Rich Handley Author and Editor

Janice Lester: Denied Command Due to Gender or Insanity?

I’ve reached the end of my latest re-watch of Star Trek: The Original Series, and I want to discuss the show’s controversial finale, “Turnabout Intruder,” specifically this exchange between Janice Lester and Jim Kirk, which has long been the subject of controversy:

LESTER: Your world of starship captains doesn’t admit women. It isn’t fair.

KIRK: No, it isn’t. And you punished and tortured me because of it.

LESTER: I loved you! We could have roamed among the stars!

KIRK: We’d have killed each other.

Many cite the above as evidence that women couldn’t become starship captains in the 23rd century, and they use that as proof that Star Trek: Discovery violated canon by featuring Philippa Georgiou, Michael Burnham, and other women as captains years before The Original Series. But I disagree. I’ve been watching this show since the mid-’70s, and even as a kid I didn’t interpret the dialogue to mean women were excluded from the captaincy due to gender. Star Trek may have had some sexist failings in how female characters were scantily costumed, but it was nonetheless a left-leaning and progressive show. A “men only” policy would not have fit its premise at all, even in the turbulent 1960s.

The only time Janice Lester was fit for command was when she was James T. Kirk.

The very existence of Number One, a female first officer, in Star Trek‘s first pilot, 1965’s “The Cage,” makes it obvious women could become captains, for the first officer’s primary role would be to assume command if the captain were killed or incapacitated. I think it’s always been fairly clear that Janice was insane. Women could of course be captains, but Janice could not, and rightfully so. She was violent, murderous, unhinged, vindictive, and irrationally jealous and self-hateful. These are not qualities Starfleet would accept in a commander.

Janice and Jim had a romance, but he chose his career over her because he valued the captaincy more than a troubled relationship with an unstable person, and she resented him for that. His “world of starship captains” that she claimed “doesn’t admit women” wasn’t a Starfleet restriction. It was metaphorical. It was his prioritizing of career over love, and it was consistent with other episodes (such as “The Naked Time,” “This Side of Paradise” and “Elaan of Troyius”) in which it was clear his first love was the Enterprise.

So it was never that Starfleet wouldn’t let Janice be a captain because she was a woman. It was that they wouldn’t let her be a captain because she was Janice Lester, an unstable person lacking the requisite skills and qualities for command. Being unstable, she blamed Kirk, Starfleet, and her own gender for her career failings, rather than accept reality, which was that she simply wasn’t cut out for command.

That’s not even a case of rationalizing the dialogue to retcon out anachronistic sexism; it’s how I’ve viewed it for more than 40 years. So when I found out in the ’80s that others thought that meant Starfleet prevented women from becoming captains, I was surprised people had interpreted the dialogue so differently than I had. Kirk’s “world of starship captains” was not Starfleet policy. It was his inability to commit to a woman who didn’t run on dilithium and sport “ample nacelles,” as Scotty put it.

If there’s any doubt that Janice was completely irrational, by the way, look no further than the fact that she recorded a Captain’s Log fully admitting her crimes. This was not a sane person by any means, and Starfleet knew it. They also knew that her partner, Doctor Coleman, was dangerously incompetent, so they removed him from his post. Both of them were being penalized for incompetence, irrespective of whether they were male or female. There was no way Starfleet would have made her a captain, and gender had nothing to do with it except in her own mind. Kirk himself noted, “Her intense hatred of her own womanhood made life with her impossible.”

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to chime in below.

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