January 27, 2010

Mudd's Women

True confessions. I must admit to thinking I got the short the end of the stick when Victor and I divvied up Star Trek episodes. He got “The Man Trap” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” I got “Charlie X.” He took on Kirk’s psychic wrangling in “The Enemy Within.” I got…”Mudd’s Women”? I recalled Harry Mudd, or Harcourt Fenton Mudd, from long ago repeated viewings of ST-TOS and the only thing these recollections could call to mind was Mudd’s buffoonery. Harry Mudd and “Mudd’s Women” was a trifle, a divergence from the more serious philosophical themes explored in more substantive Star Trek episodes. I wasn’t looking forward to traveling down memory lane with Mudd or his soft-focus women.

But part of the inspiration for this blog is drawn from the sense that Star Trek warrants a re-viewing, a re-engagement if you will. While the myth of Star Trek has grown steadily in the decades since the original series aired, the substance of those original shows has been somewhat lost and is worth recovering as we reexamine these shows from our own 21st century perspective. And in this case, “Mudd’s Women” turns out to be vintage Star Trek. It actually holds up much better than I had recalled and is a rich source of interesting, if not provocative themes.

The storyline, penned by Gene Roddenberry, is no doubt familiar to our erstwhile readers (we do have some readers don’t we?). The Enterprise is chasing an unidentified ship through an asteroid belt. It’s forced to extend its shields around the ship and overtaxes the ship’s engines, burning out their crucial lithium crystals. They beam the ship’s crew to the Enterprise and are surprised to turn up Harry and his crew (or cargo) of three beguiling and bewitching women: Eve McHuron, Magda Kovacs, and Ruth Bonaventure. The women immediately begin working their wiles on the crew as Harry plots to get out from under the thumb of Kirk. He sees hope in the lonely lithium crystal miners of Rigel XII and proffers a trade of sorts, his freedom for the women, or Kirk doesn’t get the much needed crystals. But men being men (a persistent theme of the episode as we shall see), disputes arise and Kirk is forced to save the day once again, revealing that the women’s beauty is artificial, merely simulated , a product of the Venus pill. Eventually, Eve, the proverbial blond hooker with a heart of gold, chooses life on the frontier with the gruff but educable Ben Childress and Kirk gets his lithium, calms down considerably, and powers up the Enterprise for another day and another adventure.

As I suggested, on the surface “Mudd’s Women” seems to be a bit of a bauble—humorous, light-hearted, a respite from Star Trek’s heavier philosophical moments. And yet the show raises some intriguing themes and sometimes even manages to play against some of the easier stereotypes foisted upon it. Most obviously we must consider the theme of those women of Mudd. Star Trek is often portrayed as sexist at best and at worst rather misogynistic. And yet “Mudd’s Women” is a bit more complicated than that. First, we must recognize that men come off no better in this episode than women. As Harry remarks upon boarding the Enterprise, “Men will always be men, no matter where they are. You’ll never take that out of them.” And indeed we see over and over again how men will be men, or better, boys. (Except, of course, Spock, who remains immune from the women’s wiles. As Mudd notes, “You can save it girls. This type can turn himself off from any emotion.”) The men of the Enterprise are easily duped by these beauties and a buffoon such as Harry Mudd is able to best Kirk, at least for a while. So too are the miners of Rigel XII a bunch of minors, kids who haven’t seen a women in years. Judd Apatow would have been very much at home in the fraternity culture of Rigel XII. At the same time, Eve at least comes across as a smart, resourceful, and ethical individual. She’s troubled by the act of deception she has been forced into. She’s escaping from a home planet where there is no life for her. She hates the whole situation she finds herself in. She resists the Venus Pill, though ultimately gives in to Harry’s exhortations. She chides the miners: “Why don’t you just run a raffle and the loser gets me.” And she repeats Harry’s earlier sentiment about men being men. When Childress chides her for cleaning up his cave, she replies: “The sound of the male ego. You travel halfway across the galaxy and it’s still the same song.” And it’s Eve who has to explain to Childress how he can keep his pans clean, sand blasting them in the winds of Rigel XII. It’s Eve who recognizes that Kirk is married to his ship and she faces a better prospect on Rigel XII (”You’ve got someone up there called the Enterprise.”). And it’s Eve who proposes to Childress that she be a partner of his, not simply his trophy wife hopped up on the Venus Pill: “Is this the kind of wife you want Ben. Not a wife to help you but this kind—selfish, vain, useless. Is this what you really want?” Eve, the first woman, turns out to be something of a wise and knowledgeable feminist—wise enough to prefer a jug-headed miner on a desolate frontier planet to the playboy star ship captain married to his ship (more about this in a moment). This in a television episode first aired in 1966. The caricatures and stereotypes of Star Trek are not entirely borne out by the gender politics of this episode.

