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Scott Larson

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The voice of the computer (1932-2008)

Probably like a lot of other people, for a long time I thought Majel Barrett was a blonde. Indeed, the photo The New York Times chose to accompany her obituary had her as a blonde. And that is how many of us first noticed her, as the head nurse working with Dr. “Bones” McCoy on the starship Enterprise. As was de rigueur for female crew, her uniform included a miniskirt, so for us boys this working professional was, along with the various yeomen, basically a bit of eye candy.

To the extent that her character had any development, it was along the most traditional of feminine lines. Nurse Chapel, it had turned out, had abandoned a career in bio-research to serve in deep space in hopes of finding a lost fiancé. Along the way, she developed an inevitably unrequited crush on the most unattainable of all males, the coldly logical and unemotional Mr. Spock.

Later we would have a better sense of context about Barrett’s role in the Star Trek universe. We would learn that, in the original pilot (titled “The Cage”), she was cast as the ship’s second-in-command. With her own black hair and dominating, statuesque presence, she was Number One to Capt. Christopher Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter. But the studio suits didn’t care for her character and she was gone by the time the series made the airwaves. (They also said to get rid of the guy with the pointy ears, but fortunately Mr. Spock survived.) Barrett’s performance as Number One did end up seeing the light of day when, pressed by deadline pressure, series creator and producer Gene Roddenberry cannibalized the original pilot footage and incorporated it into the original Star Trek series’s only two-part episode, called “The Menagerie,” as a sort of flashback. Barrett’s performance as Number One was credited to M. Leigh Hudec, which was more or less her birth name.

Barrett had met Roddenberry when she was a guest actor on an earlier series of his, called The Lieutenant. They married after Star Trek was canceled, and in the future she would add his surname to hers. She would always be closely associated with her husband’s most famous creation and would champion his vision, in all things Trek and his other writings, after his death in 1991, in the middle of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s original TV run.

More than any other single actor, her presence would be ubiquitous as the franchise refused to die and actually flourished. (She and Leonard Nimoy were the only actors to appear both in the original Trek pilot and the final episode of the original series.) Her Nurse Chapel character became a full doctor and would appear in two of the Star Trek motion pictures (the first and fourth ones). She would voice several characters in the mid-1970s animated series. And she would breathe life into one of the more amusing recurring characters in the Star Trek universe, playing the earthy Betazoid mother of the ship’s counselor, Deanna Troi, in ST:TNG. I read once that the actor said that this flamboyant Auntie Mame in outer space was the closest to her own personality. Particularly amusing was the way Lwaxana Troi would openly lust after the veddy proper Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, much to his evident discomfort. The Lwaxana character also appeared in three episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Even more indelibly, she was the voice of the starship Enterprise itself (and other vessels), i.e. the audible output of its onboard computer. She performed this role in the original series, the animated series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and even a couple of episodes of the last syndicated Trek TV series, Enterprise. She also performed this role in the movies Generations, First Contact and Nemesis. (Other actors performed the voice work in The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock.) And she had completed computer voice work for the new J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie only weeks before her death on December 18.

Apart from Star Trek, her acting legacy consists mainly of small roles in movies and TV shows of the 1950s and 1960s. TV guest shots included such TV mainstays of the time as The Untouchables, The Lucy Show and Bonanza. And here’s a bit of trivia. She played one time the only-twice-seen mother of Lumpy Rutherford (Frank Bank) and Violet Rutherford (Veronica Cartwright) and wife of Fred Rutherford (Richard Deacon), Gwen, in the Leave It to Beaver episode “Beaver and Violet.” Lumpy’s mother had made one previous appearance, but she was called Geraldine and was played by Helen Parrish.

Majel Barrett Roddenberry was executive producer of two more Gene Roddenberry science fiction TV creations, Earth: Final Conflict and Andromeda, taking an on-screen role in the former. And there is one more role she played that, as a dyed-in-the-wool Babylon 5 fan, I am obliged to highlight. In a pivotal episode of B5, called “Point of No Return,” she played Lady Morella, the widow of a Centauri emperor and a seer, who makes a series of prophecies about Ambassador Londo Molari and his aide Vir that anticipated their eventual fates. The episode was exciting in its own right, for both its monumental A and B storylines, which were watersheds for the series’s overall arc, but it was also thrilling because the presence of Majel Barrett Roddenberry provided a symbolic bridge between two seminal science fiction television shows. From the beginning of B5, many fans saw it and Star Trek as competitors, with one having to be supreme over the other. “Point of No Return” made it easier to see the two co-existing peacefully.

I suppose there was always the uneasy sense that Majel Barrett Roddenberry spent much of her life cashing in on her husband’s work after his death. But over time it became clear that she was invested in preserving and growing her husband’s legacy, not only for herself but for the multitude of fans of the franchise. In the end, she earned our respect and the right to the sobriquet that was bestowed on her and which was headline on many of her obituaries: The First Lady of Star Trek.

-S.L., 1 January 2009

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