Star Trek: Discovery launches this Sunday, continuing on the tradition of depicting women in high-power roles. Not only will Sonequa Martin-Green star as the show’s main character, First Officer Michael Burnham, but Michelle Yeoh will be appearing as Captain Georgiou.
As we head into Star Trek’s next era, let’s take a look back at its history — the good, the bad, and the ugly — of representing women in positions of power. Here are the woman who have either held the rank of Captain or who have commanded a starship on screen in the Star Trek universe.
Star Trek has always had the best of intentions when it comes to its portrayal of female characters, even when the attitudes of the times (such as the studio’s request for the removal of Majel Barrett’s female Number One following the original pilot episode) or sheer circumstance (Denise Crosby leaving The Next Generation, resulting in a regular cast made up of five men and only two women, both in broadly care-giving roles) have been against it.
Unfortunately, the first instance of a woman taking command of a starship on screen was, shall we say, not good. In fact, it was very, very bad. Awful. No amount of excusing it on the grounds of it being the 1960s can possibly make up for the portrayal of Dr. Janice Lester in what was, sadly, the last episode of The Original Series broadcast during its original television run.
Granted, she was supposed to be insane when she swapped bodies with Captain Kirk so that she could command a starship, but the problems with her command are clearly indicated in the dialogue to be at least partly due to her gender, and the nature of her “insanity,” largely expressed in excessive emotion and what Doctor McCoy refers to outright as “hysteria,” a word that comes from the ancient Greek word for “womb,” clearly relates her inability to command to her femininity.
Kirk finishes the series by lamenting that “her life could have been as rich as any woman’s” — but not, apparently, as rich as any man’s.
Fortunately, the next on screen portrayal of a woman in command of a starship is more positive, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that it occurs in The Animated Series, which was executive produced by a woman, D. C. Fontana. The episode “The Lorelai Signal” itself is, it has to be said, not much less sexist than “Turnabout Intruder,” focusing on a race of space sirens who call to and then drain the life force from men (no word on whether homosexual female crew members are affected because it’s still only 1973 and the show will not yet acknowledge their existence).
With the men trapped in a future episode of Red Dwarf, Lt. Uhura, the highest-ranking female on the ship, takes command. The story may be ridiculous and the situation tied up in ideas about gender and sex that literally go back to ancient Greece, but it’s a rather wonderful moment all the same. Uhura’s look to the side as she takes command, while constrained by the cheap animation, is rather fabulous.
The five characters to lead a Star Trek series so far have been three white heterosexual men, one black heterosexual man, and one white heterosexual woman, carefully allowing only one deviation from “white heterosexual man” at a time, but the franchise has been more willing to embrace diversity in its minor characters.
The first female captain we see on screen is, like Uhura, a woman of color, the unnamed captain of the starship Saratoga in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Her appearance now, along with the also non-white Captain of the starship Yorktown, seems almost routine, but at the time it was still unusual to see a woman of color (or a man of color, for that matter) portrayed in such a position, and demonstrated a clear commitment to Star Trek’s ideals on the part of the production.
As time moved on, and Star Trek: The Next Generation went into production in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we started to see women of higher rank more often. Interestingly, several early examples bear the rank of Captain or Admiral, but are rarely seen actually commanding starships; Picard’s old flame, for example, Captain Phillipa Louvois, commands the Judge Advocate General office in “The Measure Of A Man.”
It’s a shame we never got to see more of Lt Commander Shelby’s career on screen beyond “The Best Of Both Worlds,” as this character really showed how far things had progressed since Janice Lester in 1969; a female officer openly aiming to become a starship captain, who is perfectly capable and whose story could just as easily have featured a male officer, because none of her characterization (beyond a tiny bit of perving on her from an older officer that she has no control over) is tied to her gender.
The Next Generation introduced the only example so far of a woman bearing the rank of Captain who has been assigned to command a starship named Enterprise; Captain Rachel Garrett, Captain of the Enterprise-C, seen in “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” a tough and likeable character who we actually get to see in action as a starship commander.
Garrett’s actions and choices, unbeknownst to her, saved the Federation and the Klingons from years of warfare, and she is on her way to repeating the feat when she’s unfortunately spiked in the head in the line of duty. Like Shelby, Garrett’s character and story have nothing to do with her gender, and we finally get to see a woman command the Enterprise without requiring dire circumstances to gain the position.
The series also provided opportunities for both its remaining regular female characters to take command. Captain Beverley Picard (formerly Crusher) commands the starship Pasteur in an alternate future in the series finale “All Good Things,” but the really interesting example is Lt. Commander Deanna Troi’s brief stint in command of the Enterprise in “Disaster.”
Troi is manifestly unprepared for this responsibility, not because she is a woman, but because she is a counselor and unused to making life or death decisions, despite her high rank, though she manages to rise to the occasion in the end.
The writing carefully ensures, unlike “Turnabout Intruder,” that none of this can be attributed to femininity by giving the emotional, please-save-everyone argument (the McCoy argument) to the male Chief O’Brien, whose wife and almost-born child are trapped in the other part of the ship, while the cold, logical, cut-our-losses argument (the Spock argument) is put forward by the female, battle-scarred Ensign Ro.
When The Next Generation ended, we finally got a chance to see a Star Trek series headed by a woman, as Captain Kathryn Janeway commanded the starship Voyager for seven years of television.
Millions of bad jokes about the only female starship captain getting lost, complaints about inconsistent characterisation and her almost Kirk-like ability to do diplomacy by flirting cannot take away the fact that any time we see an alternate future featuring a “Captain Chakotay,” we know something is very wrong (Janeway’s reappearance among the living in the backwards episode “Before And After” is a great moment).
Meanwhile, Deep Space Nine, running throughout the end of The Next Generation and the beginning of Voyager, semi-regularly featured female guest captains, as well as having Lt. Commander Jadzia Dax command the starship Defiant.
Back in “Turnabout Intruder,” Janice Lester had told Kirk: “Your world of starship captains doesn’t admit women,” implying that in the progressive, far-flung future of the 23rd century, women were barred from this position until at least the time of Star Trek IV.
Luckily, of course, Enterprise has since corrected this impression, leaving fans to assume that Lester was referring to a glass ceiling rather than a concrete ban, one which could be borne out by the lack of any other female starship captains seen on screen during that time (or, of course, they choose to ignore the episode all together, probably wisely).
Like Janice Lester and Phillipa Louvois, Captain Erika Hernandez is an old flame of the current male lead/Captain of the Enterprise, but she seems to have survived Archer dumping her due to a conflict of interest following his promotion and represents a very rare thing indeed – a recurring female Captain (she only appears in three episodes, but that’s more than most of the female Captains on this list, barring Janeway).
From a rough beginning, then, Star Trek has produced an interesting and varied collection of female Captains and women in command of starships, though to date they are still vastly outnumbered by their male colleagues.
Here’s hoping that the new commanding officers we see in Star Trek: Discovery will be as tough as Garrett, as ambitious as Shelby, as likeable as Jadzia and as interestingly flawed as Janeway.
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