Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: Mudd’s Women

(Note: If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start.)

Original Air Date: October 13, 1966

Crew Death Count: 0 (That’s two weeks in a row! How often does that happen?)

Bellybuttons: 0

Purely from the standpoint of storytelling, “Mudd’s Women” has potential, and Harry Mudd (Roger C. Carmel) is an interesting caricature and precursor to our 1970s galactic smuggler, Han Solo. However, as the “women are cargo” episode, “Mudd’s Women” is a glaring reminder of TOS’ poor treatment of women. The older I get, the more face palms I give this episode.

Star Trek screen shots showing, from left to right, Mr. Scott from the original series, Dr. McCoy from the original series, and Captain Picard from The Next Generation
Don’t judge them, Picard, you had your moments, too.

“Mudd’s Women” begins with the Enterprise in pursuit of a small spacecraft. (Why? We’re never told.) When the rogue ship enters an asteroid field and overloads its engines, the crew is beamed aboard the Enterprise. The Enterprise is also rapidly losing power – this is blamed on rescuing the cargo ship, which makes no sense as the Enterprise hardly breaks a sweat during the chase and rescue. The refugee “crew” turns out to be GQ coverboy Harry Mudd and three slinky women, who Mudd identifies as cargo destined to become mates for frontier settlers. Mayhem ensues, the male crew members lose all sense of professionalism, and when the Enterprise goes to Rigel XII for necessary lithium (in later episodes, dilithium) crystals, Mudd offers up the women to the miners, creating a potentially disastrous ticking-clock situation until Kirk figures out a way for everyone to get what they want.

From the love-lounge music that introduces the three women, to McCoy’s goofy grins every time they’re around, the initial effect is more Love, American Style (1969 – 1974) than Star Trek. Why do the women have such a “magnetic effect” on the crew? McCoy speculates that they just “act beautiful,” which is gibberish; there’s a sickbay scanner scene that goes nowhere. This is not one of McCoy’s finer episodes. The implication is that a biochemical response is caused by the Venus pills the “girls” are taking, but Mudd’s explanation of the pills doesn’t explain that: the Venus drug simply gives people more of what they have – men become more muscular and aggressive (because that’s what men are about), and women become younger and “rounder” (because that’s what women are about). Kirk demonstrates some resistance when one of the women, Eve (Karen Steele), somehow sneaks into his quarters as part of a plot to trick the crew, but only the long-suffering Spock is completely immune from the women’s charms.

Screenshot of Mudd's trial from Star Trek episode Mudd's Women
It’s hard out there for a pimp

Harry Mudd is described as “a liar” and “a jackass,” and criminal charges are raised for such nickle-and-dime matters as piloting a ship without a license. There’s no explanation for why someone so self-serving would invite certain doom by flying into an asteroid field simply to avoid the same authorities he has clearly been outwitting for years. Because the women claim to be there voluntarily, he’s never labeled a slave trafficker or pimp. In fact, Mudd is dealing in mail order brides, a practice that technically amounts to making introductions, and is therefore completely legal here in the 21st century, despite the exploitative nature of the practice. Mail order brides have a long history, from the tobacco brides of the Jamestown colony to the picture brides of the early 1900s. Immigration restrictions in the U.S. following World War I sent the mail order bride industry into decline until the 1970s, but a Web search on the term today turns up a disturbing number of participating businesses. Mail order brides would not have been common in the 1960s, but it was a time when Vietnamese women were being exploited, sometimes left with the children of American soldiers. Many of those children were subsequently abused or abandoned to the streets. Reflecting on the real status of women trapped in dire circumstances is one of many missed opportunities in “Mudd’s Women.”

