Mudd's WomenBy Michelle Erica Green
Posted at June 24, 2005 - 3:22 AM GMT
See Also: 'Mudd's Women' Episode Guide
Plot Summary: The crystals that power the Enterprise's engines are damaged when the ship uses its deflector to protect a small cargo vessel that has been damaged in turn trying to escape. When Kirk orders the pilot and crew beamed aboard, he discovers that the ship has only a captain, Harcourt Fenton Mudd, and three beautiful women whom he intends to deliver to settlers on a colony searching for wives. The women have an unusual effect on the male crewmembers, distracting them from their duties; even McCoy and Scotty are charmed, though McCoy is not so muddled that he fails to notice that one of the women sets off strange readings on his medical scanners. Mudd proves to be a smuggler and counterfeiter, and the beautiful women are artificial as well: he has been giving them a drug to make them more erotic and alluring. When the Enterprise stops at Rigel 12 for replacement crystals, he offers them to the miners in exchange for his own freedom, and Kirk is forced to allow the deal to proceed because his ship's orbit will decay without the crystals. The miners discover the fraud but decide that wives who can cook and sew will make more suitable companions than beautiful sexpots anyway, and Kirk takes Mudd back for trial.
Analysis: Along with "Spock's Brain", "Turnabout Intruder" and "That Which Survives", this is one of the episodes I've most dreaded rewatching, let alone reviewing. I believe that I have only seen it twice previously, compared to probably 50 viewings of "Amok Time" and "City on the Edge of Forever", if that tells you anything about how much I hate it. If you dislike reading feminist rants, I recommend that you skip this review, because I honestly don't know how to talk about "Mudd's Women" without such issues coming up, unless I focus on things like the phony-looking magnetic storm with the little pieces of paper that get caught in Kirk's hair or the Trek evolutionary details, such as the fact that the ship is using lithium rather than dilithium crystals and it uses battery power for backup, apparently without impulse engines.
Because this is such a very early episode, and because it originally aired in 1966, I am willing to cut "Mudd's Women" a very slight amount of slack; as painful as it is to watch, it doesn't disgust me quite as much as Enterprise's "Bound", which offers precisely the same phony-pheromone, crew-thinking-with-crotches garbage yet was written nearly 30 years later. I suppose that Gene Roddenberry, who wrote the story for Stephen Kandel's teleplay, might have imagined that he was saying something progressive about beauty being more than skin-deep in the end when Eve started blabbing about how she would make a better wife for a miner because she could cook and sew and need him rather than being vain and selfish, but it's really hard not to loathe Kirk and Spock for failing to point out that she has many other options - that she could get a job or an education or sue Mudd for exploiting her, that there's an entire universe out there for a woman who could do so much better than tying herself to a miner whose only redeeming quality, as he points out at least three times, is that he doesn't beat or rape her.
It's hard to know how much of Eve, Magda and Ruth's backstories can be believed because they describe them under duress, but apparently all come from planets where the subjugation of women is taken for granted and where getting a man is the most important thing they can accomplish. When Kirk asks if they came with Mudd voluntarily, they explain that they've basically lived as slaves, cooking and cleaning for their brothers and fathers. Now, as Eve protests, "We've got men willing to be our husbands...and you're staring at us as if we were harem girls or something!" Clearly someone has coached them in the art of seduction, probably Mudd, since he's the one ordering them to distract specific crewmembers so he can learn about the miners on Rigel 12, steal a communicator and barter for them. All of the women are terrified of being discovered to be ugly; they have no confidence in their beauty or sex appeal without the drugs, presumably no one ever told them that they had beauty or sex appeal before the drugs, and Eve is as stunned as the miner she ends up tying herself to when she learns that she can be sexy and charming merely by believing that she is.
There's no moral judgment implied in the episode about this trafficking in women. Mudd may be a smuggler and a cheat, but he is treated as a roguish, affable troublemaker, not a villain. He steps off the transporter padd like a cross between a cowboy and a pirate with his big hat, outlandish moustache, bright shirt and earring; Spock's response to him is to smirk, both there and when he lies to the computer which is almost as good at detecting his fibs as Kirk. No one attempts to have a serious conversation with the women about how they came to these desperate straits, where they met Mudd or why they trusted him enough to accept his drugs and his promises. They're given astonishing freedom of the ship, where they bat their eyelashes at crewmen right and left to do Mudd's bidding, yet it never seems to occur to them that on a vessel of such technology, where women serve alongside men even on the bridge, they might have options in life beyond selling themselves to any man rich enough to afford them.
Karen Steele, who plays Eve, is a strong enough actress to make her interesting and sympathetic despite all this: she makes it clear that she doesn't want to betray Kirk, she sounds like she really means it when she tells him that she understands loneliness, and her fury at Mudd and at the miner who wants her to be a beautiful, passive receptacle for his fantasies makes her admirable. But Ruth and Magda both come across as pathetic; it's true that they're not beautiful when the drugs wear off, but this is because they're sniveling, shrieking stereotypes of helpless women, not because they have makeup-induced wrinkles on their faces or their glossy hair is suddenly unkempt. (Amazing how a drug, or even a placebo, can make Eve's hair go from coarse to silky...I want some of that instant conditioner!)
McCoy is the only character to wonder whether they're actually beautiful or if they just act beautiful; not even Spock behaves logically when it comes to the women, and one really wonders why he doesn't demand a medical examination for their visitors even if McCoy's too ga-ga to think of the crew's safety. "He's a Vulcanian," Mudd helpfully explains to his women, which to him means that Spock is only attracted to pretty girls when he allows himself to be. Oddly, this seems to be true of Kirk, too; he's not at all immune to their beauty, but they never deter him from carrying out his job. In the end Spock declares how pleased he is that his anatomy is different from Kirk's and McCoy's, but we really don't see much evidence of it in this episode besides the ears.
Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.