In Memoriam: Tasha Yar
Today, I saw Lt. Tasha Yar of the USS Enterprise get killed by an evil alien oil slick. The event was every bit as lame as I remembered it. It wasn’t so much that it was sudden – I have always been somewhat pleased that the evil alien oil slick just killed somebody to start off, since that makes sense (if only the Daleks were so direct) – no, my problem was that it was pointless and arbitrary.
Though, now that I’m thinking about it, her death was not significantly more pointless or arbitrary than Tasha Yar’s character as a whole, so in this sense, the death was fitting. Tasha’s character was sketchy at best; she came from a dark past, but we never really believed it. There was nothing about her that indicated a childhood of fear and anger and aggression. Yes, there was a lot of talk about ‘rape gangs’ (she was always itching to tell the bridge crew about the rape gangs), but her smiles were a bit too sunny and her personality just a bit too balanced to fill out the character. She was a woman who was good at martial arts and…well…something about rape gangs.
Denise Crosby, who portrayed Tasha, wanted off the show before a season was out since her character was not being developed, and I don’t blame her. I mean, what was she given to do, exactly? It almost seemed as if the writers got this novel idea for a (hold on to your hats, folks) woman who (get this) knows aikido and runs security! Then, after creating this character, they thought to themselves “well, jeez, any woman who knows aikido probably didn’t have parents and had to dodge rape gangs!” Shortly after this conversation, they ran out of ideas and then just had Denise Crosby talk about…well…nothing for twenty-some-odd episodes. Occasionally she lamely shot something with a phaser.
Tasha Yar, to my mind, was a victim not of an oil slick monster, but of two things:
- Screenwriters in 1987 had no idea what to do with a woman who could beat up men, so they didn’t bother trying.
- Gene Roddenberry couldn’t write believable ‘gritty’ characters if they wore skull necklaces and ate babies.
Apparently, according to the internet, Tasha Yar was supposed to based on Vasquez from Aliens – the tough chick with the giant machine gun. The thing is, though, while Vasquez was able to out-macho the guys in an environment full of machismo, Yar is stuck in a world of gender neutral clothing and a complete lack of the crass, devil-may-care attitude our culture assigns to ‘manly-men’. So, if your point is to introduce a female character who can keep up with the guys in the combat arena, but you stick her in a society where they don’t believe in fighting and do not indulge in the typical male posturing around warrior-hood, you quickly find that your character isn’t edgy or groundbreaking or even interesting. She’s just part of the furniture.
But, you know, that should be good, right? Tasha was so believable as security chief that it was never a big deal that she was security chief. Well, if they had played it straight like that, maybe it would have worked. Instead, though, they always had her obsessing over her femininity and went out of their way to show her as feminine (1987 keeps nudging you and saying “guys, she’s a girl! Get it! A GIRL!”). This starts to get weird and confusing. You, the viewer, start saying things like “look television, I understand that Tasha is competent and tough and am totally okay with that…but why are you having her complain about not having pretty clothes like Troi?”
In the end, the character was a hot mess, and not in the good way. She just didn’t seem to make sense; she was an incomplete sketch, more so than any other character on that show in the first season. The only real character hook she seemed to have was the possession of breasts, even though the whole point of the character was that it didn’t matter that she had breasts. What’s an audience supposed to do with that? What is an actress supposed to do?
Well, apparently, what is done is see to it that you are killed by an evil alien oil slick.
Fare thee well, Tasha. You set the stage for Ensign Ro Laren and, later, Major Kira in DS9, so you can be said to have not lived in vain. You also have the distinction of being more interesting than almost every character on Voyager. That, though, isn’t saying very much.
Posted on January 9, 2014, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged character arc, death, female characters, scifi, Star Trek, Tasha Yar. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.
What’s wrong with wearing skull necklaces and eating babies? From where I stand, it’s just one of many possible lifestyle choices.
If Denise Crosby had not left TNG, would Ro Laren exist? Would Bajor? Would Kira Nerys? Would Deep Space Nine? Tasha Yar was (unfortunately for Crosby) ahead of her time.
And times have changed. Moving beyond Star Trek, look at the female leads of Battlestar Galactica.
Starbuck (a male character in the original series), played by Katee Sackhoff, was arguably the female lead in the remake. After Galactica, Sackhoff had a major role in 5 (of 9) episodes of Bionic Woman, appeared in 20 episodes of the 2010 season of 24, is the first credited female cast member in the 2013 movie Riddick, and has the main female role in the ongoing TV show Longmire, where she plays a gritty sheriff’s deputy.
Number Six (a reference to The Prisoner), was played by Tricia Helfer. After Gallactica, Helfer has landed recurring roles in the TV series Burn Notice, Dark Blue, The Firm, and Killer Women.
Sharon “Boomer” Valerii (aka, Number Eight), was played by Grace Park. Boomer was a male character in the original Galactica. Following Galactica, Park has appeared in all 26 episodes of The Cleaner, 12 episodes of The Border, and as the main female character in all 84 episodes of the remake of Hawaii Five-O. Her character Kono was a male in the original Hawaii Five-O.
