Sunday, November 24, 2013

“I became a feminist as an alternative to becoming a masochist.”: Turnabout Intruder

Yes, this is Kirk and Spock. Yes, they're holding hands. Fanfic writers, start your pencils.
There's a sense of poetic justice in having Star Trek go out on an episode that names “the Enterprise family” just as it threatens to destroy it because it doesn't respect women.

This was an episode I always consciously avoided: Partially because I have sort of an instinctual reticence towards big emotional finales, and while “Turnabout Intruder” certainly isn't that, it's still very much the end of an era and I can sometimes have a hard time dealing with that: I guess its because I don't like the idea of my stories having to end, or being forced to say goodbye to characters I've grown so accustomed to over the course of several years. I always needed to know there were more adventures, or at least the potential for more adventures.

That said, the biggest reason I avoided "Turnabout Intruder" was because it looked like utter crap. This episode is famously bad, and there are certainly no more ominous signs and portents on the last bow of the Original Series than the credit “Teleplay By Arthur Singer. Story By Gene Roddenberry”. So, I went into this episode absolutely dreading having to watch it. Happily, it turned out to not be nearly as bad as I expected-It's certainly not the worst effort from either of its two co-writers.

Of course, this doesn't mean it's actually any good either.

Answering a distress signal from an archaeological excavation on Camus II, Kirk, Spock and McCoy encounter Kirk's old lover, Doctor Janice Lester, now the head of the expedition, who is suffering from severe radiation poisoning. As Spock and McCoy go to investigate a cry for help further down the dig site, Lester and expresses resentment towards Kirk over the fact their relationship never worked out and her inability to fulfill her dream of becoming a starship captain as Starfleet prohibits women from holding command positions. Suddenly, Lester reveals her illness is a ruse and traps Kirk in an ancient consciousness transference device and transplants her life energy into his body, intending to command the Enterprise in his name...and then to kill him and her old body. This all happens in the teaser, mind you, and the entire remaining forty-eight minutes or so is dedicated towards watching Lester attempt to keep cover on the ship as her increasingly erratic behaviour starts alienating her from the rest of the crew, culminating in her attempting to execute the entire senior staff on mutiny charges.

“Turnabout Intruder” has, clearly, quite a number of rather significant issues. Let's tackle the really obvious one straight off: This episode has serious gender problems. Getting cited as the premier example of reactionary sexism in Star Trek by the Star Trek fans themselves probably counts for something. This episode is typically seen as a slap in the face to feminists, and it's absolutely easy to see why it has that reputation: Lester is a megalomaniacal, murderous woman who wants to usurp a man in a position of power and, once she gets there, she slowly starts to become unhinged and cracks under the pressure, eventually culminating in a massive meltdown (that Scotty even literally describes as “hysterical”), indicating she's incapable of handling the duties and responsibilities such positions of leadership require. Considering this is the work of two of the most blatantly reactionary creative figures in the entire franchise, one is really sort of afforded that reading almost by default. And this seems especially egregious as this is going out in a time where women's struggle for civil rights was really becoming a major concern: In the context of its time, “Turnabout Intruder” seems explicitly and firmly retrograde, which only twists the knife deeper as this is Star Trek's series finale.

That said, there are a surprising number of truly great moments and elements to this episode that seem to at least call into question how straightforwardly indisputable the conclusion to that above argument is. A lot of this has to do with the acting (which I'll touch on in a moment) and I'm sure my reaction is based at least in part on me wanting to close out the Original Series on a somewhat vaguely positive note. It may even be possible that Roddenberry and Singer's general incompetence has finally worked in our favour: Perhaps they actually just bungled trying to write a hateful bit of reactionary sexism. In any case, there are even bits of scripted dialog that hint at an altogether more progressive and interesting story here just beneath the surface waiting to be told. In the teaser, for example, when Lester rants at Kirk about how unfair it is that women aren't allowed to be starship captains, Kirk actually agrees: What he criticises her for is taking out her justified anger and frustration on him. This does get into stereotypically defensive reactions from men to feminism where they frequently try to make it about themselves and take criticism of patriarchy as personal attacks, but I don't think that's quite what's going on in this case: Lester genuinely seems like an abusive partner here, and her later behaviour certainly supports this reading of her character.

