Friday, July 8, 2016

Adventure classics – The women behind the mission

Time for the Stars, by Robert A. Heinlein

Commentary from The Fifty-Year Mission: The First 25 Years, by Edward Gross & Mark A. Altman


A starship with a high-ranking female officer? Can’t be done, TV execs told Gene Roddenberry, scriptwriter for the original Star Trek series. So when Desilu Productions pitched the original pilot, which featured a woman, Majel Barrett (who would later become Mrs. Roddenberry), as second in command of the USS Enterprise, NBC rejected it. Still, the network was impressed enough to pay for a second pilot which aired, minus Majel but plus photogenic Captain James T. Kirk (aka William Shatner). The first regular episode was broadcast September 8, 1966, and TV history was made.

One of NBC’s initial gripes about the first pilot was the female officer. Somehow, nobody seemed to have noticed that the company behind the voyage to the stars already had a female executive officer – Lucille Ball, the not so ditzy redhead who had bought out ex-husband Desi Arnaz’s interest several years earlier and was turning Desilu Productions into the largest independent TV production company in the country.

But it was always part of Star Trek’s mission to push the boundaries of possibilities in its 20th century vision of a 24th century world of starships and planetary federations. Sometimes it just needed to disguise that mission behind the flirty miniskirt of Nurse Chapel, the sexy helpmeet’s disguise of a reinvented Majel Barret character.

“I had been a freelance writer for about a dozen years and was chafing at the commercial censorship on television,” Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman quote Roddenberry in their oral history of Star Trek, The Fifty-Year Mission: The First 25 Years. “It seemed to me that perhaps if I wanted to talk about sex, religion, politics, make some comments against Vietnam, and so on, that if I had similar situation involving these subjects happening on other planets to little green people, indeed it might get by, and it did.”

Nearly 30 years would go by before a Star Trek series could boast a woman captain, on Voyager, 1995-2001. But in one of the strange (or perhaps not so strange) coincidences of science fiction, Robert Heinlein’s 1956 Time for the Stars would also feature several strong female characters, including psychologist Dr. Mabel Lichtenstein, who picks Heinlein’s teenage protagonist Tom Bartlett and his twin brother Pat for a long term extraterrestrial mission.

(Mabel and Majel, Bartlett and Barrett? Are names karmic destiny?)

“(Dr. Mabel) was short and pudgy and . . . about as cute as a female can be and still look like a sofa pillow,” Tom muses in Time for the Stars. “It wasn’t until later that we found out she was boss of the research team and world famous.”

The mission of the Bartlett twins and the rest of the crew of their spaceship is a tad longer than the five-year mission of Star Trek’s USS Enterprise. Possibly as long as a century, the Bartletts inform their parents cheerfully. Their mother promptly faints.

How do the Bartletts and their fellow crew members expect to live long enough to complete a hundred-year long mission? Simply by relying on one of the paradoxes of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, by which time moves more slowly for fast-moving objects (including spaceships and their crews) the more closely those objects approach to the speed of light. 

It’s a paradox which will involve the Bartlett family in more complications than a space station full of tribbles.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a July of science fiction adventures with Time for the Stars and Star Trek. And although I enjoyed the Smithsonian’s online discussion of Star Trek’s first 25 years, the full Gross-Altman version is available at both Barnes and Noble and Amazon.)

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