A look back at the original Star Trek series

In 1966, NBC ordered a pilot for a show called Star Trek. It performed badly with Los Angeles test audiences, and creator Gene Roddenberry specifically recalls women disliking how it portrayed women. But NBC felt it had some sort of potential, so they ordered a second pilot. Let’s examine the changes that made Star Trek more palatable to test audiences.

And while we do it, let’s remember that I’m not alone in the opinion that test audiences, like taste tests, can give extremely misleading feedback. Malcolm Gladwell talks in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking about how you get very different results from a cola sip test in a grocery store than you get when you send people home with a carton of your cola and let them drink it when and where they ordinarily drink it – and in whole servings. Confronted with something that flouts all norms, people are often times very uncomfortable – at first. But some of the best products in history get rejected the first time they’re offered. I don’t consider a test audience’s response the final word on whether something like the original version of Star Trek could have survived. But TV does, and this sort of event is exactly why they industry believes it’s the audience forcing their choice to serve up bigoted material.

Changes from pilot to pilot

In the original Star Trek pilot – “The Cage” – we have a woman (Majel Barrett, yay!) as second in command of the Enterprise. She and all the other women wear pants just like the men wear when they’re on duty. She’s professional, focused and feels double-slighted when Captain Pike says he can’t get used to having women on the bridge, then hastens to add that she’s an exception. Her name is simply Number One. Overall, she’s rather like Spock became – we don’t see any emotions from her. Oh, and both she and the female yeoman have to be attracted to Pike because, I dunno, men have such pitiful egos and they were the only ones making TV this side of the Atlantic back then? Whatever.

In the second pilot and the series that came after, the only woman on the bridge is Uhura, who’s very professional and all that, but her job as communications officer – an important position in reality – is reminiscent of a receptionist’s duties. She answers and places calls, basically. She’s not in line to take over if Kirk’s incapacitated. She and the other women wear remarkably impractical micro-minis that often flash their little shorts underneath. None of the women are like Number One – they’re all more emotional, and therefore more the traditional female stereotype. And for a while, it seems every female historian/archeologist/academic falls in love with the bad guy of the week because bad guys are so attractive to women, I guess. (To be fair, the relationship between Khan and his future wife is strongly coded as abusive, though only to reveal his badness.)

Softening the women

The comparison interests me because Roddenberry talked on DVD extras about his expectation that women would be grateful to see women represented as competent and in charge (Number One takes over when the captain is captured), but their response was more “Who does she think she is?” His response, once NBC gave him a second chance, was to make the show’s women more stereotypically feminine. But he also presented NBC with a BLACK AFRICAN WOMAN ON THE BRIDGE, OH MY LORD and, according to Nichelle Nichols, when they told him to get rid of her, he said if she went, so would he. Hey, if you’ve got to compromise, that’s the way to do it.

Looking back, Star Trek doesn’t seem very progressive in terms of how it represents women. The show’s creative team overestimated where the space program would be in thirty years while underestimating what a walking Title IX violation Kirk would seem by that time. It’s exciting to note that the newer ST shows and movies had to play catch-up, because in reality, “men’s” professions were already becoming more open to women. Pike’s bemusement at “women on the bridge” and Kirk’s ogling of female yeomen are jarring events to watch because the attitudes they represent are already largely considered inappropriate in our society, and it’s hard to imagine there being any remnant of them by the twenty-third century.

Women in Starfleet

It’s telling that the series, which they knew in advance was being canceled, ends with an episode about one of Kirk’s old lovers using alien technology to switch bodies with him. Why? Because women can’t be captains in Starfleet at this time, and she wants to be one. It turns out she’s deranged, and she talks a lot about how much she hates being a woman. This episode bugged me because it offered her derangement as the real reason she couldn’t be a captain, and yet no explanation for her mental state other than “gender keeping her from doing what she loves and worked hard for” is offered. It ends on her having a breakdown while Kirk says none of this needed to happen, “if only…” If only what? If only she’d learned to knit and love it? Or if only Starfleet didn’t illogically assume command abilities traveled exclusively on the Y-chromosome? Given Roddenberry’s reaction to the test audience’s reaction to Number One, this episode may have been intended to chastise that audience for denying women should be in command, but it’s certainly left so it can be interpreted the other way, too.

In a supreme bit of irony, the first female (and black!) Starfleet captain we ever see appears in the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, but somehow she isn’t credited. She has lines. Two members of her crew, who each have fewer lines, are named and credited. Majel Barrett, Grace Lee Whitney and Jane Wiedlin all have only unintelligible lines as they make cameos during chaotic moments, and they get credit. But not Madge Sinclair, who appeared in the original series just like Barrett and Whitney. I suppose it’s some sort of technical oversight, but quite a facepalm.

