Sunday, August 27, 2017

Redeeming "Turnabout Intruder"

After my last post (Explaining Klingons) my brain went a little wild in looking at the ways that perfectly innocent story points can be used to build a case against the political views of the creator/showrunners/writers/fans/etc. For instance, in overlooking the obvious multicultural explanation that I propose, one could argue that Star Trek falls into the trap of racial stereotyping. Klingons are "warriors"... of course we know that there must be Klingon farmers and cobblers and dressmakers and actors... but we never see them.

Factually, they do racially stereotype. And factually, it was deliberate. I have in my hot little hands a copy of the Star Trek Writers/Directors Guide, third revision, April 17, 1967 ("the Guide"). One of the "seven rules" listed is this:
VI. Don't try to tell a story about whole civilizations. We've never yet been able to get a usable story from a writer who began... "I see the strange civilization which..."
This is a reasonable, rational rule. The original Star Trek is about character-driven stories. Many of these stories are parables... reflections of the society in which the writers lived. Star Trek stereotypes because they had neither the time nor the inclination to delve into all the ifs-ands-buts of a society, the full exploration of which would prevent the stories from being told. So Vulcans are ALL logical; Klingons are ALL warriors; Orions are ALL pirates, and our crew is ALL Human (even the one who isn't is half-human, so I'm calling "no exceptions"). They're not there to be fully fleshed. They're there to represent aspects of Humanity.

Of itself, is this racist? No, it's expedient. In fact, I would argue -- just as I do with the Klingons -- that you can't assume that all members of a society are of one type just because all you see of them is that one type. Aboard the ship, Star Trek is careful to treat all Human races equally. Some characters (Scotty, Chekov) are still social stereotypes, but they're all equal.

And let's be clear... you cannot make a statement about something without depicting it. So actual racism is depicted -- often -- in Star Trek. It's often directed against Mister Spock, but also among the various alien races. To critics I would say, "Get over it."

The Guide is perhaps the best encapsulation of everything that makes a story "Star Trek". And the most harped on characteristic is "believability". Not really of the tech, because hell... they don't know... it's the future. Damned near anything can happen, including giant cells floating in outer space. So long as it sounds reasonable and sticks to what's previously established you can't allow yourself to worry too much about such things. No, it's about the believability of the actions of the characters. Within this fantastic framework, do they act within their established motivations, etc.? Also, the Guide specifically forbids any visitation of political issues dealing with Earth or the highest eschelons of Star Fleet command.

But there are exceptions, and when they're employed, they're considered among the worst episodes. "The Omega Glory" and "Miri" both feature planets that are "twins" of Earth. In "The Omega Glory", it's a social reflection, and in "Miri" it's the whole damned planet, continents and all. For the latter, I chalk it up to an art director just not understanding that a completely Earth-like planet doesn't have to be Earth. It's certainly not central to the plot.

But the most infamous case is in part a running gag throughout the series. It's dictated in the Guide, runs the length of the series, and culminates in the final episode. And I'm pretty sure that very few people other than Gene Roddenberry himself knew that it was a running gag.

It's sexism.

First... history.  And this part is well-known. When the first pilot ("The Cage") was delivered, Roddenberry cast his future wife, Majel Barrett, as "Number One", the coldly logical second-in-command of the Enterprise. When the studio rejected that pilot and commissioned a second one, they made a few demands. They wanted to "get rid of the guy with the ears" (as Roddenberry told it). They also wanted to axe Number One, because they claimed that their test audiences didn't like a woman as executive officer. For decades, Roddenberry told the joke that he kept the alien and married the woman because the other way 'round wouldn't be legal. He also transferred Number One's coldly logical nature to Mister Spock.

In the years that followed, many fans and critics completely forgot this story when examining the rest of the series. For instance, there's the fact that the captain's yeoman is always a pretty female. This is by decree. In fact, the Guide describes the character as follows:
YEOMAN --- Played by a succession of young actresses, always lovely. One such character has been well established in the first year, "YEOMAN JANICE RAND", played by the lovely Grace Lee Whitney. Whether Yeoman Rand or a new character provided by the writer, this female Yeoman serves Kirk as his combination Executive Secretary-Valet-Military Aide. As such, she is always capable, a highly professional career girl. As with all female Crewman aboard, during duty hours she is treated co-equal with males of the same rank, and the same level of efficient performance is expected. The Yeoman often carries a small over-the-shoulder case, a TRICORDER, about the size of a small handbag, which is also an electronic recorder-camera-sensor combination, immediately available to the Captain should he be away from his Command Console.
Sandra Smith, the only actor other
than Bill Shatner to have played
James T. Kirk in Star Trek: TOS 
In the real-world Navy, a yeoman is simply a clerk. Most of them are men. But in Star Fleet, this is women's work, at least superficially. Note that in other respects these women were to be treated co-equally. What isn't women's work -- ever (in the original series) -- is the Captaincy. And this is stated explicitly in the very last episode of the series, "The Turnabout Intruder".