But the scene that really got me to take notice was a few moments later, after Lester steals Kirk's body. She taker her time admiring her newfound physical strength and the respect she can command in this form that she wasn't able to do before, then promptly tries to strangle Kirk to death in her old body. Lester declares that she doesn't fear killing now that she has the power to do so, and that Kirk will now understand “the indignity of being a woman” and how it's “...better to be dead than to live alone in the body of a woman”. Lester doesn't sound like a cruel reactionary Right Wing “FemiNazi” caricature to me: She sounds more like an evil woman who has become evil in part because of her own internalized misogyny. Lester doesn't want a Sisterhood Cabal to rise up, take over the world and crush men the way men have crushed women, nor does she even *really* want equality between men and women. Lester hates the entire concept of “woman”, conceiving of it as a handicap that has held her back from achieving the greatness she feels entitled to. And now, in the body of a man, she finally has the ability to indulge every single one of her power fantasies, because self-absorbed power fantasies that oppress and marginalize others are the exclusive domain of men. It's very telling that Lester gains both the thirst and the ability to kill upon entering a man's body.

(And it's similarly telling that Lester's power fantasies revolve around being the captain of a starship: Five years later is Gene Roddenberry finally beginning to understand how much he hurt Star Trek by infusing the captaincy with so much repugnant masculine bravado and machismo?)

Of course, the true show-stealer is the drag performance that ensues thanks to the body-swapping gimmick of the teaser. William Shatner is absolutely delightful as Janice Lester, spending forty minutes out of the runtime simply vamping around the Enterprise like a supervillainess from some amazingly cheesy sci-fi B-movie: Seriously, he reminds me of Queen Arachnea from Space Ghost: All he needed was to hiss at the camera during the climax screaming “Curses! Foiled again!”. Thing is though, Shatner is so much fun to watch it's easy to miss the gravity and professionalism he actually brings to the part: While he does enthusiastically throw himself at the idea of an evil space queen inhabiting Kirk's body (the part on the climax where a flustered and impatient Lester, who it must be stressed is still being played by William Shatner, tries to seduce Doctor Coleman into killing Kirk must have launched a million slash fics alone), he doesn't prance around in an exaggerated caricature of femininity: Instead, Shatner puts on an extremely nuanced and multifaceted performance that goes at great lengths to emphasize the differences between Lester and Kirk.

Lester is psychotic, cruel, vindictive, manipulative and prone to random outbursts of violence, and seeing someone who looks like Kirk behave this way tips off the rest of the crew pretty much immediately. Critically and laudably, Shatner approaches this the same way Diana Muldaur had previously approached her own two-character brief in “Return to Tomorrow”: Just as Muldaur limited Thalassa's flaws to Thalassa alone, Shatner similarly goes out of his way to make clear that whatever personal failings Janice Lester might have (and it is worrying that so many of them seem to be part of the “emotional” and “irrational” stereotype of women), these are failings unique to her, not generalizations that should be made of all women. It's possible some of this comes from Roddenberry (starting from this point most of Roddenberry's sexism stumbles come from positive discrimination instead of misogyny) but the overwhelming majority is purely due to William Shatner. The best evidence is the last line in the episode, which doubles as the last line in the series:

"Her life could have been as rich as any woman's. If only...if only..."

But the way Shatner delivers it it sounds a lot more like “ rich as anyone's”, which is a far more powerful statement: In the original line, it seems like Kirk is reflecting on how sad it is that institutionalized sexism still exists. Now though, it sounds like Kirk is mourning Lester specifically. Roddenberry may have meant this to be a clumsy problematiziation of Star Trek's utopia inasmuch as women are still not afforded all the rights men are, but Shatner wrestles the meaning away from him and reminds us that no, the purpose of Star Trek is to inspire and give hope to people, and it's up to each one individual to decide what that means for us personally, which is a much nicer note to end the Original Series on.

