Star Trek Re-Watch: “Mudd’s Women”

“Mudd’s Women”
Teleplay by Stephen Kandel
Story by Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Harvey Hart

Season 1, Episode 6
Production episode: 1×03
Original air date: October 13, 1966
Star date: 1329.8

Mission Summary
The Enterprise is chasing down a small cargo ship that refuses to respond to hails or identity itself. The mysterious ship, despite its own failing engines, enters an asteroid belt (where the Enterprise must inevitably foll0w). Since asteroid belts are, yanno, full of asteroids, Kirk attempts to save the men onboard the doomed vessel by extending the Enterprise’s shield-thingy to encompass it. Just as they’re able to beam aboard that ship’s crew, the tiny cargo vessel is destroyed by an asteroid.

The first man to beam over is Leo Walsh.  Sweaty, mustached, and dressed in a weird pirate shirt and hammer pants, he looks like some kind of space gypsy. That coupled with the Irish brogue make it clear he’s hiding something. Walsh claims that he avoided the Enterprise because he wasn’t sure if they were friendly. A likely story! Scotty is finally able to lock onto the three others, and beams over…

…three beautiful woman.

The three sexy women (and you know they’re sexy because they’re in soft focus) transfix Scotty and McCoy. They seem to exude some kind of magnetic power over the men around them, and oh-so-sultrily they all report to Captain Kirk.  “This is your crew?” he asks Mr. Walsh incredulously. “Well, no, Captain,” he answers. “This is me cargo.” (Cue involuntary shudder.)

The captain is equally transfixed by the women, but not enough to let the slimy Walsh get away with his story that he had “no idea” the Enteprise was a starship. Kirk informs him that he’ll be convening a hearing on Captain Walsh’s actions. Behold a moment of awesome:

MUDD: You’re a hard-nosed one, Captain.
KIRK: And you’re a liar, Mister Walsh. I think we both understand each other.

Meanwhile the Enterprise, having overextended its power, broke all but one of its “lithium” crystals. (Trivia: this and “Where No Man Has Gone Before” are the two episodes that call them lithium rather than dilithium crystals.) Crippled and running on battery power, it sets course for a nearby mining planet, Rigel 12.

Kirk convenes his hearing, which winds up as more of an interrogation. Walsh preps the women for the interview, telling them not to lie, but not to submit to a medical examination. When Kirk and his crew enter, Walsh explains that the women voluntarily left their home planets, where they had few marriage prospects, and are headed to Ophiucus III to be frontier wives for lonely settlers. A likely story! Using a lie detector machine, Kirk & Co. discover that “Leo Walsh” is actually Harcourt Fenton Mudd; he doesn’t have an Irish accent; and he’s got a rap sheet longer than Snake Plissken’s that includes smuggling, transport of stolen goods, and purchasing a space vessel with counterfeit currency. “Blast that tin-plated pot!” Walsh curses at the lie detector for rooting him out. He had been sentenced to psychiatric treatment (it’s unclear if that failed to work or if he just managed to evade it), and his ship’s master’s license has been revoked. Kirk decides to bring him to justice at the soonest available opportunity; the rest of his staff are too busy sweating like a prepubescent boys over the three ladies in the room. As they exit, the last lithium crystal fails, and Harry Mudd overhears Kirk giving the orders to go to Rigel 12.

Mudd has a plan: he sets each of the women to find out more information about these miners, promising them that lithium miners are lonely, isolated, overworked, and rich. Ruth Bonaventure (the one with short blonde hair) flirts shamelessly with McCoy, who volunteers the information that there are exactly three miners and they’re in good health. In the process she sets off something on the medical scanner. Magda (the brunette) gets her hands on a communicator (offscreen), and Eve (the long-haired blonde) lies in wait in Kirk’s quarters. She claims she needed a place to go to escape the prying eyes of the crew, and gives him a nice little spiel about how she understands loneliness. If you know what I mean. NUDGE NUDGE WINK WINK. But before she can go through with it she chickens out, saying “Oh, no! Oh, I just can’t do it. I don’t care what Harry Mudd says. I do like you, but I just can’t go through with it. I hate this whole thing!” She runs out of his cabin back to Harry Mudd.

Kirk returns to the bridge and asks McCoy if Eve submitted to a medical examination, but the doctor claims she refused. The two can’t quite put their fingers on what it is that makes those women so special:

KIRK: Well, come on, you’re the doctor. What is it? Is it that we’re tired, and they’re beautiful? They are incredibly beautiful.
MCCOY: Are they, Jim? Are they actually more lovely, pound for pound, measurement for measurement, than any other women you’ve known? Or is it that they just, well, act beautiful. No. Strike that, strike that.

They enter orbit of Rigel 12, which they can sustain for three days—plenty of time, right?

Except that Mudd uses the stolen communicator to contact the miners himself. The three women, meanwhile, are undergoing a mysterious transformation—their looks begin to fade as they turn into “ugly” (well, Hollywood’s version of ugly) women. The women panic, afraid that someone will see them—“I can’t stand myself like this,” Magda says—and Harry frantically searches for something. Under the mattress he finds his stash of pills, which Magda and Ruth eagerly devour. Eve seems upset about something, though, and is reluctant to take them. Mudd ultimately persuades her to take it, saying, “Go on, Eve. Take it. It’s not a cheat. It’s a miracle for some man who can appreciate it and who needs it.”

