By Dr. Madelaine Matej MacQueen
Featured image by Sam Nystrom Costales
“She was a very unlikeable character that didn’t mesh with the team at all. What more of a chance should she get?”
“Nah, EMH Mk1 had more personality than her the day he was first turned on.”1
“She sucks. She’s a crusty old hag.”
“She was a peta’Q.”2
“When I was a kid I called her the Grouchy Grandma.”
The quotations above come from (mostly male) Star Trek fans in online fan groups, all dating from 2021.3 Dr. Pulaski (played by Diana Muldaur), who appeared throughout the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) receives widespread criticism from fans, largely for her personality, or perceived lack thereof. The episodes’ scoring—that is, their use of music—has contributed to a negative reception of Dr. Pulaski. Composers help audiences connect with characters by associating specific music with each character. However, Hollywood musical scoring conventions provide no framework for representing middle-aged women professionals, with the result that TNG’s score usually falls silent on Pulaski’s entrances, thereby alienating audiences from her character.
Film music scholars have shown that film scores influence audience members’ perceptions, often without the audience even noticing. Kathryn Kalinak notes that film music, as part of a soundtrack, affects listeners unconsciously, calling music, “…a wash of sound to which we respond but whose meaning lies just beyond conscious recognition.”4 Anahid Kassabian writes that “music conditions perceivers’ psychic engagements with films.”5 That is to say, film music gives information about characters, situations, and other aspects of film, but audience members may not even be aware that musical scores influenced their perceptions. When fans dislike Pulaski despite facts in her favor, the subtle psychic effects of music may be to blame (or to credit).
Kassabian has further shown that women in film and television can receive one of only two possible musical treatments: classic romance music for virtuous women and seduction music for immoral women. Even without a formal music education, almost all audience members recognize these two musical types when they hear them—romantic music has long, sweeping, legato melodies, usually in the violins, while seductive music uses dance rhythms and chromatic motion (half steps) that meander slowly upward or downward. TNG uses both the romance trope and the seduction trope for many of its women characters. Look no further than the pilot episode to witness each main female character being introduced in relation to a leading male character (Crusher with Picard, Troi with Riker—Lieutenant Yar is an exception), with sweeping romantic melodies helping the audience make the connection between these potential love interests.6
Actress Diana Muldaur had already played two characters with doctorates on Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS)—astrobiologist Dr. Ann Mulhall in “Return to Tomorrow” (1968) and psychologist Dr. Miranda Jones in “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” (1968)—before she was offered the role of Chief Medical Officer Dr. Katherine Pulaski in TNG (1988-1999). On TOS, Muldaur’s characters effused archetypal 1960s youth and beauty. Unsurprisingly, both of William Shatner’s characterizations (Captain Kirk and Sargon) tried to seduce both of Muldaur’s characters. Kirk was remarkably unsuccessful with Dr. Jones, which is unusual considering his reputation as a philanderer. As a young romantic guest star, Muldaur as both Mulhall and Jones received the classic musical treatment for all of Kirk’s potential love interests on TOS—sweeping romantic melodies.
By the time Muldaur appeared on TNG, she was fifty years old and no longer served as a romantic interest for the captain. It is worth noting that Patrick Stewart as TNG’s Captain Picard was forty-nine in season two, making him just one year younger than Muldaur. In a classic sexist double standard, Picard participated in multiple romantic relationships whereas Pulaski had none. As an upper middle-aged professional woman with a doctorate, Pulaski fit neither the “virtuous woman” nor the “immoral woman” trope. The composers of TNG had no “professional woman” musical trends to use for her. Their solution…was silence. Pulaski received no musical themes at all, and therefore the audience has no help in forming a connection with Pulaski.
Pulaski’s debut episode provides an excellent example of her non-scoring.7 Her entrance begins unpromisingly—Pulaski has just been transferred to the U.S.S. Enterprise, but upon learning that she has gone to Ten Forward (the ship’s bar) instead of checking in with her superiors according to protocol, Captain Picard sets off to confront her. The audience first sees Pulaski sitting at a table in Ten Forward with Counselor Troi (played by Marina Sirtis). The audience is waiting to find out if Picard’s frustration with Pulaski is justified or misplaced, but they receive no information from the (lack of) music. Picard confronts Pulaski; she interrupts him and tells him that he needs to sit down and listen to what has happened to Troi (a nonconsensual alien pregnancy). One would expect a musical theme to associate itself with Pulaski the moment she speaks, but none does. Instead, the music associated with the alien pregnancy starts up—a sort of low, ghostly moan (strings trilling slowly across a half step in the low range, a single sustained tone in the middle range, strings playing rapid scales close to the bridge in the high range, and the percussion section playing what sound like whips). The audience is left disoriented, still wondering what kind of character Pulaski will turn out to be.
