Star Trek, Stephen Moffat, and Women in Sci-Fi

Sometimes, being a nerd girl is stressful.  Yesterday, I saw Star Trek: Into Darkness and there was so much I loved.  I wanted to write a stellar review of it and post it here, but something was stopping me.  In writing down my notes, I realized that there was also a lot that was upsetting me about the movie.  As you may have noticed, when I get upset, I dwell.  I research.  This time, it took me from Star Trek to Sherlock via Benedict Cumberbatch, and from there to Doctor Who, via Stephen Moffat.  What do these fun and fantastic things all have in common besides my love?  Unfortunately, a horrifying treatment of women and prime examples of a misogynist male gaze in tv/film.

If you haven’t seen STID, Doctor Who, or Sherlock, be aware that this entire article contains SPOILERS.

Now let’s talk about Star Trek: Into Darkness.  First, the good:

  • Zachary Quinto is really fantastic as Spock.  His character is one of the only well-rounded characters in this new Trek series, and I would be perfectly fine if he captained the Enterprise instead of Kirk.  In fact, most of this movie and its predecessor to be honest, focus on how absolutely unfit Kirk is for command.  He repeatedly makes decisions based on his gut, but in every instance this time around, his gut is wrong.  Basically, Kirk sucks as a commander and Spock should rightfully pilot the Enterprise.  And why not?  In the last movie, Nero messed everything up in their timeline, so why can’t Spock be the star of this new universe?
  • Unlike in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Uhura is actually allowed to speak Klingon!  It’s like she almost has a point in this movie besides showing the audience Spock’s humanity.
  • Scottie.  Everything he does.  Simon Pegg is fantastic.
  • Benedict Cumberbatch.  Now, I’m far from a Cumberbitch, but I could swim in his voice.  He does a fantastic job with very minimal information in the script.  Is he good?  Is he bad?  (Spoilers, he’s KHAAAAAAAAAAAN!)
  • Mickey Smith from Doctor Who appears briefly, as does a tribble.  Basically, I had Doctor Who, Sherlock, and Star Trek all collide fantastically.  Oh, also Peter Weller shows up.  That’s right.  Robocop is in this movie.
  • John Cho got to be relatively badass, although without a sword this time.  Same for Bones, who ties Spock for best lines in the movie.  Seriously, I would watch the shit out of this Star Trek series if they kept the whole crew but tossed Kirk back into the Academy for a few years where he belongs.
  • The action is great.  Most of it is nonsensical, but who cares when you’re having so much fun?

The bad:

  • Anton Yelchin, you are totally adorable as Chekov, but wtf is that accent?
  • We have demolished both London AND San Francisco, but it’s ok in the end because Kirk makes a speech about how they got Khan in the end?
  • Show, I don’t understand your physics.  The gravity drive fails, and now people are falling all over the place like in the sinking of the Titanic.  Wouldn’t everyone be kind of ok if the gravity drive failed?
  • Magic blood.  No one has to die or even be injured ever again.  Thank you for removing all threats of danger from this series forever.
  • Leonard Nimoy shows up to say “I really can’t tell you anything about your future, BUT since I’m here, let me tell you absolutely everything about Khan and how to defeat him.”  >.<
  • I liked our ambiguity in terms of villains (is Khan really good?  Is the Federation really bad?) but by not deciding who the real villain was until the very end, it made it hard to care.
  • Benedict Cumberbatch runs through San Francisco and randomly stops to pick up a long leather jacket.  This serves no purpose other than to make him look sexy and would actually slow down his running speed.  Why would you do this? His fangirls watch Sherlock.  We know what he looks like in a long coat.  He even wore one earlier in the movie!  Does he feel naked without his coat?
We get it, he likes long coats

We get it, he likes long coats

  • “KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!” actually made me laugh when I should have been crying.  Also, on that point, Spock was crying.  Let’s look back at Nimoy’s Spock of 1967, from “Amok Time:”

               Spock: [wipes a tear from Christine’s face with his finger] Your face is wet.

I guess this Spock cries because of timelines from Nero messing everything up?  The genocide of his race makes him more human  instead of more Vulcan?

  • Why does Dr. Marcus have a different accent than her Robocop father?  Timelines again?

