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Old May 18 2012, 05:40 AM   #26
Lieutenant Commander
Turnabout Intruder, Feminism, and Command

Originally posted in the comments on the Onion AVclub. In multi-parts, because those comments had a character limit. The comments were on the AV Club's review of this episode, written by Zack Handlen, the "Zack" I mention a couple times below.

What's the policy on cussing, at these boards? Blue language was in keeping there, so there's some here. Also some smart-ass remarks, which fit in with the tone there.

Pt 1

The notion that Turnabout Intruder is some anti-feminist tract that sets women back decades, is based on two things. The first is Shat's performance: the nail-buffing, leg-crossing, etc. The other is the story structure, where the only woman we see who rises to a position of command in Starfleet (whether legally or the way Janice Lester does it), turns out to be a psycho bitch on the worst PMS rampage you can imagine, and she can't handle it. She casually murders people to get the job, she's obsessed with her ex-boyfriend, and she's bitchy when people disagree with her – bitchy to the point of court-martialling them and trying to have them executed. Frankly, neither of those things bother me. Now, I first saw this episode as a little kid, and I bought into it completely. So maybe my judgement is off. But I re-watched the episode last year, and those criticisms strike me as hypersensitive.

First, Shat's performance. It is utterly silly to ascribe some kind of anti-feminist message to Shatner's acting in this episode, when his acting thruout Star Trek's run became a cultural touchstone of parody. Shatning in every other episode is our society's definition of being a ham: but in *this* episode it is an anti-feminist screed? Nonsense.

And frankly, I think Shatner does fine work here. His performance is skilful and effective. I mean, you have to keep in mind that this is a pulp TV show. There is not a lot of scope for subtle storytelling. This episode hangs on the non-visual idea that Kirk's body has been hijacked by someone else, and to sell that idea they have Shatner do something IN EVERY SCENE to remind us. And yeah, they go with visual shorthand: which is to say, cliche's. Buffing his nails and whatnot. Guess what? That shit works. That's just brutally effective visual storytelling. 40 years later we might choose to tell this story differently. But if we eschew the cliche's and stereotypes, we probably won't be telling it as economically.

The other criticism has more substance, that the only woman in command we ever see in TOS is a PMS psycho bitch. But again I give this episode a pass, and on much the same grounds: that this is an adventure TV show, not a womens studies journal, and they ony have so much time to get their storytelling done. Star Trek shows us a woman who is capable of running the Enterprise, plus shrewd & ballsy enough to wrest command from Kirk. That's to the show's credit. But by the time that situation is established, we have less than 40 mins of storytelling time left, and a lot to get done, and frankly we only have room for one villain per episode.

That was one of the issues with Harlan Ellison's original version of City on the Edge of Forever. To make it work for their TV show, they simplified Ellison's script, pruning extra characters and paring the story down to one straight thru-line. Same thing here. One may want a more nuanced examination of the qualities women would bring to command: and on that basis, you will certainly be disappointed with the episode. But Star Trek doesn't have that kind of time. They have one villain, the major new character, and they have the primal storytelling need to have a bad situation escalate to worse and finally to a crisis. Of course she's going to be a dangerous psycho.

The other major possibility is, it turns out that Janice Lester is up to the job. She goes quietly about her business of being the Captain, makes no mistakes, has her doctor boyfriend murder Kirk in Janice's body before they get to Starbase, arrests him for it, and lives happily ever after as the Captain. That has a chilling believability to it. But it wouldn't exactly fit within the template of a Star Trek episode.
(Would have been a hell of an end to the series though, wouldn't it??)

It's got nothing to do with feminism, and everything to do with running a TV show.

The anti-feminist complaints about this episode are hyper-sensitive and hysterical. Typical for a woman. ;-)

Pt 2

Turnabout Intruder is one of the best episodes of the series. Not top 3, but probably top 10. It aspires to being a profoundly feminist episode, and I bought into that as a little kid. I still do. What makes it a feminist screed is the premise that we have a capable woman who has the chops to be a starship captain, but is held back from that job by the prejudiced chauvinist Starfleet admirals who only promote men to be captains. This drives her so insane that she becomes a murderer and hijacker. We're supposed to infer that she used to be a sweet reasonable girl, because she & Kirk used to have a serious relationship. The prejudice/chauvinism/etc that holds women back from work they are capable of (and would love) is enough to drive a sweet reasonable girl to violence.

