Turning about Turnabout Intruder

Turnabout Intruder is apparently, an almost universally hated episode. Ratings were poor, Shatner’s acting is mocked as being campy, it is bashed as being sexist and reactionary – “a knee-jerk response to the increasingly radical women’s movements of the late 1960s” – all in all, a poor final episode to a brilliant and progressive show.  Well, so they say – needless to say, I disagree.

It is indeed true that the ratings were poor, but I hardly think that it’s fair to use its ratings as an indication of its quality.  The episode was aired some two months after the previous episode, and in a timeslot that Star Trek had never been aired in.  I think it is fair to say it didn’t stand a chance of nearing the ratings of the earlier episodes.  Turnabout Intruder also doesn’t have any markers of being a ‘finale’ episode; it was never written to be one, in fact, Shatner was set to direct the next episode.  Turnabout Intruder is a quintessential ‘mid-season’ Star Trek episode, a strong character driven, self-contained story and in my opinion a significant commentary which resonates as strongly today as in the sixties.

Or it would do (or would have done) if people weren’t so resolved to misrepresent and pan it.

For those that need a quick refresher, Turnabout Intruder is the episode where on responding to a distress call on Camus II the landing party (including Kirk, Spock, and McCoy) find that all but two of the archaeological expedition have been killed by exposure to celebrium.  The two surviving members of the dig are Janice Lester and Doctor Arthur Coleman.  It is revealed that Janice Lester and Kirk were involved romantically and that their romance ended rather bitterly.  It also becomes clear that Lester and Coleman contrived to kill the other researchers in order to set a trap for the Enterprise and specifically Kirk – Lester wants to use a body-swapping device to steal Kirk’s body and take command of the Enterprise.  After successfully using the device, she reveals that she has studied protocol and she believes she knows Kirk well enough to mimic him and eventually become him.  However, as we expect, this is proved false and over the course of the episode, her performance breaks down, until the truth is revealed.  Kirk is working against her from within her body and plays no small part in thwarting her coop, although it’s debatable whether even without his influence whether Lester could have succeeded in her plan.  As part of Kirk’s attempts, there is the memorable mind meld scene with Spock, where he confirms (at least to himself) that Kirk’s mind is in Janice Lester’s body, however before they can act Spock and Kirk are caught and Lester (as Kirk) announces a court-martial of Spock citing mutiny.

The court-martial is farcical and results in Lester (as Kirk) becoming hysterical and increasingly illogical, making it clear to observers that ‘Kirk’ is not currently competent / in his right mind.  Scott and McCoy voice their concerns during the court martial’s recess, but their comments are overheard and they are charged with mutiny.  Lester then orders the death penalty and has Spock, Scott, McCoy, and Kirk imprisoned, scheduling a group execution in the hangar deck with interment to take place on Benecia.  Sulu and Chekov refuse by removing their hands from the starship’s controls.  At this point a short reversal in the transfer occurs, Kirk and Lester sense it.  Lester reports this to Coleman who tells her that the only way to stop it would be to kill Lester’s original body.  Lester asks Coleman to do it, Coleman refuses, but Lester reminds him that he must since he has been complicit in so many murders.  Lester is given a phaser and Coleman prepares a hypospray and they proceed to the cell where Kirk and the others are being kept.

Lester orders Kirk out of the cell under the pretence of moving him to another location to prevent conspiracy, but before she can kill him, the transference reverses permanently.  Realising she has failed, Lester breaks down and Coleman escorts her away to look after her in sickbay.

A more in-depth summary can be found here.

What does Turnabout Intruder Imply about Gender and Fluidity?

One of the more interesting observations about Turnabout Intruder is the difference in Kirk and Lester’s approach to being in their new bodies.  I personally find it particularly fascinating that Lester is less ‘fluid’ than Kirk is.

Let me elaborate.  When Lester assumes Kirk’s body she brings with her a great many preconceptions about how ‘a man’ should act, and more importantly how Kirk acts.  Lester as Kirk is always off key, always overcompensating.  Instead of a performance or simulation of Kirk, Lester produces a caricature coloured by her perceptions of him, her memories and her resentment.  Kirk as Lester, on the other hand, is beautifully fluid, easily slipping between his masculine self (his ‘true self’ if you’ll excuse the clumsy term) and his own persona as Janice Lester.  The important part of this is that Kirk when acting ‘as Lester’ does not become this caricature of a woman but sheds any pretence and calms himself to fool nurse Chapel.  This implies (at least to me) that this ‘man’s man’, a ladies man, a man who is charming and exudes masculinity lets all that drop away to take on the female persona- and he sees no shame in that.  Kirk respects women, he certainly appreciates the female body, but perhaps one would think he would be concerned with a weaker body?  One that would never give him the strength that he’s used to?  Kirk realises that it doesn’t actually matter.   Why should it matter?  Kirk lives in a reality where the human male is not the strongest.  His first officer and best friend are Vulcan which is not only three times stronger than his male body but can also survive the greater heat and greater trauma.  With friends like these, suddenly the difference between their bodies isn’t so different.

Of course, Kirk wants his body back.  He has been drugged, assaulted, and by definition raped.  In taking his body without consent, Lester has committed a particularly heinous act against Kirk’s person, what’s worse is she believes she has a right to do so.  She believes that the perceived wrongs committed against her justify and mitigates her actions against Kirk.  Can you imagine knowing somebody is in your body?  Who can touch and look at your body without your consent?  Further, move your mouth and use your power – in this case, a captain’s – to put the people you care for in danger, to sentence your friends to death?