Beginning 15 minutes into the episode, Dr. Pulaski attends Troi, whose pregnancy progressed to full term in just three days, for the birth of her alien child. The scene opens with only the background beeping of sick bay until 17:23, when a single pitch (B-flat) begins on a shot of Troi’s face. Next we see Pulaski for only a second before the single pitch turns into a pastoral melody as Commander Riker (played by Jonathan Frakes) appears in the doorway. Just like in season one, the melody informs the audience of a romance between Troi and Riker. It turns out to have nothing at all to do with Pulaski.
After the birth, the melody for the new baby transitions to low engine sounds for a shot of the Enterprise in space. Dr. Pulaski enters the bridge to report on Troi’s recovery, and only background beeping accompanies her participation in the scene. It is as if Dr. Pulaski cuts off all emotional content in the scene with her entrance. Yet her characterization itself, especially during the birth, has plenty of compassion. The lack of music contradicts Muldaur’s acting choices.
The practice of cutting off all music as soon as Pulaski enters a scene continues throughout her entire existence in season two. Perhaps this musical practice of truncation, more than any other, is what has led fans to perceive her as cold, unfeeling, and out of place with the rest of the crew. One counter-example occurs at 34:52 in “The Child,” when low, foreboding suspense music in the brass continues through Pulaski’s entrance. The continuation of the music helps include her in the otherwise all-male scene, and she ultimately solves the problem they have all been puzzling over—although without receiving any credit in either the dialogue or the music. In this case, both the musical score and the characters seem to pay her competence no heed, further emphasizing her implied subordination as a character to her male counterparts.
There is one moment when a musical cue might be associated with Pulaski’s subjectivity—her inner life, thoughts and feelings. Two-thirds of the way through “The Child,” Dr. Pulaski and Captain Picard visit Troi and her alien child, Ian Andrew (played by R. J. Williams), in their quarters. They are still suspicious of Ian, because they suspect he may be a threat to their ship. (He has grown to about ten years old in a matter of days.) At 28:27, immediately after Ian has stuck his finger in hot soup and burned himself, an ominous, trembling high pitch enters as Pulaski squints at Ian. The single pitch grows into a minor (sad-sounding) chord as Pulaski comments to Picard, “He allowed himself to be burned.”
Picard: “Mmhmm. For the experience.”
Pulaski: “Who is he? Why is he here? What does he want?”
An oboe enters, playing a melody in minor, followed by a harp, plucking incomplete chords. The strings take over the melody as Picard approaches Ian directly to ask why he is on the ship. The moment is worthy of remark because it is the only moment in the episode for which music seems to provide depth to Pulaski’s characterization, thoughts, or feelings. Even so, the slowly moving minor melody seems more to link the three adults’ uncertainty than it does to highlight Pulaski as an individual.
Do Star Trek fans dislike Pulaski solely because so little of the musical scoring helps them connect with her? Fan complaints tend to fall into two categories. First, fans dislike that Pulaski replaced TNG’s beloved Chief Medical Officer Dr. Beverly Crusher, a romantic interest for Captain Jean-Luc Picard from the moment of her first entrance. They feel offended on behalf of Crusher’s actor, Gates McFadden, who the producers allegedly fired unfairly at the end of season one, and male fans in particular seem to miss McFadden’s beauty and sex appeal as well as her implied romance with Captain Picard.8 Age thirty-eight and a professional dancer at the start of filming TNG, McFadden had large blue eyes, voluptuous red curls, and a form-fitting uniform throughout the series. Second, fans are outraged that Pulaski treated Lieutenant Commander Data (played by Brent Spiner), an android character with an enormous fan following in the real world, as a mere object during her TNG debut episode. The first complaint—disappointment at losing Dr. Crusher—is certainly valid, but would fans miss McFadden as much if she had lacked the lush romantic scoring that accompanied her entrances and scenes?