It's pretty simple stuff, but it's potent. The science fiction setting gives the setup its power, because rather than just being a bitter old maid, this character can hijack the life she was denied.

Pt 3

The rest of the episode is wonderful. I love how the officers react to PMS Kirk. They question him respectfully. They offer pointed suggestions, but always in just the right tone of voice. "Sir, may I suggest – ?" And when he crosses the line, they are shocked. You get a real sense of the ship being a community of professionals.

This episode is a great counterpoint to a number of other scenes thruout the series. Think of all the briefing room scenes, where the Enterprise has encountered a threat and Kirk calls a meeting – two good examples are Balance of Terror and Corbomite Maneuver. I'm especially reminded of Obsession. There's a key scene in the middle of that episode, where Spock and McCoy think Kirk is behaving erratically and not doing his duty. They go speak to him about it in his quarters. The three of them engage in a formal dance in that scene, with Spock using a prescribed speech right out of the Starfleet manual, and Kirk acknowledges their concern. "Alright gentlemen," he says, and he comes clean, explaining himself.

Compare that scene to this episode. Spock & McCoy come to Kirk with questions about some decisions he's made, and he responds VERY differently.
Even a starship captain governs by consent of the governed. Kirk earns his leadership, almost every episode, by making decisions his officers and crew believe in. He says things like "this is not a democracy", but at the same time he's busy building consensus and getting input from his senior staff etc. None of that is really obvious, until this episode throws it all into stark relief. Suddenly scenes from prior episodes take on an extra edge. Think of the scene in Doomsday Machine, where Spock will relieve Decker on the spot if Decker behaves suicidally with the Enterprise. Spock doesn't challenge Kirk's tactical decisions so forcefully. Also think about the scenes in the middle of Enemy Within, where Spock urges Good Kirk not to reveal any weakness to the crew. Kirk needs to keep the goodwill of the crew operating in his favor, and he needs to keep track of this constantly. What Turnabout Intruder highlights is, Kirk does that almost effortlessly. We don't really notice his automatically doing it, until someone else is in his place.

And then everything goes to hell! It shatters the officers and crew when there's an open rift between Spock & Kirk. It's the captain's credibility vs the executive officer's credibility – and probably only Spock could pull this off. Even without knowing the whole truth, the officers slowly unite against Kirk. Just fabulous stuff.

I'm a little disappointed at the way the episode abruptly ends. I would have liked to see this play out a bit longer. Of course, Star Trek doesn't have a lot of time for leisurely endings. They do one nice trick, just a brief shot that collapses a bunch of storytelling into an image we see for just a couple seconds. Janice-in-Kirk's-Body on the bridge has a moment where it seems like Kirk is trying to swap back into his body. We see a brief shot of the good guys in the brig: Kirk in Janice's body, Spock, McCoy and Scotty. The officers are all standing around Janice's body, and Spock has his hands in some kind of Vulcan telepathic position. There is no explanation at all, but we get the idea that Spock is using his telepathy to somehow project his mind back to his body. Maybe McCoy and Scotty are helping, closing the circle and concentrating or whatever. We never get any details, just an idea that they're trying something like that. It's very economical – the same kind of storytelling economy that is also shown by Shatner's use of stereotypes in his body language, and having Janice Lester by a psycho bad guy.

It's sad that this is the last episode, but I don't agree with others who think they went out on a low note. This is a great episode.


[Question from fellow poster:
Doesn't the fact that Lester proves incompetent as a commander undercut your argument?
The alternative is not that she succeeds, murders Kirk, and the series goes out on a chilling note. The alternative could be that she's a great commander, maybe even better than Kirk, but that Spock et al. figure out that she's not Kirk in time to save Kirk-as-Janice, and the series goes out on the tragic note that her talents are squandered because she went criminally insane.]

