|Show||Star Trek: The Original Series|
|Episode Title||“Mudd’s Women”|
|Air Date||October 13, 1966|
|Written By||Stephen Kandel (story by Gene Roddenberry)|
The Enterprise stumbles across a ship in distress, about to explode. Just before it blows, the Enterprise beams aboard the space rogue Harcourt Fenton Mudd (Roger C. Carmel) and three women. Eve (Karen Steele), Ruth (Maggie Thrett), and Magda (August 1966 Playboy Playmate Susan Denberg), each of whom perpetually sport looks that would make Derek Zoolander jealous. The moment the women come aboard, it’s clear that there is something strange going on with those three women. They have a very odd effect on the men around them. Every man they encounter seems to be nearly intoxicated by their presence, distracting the smooth running of the ship. Even Spock is affected. Albeit in a more bemused way at how the men react.
Mudd’s originally planned to bring the women to the frontier colony Ophiucus III, where they would become wives for the colonists there. However, before Kirk and his crew can take Mudd and his women to a proper port, they must stop at Rigel XII to refuel their supply of lithium crystals (called dilithium after this episode). Mudd and his women find out about this and look forward to this detour, hoping to score a deal with the lonely miners there.
It’s soon discovered that the intoxicatingly beautiful women are frauds, the product of a Venus Pill, which intensifies their beauty. Mudd hopes to be long gone before this is discovered, leaving the women to fend for themselves. However, this swindle is discovered and Kirk and company must hold Mudd for his crimes while also teaching the women about the true meaning of beauty.
Let’s Dig Deeper
Well, this is a problematic episode for many reasons. Not least of which is that it’s deeply, deeply sexist.
Mudd is transporting these women to find men. They’ll traverse the galaxy in search of any man who will take them, apparently, and they’ll doll themselves up and take drugs in order to look better. This is ostensibly of their own volition, as Eve berates Kirk for disrupting their journey. Yet, the message of the episode is where this gets murky. They’re being trafficked, but does the fact that they’re OK with it make it acceptable? I’m fairly sure that no, it’s not. But what’s strange is that I’m not sure the episode is either, condemning it and then leaving the women on Rigel.
Eve also becomes deeply uncomfortable with the idea when they actually get to the planet. Seeing what her life will be like affects her. Making her question her decision.
Moments of this episode do try to transcend its problematic roots. The conversation between Eve and Childress, for example. After he rejects her for not being beautiful, Eve tries to make a statement about women being pigeonholed as vapid and shallow. “Is this the kind of wife you want, Ben? Not someone to help you, not a wife to cook and sew and cry and need, but this kind. Selfish, vain, useless. Is this what you really want?” The intent behind her statement is earnest. Women shouldn’t be reduced to vanity and self-absorption.
Later, it becomes clear that having self-confidence brings about true beauty (still physical, unfortunately) better than any pill or product. In fact, Eve condemns everyone for their objectification of her, saying that the image the men have foisted upon her isn’t real. That part works fairly well, with the end result being, however, that the women remain on Rigel willingly. I’m still unclear as to the ultimate point.
Harry Mudd traffics in women. This is still happening in the 23rd century. But I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose, after the slave women in “The Cage.” However, that says something important about how I’ve bought into Roddenberry’s utopian ideals, but those are more firmly established in The Next Generation, rather than here. Humanity in The Original Series strives for that utopia, but it’s still a long way off.
Speaking of the potential utopia, The Next Generation will eventually pound into our heads that money has been eliminated from the Federation. It’s lauded as humanity’s greatest triumph. However, here, Mudd is almost Ferengi in his machinations for money, thinking that he can get so much money for selling these women that he’ll be able to somehow use it to run the Enterprise. I know Roddenberry’s vision, as I’ve discussed and will continue to discuss, is in its nascency, but when is this amazing new moneyless era supposed to occur? It seems firmly rooted in 2266.
Is there anything redeemable in the midst of this mire of sexism?
This episode introduces a truly memorable recurring character to the Star Trek franchise. One whom it stinks we don’t see more than two more times (once in season two, “I, Mudd” and in the animated series episode, “Mudd’s Passion”). He’s basically a buffoonish space pirate, but this episode doesn’t really display that buffoonery. In fact, it’s really engaging to see Shatner and Carmel play off of one another. Kirk plays the intense, hard-nosed captain, enforcing law in his area of space, while Mudd – disguised as Leo Walsh – pushes back in his own way, bucking Kirk’s authority.
What this does do is show us the more direct inspiration for Rainn Wilson’s interpretation of Harry Mudd in Star Trek: Discovery. With all respect to the great Rainn Wilson (if you haven’t watched The Office (US), stop right now and watch all of it. I’ll wait.), the promos for Discovery made him look like Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek Into Darkness: just an evil mastermind bent on universal domination.
I’m so happy I was wrong. Wilson plays Mudd pitch perfectly. While clearly using this episode, rather than the later ones, for his characterization. In fact, in “Choose Your Pain,” Wilson’s debut as Mudd, he echoes Mudd’s attitude toward Kirk’s authority, ranting about how Starfleet is always stepping on the “little people.” Carmel’s Mudd is basically a space pirate trying to skirt the law, and Wilson’s Mudd allows us to see some of the origins of that, especially in “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad.”
This Mudd is darker and less of a clown than he would become. He’s trafficking in women, aspiring to take control of the Enterprise, and conspiring behind Kirk’s back, all for a quick buck. We see Wilson’s Mudd do similar things. He’s wholly dastardly in “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,” trapping the Discovery in a time loop and blowing it up again and again so that he can figure out its worth and how to steal it. While Discovery’s Mudd is maybe smarter and more ruthless, Carmel plays him just as conniving. Yet both have twinkles in their eyes.
But none of this – none of it – can smooth the jagged edges of the sexism at work here.
Random Thoughts on Star Trek: The Original Series
This episode features a gold-uniformed Uhura, indicating less consistency in the early days of Star Trek.
Speaking of Star Trek Into Darkness, that film very briefly mentions “The Mudd Incident,” but little else is made of it. I hear that a comic series answers that question, but I’m very behind on my Star Trek literature.
Some really funny moments do punctuate the episode, particularly during the inquiry into Leo Walsh’s true identity. The computer does a scan of the three women to try and identify them. It cannot, but in doing the scan, it must have taken readings on everyone in the room, commenting on their elevated heart rate and perspiration, because every male within arm’s reach is turned completely on by the women.
McCoy asks Ruth if she is wearing any strange perfume or anything radioactive when she walks by and somehow activates an inactive medical scanner. She doesn’t blink at the radioactive line, as though it’s normal, saying, “I’m just me.”
Kirk walks into his cabin and Eve is waiting for him (obviously there to seduce him), freaking him out a bit, complaining that everyone is staring at her all the time. This raises two questions. Why has she not changed her clothes out of her Vanna White, Bond girl costume? And why are the Captain’s quarters unlocked? That just seems like bad news.
Memorable Quotes from Mudd’s Women
“You’ll find out that ship’s captains are already married, girl, to their vessels.”
– Mudd, about Kirk
This is a fun episode if you don’t think more deeply about it. But that’s not what Star Trek is all about. You need to think about it. You need to dig deeper, beyond the surface. Do keep watching. Know that, eventually, it gets better.
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Tyler is a teacher, librarian and the Co-host of The Geek Card Check Podcast. He has been a Film Critic for Ready Steady Cut since 2018.