Really, Janice Lester ought to be remembered as one of Shatner's very best roles: She's a perfect showcase of everything he's so good at. Playing Lester attempting to play Kirk (and getting it wrong, at first slightly and later very much) is a recursive artifice as good as, if not better than, anything in “A Piece of the Action” or “The Enterprise Incident”. It's an incredibly challenging brief Shatner works miracles with, and it's even more remarkable considering he was apparently sick with the flu all throughout filming. But Shatner's not the only one to do a drag turn: Sandra Smith too has a double-character brief, beginning and ending the episode as Janice Lester...but spending the majority of it as Kirk. And it's with her that things get *really* interesting. As Kirk, Smith is every bit as dignified and commands every ounce of respect and admiration Shatner does. But there are subtle differences in what happens to Kirk when compared to what happens to Lester, and Smith's the one who takes this part of the episode from simply good to actually great.

See, Smith plays Kirk as being largely unfazed by being shunted into a woman's body. Whereas Lester is deeply uncomfortable and it is clearly costing her a lot of exertion and willpower to maintain her facade, and she's not all that great at it as is, Kirk doesn't seem bothered in the slightest and is more concerned with proving her identity to Spock and McCoy and regaining control of the Enterprise. In fact, delightfully, Kirk makes an utterly convincing woman: The scene right after waking up in sickbay and discovering what's happened where Kirk has a friendly girl chat with Nurse Chapel is simply a masterstroke: Kirk effortlessly adopts traditionally feminine mannerisms and speech patterns like it's the most natural thing in the world and Chapel is completely fooled. The contrast between this scene and Lester's bungled disguise continuously crumbling around her as more and more of the senior staff start to become suspicious is magnificent: Lester may hate being a woman, but it's a purely conscious hatred of her identity brought on by her egoistic response to oppressive social factors. She's manifestly not a transgendered person, and she has very clear problems adapting to a male role, or rather to what she conceives of a male role to be. Smith, however, has, in essence, turned Kirk into a genderfluid individual-Kirk is equally content taking on a male or a female form, and that's actually a stunningly perfect extrapolation of the character he's always been.

While the scene with Chapel is delightful, what seals it is when Spock goes to question Kirk after Lester tosses her in the brig. Kirk implores Spock to trust her, appealing to the close bond they've always shared. She even flat-out tells Spock that he is “...closer to the captain than anyone in the universe”. First of all, this is the shippiest of shipper-bait dialog, but what's great about this line is that it's something Kirk would have said to Spock anyway. What Smith adds to it is her delivery: She infuses the line with a very deliberate sense of kindness and compassion that's more traditionally associated with women. There's no way a male actor would have delivered this line the way Smith does. You could read this as “straightening out” the homoerotic subtext between Kirk and Spock, but I prefer to read it as emphasizing the nature of the relationship the characters have always had by highlighting parts of it that might otherwise not be picked up on as easily. And, when Smith gets to record that marvelous Captain's Log entry and then gets to defiantly face down Shatner-as-Lester in the court martial scene, there's absolutely no questioning who she really is. Smith is so magnificent as Kirk we actually don't want to see her go back to having to channel Janice Lester.

“Turnabout Intruder”'s biggest problem isn't its messy approach to gender roles, it's actually its really terrible structure. The majority of the episode is taken up by the awful “evil twin” story and the constant scenes where Lester has nasty fights with Spock and McCoy and slowly betrays the trust of the entire crew are absolute torture. I hate, hate this kind of conflict: It's pretty much everything I loathe about scripted drama bound up in one episode. This would have been leagues better had Spock and McCoy figured out Lester's deception somewhere around the first or second act instead of the fourth, as happens in what made it to air. Then, we could have split our time between Spock, McCoy and Scotty colluding with Smith-as-Kirk in secret to take back the Enterprise while putting on elabourate ruses of their own so as not to arouse Shatner-as-Lester's suspicions. We'd get to see everyone try to outmaneuver everyone else through staged recursive artifices and Star Trek's theatrical performativity get kicked into warp drive.