The cultural impact

It’s hard for me to say just how revolutionary the female roles on the original Star Trek may have seemed at the time, since I wasn’t born yet and don’t know the nuances first-hand. Here’s my speculation, but I’d love to hear from people who were actually around in the 60s.

  • Uhura’s job may have comfortably resembled the only role 1960s women were welcome to in offices, but the vast majority of black TV characters (of both genders) at the time were servants, even if they were lead characters. (Even Julia started two years after Star Trek). Uhura’s position never resembled servitude. She took orders just like everyone else, and felt entitled to respectfully inform her superiors when they were asking the impossible.
  • Yeoman Rand may only have been a yeoman (until the feature films), but she was an attractive white woman working alongside men, and she took her duties more seriously than her social life.
  • That the ship’s historian/archeologist/whatever academic of the week could just casually happen to be a woman without all sorts of explanation would still have seemed startling to me in the 80s.

Comments

  1. says

    I can only take Star Trek’s achievement on the basis of what other people say. To me, Uhura isn’t a good female character – but there are so many people, especially black women, that were inspired by her, by her mere existence – I have to interpret that as a sign of how bad things were back then. Not that they’re perfect now, mind. But still, I wish they’d given Uhura more power. And Zulu, for that matter, because George Takei has unbelievable charisma and almost never got to use it.

    As for test audiences, I totally agree, and don’t forget that it’s also a question of who they’re dealing with. Just like the ratings board, composition can make a big difference, and conservative suburban housewifes might react negatively to a female officier where young liberal students might not.

    Also, I want to highlight this one:

    the industry believes it’s the audience forcing their choice to serve up bigoted material.

    The “they’re only producing what the audience wants” excuse is a great way to rile me up. Urgh.

    • DragonLady says

      *cough*

      His name was Sulu. Not Zulu.

      And things were so bad back then that Uhura — for as marginalized as she seems to us now — was huge. A woman who wasn’t a love interest for ANYONE on the ship? A black woman who wasn’t a servant, but an equal, with rank and full privilege of uniform? Who told the white male captain “no”? Dr. Martin Luther King once told the actress that she couldn’t quit because her character was too important a role model for young black girls and women — she tells the story in the anniversary celebration video.

      Keep in mind that Sulu originated in the same time-period as “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” An Asian man speaking perfect English, erudite, with “sophisticated white man” hobbies like fencing (not at katana anywhere!), given the prestigious position of helmsman and performing those duties with distinction? HUGE. My mother’s best friend growing up was Japanese and Sulu still blew HER away because it was so atypical for Asians to be presented as competent and, for lack of a better term, “naturalized citizens” (as opposed to the Dragon Lady/Dragon Man stereotype).

      A Russian man on a ship run by a white American? Star Trek IV does a far better job of pointing out what a mind-bender that was than I could ever do.

      And let us not forget Bones: a Southern gentleman treating Uhura and Chapel as equals, whose only “racism” was giving Spock his own Mickey back, and who was the social progressive conscience of the ship? HUGE.

      • Hailey says

        I remember reading or hearing an interview where George Takei said he lied and said he knew how to fence because he didn’t want to be given the stereotypically Japanese weapon (I think probably a katana, but I don’t remember) they’d originally been planning to have Sulu use.

        • Keith says

          You mean the one they had Sulu use in the recent reboot? Nice to see how far we’ve come… wait.
          Interestingly, “Sulu” isn’t even a Japanese name. Like, not even sort of. No system of romanization of Japanese words uses the letter ‘L’, so the closest his name would be is “Suru”, which is the Japanese verb “to do”, but not a name. I find it odd that nobody ever said “hey, what’s a typical Japanese family name? Because, you know, “Takei” would have been an obvious choice.

          • says

            I vaguely remember that Sulu’s character was supposed to half one type of Asian and half another. That might be why he doesn’t have a Japanese name. Of course, it’s equally likely that this was a retcon introduced after someone pointed out their mistake.

          • DragonLady says

            If you will pardon my massive nerd, Sulu grew up in San Francisco — he’s Japanese-American (ST:TVH). Not only does that definitely invite the possibility of a more complicated family tree, but there’s also the possibility of Angel/Ellis Island mistakes. I had one customer who’s family’s real name was Ivanov — but when they came over in the 1900s it ended up Melkioty on the paperwork, and so that was their legal name. ^^

            DragonLady

            • Maria says

              That’s not massive nerd-age — there’s NOTHING WRONG with historicizing your SF/F, particularly since if you believe JK Rowling, there’re always more complicated character biographies than you get the chance to share.

