7.8/10. The gender politics of Star Trek are so weird. In some ways, the show is incredibly progressive, delving into the nuance of objectification and sex-stereotypes decades before they were topics de jour, and in others, like in the semi-indulgent seduction scenes or its focus on physical beauty, the show comes off as very much of its time.
But hey, before we dig into the social commentary, let’s talk about the episode’s storytelling, an area where “Mudd’s Women” excels. While things stalled out a bit once they got onto Rigel 12 (which seems to be the default planet name for when other shows are referencing Star Trek), for once the pacing was very good. There was a good amount of incident parceled out from the first act to the last that kept the dead spots which have plagued other episodes from popping up.
By the same token, this one feels very much like the Star Trek I grew up with (TNG in particular) in its rhythms. There’s a central mystery (what’s the deal with these preternaturally compelling women?), a ticking clock (“we need more dilithium crystals or the ship will run out of gas”), a change in fortune (the miners wanting to trade the crystals for the women), and plenty of moments of character development sprinkled in to make these plot hurdles meaningful. Even Mudd himself, who initially struck me as a little too broad for me to tolerate, let alone enjoy, eventually added something of a spark to the episode, with his ingratiating but scummy huckster ways.
This is also as fine a job in terms of the way an episode’s been shot and edited in Star Trek so far. In the “Ship Hearing” scene in particular, the way the men at the one table were framed to mirror the women on the other, with Mudd himself put in line with the lie-detector machine, did a nice job at telling the story visually as much as the show was telling it with dialogue. While there’s a garishness to the colors used in the program that still throw me off a bit as a modern viewer, the show used its palette well here, contrasting the outfits of Mudd and his “cargo,” in addition to the rough-hewn miners, that helped create some visual diversity.But man, I don’t know what to make of this one. There’s a lot going on under the hood in “Mudd’s Women” and I don’t know whether to love it or hate it, which may very well be a sign of some laudable complexity.
On the one hand, I appreciated that as easy as it would have been to simply cast this episode as “Kirk vs. Mudd,” the not-so-subtly named Eve was essentially the main character of the episode. Taking a story about how women are treated as objects and making the women secondary characters would have been a disappointing choice, and I was pleased to see the show make Eve’s voice the most prominent here.
And it’s a hell of a performance from Karen Steele as Eve. When she declares “Why don’t you just do a raffle and the loser gets me” or she tears herself away from Kirk, or she jousts with the miner she’s “betrothed” to, there’s layers to the character that give her dimension and death, sell the internal struggle between what she wants and what she thinks she ought to do. Her portrayal of Eve is the crown jewel of “Mudd’s Women,” and the element of the episode that makes the whole thing work.
Still, there’s parts that make me scratch my head, partly in confusion and partly in frustration. For one thing, I’m not sure what the folks behind the scenes were going for with the “venus drug” element of the story. Is it supposed to be a metaphor for makeup? Plastic surgery? There’s something interesting to explore there, with women who feel like their only marketable asset is their looks torturing themselves to maintain it, and the pain and insecurity of that.
But that’s not really how “Mudd’s Women” approaches it. It seems to hinge more on the drug as a “deception” or a “cheat,” which, has some interesting layers to it, especially when Eve confronts the miner about wanting a fantasy and something superficial while not caring about the actual substance of having a partner, but doesn’t really go into any depth on that front. What’s more, the ending, with Kirk delivering “the beauty was in your heart all along”-esque speech about confidence after giving her a placebo pill doesn’t make much sense, since we’ve seen the clearly physical changes the women go through. Maybe you can write it off as the audience seeing these women as they see themselves, but that feels like a handwave. It’s an odd beat to close with, and it’s especially offputting to end an episode centered on what amounts to an arranged marriage at best and sex slavery at worst with a “you just need to believe you’re beautiful” message.
And then there is some interesting subtext (and text, for that matter) about how the men, both on the ship and off it, treat these women. Mudd treats them like cattle, or worse, minions, sending them to do his bidding. The men on the Enterprise are not so callous, but still put on the hummuna hummuna routine. (In fairness, that appears to be the response the women/venus drug are designed to elicit, and there’s something to be said for these women being victims yet again by being primed for this sort of fawning behavior.) And then there’s the miners, who treat them like property that can be bargained for, fought over, and potentially returned when unsatisfactory.
It’s that last part that really cements “Mudd’s Women” as something unique, if not exactly wholly commendable here. Eve’s interactions with the miner she’s been traded to are particularly revealing. There’s a Seven Brides for Seven Brothers-vibe, where a smart and capable woman is thrown into the difficulties of a situation where she doesn’t have a lot of power or autonomy. There is, dare I say, a self-aware toxic masculinity in how the miner is depicted, and a strength and tragedy in how Eve is written and played in response. That makes the ending of the episode, where Eve decides to stay with him, all the more bizarre, as he’s seemingly done nothing to warrant it, but the path to get there is interesting if nothing else.
There’s even a quiet rebuke of Captain Kirk who, while reserved but smitten with Eve, is tarred, not incorrectly, with the smear that he’ll choose his ship over any woman. There’s a decency to Kirk here. If you’ll pardon my out-of-order referencing, there’s a Picard-esque sense of principle from him in “Mudd’s Women” where he’s concerned with the dignity and freedom of these women, even if it leads to some difficult choices. But eventually, he relents, gets his crystals, and goes on his way, somewhat proving Mudd’s point, though at a minimum, he seems to do so while trying to make sure that staying on Rigel is what these women want.
Again, it’s a strange episode, one that leans into themes of empowerment and abuse for women that no doubt mirrored the state of many prior (and after) the women’s liberation movement. Eve in particular is a fascinating character who feels ahead of her time, even when she shows her intelligence and resourcefulness through cooking and cleaning. But so much of the way “Mudd’s Women” tells its story feels as stuck in the Sixties as the florid pastels and foam rock sets. It’s a particularly interesting installment of Star Trek, one that seems to be at war with itself on whether it’s exposing the harms and hypocrisies of the stereotypes and expectations that women like Eve must subsist under, or whether it’s confirming them. Perhaps anything more is too much to expect from a show that started fifty years ago.
My first taste of how bad the original Star Trek can be. The casual sexism of the 1960s is front and centre, but this episode has the added problem of being quite boring and very silly.
A most annoying emotional episode
A most annoying emotional episode
Well said, Mr. Spock. Indeed it was. And sooo full of plot holes...
One of my least favourite episodes. I just don’t like the character Mudd
It’s purely a way to illustrate the beauty of the women I know, but, the notion that 3 women have such a hold over ‘most’ men they meet is hilarious.
Of course, as with most things, they turn out to be enhanced and far from natural.
A good episode, but some content issues kept it from being what it could have been.
Content Concerns: The episode revolves around three lovely ladies who use alien drugs to enhance their loveliness. All of the male crew members are infatuated with the ladies, and their wardrobe is a bit sultry, though mild by today's standards. Profanity includes two uses of the "J.A." word and one d-word. Some guys get into a fight.