This would all lead up to an epic showdown where the crew perhaps has to chase Lester through the ship as Smith-as-Kirk assumes her rightful place with the senior staff monitoring the crisis from the bridge. I'd have adored a scene where Smith gets to take command of the Enterprise and interacts with the bridge crew as if nothing unusual was going on: That would have been one of the greatest moments in the history of the series. As Spock tells her, “the bridge is where you belong”, and he never said she had to be a man to get there. But, she's kept away from the captain's chair by both diegetic and extradiegetic limiting factors: Hearing Shatner-as-Lester gloat about how Kirk is unable to take command in her current form stings, and so does the fact Smith has so few actual scenes in this episode. While I can't complain too much about the episode focusing on Shatner to the extent it does as Shatner is in fact profoundly entertaining, I can't help but wish it spent an equal amount of time on Smith. The real gender problems with this story aren't in some deliberately reactionary diatribe against feminism, it's that our female captain was never allowed to act like a captain in an episode supposedly about how unfair it was that women aren't allowed to be captains.

It is more than fitting then that Star Trek should end with a Curate's Egg of botched feminism and confused utopianism. Whether he meant to or not, Gene Roddenberry might just have turned in the perfect final episode of the Original Series by having the show go down mired in its inability to live up to its own promises and potential. Like the rest of the series, “Turnabout Intruder” hints at genuine greatness and leaves us with a lot of thought provoking ideas to work with, but it also makes it eminently clear that the show as it stands now is in no way capable of taking these concepts any further. Star Trek is, and always has been, capable of becoming a timeless shared myth in which we can see reflections of the best of ourselves and who we want to be. But Star Trek is also, much like Kirk in this episode, frequently shackled and restrained from being everything it could be. But now Star Trek is, for the moment, free: Ironic that the cancellation of the Original Series is the thing that seals its bid for immortality, from here on out Star Trek can be shaped and interpreted in as many ways as there are people who were inspired by it. And when next we see the Starship Enterprise, we'll finally get a clearer picture of what she meant to those who first journeyed with her.


  1. Believe it or not, this has made me actually want to go and watch this episode.

    1. Happy to oblige!

      I mean it's not exactly the most *watchable* episode in the series, but you *can* find some fun things about it...

  2. Oh, and now that we are actually at the end of the Original Series, can I request your updated watch-list, Josh? You said a few episodes back you had made one for your sister (in law? can't remember properly now), but that you would have changed one or two episodes on it.

    I would like to see if I can't introduce my daughter to Star Trek, and doing so from the perspective of this blog would be a pretty good starting point, I reckon.

    1. Check back in the next few days (most likely over the weekend): I've got a post lined up especially for that purpose :-)

  3. Y'know I agree with everyone here - despite the admitted flaws in the story, your post makes me want to watch this again too! Thanks so far for your epic run on TOS - looking forwards to the future!

  4. In the original series in general, the show more often painted children and the counterculture as villains; and surely there were 10 times as many power-crazed and abusive male antagonists depicted as female antagonists.

    I thought Turnabout was a strong, powerful ending to the series, with a mutiny among the crew. Wow. Controversial? No doubt about it. Star Trek struggled with gender issues from the very first pilot.

    For example, the female Number One (Majel Barrett) was removed and replaced because it was thought women should not have command roles. Janice Lester demonstrated a well-founded resentment about that culture of male dominance. American society, too was going through changes of that nature.

    And interestingly, the other "gender issue" from the first season -- that of Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney) as Kirk's female yeoman, a character concept eventually abandoned -- also reflected changes happening society. That character's name was also "Janice".