The Troubling:

  • I would like to defer to the brilliant Felicia Day who wrote on the dearth of female characters in power in this movie.   Seriously, there are two female characters with names and they both exist as romantic foils for the leading men who seem far too interested in their bromance with each other than with their female counterparts.   There are a couple of random women working on the Enterprise, but none of them have names and fewer have dialogue.  In the big council of all the Captains and First Officers, there are no women at all.  Troubling.
  • We are introduced to brilliant powerful women who are eventually shown to be useless except as damsels in distress.  Uhura works as an intermediary to speak Klingon, but is immediately captured and nearly killed.  She spends the rest of her time worrying about Spock and their relationship.  Ugh.
  • Dr. Marcus is introduced as a potential baddie and a far more interesting character than she turns out to be.  Appearing as a genius woman of mystery, she instantly becomes helpless eye candy who is only relevant because of her relationships with more powerful men (her father Admiral Marcus and her future lover Kirk).  After being a vehicle via Kirk for the male gaze of the audience (more on that in a moment), she is nearly killed by Khan and then…doesn’t do much else until the end when she’s somehow still part of the Enterprise crew.

Now let’s talk about the male gaze and how it affects Star Trek: Into Darkness.  The opening of the movie has already established Kirk as a womanizer.  He’s shown in bed with twin hottie aliens, but that’s apparently not enough.  Carol Marcus decides to change her clothes (for no apparent reason) before a mission and politely asks Kirk to turn around while they’re talking.  l Of course, he only turns for a moment before ignoring her wishes and checking her out.  To put that in contemporary terms, Carol Marcus was just sexually harassed by her boss.  Her employer willfully ignored her wishes and stared at her in a state of undress.  Because the viewers are supposed to identify with Kirk, Alice Eve as Carol gets to be ogled by the entire audience, as well.

Alice Eve

A woman who JUST SAID not to look at her.

What purpose does this scene serve other than to show us that Alice Eve is hot?  We know she’s attractive, and she’s already filling in the much needed diversity slot on the Enterprise for thin, busty, blonde, white women.  Apparently Uhura isn’t eye candy enough.  We need a white girl, dammit!  And make her a damsel in distress, too, or no one will buy it.  Apparently the writers and director of Star Trek want us to accept this random bit of pandering because they showed Kirk topless in bed earlier.  However, a demonstration of his prowess in the bedroom is hardly the same thing as a woman being viewed sexually against her will.

In addition, a deleted scene of Khan having a shower of anger has been thrown around the internet as proof that the underwear scene isn’t misogynistic.  Ignoring the fact that the scene was deleted and shouldn’t even be used for comparison, Cumberbatch is naked in that scene and standing alone (not being watched by a superior).  Also, he is having a moment of cold fury as opposed to being undressed for absolutely no reason at all.  The deleted scene shows Khan’s power, while the stripping of Carol Marcus shows her complete lack of it.In interviewing J.J. Abrams, Conan O’Brien changed the purpose of the shower scene to be a sexual one, and by doing so for comedic effect, made the scene more equal to the Ms. Eve’s moment.  Of course everyone laughs, because we’re unaccustomed to seeing men portrayed as sexual objects in sci-fi or fantasy.  It makes the shower look stupid and fan-servicing, which is something that we have become far too comfortable with when it comes to women’s bodies.


Sadly, this treatment of women in science fiction is far from unexpected.  Michael Bay’s films require a random hot girl to do nothing except look pretty, and no one disputes that as part of his oeuvre.   What is so distressing about the sexist treatment of women in STID is that it’s exactly the opposite of what an audience expects going into a Star Trek movie.  Star Trek has had female captains, commanders, doctors, and horrifying villains.  Like Doctor Who and Sherlock, it’s often cited as a “thinking person’s” show.  Unfortunately, Doctor Who and Sherlock, both written by Stephen Moffat, suffer from their own special form of misogyny.

Any fan of Doctor Who, Coupling, or Sherlock knows that Moffat has issues with women.  When interviewed on writing women, he responded as follows:

“There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married – we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands.”

I’ll give you a moment to pick your jaw up off the floor if you hadn’t read that quote until now.  Viewing Doctor Who and Sherlock through that misogynistic lens, the treatment of formerly powerful women Irene Adler and River Song becomes clear.  Unlike in Doyle’s story, this Irene Adler isn’t allowed to best Sherlock.  In fact, she strips naked for him and forgoes lesbianism because his appeal reaches beyond gender preferences.  In addition to that, she has to be saved from an evil Middle Eastern executioner by Holmes, effectively changing her from one of his greatest nemeses to the ultimate damsel in distress.  A femme rendered completely un-fatal.  Also, unlike the original Irene Adler who worked on her own, this incarnation is nothing more than a pawn for Moriarty.  It always comes down to the boys in this Sherlock.  Women are merely there for tasty intrigue, and of course, looking sexy.

