Monday, September 13, 2010

An Early Star Trek Misstep In "Mudd's Women," A Hokey Bit Of Exploiting Women.

The Good: Decent message and moral, Moments of humor
The Bad: Pretty obvious exploitation, despite the moral, Humor falls flat, Light on character
The Basics: In a disappointing comedic episode of Star Trek, the ship is crippled by the ridiculous space pirate Harry Mudd and the women he is selling into marriage.

Star Trek, even early on, tried hard to experiment within the science fiction genre. The goal was never to present a science fiction only show, but rather to use a futuristic setting to explore social issues of the day without the censors necessarily catching on. And while the latter part might have been done more effectively as the series progressed, it was not something shied away from even in the early episodes. Moreover, the experiments came in the form of playing with the way the stories were told as well. Instead of the standard dramatic science fiction presentation, Star Trek quickly diverged into a narrative that included comedic elements. The first open attempts to be funny throughout an entire episode came with "Mudd's Women."

The U.S.S. Enterprise is pursuing a small ship through an asteroid field when its dilithium crystals are damaged. In pursuit of the ship, they beam aboard its captain, a pirate, and his cargo - three beautiful women. Kirk, upset at having to chase down the pirate and disgusted that he treats his women as property, calls an inquiry to level charges against the pirate who has lied about everything, including his name. He his Harcourt Fenton Mudd and has quite the rap sheet. In repairing the ship, Kirk takes the Enterprise to a nearby mining planet where Mudd has the potential to unload his cargo . . . who may not be quite what they appear!

"Mudd's Women" is an uncomfortable mix of comedy and menace and the ultimate moral of the episode is not at all funny (it's not supposed to be, so it works well on that front!). But the problem is, long before it gets to the point of the message, the episode is played off as a lighthearted comedy. Mudd looks like a buffoon, he is played as an over-the-top criminal who is a parody of a pirate of the high seas. Mudd's women are portrayed as sex objects who make all the men swoon; even Spock checks one of them out! The music in the episode is light and easy, saucy, when the women are around.

My point with this is that comedy and drama can mix quite well; Sports Night and The West Wing do that exceptionally well. "Mudd's Women" does not. It mortgages the credibility of the anti-drug message the show ends up finally employing with ridiculous comedy surrounding Mudd and the stupid-as-dirt reaction of the men of the Enterprise.

And that's a pretty serious fault of this episode. The women are treated as objects, even as they insist that they are not and as the show attempts to illustrate that they are something more. They are women whose lives are essentially bought and sold with Mudd acting as a pusher and a glorified pimp. In the advanced future that Gene Roddenberry created to illustrate all of humanity's equality, beautiful women remain a commodity, not individuals. It's disappointing and disgusting and no matter where the episode goes, it takes far too long to get there for my tasted and where it goes along the way is reactionary and disappointing.

It is not diminishing how poorly women are treated in the episode to say that the men are treated almost universally as lust-filled imbeciles who think with their member. Scotty, McCoy, Kirk, all look lustily at at least one of the three women Mudd is using as cargo to marry off on some dismal planet to men who just want wives. Apparently, the U.S.S. Enterprise is the Iran of Federation Starships; no gay men here! (Sorry, tongue-in-cheek political remark that seems dated now, but when I wrote that originally in 2007, it was fresh!)

"Mudd's Women" suffers because it's almost impossible to take it seriously, yet it has a serious message and it begs the viewer to feel some genuine sense of menace over the problems the Enterprise is encountering. This is another early episode where the Enterprise is crippled very early on and the viewer is intended to feel like this is an incredible mission that could actually cost lives and lead to the ship being destroyed.

The thing is, as much as the music tries to telegraph the emotions and tell us to be afraid for the crew and the women, this is not the type of episode that is going to have extraordinary consequences and the viewer knows it. This is not the type of episode that is going to change the direction of the series, there aren't going to be massive or significant casualties, there won't be a reckoning that tears apart our perception of the reality of this universe. It is simply not that type of episode and moment Mudd appears and beams aboard his women, the viewer knows that. There's no great mystery to Mudd's "cargo," it's simply an opportunity for the viewer to sit and ogle two blondes and a brunette.

That said, the only real acting that needs to be done is for the women to strut and the men to act goofy. This completely guts any genuine sense of character they might have had. Yes, all it takes to sink the starship Enterprise is to prance three women around . . . And here's why that makes absolutely no sense at all; the women on the Enterprise are not hags. There are no fat women on the Enterprise, there are none who are particularly ugly and they're all running around in short skirts that allow anyone to see their underwear (or lollies) whenever they sit down. So why they all go dropping their jaws when they see three women in gowns or short dresses who look essentially like Enterprise crewwomen is a mystery that buggers logic or reason.

And the only one who truly performs with a reasonably decent performance is Roger C. Carmel as Harry Mudd. Mudd is an over-the-top caricature of a pirate, but Carmel does that just fine. He plays over the top and ridiculous and he does it quite well, not just because he is dressed for it. Conversely, much of the acting demanded of Karen Steel, Susan Denberg, and Maggie Thrett is simply to look good in the outfits they are put in.

None of the principle actors from Star Trek give superlative performances in "Mudd's Women." Instead they have to play goofy and they just seem like a bunch of guys rather than, for example, Captain Kirk weakened by the power of a beautiful woman.

Ultimately, "Mudd's Women" is a pretty disappointing episode and while Star Trek does manage to pull off the alternative narrative structures, like comedies, this episode is not one of their successful attempts.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete First Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the premiere season by clicking here!


For more Star Trek reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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  1. Hi. You're so right. And even saying Mudd's women is a disappointing Star Trek episode is an understatement. I don't see why some fans like this guy Mudd. I would have burned all Mudd's episodes myself back in the sixties if I had been there.

    Guys who really want to see funny Star Trek episodes can always turn to The trouble with tribbles instead.

    1. Thanks!

      I think people just like Mudd because he's like a space pirate!

      Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment!