I grew up wanting to serve aboard the Starship Enterprise. I wanted to explore Vulcan, learn Klingon, visit Romulus. I wanted to snap to attention when Captain Kirk showed up on the bridge, wanted to work with Mr. Spock down in the xenobiology lab, wanted to be a part of that inestimable crew and sail with her to the edges of the universe. "Star Trek" caught my imagination early on and has held it ever since.
And yet, it was an odd, dual desire. With my utter love of Star Trek I experienced two universes, one lying on top of the other, the edges wavy and confusing, my own body indistinct and precarious in both. In one, my imagined world, I was a crew member. In the heat of battle, Kirk threw me a phaser to take down a renegade Andorian. In a tense moment on the bridge, Spock nodded, quietly pleased, when my quick thinking on the computer allowed the ship to overcome a Tellarite attack.
In the other universe, the one I saw on the screen every night from 6:00 to 7:00 p.m., I couldn't be any of those things because I was a girl. I knew that women didn't do much on the Enterprise but open hailing frequencies and bring around soup for fussy Vulcans.
We all were. In my Camp Fire Girls group, which consisted of seven girls who played "Star Trek" at every opportunity, we fought bitterly over who "had" to be Uhura. Who wanted to just sit up on the bridge and monitor subspace frequencies all day?
Oh, but it feels like a betrayal to ask even that much of "Star Trek." They triedthey did such amazing things for the time. Here was a cast that included blacks, Asians, Russians (this in the middle of the Cold War), even aliens and that wasn't the issuethey just happened to be there. Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future was the best thing going in 1966. It was utopian and wondrous.
But it was still almost entirely male. In Classic Trek, the men were the interesting characters: Kirk, Spock, and McCoy fought fascinating interior demonsSpock's dual Human/Vulcan nature; Kirk's inability to bond with anything but his ship; McCoy's alienated loneliness as a divorced father with little connection to his daughterwhile periodically saving the galaxy.
The women of the Enterprise weren't anywhere near as intriguing. Uhura got to be black. Nurse Chapel got to suffer unrequited love for Spock. Yeoman Rand got to be raped by Kirk's dark side in "The Enemy Within" and wear one of the most complicated hairstyles ever recorded in 23rd-century annals.
The only other women where the ones who floated through Kirk's bed or occasionally ended up with McCoy (usually dying at the end) or wanting (but not having) Mr. Spock. The most fascinating woman to show up was the Romulan commander who tried to talk Spock into defecting to the Empirewith a strong undercurrent of unspoken desire on both their parts.
But in truth, the entire mission was a ploy by Starfleet to steal the improved Romulan cloaking device. Tellingly, the Commander, the highest-ranking female military figure to appear in Classic Trek, wasn't even given a nameonly a title. She was the only woman on the original Star Trek I actually wanted to be and there wasn't even anything to call her.
Not that any of this kept my sister and I from sitting mesmerized before the television. We loved the show, loved the characters, loved the ship and all her crew. But we didn't take the lack of women for granted. We scoured the credits for women's names, each one somehow a personal triumph. To this day I harbor a secret hope that D.C. Fontana is a woman.
Into the 20th Century
I didn't care that Kirk was a sexist jerk. I didn't care that Vulcan women were chattel to be handed around by their families. I still would have given anything to be on the bridge of the Enterprise as it warped its way across the galaxy. But before I was driven out of my mind by the cognitive dissonance generated by the loving stories that allowed aliens but not women to be three-dimensional, a new era dawned.
Star Trek movies started coming out, and suddenly everyone had made the leap into the 20th century. Christine Chapel went to medical school (finally!) and came back to the Enterprise in 2270 as a staff physician. Uhura was promoted to Starfleet Command on Earth, and Janice Rand became a communications officer under Captain Sulu.
But the weight of precedent hung heavy on the movies; it was a boy's universe. The main characters were still men, and they were the ones who got to do the exciting thingslike save the women. Enticingly interesting female captains showed up on view screens occasionallyusually in peril from some menace that only Kirk, Spock, and McCoy could fix. It took another hundred years for Starfleet to catch up to the 20th century. Kind of.
Star Trek: The Next Generation was a good start. There were some attempts to fix what had been seriously wrong in the old Trek. If you look very closely at some of the first Next Generation shows you'll see mini-skirted men wandering around in the background. It didn't last long, but it was a nice touch.
In the helping professions, the shows featured Deanna Troi, a half-Betazoid who served as the ship's Counselor, and Dr. Beverly Crusher, the ship's physician. But it was Chief of Security Tasha Yar who became the embodiment of fifteen years of longing for strong, active women in Starfleetthe kind of woman a girl might want to play because she got to do something.
Yar was complex, capable, and cunning. She was a gust of fresh air, and also voted "most likely to turn out to be lesbian" by some of us. But our hopes were crushed when she ended up with Data while under the influence of the inhibition-stripping Psi 2000 virus.
Yar grew up in the failed Federal colony on Turkana IV. Orphaned at age five, she spent her childhood struggling to survive and to protect her younger sister, Ishara. She joined Starfleet when she was fifteen as an escape.
Here was someone you could sink your teeth into. She was tough, driven andoh be still my heartshe barked out orders with the best of them.
