Majel Roddenberry: The ultimate Trekkie

Actress, voiceover, producer – Majel Roddenberry has been on board the Starship Enterprise since it took off and married its creator along the way. Andy McSmith reports on her death
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The Independent Culture

Majel Barrett Roddenberry, who was known for decades as the "First Lady of Star Trek", has died. Or perhaps, she decided to boldly go where her screenwriter husband had gone before.

Her passing means that there is now almost no link between the massively lucrative Star Trek franchise and the very first voyage of the Starship Enterprise, which took place more than 40 years ago.

The actress died at her home in Bel Air from leukaemia, aged 76, a family spokesman said.

Then Majel Hudec, she was 32 years old with a resume boasting bit parts in a number of popular TV drama series, such as The Untouchables and The Lucy Show, when Gene Roddenberry cast her in the role of Number One for a pilot that he had written about a voyage of exploration in outer space.

Roddenberry loved that long-forgotten TV series Wagon Train, about a group of migrants making their way across the West to an unknown destination which they never reach, having one adventure a week along their endless way.

As Westerns were losing their popularity and science fiction was on the rise, Roddenberry had the idea of keeping the Wagon Train format but transferring it from the western frontier to space, "the final frontier".

Since the series was set in an imagined distant future, Roddenberry thought that instead of the all-male, all-American casts of Western series, he would throw in a racial and sexual mix, with a woman in a senior position sharing the men's adventures.

Unfortunately, the pilot, shown in 1964, bombed. Roddenberry had to beg MGM to let him try again. They agreed, but as a concession to popular taste, he had to drop the female second in command, replacing her with a pointy-eared half-human, half-alien called Spock.

But he had taken a fancy to the actress whose part had disappeared, and recast her in a lowlier role as Dr McCoy's assistant, the one with the beehive hairdo called Nurse Chapel, who was hopelessly drawn to the unresponsive Spock. Majel Hudec played her when the series went out on American TV in 1966, and reprised the role in two Star Trek films.

From the start, she also supplied the coolly detached voice of the Starship Enterprise's computer and various other Federation Starship computers in all the television series and in six of the 10 Star Trek movies.

She also appeared as Lwaxana Troi, the randy meddling mother of Deanna Troi with a crush on Captain Picard, in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

She and Roddenberry married in Japan in 1969 and she stuck by him during the difficult years when it seemed that his creation was then doomed to fail. The television series started to go out in September 1966 and ran for three seasons before being cancelled because of low ratings.

Roddenberry offered to demote himself to a peripheral role if it would mean a fourth series, but that was not accepted, so he went off to work on other projects.

Success came unexpectedly after Star Trek had been syndicated to other television channels, including the BBC, and it suddenly acquired pop-culture status in the early 1970s. Various catchphrases from the show, including "Beam me up, Scotty", and "It's life, Jim, but not as we know it" passed into everyday speech. Its introduction, telling viewers that the Starship Enterprise was on a five-year mission "to boldly go where no man has gone before" became the best known split infinitive in the English language.

Devotees also started holding Star Trek conventions; Majel Roddenberry attended her first convention in 1972, and continued to be a regular attender for decades.

Later, her husband faced the accusation that he had stolen ideas from other writers without acknowledging them. According to a memoir by his long-time close associate Susan Sackett, he was hooked on cocaine, impotent, and incapable of finishing creative projects.

If he was occasionally impotent, it does not appear to have stopped him from having an affair with Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura in the first Star Trek series.

He lost control of the Star Trek franchise to Paramount, although they continued to listen to his advice. In 1989, he went into physical and mental decline, and died in 1991.

After his death, his widow discovered an unused script he had drafted in the 1970s and launched herself on a new career as an executive producer of two series, Andromeda and Earth: Final Conflict.

Leonard Nimoy, who played the original Dr Spock, paid tribute to Star Trek's 'first lady' yesterday, saying: "She worked hard, she was straightforward, she was dedicated to Star Trek and Gene, and a lot of people thought very highly of her."

As recently as 10 December, it was announced that she was to be heard yet again as the voice of a Starship computer in yet another Star Trek movie, directed by J J Abrams.

It was being reported yesterday that Majel Roddenberry had already completed the voiceover work, so that eerily, the voice that Star Trek fans have been hearing for 40 years will ring out again in cinemas around the world next year, its owner having already departed on the final voyage.