Star Trek and the Feminine

They might have boldly gone where no woman had gone before, but could they have gone further?


My television streaming service recently added the original Star Trek series to its offerings, including, I was intrigued to discover, the original pilot. With a little digging I found that not only one, but an unprecedented two pilots were produced.

In the first pilot, called The Cage, the Enterprise is captained by Christopher Pike played by Jeffrey Hunter. When the Enterprise is lured to Talos IV by a distress call purporting to come from survivors of a ship which crashed eighteen years earlier, Captain Pike is captured by physically degenerate, but hugely cerebral, telepathic aliens. They wish him to breed with the sole female survivor of that crash and so create a race of slaves who will cater to their needs and save them from extinction. The Cage was rejected by the network (we’ll see why below) but the footage was later re-edited to become the back story for The Menagerie, Episodes 11 and 12 in Season 1.

Captain Kirk was introduced in the second pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before, which was later televised as Episode 3 in Season 1. The Enterprise is attacked by a non-corporeal entity which can infiltrate the minds of humans with ESP abilities and turn them into highly dangerous super beings.

What I found most intriguing in watching these pilots, was the difference between Gene Roddenberry’s original vision for the role of women in Star Trek and how women were represented in the series we saw on our televisions.

(Warning: spoiler alert.)

I’m sure you all remember the women’s uniform from the original Star Trek series, that exceedingly short, close fitting dress with a low neckline, sheer black stockings and high black boots. Very sixties, very sexy and entirely impractical.

In the pilots, however, the women’s uniform was similar to the men’s.

The original Star Trek crew
The original Star Trek crew

Just as the men did, the women wore waist length sweaters over black trousers and low black boots. The only difference was in the style of the sweater. While the men’s sported crew necks, the women’s featured turtle necks and were a little better suited to the female form. Both were equally non-revealing and equally practical.

This change in costume epitomises the difference between the creator’s vision and the demands of the television networks. It also demonstrates the role mass culture, particularly film and television, played in shaping and restricting women’s place in twentieth century society.

Indeed, we need go no further than the early development of the series to see this in action. Star Trek was originally produced by Desilu Productions, owned and run by the actress Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz. However, while in real life Lucille Ball was a successful film studio executive and producer, her on screen persona was of a hopeless, ditzy bimbo totally dependent on her intelligent, calm and practical husband to clear up the messes she got herself into.

It may have been because the producer was a woman that Roddenberry was able to at least set out to put the female crew of the Enterprise on a similar footing to the men, though, being a man of his time, he could not free himself entirely of underlying sexism. He also demonstrated a fascination with the new-found sexual freedom the sixties allowed.

Star Trek broke new ground on many fronts, but perhaps the most striking innovation in the original pilot was that the first officer was a woman, played by Roddenberry’s soon-to-be partner, Majel Barrett. Number One (she is never given a name) is a strong, intelligent, emotionally controlled woman who, when called on to take command of the ship, proves herself to be a competent, courageous and decisive leader. Nonetheless, as the aliens tell us when they read her mind, her emotional control conceals romantic feelings for her captain. The other female crew member we meet is the intelligent and highly competent, if a little unsure of herself, Yeoman Colt.

However, despite this, the male characters are still beset by twentieth century sexism. Captain Pike is constantly yelling at Yeoman Colt and, even while he acknowledges that she is good at her job, grumbles that he can’t get used to having women on the bridge. When Number One bridles at this he tells her he means no offence to her as she is ‘different, of course’. (In what way? More like a man than a woman? A Lesbian?) When the original landing party is assembled the Captain leaves Number One behind, placating her by saying he needs to leave the ship under the command of his most experienced officer. We can tell by her reaction that she is always left behind.

Scene from The Cage, the original Star Trek pilot.
Scene from The Cage

At the same time, The Cage’s plot and casting conforms to the prevalent attitude to gender roles. The aliens’ plan depends on there being a sexual attraction between Pike and Vina, the survivor, played by the very beautiful Susan Oliver, with whom Pike is smitten the moment he lays eyes on her. Having used her to lure and capture Pike, the aliens force Vina to try to seduce him and put them through one illusory scenario after another in which Vina is a damsel in distress, an ideal wife and a dancing slave girl. Eventually it is revealed that the beautiful young woman is also an illusion, shared even by the real Vina who is, in fact, middle-aged and horribly mutilated. Pike lets her stay on the planet as he recognises that she prefers to live the illusion rather than face her reality.

On the other hand, Pike is strong, masterful and clear-minded. Despite being initially attracted to Vina he steadfastly resists falling in love with her when he realises he is being manipulated. Despite the aliens’ attempts to punish him, Pike is always defiant. When he finds he cannot escape through physical strength, he uses aggressive emotions to block the aliens’ access to his thoughts.

Meanwhile, the androgynous aliens, who have become physically degenerate after ignoring their physical side while pursuing mental development, are played by slight females to represent their physical weakness, while their voices are dubbed by males to represent their highly advanced intellects.

Here we have all the male and female stereotypes on display. Women have to be young and attractive and their role in life is to trap a man into marriage. Men have to be of independent mind and resist being restrained by women. Men are strong, aggressive and intelligent. Women are weak, easily manipulated and desperate for love.

The original pilot was rejected by the NBC network executives for being ‘too cerebral’, ‘too intellectual’ and ‘too slow’ with ‘not enough action,’ reasons which show a very low opinion of their audiences. They were also concerned about the show’s ‘raw sexuality’ and that Mr Spock’s ears made him look ‘too Satanic.’