            • Attackfish says

              This is true. I had a half Vietnamese half Chinese friend in elementary school, and immigration managed to butcher both her family name, and her mother’s maiden name. And in college, I had a friend from Iran here with asylum, and they managed to get her and her sister’s names switched. They didn’t dare do anything about it, in case the attention made someone re-examine their asylum and boot them back to Iran. That happened less than three years ago, so…

              • says

                The French line of my ancestry immigrated in the early 1800’s. Immigration added a letter to the end of the name, changing the pronunciation from a traditional French word to, well, gibberish. So it’s been going on for centuries. (And then my history teacher tried to tell me I was wrong because Ellis Island always Anglicized names and “wouldn’t” have given my family that name. Pssh, whatever.)

            • says

              I was always under the impression that massive nerds were most welcome at Hathor. :) I post here, after all…
              So nerd away, my nerdy friend!

            • SunlessNick says

              I think I saw an article where George Takei said that Roddenberry got the name Sulu from a local name of the East and South China Seas, because he liked the idea of naming a character after a sea, which touches many different countries and cultures. (It was in response to being asked if he minded a Korean playing Sulu in the reboot, and he cited the above as the reason it was quite fitting).

  2. says

    You also have to keep in mind, Lucille Ball was a major player in pushing for Star Trek to be created. From what I recall, Roddenberry was turned down by every other studio he went to, and Ball was the only person at NBC who wanted the property. She had enough clout to order a pilot, and then a second pilot, which makes the “women can’t be in CHARGE” concept doubly insulting/ironic. I also heard she and Roddenberry had discussed going extra far over what they determined to be the audience’s comfort zone with the first pilot, to allow for more wiggle room when the next pilot was ordered after the first would be inevitably turned down.

    The show really was pushing very far out of the box for the time, in a lot of ways. I haven’t watched all of TOS, but given the real-life context behind the fictional universe, I’d think a lot of “iffy” themes in-show were deliberately meant to provoke an audience response while at the same time going as far as the studio would let them.

  3. Firebird says

    I used to buy the official Star Trek magazine, and I remember reading interviews with (Zulu’s actor) talking about how amazing it was to have a real role and stories about how determined Gene Roddenberry was to push the envelope. While of course the magazine was hagiographical about the founder of its subject franchise, I was impressed because I never knew or noticed. According to at least the people interviewed for the magazine, it was huge for the actors, writers, and crew.

      • Robin says

        And a Russian character in the middle of the Cold War.

        Roddenberry was insistent that his series reflect a future where gender, race, and nationality were largely incidental. There’s a great interview — though darned if I can remember where now — with Nichelle Nichols where she recounts a conversation in which she basically said, “I’ve figured out that you’re actually writing morality plays and disguising it as sci-fi,” and he replied, “Shh, don’t tell the network or they’ll cancel us.” I believe it was about Let That Be Your Last Battlefield (ep 3.15), but it applies to so many others.

        (Oh, and it’s Hikaru Sulu, played by George Takei. [/nitpick])

    • Keith says

      “I was impressed because I never knew or noticed.”

      I read an interview with Ursula Le Guin from (http://www.slate.com/id/2111107/) back when SciFi made it’s Earthsea mini-series, and she talked about how the vast majority of the characters in her books aren’t white. I loved the Earthsea books when I was younger, and had never noticed that. I was patting myself on the back for my color-blindness when I read this:
      “I think it is possible that some readers never even notice what color the people in the story are. Don’t notice, don’t care. Whites of course have the privilege of not caring, of being ‘colorblind.’ Nobody else does.”

      • says

        Le Guin also said that she deliberately did not say what color Sparrowhawk’s skin was until most of the way through (when he looks over the side of the boat). She wanted White readers to get comfortable in his skin before they realized it was not a White skin.

        I first read the book in 6th grade or so, and even though I’d noticed that all of the other characters were black or brown or copper, I distinctly recall the feeling of shock when Sparrowhawk looks at his reflection. Then I flipped through the beginning of the book trying to find where I had missed the memo.

      • DragonLady says

        “I think it is possible that some readers never even notice what color the people in the story are. Don’t notice, don’t care. Whites of course have the privilege of not caring, of being ‘colorblind.’ Nobody else does.”

        That is certainly a valid way of looking at it.

        That being said, personally, I disagree. I think what “colorblind” means as a goal is realizing that just as dogs are dogs first and their breed second as far as predicting behavior, we are human beings first and our races second — and therefore, like dogs, choosing our companions by common interests and energy level instead of by their lineage.

