When Kate Mulgrew had the opportunity to take over the role of Captain Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager, she grabbed it and hung on for dear life.
Throughout the course of the Star Trek franchise, showrunners have battled Paramount influence when it comes to placing women in positions of authority. In “The Cage”, the original series’ 1965 pilot, one of the things that test audiences and the studio found untenable was the female executive officer (played by Majel Barrett Roddenberry) named Number One.
It was important to Gene Roddenberry to have women in authority roles, and in 1986 he briefly introduced an unnamed African-American female captain in command of the disabled U.S.S. Saratoga. At that time, it was rare enough to see an African-American in a command position on television, let alone a woman.
Over the coming years, female captains came and went in cameo roles, but not until Star Trek: Voyager debuted in January of 1995 did we see a female captain in a starring role on the show.
It was supposed to be Genevieve Bujold, but she lasted just one day on set. Enter Kate Mulgrew, who fans now know as the only Captain Kathryn Janeway who matters.
The pressure was high on Mulgrew. If things didn’t work out, not only could the studio move on from her, but they could move on from a female captain in the lead role altogether.
"“She lasted one day! As a result of that strange dance for the first six months at least ten guys from administration – Paramount, UPN – stood on the lip of the stage arms crossed like this and just watched me,” Mulgrew remembers. “They just watched. It was sort of unbelievably unnerving. But I took it as the gauntlet that it was. And I said to myself, ‘You want to play that game? Then I am going to play it with you and we will see wins this. And it’s going to be me.”"
"“Something in me rose up at the very thought that after Miss Bujold defected, that I would fail and then they would bring back another man,” Mulgrew continued. “I thought, ‘No, no, no we can’t have this. We simply cannot, we must go forward.’ And so we did.”"
In a way, similar to Nichelle Nicholls not leaving the original series after the first season just so she could “be replaced by a blonde haired white girl”, Mulgrew saw this role as bigger than herself. If she failed, maybe Paramount would not just scrap the female captain idea on Voyager, but in all future iterations of Star Trek.
As we know now, she presided over Voyager for seven years, matching both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine’s run. And she did indeed blaze the trail for future franchise entries, as Star Trek: Discovery is poised to start with not just a female captain, but a female executive officer as well.