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The Trek Nation - Turnabout Intruder

Turnabout Intruder

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at February 9, 2007 - 11:13 PM GMT

See Also: 'Turnabout Intruder' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: When Kirk, Spock and McCoy arrive at Camus II, they are told that Kirk's onetime love Dr. Janice Lester is very ill with the radiation poisoning that killed everyone on her research team except herself and the physician, Dr. Coleman. While McCoy and Spock are shown around by Coleman, Lester attacks Kirk, forcing him into a device that transfers her consciousness into his body and vice versa, thus giving her the one thing she always wanted: command of a starship. Unable to kill Kirk in Lester's body before the others return, Lester-as-Kirk orders Coleman to keep the patient isolated and orders the ship diverted to the Benecia Colony, intending to leave Kirk trapped inside her old body forever. But erratic behavior and inexplicable outbursts cause McCoy to become suspicious of "the Captain" and a mind-meld convinces Spock that Kirk is trapped in Lester's body. When the furious captain charges them with mutiny and demands the death penalty for the senior officers, the bridge crew refuses to follow orders. Believing the death of Kirk-as-Lester is the only way to remain in control, Lester-as-Kirk tries to kill her old body, but the transfer weakens, allowing Kirk to return to his own body and leaving Lester shattered. Coleman asks to take care of her while the Enterprise officers restore normality on the ship.


Analysis: It's a real pity to have to review "Turnabout Intruder" as the last episode of the original series and my final retro review, because I hate it far more than any other original series. It's not as boring as "The Mark of Gideon" nor as badly written as "The Cloud Minders" and objectively, I suppose, it's not as stupid as "Spock's Brain" either. But for all its "Brain and brain, what is brain?" bimbos, "Spock's Brain" is impossible to take seriously either as science fiction or as any sort of commentary on the sexual status quo of the era in which Star Trek was written, much less the era in which it is set. "Turnabout Intruder" takes itself quite seriously, without the either the camp humor or the incisive irony that might redeem it, and I find it no more watchable in 2007 than I did when I first saw it as a child more than 30 years ago.

One of the nice things about Enterprise is that it conclusively put to rest the idea that women weren't allowed to hold the position of captain in Kirk's era - an idea stated explicitly by James Blish in his novelizations of the original series, yet left vague in "Turnabout Intruder." Jonathan Archer's colleague and lover Erika Hernandez captained the second NX ship, Columbia, and if this qualifies as "not respecting canon" then all power to the Enterprise writers. It's easy now to assume that Lester was always a bit mad, resentful that she personally had not qualified as a starship captain where her lover Kirk had done so. When then episode originally aired, however, and through umpteen generations of reruns, it was all too easy to accept as literal truth her statement that Kirk's world of starship captains did not admit women, and to understand why Kirk's wish that she could have been a sweet compliant woman instead of bitter and angry might have driven her slightly mad.

There is no sympathy for Lester on any level in this episode. We discover early on that she murdered her own crew just for the opportunity to steal Kirk's body. She wants Coleman to do her dirty work and kill Kirk in her body. Shatner plays Lester-as-Kirk with subtle feminine gestures, smoothing his hair and stroking his own thigh in a manner that would be rather amusing if the mocking context weren't so unappealing. Spock and McCoy are almost immediately aware that this physically self-conscious, quick-to-anger Kirk isn't their captain, even though we've seen Kirk get just as cranky just as quickly in episodes like "Requiem for Methuselah." We're supposed to take it for granted that of course a woman couldn't fill the real James T. Kirk's shoes...particularly this self-hating woman who thinks having a penis will solve all her problems.

This episode could have been about something. It could have been about not only Lester but every woman on the ship's frustration with the institutionalized sexism of Starfleet, where the new communications officer sits around taking Kirk's calls and making faces at the captain's confusion about standard procedure - it is extremely regrettable that Uhura isn't around for this final episode. I certainly wouldn't object to an episode about a woman who hates her gender because it's been used to abuse and deny her things she has earned, but we're never shown Lester the competent scientist, only Lester the murderous loony. Since this is the 23rd century, and presumably Lester should not have been denied anything based solely on her gender, how come Kirk didn't guess that she was mad long ago?

And since she is a murderous loony, the fact that she swaps a female body for a male one should be a secondary issue to the specific body she chooses to occupy - namely, that of a starship captain. Kirk says that Lester was denied a captaincy because she didn't have the temperament or training for it. Just as her friend Coleman was kicked off a starship for incompetence, Lester was never seriously considered for command of one. Gender shouldn't ever have factored into that equation. When an unjoined Trill stole the Dax symbiont on Deep Space Nine, no one suggested that hatred of his gender made him want a big worm-thing stuck inside him to compensate for it; they simply presumed that, as so often happens among humans, he resented not being given something he felt he deserved and took extreme action to obtain it, thus proving that the instability used as a reason for denying him the prize was in fact a valid reason for having done so. Instead of talking about her intense hatred of her own womanhood, Kirk-as-Lester should have been talking about Janice blaming her womanhood for numerous other competency issues, crying sexism when that wasn't what was holding her back.

Gender roles on the original Star Trek are so messy ordinarily that the mess itself makes up for a great deal of subtle misogyny in terms of jobs and roles of the characters. The 24th century of Roddenberry's imagination is rather lacking in the development of gender equity compared to warp speed and world peace, but it's still better than anything else that was visible on television when the original series first aired. And there's the oddness of Kirk and Spock's relationship, where the captain is a champion of emotion and intuition, traditionally dismissed as feminine attributes while logic and rationality are glorified, as Spock tries to do often without success (and it would be unfair to leave McCoy out of this equation - a man unafraid to cry and demand greater sensitivity from other men, a hater of war and a skeptic about technology).

Yet Spock, the unemotional, logical character, is the one at the mercy of a cyclical reproductive cycle that gives him a case of PMS far worse than any woman on record, and whose emotional breakdowns tend to be so explosive that they can become life-altering, such as his contact with V'Ger. Janice Lester suggests that Kirk is insensitive, selfish and womanizing, but his saving grace is that none of those charges stick beyond the superficial. His definition of a beautiful woman is not constrained by her skin color, apparent age or personal style, and he is intimidated neither by greater intelligence nor by superior strength. It's inconceivable that the James T. Kirk we know buys into this "hatred of her own womanhood" business.

And it's particularly painful rewatching "Turnabout Intruder" this week, in between news reports of astronaut Lisa Nowak being led off on charges of attempted murder, with NASA promising more stringent psychological screenings of its candidates and bloggers suggesting that this sort of nutty love triangle is inevitable when men and women are thrown into the intense training situations necessary for working in space. I got through watching it the way I have always done, which is to focus on the homoerotic undertones that blow apart the traditional gender stereotypes. Spock guesses that the mercurial Kirk on the bridge is not his captain, and he agrees to open up to the intimacy of a Vulcan mind meld with a woman he presumably should not know at all. One is tempted to ask, Wayne's World-style, "You know that episode where Kirk was a girl? Did you find him attractive?" Plus Nurse Chapel is certainly charmed by the flirtatious Kirk in Lester's body, winking instead of making her take her medicine, and Coleman doesn't blink at having Lester snuggling up to him in Kirk's body. It makes up for Shatner's over-the-top mincing and prancing. Really, after everything I said above, I suppose it's worth having the episode for the single moment when Kirk-as-Lester tells Spock, "You are closer to the captain than anyone in the universe."

And on to The Next Generation.


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Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.