        On a day to day level, I would hardly find it insulting if someone on the internet said “OMG, you’re white — I thought you were [insert his/her race here].” The individual in question would have assumed I was like them until they had concrete evidence otherwise — a natural and normal human reaction. Furthermore, every time someone “doesn’t notice” someone’s race, it means that they weren’t LOOKING for signs of ethnicity. If being around people of another ethnicity upset them, they’d be actively LOOKING for hints of “otherness” in order to steer clear. Not looking is therefore a step in the right direction toward that colorblind goal.

        With that in mind, then, to say that people of color are INCAPABLE of reaching that step in the right direction because of a supposed handicap, cultural or biological? Absolutely not. It is certainly much more DIFFICULT to “not notice” someone being white or to view whites as the same as you when you run into as many whites who treat you wierdly or badly because of your skin, but impossible? And to say that that lack of hatred/fear is a privilege that only a certain “class” of people can attain?

        No, I do not agree. I do not agree at all. Each individual chooses to notice and chooses to care what genetic traits (whether gender or race or body shape or orientation) others around him have, to let those influence his view of that person. And each individual is capable of choosing not to care, no matter the cost.

        The common reply to that is, of course, “that’s just ethics” or “you’re right morally, but in the real world x and y.” Again, I disagree: ethics and morals are what make the real world, either by being held or by being disregarded (best example of that truth: Wall Street). You can’t build a house with no foundation, as the adage goes. “Nobody else does” and “it’s hard,” while reasons, are hardly excuses for failing to live up to that accountability.

        • says

          I think what Le Guin was trying to say is that Whites have the option of going through life without noticing race because their race is the default. When you look at Congresspeople, CEO’s, celebrities and models, they look like you (generic you). You begin to think, as the rational response to an irrational world, that your experiences are normal. It doesn’t hurt you to ignore people who don’t look like you. There’s no penalty for dismissing that viewpoint. But people of color don’t have that option. They can’t afford to ignore White people. There are too many in positions of power and their experiences have been declared the default.

          Color-blindness, while a noble ideal, becomes a new form of racism in our imperfect society. It’s not enough to just not oppress someone. Ignoring their plight, caused by a third party, does them harm. It’s as if bullies kept stealing your sister’s matchbox cars and when she complained to you about it, you said, “Well, I don’t see sex when I look at a person, I judge them by their personalities and if a girl wants to play with toy cars that’s all right by me.” Yes, it’s good that you personally don’t steal from her (actually, it’s the bare minimum, but I digress). But other people do steal, and by ignoring the reality that they are judging her by a certain criteria, just because you know that criteria is wrong, you harm her by claiming her oppression doesn’t exist. In a roundabout way, you enable the bullies by giving them free rein to oppress and denying your sister any recourse.

          Same with colorblindness. When it comes to my personal life, who I choose for friends and lovers and club members, I can strive to judge people based on their merits and not their appearance. But when it comes to the rest of the world, I can’t pretend that race doesn’t exist or that it doesn’t harm people every day. If a coworker complains to me about our boss, I can’t say, “Well, I never noticed you were Latina, maybe he didn’t either. Maybe ‘Hey chiquita, how many wetbacks does it take to screw in a lightbulb?’ was a joke about dolphins, did you ever consider that?”

          Claiming “I don’t see race” when the overwhelmingly majority of faces on sitcoms and news broadcasts and advertisements are White is a shield to hide from change. It supports the status quo, because the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

          • DragonLady says

            “I think what Le Guin was trying to say is that Whites have the option of going through life without noticing race because their race is the default.”

            …see, now that does actually make sense.

            I’d always understood colorblind to be strictly an interpersonal decision, such as colorblind hiring policies where the race is undisclosed and the HR professional isn’t allowed to look for “clues” like seeing if the candidate’s high school is in a black neighborhood, or not using the race of the protagonist as a determining factor in whether or not to read a book/watch a movie.

            But colorblind being perverted into “la, la, la, I don’t see race therefore race does not exist and therefore there is no racism” — yeah, only whites can pull that kind of stunt. And it’s absolutely true that people do such “redefinitions” to avoid confronting an unpleasant reality.

            My point was solely on the true definition: a black person [for example] assuming a white person is racist solely based on the fact s/he is white is just as morally wrong (though does not inflict as much suffering) as a white person assuming a black person is incompetent/dishonest/stereotype of choice because s/he is black. And therefore LeGuin’s statement that only whites can be colorblind threw me — because any human being can choose not to use genetic traits to determine character or worthiness of spending time with/on, though making such a choice is much more difficult when so many people with a certain trait have hurt you in various ways.

            “Ignoring their plight, caused by a third party, does them harm. It’s as if bullies kept stealing your sister’s matchbox cars and when she complained to you about it,”

            This is absolutely true.