The three women in the episode may have come from dire circumstances themselves, though this is only hinted at. Eve does most of the trio’s talking, and she says, “It’s the same story for all of us… No men. … We’ve got men willing to be husbands for us,” and claims they want the very husbands Mudd is about to provide, yet it’s never clear why the women need husbands so desperately. Are no other opportunities open to them? Yet, later, Eve seems less certain about her choices. She calls the Venus drug “a cheat,” and says, “If you care for someone…really care…” How they look doesn’t matter seems the logical conclusion to that statement, but Eve doesn’t get the opportunity to finish. Throughout the episode, just as Eve asserts herself, a man intervenes.

Screenshot of Eve from Star Trek episode Mudd's Women
“My head hurts, honey, you make the decisions.”

I include the “Bellybutton count” at the top of these pages partly to make fun of how often Kirk appears topless. But it’s also a jab at the hypocrisy of “decency standards” in place during the 1960s. Standards that were, no doubt, developed by men to control how much of her body a woman could, or could not, display. The women’s wardrobe is, sadly, one of the episode’s most memorable points, but the clothes are not that revealing, even by 1960s standards. It’s okay to objectify women, just show some subtlety so we (the network and, for that matter, the viewing public) can feel okay about ourselves later. Women should be youthful and seductive, but certainly not slutty, and also compliant for their male superiors. More on the bellybutton paradox with the season two episode “Mirror, Mirror,” but this “bad girls/submissive women” duality will turn up several times in TOS.

The women are essentially choosing the pioneering life, and that’s fine, as long as it really is a choice. A choice requires alternatives, and the talk about their home worlds suggests they may not have had any, just as immigrants “choose” to deliver their children out of repressive countries to a better land, only to find themselves equally repressed at their destination. But the implication is that these pioneer wives will do no more than cook and clean and provide willing service in the bedroom. The real pioneering women, the first generation of women to settle the American west, often worked outdoors with the men. The Homestead Act allowed women to make their own land claims. Western states were among the first to give women the right to vote. It was later, with the development of such devices as washing machines and sewing machines, that these women moved into more traditional domestic roles. Even then, women demonstrated more independence than “Mudd’s Women” gives them credit for. The social housekeeping movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s went beyond the household, helping instigate street cleaning, better public plumbing and sewage, and improvements in women’s education. Eve demonstrates similar ingenuity when she tells Childress (Eugene Dynarski), the head of the mining camp (praise the Lord, they didn’t name him Adam!), to hang pots and pans outside so the wind-driven sand will blast them clean. Once again, however, the ultimate choice is not hers.

Screenshot of Kirk and Childress from Star Trek episode Mudd's Women
The Deciders

Yet prostitution was also a central element of early western mining camps, and that seems a more likely description of where Mudd’s “cargo” is destined. Human trafficking wasn’t discussed as prominently in the 1960s as it is today, but the world was certainly aware of it. In 1957, the International Labor Organization had passed the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention, and the United Nations’ Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery had entered into force. The lack of choice available to Mudd’s women continues to be implied but not acknowledged. Why can’t the women become miners themselves? Even Kirk denies these women a choice, refusing Childress’ initial offer of trading lithium crystals for the women. It’s implied that Mudd and his women gave Childress this idea, but that’s never confirmed; either way, Childress lives in a world where women are bargaining chips. The trade must be a tempting offer for Kirk, as the Enterprise will soon crash into the planet without those crystals, and he knows the women are only looking for husbands anyway. With one gesture, Kirk can acquire the life-saving crystals and unload his problem passengers, but he declines without even consulting Eve and company. In this scenario, only men can make decisions, even if those decisions are complete blunders.

As for Childress, he’s a thug with no redeeming qualities. He calls Eve “homely” when she goes too long between Venus pill doses, even though she’s clearly the same woman sans makeup (and soft focus). He only accepts Eve when she both demonstrates cooking skills AND retains her initial beauty, so it’s a complete mystery why Eve cozies up to him in the end, or why she allows him to voice the decision that she’ll stay.

