-fluttering towards His Kirkness – seems to allay the fear among the chaps that this (grrr) woman doctor might be a lesbian or something awful like that, and a pretty good Star Trek yarn is allowed to continue…

All trekked-up after Dagger, I checked out the feeds at Trekmovie.com to find, by coincidence, that Jeff Bond has just reviewed a similarly anachronistic attitude to women in the Star Trek season 3 episode, ‘Is There In Truth No Beauty?’, where ST semi-regular Diana Muldaur plays a telepath on a planet populated with a non-corporeal race of beings called The Medusa:

Muldaur’s character is…a scientist and a diplomat, a woman with special abilities, but the script has every male on the ship fawning over her to a degree that’s condescending and in Kirk’s case almost silly. Their concern is that a woman so beautiful is being wasted on a race of beings that are hideous, the stated implication being that she’s far more useful as a wife to some deserving man than she is as the only human being capable of interacting with a vitally important alien race.

Bond goes on to point out that Beauty is written by a woman, and that one of the other similarly-sexist season 3 episodes, ‘The Lights Of Zetar’, was co-written by Shari Lewis, a huge Trek fan (and, incidentally, the woman behind the ‘Lamb Chop’ puppet remembered fondly by geeks of my age). He suggests that the female writers were in effect indulging their own fantasies about getting on board the Enterprise and being seduced by smirky Kirk…

Even considering that kind of female complicity in perpetuating the original Star Trek’s rather narrow view of career women, criticising the gender-barbarism in ST:TOS remains like shooting tribbles in a barrel. What’s more interesting is fast-forwarding through the chronology to see how attitudes changed with time; since that was the subject of my very first column here, I’ll not retread too much former ground, except to qualify the conclusion that I made there: that the evolution of female characters in TV sci-fi – the only place where there’s enough output to make a meaningful analysis – has been a process of relentless masculisation, wherein female characters have adhered to ‘the male model’ and obviated their own gender traits.

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I may have been wrong about that, though short-haired hard-cases like Denise Crosby’s Tasha Yar in The Next Generation – a stylistic forebear of the icy Starbuck in new Battlestar Galactica – might lead one to that assumption. Perhaps it is not that female characters in science-fiction are moulding themselves to the ‘male model’, but that the kind of ruthless and pragmatic behaviour always associated with ‘maleness’ is actually asexual and untyped, and seen as the preserve of men only through a string of cultural and historical coincidences.

Issues of gender and power have been a cultural and sociological battleground since the late 1960s – when Star Trek was first making its clumsy stabs at the topic. Since the make-up of the original series is set in stone, it took a fresh start for Gene Roddenberry to try and catch up…

TNG made counsellor Deanna Troi the nexus of the Star Trek canon’s continuing struggle with the female in society: open, emotional, sexual and seated at the left hand of the captain, Troi serves partly as an apology for the reductionist view of women in TOS, and partly as a symbol for the value that the 70s and 80s had placed on psychotherapy, tokenised in terms that equate to ‘feminine’ concepts: openness and discussion as opposed to male taciturnity, and gestalt acceptance as opposed to stoic/heroic endurance.

(She was still in tight spandex though, and carried a surname that suggests the most misogynistic word the Latin-based languages have to offer)

Now seen as something of an irritating, touchy-feely whiner, Troi became the Jar-Jar Binks of TNG, and Trekdom’s next significant tussle with female authority took place in the form of its most committed apology yet for former chauvinisms: Katherine Hepburn would command a federation starship!

Actually, since one-time gender-twister Hepburn was 92 and had advanced Parkinson’s disease, the producers – after a brief parry with Genevieve Bujold – cast 40 year-old Hepburn-alike Kate Mulgrew as Captain Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager. Here, they were getting somewhere – Janeway was attractive, competent and tough, but had pretty good comic timing and a genuine sense of gravitas and depth. She is also possibly the only woman under 50 that the canon didn’t feel the need to immediately pair up with a strong male figure, or cast into the flames for not wanting such a match.

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There were a few factors set against Janeway and Voyager: the ‘Lost In Space’ scenario departed from the ‘Wagon Train To The Stars’ template that denotes ‘real’ Star Trek content, and the atavistic Hepburn-ness of Mulgrew seemed, in one sense, a barren attempt by the producers to appropriate the 20th century’s lone icon of female independence and career-mindedness – and one that was distinctly ‘tomboy’ in nature – to balance up Trek’s gender-deficit with lazy, iconographic shorthand.

When Voyager’s ratings slumped, the show’s producers got endomorphic, bra-busting eye-candy Jeri Ryan in to strut about in spandex so tight that it was more of a tattoo than a costume. Back to square one…

Has Star Trek given up, then, on integrating women properly into the federation? Will Chris Pine be merrily slapping yeomen’s’ arses in J.J. Abrams’ re-imagining in Summer of 2009? Will we ever see a woman who isn’t beautiful on a starship? What a pity that we don’t feel qualified to star in our own dreams.

Martin writes his (mostly) sci-fi column every Friday at Den Of Geek.