Not what besting Sherlock tends to look like

Not what besting Sherlock tends to look like

Moving to Doctor Who, let’s look at how Moffat created and then destroyed River Song.  Despite the fact that her introductory episode had one of the most flagrant instances of sexism ever seen in nu-Who (in short, only ugly women can be smart and no matter how adventurous a woman may seem, all she really wants in life is to settle down and raise children) she remained a total badass and a cipher.  She knows more about the Doctor than he knows about himself and she sacrifices herself to save him.  Then, she’s “saved” by being put in a virtual prison where she can raise computer code children for the rest of time, and somehow this is a happy ending for our rugged adventurer.  That being said, I was excited to see more of River and was thrilled when she showed up again.  I was eager to watch her courtship of the Doctor…until, of course, Moffat ruined it.

The more we learned about River Song, the more I pitied her.  Instead of a powerful woman who wins the Doctor’s affection by being his equal in human form, she’s shown to have been constantly manipulated throughout her entire existence.  Her whole being is because of the Doctor, from her conception on the Tardis to her obsession with him throughout her childhood.  She becomes an archaeologist to have a better way to get in touch with him.  She becomes a doctor because he mistakenly tells her she will.  She goes to jail for a crime she never committed (murdering the Doctor), but it’s ok because occasionally he takes her out for dates that we never see while always returning her to prison at the end of the night.

Hello, sweetie indeed!  Also, hello hair twin!

Hello, sweetie indeed! Also, hello hair twin!

All of River’s fun adventures with the Doctor happen off-screen.   Even her wedding to the Doctor is an afterthought, something he seems to do just to shut her up instead of because he loves and respects her.   In her introduction, she knows the Doctor’s name and he says there’s only one reason he would tell anyone that.  In “The Name of the Doctor” we find out that she knows because she nagged him to death until he told her.  Wow.  Glad I waited three years for that to be resolved.  Moffat, I love your show.  Please stop ruining your characters.

Nerdlings, I love sci-fi.  I love fantasy.  I grew up watching Star Trek and STNG with my parents.  One of my earliest crushes was on Levar Burton, because he was Geordi LaForge AND Reading Rainbow!  I loved Star Wars and ignored the fact that there’s only one female character.  I wanted to be Han Solo and run off and have adventures with Chewbacca and Lando, and save the universe!  Part of what I love about sci-fi is that all societal rules are off.  You can get rid of racial and sexual discrimination by saying that in the future, people are so evolved that those things don’t exist.  Anyone, no matter their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or even species can be whoever they want to be.  Sadly, the stories of the future are written by men in the present who seem to be very tied to their ideas of what men and women should be.  We can’t see the change in the future without first creating it ourselves.  As geeks, nerds, and general audiences, we should demand better.

Oh, and one more thought on Khan:

8 thoughts on “Star Trek, Stephen Moffat, and Women in Sci-Fi

  1. There’s alot of good material here, but there’s one aspect that I think you should run further with:

    “I liked our ambiguity in terms of villains (is Khan really good? Is the Federation really bad?)”

    Especially the part about the Federation really being bad. I agree the movie has too few women characters, but there’s a reason that all the Federation higher ups are old white dudes engineering a war with the Klingons. They’re neo-cons. This is important when considering whether Khan is really good. Khan’s grievance against the Federation is legitimate, but in the end he only fights for “his” people and not a greater sense of justice.

    This is where the “magic blood” comes in. Khan’s magic blood doesn’t just save Kirk, its Kirk “becoming” Khan (hence why when Khan is knocked out at the end, it cuts to Kirk waking up). The hope is now Kirk will expand on Khan’s beliefs and want justice for everyone. In the end, Kirk severs ties with the war-like federation to go on a mission of discovery.

      • Something I will watch for when I see it again is the precise moments of when women are objectified. I could be wrong but I THINK it only occurs when we are seeing things from Kirk’s point of view. When I see the 2009 film again, I’m going to compare the camerawork when Kirk’s in the scene and when he’s not. I don’t remember the camera focusing on Uhura’s body when Spock is the spotlight. Star Trek and Into Darkness both present Kirk as sexist (and I think) are critical of him for it.

        This plays in again to the Federation being “bad”. Federation uniforms for women are obviously exploitative, and that harmonizes pretty well with the Federation being a patriarchy. At the beginning of Into Darkness, Kirk is ready to do the bidding of the Federation’s inner cabal of white guys, and lets Carol onto the Enterprise for no reason other being a hot babe. At the end, he has defied the cabal and keeps Carol on the Enterprise because he respects are as an integral part of his crew.

