I'm late in commenting on this, so I'm sure everyone reading already knows that Majel Barrett Roddenberry, the widow of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and the only actor with the distinction of having appeared, in some form or other, in every incarnation of the long-running franchise -- including the Saturday-morning cartoon in the early '70s and, reportedly, the upcoming remake film -- died last week after a short fight with leukemia. She was 76 years old.
You'd never guess from the usual content of this blog, but I'm not always comfortable with my own fanboyism, especially when it comes to revealing the depths of my attachment to the nerdy stuff that consumes so much of my attention. Still, I have to admit that I flinched when I heard this news. Another of the original crew gone...
I've been a Trekkie as far back as I can remember, even before I started kindergarten (I clearly recall having a conversation about Spock with one of my classmates, a pretty little girl named Annette; fortunately, neither of us were old enough at that point to know that girls weren't supposed to like boys who talked about such things). I have a lot of happy memories of watching the re-runs with my mom every weekday afternoon while she ironed or did housework, and of running around the house making a buzzing sound because I was "beaming" from one room to the other. Yeah, I know... dorky. But nice, too. I was utterly innocent in my dorkiness, and I remember those uninhibited, un-self-conscious days of simple fan-love with great fondness.
When you live with something for that long without losing interest in it, when your understanding and appreciation of it only deepens as you mature, it comes to occupy a very large place in your emotional landscape. I can honestly say that the crew of the starship Enterprise -- the original Enterprise, with none of this bloody A, B, C, or D stuff -- seems as alive in my heart and mind as members of my own extended family. And as socially maladjusted as it may sound, my feelings for the actors who brought Kirk, Spock, and Co., to life aren't dissimilar from the way I feel about my great-uncles and aunts who live out of state. I don't really know them, but I nevertheless have a sense of connection to them. And just like those uncles and aunts, the cast of the original Trek is now elderly and fading, one by one, from this earth. And each loss seems to diminish something inside of me that I can't completely define. It's a strange sensation, and a little bit embarrassing to admit. But it is real.
Majel Barrett's best work for the franchise was probably in the role of Lwaxana Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation. However, in case you haven't noticed, I am determinedly old-skool when it comes to my Treks, so when I think of her, I first picture her as Nurse Christine Chapel on the original series. It must've been a pretty thankless part for her, as Christine was not at all a well-rounded character. All we viewers ever knew about her was that she was Dr. McCoy's assistant, that she'd originally gone into space hoping to find her lost fiance, and, of course, that she harbored unrequited feelings for Mr. Spock. If it wasn't indignity enough to suffer a crush on a man who represses his emotions and apparently only gets interested in sex every seven years, she also had to endure a silly-looking silver wig for many of the first-season episodes in which she appeared.
On that note, I find it interesting that Chapel really didn't appear on the show as frequently as people might remember. She was not a series regular, even though it seems that way in hindsight. According to Memory Alpha, the character was used in only 25 of the 79 original-series episodes, and in only two of the six movies that featured the original-series crew. By contrast, the ubiquitous background extra Mr. Leslie showed his face in 57 episodes. So why is Chapel generally remembered as a regular while only hard-core fanboys even know who Leslie is? My guess is that it has something to do with the well-known "family portrait" publicity photo that's been so widely circulated, and of course it also helped that the actress who played her was married to The Great Bird of the Galaxy himself, Gene Roddenberry, and that the two of them spent a lot of time on the convention circuit back in the '70s, directly interacting with the fans. In fact, the cynical among us might suggest that the only reason Chapel -- and Majel -- enjoyed such prominence in the eyes of fans was because of Gene's constant promotion of her in the early days. I can see where that accusation would come from, considering that Majel's original-series performances were sometimes a little stiff, depending on the episode, but I don't really buy it.
For one thing, she wasn't that bad in those performances given how little she had to work with. I've also heard that there was some behind-the-scenes friction due to her relationship with Gene (i.e., people suggesting she got the job by sleeping with the boss) and the fact that some network people didn't like her and wanted her off the show. I'm not saying those things are indisputable facts -- I honestly don't know either way -- but if there is any truth at all in those stories, it's not difficult to imagine how those factors could make someone less than confident on camera.
Another thing to consider is the Chapel character's relationship to Spock. The early fan scene was heavily Spock-centric, and I imagine the Spock-Chapel thing was probably the topic of much discussion back then. Christine would have been a perfect stand-in for fans who harbored their own crushes on the coolly logical Vulcan, and it's possible those fans helped make her into more than the character really was.
Whatever one may think of Christine Chapel, there is little question that Majel's real moments to shine came when she played Lwaxana on Next Gen and then again on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The flamboyant, meddlesome mother of series regular Deanna Troi, Lwaxana seemed to have been conceived as little more than a gag, simply a comic foil for the uptight Captain Picard and the embarrassing relative from whom no one would want to endure a visit. But over time and multiple appearances, Lwaxana softened, becoming more complex and lovable. And finally, whether it was due to better material or Majel's own increased maturity as a performer and a woman, Lwaxana enabled Majel to deliver her finest performances -- in fact, two of the finest performances in the entire 40-year span of the Star Trek franchise -- first in the episode "Half a Life" when she falls in love with a man who is compelled by his society to commit ritual suicide, and then in her final appearance on Next Gen, the heartwrenching "Dark Page," in which a long-buried trauma leads to Lwaxana's complete breakdown. It's the sort of performance in which an actor has to reach deep inside and access a source of pain that most people would be frightened to release, a brave and difficult-to-watch performance that lingers in your memory afterward.
I never met Majel, who was by all accounts warm and gracious to her fans -- there's a nice anecdote over at Booksteve's Library -- and I will long regret that. Years ago, I hoped to eventually get around to shaking the hands and receiving the autographs of all the original Trek cast, at least the regulars and semi-regulars, the "family" from that picture I linked earlier. Time and attrition have now made that impossible, though.
Gene Roddenberry was a well-known atheist and I won't disrespect him by suggesting that he and Majel have now been reunited in death. But the one thing that Gene did believe in was love, and there is little question, based on all the accounts I've ever come across, that he and Majel loved each other very much. They didn't have a perfect marriage -- in addition to being an atheist, Gene was also a notorious womanizer -- but I believe in the depth of their feelings for each other. And I'd like to think that something like that doesn't just evaporate when the heart stops beating. So maybe they haven't been reunited in some god-centered afterlife... but if you believe, as Spock does, that "there are always possibilities," then maybe they are together somewhere... beyond the real final frontier.