Feb 2, 2021
Star Trek: “Turnabout Intruder”, or: Starship Envy (Trek’s most sexist-est episode ever!)
Sometimes words from television pop into my head, because television is my mother. “You will never be a starship captain,” a voice says. “You are unsuited by either temperament or training.”
If television is also your mother, you may recognize the line from an episode of Star Trek – original iteration. In my head, it’s Spock saying this. I was wrong about that.
What I remembered correctly was that Dr. Janice Lester switches bodies with Kirk and tries to take over the ship, but they figure out PDQ what’s going on, just as they did in the Mirror Universe episode when Kirk wasn’t acting very Kirk like.
The moral lesson for me (every episode has a moral lesson, right?) was not to get eaten up by envy over things you can’t do.
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I looked into the online mishna created by Trekkers far and wide, and found that the episode, “Turnabout Intruder”, was the series finale. It’s also considered to be the most misogynist of any Star Trek series ever.
The last time I saw it was during the waning days of free TV when New York’s local Channel 11 used the twin towers of the World Trade Center as a logo and showed reruns every night. I had to go back and see it again. Fortunately, I did not need a time portal, and could watch it on Hulu on my phone, like we do in the 21st century.
The story is credited to Gene Roddenberry, who was married to Majel Barrett, the woman he made Number One, the first officer in the original pre-Kirk pilot. Sure, the network put the kibosh on that, and probably told Roddenberry he could either have a black bridge officer or a female one, and not as next in command, and that’s how we got the fierce and awesome Nichelle Nichols as television’s first twofer, and an inspiration to the nation.
Sure, the original ladies’ uniforms made the world, as Patsy Stone might put it, your gynecologist. Yes, women were mostly seen in subordinate positions and/or eye candy. There was Yeoman Rand and poor Majel Barrett reduced like a Stepford Wife in space to saying, “Yes, doctor! Right away,” as Nurse Chapel.
But who says women were excluded from high command, just because we never saw them?
Despite the green-skinned space babes in the opening credits, the show gave us strong women, iconic ones, the type of women that Kirk went for. There was Edith Keeler, the visionary he had to let die to save the world. There was the Romulan commander—certainly if the battle-loving Romulans could accept a female in charge, the Federation could as well. And there were lots of women scientists and historians, like that one who betrayed everyone and ran off with Khan. Okay, maybe not the best example.
Once freed of network restrictions, Roddenberry went even further in the movies, giving us Officer Savik, Spock’s protégé; Carol Marcus, the mother of planets and creator of the Genesis Project; and Gillian Taylor, the woman who helped Kirk save the whales and the world.
So could “Turnabout Intruder” really be as bad as the internet says? Or was the issue not so much that Dr. Lester couldn’t be a starship captain because she had a vagina but because she couldn’t be a starship captain because she was duck fucking nuts—i.e., not suitable by temperament or training. Or might there be some wiggle room allowing either or both interpretations?
Let’s go to the recap:
Per usual, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy have been called down to some remote outpost where there’s a problem. Almost an entire science team was wiped out by radiation. The team’s leader, Dr. Janice Lester, is in very bad shape and in need of medical assistance. The only person not affected was the team’s physician, Dr. Coleman. McCoy, Spock, and Coleman go off to check out some weak life readings that Spock picks up. Kirk stays with a barely conscious Lester because his presence seems to calm her, and she needs to stay calm.
Once they’re alone, Kirk and Lester, who’s suddenly chatty and alert, talk about their romantic past at the Academy. Kirk is all like, “I’m happy to see you, Janice,” and she’s all, “I hate you.”
She also says, “Your world of starship captains doesn’t admit women.”
So there it is. But is that policy? Or culture? Or just her embittered view? Kirk agrees it’s not fair, so it seems to be a real thing. But maybe he’s just humoring her because he thinks she’s dying?
Kirk starts walking around exploring the area because really, who wants to be that close to all the negativity and bitterness. Lester uses a phaser to stun him and pin him to what looks like a room divider. She then walks over to it, pulls a lever, gets on herself—and presto chango, say the magic word, cue the super cheesy soul transfer effect—it’s Freaky Friday on the Enterprise.
To avoid confusion, I’ll now refer to Kirk in Lester’s body as Klester, and Lester in Kirk’s body as Lirk. Confusing gender pronouns may be confusing.
Klester is still knocked out from the stun. Lirk carries Klester back to the bed and tells us all about “his” evil plans to take control of the Enterprise and live the life “he” was meant to: Kirk’s. “He” says Kirk should’ve killed her when he had the chance, because “It’s better to be dead than to live alone in the body of a woman.”
Google that and you’ll get dissertations. She tries to strangle him with her scarf, because those psycho-bitches want to kill the mens, but she can’t quite finish the job before McCoy, Spock, and Coleman return.
They decide they have to beam Klester up for more treatment. When Lirk is alone with Coleman, we find out he was in on it. She sent her team into deliberate disaster, and he withheld treatment. Now she wants him to kill Klester, but he says he’s not a murderer, and she’s like, “Now, you’re not a murderer?”
Lirk then takes McCoy off of Klester’s case, leaving the “treatment” up to Coleman. How does Shatner play “her?” Prancing and bitchiness—about what you’d expect.
We get to the bridge, where there’s another big clue of the episode’s suckitude: the absence of Nichelle Nichols. My guess is she saw the script and said, “Hell no, I didn’t promise Dr. King I’d stay in the series for this shit.” Instead, we have some random nearly mute white woman at the communications panel.
Lirk gets into an argument with Spock because “he” wants to drop off Klester for treatment on some planet not on their route. Spock thinks this is a bad idea because they have an important rendezvous and there are better medical facilities on the way. Five minutes on the bridge, and Lirk has already almost lost “his” shit. Lesson: Chicks can’t handle pressure. Even chicks with dicks.