The miners come onboard the ship and meet with Kirk, who offers them an equitable price. But the miners refuse! They say they want to barter, instead—trade the lithium crystals for the women, after looking at them of course, and they want Harry Mudd to go free. Kirk laughs in the man’s face and says firmly that there will be no deal, but the miner reminds him that he has only three days of battery power left and he will have to cave eventually.

And cave he does, allowing the women to transport down and wine and dine with the three miners in a party so boring, tedious, and awkward it looks like a middle school dance. When Kirk demands the crystals, the head miner, Childress, says he’s too busy to hand them over. He then tries to dance with Eve, who is clearly upset about something and not much for conversation. Childress then tries to cut in on the other two miner’s dates, with no luck—and a jilted Eve shouts, “Why don’t you run a raffle and the loser gets me?” She then runs out into the magnetic storm outside. The planet is a deadly wasteland, and Kirk leaves, demanding that Childress have the crystals when he returns.

Childress ventures into the storm and eventually does find Eve, carrying her back to his hut. Eve cooks for Childress, and the two snap at each other in a not-entirely-unfriendly way. The two start to bicker, and Kirk and Mudd beam down, having spotted them from the Enterprise because of the fire. They explain to Childress that it’s a charade—the women have been taking the illegal Venus drug, which makes them (temporarily) beautiful. The other two miners have already married their women, so it’s too late for them. To demonstrate, Harry offers the pill to Eve, whose beauty is fading. She takes the pill, saying angrily to Childress:

You don’t want wives, you want this. This is what you want, Mister Childress. I hope you remember it and dream about it, because you can’t have it. It’s not real! 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? All right, then. Here it is.

And transforms into a beautiful woman once more. Finally, Kirk reveals that the pill he gave her was a fake, a gelatin pill. Her beauty was her own all along, enhanced by her confidence.

Childress agrees to hand over the lithium crystals, and decides he’ll keep Eve after all. The women remain on the planet as Kirk and Mudd beam away.

Analysis: I’m not really sure what to make of this episode. There’s never any explanation for the women’s incredible magnetism, and I’m tired of the sex-as-magic trope. I’m also tired of the men-are-victims-to-beauty trope, which was at high pitch during the interrogation scene. While the rest of his crew is visibly aroused (ew), Kirk is the Odysseus tied to the mast of the ship, bearing it through. I’m additionally creeped out by the choice to make Mudd a sympathetic and affable character—he’s a human trafficker and recasting that as matchmaking set up by a likeable scoundrel sets off my creep-dar like you wouldn’t believe. I appreciate that he is supposed to be a comedic character, but I thought the whole joke of women as “cargo” just wasn’t funny.

The episode is clearly supposed to be well-intentioned and positively portray women as masters of their own beauty, but really the whole thing is just another version of the loathly lady tale, a trope of medieval literature that most famously appears in Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” You can read more about it on your own, but the short version is this: a knight is saved from death by an old hag, who gives him the information he seeks (that what women want is mastery over their husbands) on the condition that he grant her a favor later. It turns out that favor is to marry her. When the knight complains of her ugliness, she tells him that he can choose: he can have the faithless beauty or a faithful hag. He lets her choose, and pleased that this means he’s demonstrated her mastery of him, she’s transformed into a beautiful and faithful woman and they live happily ever after. (And yes, I totally just tied Star Trek into Chaucer. Deal with it. It’s how I roll.)

Eve’s speech about what men really want is incredibly similar in tone and meaning. She tells him that men think they want the devastating beauty that she represents, but that kind of beauty isn’t real. He’s given the choice between a woman who is “selfish, vain, beautiful” and a  woman, who will “help you” with things like cooking, sewing—a woman who feels and needs. Kirk, by giving her the fake pill, lets her choose her own fate—and she’s magically transformed into a beautiful woman who will clearly be useful and faithful to Childress.

There’s so much that bothers me about this. Kirk tells us her transformation is because of her self-confidence; I don’t buy it. What confidence? It’s the belief that the pill is magically getting rid of the face she can’t stand, not because she actually loves herself for who she is. She certainly believes she’s useful and has other skills, but that confidence wasn’t enough when she was cooking, or she would’ve been prettier then, right? The change between before the pill and after the pill is so dramatic that it’s laughable—the woman looks ten years younger and like she just walked out of a day spa. And any meaning that her speech on women’s real assets had is utterly undermined by the fact that they’re still judging her based on her looks. Childress doesn’t take her after that speech; he takes her after she becomes beautiful again.

