Star Trek: Red Shirts Had It Better Than Blondes

Forget being a Red Shirt, being blonde on Star Trek could be fatal (to your acting career). After recently viewing Shatner’s Chaos on The Bridge documentary and watching an old episode of Voyager, it hit me: blonde women didn’t usually last long on Star Trek. Grace Lee Whitney, Denise Crosby, and Jennifer Lien all didn’t make it through their respective series, all were blonde, and none had prominent acting careers afterwards. (Every rule has its exception, for this one, it’s Jeri Ryan. More on her later).

Grace Lee Whitney played Yeoman Janice Rand on eight of the first thirteen Star Trek episodes before being unceremoniously dropped. Why exactly she was dropped, doesn’t seem clear. One view is that she was morphing from Kirk’s secretary to his girlfriend and the producers didn’t want that (then don’t write it!). Another view is that the actress herself may have had personal problems – she did comment on taking medication to keep her weight down. Grace struggled with addiction and unemployment afterwards. Her promising singing career never took off. Whitney had been a rising star before Star Trek, appearing in Some Like It Hot, including the train “upper berth” scene with Jack Lemon and Marylin Monroe.

Denise Crosby left Star Trek: The Next Generation part way through the first season. She didn’t feel that her character, Natasha Yar, was being properly utilized. The actress claims that she was spending days on set standing behind Captain Picard’s chair, only her legs visible to the camera. Why exactly a stand-in couldn’t do that isn’t clear. (Crosby talks about this in the recently released documentary ‘Chaos on the Bridge’). Denise never became the star that she (and we) expected, but continued acting successfully, recently appearing in a story arc on The Walking Dead, for example.

Jennifer Lien played Kes on Star Trek: Voyager. She lasted the longest, three seasons, before being let go. The cast was set and budgeted for nine actors, and when the decision was made to add Jeri Ryan as borg Seven of Nine, one of the original cast members had to go. Apparently it came down to Garret Wang or Jennifer Lien, but Wang got mentioned in a high profile People Magazine story, and Lien was let go. Jennifer gave up acting and went to medical school.

But there’s two follow-on points.

First, each of the actresses did revive their characters later – Grace Lee Whitney having to wait the longest, until Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and then again in other movies and one episode of Voyager. Denise Crosby came back to The Next Generation first as her original character in the excellent episode Yesterday’s Enterprise, then as Yar’s daughter in a later story arc. Lien played Kes for one episode in season 6 of Voyager.

Second, Star Trek seems to have an ongoing problem with actresses. The Next Generation fired Gates McFadden after the first season, only to bring her back after her replacement, Star Trek (original series) recurring guest star Diana Muldar only lasted one season. Whoopi Goldberg joined The Next Generation around season three, but had a falling out with producers and left, only to make cameos in the various follow-on movies. Jeri Ryan talks about her four years on Voyager as something she survived, although that seems less to do with the producers (one of whom she was dating) than conflict with one specific actor.

So maybe being a red shirt on Star Trek wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to an actor. Maybe being blonde was worse.