That's always been one of the most annoying traits of many of the women on "Star Trek"their wimpy voices. Troi's lovely accent is tempered by an unfortunate "there-there" therapist's tone. Crusher speaks in a breathy voice several notes below what I'm sure must be her normal speech range, surrounding everything she says with a force field that radiates the message "I'm still a woman beneath this doctor's smock; you don't really have to take me seriously."
In fact, the only woman officer I'd want to have dinner with (as opposed to a few other things I have in mind for Tasha Yar) would be Dr. Katherine Pulaski, the brash, self-assured, and eminently capable second-season fill-in for the mealy-mouthed Crusher.
Then they all went away. Yar was eaten by an oil slick, and Pulaski was shipped off to parts unknown as soon as the ever-vacillating Crusher returned, leaving the best for lastEnsign Ro Laran. A Bajoran who grew up during the Cardassian occupation of her home world, at age seven she was forced to watch as her father was tortured to death. She joined Starfleet but was court-martialed after a disastrous mission to Galron II in which she disobeyed orders and eight members of the away team were killed.
Ro and Yar would have gotten along great. Here was someone haunted by her own demons; beset by internal conflict over whether she should be loyal to the Federation or the Maquis; and generally uninvolved in romantic entanglements (except for an unfortunate incident with William Rikerand by the way, will someone please tell him that emote is not a synonym for shout?)
Ro's departure from the show (and the Federation) is one of the most gripping episodes of the "Star Trek" pantheon thus far. It includes an intense scene with Captain Picard in which her loyalty to him battles, and eventually loses to, her sense of duty to a greater cause. My God. A woman who sacrifices herself not for love, but for loyalty to a higher cause. After all those years I'd grown used to seeing Kirk do that, but when Ro did it too I found myself short of breath. Here was a female character whom men could imagine themselves being; and in so doing, they might even experience the same flip we'd been breaking our backs over all these years.
Tarting Up "Deep Space Nine"
Dax hasn't fared much better. It seems that anyone who's lived six or so lives should have more personality. They are letting a little more passion show up of late, maybe to make up for what they're doing to Kira.
Dax did, however, have the honor of being an enthusiastic participant in the first kiss between two members of the same sex (at least among those we know about in humanoid form) in Star Trek history. The episode in which she admits to still being in love with her partner of a few lives agofeaturing one of the steamier kisses between two women ever seen on network televisionwas the culmination of several years worth of letter campaigns by organized gay fans. "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry promised before his death that gay characters would show up in the 24th century. We're still waitingbut that kiss took some of the edge off the wait.
A Future For Everyone
Imagine what kind of an effect this will have on all those little girls and boys stretched out on their stomachs in the living room watching "Star Trek" the way my sister and I did so many years ago. Imagine them as they eat dry Coco Puffs straight from the box as the ship once again falls into terrible danger.
Imagine the neural pathways, which have closed for us adults, that will stay open for these children as they watch the crew dealing with crisis. Chakotay agonizes over and speaks to his own inner spirits. Tuvok the Vulcan talks about his love for his children. And Captain Katherine Janeway and Lieutenant B'lanna Torres save them all with science.
The ship is phasing in and out of reality, pylons are falling, showers of sparks fly out of every console. Throughout it all, Torres reads data from her screens in a clear, strong voice.
"Suggestions?" Janeway asks, and it's Torres who leaps in with a seat-of-the-pants theory that not only fits the situation, but takes Federation physics a few light-years into the future.
"Yes," says Janeway, "yes B'lanna, you're right, it could work," and launches into a corollary theory. It's clear she has come up through the ranks via a science or an engineering track. This is a researcher, a hands-on captain who knows her way around an anti-matter containment field.
The two stand inches apart, utterly caught up in the ideas they're tossing back and forth, pushing each other to greater heights, testing and discarding theories. The men on the bridge watch them, keeping everything under control, while these two minds together sort through the tangled physics problem that is minutes away from killing them all.
"Chakotay, you have the bridge," Janeway barks in that most commanding of all commanding voices. "Torres," she says, "you're with me in engineering."
"Torres, you're with me in engineering."
"Torres, you're with me in engineering."
What will these words mean to little girls all over the world who watch as these two women revel in using their brains, as these two women crawl through Jefferies' tubes to fix what's broken, as these two women work together to save the galaxy? These two women aren't afraid of being smart. They don't shy away from physics and math, ionic phase-distortions, and dilithium; they take charge and give orders and never worry that this somehow makes them less worthy, because they know that their entire worth isn't about being female, it's about being.
My own personal Turing test for intelligence when it comes to women is from cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who goes on a wonderful rant in her first book, Dykes to Watch Out For . A woman ticks off a list of attributes necessary for her to be able to enjoy a movie:
"One, it has to have at least two women in it who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man."
It has taken "Star Trek" twenty years, but that Turing test has finally been passed. </end>
ELIZABETH REBA WEISE is co-editor of "Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace" (Seal Press, 1996). Her day job is as the national Internet Writer for the Associated Press. If she had to chose one person to spend a week on a desert island with, it would still be Mr. Spock, with Ro, Guinin and Janeway running close seconds.