But given subsequent developments, it seems their biggest objection was to the pilot’s gender politics. As Majel Barrett reported, their reaction to Number One was: ‘You’ve got to get rid of the broad. No one will believe a woman second in control of a big starship.’ Recognising that he would never be able to change the network’s mind on that front, Roddenberry put his efforts into saving Mr Spock, the only character that would survive the first pilot. (Barrett was later cast as Nurse Christine Chapel.)

Dr Elizabeth Dehner and Lt Cmdr Gary Mitchell
Dr Elizabeth Dehner and Lt Cmdr Gary Mitchell

By the second pilot, Roddenberry had acquiesced in some measure by banishing women from the bridge except for lowly yeomen. However, he was able to get away with introducing a strong female character, albeit in a guest role only, while playing to the network’s prejudices by balancing her with a cute little blonde crew member. Meanwhile his new captain, James Kirk, while, of course, intelligent, brave and resourceful, is much more of a ladies’ man than Captain Pike, in other words, he will be more prone to getting sexually involved with women and therefore able to manipulate them.

In this pilot, the Enterprise is playing host to a visiting psychiatrist, the strong and intelligent (though, of course, very beautiful) Doctor Elizabeth Dehner. However, her cool demeanour is not appreciated by handsome womaniser, Lt Cmdr Gary Mitchell who calls her a ‘walking freezer unit’. When the ship comes under attack, Mitchell divides his efforts between the helm and gripping the hand of pretty young Yeoman Smith. When Mitchell is possessed by the alien entity and poses a threat to the ship, it seems that there may indeed be a sexual attraction between him and Dr Dehner who becomes highly emotional in Mitchell’s defence.

Although it may seem that Dr Dehner is here acting like an irrational woman in love, it is later revealed that her defensiveness stems from the fact that she too is possessed, but while Mitchell becomes demonic Dr Dehner is able to retain her human ethics and sacrifices herself to defeat him, demonstrating strengths usually reserved for men.

The difference between Roddenberry’s original vision for women and what the network demanded can be seen immediately in the first episode of the ‘original’ Star Trek series, tellingly entitled Man Trap.

Captain Kirk, Doctor McCoy and a crewman visit an uninhabited planet where Professor Crater, an archaeologist studying its ancient history, lives alone with his wife Nancy, an old flame of Dr McCoy’s. When Nancy greets them, Dr McCoy sees her as the beautiful young woman he once loved, Captain Kirk sees her as the handsome middle-aged woman one would expect to see, while the young crewman sees a completely different woman, a sexy blonde who swings her hips at him, lures him away and kills him.

Back on the Enterprise, Lt Uhura, the communications officer, gets bored with her mundane job and tries to engage Mr Spock in a romantic conversation, suggesting he think of her as ‘an illogical woman who fears she has become part of the communications console.’ Meanwhile, Yeoman Janice Rand serves lunch to Mr Sulu and is ogled by crewmen. Another female crew member later brings Captain Kirk his dinner.

As the episode progresses we discover that the real Nancy is long dead and her place has been taken by a predatory, shape-shifting alien. Playing on Dr McCoy’s emotions she can become the dutiful wife, the fond old friend, the seductress or damsel in distress in order to manipulate him. When she finally reveals her violent nature, McCoy cannot bring himself to kill her.

Yeoman Janice Rand in the original Star Trek female uniform
Yeoman Janice Rand

As we can see, Star Trek took a step back in this episode which demonstrates clearly how women would be characterised in the subsequent series — as either delicate, subservient, predatory, or the object of male lust. It’s true, we will see females in powerful or professional positions, but these roles are played by women rather than men so that at some point they can become romantically entangled with a man.

The only female officer, Lt Uhura, is in charge of communications. This would have been acceptable to the network executives who were no doubt of the World War II generation when communications was one of the few functions female military officers were allowed to fulfil. However, while Lt Uhura may occasionally be seen at the helm console, her usual station is on the periphery of the bridge with no command role, sitting awkwardly with her back to the captain and needing to twist uncomfortably to speak to him. However, while this position might be bad for her back, it shows off her legs admirably.

The network executives also had a problem with sex as well as gender. Together with blocking women from the higher ranks, the network executives also mandated that there had to be more men than women in the crew in case the audiences thought, as Majel Barrett reported, that ‘there’s a lot of hanky panky going on in the starship.’ Roddenberry settled on a ratio of 10:1 because, according to Barrett, ‘he figured that 30 good women could handle a crew of 300 anyway.’

However, Captain Kirk himself was exempt for these restrictions. Not only does he get amorously involved with women he encounters in the course of the Enterprise’s adventures, he’s not entirely averse to a little ‘hanky-panky’ with a pretty yeoman.

As for the mini-skirted uniform, Majel Barrett tells us, ‘Gene loved to have beautiful women around and he loved to have beautiful women with no clothes, or as few clothes as he could possibly put them in.’ Perhaps he decided that while he couldn’t have one desire fulfilled, he may as well have another.

However, Roddenberry did manage to put one over on the network executives. In Lt Uhura, he created the first major role for an African-American woman on television.

Despite his residual sexism, Gene Roddenberry must be commended for at least trying to create Star Trek as a vehicle for portraying competent, strong and intelligent women. Unfortunately, the ultimate power lay with the network executives who had the final say in what programs would be produced and broadcast. We therefore cannot hold Roddenberry entirely responsible for Star Trek’s imposing twentieth century female stereotypes on the twenty-third.

© Pauline Montagna 2016

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