Harry Mudd is one of the most memorable supporting characters in the original Trek series, made all the more memorable since he only appears in three episodes and one of them was the Animated Series. It helps that, even though the inept con man is an old character type, that character actor Roger C. Carmel played him so well and so energetically. He’s a joy to watch, and it isn’t overly surprising the current Star Trek: Discovery series brought the character back, recast with comedic actor Rainn Wilson in the role.
But then there’s the actual episode he first appears in…
You know, I like Star Trek. I really do. I may not be the biggest fan, but it’s a fun show no matter what incarnation it is from what I’ve seen. Some have been more serious than others, and some have been better shows that others, but overall, I dig Star Trek.
That doesn’t make the original series any less of a product of its time, and that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any other potentially disturbing implications about how the show operates. So, let’s take a look at what’s going on here.
The Enterprise is chasing down a cargo ship that tries to shake Kirk’s bigger vessel by flying into an asteroid field after burning out its engines. The chase also does a number on the Enterprise‘s primary fuel source of dilithium crystals, but Scotty manages to beam the cargo ship’s crew onto the Enterprise before the cargo ship explodes. First is the cargo ship’s captain, Harcourt Fenton Mudd (originally giving the name Leo Walsh), and then in comes three women who make all the men on the ship, um, get very interested in them. Mudd refers to them as his “cargo” because he’s in the mail-order bride business in a time when I don’t think there’s a postal service, so do they still have regular mail?
Here’s my first thought: is Mudd a human trafficker? True, the three women are with him voluntarily, but this whole episode plays in a way that if Carmel wasn’t as charming as he is in the role probably would cause even more problems for the 2019 audience. Harry seems more harmless than anything else.
Here’s my second thought: while it eventually comes out that Mudd is giving the women something called the “Venus Drug” that amplifies female characteristics (men, we are told, grow muscles when they take the stuff), is he a drug dealer? OK, he seems to have promised to get these three women married off to well-off husbands as soon as he can, and he gives them this drug that makes them extra beautiful, meaning the episode does a lot of close-ups of the women’s posteriors as they sway down the Enterprise‘s many corridors, making every man on the ship gawk at them except for Spock. And then the drug wears off and the women think they’re ugly. I’m guessing the “ugly” scenes were just filming the three actresses without make-up under the generally harsh TV lights and without the various camera filters that were used elsewhere. They seem less ugly and more ordinary from where I sat. Plus, Jerry Seinfeld taught me the perils of dating a woman who only looks good in certain lights. And given how easily and how often members of the crew up to and including (or especially) Kirk fall in love, there’s a part of me who thinks some of this stuff would have happened even without the drug. Of course the men would be tempted by these women.
By the by, Spock’s immunity to the women’s charms is quite a bit of fun and perhaps the episode’s highlight. When he introduces Mudd and the women to Kirk, the look on Spock’s face suggests he’s either annoyed by all this or really amused. This episode ends with what may be the first ending where McCoy gives Spock some good-natured ribbing on Spock’s overall alien nature, and Spock just brushes it off because he’s not there to be human. He’s there to be Spock.
Anyway, here’s my third thought: Kirk gets his dilithium when Mudd trades the women to some rich miners. Because when I think of people with a lot wealth, I naturally think of miners. At any rate, using the women as a literal commodity goes back to the human trafficking issue. Granted, Kirk didn’t make the proposal. The miners did. Mudd just told them ahead of time he had some hot single ladies with him.
Now, of the three women, the one we get to know best goes by the name of Eve. She flirts with Kirk, but she has more of a conscience than the other two, and when she ends up with the head miner, well, I guess it’s a happy ending. Of course, Childress the miner is used to living on his own and doesn’t want a woman to do domestic type stuff around his home. That’s not from his mouth. That’s from Eve’s. He wants a gorgeous piece of arm candy. And…OK, here’s the thing. Uhura is in the episode. She doesn’t do much, but she’s there. I get that the three women all came from environments where there weren’t many eligible bachelors, hence the reason they all fell in with Mudd in the first place, but you know what Uhura represents here?
You don’t have to be a bombshell or a housewife, ladies! There are other options beyond just landing a man! You can get a job with Starfleet!
I think I really would have liked to have heard what Uhura had to say about this whole situation.
By the by, my final thought: Eve goes back to gorgeous after Childress sees her when the drug wears off when she pops a placebo and gains confidence enough to, um, I guess get her make-up back on. And, well, I can’t disagree with this too much as many of the most attractive women I’ve known personally were that attractive because they had confidence in themselves.
So, while I still enjoy me some Star Trek, it’s still very much a product of its time. There’s good character work, a fun “villain,” and Kirk loses the girl because she realizes his true love is the Enterprise. He actually takes that pretty well, all things being equal. But as much as I like the show, those parts that haven’t aged as well sure make it harder to enjoy today.