It was Tor’s first TOS rewatch that educated me about the loathly lady trope, a cliché I had never heard of. It essentially involves a man saving a woman from ugliness by defeating a curse, restoring her beauty, and thereby making her acceptable. Variations on this story can be found throughout literature and film. I don’t know if that’s what Gene Roddenberry and Stephen Kandel, who wrote the episode, had in mind, but it sure fits.

Screenshots from I Dream of Jeannie (left) and Star Trek (right)
Barbara Eden wasn’t allowed to show her bellybutton, either

Regarding intent, “Mudd’s Women” feels like a clumsy attempt to merge the playful sexiness of I Dream of Jeannie (1965 – 1970), Nielsen’s 27th-rated TV series for the 1965-66 season, with the traditional TOS Wagon Train structure. Despite the mining colony being on another planet, the “wild west” symbolism is clear. TOS will directly reference westerns in several episodes, perhaps trying to attract more viewers, as westerns were popular at the time: I’ve counted at least eighteen western-themed programs on network television at some point in 1966.

Or is “Mudd’s Women” just a “Say no to drugs” message? We’re told the Venus drug is illegal, and Eve disputes Mudd’s claim that the drug is harmless. Childress rejects Eve when he thinks her beauty is derived only from pills. Kirk delivers a well-intenioned statement on self-esteem at the end: “You either believe in yourself or you don’t.” Of course, raising our children to find identity in the real world rather than a pill is a noble objective. But the episode’s real message, that you must change yourself to please others, drop kicks that objective beyond the goal post of external expectations. When Eve transforms at the end, it may be with a placebo that Kirk swapped for the real drug, but it’s still a pill, and not herself, that she believes in.

Screenshot of Mudd (left) and Kirk (right) from Star Trek episode Mudd's Women
Kirk delivers the Mudd-y message

I mentioned one missed opportunity earlier, but there are more. If “Mudd’s Women” had focused on any of these themes, it might have stood the test of time much better.

Life first: The substance, and quality, of the women’s lives should be more important than adhering to some narrow view of physical beauty. For another take on life first, Kirk could easily overpower the miners and take the lithium crystals. After all, his ship and crew are at stake. Instead, he continues to negotiate.

Loneliness: The miners are lonely. The women, based on Eve’s comments, were lonely on their home worlds. The Enterprise crew experiences loneliness on a deep space voyage that has them constantly struggling to survive (“We’re tired,” Kirk says). What compromises will people make to escape such long-term loneliness? We get hints of this but not enough.

Self-image: One of the women says, “I can’t stand myself like this,” when she starts to age after missing a Venus pill dose. After a perceived scolding from Scott, Kirk blames himself for not obtaining lithium crystals during his first visit to Rigel XII. An interesting shot juxtaposes the Venus drug with a lithium crystal, raising the question of where the real power of life comes from. People will go to outlandish lengths to comply with the expectations of others.

The tiresome perpetuation of gender stereotypes: Early on, Mudd says, “Men will always be men, no matter where they are.” The Rigel XII miners don’t want to “meet” their prospective brides, they want to “look” at them. When Childress whines about Eve’s generosity in cooking his breakfast, she says, “Oh, the sound of male ego. You travel halfway across the galaxy and it’s still the same song.” What’s more depressing is that it’s still the same after traveling nearly three centuries into the future.

Screenshot of Spock from Star Trek episode Mudd's Women
“How did I end up working for these people?”

Spock reminds us, not for the first time, how pleased he is not to be human. His looks of contempt throughout the episode convey a justifiable moral superiority. I’m with Spock, because the humans’ behavior is less than stellar. That’s yet another missed opportunity, to position Spock, with his ability to emotionally detach, as a worthy role model. At one point, Eve tries to seduce Kirk, saying she has read that a captain must be “a paragon of virtue.” She insists no one can be a paragon, and Kirk agrees. Since Spock has been exactly that, they should have specified that no human can be a paragon. This may be true. But that should never stop us from trying.

Next: What Are Little Girls Made Of?