Many fans seem to overlook Pulaski’s positive attributes. For example, she overcame her ambivalence toward Data, apologized, and befriended him by the middle of season two. In her first appearance, she expertly aided character Deanna Troi through an unplanned (hinting at sexual assault) alien pregnancy and birth. In the episode “Samaritan Snare,” Pulaski saved Captain Picard’s life by taking over his heart replacement surgery after the experts became unable to handle complications during the operation. Pulaski’s scientific skill and blunt delivery rescued the ship on numerous occasions. Because Pulaski’s actual contributions to the ship paint her in a positive light, I argue that the lack of musical scoring for her has caused fans to have negative emotional reactions toward her character.
While one might assume that the lack of a score for a character would lead to apathetic and mild reactions to said character, responses to Pulaski seem to show something different. Many male fans, like those quoted at the beginning of this article, have intense emotional responses to Pulaski that are often deeply ageist and sexist. They seem to perceive her as an intruder into an otherwise perfect world, someone who ruins the fun each time she appears. The score’s silence for Pulaski allowed ageist and misogynistic preconceptions to run unabated. Whereas the Star Trek franchise has a reputation for emancipating women, in Pulaski’s case it failed to imagine a futuristic utopian embrace of women with doctorates. Through no fault of her own, Pulaski indeed ruins the fun by cutting off the music with each of her entrances.
I have given a brief analysis of how the musical score in “The Child” serves to isolate Pulaski as being separate from the crew and plot, instead of welcoming her and helping the audience to identify with her inner emotional life. Her character was ultimately unsuccessful, and Dr. Crusher returned as Chief Medical Officer for seasons three through seven. It is impossible to know for certain whether the composers for the series intentionally wrote no music for Pulaski. They may have had no idea what to write for her, because Hollywood lacked any models for scoring women other than the two archetypes of virtuous woman and immoral woman. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, Pulaski had no support through musical scoring, essentially abandoned to ageist misogyny. Hollywood, film scoring, and Star Trek itself have evolved and produced additional middle-aged woman professionals, including Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager, Guinan in TNG, a whole host of female admirals throughout TNG and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and most recently in Star Trek: Discovery (2017-present), Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham, Admiral Katrina Cornwell, and both Captain Philippa Georgiou and Emperor Philippa Georgiou. Janeway and others have fared better in fans’ eyes, quite possibly due not only to the script writers’ and actresses’ characterizations, but also to their richer musical scoring.
Madelaine Matej MacQueen earned her PhD in Musicology from Case Western Reserve
University in May 2022. Her research focuses on voices, vocality, and voicelessness. An avid Star Trek fan since age eight, Madelaine holds the rank of Ensign in Starfleet, aboard the U.S.S. Golden Gate. Originally initiated into the fandom through the Original Series, Madelaine received an introduction to Voyager from her college roommate and now counts Janeway as her favorite captain. Madelaine lives in the Cleveland, OH area, where she is pursuing a career in policy research at area nonprofits and nonpartisan think tanks. She performs locally with renowned ensemble Apollo’s Fire and teaches voice and piano in her home studio. As far as fandoms, her current project focuses on indoctrinating her two daughters in the culture of Star Trek, with promising results—the 2.5-year-old now asks to watch Star Trek as a bedtime delay tactic. Resistance is futile.
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- “EMH Mk1” refers to the Emergency Medical Hologram, mark 1, a notoriously crabby holographic assistant to the real doctors and nurses on starships.
- “PetaQ” is an insult in the Klingon languages. Klingons are a violent alien race in Star Trek. Mark Okrand, The Klingon Dictionary: English-Klingon, Klingon-English (New York: Pocket Books, 1992).
- All quotations come from the group “Star Trek,” a public group with a wide-ranging focus across all of the franchise and approximately 156,200 members. https://www.facebook.com/groups/Trek1701.
- Kathryn Kalinak, Settling the Score: Music and the Classic Hollywood Film (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), xiii.
- Anahid Kassabian, Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music (New York: Routledge, 2001), 13.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Encounter at Farpoint,” written by Gene Roddenberry, D.C. Fontana, and Tracy Tormé, directed by Corey Allen, 1987.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Child,” written by Gene Roddenberry, Jaron Summers, and Jon Povill, directed by Rob Bowman, 1988.
- In Making It So: Continuing Star Trek – The Next Generation, Part 2: “New Life and New Civilizations,” McFadden states that she was fired. She was too vocal to the show’s staff regarding some of the writing on The Next Generation being sexist, and was unsavvy at the time regarding studio politics. Patrick Stewart described the entire cast as being “horrified and appalled,” that they had never expected that her comments would lead to it, and it having been a terrible shock. McFadden herself was stunned, as Gene Roddenberry had told her that her character was the third most popular on the series.