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Star Trek – Mudd’s Women (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

I think it’s fair to say that Star Trek had some gender issues. I say that as a fan of the show, and as a person with an immense fondness for the ensemble. It’s tempting to write off those sexist moments and decisions as attitudes that were socially acceptable at the time. After all, the sixties are almost half a lifetime away at this point. However, that doesn’t account for the fact that many of the same gender issues plagued Star Trek: The Next Generation in the late eighties, which lost two of its three female leads in its first season, and opened its second year by subjecting the remaining female lead to The Child.

Even disregarding that, though, there comes a point where even the time when a work was produced can’t excuse certain attitudes or approaches. Star Trek doesn’t feature too many strong female characters, relegating recurring female characters like Uhura and Janice Rand to the background. This is dodgy enough, but the show’s problems with gender become a lot more obvious when a show throws sexuality into focus. Mudd’s Women is such a show. It famously introduced one of the few recurring non-crewmember characters, and it plays into the “Star Trek as space western” theme, but it is also very sexist. Very, very sexist.

Mudd-ying the waters...

Mudd-ying the waters…

Mudd’s Women plays up the notion that Star Trek is really just a western set in outer space. Indeed, it’s one of the episodes listed in Gene Roddenberry’s original “Star Trek is…” pitch, albeit under a slightly different title:

THE WOMEN. Duplicating a page from the “Old West”; hanky-panky aboard with a cargo of women destined for a far-off colony.

This was one of the episodes listed near the top of the pitch, along with the story that would become The Cage. When the network demanded a second pilot, Mudd’s Women was on the shortlist. Apparently the network thought that an episode about space-age prostitution was probably not the best episode to open their first season. Roddenberry dutifully made it the second episode produced after the second pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before.

And the crew are suddenly energised...

And the crew are suddenly energised…

And make no mistake, Mudd’s Women is about prostitution, as painfully as the script might contort to avoid the word of the implication. “I recruit wives for settlers,” Mudd boasts, “a difficult but satisfying task.” Mudd might try to disguise what is that he’s talking about, but the implication is clear. “Three lovely ladies destined for frontier planets to be the companions of lonely men, to supply that warmth of a human touch that’s so desperately needed,” he explains.

Sure, he qualifies it. He is talking about wholesome stuff, not just sex. “A wife, a home, a family. Gentlemen, I look upon this work as a sacred public trust.” And the girls talk about being sold as if it’s the best thing in the world. “We’ve got men willing to be our husbands waiting for us, and you’re taking us in the opposite direction!” Eve protests. Never mind that it seems like Mudd sold them to the highest bidder, even if that’s not explicitly stated. You could at least argue at this point that it’s something approaching cultural relativism in effect. Mudd is really only organising a space-aged arranged marriage.

Playing the hand you're dealt...

Playing the hand you’re dealt…

That’s not quite it, though. When the Enterprise changes course, he doesn’t care about the “men willing to be husbands” on another world. He’s just desperate to sell off his inventory. “Well, girls, lithium miners,” he explains. “Don’t you understand? Lonely, isolated, overworked, rich lithium miners! Girls, do you still want husbands, hmm?” He doesn’t care who he sells them to, as long as he can turn a profit.

Indeed, he even explicitly tries to pimps out eve to Kirk, sending her to seduce him for leverage. She almost succeeds, hesitating at the last minute. “Oh, I just can’t do it. I don’t care what Harry Mudd says. I do like you, but I just can’t go through with it. I hate this whole thing!” When Kirk asks if the ladies are Mudd’s crew, Mudd replies, “Well, no, Captain. This is me cargo.” It’s clear that Mudd thinks of the women as commodities.

A miner dilemma...

A miner dilemma…

In fact, he controls them through a drug that very clearly has addictive properties, and which gives him considerable sway over them. They freak out when he can’t find the drug. “Why did you hide them, Harry?” Ruth asks. “Don’t you trust us?” Mudd responds by stating he was hiding it from the Enterprise crew, but it seems more likely that he recognises the control that the Venus drug gives him over the ladies. It is a very disturbing sequence, but one that is all the stranger because Mudd’s Women doesn’t treat Harry Mudd as a drug-dealing pimp, instead presenting him as a loveable rogue.

You could argue that Mudd is meant to be sexist, and that the episode is a condemnation of prostitution and exploitation, but I’m not convinced. For one thing, the episode never stops treating Mudd as a charming snake oil salesman. For another, it isn’t just Harry’s behaviour towards the women that suggests sexism, but everybody’s conduct towards them. When the women arrive on the Enterprise, they are treated as objects for the crew to gawk at.

It all becomes crystal clear...

