Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: Turnabout Intruder

(Note: This post appears as a page elsewhere on this site. If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start. Previous essays on specific episodes can be found here.)

Original Air Date: June 3, 1969

Crew Death Count: 0

Bellybuttons: 1 (Kirk offers one last look at his Shat-tastic physique!)

As much as we might like to turn back the clock and conclude Star Trek’s original series with a more satisfying episode, it’s important to remember that TV shows in the 1960s were generally episodic without long storylines. Despite occasional references to past adventures, the clock was essentially reset every week; there were no major story or character arcs to resolve or summarize with a series finale. So we will try to approach “Turnabout Intruder” as any other episode. This week, faster than you can say Kobayashi Maru, the Enterprise responds to a distress call from the planet Camus II. The landing party of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy finds a disastrous archaeological expedition, with Dr. Arthur Coleman (Harry Landers) and Dr. Janice Lester (Sandra Smith) the only survivors. While the others are distracted, Lester uses obscure alien technology to pull a Freaky Friday on Kirk, switching their personalities so Lester can fulfill her sinister ambition of…being a starship captain.

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends…”

We know that misogyny was an ongoing problem with TOS, dramatically so in a few episodes, and “Turnabout Intruder” is one of them. The story was partly inspired by Turnabout, a 1931 novel by Thorne Smith, who was perhaps best known for writing the Topper novels. The novel is a humorous account of a husband and wife switching bodies. In the novel, the transfer is conducted by a mischievous Egyptian god; in “Turnabout Intruder,” Lester uses a device left behind by a “long dead civilization,” not the first time we’ve run into trouble from the leftovers of a technologically advanced but extinct society. I haven’t read Turnabout, but a few reviews I’ve read indicate it was fairly progressive for its time. If only we could say the same about “Turnabout Intruder.” If the episode had stuck with a Khan-like opponent trying to take over the Enterprise by switching personalities, it might have been far more successful. There is a lot of potential here, it just gets lost in ugly sidebars about the horrors of being a woman in a culture that’s horrible towards women, demonstrated early on with Kirk’s first words to Lester: “You must remain absolutely quiet.”

“Great, another ancient civilization forgot to leave an instruction manual.”

Both William Shatner and Sandra Smith do fine work in portraying their alternate personalities; Shatner is sometimes criticized for camping it up as Lester/Kirk, but he is playing a mentally unstable villain. Smith is outstanding is Kirk/Lester, negotiating his/her way through an outlandish scenario as Kirk normally would, asking questions and approaching the situation from every angle until he/she finds a solution. Still, first-rate acting doesn’t make up for the episode’s biggest sin: blaming Lester’s gender for her instability and hunger for power. Lester’s goals and motives become so muddled that even she never seems to know exactly what she wants or why. Kirk and Lester have a troubled history: “The year we were together at Starfleet is the only time in my life I was alive,” Lester says. This early exchange makes it clear their relationship was emotionally turbulent. Kirk says he never prevented Lester from “going on with your space work” (?), and Lester responds with the episode’s most hotly debated dialogue: “Your world of starship captains doesn’t admit women.” Is Lester really describing Starfleet, or is she talking about Kirk’s “world” as a starship captain who doesn’t have room in his life for marriage and family? Number One (Majel Barrett-Roddenberry) in “The Menagerie” implies that women were eligible for command, despite Captain Pike’s sexist claim at the time that “I can’t get used to having a woman on the bridge.” So while it’s hard not to view “Turnabout Intruder” from our contemporary perspective, the equal rights movement was far enough along by 1969 that many people would have had no objection to a woman in command, both in Star Trek and in real life.