I believe that the themes in Turnabout Intruder are very forward thinking. It’s not often even now that a male character is emasculated by a female, certainly not physically, and certainly not in the 1960s – but that is what has happened here.  Of course, if we move into talking about the actors, about the show itself, they have been bold enough to have their main character (Kirk) be less than masculine.  I think it was more of a risk than say, the antics of Plato’s Stepchildren.  This is especially prevalent in the scene where Lester (as Kirk) tries to convince Coleman to kill for her, which I think was particularly risque for 1969!

Many people have criticised Shatner’s acting in this episode and praised Sandra Smith’s acting, however, I think this is a little unfair.  Sandra Smith was indeed excellent in the episode, but she had the advantage of being directed to act like Shatner did Kirk (probably even schooled by Shatner) but also of playing someone, for the most part, sane.  Additionally, Smith could play ‘Kirk as Lester’ as essentially a new character, we don’t know Lester, the characters don’t know Lester so any portrayal would be correct.  Shatner, on the other hand, had the task of playing an off-colour version of a character he had been playing for three seasons, while also acting the part of someone utterly unhinged.  Shatner couldn’t play Lester exactly as he would have done Kirk, Kirk is special and his special qualities go beyond his sex.

Lester isn’t unsuitable because she’s a woman, she’s unsuitable because she’s unstable.

Lester is in control, and she may well have succeeded in her plans if she wasn’t so mentally unstable.  Lester’s instability is commented on by Doctor McCoy and he uses his authority as the chief medical officer to order a medical examination based on ‘emotional instability and erratic mental attitudes since returning from that planet’.  Commenters have cried ‘sexism’ at this, why is a woman ‘hysterical’, what a cliche!  Why is Starfleet sexist and not allowing a woman to be captain of the Enterprise (as Lester implies during the court-martial)?  I think, perhaps many people are looking at this from the wrong angle.

Lester is unstable, not because she’s a woman but because she is mentally ill.  She is sick, she is unwell and this is abundantly clear by her actions and her ability to justify her terrible actions (like, for example sanctioning the killing of the other researchers).  What is also made clear is that she has been unwell for some time.  Kirk comments during an exchange with Janice Lester that had they stayed together, they would have ‘killed each other’ and that because she couldn’t share his life as a Starship captain that she ‘punished and tortured’ him because of it.  This wasn’t a healthy relationship, and a sane person doesn’t ‘punish and torture’ the person they supposedly love for something that they possibly couldn’t control.  The relationship seems to have been toxic, destructive, and since we know that Kirk is a relatively balanced character, the destructive force appears to have been Lester.

I can hear the objections from here.  But Lester said ‘Your world of starship captains doesn’t admit women’!  Lester said that Starfleet wouldn’t have let Kirk captain the ship in a woman’s body!  Lester said this, Lester said that.

Lester is mentally ill.

We can’t take what she is saying as fact.  Lester is compromised, Lester has done terrible things and made terrible justifications.  Lester is using these comments as a crux, as a foundation for her hatred and resentment.  Kirk did not cause these problems, but she unfairly blames him.  If she was on the receiving end of any unfairness it did not cause this instability, it was inherent in her.  I don’t believe she is evil, but I believe her actions were.

Lester’s is described as having been in ‘hysterics’ and people have taken this as sexism.  It’s a description of an emotional condition which has been associated with women since its Greek roots.  The fact is Kirk doesn’t become hysterical, it isn’t part of his character.  The fact Lester becomes hysterical is unrelated to being a woman.  We see plenty of hysterical men throughout the series, but do we feminize them because of it? No.  So why are we only attributing it as feminizing and sexist when a woman has that trait?

Are we focusing on the wrong issue?  Is Turnabout Intruder a mental health episode rather than a sexism episode?

We all know that our understanding of mental health and mental illness has come along in leaps and bounds in the last couple of decades.  Do you remember ten years ago?  Fifteen?  Twenty?  Do you remember the public’s understanding of depression?  Suicide?  Psychosis?  Bipolar disorder?  Anorexia? Bulimia? John and Jane Everyday knew very little, mental illness was dirty.  We didn’t talk about it, and when it was approached it was often misunderstood and misrepresented.  Now, if you’re young (like me) imagine, or if you’re older remember, what the understanding of mental health was in 1969.  Only in the sixties had we realized that mental illness could be affected by chemical imbalances in the brain.  Imagine or remember the institutions, the invasive ‘therapies’ (electric shock, physical pain etc.), mentally ill people treated like animals and used for unpaid labour.  It’s pretty scary stuff, there’s a reason we still fear the old asylums, even if we didn’t live in that time.

My main point is, mental illness wasn’t talked about.  Only within the last few years, people are starting to talk about it more openly, how incredible is it that Star Trek in 1969 is talking about it openly.  Not in the guise of some flamboyant villain who has taken over an asylum and believes himself king but in the confines of the mind of a very ill woman.  There’s nothing glamorous or humorous about this episode, it is sad, scary and dark.


If you’ve stayed with me this long thank you.  I’m going to end with a concession.

I understand that you might think I’m thinking too hard about things, reading a little too much between the lines.  I admit that could be true.  Some people could point to Roddenberry’s misogynistic comments or Freiberger’s throwaway lines and say because of their attitudes, this episode couldn’t have any other reading than a sexist one.  But if I may, I’d like to add that sometimes the power or message of a piece of literature can often be greater than the author’s original intention.

Roddenberry believed in this story if you’ve read his TMP novel you’ll notice he can handle detail and his record indicates that he is no enemy of controversy.

I truly love this episode and I do believe that a sexist reading is not the correct one. I might be in a minority but perhaps, if you watch the episode again keeping this essay in mind, perhaps you will also be able to Turnabout Turnabout Intruder.

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