Saturday, December 20, 2008

Majel Barrett Roddenberry Dies

Majel Barrett Roddenberry has died on Thursday at the age of 76 after a battle with leukemia.

Barrett was known for her roles in the classic "Star Trek" as Nurse Chapel, and, in the original pilot, as the ship's first officer under Captain Pike. She made appearances in Next Generation and DS9 as Betazed official Lwaxana Troi and was the voice of the various Starfleet computers in the franchise. She married Trek creator Gene Roddenberry in 1969 and continued to carry on his legacy after his death.

While Barrett was probably best known for playing Chapel (and for playing her well as a steady-as-she-goes, intelligent Starfleet officer as capable as any of her male cohorts), in some ways I think it was her short-lived performance as the ship's first officer in the pilot that was more important. I can't say definitively, but I doubt there were many science fiction shows or movies (if any at all) back then that had women as senior officers aboard military/exploration space vessels - and most especially, a woman who was professional and effective in her job as part of the crew, rather than one of the screaming rescue bunnies of the day.

But I think I got the most enjoyment (and I always got the sense that she probably enjoyed) out of her over-the-top, brassy character of Lwaxana Troi in Next Generation and DS9. Most of her appearances were geared towards getting laughs, usually at the expense of one of the other characters like Picard or Worf who writhed in embarassment at her eccentric pronouncements or vulger accusations. And yet I think her best performance as the character was in an episode of DS9 where she's trapped (in a damaged elevator, I think) with Chief Constable Odo the shapeshifter. Here we saw her real dramatic capabilities as she stripped away Lwaxana's bold facade and showed us the fears of a woman feeling her age and feeling alone. We also saw her capacity to care as she made Odo feel comfortable enough to show his true self when he needed to revert to his gelatinous form to rest/regenerate.

Beyond Trek, let's not forget Barrett's role as the Centauri emperor's widow (perhaps an SF/Hollywood inside allusion to her real-life status as Roddenberry's widow and legacy bearer?) in Babylon 5. After seeing so many posturing, scheming, fan-haired courtiers throughout the seasons, at last she gave us a glimpse of what was needed to keep a fading empire together - no-nonsense strength tempered by compassion and loyalty for honest good deeds. Londo seems more of a nuisance to her, while Vir, in showing courage during a riot, wins her respect. And when it comes time to get down to the business of prophecy, she doesn't pull any punches about the fate that awaits the two.

In the end, respect is probably what it boils down to. Majel Barrett Roddenberry wasn't one of those actresses that frequently came to mind as most memorable in SF, but when she did get mentioned, you had to give her respect for a lifetime of solid performances as straight-forward characters.
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