Then, while Lirk files her nails, which back then men didn’t do, McCoy complains about being taken off the case and replaced by Coleman, who per his records is a complete incompetent. McCoy also orders Lirk in for a medical exam because he’s worried about “his” mental state, which is obviously deteriorating because nail files are for ladies. Klester has no choice, because a ship’s doctor can do that. Then “he” gets a call that Starfleet is not thrilled with the delay, and “he” starts to lose “his” shit again.
Meanwhile in Sickbay, Nurse Chapel gives Klester some sedative juice in a glass. Klester pretends to be cooperative, because otherwise Chapel will think “she’s” crazy because “she” was saying crazy stuff before they sedated “her” about being the captain of the Enterprise, which ladies can’t ever be, which is why she’s now strapped to the bed.
Spock and McCoy have a discussion about the captain’s erratic behavior. Lirk comes in for “his” exam.
Klester, who broke the glass to cut “her” restraints, runs in to tell Bones what’s happening. Lirk does some sort of knock-out karate move to stop her from talking. He orders the guards to keep her isolated.
While McCoy exams Lirk, Spock talks a guard into letting him see Klester. The guard insists on coming in. Spock does the mindmeld thing with Klester—with groovy sixties music playing because mindmeld isn’t science. He’s convinced that Klester is telling the truth, but afraid that won’t cut it with Starfleet because in addition to rampant sexism, they don’t go for this foreign telepathy mumbo jumbo either. Spock tries to take Klester out of the room, but there’s an altercation with the guards.
Lirk calls a hearing about Spock’s insubordination, and Spock sets it up so that Lirk has to call Klester to the stand. Despite time travel, meeting Greek gods, and all the other wonders of the universe, everybody smirks at the idea that Kirk’s whatever-it-is-that-makes-him-Kirk is located in a girl’s body. Because girls are icky!
Klester, not Spock, says the line I’ve been remembering. When she’s on the stand after Lirk asks her what the purpose of the switch would have been, why Janice Lester would have done it, she answers, “To obtain a position she doesn’t merit by either temperament or training.”
Okay, at least Klester didn’t say, “Or because she has a vagina.” But Klester does add, “Her intense hatred of her own womanhood made life with her impossible.” Ouch.
Lirk confronts Spock, saying Spock planned this with Klester because if the story were believed, “she” still wouldn’t be able to serve as captain and Spock would be the captain, therefore MUTINY!
Okay, so there’s no workaround here. If they wouldn’t allow Klester to be captain knowing she’s really Kirk, with Kirk’s temperament and training, just because s/he’s missing the man parts, then it’s pretty much like Lester told Kirk earlier. It’s a boy’s club, with a big “girls keep out” sign, or maybe the sign says “girls can bring you coffee, and work the communication desk, and be nurses.”
Lirk declares a recess prior to Spock’s sentencing. McCoy and Scotty talk. Scotty describes “Kirk’s” behavior as “hysteria.” Which is more proof that Spock must be right, because we all know hysteria is a girl thing. Their words are being recorded, and they’re also accused of mutiny by Lirk, who orders all four of them to be executed.
Back on the bridge, Sulu, Chekov, and Not-Uhura refuse to follow any orders issued by Lirk, who so completely loses “his” shit that for a moment Klester and Lirk switch consciousnesses again.
Over in his cell, Spock is doing some touchy-feely Vulcan thing again, and they’re working on the theory that they need to confront Lirk to make the switch back complete.
Lirk goes back to Coleman, who finally agrees to murder Klester to keep the switchback from happening. But when they go to the prisoners, Klester struggles with Coleman, who’s trying to give “her” a fatal dose of sedative. This, of course, makes Lirk hysterical for the umpteenth time and then abracadabra Freaky Friday is over.
Lester is now totally even more bonkers than ever, and crying, “Now, I’m never going to be the captain!” Coleman leads her away and who knows what’s going to happen to these two.
Kirk laments having had to “destroy” her and says, “Her life could have been as rich as any woman’s… if only.” The end.
So let’s unpack this mishogosh.
If we’re going to get Freudian, which, given the use of the words “hysteria” and “envy”, is some low-hanging fruit (low-hanging fruit being another phallic symbol), then the Enterprise was just one big penis that Janice Lester wanted to have, and she needed to take it away from Kirk via castration—literally turning him into a woman.
But let’s look at it in context. Star Trek was known for using science fiction to comment on current events, and not always in a clear or helpful manner. There were the hippies in search of Eden, who instead found Rappacini’s garden. And god help us all, there was the episode of the Venus-cat people.
“Turnaabout Intruder” aired at the close of the ’60s, in June 1969, one month before men landed on the moon, but women still couldn’t be astronauts—except in the Soviet Union. More women were working “outside the home” than ever, but the fight for equal pay and opportunities was just beginning. Could this have been a misguided attempt at sympathy with women’s plight?
Unfortunately, no. (Anyone who feels differently is welcome to comment.) Even Shatner’s performance is a parody of stereotypical female gestures and behavior.
The crew not only recognizes there’s something wrong with Kirk, but characterizes the problem using words typically used to denigrate women, especially women in power: “erratic”, “hysterical”, “unstable”. And that’s when Lester is masquerading as Kirk, so even having male anatomy doesn’t erase the stain of womanhood.
While Kirk agrees with Lester that the Starfleet policy prohibiting women captains isn’t fair, it’s unclear if he means that in a “this needs to be changed” way, or a “life is unfair and biology is destiny” way. It’s never considered by anyone else either. The other women are practically silent throughout the episode. In the end, there’s pity for Lester, but no sympathy.
So the egalitarian future we think is envisioned in Star Trek isn’t really canon, at least not in the beginning. Damn. I’m losing my religion.