Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Turnabout Intruder" (June 3, 1969)

Stardate 5928.5

The U.S.S. Enterprise races to Camus II, where several archaeologists exploring the ruins of an ancient alien civilization have fallen ill due to deadly radiation poisoning.

The scientist team leader is Dr. Janice Lester (Sandra Smith), who once had a tumultuous romantic relationship with Captain Kirk (William Shatner), but covets his success as a Starfleet captain.

With the aid of her lover, Dr. Coleman (Harry Landers), Dr. Landers engineers a plan to get Kirk alone, and then use an alien transference device to switch bodies with him.

This strategy goes as planned, and when Captain Kirk awakens after an assault, he finds himself trapped in Janice’s body. 

Janice, meanwhile, has assumed command of the starship Enterprise.

Soon, however, the Enterprise’s top officers begin to detect disturbing changes in the captain’s personality, and attempt to talk with the defensive Lester about them. When Spock learns that Kirk is trapped in Lester’s body, Lester arranges a court martial on charges of mutiny, and plans the execution of Spock.

Scotty (James Doohan) and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) attempt to intervene, but Janice Lester plans to hold them on charges of mutiny, as well.

“Turnabout Intruder” boasts some strong, powerful moments, yet overall is a sad and ugly way to end the run of such a brilliant series. 

As Star Trek’s final episode, “Turnabout Intruder” is notable.  Yet it is also notable for being one of those rare Treks that loses sight of the series progressive philosophy, and relies instead on dated 1960’s social context.

Here, for example, Janice Lester is a “mad” woman who simply doesn't know her place. She takes command of the Enterprise by illicit means because Starfleet apparently doesn’t have any women captains, and then is revealed – because of her womanhood -- as a person temperamentally incapable of the duties of command, thus validating Starfleet’s admission policy. 

The episode’s coda – the last “new” moment of live action Star Trek for a decade – sees Kirk musing that Janice’s life could have been as rich as any “woman’s, if only...

Perhaps it is better that he didn’t finish that sentence. 

If only she knew her limitations? 

If only she had set her sights lower? 

If only she had realized women can’t be starship captains?”

If only she'd accepted the hand biology had dealt her?

Because of Kirk's trailing off, Star Trek fans, for generations have attempted to fill in the gap in a way that isn’t sexist or offensive. 

They have tried to ret-con the episode in a way to make it fit in with the universe we know Star Trek tried to depict, but -- if we are being totally honest -- sometimes fell far short depicting.

But the intention of the episode is clear, to disqualify women as captains, or leaders. 

Star Trek is so forward-thinking in so many ways, but we have nonetheless seen some terrible moments directed at women in the series' three seasons. “The Changeling” had a notation from Spock about women being a mass of conflicting impulses. “Elaan of Troyius” had Kirk stating that Vulcan was the only planet in the galaxy that could claim that it had logical women.

And here, we get a woman who doesn’t know her “place,” and doesn’t accept the role that her gender has assigned her. 

As much as I deeply respect the series' lead actor, this episode is made exponential worse by Shatner’s performance. He plays Lester’s Kirk as a prissy, nail-filing temptress, who gives into fits of hysteria and bug-eyes rage. I understand he was ill when this episode was shot, so I won’t belabor the point.

Sandra Smith, by contrast, does an excellent job of playing Kirk in Lester’s body, coming off as a highly believable and grounded incarnation of the good captain.

So why did I write, above, that “Turnabout Intruder” has some powerful moments?

Well, Mr. Sulu (George Takei) gets one of his best moments in the entire series in "Turnabout Intruder," refusing to stand-by and take orders while an execution has been ordered. This is a powerful statement of individual principle, and one that arrives at the height of the Vietnam War, to boot.  Instead of "just following orders," Sulu refuses to go along with the impostor Kirk's orders.

Scotty also comes off beautifully in this episode, planning a “mutiny,” and thinking out the ramifications and repercussions of every step the mutineers must take to save the real Kirk, and Spock from execution. I wrote about this aspect of the series two weeks ago, but it was clear that Scotty was becoming much better developed as a character in the third season.

Not unexpectedly, the Spock-Kirk friendship is also reinforced brilliantly here, as Spock shares a mind-meld with his friend, and recognizes him, despite the unusual physical shell that houses his identity. Once Spock knows what has occurred, he becomes a tireless advocate for his captain and friend, just as he once was for Christopher Pike in “The Menagerie.”

There may even be some social grounds upon which one can gaze at the episode as forward thinking. 