            Attendum to that, though, is that if I go to bat for my sister against the school bully stealing her matchbox cars, she better bloody not turn around and wear a “boys are smelly” t-shirt or start throwing dirtclods at him. Yes, it’s my job to stick up for my sister, but it’s her job to then not go picking a fight in retribution or taking it out on some other boy who really has nothing to do with it and is probably just as scared of the bully as she is.

            DragonLady

        • Maria says

          @DragonLady —
          With that in mind, then, to say that people of color are INCAPABLE of reaching that step in the right direction because of a supposed handicap, cultural or biological? Absolutely not. It is certainly much more DIFFICULT to “not notice” someone being white or to view whites as the same as you when you run into as many whites who treat you wierdly or badly because of your skin, but impossible? And to say that that lack of hatred/fear is a privilege that only a certain “class” of people can attain?

          No, I do not agree. I do not agree at all. Each individual chooses to notice and chooses to care what genetic traits (whether gender or race or body shape or orientation) others around him have, to let those influence his view of that person. And each individual is capable of choosing not to care, no matter the cost.

          Is an incredibly privileged statement. First, you’re putting the burden for addressing or resisting that “supposed” handicap on POC/other marginalized groups. If white people (or ppl with other kinds of privilege) are acting out of line (and that’s not an “if” statement — part of the definition of privilege is that you often, unconsciously or not, work to maintain systems of oppression), that’s NOT indicative of a moral imperative on the part of POC/other marginalized groups to ignore that oppressor’s race, sexual orientation, etc., in order to be a better person. It’s on the shoulders of members of the oppressing group to call out their fellow group members on that privilege, and to consciously resist working with that particular system of oppression.

          Hell’s bells, that’s like saying that women who are traveling alone at night should get over themselves for noticing that the only person in the train car with them is a man.

        • says

          The individual in question would have assumed I was like them until they had concrete evidence otherwise — a natural and normal human reaction.

          Maria, let’s add this one to the Bingo card list (you guys will find out soon enough).

          What you’ve said above, DragonLady, is both inaccurate and privileged. It’s true for whites, but ONLY for whites. However, it’s a very common misunderstanding so we should probably address it more broadly, and that’s what the above-referenced Bingo card project will be about. Anyhow:

          No. People assume folks of an unknown demographic are The Default – if they are not the default, like you and I are in this case, then they do not assume “this unknown person is black like me” or whatever. When, after all, is the last time you read a novel that described a character as “A white guy around forty.” No, the race is presumed to be white unless otherwise noted. People of color would be very confused indeed if they went around assuming everyone in novels was of their race unless the novel stated otherwise. Imagine thinking everyone in Anne Rice’s books was Chinese-American because you are, and she rarely mentions race because she rarely includes people of color. No, it doesn’t work.

          And to confirm, I’ve seen multiple forums informally poll people with this:

          –What’s your demographic?
          –What do you assume to be the demographic of another commenter who as yet has said nothing about his/her race, gender, etc.?

          The overwhelming majority of people from ALL demographics from English-speaking websites assume people are white, male and American until they learn otherwise (unless the site has its own demographic, of course – say, a dating site for African-Americans or a site like Hathor, where people – incorrectly, in fact – presume a mostly female audience).

          • DragonLady says

            “The overwhelming majority of people from ALL demographics from English-speaking websites assume people are white, male and American until they learn otherwise”

            I did not know that until know, but that is incredibly sad.

            DragonLady

  4. Anemone says

    I was a little kid when Stark Trek first aired, and I don’t know if I saw its first run or not. I was more influenced later on by Charlie’s Angels (1976), and by reruns of Space: 1999 (1975) (and by more serious shows like Mary Tyler Moore (1970) and Maude (1972)). But I know my dad sometimes watched it, so I probably saw it.

    I remember not liking the miniskirts, and not liking Yeoman Rand. And I really hated Kirk (which pretty much killed the series for me). I do remember being impressed by one episode where Uhura beams down to a planet with Kirk. That episode was written by a woman – something I noted in reruns.

    I think having “strong” women in sexist series can make “strong” female characters more accessible to oppressed female audiences than jumping straight in with something like, say, Cagney and Lacey (1981) – a show I never watched because I could never identify (though I might, now, with work experience). But Star Trek women in general were pretty silly in a ’60s kind of way (Uhura excepted), and I don’t think I ever really took any of them seriously. They were mostly sex objects for Kirk to ogle (something my Dad sometimes found quite funny). But maybe someone older than me would have been impressed (???).

    And now that I think about it some more, I found agent 99 (and the occasional Soviet block female karate expert) in Get Smart (1965) more impressive, too. The more I think about it, the more unimpressive Star Trek starts to look in comparison. I mean, the Bond “girls” were more impressive.

