Shout out to the unsung heroines of Star Trek: The Original Series

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Sep 21, 2016

We don't have to use this space to talk about how revolutionary Star Trek was when it first aired on CBS 50 years ago. Tons of pixels have been devoted to that already. Instead, let's focus in on the women. Not just the ones James T. Kirk conquered, but the ones whom he considered his colleagues or his peers. They definitely existed on The Original Series, but as we know, they weren't starship captains because of weirdly antiquated Starfleet regulations.

Gene Roddenberry sought to prove that every kind of person -- not just white men -- was equipped to reach for the stars, but judging by the scant screen time and "damsel in distress" roles, it feels like several opportunities to show women as equals were squandered. Surely some of these hardworking Enterprise crew members were just as qualified as their male counterparts -- why didn't we see a lot more of them? And why did they have to wear such short skirts? (The answer: sexist network executives being creatures of their time, but moving on ...)

The intentions were good, but the execution wasn't quite there. It's useless to sit around decrying old-fashioned sexism, so why don't we just put the spotlight on some of these ladies instead? Maybe there is still some way to do right by them in the new movies. 

Lt. Nyota Uhura


Aside from Majel Barrett, who was married to Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, Nichelle Nichols and her groundbreaking Starfleet communications officer Nyota Uhura truly was the First Lady of Star Trek from the beginning. A black woman commander on the bridge of a starship was a huge deal in the turbulent 1960s, and as the story goes, even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took note of it, urging an unsure Nichols to stay on the show to provide a positive role model for young black women.

Lt. Uhura proved time and time again that she wasn't merely a set decoration, like many women who appeared on Star Trek. She knew the Enterprise inside and out and had the same skills, strength and cleverness as the rest of the crew. Whether she was in on a ruse, as she was in "I, Mudd" or finding a techie workaround to repair the communications system in "Who Mourns For Adonais?", Uhura was no subordinate -- she was a boss. As McCoy put it in Star Trek III, we should all be glad she's "on our side."

Yeoman Janice Rand


While Yeoman Rand, played by the late Grace Lee Whitney, didn't last long, she still got to play an important role on the Enterprise before behind-the-scenes turmoil contributed to her sudden "transfer" during the first season. A close confidant of Kirk, Yeoman Rand enjoyed an informal, friendly relationship with many of the Enterprise crew and was known as a trustworthy colleague. In the episode "Charlie X," she even got to play a role that was more maternal than sex object, which was a refreshing way to portray a woman on a show that mostly paraded them in to make out with Kirk. It was clear that Janice Rand was supposed to stick around a lot longer.

Ultimately, Rand's closeness with Kirk led to her being written off before "The Trouble With Tribbles." The network wanted Gene Roddenberry to give Kirk an array of love interests and Rand would have rained on that parade. Apparently a professional, platonic relationship between a man and a woman was unbelievable even in science fiction? But what was going on behind the scenes was far more sinister. Whitney revealed in interviews and wrote in her memoir The Longest Trek: My Tour of the Galaxy that she'd been sexually assaulted by an executive at Desilu, though Rand's exit was being planned before that happened. Whitney traveled a turbulent road after that, but she recovered enough to be invited back for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Roddenberry expressed regret at not standing up for Whitney and keeping Rand a key member of the crew. It's a huge shame considering the new movies and how a new Janice Rand could have played a role in the Enterprise's crew. Who could have played her? Who could still play her? There's still time and a new movie to bring her back! 

Nurse Christine Chapel


Okay, maybe there was a little nepotism involved here, but we can't count out Nurse Chapel when talking about the women of Star Trek. Played by Gene Roddenberry's girlfriend (and later, wife) Majel Barrett, Christine Chapel was part of the medical staff and a formidable member of the crew. She's a total pro, even if she's being asked to smack Spock in the face as part of a Vulcan healing ritual, and even while she shows some affection for her crewmates, she's all about business. And like most of Star Trek's supporting crew, Chapel proves time and again that she was game for anything. She'll go on an away mission to find her lost love and she'll participate in a ruse when her crew's bodies are taken over by aliens.

Yup, Nurse Chapel rocked. There was a brief mention of her in Star Trek Into Darkness, but man, it would be great to see her go head-to-head with Karl Urban's McCoy.

Amanda Grayson


Spock was not merely an alien amongst a human starship crew -- he was half-human, a misfit among the two races that created him. And while his logic-driven Vulcan half was on full display, it was his mother's human side that set him apart and helped him empathize. (As much as he could, anyway.) Amanda Grayson was Spock's human mother, and as we know from both TOS and the new movies, his father Sarek had found it only logical to marry her because he loved her. It takes a strong-willed woman to marry and love someone who sees only black and white and never gives in to emotion, but Grayson was that woman and her influence was apparent.

Number One


Before Majel Barrett played Christine Chapel, she enjoyed a much higher rank before Kirk even showed up. As Number One in the pilot episode "The Cage," she was Captain Christopher Pike's First Officer and was as no-nonsense as they come. In fact, she's so steely that she could easily be mistaken as a Vulcan, even while she's up there on the bridge next to an actual Vulcan; Spock in the pilot was a very different Spock -- way more emotive, way less rigid.

Number One kicked ass. After Pike was kidnapped, she didn't hesitate to go find him. And when she was told she was expected to procreate with him like some farm animal, she turned her phaser on her captors in her subtle way of saying "No thanks." But alas, network execs didn't respond well to Number One, but her personality was transferred to Spock going forward.

Having such a high-ranking woman right off the bat was pretty revolutionary for a TV show, even if the risk didn't ultimately pan out.

Dr. Ann Mulhall


She only appeared in one episode, but Dr. Ann Mulhall was actually the highest-ranking woman in Starfleet. As an astrobiologist, she held the rank of lieutenant commander and was a stranger to the Enterprise crew before boarding in "Return to Tomorrow." But she was clearly a very career-minded woman and sacrificed her body to a nebulous alien in the name of science. It nearly killed her and we never saw her again, but thinking about what else Dr. Mulhall would have pulled just to see what happened should make her a legend in the fanfic universe.

Honorable Mention: Janice Lester


If there was ever a woman on Star Trek who deserved better -- who wasn't a regular part of the show -- it was Janice Lester, who wanted to be a starship captain but couldn't because the regulations wouldn't allow it. It seems ridiculous for even a science-fictional future to ban women from being captains, but not only was Lester maligned for being ambitious, she was gaslit with a blowtorch. Apparently the only way Star Trek writers of the 1960s could envision a woman at the helm of the Enterprise was if she switched bodies with the male captain and went power-mad rage-beast on everyone in one of the series' final episodes, "Turnabout Intruder." (It should be mentioned that Uhura did get as far as the helm once, but not the captain's chair.)

I've argued before that Janice Lester was entitled to redemption and I hope that somewhere in the fanfiction universe she got it. Maybe J.J. Abrams and Co. can do right by her in a future movie.

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