Now, this has been retconned over and over, but this episode was deliberate, and it was conceived and outlined by Gene Roddenberry. By now you probably know that I don't like retcons because they suck. They're poor explanations that say, "it didn't happen". It's better to explain why it did happen. And to do that, we have to start with an understanding of what Star Trek was for. It was first and foremost a platform for storytelling. Fantastic elements were readily employed whenever they served a storytelling need. It's one of the strengths of science fiction:
"I was working in a medium, television, which is heavily censored, and in contemporary shows I found I couldn't talk about sex, religion, politics and all or the other things I wanted to talk about. It seemed to me that if I had things happen to little polka-dotted people on a far-off planet I might get past the network censors, as Swift did in his day. And indeed that's what we did."
-- Gene Roddenberry

Some fans explain away Janice Lester's claims as follows (represented by this actual quote from a forum):
Best to just chalk this up to:
a) Janice Lester was somewhat bat-shit crazy, and
2) Gene Roddenberry was a sexist piece of crap sometimes.
I don't think either one was entirely true, although you could certainly make a plausible case that the mentally unbalanced Dr. Lester was expressing her own invented victimhood; thus the canonicity of her statement begins and ends with the fact that she said it (with no reflection on reality). In the book Inside Star Trek, Herb Solow and Bob Justman aver that the network was fine with the female Number One: it was Roddenberry casting his mistress that they were opposed to. But I don't think Roddenberry saw it that way. If that account were accurate, he could have just recast the part. His story from the first moment was that the studio responded to the character in a sexist manner. It's what he told Majel Barrett at the time. Whether it was entirely accurate doesn't change his perception. And he had a particular way of dealing with criticism. He would give the critics exactly what they asked for, and make them regret it.

Remember, when the show received criticism about the lack of a Russian in this "international" crew, Roddenberry's response was to cast not just a Russian, but a Russian. Thus, Chekov's overly thick accent (no Russian I've ever met spoke like that) and the "ewerything was inwented in Russia" running gag. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see where perceived sexism of the studio would result in him continually putting women "in their place" as well as penning an episode that is a parable critical not of society at large, but of the studio itself.

In this story, the studio is "Starfleet Command". And no, their world of starship captains didn't allow women. Janice Lester was bitter (and crazy, but not batshit crazy). Just like Roddenberry. And Roddenberry had to sneak this bit of social commentary under their noses, the same as he did with the Cold War ("Errand of Mercy"), blind nationalism ("The Omega Glory"), unintended consequences ("Patterns of Force"), proxy wars in the Far East ("A Private Little War"), racism ("Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"), the concept of a humane war waged with sanctioned rules ("A Taste of Armageddon"), etc.. In doing so he parodied their fears of a female in command. And yes, it was ridiculous, just as those other episodes were. That was the point. Unfortunately, it was missed.

So if you're looking for the worst episode of the series, you'll find a lot more below it ("And the Children Shall Lead", "Spock's Brain"...).

The final joke of the series is that Gene Roddenberry, who wanted to cast a woman as second-in-command of the Starship Enterprise, ended the series by putting one in the captain's chair, if only by subterfuge.

If all this doesn't convince you, let's look at an interview that Roddenberry did in 1995. When asked about the benefits of Star Trek, and the context of social commentary, Roddenberry listed mixed races and gender equality as two major messages. Specifically he said, "In the first Star Trek series, we treated such things as mixed races aboard the spaceship, and whether women could be in charge of anything and so on. And we shocked the audience by saying yes to those questions."

If you're one of those who still thinks otherwise, put your Vulcan hat on. Consider the illogicality of the proposal that Star Trek was forward-thinking in all ways except gender; or that the creators had a complete change of heart on that single subject after the first pilot. Consider the overwhelming probability, in the face of a great deal of evidence, that up until this very moment you have simply missed the message. It sailed right over your head. And if you want to push the point, ask yourself why. Why is it so important to you to cast Roddenberry as a "misogynistic hack" as did The National Review? What emotional attachment are you trying to preserve? Cast that aside and look again, dispassionately.

Was Gene Roddenberry perfect? HELL no. He was often an insufferable dick, by most accounts. While I do think he couldn't write his way out of a paper bag, his biggest flaw was that his ideals surpassed his ability. But he wasn't a sexist and he wasn't a racist, though it takes very little "research" to "prove" otherwise if you're not inclined to look past the superficial "evidence" to see what he was actually doing.

The whole show was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but to take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in lifeforms. We tried to say that the worst possible thing that can happen to all of us is for the future to somehow press us into a common mold where we begin to act and talk and look and think alike. If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences -- take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind here on this planet -- then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that's almost certainly out there.
-- Gene Roddenberry


  1. I think there is a lot of evidence to support your claim. In one episode where all of the other high ranking bridge crew were off the ship, Lt Uhura -should- have assumed command, as the next highest ranking officer.

    Everyone in the cast knew it, but they also knew that the networks (and maybe the 'public'?) would not have stood for a black woman being the commanding officer, even if only for a short period of time.

    Several of the actors have even talked about it later in their biographies. It would have been a great first for the show, along with so many of the others they had (not just the first interracial kiss on TV, but they had minorities in command roles, as well as women, etc).

    I watched the show myself, when it was first broadcast. A lot of people really have no clue as to what the times were like, and how TV was still a new medium. People today don't realize that Bill Cosby, for example, did at least as much to cut down on racism with his starring role on 'I Spy' in the 60's as Martin Luther King did. After all, my father never cared for MLK, however he DID go out and buy Bill Cosby's comedy albums and thought he was a great man.

    1. Thanks. And FWIW, one of my favorite characters in the 60s was Mission Impossible's Barney, played by Greg Morris. I thought he was the most intelligent, capable member of the MI team. And unlike the later McGuyver, Barney's hacks worked. As a kid, it never once occurred to me that he was Black. It just didn't matter. That's the way it SHOULD be.