    And I agree about test audiences. The first time someone played Enya’s music for me, I didn’t like it, because I didn’t know how to listen to it. It was too weird. (Did change my mind, later, though.)

  5. says

    The one good point about Barrett’s cameo in Star Trek IV is that she is referred to as Commander Chapel – so even nurses could get some decent promotion. Of course, one has to watch the movie a slightly obsessive number of times to notice that …

  6. Hailey says

    Uhura also has some wonderful moments of sass towards Kirk and Spock, and I’m pretty sure I cheered aloud when watching the episode in the evil alternate universe where she pulled a knife on evil!Sulu. But like everyone else said… the few moments of awesome hardly make up for the show on the whole.

    I only recently watched all of the Original Star Trek, and my jaw absolutely dropped when I watched the original pilot and saw Number One. She is not only awesome by the standards of the time, she is more awesome than your average female sci fi character today. In my opinion, at any rate.

  7. says

    Random observations:

    IIRC, the negative reaction in the test screenings to Number One came largely from women. (“Who does she think she is?” kind of thing.)

    Nichelle was dissatisfied with the limited role of her character and was going to quit the show, until Martin Luther King convinced her to stay (really!) So it seems fair to say that her presence was a positive one at the time. (Also, King was a Trekkie!)

    Grace Whitney (Rand) unfortunately was sexually assaulted by one of the execs (after “Miri” wrapped, I think) and subsequently left the show. (She hasn’t named names except to say that it wasn’t Rodenberry.)

    Speaking of Rand, even her character was defined as being exceptional (Kirk has a line where he complains about being assigned a female yeoman.) It seems weird in retrospect, but most sci-fi is really about the present and at the time people were just adjusting to that kind of shift in traditional roles.

    I don’t know if any one instance of a historian/lawyer/whatever being a woman was surprising at the time (there have always been exceptional women) but the sheer number of them in TOS was a subtle subversion.

  8. Alara Rogers says

    Star Trek could have done a lot better. I know they tried, really, but it’s the thing i find most painful to watch about the show now– the jaw-dropping badness of a lot of the sex dynamics.

    I mean, you get Kirk’s evil alter ego tries to rape Rand, and *after* Kirk, Spock and McCoy have basically cornered Rand and harangued her because that could not possibly have been the captain, later Spock is all like “wink wink nudge nudge hey he wasn’t all bad, was he?” and it’s totally “getting raped is sexy!” In another episode, an ensign fantasizes about a sexy, romantic lover, gets a would-be rapist, and when McCoy fights him off, he comments to her about the outfit she’s in attracting more would-be Don Juans… as a *compliment.* (You look totally rapeable! That’s a compliment!) Then there’s the android that falls in love with Kirk (oh, and unlike the other android in the story, she is not super strong). Then there’s Dr. Helen Noel being totally and utterly incompetent. And that doesn’t even bring up crazy Janice Lester or other such problematic figures.

    I loved that damn series when I was a kid… but it’s *painful* to watch it sometimes now. Even TNG, with Troi being an utter wuss and totally useless much of the time, and Crusher being defined by her romantic relationships and her relationship with her son most of the time, and the immensely bad writing in most of the episodes Tasha Yar got to be in, was a vast improvement.

    • says

      Ugh the episode where evil!Kirk tries to rape Rand reeaalllly grossed me out, especially the whole aspect that there were two sides of him and it was *totally natural* to want to rape her, he just had to basically keep that side of him in check. Shudder.

      • says

        And don’t forget the moral of the story: that rapacious side of Kirk isn’t really *bad* – in fact, he NEEDS it or else he goes all wishy-washy and can’t handle command.

        That episode is like someone made a cheesy What Not To Do video for police officers in training, and set it in space.

        One good thing I can say: it made me realize just how much good some pop culture has done for rape awareness within my lifetime. Seriously – for all the well-earned criticism we toss about here, that episode just seems unfathomable now, and it must’ve struck people as pretty normal just 44 years ago. That’s something.

        • DragonLady says

          “And don’t forget the moral of the story: that rapacious side of Kirk isn’t really *bad* – in fact, he NEEDS it or else he goes all wishy-washy and can’t handle command.”

          That episode didn’t squick me, but then I always took the episode to be less about rape as rape itself but rather to mean violent conquest or theft in any setting (and dealing with the narrative limitation that while as Spock and McCoy can temporarily balk at believing the Captain capable of rape, they CAN’T just stand by and let him set himself up as dictator of some helpless backwater planet and then ruining their ecology for his own selfish ends).