      • I can’t remember the 2009 movie as well, but the only time I remember this one focusing on Uhura’s body is when she’s strutting up to speak Klingon. Both Kirk and Spock are there, too, obviously. I think I remember her getting the long pan up from behind, but I could be mistaken. On a completely unrelated note, I loved her jacket in that scene.

  2. My humble opinion is, Khan is more or less a baddie. The reason being, and why they did not want to wake up any more of his crew, is that his mission is to wipe out inferior species. Which would probably be just about every species out there.

    On the objectification of women, I think Carol was the only one who was truly objectified. Uhura, did not have any long lingering body shots, although I did want to feed her a sandwich cuz she is so darn skinny. But then again, the woman that replaces Checkov on the bridge was a fuller-figured woman, which made me smile.

  3. I think it’s because Benedict Cumberbatch is white. Just a guess. Also I’m not so convinced that they write that they think “should” be at all, but rather what they “expect”. Two very different things.

    • It’s more about the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch. Khan N. Singh is a Sikh name. It stands to reason that he could easily be portrayed by a South Asian actor. However, it’s troubling because Khan is supposedly a member of a new “master race,” and apparently that means that he has to be white. That’s the problem.

  4. If Khan was a test tube baby, maybe he is named after the scientist that grew him? Anyway, it is clear to a fan that this is not the Gene Rodenberry Star Trek… Heck… that transition, though slighter, occurred back in the 90’s with those shows and movies. The J.J. Star Trek should first be given it’s due for entertainment and the fact that it might resurrect future Star Trek shows. But hopefully one day, someone who is more concerned with bridging the original idea of what the show is about will meet a J.J. who has that excitement factor. Now speaking to the original ideas of Rodenberry, I can’t really say that this version of Kirk is completely different, but the original Kirk was purely a character that symbolized; despite fear and uncertainty, we will bravely go forward knowing that we can make mistakes, and we can be wrong ourselves, but we will try to be better than we are, improving ourselves, and we do that with self reflection and trust and friendship in our team. This Kirk is very uncertain, but J.J. didn’t hide the fact that these are origin stories of who those character started as. But J.J.s Kirk is not an “All American” type. On this issue of good and bad guys, Rodenberry’s morality plays were always individual’s who represented a question for the broader society. Khan represented the self justification of murder because A) He was meant to be superior, so he has the right to be a judge jury and executioner of the inferior (that of course represent a whole lot more) and B) Khan is the direct opposite of what Humanity was evolving towards in Star Trek, that being a unity of different people and alien life forms, that celebrated diversity and a respected individuals regardless of physical or mental factor difference. That is why Khan was one of the best classic villains. J.J. misses the mark on that. This Khan is very sympathetic because he is “trying to save his family” who of course is about to be torpedoed to death on the Klingon home world… Yeah, I can’t say I blame him for smashing Robo Cops head over that douche bag move. And yes the blood thing was a terrible plot write… I rolled my eyes over and over again over the recreation of the Kirk instead of Spock death Scene. It was so ass, it wasn’t even forgivable. The original Star Trek 2 scene was very dependent on knowing that Kirk and Spock essentially view themselves as brothers. And that Spock has no logical desire to die, but he will do it for his family…. The J.J. recreation scene…is like wow WTF… Kirk is trying to prove himself to somebody… Is it to himself or to Spock? Did Alice Eve mess him up? What? Dude, that’s what the red shirts are for.. Be like “Hey I’m still trying to figure things out, but I out rank you, you, you Red Shirt Dude … Get your butt in the nuclear reactor and kick that generator thing into place …” One final nitpick with the overall reviewers about sexism in J.J.s.. Yes the original Star Trek had strong female roles along the way.. But Rodenberry was a womanizer and a sexist, and it showed in his Star Trek from the beginning. The man was a real human being, and he shouldn’t be attacked over and over about it, he did some things that were progressive too… Like, he had a black woman as a strong intelligent character, and he had a gay Japanese actor not wearing a mask (not trying to be funny) those two things were unheard of in 66. But Rodenberry was always taking two steps forward and a step and three quarters back on the sexism thing…. The women ran around the enterprise on both of his TV shows wearing mini skirts, and the Alice Eve Scene could of just as easily fit into the Rodenberry Star Trek, because Kirk was an idealized man character based on Rodenberry’s idealized man: that being strong… confident…. and unapologetic about his pursuit of the ladies… Because “women want to be pursued, and they want to be chased- If your man enough go get her”… I can’t say I completely disagree with that view, I just know women are complex, and always chasing her full throttle can also piss her off…. so…. yeah…. But don’t get to worked up over this Star Trek sexism… I can’t say JJ lowered it from the original that much….

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