This iteration of the trope doesn’t emphasize women’s mastery over men (thank god), but instead posits that what women really want is to be judged based on their practical usefulness rather than simply their looks. I know that’s supposed to be empowering, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth, not leastways because, as I said above, Childress doesn’t value her for her usefulness or he would’ve taken her earlier! And her (requited, but impossible) interest in Kirk isn’t based on her usefulness, either—that’s not why Kirk values her at all. The “message,” as it were, is that women can become beautiful by believing in themselves and loving their other qualities—but their reward for that self-confidence in other things is beauty. So the reward for not needing beauty is…beauty? Eve benefits from her self-confidence in that it gives her the beauty she needs to finally secure Childress. Whether she feels her looks are important or not, they’re still essential to getting her man. Her appearance doesn’t give her a better man or a better lot, and it doesn’t get her even close to the man she really wants, Kirk—but it tips the scale in her favor when it comes to Childress deciding whether he would like to “keep” her.

We have an entire episode about what men want in women, and yet we have no idea what it is the women want in men. They simply up and marry the men they’re “assigned” to—none of them seem to care about any particular qualities the guy has to possess, aside from loneliness (and perhaps wealth, though women as gold-diggers isn’t much of an improvement). Living forever on a desolate wasteland with men they’ve never seen is A-OK. They spend time on a ship full of a diverse crew of men and yet never waver from their assigned goal of marrying some lonely frontiersman (except for Eve, of course, who can’t resist Kirk). Seriously? It never occurs to them that they could do better? So perhaps pickings were slim on the home planet, but the Enterprise is a veritable smorgasbord of interesting young men, and it would surely offer them passage to whatever colony they wanted; why trade the opportunities it represents for men they’ve never even met? Why can’t Eve be a marriageable woman on her own merits, without the beauty she herself said was not real?

Torie’s Rating: Warp 2 (on a scale of 1-6)

Eugene Myers: Though for some reason I remember liking “Mudd’s Women” when I was younger, this episode was fairly disappointing after the ones we’ve seen so far. I can’t believe Roddenberry actually offered this as a pilot script to NBC, but given that it’s the complete opposite of “The Cage,” maybe he thought dumbing it down would appeal to the executives.

What we have here is an attempt at a light and fun episode, which Star Trek often excelled at. Not so with this effort. There are some humorous lines, and I enjoyed the interaction between Mudd and Kirk, but this episode fails to deliver anything substantive. I had more fun reading contemporary double entendre into the lines: when the women first beam aboard, Kirk asks on the intercom, “How many did we get off?” Probably every male viewer beyond the age of puberty! The B-plot of the episode concerning the Enterprise’s critical need for lithium crystals is unmemorable; though I sympathize with the problem—I’m watching the battery meter on my laptop right now—this same idea was explored before in “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” another of the proposed scripts for the show’s second pilot.

This episode did have some potential. It alternately objectifies women and criticizes the practice, often through the character of Eve. Unlike the other two women, who are simply looking for rich husbands, Eve wants a companion. She wants to be loved for qualities other than her looks…such as her ability to “cook, and sew, and cry, and need.” On the flip side, she believes that pretty women are selfish, vain, and useless and that taking the “Venus pills” is tantamount to cheating (but makeup isn’t?). There’s an opportunity to comment on this desire for men and women to enhance their bodies through artificial means, a topic still relevant today, but it slips by the writers. And here again we have a character driven by the need for love (who incidentally, can also alter her appearance and becomes a “man trap”).

And yet, Eve is a good match for the miner, Childress. She’s smarter than him for one, and she doesn’t take any nonsense. If anyone can adapt to a harsh life on Rigel XII, it’s her. She isn’t wrong to think she might also be a good “captain’s wife” to Kirk, who is finally tempted not only by her beauty but her unique personality. But what’s going on with this business about a placebo, which makes her beautiful again because she believes in herself? It’s utter nonsense and it ruins a chance at a satisfactory ending. And Spock seems to wax metaphorical about the ladies’ true nature when he uncharacteristically comments on the lithium crystal: “Even burned and cracked, they’re beautiful.”

As a potential pilot episode, this one does establish (or reinforce, given it’s broadcast date) some core character concepts: Kirk is married to his ship, McCoy hates the transporters, and McCoy and Spock’s relationship is founded on pleasant conflict. It also features some strange behavior in the “Vulcanian” and Uhura wears a rarely seen miniskirt in the turtleneck tyle of the original series uniforms.

Despite everything, Roger C. Carmel turns in a fine performance as the blustering space swindler, Harcourt Fenton Mudd. If you liked his character, he’ll have another chance to charm and irritate later in the series: Harry Mudd will return in “I, Mudd.”

He’ll also make an appearance in the animated series episode, “Mudd’s Passion.”

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 2 (on a scale of 1-6)

Syndication Edits: The long, sultry shots of the women making their way to Kirk’s quarters for the initial meeting. The rest of the edits were fairly minor.

Best Line: Kirk: “I can’t [let you stay on the planet], Harry, but I will appear as a character witness at your trial. If you think that’ll help.” Mudd: “They’ll throw away the key!”

Trivia: If you thought Magda there was a hottie, you’re not the only one: she was a Playboy centerfold shortly afterwards.

Previous Episode: Season 1, Episode 5 –  “The Enemy Within.”

Next Episode: Season 1, Episode 7 – “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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About Torie Atkinson & Eugene Myers

TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books. EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young adult fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is available now from Pyr.