Not the kind of pick-me-up that Lester needed

All that aside, however, we’ve still seen widespread discrimination among the Enterprise crew, and if this attitude is prevalent throughout Starfleet, it would be enough to drive a reasonable person over the edge. Is this contributing to Lester’s mental state? Or does it all go back to her failed relationship with Kirk? Or do her problems go even deeper than that? In Kirk’s body, Lester tells Kirk, now in her body, “Now you know the indignity of being a woman.” Even worse, she says, “It’s better to be dead than to live alone in the body of a woman.” Yikes! That’s some heavy-duty indignity. Lester seems preoccupied with the superficial qualities of stereotypical masculinity. She believes Kirk should have anticipated her sneak attack and killed her first, but “You were afraid. You were always afraid.” She makes multiple comments about physical strength and power, saying it’s not Kirk she loves but “I love the life he led. The power of a starship commander.” Was Lester driven by an obsession for power, anger toward a former lover, or resentment at being born the wrong gender? Lester, as Kirk, blames all three, claiming, “Janice has driven herself mad with jealousy, hatred, and ambition.” S/He repeats this premise later, saying, “And most of all she wanted to murder James Kirk, the man who once loved her. But her intense hatred of her own womanhood made life with her impossible.”

If nothing else, women should be furious over the bizarre wardrobe they’ve been forced to wear.

Lester’s vague motives might explain why her grand plan is so poorly thought out. Lester, as Kirk, says she has conducted “months of preparation” in order to command a starship. But how did she and Coleman know the Enterprise, and not some other ship, would respond to their distress signal? Lester seems to specifically want to trade places with Kirk. For that matter, what are Lester’s future plans? Plenty of villains have hijacked the Enterprise for a specific purpose, usually involving galactic domination or something similar. Lester’s planning seems to go no further than sitting in the captain’s chair, assuming that her subterfuge will go undetected by all of Kirk’s friends and colleagues. For this, she arranged the deaths of her entire research staff – we don’t know how many people this is, but clearly even one is too many.

Spock is shocked when Kirk orders drapes installed on all the viewscreens.

Lester isn’t the only one who hasn’t thought very far ahead. Her partner in crime, Dr. Coleman, says he helped Lester because he loves her. If Lester intends to permanently occupy Kirk’s body, that would seem to dramatically alter the couple’s relationship. Is it possible that, despite the misogyny, the episode endorses bisexuality? A moment of tenderness between Coleman and Lester/Kirk late in the episode raises the possibility. Yet Coleman waffles in his commitment to Lester/Kirk over the subject of killing Kirk/Lester, because the “life-energy transference” will reverse itself as long as both parties are still alive. Coleman may only be an accessory to murder so far, but he appears to have left a series of burned bridges behind him. It doesn’t take McCoy long to learn that Coleman was previously relieved as chief medical officer of a ship (a Federation ship?) for “administrative incompetence” and “flagrant medical blunders.” Yet, inexplicably, Lester, personality fully restored to her body, is left under Coleman’s care at the end of the episode. Why collaborator Coleman remains free is a mystery.

Chapel appears stunned, either at Coleman’s incompetence or because no one told her this was the last episode.

Despite the series’ anthology presentation, “Turnabout Intruder” does reference previous episodes. Lester/Kirk is subjected to a physical exam, which involves a topless Kirk performing leg exercises on a sickbay bed; Kirk took the exact same exam in “The Corbomite Maneuver,” which was the first regular season episode produced. Kirk/Lester refers to events from “The Tholian Web” and “The Empath” when trying to convince Spock that Kirk really is trapped in Lester’s body. Spock conducts a mind-meld, as he has in several earlier episodes, to confirm Kirk/Lester’s identity. Conversely, claims that “life-energy transference” is a completely new phenomenon imply that the events of “Return to Tomorrow” and “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” are entirely forgotten. And while we’ve seen other courts martial conducted on the Enterprise, it seems unlikely that the mutiny charge against Spock – for assisting Kirk/Lester – would be addressed on the ship and not a starbase.

“At last, no one will question our love.”

The crew conducts itself honorably, if somewhat inconsistently from past behavior. Spock is almost immediately suspicious of Lester/Kirk, when “the captain” is too eager to take the Enterprise off course in order to dump Kirk/Lester at a subpar facility instead of the superior Starbase 2. He bombards the captain with questions, exposing the impostor’s irrational state. He is also again accused – this time by Lester/Kirk – of an overpowering ambition for authority that is no more believable now that it was when McCoy made an identical claim in “The Galileo Seven.” Likewise, McCoy is quick to call out Lester/Kirk for “emotional instability” and “erratic mental attitudes,” apparently having learned his lesson after his tolerance of the Saurian brandy assault from “The Enemy Within.” McCoy orders a complete exam, yet fails to turn up any mental or emotional health concerns, despite Lester/Kirk’s obvious erratic conduct. And to our great relief, the doctor makes it through an entire episode without once using the phrases “pointy-eared” or “green-blooded.” Once they observe Lester/Kirk’s physical assault on Kirk/Lester, Spock and McCoy both become completely convinced that something has gone wrong, and work together more professionally than they ever have in the past.