It all becomes crystal clear…

“Ah, sure, these starships are really something marvellous, but men will always be men no matter where they are,” Mudd observes. “Eh, mister? You’ll never take that out of them.” It’s hardly the most flattering portrayal of men. If Uhura and Rand weren’t around, you’d be forgiven for assuming the crew hadn’t seen a woman in years. And, even then, their reactions are very creepy. Kirk and Spock are the only male crew members to emerge from Mudd’s Women looking like anything other than perverts.

And then there’s the women themselves, and the moral. Eve throws a hissy-fit when none of the miners want to party with her. “Why don’t you run a raffle and the loser gets me?” Eve dramatically protests before storming out. It kinda misses the point about why this is so offensive. It’s the “raffle” itself that’s the problem – the fact that the women are treated as commodities to be bought and sold and awarded as prizes in the first place. The fact she’s a third-place prize is incidental. And Kirk doesn’t come out of the scene that much better. Following her, he demands, “Just have those crystals here when I get back!” It’s as if he is chasing lost cattle.

A communication problem...

A communication problem…

But that all leads to the ending, which is especially frustrating. When the miners discover her true form, Eve teases them. “Is this the kind of wife you want, Ben? Not someone to help you, not a wife to cook and sew and cry and need, but this kind? Selfish, vain, useless. Is this what you really want?” That kind of implies that there are only two types of wives: the ones who do the housework (and, er, cry?), or selfish and useless ones.

And then the script tries to put a nice happy moral on the end of it, as if to suggest that this is wholesome fun. “There’s only one kind of woman,” Kirk comments. “You either believe in yourself, or you don’t.” So the message is clear: believe in yourself… and then some strange moustached man can pimp out to people you’ve never met, including miners and starship captains. To suggest that this is a wee bit… offensive feels like an understatement.

Mudd is a dirty dealer...

Mudd is a dirty dealer…

Which is a shame, because there’s some interesting stuff going on behind the scenes. For one thing, there’s Mudd himself. If you can get past the fact that he’s a drug-dealing pimp, he’s actually quite charismatic. Roger C. Carmel is a large part of that charm, playing a larger-than-life swindler and hustler who is very hard to dislike, even if you can’t trust him as far as you can throw him. It’s easy to see how Mudd became one of the few recurring characters outside the crew of the Enterprise.

As writer Stephan Kandel noted in an interviewed in Starlog, part of the appeal of Mudd is that he’s an easily-recognisable archetype:

I said, ‘What if we start with a character who isn’t alien or highly technologized, but rather somebody with whom the audience would easily identify?’ What we came up with was a roofing salesman, a con man.

There’s a reason that Mudd works a lot better here than similar roguish characters work in later spin-offs like Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager. Compare Mudd to the eponymous smuggler in The Outrageous Okona. Okona seems a tad dull, dry and antiseptic, while Mudd is energetic and charming.

Love isn't the drug...

Love isn’t the drug…

There’s a reason for that. The original Star Trek was a lot dirtier and a lot messier than The Next Generation and Voyager. Indeed, I’d argue that Star Trek presented a more hostile and threatening universe than even Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. After all, Mudd’s Women hinges on Kirk encouraging prostitution in exchange for vital fuel. The episode might bungle the execution, but the concept is pretty heavy, and plays into the idea that space is an untamed wilderness – even for human settlers.

We haven’t quite reached Roddenberry’s aspirational socialist future yet. For one thing, it’s immediately clear that the Federation has a pretty severe mineral dependency. “But it’s frustrating,” Scott protests. “Almost a million gross tons of vessel depending on a hunk of crystal the size of my fist.” It’s clear that mankind isn’t entirely free of wants and needs, and that some measure or scarcity and economy must exist. That doesn’t devalue the ideals of the Federation as a peaceful alliance built on the promise of exploration and development, but it makes it clear that the universe itself isn’t tamed or managed.

A rocky episode...

A rocky episode…

In fact, the script acknowledges that the Federation can’t be entirely kind-hearted and socialist. Items must have a cost. Kirk offers to pay an “equitable price” when buying Lithium. Apparently it isn’t sold on good will. When the miners refuse, Kirk attempts to gain leverage. His implicit threats are forced by desperation, but they acknowledge that the Federation can’t operate purely on the best intentions, and that membership and alliances are built on material exchange as well as exchange of knowledge. “You’re a long way out in space, gentlemen. You’ll need medical help, cargo runs, starship protection. You want to consider those facts too?”

All of this is interesting, but it’s hard to get past the unpleasant sexist undertones of Mudd’s Women. It might be easier to forgive if it weren’t indicative of the show’s general sexual politics, but it just feels like the most blatant expression of them. It’s a shame, because there are some good ideas here – it’s just a shame about the sexism.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:

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