And yet, in another way, Eve fails as a model of the smart and resourceful woman. “Mudd’s Women” is fascinating as well for taking up the theme of women’s beauty and the artificial means women will employ to maintain their beauty. “Mudd’s Women” raises interesting questions about the nature of beauty and the aesthetic. Can beauty be measured? Is it objective or merely in the eye of the beholder? Consider McCoy’s interesting comment to Kirk: “Are they actually more lovely, pound for pound, measurement for measurement than every other women you’ve known or is it that they just, well, act beautiful?” More interestingly, though, Star Trek poses a question in 1966 that continues to reverberate today, perhaps even more so: what’s the value of simulated beauty? Eve, our first woman and proto-feminist, voices outrage at the measures women will take to maintain their beauty and allure for men. And yet her outrage falls on deaf ears. Her fellow cargo, Mudd’s women, tire of her objections. Of course the enhancement culture that Star Trek was already exploring (and deploring) in 1966 has grown in leaps and bounds since that time and women, and men, now have available to them a huge variety of modern-day Venus pills to nip and tuck their fat and wrinkles back into place. Star Trek’s past portrays a future we are only now catching up to, a future in which we reject Kirk’s sentiment: “There’s only one kind of woman or man for that matter. You either believe in yourself or you don’t.” It turns out we don’t, believe in ourselves that is. Rather, we or believe in Botox, and Restyland, and liposuction, and the whole assortment of products and procedures. And all those kids who stayed up late to watch Star Trek forty years ago are now staying up late to catch the next infomercial on the next generation of Venus pills. Eve was smart enough to make a go of it on Rigel XII but not smart enough to persuade subsequent generations of women, liberated or not, to stay away from the surgeon’s knives. Star Trek reminds us just how impotent feminist arguments against the beauty industry really have been and Kirk’s observation that the drugs don’t make the person does little to appease the ravages of time. The future is supposed to look all sparkly and clean and if it takes the Venus pill to make it shimmer and shine, well then sign me and 75 million other baby boomers up.

So this bauble that is “Mudd’s Women” turns out to be more than simply fool’s gold. More fascinating still is an intriguing suggestion that lies at the heart of the show and raises even more interesting questions. Consider the relationship between Mudd’s women and the Enterprise. We already know that Eve and the Enterprise are competitors for Kirk’s heart. We suspect as well that the Enterprise is a woman. When Kirk puts Mudd on trial it’s the ship’s computer that reveals his lies and deceptions. And it speaks in a female voice. As well, the ship doesn’t (or doesn’t want to) reveal the women’s deceptions. While Mudd is an easy book to read and the ship sees through his lies, it/she remains silent on the nature of the women. McCoy’s sensors and medical scanners refuse to divulge their secret. Perhaps because they share a secret. The women’s power over men is made possible by their reliance on the Venus pill. And the Enterprise’s power, the source of its attraction—especially to Kirk and Scotty—is lithium crystals. (Interestingly there are four lithium crystal circuits and three are burned out, suggesting a numeric parallel to Mudd and his cargo.) Magda and Ruth seem addicted to the Venus pill and Kirk and Scotty both have a hard-on for those crystals:

Scotty: "Agh, if we only had those crystals..."
Kirk: "But we don't! I didn't get them! I should have found a way! Satisfied, Mr. Scott?!?"

The parallel between the Venus pill and the lithium crystals is further suggested in two key scenes where visually we see the transition from Eve’s hand holding the Venus pill to Spock’s hand holding the lithium crystals.

As Eve holds the Venus pill in her hand, Mudd intones: “Go on Eve. Take it. It’s not a cheat. It’s a miracle for some man who can appreciate it and who needs it.”

Then we immediately cut away and see Spock holding the lithium crystal as he comments, “Even burned and cracked they’re beautiful. Destroying them was a shame.” While Spock remains immune to the beauty of women, those crystals sure do attract his attention and this seems a rare example of the Vulcan’s aesthetic sense, employed in the service of the Enterprise’s, and by extension, Star Fleet’s, power. Eve worries that the Venus pill is a lie and a cheat, and the Enterprise is powered by lithium, represented by the symbol Li. (In subsequent episodes, the lithium crystals are rechristened as dilithium crystals.) Harry can’t find the Venus Pills, which he has hidden away from the captain, and Kirk can’t find the lithium crystals, which Childress has hidden away from him. In the presence of women on the Venus Pill, our crew is empowered, engorged, hard and excited. And with the lithium crystals they are equally empowered, thrusting out into space boldly going where no man has gone before. Take away the Venus Pill and the lithium crystals, and our men go limp. They lose power and their orbit can’t be maintained. Superheating, whether you’re a man or a machine, isn’t good.

What are we to make of these intriguing parallels between the Venus Pill and the lithium crystals? We never see men taking the Venus Pill, but Kirk explains that it gives you more of whatever you have. “With men it makes you more muscular…more aggressive,” he tells Childress. And Harry has already reminded us that “men will always be men.” Do the lithium (or dilithium) crystals play a role in the muscular foreign policy of Star Fleet? Are the ideals of the Federation a cheat or a miracle? For men who can appreciate it and who need it, lithium makes possible the conquering of space and empowers the playboy adventures of our star ship captain. “Mudd’s Women,” a candidate for the second pilot, following “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” seems to suggest that at the heart of one of the origin myths of Star Trek and the Federation is some ambivalence regarding its mission.

1 comment:

  1. I can't believe no one has commented on this. I am just getting into Star Treks and I am starting at the beginning with the original series. What an excellent analysis. I completely missed the parallel between the lithium and the pills. I was focused on the theme of what the mind/body is capable of if one just believes. As the lady returned to beauty without the pill it was all in her head at that time. In the same way then, does the crew really need the Lithium? Are they capable of running the ship without it? Great stuff.