Consider poor Dr. Coleman for a moment. He is a man who fell in love with Janice Lester as a female. He completely commits to her (crazy) plan, which means that -- if Lester is successful -- she will be a man for the rest of her life. Yet Coleman is presumably attracted to her as a female, not as a male. 

So Coleman’s love, while misguided, is oddly loyal in a way. He is willing to put aside his own needs and desires in the relationship, so that Janice Lester can achieve hers needs and desires.

In some weird way, "Turnabout Intruder" also suggests that gender can be defined by more than one’s set of genitals. Kirk’s identity -- as a starship captain and man -- is confined inside Janice’s body. But there is no doubt that he remains Captain Kirk, no matter his outward appearance.

Finally, if one is looking for some -- any -- grounds upon which to view the episode as not horribly sexist, one can gaze at the fact that Janice Lester is a brilliant scientist, and the leader of her team. She has risen to command, and proven that a woman can command.

It’s not much, but it’s what we have to hold onto here. “Turnabout Intruder” is an apt name for the episode. The egalitarian, equality-seeking Star Trek we all know and love is replaced, temporarily -- brutally usurped -- by this backwards-looking, heavily-dated final episode.

This is a weak note to go out on, and a sad chapter for a brilliant, inspiring science fiction series.

Up next: The celebration of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s 30th anniversary begins with a retrospective of the pilot: “Encounter at Farpoint.”


  1. I'd have to watch it again to see just who declares that Starfleet has no woman captains.

    And if women were unsuitable for command, how is it that Uhura can take command as can any other bridge officer (probably Lt. or higher. Probably not the ensigns)? We know from many other episodes that other officers fill in for the captain under various circumstances (the most usual because the captain is away from the ship -- tellingly we don't know who's running things while Kirk is asleep).

    Otherwise, she's just crazy. And unsuitable to be a captain. Too bad that attempting to walk that fine line (women can be captains, but not that one) really wouldn't have worked in the 60's.

  2. "Turnabout Intruder" proves a central point I've been making about Star Trek for decades: that Gene Roddenberry was a terrific editor of others' work yet a terrible screenwriter of his own material. The gender exchange story is one that had been done before on television several times and would be done again, but rarely in so messed-up a fashion as this episode.

    The essence of the story is that Janice Lester's instability, which she's incapable of realizing, was a far bigger barrier to her realizing her potential than any actual institutional barriers--but of course Roddenberry's inability to produce a cogent, coherent script bungles whatever point he thought he was making. The audience therefore ends up never being sure whether Lester might have advanced if not for her obsessions over real/imagined slights, or if it's really true that women weren't allowed to be starship captains. Like all his other Star Trek screenplays, Roddenberry's script is too contradictory and unfocused to advance any point or point of view. All we can do is be intrigued by--and endlessly argue over--whatever hints the story provides in any direction.

    What the story really reveals is that Roddenberry himself was of two minds about this situation. Like all too many "enlightened" writers--especially science fiction writers--of his milieu at the time, he thought BOTH that women should advance and also that they were too emotionally unstable to advance, and that regardless of that issue they existed to service the personal and sexual whims of men like himself! Being who he was, Roddenberry just couldn't help writing these contradictory notions into his script. It just goes to show the likes of Harvey Weinstein have a very long history in Hollywood, where the apparent advocacy of feminist causes has always been used to paper over the atrocious private attitudes and behavior regarding women by producers, writers, directors and executives like Roddenberry.

    In the end, Star Trek winds up being fundamentally feminist overall in the global sense, but afflicted with contrary elements that are all about Gene Roddenberry. I guess the essential enduring component of Star Trek is that the show overcame and advanced beyond its creator.

  3. John,
    While I'm not defending this episode, and I'm not about to argue your (or Sheri's) points, I still find this episode entertaining, almost entirely because of Shatner's performance. It's over-the-top and unbelievable, and it's hilarious. I'm not certain how seriously to take the proceedings, but there are some really interesting moments, including the actual transference process, and the memorable editing of the flashbacks. Of course, I would've preferred a better last episode of the series, a high note to go out on, but it wasn't meant to be. I've always interpreted "if only..." selfishly. If only we got more episodes of The Original Series...If only we had seen the Enterprise's five-year mission completed. However, I'm happy that we got more Star Trek, and it continues to this day!
    It's been tremendous fun reading your thoughts on Star Trek and contributing comments, and highly satisfying crafting a top 20 list of TOS episodes to share with your readers. I'm not the greatest of TNG aficionados, but I will gladly join you for your Trek into the 80's and the continuing voyages of the starship Enterprise.

  4. Anonymous3:14 AM

    I don't remember anything about this episode except that it felt such a letdown after the previous one.

    TNG! Can't wait for it!



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