Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Final Frontier





This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Gene Roddenberry’s legendary TV series Star Trek. Although both the series and its standard storytelling formulas are well enshrined in popular culture, many people do not realize how much the series changed from Roddenberry’s original conception to the version that finally aired on network TV. Numerous changes were made between the unaired pilot film “The Cage” and the series’ onscreen debut, and the most interesting of these involve an entire character who was deleted in the transition between the two versions of the series.
“The Cage” featured a cast that was mostly different from, but roughly corresponded to, the crew of the series proper. The most significant divergence was in the second in command character; instead of being Spock (who was still part of the crew, but a less prominent character in this version), the second in command was a woman referred to only as “Number One”, played by Majel Barrett. Number One was an intellectual, cerebral, unemotional character in a position of authority…the exact opposite of how most female characters were portrayed on 1960s television, and a rarity among female characters in science fiction of the time. Not merely a female authority figure, she also became involved in the action, beaming down to the alien planet several times and demonstrating to the Talosian race that humans would die for the sake of their independence. There was no female character in the series proper who could compare to her in terms of being a female authority figure—in fact, the original series had an entire episode that revolved around the fact that women were unsuitable for service as Starfleet captains!
In the series proper, Number One’s stoic demeanor and stoic qualities were folded into the Spock character, who became second in command of the revised crew. This effectively eliminated a character while preserving some of their essential qualities in the group dynamic; it also makes watching the more emotional Spock of “The Cage” a surreal experience for longtime fans of the series. This brings up an important question; why would a 1960s audience that was willing to accept such supposed taboos as alien and Russian crew members and television’s first interracial kiss still be deadset against a female authority figure? Roddenberry claimed that Number One was too cerebral and cold to meet the approval of female test audiences, and this claim is supported by some of the campier Season 3 storylines that seemed to revolve around Captain Kirk becoming romantically linked to “hot alien babes” who functioned primarily as eye candy.
Not only was Roddenberry’s original vision of an inclusive universe compromised with the deletion of the Number One character, Star Trek writers seem to have been traumatized for decades over the fate of the original pilot. The Next Generation was even more inclusive than the original Star Trek was, but still struggled to promote female characters. Of the two most significant female crew members, one of them, Beverly Crusher, seemed to serve largely as a “Team Mom” in script dynamics and the other, Deanna Troi, functioned as a romantic interest for Commander Riker, the ship’s second in command.  An actual female captain would finally emerge in Voyager’s Captain Janeway…in 1995, nearly thirty years after the first Trek’s launch. Clearly the fallout of audience test reactions to “The Cage” left deep scars indeed if it would take nearly thirty years to create a series with a female Starfleet captain! Nonetheless, Number One lived on in both fanfiction and officially licensed Star Trek novels and comic books for decades, providing readers a “what if” scenario in which she had maintained her original prominence. Over fifty years later, she will finally receive a clear nod in the latest series, Star Trek: Discovery, which will feature a female lieutenant commander named “Number One”. Perhaps this latest series will finally provide a sense of closure for the fate of a character once retconned out of existence due to the taste of 1960s focus groups and cultural mores.

3 comments:

  1. Interesting history of the female Number One. Hope this new series does a better job in general focusing on characterization than the last installment of the movie franchise did, which focused instead on action sequences, so many that they ultimately became boring.

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    1. Star Trek: Discovery releases in May 2017, so it's a long wait to see how it goes. Viacom is in bad shape, so I'm curious to see how the series turns out--even Enterprise was made when the company was more stable. The split between Paramount and CBS probably didn't help (and is part of the reason the film and TV universes now exist in seperate continuities).

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