Depending on your age, the USS Voyager is as much of an icon as the Saturn V rocket. And for some, Captain Kathryn Janeway is a trailblazer in the same way as Neil Armstrong or Sally Ride. Now famous herself for being the first female captain to lead a Star Trek series, Kate Mulgrew has vivid memories of watching the Moon landing when she was young.
“I remember the drama,” she told RadioTimes.com. “Television was not watched in my house growing up, so I knew the circumstances must have been absolutely extraordinary for my father to allow us to gather around it.
“At that age what you are most thrilled about is that the adults seemed to be quiet and stunned. The conversation that ensued had a kind of electricity about it. My father was a political person and my mother was an intellectual and between the two of them it was 'how will we do this going forward, how will we fund exploration in space?'”
These questions are at the centre of documentary series The Space Race, now available on Audible. It charts the Cold War contest between Russia and America and space travel's future, with Mulgrew providing the narration.
When dealing with a subject full of historic speeches (“we choose to go to the Moon,” “that’s one small step for man,” “we came in peace for all mankind”) all delivered with the solemnity of a chisel cleaving marble, remembering that feeling of awe helped Mulgrew capture the right tone. Plus, years of delivering technobabble on Voyager helped with some of the technical jargon.
“I was lost in the Delta Quadrant, not landing on the Moon,” says Mulgrew, “but I remember [Star Trek producer] Rick Berman saying to me once that the ‘Captain’ voice was Shakespearean in quality: we had to handle the language and show great authority in so doing. It was acting at a very high level!”
That striving, inspirational tone drove the Apollo programme, and the era as a whole. The Moon landing was 50 years ago this weekend, but sometimes it feels even longer. President Donald Trump has promised American astronauts will return to the lunar surface within five years, but to Mulgrew, he’s no Jack Kennedy.
“Now we have this clown Donald Trump, who has no vision whatsoever, so our space imagination has been blunted for the time being. I don’t think he has any intention [of returning to the Moon]: he’s not educated, he’s inept, and there is nothing of self-gain in space for Donald Trump, nothing promotional for him.”
The spirit of technological achievement and cultural progress that inspired Apollo also lead to the creation of Star Trek. The first episode of the series – billed as “our galaxy-trotting future” in the Radio Times – aired the same week as the Moon landing.
“Well now you are talking about a visionary, and his name was Gene Roddenberry. He foresaw what others could not see. The fact that Star Trek emerged at the same time is no accident. Roddenberry came into his own at exactly the time we recognised the value and possibility of material space travel.”
Mulgrew herself represented a giant leap for the franchise when she took the helm of Voyager in 1995. Much as Star Trek has inspired generations of scientists and astronauts since its launch in 1969, Mulgrew saw it as her responsibility to inspire young women watching.
“Without question, playing the first female captain came with huge responsibility. Not just to further these extraordinary ideas, given wings by Gene Roddenberry, but to do so with an intention and intelligence that would extend itself, in particular, to the women in my audience.”
The Space Race itself begins with an imagined scene of the next, all-female crew of a lunar module touching down on the surface. They probably grew up watching Captain Janeway.
“Hilary Clinton invited me to the Whitehouse at the end of my first season to speak to women in science,” Mulgrew says, noting that woman from all over the world have sought her out to thank her.
“They came out of school, MIT, Harvard, Yale, and instead of going into research, sitting in the office, they said they wanted to go into the field – they wanted to go up! Watching Catherine Janeway captain a starship empowered them in a way that nothing else could at that time. We’re talking about the 90’s in Hollywood. What they put on television is a harbinger of things to come.”
Of course, Hollywood in the 90s was not utopia. The path to true equality, or Star Trek’s Federation, is a series of small steps. Mulgrew is now equally well known for her starring role in Orange Is the New Black and has previously complained about gendered issues on the set of Voyager, including endless fussing with her character’s hairdo.
“You will be aware of the ‘me too’ movement. You will be aware of all the problems of being a woman. Being a woman means you get to be attacked and subjugated and sublimated by men and all of the rest of it. It’s going to take years to correct this, and it’s going to mean we are going to go to another extreme, which is unfortunate. We don’t want to lose our sense of humour, but I’m afraid it’s going to be rather austere.”
Meanwhile, the future of Star Trek seems secure, with a host of new streaming shows in the offing. Discovery, the most recent series, is female-led and has a diverse cast. It has divided fans, with some claiming a misogynist edge to the vitriol. Does Mulgrew find that surprising, given the show’s history of tolerance and acceptance?
“I don’t think you should be surprised by that,” she says. “Did you watch the original series? It was extremely misogynist. That’s what it was for years and Picard followed that to a certain extent. Roddenberry himself was that way. We are simply going to have to change this sensibility, this ideology, and we are, but it’s like moving granite. It takes a long time. We are not a society that has endorsed females as equals to males on television.”
With that in mind, would she return to Star Trek, perhaps in the new series Picard starring Patrick Stewart?
“I might go back and talk to them, passionately, about the way, the truth and the light.”
The Space Race is available now on Audible. Kate Mulgrew is currently filming Mr Mercedes, a serial killer drama based on Stephen King’s Bill Hodges trilogy