“Mudd’s Women” was one of the three original scripts considered by Desilu Productions as a pilot episode for Star Trek, which would have been an interesting choice to say the very least. The first episodes of Trek were daring and bold, pushing the boundaries of what the show could be, as it had yet to find its comfortable niche. This episode, along with “The Naked Time” and “The Man Trap” were definitely aimed towards a mature, adult audience rather than the children’s or youth audience courted by shows like Lost in Space. There’s nothing kid friendly here. This is a story about prostitution, drug abuse, white slavery and ultimately the notion of the illusion of physical beauty. In terms of gender politics, it threads a very small needle, relying mainly on the character of Eve, played by Karen Steele, to carefully navigate around the problematic issues and arrive at a slightly empowered conclusion. Since the script had been in circulation for quite some time (almost two years) by the time the episode came to filmed, it had been through enough drafts to smooth out many of the difficult or challenging elements, and the script bears all the hallmarks of a carefully considered piece of television. But it rests slightly uneasily in the canon of Star Trek, sometimes going to a dark and disturbing place that the series would rarely go again.
The “Mudd” in question in the episode’s title is Harcourt Fenton Mudd, the very picture of the rotund, colourful rogue, engaging in serious crimes throughout the galaxy but doing so with such charm and wit that the audience retains sympathy for him, even as he does horrendous things. Played by Roger C. Carmel, a popular mid-60s character actor, Mudd is charming enough to earn a place in the Star Trek canon. He would actually appear in a second season episode (“I, Mudd”) and comparing this episode to that relatively lighthearted and abstract one says a great deal about how much Star Trek had evolved from season to season.
The teaser for “Mudd’s Women” feels almost as if it comes from a different episode (it was in fact a last-minute edition, dictated over the telephone by Gene Roddenberry). The Enterprise is chasing a stolen space shuttle, which burns out its engine in an effort to outrun the starship. The heroic crew manages to transport the people on board off the ship just before it explodes. Those people include Mudd and three beautiful women, all dressed in their sixties go-go dancing finery, who are being transported to a mining colony to be mail-order wives. It’s let slip fairly early on that the women are taking the “Venus Drug”, a pill that transforms them from “old hags”, as it says in the script, to beautiful young women. (As shown in the episode, they’re far from “old hags”, but rather simply look as if they haven’t washed their hair or put on makeup yet. But I suppose in the 1960s, that relegated a woman of a certain age to “old haggery”.) Not only does the drug change their appearance, but it enhances their sexual charm, and they fairly cast a spell over every male character on the ship, except, of course, Mr Spock.
We soon realize that Eve is smarter and more self aware than the other two slave wives, right from the moment in which she apologizes sincerely to Spock for how they’ve been behaving. By the time the Enterprise reaches the colony, she’s the only one of the women who takes her responsibility as a miner’s wife seriously, offering him cleaning tips and cooking him breakfast. The plot thickens when the Venus Drug runs out, and its effects wear off. The miners, at first, behave reprehensibly, angrily casting the women out, saying that they had paid for prettier girls. It’s a scene that, in 2016, truly makes one squirm, partially out of how true it rings. Eventually, the miners accept the women as they are, and Eve emerges as a strong and capable woman. The butt of the joke and the real villain of the episode is Mudd himself. Playing a fat man for laughs is a fairly cheap way of dodging the more disturbing elements of this episode, and because Kirk and McCoy are frankly not as heroic as they could be in this situation (they should have thrown Mudd in prison and set the women free, but instead they use the women as bargaining chips to get “lithium” crystals from the miners), the whole affair feels a bit tainted.
Star Trek was, it’s easy to forget, produced in an era not far removed from “father knows best”, and even in the mid-1960s, men wore ties to work, women were never to be seen without nylon stockings and makeup, and gender roles were, with some exceptions, rigidly enforced. Trek, at its best, tried to push the envelope of gender relations, most notably with the character of “Number One” from “The Cage”, but there are times in which it could not avoid betraying some of the contemporary sexual politics. “Mudd’s Women” is one of those episodes, and there would be others. Today, such a story would be told quite differently, perhaps through a genre-bending lens such as the episode “Heart of Gold” from Firefly. But unfortunately this episode is of its time, not for all time.