When season 2 of The Next Generation premiered, the audience was introduced to one of Trek’s most divisive characters – Doctor Katherine Pulaski. Taking over for Doctor Beverly Crusher as the CMO on the Enterprise, Pulaski was criticized from the beginning for being too cold, too rude, too brash. While early complaints were comparing her to Crusher, Pulaski has more recently been compared to Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy from the Original Series. This comparison highlights the double standard of how McCoy and Pulaski are treated: both doctors are older than most of their crewmates, are fond of “tough love,” distrustful of technology, and have an antagonistic relationship with the most logical character of their series (Spock and Data respectively) – yet Pulaski receives far more criticism than McCoy. Pulaski suffers, not only from replacing Crusher, but from a gender double standard where even though she and McCoy are nearly the same character, she is held to higher standards of behavior because she is a woman.
As Pulaski was written as older than her fellow crew on the Enterprise-D, she rarely has romantic ties depicted on screen, whereas Crusher and Picard had a teasing hint towards something in their past and future in several episodes, including “The Naked Now” and a timeline from “All Good Things…” where they had been married, but had since divorced. Pulaski did seem to form some sort of bond with Moriarty in the episode “Elementary My Dear Data”, but as he was a hologram, Pulaski may not have viewed it in the same way she viewed her three ex-husbands or her implied relationship with Kyle Riker referenced in “The Icarus Factor.” The relationship between Pulaski and Moriarty was not allowed to continue due to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate demanding more money for later episodes that referred to the Doyle canon, then Pulaski being replaced by Crusher. However, throughout “Elementary My Dear Data,” Pulaski and Moriarty are allowed to build the foundation for a relationship by having intellectual conversations over tea, and her flirting with Kyle Riker shows that Pulaski did have romantic feelings and desired relationships.
By comparison, McCoy often received inconsistent characterization throughout TOS, yet a side of him that kept reemerging was his romantic past. While his daughter Joanna was ultimately written out of the episode that became “The Way to Eden,” McCoy was seen flirting with women throughout the series and Jadzia Dax refers to a previous host having a relationship with McCoy in “Troubles and Tribble-ations”. The most well-known depiction of McCoy’s romantic side is his relationship with Natira, the high priestess of Yonada, a starship disguised as an asteroid, in “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” where McCoy is reeling from the results of a mandated Starfleet medical that reveals he has one year left to live. McCoy and Natira are separated at the end of the episode, yet their relationship has plenty of development prior to that, to the point that McCoy willingly resigns his Starfleet commission to stay with her and dons the collar of obedience that all citizens of Yonada wear.
These examples establish that Pulaski and McCoy both have relationships based on more than physical desires, yet Pulaski’s relationships are mainly treated as past things, with the exception of Moriarty, whereas McCoy’s are viewed as both present and past, even though they are of similar ages. Did Pulaski suffer the ageist and sexist double standard that as an older woman she was much less desirable?
McCoy and Pulaski seem to be cut from the same cloth as far as their approaches to medicine are concerned – both prefer old fashioned methods and are fond of ‘tough love.’ Tellingly, their specialties reveal a lot about both characters. McCoy is cited an expert in space psychology in “Court Martial” and Pulaski’s former commanding officer cites her seminal text on diseases in “Unnatural Selection” then Pulaski is shown performing open heart surgery on Picard in “Samaratian Snare.” She also offers to perform ocular surgery on Geordi in “Loud as a Whisper,” establishing her as having three specialties in what are considered ‘hard sciences’ versus McCoy having a specialty in what is considered a ‘soft science.’ However, both doctors are known for their ‘old fashioned’ bedside manner, whether this means McCoy gruffly telling patients to stay in bed or Pulaski offering patients chicken soup alongside modern medicine for illness. Yet, McCoy’s technique is often viewed as that of a beloved curmudgeon while Pulaski is seen as overly brusque.
The double standards around Pulaski and McCoy extend to their relationships with technology. Both characters are distrustful of transporter technology, but while McCoy is seen as a crotchety old man who is adorably anti-transporter, especially as an admiral in his hundreds, Pulaski is seen as being paranoid about the transporter. “The Icarus Factor” even seems to punish Pulaski for her views as she nearly dies and her crewmates have to find other options to find her DNA since she has no transporter records. It is very much framed as if she nearly died because of her own paranoia about transporters. It almost presents her like someone who did not save a backup of her computer files or bring an umbrella with her on a day with a slim percent of rain in the forecast.
One of the most striking ways Pulaski and McCoy mirror each other is in their respective treatments of the character in their show who represents ‘logos’ – Data and Spock respectively. Pulaski is often shown dismissing Data as a cold unfeeling machine. She even refuses to use the correct pronunciation of his name when corrected by Data himself. This parallels McCoy snarking at Spock about how unemotional Spock is. However, McCoy often takes it further by using personal insults, including the iconic, “pointy eared hobgoblin” and several comments that could almost be stand-ins for racist comments, such as referring to Spock as a half-breed. Pulaski, for all her demeaning comments, never once stoops to McCoy’s level. Data himself might even point out that Pulaski is right – he isn’t organic or human and his entire character arc is him learning about human emotions. While part of the criticism McCoy and Pulaski earn for this may differ based on how Spock was often able to volley comments back at McCoy, criticizing McCoy’s medical skills or how set in his ways McCoy was, Data never does anything similar to that. Pulaski is allowed to stomp over Data and this often makes her criticism come across even more harshly than McCoy’s much more personal comments to Spock.
During her brief tenure as CMO on the Enterprise-D Doctor Katherine Pulaski was often at a disadvantage as she suffered comparisons to her spiritual predecessor Doctor Leonard McCoy, even though both were older, gruffer, distrustful of technology, and rivals to the most logical members of their respective crews. Yet Pulaski is often judged much more harshly than McCoy, even if some of their dialogue is nearly the same, and even if sometimes Pulaski comes off as the nicer of the two. Did McCoy get away with more because he was a man and got more leeway in his behavior than Pulaski in hers?