• Michelle Johnson

To boldly go where only men had gone before: why Star Trek's Janeway will always be my captain

Updated: Nov 19, 2018

Kate Mulgrew as Captain Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek Voyager

Destination Star Trek – Europe's largest Star Trek convention – was in Birmingham last weekend to delight thousands of fans with an all-star line-up. Not only did the event welcome two very special celebrations, one featuring the cast and costumes of new Netflix series Star Trek: Discovery and another to mark the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,  but it also welcomed a host of real astronauts and engineers whose work is paving the way for space travel.

NASA icon Fred Haise – one of the astronauts aboard the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission that inspired the film starring Tom Hanks – and staff from the European Space Agency mingled with Star Trek actors including William Shatner, Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig, Terry Farrell and Michael Dorn, and new stars Jason Isaacs and Sonequa Martin-Green.

"They were endlessly fussing with my hair. All those hairstyles! They never did that with Patrick Stewart." – Kate Mulgrew, Destination Star Trek 2018

I was delighted to join the brilliant Showmasters team as one of this year's hosts to moderate some of our guest panel talks – including one with Captain Kirk himself. I love hosting live panels, and helping fans get their questions answered, and usually the sheer range of stand-out moments would make it impossible to pick a highlight. This year, however, was slightly different. Because, this year, I got to host a panel with my captain: Kate Mulgrew.

A Golden Globe and Emmy-winning actress and author, Kate is as charming and insightful as any fan could hope. She's most recently dominated our binge-watching schedules as the instantly iconic Galina 'Red' Reznikov in Netflix hit Orange is the New Black (since 2013), but it was in 1995 that she hit our screens in Star Trek: Voyager as the franchise's first female captain, Kathryn Janeway, following in the footsteps of Shatner's Tiberius Kirk and Sir Patrick Stewart's Jean-Luc Picard.

"For the first season, it felt like there was always a row of men standing just off set, waiting for me to fail," Kate told us at her panel talk on Saturday 20 October. During the talk she spoke about fighting for her character, how Star Trek has impacted her career and how she navigated the pressure of taking on such a complex and pivotal role as a woman.

"They were endlessly fussing over my breasts, my waist, my outfit, my hair – all those hairstyles! They never did that with Patrick Stewart."

My dad watched Star Trek every Saturday before the football scores (yawn), and although as a child I complained about having to watch my parents' boring shows, the truth is I always wanted to be someone like Kirk and Spock, or go on Doctor Who-style adventures. To live in that realm of adventure and intellect; to look at life with a scientific eye and always question everything. You can guess how annoying my teachers found me.

But when Janeway hit my screen aged 10, suddenly I didn't have to be an alien to go on adventures – because here was a driven, intelligent, fierce woman doing it herself, and never having to give up her femininity to do it. Whatever critics and fans thought of Voyageras a whole – and there's no denying that it had a few problems – Janeway's character was just as rounded, daring and fully written as the men who came before her. She was a scientist and a leader. She just happened to be a woman.

“I think that with Janeway, they broke the mold. Janeway embodied goodness as well as boldness, passion and intelligence. Her directive was the Prime Directive. Her compass was her moral compass.” – Kate Mulgrew, Destination Star Trek 2018

Kate's portrayal of Janeway is profoundly feminist, capturing both the idealism of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenbury and taking the idea of strong female leads further than ever before. Janeway was unmoving and stubborn, facing impossible choices between her principles, what was right and what was necessary. She battled depression and isolation. She was a true sceptic but had a deep respect for alien cultures and a childlike wonder for new discoveries. She was driven by her passion for science.

Janeway also had fascinating relationships with her crew – from her general blend of strict affection for "the family", to a deeper friendship with The Doctor (Robert Picardo), fierce and flirtatious reliance on her second in command Chakotay (Robert Beltran), and later that difficult mother/daughter relationship with Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan).

It's not just that Janeway was a strong female character, though she certainly meets all the requirements, but that she was a complete one. Janeway was a fully realised character with flaws and foibles to rival her male counterparts. She was a role model in the truest sense for the girls watching Voyager and, for me, a triumphant reminder that we can – and should – be the captain of our ship.