I have been waiting for Star Trek Discovery with breathless anticipation. I am interested in the new series not just because I’ve been a life-long Star Trek fan, but because of two new characters, Captain Philippa Georgiou and First Officer Michael Burnham. These are women in command.
Star Trek has shown women in command positions since the very beginning. The first pilot of the original series had a woman in the role of First Officer. She was played by Majel Barrett Roddenberry, and was referred to as, “Number One,” by Captain Pike.
According to Roddenberry, the network executives in the 1960’s found having a woman in charge to be simply intolerable. Not everyone remembers it this way (see Inside Star Trek: The Real Story), but whatever the reason, they shot a second pilot that got rid of Number One. The second pilot had Mister Spock as the First Officer, and still had women in positions of responsibility, but they were not in command. The original series also had many cringe-worthy images of women as green slave dancers, Mudd’s women, and an assortment of barely-clothed alien women who usually ended up in Captain Kirk’s bed.
The first real image of a woman in command was Major Kira in Deep Space Nine. She was the Bajoran First Officer of the space station who was a war veteran, a guerilla fighter, tough, smart, and in charge. Deep Space Nine had another powerful woman character, Lieutenant Jadzia Dax. As a Trill, she had the knowledge and wisdom of someone who had lived multiple lifetimes as both males and females. As a Star Fleet officer, she was intelligent, courageous, and strong.
One very important episode of Deep Space Nine, “Rejoined,” showed the first same-sex relationship between women. This powerful story showed Jadzia Dax falling in love with another woman Trill. In their previous lifetimes, they had been a male and female married couple and were brought together again. The passion between these two women was portrayed in a poignant way with the first lesbian kiss in Star Trek. Even though they were in love with each other, they weren’t allowed to be together because of a Trill law.
The first real woman in command was Captain Kathryn Janeway of Star Trek Voyager. She was brilliant, fearless, loyal, and fiercely protective of her crew. There were also several important women crewmembers, including the first woman Chief Engineer, B’Elanna Torres; a telepathic waif-like alien, Kes; and a former Borg drone, Seven of Nine. Captain Janeway was courageous in fighting off violent aliens; she was firm, but fair, in running the ship; and she earned the respect and loyalty of all her crew members. She was different from the male Star Trek captains in that she was physically affectionate with her crew and she showed moments of reflection and self-doubt on occasion.
Captain Janeway was especially important to me during a challenging time in my life. I was the Squadron Commander of an Air Force flying training unit and I had to select, hire, and train 110 instructor pilots. I had to create a support structure for the squadron, fly as a T-37 instructor pilot, and fly in my regular job as an airline Captain. It was an overwhelming task.
I had to deal with a difficult Wing Commander, an insubordinate Operations Officer, and a remote, desolate location. Watching Captain Janeway fight enemies in the Delta Quadrant, deal with insubordinate crewmembers, and lead her ship on difficult and dangerous missions was a source of inspiration for me as a real Air Force Squadron Commander. Kate Mulgrew did an amazing job as an actor of breathing life into a complex, multi-faceted, woman in command.
Note: Spoilers ahead
Watching the first episodes of Star Trek Discovery, I am thrilled by the portrayal of women in command. Captain Georgiou, played by Michelle Yeoh, is a war-seasoned leader who is respected by her crew, and she is the mentor to First Officer Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green. These women have a long relationship that is much more than just Captain and First Officer. There is an intimacy in their communication and they deeply care for each other.
At one point, Michael Burnham has to mutiny against her Captain to try and save her life. Both Michael Burnham and Captain Georgiou are willing to sacrifice their lives for each other, and for the ship. The loss of Captain Georgiou sends Michael to prison for life. Michael is taken out of prison to help the star ship Discovery and she has to earn the trust of her crewmembers back. In a bittersweet moment, Captain Georgiou tells Michael in a recording, “Take good care of those in your care.” We will learn more about the relationship of Michael Burnham and Captain Georgiou as the series progresses. Another significant point is both of these women leaders are people of color.
Seeing women in leadership roles is not just an interesting story line. To look at women who are decisive, self-confident, courageous, and skilled is a source of genuine inspiration for other women and young girls in their real lives.
Tennis champion and LGBTQIAP activist, Billie Jean King, said, “When you lead, you don’t make a lot of friends sometimes. It’s a very lonely place at night, but it’s worth it.” Watching Captain Janeway fight the Borg, or Captain Georgiou wage war with the Klingons, shows that women can be tough and fearless leaders. As a young person watching Lieutenant Uhura, or as a Squadron Commander seeing Captain Janeway, these images of women in command gave me true inspiration. I thought, “If she can do that, so can I.” This is why Star Trek is still relevant and important after more than 50 years.