My reply

That sort of is the note that the series goes out on, isn't it? The tragic note that Janice's talents are squandered because she went criminally insane. Kirk's closing line sets the tone of regret and tragic waste.

I do agree that Lester's failure as a commander undercuts my argument a bit. But I'm not sure she really gets a fair chance. She doesn't get to match wits with a Romulan commander, or talk a rogue computer into suicide, or blow up a planet-killer. Maybe she would have been great at those things. Instead, right away she makes a couple crucial missteps, attempting to cover up her crime. After the flaps over the Benecia Colony and Dr Coleman, Spock's eyebrow is raised, and Lester has a serious problem. More serious than she realizes, which I guess is another failure, but Spock's eyebrow is very formidable. Anyway, once Spock mind-melds with Lester's former body, Captain Lester is facing a full-scale mutiny. Her chances to "succeed" as a commander are over.

What she needed to do was keep her head down for a few days, not do anything to draw attention. Just let the Enterprise proceed on business as usual. But she would have had to be a really, really cool cucumber to pull it off completely. Instead, she makes a couple blunders that are typical of criminals in a TV show like say Law & Order Criminal Intent, and those are enough to alert the good guys. You know who would have come thru in that situation? Capt Tracy, from The Omega Glory. That f***er would have become Admiral Kirk, Lord of Starfleet, while Kirk was left to rot in Janice's body in some backwater asylum somewhere. Other characters are sort of "lesser villains", and don't really have the same chops.

Zack's right in the review, Lester's basic mistake was failing to strangle Kirk right at the beginng of the episode. But man, it all happened very quickly. She had to brag to Kirk a little – I mean, she had to, right? I would have had to. And she must have been a little disoriented in the new body. And maybe it's a little tougher than it looks, to strangle the body you've spent your whole life in. And Spock/McCoy/Coleman returned sooner than expected. Lester just needed another couple minutes. That doesn't make her Hamlet, with "dithering" her central character flaw. She had a narrow window to accomplish what she needed to, and didn't quite get it done. Once they went back on board, the rule of law took over and it was much harder to get Kirk killed.

Follow-up 1

Actually, now that I think about it Lester would have turned out to be a terrible commander. We know that, right? She might have been tactically brilliant, and daring. But referencing my above monologue about how command is sort of a shared contract: Kirk always acted to protect his ship and crew, and brooded over dead crewmen. Whereas Lester's first acts, before this episode even opened, were to murder the members of her expedition, to lure the Enterprise into position. She was going to lose the trust of her officers and crew eventually. It just happened sooner, because Spock was there to challenge her.

Perhaps latent sociopathic tendencies were what got her booted off the command path at Starfleet.

Follow-up 2

Damn, alurin and Zack have some good ideas. What if this had been a two-parter; and what if Lester had gotten a chance to show what she could do?

So the Enterprise leaves this planet with Lester in command, Kirk in Lester's body in isolation, Dr Coleman wandering around, and Spock's eyebrow raised. They go on to the next thing – and the next thing turns out to be a typical Star Trek adventure. Spock hasn't had a chance to do the mind-meld yet because the exigencies of the new adventure keep him busy on the bridge. At the end of part 1 the Enterprise faces a dangerous cliffhanger with Lester in command and Kirk locked up.

In part 2 Lester resolves the problem in some brilliant but crazy way, and in the process allows some crewmen to be killed in circumstances where Kirk would have moved heaven and earth to try to save them. Everyone but Lester is convinced there's a problem. (She thinks she's proven she belongs.) Spock finally gets a chance to mind-meld with Lester's body, and the rest of part 2 proceeds as the existing episode does.

Basically just interpolate a Star Trek adventure into the middle of this story. 2nd half of episode one is the first part of the new adventure, 1st half of episode two is the conclusion of the new adventure, and the existing story frames it.

The episode as aired is very good; but THAT would have been AWESOME.
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