Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing dialogue about Star Trek, women, and feminism. See Ash’s previous installments The Wasted Women of Star Trek, Part 1: Tasha Yar, The Wasted Women of Star Trek, Part 2: Deanna Troi, and April Bey’s “An Artist Trekkie’s Guide For Becoming a Better Person.”
Of the three original female leads of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Beverly Crusher is the one that ended up the most well-rounded, but that’s not saying much. Her appearances were even, more often than not showing up as a plot device so as to create that week’s magic cure if the problem wasn’t technobabble-related. She had kind of a rocky start, but came away more developed than even Geordi La Forge or arguably William Riker.
The problem is that development never went very far. Is that a flaw in the character, or a flaw in the conventions of the show?
Dr. Crusher: Family Woman
Initially most of Crusher’s episodes revolved around her son Wesley and will-they-or-won’t-they romance with Picard, the two issues occasionally being intertwined. Wesley’s safety and well-being were especially focused on, as he was often put in danger for the sake of drama in the first season. This would continue on until Wesley’s last appearance where he would go off on a journey to the farthest reaches of the universe with Space Michael Jackson, aka The Traveller.
If she wasn’t fretting over Wesley, Crusher was clashing with Jean-Luc in their latest round of semi-belligerent romantic tension. This too would continue through to the series end, along with Beverly’s habit of dating one-off alien species as much or more than Riker.
Insert love interest here
Romantic subplots were usually the other go-to for Beverly if she wasn’t science-ing up a cure for something, but they largely come across as arbitrary for a specific reason– The romances-of-the-week weren’t going to last, thanks to the show’s episodic nature.
The worst that this ever got was in the much reviled episode “Sub Rosa.” Long and short of it is, a technobabble ghost that has been feeding off of Beverly’s female family members for generations gets the hots for her, tries to eat her like he did her grandmother, gets defeated by more technobabble in the form of a totally not-magic candle. “Sub Rosa” aired in the show’s seventh season, but it followed a familiar pattern of Beverly falling for suspicious and unattainable aliens played out in “The Host,” where she fell in love with a prototype member of what would become the Trill species.
Logically, the only real shot at a relationship she had within the confines of the show was Picard, which made the new love interests only seem like padding before the eventual get-together. The only hint we get at what a relationship between them might have been like was in the alternate future shown in “All Good Things…”, where the two were married and divorced. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like much more compelling television than maintaining a status quo with a foregone conclusion.
Welcome Back, Crusher
In season 2, Crusher was replaced with a different character, for any number of conflicting reasons. In season 3 she returned with a new direction: Actually using Crusher’s status as a doctor to tell some stories centered around her career. This was a great way of reintroducing Beverly to the audience, the problem is that these kinds of stories also ended up being of little consequence.
Most of the stories that focused on Beverly involved in a medical situation portrayed her as always being in the right, with no memorable exceptions. In the episode “Ethics,” Beverly is explicitly portrayed as being in the right for being against Dr. Toby Russel’s decision to use an untested medical procedure on the then-quadriplegic Worf. In “The High Ground,” she’s shown aiding terrorists in the name of her Hippocratic Oath, which apparently doesn’t extend to Worf. “Suspicions,” which has her facing a court marshal for violating medical procedure, lacks tension because the conventions of the series means that you know she will be vindicated by the final act.
In spite of all this, none of these issues stem from flaws in the character overall. In the initial series bible, Beverly was described with only one sentence, mostly focused on her not-romance with Picard and having a son, Wesley. The Next Generation was developed in a time where serialized storytelling on television was a rarity outside of soap operas, making resetting to the status quo standard procedure. Also, over time the focus of the show shifted from Picard, Riker, and Crusher to Picard, Data, and Worf, the latter two of whom became increasingly popular during the show’s run. Unfortunately this resulted in Crusher remaining out of focus again outside of her spotlight episodes.
Badass in the background
Most of Crusher’s later episodes focused on her medical career or some other science related story, but generally she was depicted as professional, competent, and when necessary, badass. In the series finale, “All Good Things…”, we see Crusher as the captain of her own medical starship, no surprise to anyone who knows she took command duty on the bridge just to keep her skills in the captain’s chair sharp.
In addition to this, Crusher also found the time to be a playwright and dance instructor, while maintaining an active interest in various fields of science and technology and Klingon bat’leth martial arts. Rare is there a time where we see Beverly commanding the ship, or doing anything other than assisting the other characters. When we do, she’s even more rarely challenged, either by the other characters and occasionally circumstance.
There’s two large faults with the character of Beverly Crusher, one being that she’s dangerously close to Mary Sue territory. One look at her profile on Memory Alpha would show that not only is she an exceptional doctor, she’s exceptional at most things she tries, as well as being on a first-name basis with most of the crew. However, this could easily just be a symptom of the utopianism inherent in the show’s premise, where only the “best of the best” get to be in Starfleet.
The other is that her exploits are rarely the focus of any given episode, but when they are they portray Crusher as sanctimonious. This is hardly unique to her alone, especially as one of Trek’s doctor characters. In the end, however, Beverly Crusher did something that sets her apart from one of our next characters–she eventually rose above an initially shallow characterization to at least become something more, the other character never had a chance from conception.