When Star Trek: The Next Generation brought the space-faring USS Enterprise back to television in 1987, actress Denise Crosby won the role of Lt. Tasha Yar, the ship’s tough security chief who could beat anyone in combat.
Or almost anyone. Tasha was abruptly killed by an evil tar monster toward the end of the first season.
Behind the scenes, Crosby had asked to quit the show because she was unhappy about her limited screen time. But she remained a fan favorite, and over the next six seasons, she returned for guest-appearances as a past version of Tasha, an alternative-universe Tasha and the half-Romulan daughter of the alternative-universe Tasha. Such is the complicated mythos of Star Trek.
Crosby, now 58, remains an explorer in the Star Trek universe, meeting thousands of fans on the convention circuit and producing a pair of documentaries — Trekkies (1997) and Trekkies 2 (2004) — that try to explain how the science-fiction franchise has shaped the lives of the people who love it. She also enjoys recurring roles in popular shows, including Mad Men, The Walking Dead and Ray Donovan.
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Crosby recently spoke to the Herald-Leader in advance of her appearance this weekend at the Lexington Comic & Toy Con.
Q: So, will this be your first trip to Kentucky?
A: No, no, my mother was born in Kentucky, in Hillsboro (in Fleming County). As a little girl I would come visit every summer. We were the California branch of the family. So I have a lot of fond memories.
Q: Is it true that when you auditioned for Star Trek, you were going for the role of Counselor Deanna Troi, who eventually would be played by Marina Sirtis, while Sirtis was auditioning for Tasha Yar?
A: Yes, it is. It was a series of auditions, and by the third round, we were brought in front of (Star Trek creator) Gene Roddenberry. Gene liked us both very much as actresses. On a whim, he asked me, “Would you mind having a look at the part of Tasha Yar?” And he just basically flipped us. The original descriptions for both of these characters were both very different from what they ended up to be, you know. Counselor Troi was described as very tall, blonde, almost Swedish, cool, unemotional. And Tasha Yar was described as a stout, dark-haired fireplug.
Q: Gene Roddenberry is now a legendary figure to science-fiction fans. What was he like to work with?
A: Oh, he was so gentle and open to us. Obviously we had a lot of questions about coming into this show. He was very gracious and he never shunned any ideas. He basically said, “This is yours to create. I can steer you in the right direction and help you, but this is basically yours to create. These are your characters.” He was a lovely man.
Q: In the 1980s, science-fiction was just starting to produce strong female characters, like Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley in the Alien movies. So Tasha was still something new. She ran security on the Enterprise and she could hold her own in a fight. Do you think that made an impression on the audience?
A: Yeah. Given the times, they were ready to see this. And you know, Gene, he was always cutting-edge with this stuff, like he was with the Nichelle Nichols character in the original Star Trek. This role was meant to have a woman who could show she was capable of all these duties. Many, many, many women over the course of the 25 years I’ve been doing this have complimented the role of Tasha and tell me they certainly gained strength and empowerment from having that example. They didn’t have a lot to look at back then. And then along came this new kind of woman, someone who was strong while still having all of her femininity, who wasn’t secondary to some guy.
That’s always an incredible thing to hear from people later, because, as an actor, you’re in kind of a little box. You don’t know how you’re being received. It’s being broadcast, but you don’t realize at the time the effect it’s having on people.
Q: You’ve said you quit the show after one season because you were “miserable” about the paltry amount of screen time for Tasha. Yet when you returned for guest-appearances over the years, you had a lot more action, a lot more dialogue. What changed?
A: The writing. The first season of Star Trek really struggled with the writing. I don’t think it got its sea legs, so to speak, until the third season, which is when, I believe, (writer) Michael Piller came on board. That first season, though — good science-fiction is really hard to write. I think it just started to gel later on.
Certainly when I got the script for (third-season episode) “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” which was the story that opened the door for me to return — well, I came back through an alternate timeline universe (laughs) — to me, that remains one of the best episodes written, ever.
Q: The two women who remained in the cast after you left, Marina Sirtis and Gates McFadden, who played Dr. Beverly Crusher. I always felt like their characters got overlooked, even in the later seasons and the movies. They seldom got to do much compared against the men. Do you think that’s true? And frankly, do you think they got short-changed because they were women?
A: Yeah, I tend to agree. It wasn’t enough just to have this novel idea of a female security officer or, for Gates, a female doctor on board the ship. You know, you have to follow through. They have to matter. They have to amount to something. It’s not enough just to make the character female.
That’s what I thought at the time. There was this great build-up, “Oh, you’re gonna be the first female security officer on the Enterprise, you’re gonna show the world that you’re just as capable as any man has ever been.” But then they didn’t follow through. So often times, you’re just standing there going, “Aye-aye, Captain.” It was the ’80s. It was still transitioning to where we are right now. We had to pass through that phase, those growing pains, to get where we are right now. And we still have farther to go, as women, to make sure our voices are heard.
Q: You’re a regular guest at Star Trek conventions, which attract huge crowds, and you’ve produced documentaries about Star Trek fandom. What is it about this 50-year-old franchise that inspires so much affection and obsession?
A: I really believe that Star Trek hit this nerve in people. There was a hopeful future. You know, so much of science-fiction is bleak and dystopian and dark, and we don’t survive. Star Trek laid out this example where not only do we survive, but we get better as the human race. We’ve learned some things. I think that resonates with people. They get invested in these characters.
It’s also an inclusive world. A lot of the fans that I’ve met over the years, somehow, sometimes, they feel like outsiders, disenfranchised by the popular culture. They’re not — you know, the mainstream message being that if you don’t look a certain way, if you don’t dress a certain way, or drive this car, or you’re not following this celebrity on Twitter, then you’re not with it, you’re not hip, you’re not cool. You’re left out. Star Trek was about this inclusiveness, where everybody counts, no matter what you look like, no matter what race, no matter what strange horn you have coming out of your third eye or whatever. (Laughs.) That you deserve to be understood, appreciated and seen.
And then there’s the tech freaks who watched the show and got inspired. Look at all the gadgets we first saw on Star Trek that are now a part of our real lives. I’ve heard from plenty of tech people who started off by watching Star Trek as kids, and now we carry around cell phones and tablets and tricorder-like medical devices. I’m still waiting for my transporter. I just want to be able to beam out of here when I need to avoid L.A. traffic. (Laughs.)
Q: Beyond Star Trek, in recent years you’ve landed roles on some critically acclaimed shows. Do you think it’s true that we’re in a second Golden Age of Television because of the high quality of writing? And are you having a better time now as an actor than you did when you started?
A: Oh, that’s interesting. Well, I feel so grateful to be a woman of my age and still have some life in me, and I’m still getting cast in great parts. I’m going back to Ray Donovan, where I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Elliot Gould as my husband, and as you said about the quality of writing these days, the writing is just tremendous on that show, with Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight.
I remember when I was starting out in the ’80s and older actresses would be saying, “Oh, honey, do it all now, because when you hit 40, it’s over.” Well, I’m finding that absolutely not to be true — with great relief. Now, it’s not that parts are just handed to me. They’re not. But when I’m on a set these days, I don’t feel the angst that I did when I was starting my career. I feel confidence, because I know I can do this, and with that confidence comes joy.
If you go
Denise Crosby (“Tasha Yar”) and Brent Spiner (“Data”) from Star Trek: The Next Generation will participate in a panel discussion at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Regency Ballroom, Third Floor, Level “L,” at the Lexington Convention Center, 430 W. Vine St., as part of the Lexington Comic and Toy Convention. John Cheves will moderate.