Everyone talks about how sci-fi uses outlandish settings to veil their social commentary. The examples are often laughable, though. I can’t imagine anybody watching Star Trek‘s “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” and thinking “haha, what a ripping adventure which clearly has nothing at all to do with the civil rights movement!” Star Trek used the sci-fi excuse with people who didn’t understand the show, yes, but it goes deeper than those obvious plotlines. They — the showrunners, writers, actors — took more trouble than that. They slipped overtly-political stories in between wacky-space-hijinx episodes so people wouldn’t get too worried. They even popped a euphemistic gay-rights speech into an episode that was otherwise as boring as an episode can possibly be (“Metamorphosis”).
There are more examples of how hidden social statements actually worked, but the relevant one at the moment is how slightly-sexualized costumes for the female characters allowed them to disguise how revolutionary those characters’ positions really were. I talked about this way back in May before Comparative Geeks went self-hosted, but I’m now expanding on it because although I covered the recurring characters decently well, some of Star Trek’s edgiest stuff came from its guest stars. My favorites are T’Pau of Vulcan, the Romulan commander, and Dr. Miranda Jones.
Of the three, T’Pau receives the fewest lines and the least screen time, but is the best-known among serious and casual Trek fans alike (partially because she showed up again for episodes of Voyager and Enterprise). T’Pau, played by Celia Lovsky, originally appeared in the episode “Amok Time” as one of the most distinguished personages on Vulcan. Kirk and McCoy recognize her name and speak of her with admiration, noting she is the only person who has ever turned down a Federation Council seat. Not only does she hold a position of authority, it is one of distinct ethnic pride. “Amok Time” raises a lot of questions about Vulcan sex and gender, none of which were ever answered in the original series, but T’Pau is probably the most powerful woman ever portrayed on the show.
The Romulan Commander
Like T’Pau, the unnamed Romulan commander of “The Enterprise Incident” is a woman in authority. Crucially, and again like T’Pau, our heroes never question her role. They don’t even show a flicker of surprise that a woman might be a starship captain. The fact that she goes unnamed isn’t dehumanizing or dismissive, but rather makes it impossible for us to forget she holds that position. It also puts her on an equal footing with the unnamed male Romulan commander (Mark Lenard) from “Balance of Terror,” who was placed as Kirk’s opposite, an intelligent military man who cares for his ship. This commander (Joanne Linville) is paired with Spock, a crafty person balancing two halves of herself, who can disagree with others while still appreciating their differences.
The commander and Spock have sexual sparks — and what is for Vulcans a steamin’ hot makeout scene — but she’s not relegated to love interest. She keeps her emotional and professional lives separated, but she has both. Many women do on Trek, actually, although I confess one or the other often takes precedence. And unlike T’Pau, she has a central role in the intrigue-focused episode, as the fierce and intelligent villain Kirk and Spock must out-think. They eventually do, and take her prisoner, but only because of her bizarre choice to get beamed back to the ship with Spock rather than literally do anything else. Some people interpret it as an attempt to stop the transport? I blame all that on the script, because it makes zero sense. But other than that this is my favorite episode and always has been.
Dr. Miranda Jones
T’Pau and the Romulan commander are both well known. Dr. Jones (Diana Muldaur in one of her various Trek roles) is almost universally forgotten, and I think that’s a shame, because she may well be the most fully-formed female character ever to appear on the original series. Her episode, “Is There In Truth No Beauty?”, is her episode. It’s a story about her and her full character arc, in which our heroes play supporting roles. There are very few male characters who can make that claim, and she is the only woman, so she gets half this entire article because she’s awesome.
She’s charismatic. Everyone on the Enterprise notices, but it’s not sheer overwhelming female beauty — and women often stand in for “beauty” in the original series. Instead she is startlingly intelligent and articulate as well. The whole episode is about beauty, and our heroes (except Spock who is awesome) spend most of the episode trying to tell her who she should be and what she should desire, pushing her into a traditionally feminine Star Trek role of being beautiful and loving beauty. So she spends the whole episode correcting them. That’s awesome, and possibly why people find her annoying, but incredibly empowering all the same. My favorite moment of the episode is when, after a long dinner debate over her life, McCoy simply toasts her with “To whatever you want the most, Miranda.”
It doesn’t stop there. Her boyfriend tries to push her into a feminine role of loving and supporting men, whining “Why don’t you try being a woman for a change,” and again everyone else insists she’ll eventually change her mind about forgoing human contact. So again she corrects them, and again they realize she’s right, that she knows what she wants. They (except her boyfriend, who isn’t awesome) show initial befuddlement, but eventual understanding. When was the last time an emotionally-unavailable woman got to stay that way at the end of a story? I can’t think of one, Trek or otherwise.
She’s also a pretty cool character with a disability. Her sensor web is a kind of precursor to Geordi LaForge’s visor, and although the Federation seems to have a ways to go before they reach that level of acceptance, they still respect her skills and her autonomy. Her blindness is relevant, but not in a magical “I can save everyone” way or an inspirational one, rather because it’s always been a part of her life and it’s molded her choices. She’s understandably bitter, but that centers around her empathy/telepathy, not her physical ability. It also leads to what may be my favorite aspect of all: This is a story about her confronting her own dark side. It’s okay for her to have a dark side, for one thing, and on top of that she faces and accepts it herself, and goes on to do exactly what she meant to in the first place. She has thorns, to use Kirk’s metaphor, but as he says in the final scene, “I never met a rose that didn’t.”
This has been a longwinded ramble about some characters and why they’re awesome, I know. But I hope the point has come across. In the Sixties, Star Trek couldn’t get away with a female President of the Federation, or a female starship captain, or a slightly-bitchy female officer on the bridge. They couldn’t even get away with the cool-headed female first officer of the original pilot. But — and I’m gonna go ahead and say “in contrast to the new movie series” — they still pushed the boundaries, not only with the recurring female characters (and diverse ethnicities) on the ship, but with powerful, self-possessed women slipped into the rest of the universe too. If the next series is half as revolutionary, I’ll be one happy fangirl.