          The same strength and drive that can be used to “protect and serve” can also be used to ravage, but taking the strength and drive away doesn’t solve the problem at all. It just creates a whole bunch of new ones because without strength and drive, you just sit there. A human needs strength and drive to move forward, but she/he ALSO needs compassion and self-doubt to give that strength and drive constructive and ethical direction. One without the other results in half a person: even though we don’t like the dark aspects of our nature, they are an essential part of us as individuals, and we can make them serve a useful purpose.

          • says

            What you’re calling “Strength”, I would call “brutality.” To me, strength is power tempered with compassion and some kind of ethics, and brutality is power untempered. You’re classifying power as a “dark aspect” of “our nature”, and that’s a perspective religion has used to keep people afraid of power (so they won’t possibly compete with religion for it). Power is a neutral aspect of human experience, not part of our nature. Wanting power is not a dark aspect: it’s just practical (as in women seeking “empowerment” – wanting power doesn’t have to be about wanting to dominate).

            That was what the episode missed. What made Kirk rapacious was not what made him a decisive, capable person. Any personality would become rapacious if you could just disconnect its compassion. Had the one Kirk been lacking compassion and the other Kirk been overwhelmed with empathy for others, that would’ve made sense. The idea that lacking rapacious drives makes one useless is a good argument for getting rid of humans altogether, because the more good we do, the more we’d draw on that rapacious drive, and eventually anyone’s morals would fail. Of course, this is probably how psychologists thought back then.

            Fortunately, we know now that there’s something essentially broken in any rapist – a severe lack of empathy and conscience. Such people may be very successful in business and society, because they will trample anyone to get their way (not being hampered by conscience), but you don’t NEED a lack of empathy or conscience to succeed. Decent people do it all the time.

            • DragonLady says

              “The idea that lacking rapacious drives makes one useless is a good argument for getting rid of humans altogether, because the more good we do, the more we’d draw on that rapacious drive, and eventually anyone’s morals would fail.”

              It happens every day to people in business and government: the drive to conquer their political enemies, tempered by their compassion telling them that the enemy is those who persecute the downtrodden, gets them into office… and then that drive slowly changes to wanting to stay in Washington for power’s sake, and the protecting the downtrodden part gets compromised until it goes away all together; the businessman starts out in his drive to conquer in business world, with his compassion telling him he is doing so to provide a good life for his descendants or to build a legacy, until slowly making a killing becomes the motive and he spends more and more time away from his family until that family is so in name only — or less and the charitable legacy is little more than a token tax write-off.

              On the other side of the coin are the parents who sympathize with their children so much that they cannot bear to see their children suffer any distress or disappointment and so protect their child from even the negative consequences of the child’s own actions — including breaking house rules — or who are so busy “seeing both sides” of every issue that they cannot even decide what those house rules should be in the first place!

              Maintain the balance between the drive to impose your will on the world no matter what and the compassionate side of our nature urging us to see through others’ points of view and feel what they feel is a DAILY struggle. Most win and lead balanced lives. Some lose and lead lives of varying stages of imbalance.

              As I said, I did not see sociopathic!Kirk’s actions not as rape itself but as a symbol of conquest/aggression IN ANY FORM: economic, political, or interpersonal. Particularly since other methods of conveying out-of-control imposing-of-one’s-will — beating his child for failing to live up to some expectation until said child does so, political conquest, becoming the crew bully — weren’t really feasible given the limitations of time and situation. The dark!Kirk imposed his will/aggressed at everything, and the other Kirk couldn’t stop seeing both points of view — he was paralyzed at the point of decision.

              At least that’s how I interpreted the events in the ep. YMMV, of course.

              • says

                It happens every day …

                That demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of basic psychology. Adults can’t lose their consciences. Those who appear to do so were actually sociopaths who used to mimic conscience and empathy, but then reached a point where that act wasn’t necessary to ensure their survival.

                The other side of that coin is simply having a conscience. It’s simply ignorant to suggest that if one isn’t sacrificing morals to personal will, one will be indecisive to the point of uselessness.

  9. AJDS says

    I always though Uhura was awesome when I saw the reruns (I’m in my thirties, so no 60s exp.). When I was young I always wished there were more episodes that had the “lesser characters” like Uhura and Sulu.

    Speaking of Sulu, just earlier this year, I saw a Murder, She Wrote had Takei as a guest spot. It was from 1987 and he played the role of a Japanese janitor who spoke broken English! I was so offended for him- and really thought about how it does truly have to suck to be a minority actor.

    • says

      OH NO I saw that Murder She Wrote years ago and felt your pain.

      Reminds me of Chris Judge saying not long ago that he was very proud of the role of Teal’c on SG-1, because the roles that were open to black men were basically Thug #1 or Thug #3 – because Thug #2 had to be white! And he’s talking about the 90s.

