20 December 2008

Majel Barrett Roddenberry

Smart woman, foolish choices: in What Are Little Girls Made Of?, Christine Chapel fell for a robot, long before she fell for Spock.

In my adolescent heyday as a Star Trek fanatic, I got to meet most of the principal crew of the Starship Enterprise at sci–fi conventions in Dallas, but the Big Three eluded me: Kirk, Spock, McCoy. Nurse Chapel was in most regards a minor recurring character on the series, but Majel Barrett, the actress who played her, boasted a credential that other cast members couldn’t match. She was married to Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the series. Only the biggest conventions could afford to invite Roddenberry, not least because he was a two-fer, accompanied by his wife. She never made it to Dallas while I was growing up, and my autograph collection remains incomplete.

Christine Chapel wasn’t a terribly compelling character, in my young eyes. Really, Barrett’s other roles on the series — as the voice of the ship’s computer, and as the second-in-command, Number One, in the pilot episode — seemed more dimensional. In retrospect, that’s curious. Nurse Chapel is an ostensibly brilliant medical professional, but her outstanding character trait is a completely goofy, hopeless crush on Mr. Spock. She of all people should know that the kind of romantic passion she seeks is biologically impossible in Spock. And yet she pines on. What teenager doesn’t, at one point or another, do something similar? We know, on some level, that we’re acting like fools, but we can’t help ourselves — especially where love is concerned.

Where no woman would go thereafter:
Number One, second-in-command
(She wore trousers instead of a miniskirt, by the way)

Though I might have identified with Christine Chapel, I identified with Dr. McCoy instead. Among the women on the show, I infinitely preferred Nichelle Nichols, as Lieutenant Uhura; and I was drawn to the stunning Grace Lee Whitney, as Yeoman Rand, sensing in her a pained vulnerability that turned out to be real, and that somehow evoked my nascent impulses to gallantry. The women of the Enterprise were a strange lot, running around in those miniskirts, seldom speaking, and never commanding so much as a landing party: this was the Sixties, after all, and even in a socially progressive futuristic fantasy, some possibilities — such as feminist empowerment — remained unimaginable. Except perhaps to the fans of the show, who yearned to see Uhura in the captain’s chair. (A black woman in charge! Now that would have been impressive. Instructive, too.)

Barrett married Roddenberry shortly after the original Star Trek was cancelled, and she participated in every subsequent incarnation of the series, whether playing the cat-woman M’Ress in the animated version or Deanna Troy’s mother (a nice comic turn, in most episodes) in The Next Generation. She remained the voice of the ship’s computer, and according to her obituary in The New York Times, she recently completed recording the computer’s lines for the next Star Trek movie.

Barrett represents a kind of continuity, then, that dovetails nicely with the overall optimism of the Star Trek universe. It depicts a future in which human beings haven’t destroyed each other in nuclear war on Earth, where similarities among races and species are more important than differences, where science geeks and computer nerds are the heroes — and yet, where men and women go on acting much as they always have.

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