We’re all familiar with the Star Trek cliché of the guy in the red shirt who bites it in the first moments of the episode to show that whatever peril the crew is facing in the episode is really serious. But when Kirk explained the make-up of his crew in “Tomorrow is Yesterday,” it was roughly 50% female, and not all crew members on away missions were guys in red shirts – some of them were women in short red skirts. NBC’s internal limitations on the ways that women could react to dangerous situations on screen – Nichelle Nichols recalls not being allowed to punch in fight scenes – meant that a woman’s death sent a different, less dramatic message than a man’s death. Under these constraints, a woman’s corpse slumped dramatically in the Vasquez Rocks before the opening credits could easily suggest that she should have stayed on the ship, rather than that the away team is in Serious Danger. So what happened when a woman was on the away team?
Ugly Peril – “The Deadly Years”
In this episode, the away team is carrying out a routine re-supply mission to a colony on Gamma Hydra IV. While the team struggles to locate the colonists, Ensign Chekhov walks into a dark building, and finds a corpse. Hysterical screaming ensues. The rest of the team comes running to investigate. They discover the corpse of an old man, and then the rest of the colony, which is aging at an unusual rate. Captain Kirk’s ex-girlfriend is on hand, and is an endocrinologist, which you might think would come in handy in a situation like this, but unfortunately she stands around being useless while most of the away team deals with wrinkles, graying hair, arthritis, and memory loss. Lt. Arlene Galway, the only member of the away team who does not also serve on the bridge, is the first, and only, member of the crew to die, and her death reminds everyone that their other problems (which are legion, in this particular episode – they need to reach Starbase 10, they’re close to the Romulan neutral zone, and Kirk and his ex have work-life balance issues) are trivial in comparison to figuring out why she died wrinkly, but Chekhov still looks like Davy Jones.
Sexy Peril – “Shore Leave” and “Menagerie”
In the first of these episodes, Yeoman Tonia Barrows beams down to a newly discovered planet with Captain Kirk to enjoy some shore leave. While Kirk and McCoy are tracking a mysterious white rabbit, Barrows is attacked. The attack is one of several clues that help the crew figure out what the planet is and how to control it. This is an unusually friendly planet, and the guy with the cape and the jeweled dagger who partially undressed her in the woods is just part of the planet’s effort to make Barrows happy. She gets a cute princess outfit to go with her old-school Don Juan romantic fantasy. Unfortunately for Barrows, the planet is also interested in making McCoy happy, and his romantic overtures towards her die a sad, cold death when the planet offers him some chorus girls made out of plant cellulose.
“Menagerie” is all about rejecting the prison of pleasant illusions in favor of the difficult but rewarding path of personal freedom. In pursuit of this neat little moral, Captain Pike is imprisoned by a manipulative alien race that wants him to breed so he can perpetuate the human race in captivity. They offer him a choice of two women from his crew as mating partners – Number One, his otherwise un-named first officer who has “superior intelligence,” or his red-headed Yeoman J.M. Colt, who they note has “unusually strong female drives.” Number One didn’t claw her way through the ranks of a sexist fleet to let a big-headed alien talk about her like a prize cow. She jury-rigs her laser pistol (this is the flashback portion of the episode – they had laser pistols) into a bomb to ensure the away team’s death when it looks like their escape plans might fail. Colt, in contrast, sinks deeper into indignity after their safe return to the Enterprise by trying to ask Captain Pike if he would have picked her.
The Last Woman Standing – “The Apple”
After landing on Gamma Trianguli VI to investigate anomalous sensor readings, Kirk loses three redshirts in rapid succession (to a poisonous plant, a lightning strike, and an exploding rock). It’s the worst away mission ever, and the Enterprise is trapped in a decaying orbit while something on the planet drains its antimatter pods. Yeoman Martha Landon spends the first half of the episode gazing adoringly at Chekhov, which turns out to be a plot point because the spray-tanned natives have been busy feeding fruit to the papier-mâché snake head that represents their mechanized overlord and have never seen kissing before. Watching Chekhov and Landon canoodle is such an affront to their sheltered sensibilities that they turn to violence, taking out yet another redshirt (they hit him with a big stick – there was a village-wide instructional demonstration involving a melon).
Landon throws one of the villagers to the ground and kicks another before the crowd is subdued. She takes the lead in confining them to a hut. Deprived of its regular supply of fruit, the mechanical snake-head weakens, and the Enterprise is able to finish it off with a phaser attack from orbit and escape. Kirk makes a half-hearted attempt to tell the natives how babies are made, and the ship heads back into space. In a philosophical moment, Kirk and McCoy wonder if they inadvertently drove the planet’s population out of paradise, even though they mostly stood around hogging the camera while Landon drove the action. They abandon this fruitless line of speculation to make fun of Spock’s ears, and everyone forgets about the Yeoman who arrested an entire village without disarranging her astoundingly elaborate coiffure.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyerhas been a Star Trek fan since the early 90s, but only started watching episodes in 2009. She teaches history and reads a lot.