      • sbg says

        I think the opening scene for 21 Jump Street was a white, middle-class family innocently enjoying dinner when several black thugs broke in and threatened bodily harm and stole things.

        I wasn’t allowed to watch that show growing up, which at the time distressed me. All the cool kids were watching. Viewing it at my age now, I have never been more glad for my parents’ censorship.

  10. alp says

    I almost hate to admit I was more than alive at the time Star Trek was on, but yes…I am that old. I watched and loved it. It was radical! You have to understand – there were women in what were basically naval ships! In space! In the 60’s we were still a very long way away from women being able to serve on anything but hospital ships. And here was a woman on the command deck and she was black…and she even talked back! Nichelle was totally the bomb. What was any different about her short skirt than the cleavage-showing, tight clothes that are de riguer on any tv show today? (all ridiculous) It was radical and awesome – and that show was hated by many because it was too revolutionary. You weren’t there so you can’t completely understand. I was in 6th grade – I would watch the show, go to my bedroom, get ready for bed, look out the window at the stars and literally grieve that I wasn’t on the Enterprise. Nichelle Nichols versus Harriet Nelson? Yeoman Rand versus June Cleaver? So far apart it doesn’t even compute…hey, even the computer was a female!

    • Anna says

      Coming to this very late, but yes, this, exactly (according to my mum). I remember seeing an interview with Nichelle a few years back where she said that none of the ladies felt demeaned because they were wearing mini-skirts. They felt powerful & liberated – mini skirts were a symbol of women’s sexual liberation, their right to live their own lives as they saw fit, so why should they feel ashamed?

  11. Violet says

    I’ve never watched TOS Star Trek, except for the movies. I grew up with Picard and Janeway instead. But my not-at-all-geeky mother tells me she really liked the show when it aired here in 1972. (So much for “the average woman doesn’t like sci-fi”.)

    However, the sci-fi show she *loved* was a short-lived German show with a similar premise that aired in 1966: “Raumpatrouille Orion” (“Space Patrol Orion”, though it was never translated into other languages AFAIK) She tells me it was a real hit at the time; everybody was watching it, though unfortunately it was never continued after the original 7 episodes, because the production values were so low.
    Unlike Star Trek, Orion only paid lip-service to the whole race-blind future. The characters had names that marked them as descendants of different European and Asian nationalities, but the actors were all caucasian. (Though I’d be willing to accept that they couldn’t find any non-white actors. Germany wasn’t all that racially diverse in the 60’s.)
    However, it seems they took Gene Roddenberry’s original idea about gender-blindness and actually went through with it. (Well, apparently the concept of Orion was handed in to the studios in 1962, so it was more a case of “brilliant minds think alike”.) Orion didn’t just have a female communications officer and pants for everyone, but also Lt. Tamara Jagellovsk, who sounds a lot like the Star Trek pilot “Number One”. She’s something like a secret service officer, there to keep the maverick-type spaceship captain in line (he calls her his “governess”). She’s very young and rather inexperienced, but enough of an ‘ice queen’ to command respect. She has the power to overrule the captain if he doesn’t obey the rules, and she can take over command on the ship under certain circumstances. She’ll insist on putting the needs of the many before those of the few, and she will use her unique power of command and/or weapons to make the captain go along with this. Though she slowly becomes less of a stickler for rules over the run of the show. And since she feels a bit useless as a political officer on board, she asks to be trained as a security officer. She can fly a Lancet (like the Enterprise’s shuttles) and her private interest in cybernetics enables her to change the programming of some rampaging robots in one episode. Oh, and she’s also the main character’s love interest. My mother still remembers the character’s and the actress’ names to this day. (Btw. I find it interesting that she’s listed 6th and last of the core crew characters in the character list of the English wikipedia page, but every German site I looked at lists her in second place…)
    Besides Lt. Jagellovsk, the show also featured General Lydia van Dyke, in charge of the show’s military space fleet and captain of the flagship. She also was the main character’s direct boss before he and his crew were demoted to lowly patrol duty for disobedience. They keep a respectful relationship nonetheless.

    That was in 1966. Of course Germany didn’t allow women in the military back then. West Germany (it was a West German show) didn’t even do so well when it came to female employment in general, or women studying ‘hard’ sciences. But the show was supposed to be an utopic vision of the future, and it got into the heads of people.
    39 years later Germany elected it’s first female head of state (a former East German physicist). Coincidence?

    (Sorry for going off on a tangent. I just thought it was interesting how these things can be different in other cultures. I also had a few shows and fairytales as a kid that were very different to what you Americans seem to have had in your formative years. And even if my society isn’t perfectly gender equal either, and hardly free of sexism, I do think it made a difference. But that’s a post for another place.)

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