The best collaboration between Spock and McCoy in the entire series

The crew is admirable for their commitment to both the truth and the intended integrity of Federation law. Spock vows to go to any length to reveal the truth, an attitude consistent with Spock’s dedication to both duty and friendship. McCoy and Scott share a powerful scene during the court martial, contemplating the possible fallout if they rule against Lester/Kirk. Being on the galactic frontier, far removed from the protective authority of Starfleet, complicates the situation. “He’ll never accept it,” Scott says. “We’ll have to take over the ship.” (Sadly, the scene is marred by the unfortunate use of “hysteria,” a word with deliberately sexist connotations.) When Lester/Kirk orders executions for his opponents, the remaining bridge crew – Sulu, Chekov, and the communications officer (Barbara Baldavin, also from “Balance of Terror” and “Shore Leave,” in Nichelle Nichols‘ absence due to a singing engagement) – refuse to obey the impostor’s orders because of the illegality of the death penalty. “Captain Kirk wouldn’t order an execution even if he were going mad,” Chekov says. “That cannot be the captain.” Despite confusing General Order 4 with General Order 7, the scene acknowledges the importance of critical thinking and the crew’s understanding that even starship captains don’t make their own laws – a limit to authority that power-hungry Lester was too short-sighted to anticipate.

Uhura is probably glad she sat this one out.

“Turnabout Intruder” had an opportunity to explore the demands of serious leadership, the need for checks and balances among the powerful, how to navigate the breakdown of those checks and balances, and the false allure of self-serving ambition. If only the episode weren’t so bogged down in gender discrimination. For the wrong reasons, we remain haunted by Kirk’s final expression of sympathy for Lester: “Her life could have been as rich as any woman’s, if only…” We can at least be grateful he doesn’t finish the sentence. If we feel the episode was pointless, is it possible Gene Roddenberry, who got story credit, was expressing his own disappointment that Star Trek appeared to have reached its end? It can’t be a coincidence that the planet Camus II calls to mind Albert Camus, the absurdist philosopher who endorsed revolt against repression or injustice. We’ve seen the mentally ill corralled into asylums led by autocrats, women assaulted and murdered while blame was passed to a disembodied voice, and Starfleet eager to prosecute its own on the flimsiest of evidence. The real surprise is that more people aren’t as consumed with outrage as Lester is. So of course we’re frustrated that the series doesn’t send us off with a more uplifting image than Lester taken off in a stupor and the senior officers shrugging their shoulders.

“Another successful mission! Let’s find some hookers and celebrate!”

We can at least appreciate the Enterprise crew’s usual compassion toward their own enemies. None of them, particularly Kirk, feels any malice toward Lester once she is in custody. Kindness is equally expressed by the willingness of Spock and McCoy to put aside their historic differences and work together to save their friend. Of all the themes expressed by Star Trek‘s original series – exploration, friendship, risk, the myth of paradise – kindness is perhaps the most profound and the least discussed. After more than three years exploring the galaxy, neither Klingons, Romulans, Harry Mudd, salt vampires, nor a rapid-aging illness can harden this crew’s hearts. We should all go through life with such charity. Whether kindness is an outcome of their exploring lives or exploration attracts the kind-hearted, a correlation clearly exists. “This crew has been to many places in the galaxy,” Spock reminds us during the court martial. “They’ve been witness to many strange events. They are trained to know that what seems to be impossible often is possible, given the scientific analysis of the phenomenon.” An application of scientific principles to new phenomenon is a brilliant summing up of the Enterprise mission, and it is precisely this even-handedness that leaves room for a life of kindness. A disappointing final mission doesn’t erase three seasons of reason, friendship, courage, and compassion. These values will serve us well in the future, and they are all the guidance we need to leave the galaxy a better place for a new generation.

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