CULTURE & ARTS
12/08/2015 09:55 am ET Updated Dec 08, 2015

The Only Female Captain Of 'Star Trek' Speaks Out

She went where no woman -- or mother -- has gone before.
Priscilla Frank

Though overshadowed by "Star Wars" hype, the recent announcement that a new “Star Trek” series is in the works caught the attention of lite sci-fi geeks, and thrilled series devotees. The first question on fans’ minds -- after “for real?!” and “when?!” (yes, in 2017) -- was who will helm the latest edition as its Captain.

It’s a role with a certain stigma attached to it, and a storied history. The Captain must be self-assured, old enough to have had the experience to man a large crew, well-versed in techno-babble, and possessive of an air of grandeur typically reserved for Shakespearean stage actors. 

It’s too early for any surfacing rumors to carry much weight, but a few science-fiction sites and forums have cast their votes for who they’d prefer to see seated in the Captain’s chair. Whispers about the overdue casting of an LGBT Captain are among the most promising -- or at least the most interesting. Entertainment site Inquisitr notes that the series has a track record of inclusiveness, casting both a black Captain and a female Captain in the '90s.

Said female Captain, played by Kate Mulgrew on “Star Trek: Voyager,” spoke with The Huffington Post about her seven-year tenure on the show, and what she hopes to see from the newest installment.

“There has not been an LGBT Captain. There are an infinity of things they haven’t had,” Mulgrew said. “But I’ll be curious to see if they choose a man or a woman. I think I wouldn’t mind a bit if I -- well, I’m not even going to tell you that, that’s selfish. I’m eating my words, eating them! It’s just kind of nice being the only female Captain to date.”

It’s easy to see why Mulgrew -- who now plays Russian immigrant Red on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” -- feels possessive of the role. On air from 1995 to 2001, “Star Trek: Voyager” was a show that asked much of its Captain, who often worked 16 to 18 hour days, delivering scientifically dense lines with finesse. Themes recurring throughout the series centered on the importance of individuality, upheld by Mulgrew’s Captain Janeway, a robot-turned-sentient being named the Doctor, and a Borg-turned-free-thinking-human Seven of Nine.

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But Captain Janeway wasn’t the only “Star Trek” leader to advocate for diversity. In fact, Mulgrew sees her character as fitting into a long tradition rather than standing out as a singular role.

Like Patrick Stewart and Avery Brooks before her, she came to the show with experience as a stage actress, having played in productions of "Othello" and "Titus Andronicus." Because of the Shakespearean quality the show’s creator Gene Roddenberry envisioned for the initial take on “Star Trek,” Mulgrew says the role of the Captain should be a timeless one, unmarried to imagined trends of the era. The Captain’s speech should be theatrical, she says, granting even hokey lines gravitas. Because of the part’s almost royal air, Mulgrew doesn’t think a female Captain would be played differently today than in the '90s, even though tides have changed significantly in terms of women’s rights.

“The beauty of ‘Star Trek’ is that Roddenberry was very far-seeing,” Mulgrew said. “Gender regarding the Captain’s seat was a unilateral thing. It transcended all of those classifications. I think that I played Janeway as I would play her today.”

Another enduring quality of “Star Trek” Captains: they have to memorize a lot of scientific jargon. How else are they supposed to make quips about coffee -- “the finest organic suspension ever devised” -- while retaining the image of being a die-hard science nerd? The expectations are so outside of the norm that the woman originally cast as Captain Janeway, film actress Geneviève Bujold, quit while filming the first episode. Mulgrew suspects that the required devotion to physics-speak, coupled with the show’s long hours, are what drove her away. When she caught word of the opening, Mulgrew swooped in and snagged the role, and she has her studious habits to thank for it.

When asked whether she uses any tricks to memorize the language of “Star Trek,” she said, “Yeah, and it’s a hard trick. It’s nothing you can get away with easily. I read Richard Feynman, I revisited Einstein, and I listened to scientists talk at length about not only the magnitude of space, but almost the theology of space. I had to study physics -- on a very fundamental level, mind you -- but I understood enough so that I could endow the words, endow the language with meaning.”

The reason for her intense studies? “Trekkies are like hawks,” Mulgrew said. “They see everything. They know if you’re making it up. They know and they don’t like it. So I didn’t make it up.”

“The choices that I was forced to make as that Captain were very strong, very bold, very powerful choices,” Mulgrew said. “I forewent motherhood, I forewent intimate love. That was the ultimate sacrifice, and I think that was a necessary component for great leadership: that essential loneliness.”

At this point in Mulgrew’s musings, it’s unclear whether she’s talking about the sacrifices her character had to make, or the sacrifices she had to make as a woman playing that character. So, I asked her bluntly whether, during her years on “Star Trek,” she felt as empowered as her character seemed to be.

“No,” she said. “Of course not. I had two little children at home, so I was in a constant state of conflict. How do I get to them? What’s going on? How do I assuage their fears? How do I balance all of this? I need to be as every good a mother as I am an actress. It was very difficult.”

This sentiment is reiterated in the actress’ recently published memoir, Born with Teeth, in which she writes, “I played Captain Janeway in the era that had not resolved the conflicts surrounding mothers and work.” She writes about jetting from home to work and back again -- unfortunately without the benefit of warp speed -- and of her sons’ tendency to act out when things got especially busy. To this day, she said, they haven’t seen an episode of the show she worked on during their adolescence.

“Not that there’s a hostile thing about it, but why would you watch the thing that took your mother away from you?” Mulgrew said. “It’d be a reminder to them. And I think if they did see it, they’d just laugh now. But at that time, it was their formative, impressionable years. It was tough, but we’ve all come through the other end, and I’m very glad I did it. And I’m glad I did it the way I did it.”

Today, on the set of “Orange Is the New Black,” Mulgrew says she’s noticed a vital shift in how her co-stars perceive motherhood, and the elusive work-life balance. She credits the show’s creator, a mother herself, for recognizing that her cast’s private and professional lives feed one another. There are children on the show’s set -- unheard of even in the “Voyager” days.

“It’s a new day in television,” Mulgrew said.

“It’s slow-going,” she adds. “I’m not gonna be foolish about it. It’s still a boy’s club. But this must change, out of necessity.” She says this boldly and bluntly, like she’s uncovering a self-evident new truth. Her words are measured but hopeful. She speaks, quite simply, like a Captain.

CLARIFICATION: We’ve stated above that The Doctor on “Star Trek: Voyager” is a robot-turned-sentient being. He is, in fact, an Emergency Medical Hologram that has developed its own unique personality. Although we maintain that “robot” is a nebulous descriptor, we’re not about to debate with “Star Trek” fans over the show’s unique lexicon. 

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