So not only have there been strong, leading, gritty female roles in recent sci-fi, but the actresses who played those roles have gone on to great success thereafter.
Nothing you say there I would dispute and, indeed, I do credit Tasha’s existence for the further exploration of that character type. None of that, however, makes Tasha Yarr a good character that works or makes sense. Part of the reason the character doesn’t work is *because* she was ahead of her time – the writers didn’t know how to make her believable, having nothing to fall back on in television (plenty in science fiction writing, btw, but scifi on television has frequently been blissfully unaware of – or unconcerned with – what is happening in the print end of the genre).
Kira Nerys is, essentially, the Tasha Yar character all over again, except done much, much better due to better writing and a better understanding of how to make such a character be believable and interesting. Would she exist without Tasha? Maybe, maybe not. That, however, has little bearing on how well Tasha comes across on screen, which is very poorly.
More than Yar, Kira Nerys *is* Ro Laren, adapted because Michelle Forbes did not want to commit to the level of work required to be a main character on Star Trek.
A couple days ago I finished re-watching DS9. I only watched about 70% of it when it aired originally – I missed a lot of season 4 and stopped altogether halfway through season 6. And I was curious why Terry Farrell left after season 6. (Answer, she was tired of the amount of work required to be a main character.) And that reminded me of Crosby’s departure, so I went to check why she left. (Answer, she was frustrated with the lack of opportunity for her character to develop.)
I remember Yar’s death because one of my friends was absolutely thrilled when she died. I guess he was part of the crowd that found Yar to be very annoying. Which sort of puzzled me. I found her character interesting (and, in retrospect, perhaps underdeveloped), but she in no way prevented me from enjoying the show. At the time, I assumed the show killed her off because (some?) fans did not like her. I was (obviously) much younger then, and did not think at all about the production and career motivations that might play a role.
To comment meaningfully on whether or not I think Yar (as a character) could have become well developed if she stayed with the show, I’d really have to rewatch season 1 of TNG, as it has been years since I watched it, and I’ve only watched it twice.
After reading about Farrell’s decision to depart DS9, and then Crosby’s decision to leave TNG, I realized that Yar foreshadowed Ro Laren (Ro being my favorite TNG character). So I was curious if anyone else had mentioned the similarities between Yar and Ro, and the only real mention I found was your (very recent) blog post!
On the whole, I think DS9’s characters are better than TNG’s. Right from day one, the DS9 characters had more interesting aspects to explore than TNG’s. In my opinion, Picard, Riker, Dr. Crusher and Geordi are all pretty vanilla, whereas Data (android), Worf (half-Klingon), and Troi (empath) all have interesting twists. Wesley could have gone either way (and IMO, ended up vanilla). Yar’s backstory was interesting, but was not functionally connected with her role as security officer (whereas not only did Kira have backstory as a rebel, she had the functional twist of having to liaise with the Federation, and occasionally with the Cardassians as well). The functional disconnect between Yar’s backstory and her narrative role has nothing to do with her sex – a male version of Yar would have been in the same predicament. (But perhaps you would argue the the writers could have capably developed a male Yar?)
If you look at TOS, Kirk, Spock and Bones are the three major characters, and the rest just support. (Is there any character development in TOS? Perhaps not?) In TNG, I think Picard (and maybe Riker) are the major characters, but the supporting characters had a lot more opportunity to develop and to have episodes focus on them. But maybe TNG started off with just one too many main characters? They did not add another main character to replace Yar. (Nor Wesley, who was only a main character for seasons 1-4.)
It would also be interesting to look at other female roles in late 80’s (or earlier) TV sci-fi to compare. But I haven’t watched enough to comment.
IMO, Yar’s biggest failing is that her character was, on a functional level, in too much competition with Worf, and Worf was the more interesting character. I do not see Yar as a weaker character than Picard, Riker, Dr. Crusher, Wesley, or Geordi. For example, what if Yar were commander and Riker were security chief? I think Yar could have developed in that environment, with the plot and narrative opportunities that would have been available as commander.
True, Ro Laren *is* Kira – fair enough.
Having just rewatched the first season of TNG, however, I can pretty confidently say that Yar’s sex was central to the character to a detrimental degree. The *only* thing they talk about with her is the fact that she is a woman and she can fight – that’s literally it. If Worf’s gimmick is he’s a Klingon and Data’s that he’s an android, then Tasha’s is that she’s a woman. *That* is what ruins her – her gender supplants all of her other character traits. Jordi, Worf, and the other minor characters on TNG’s first season all were more interesting in that they had more emotional depth beyond their gimmicks. Jordi was nervous about his capability to command, Worf was struggling with his heritage, and so on – none of them were a focus, but they had more going for them. Tasha had literally nothing but a nebulous past involving Rape Gangs and a wish that she had prettier clothes like Troi. She was substantially weaker than every other character on that show (even Wesley) for the reasons I discuss above.
Now, could those few things about her character we had have been developed into something interesting? Sure, probably. There was no sign of them planning to do so, however. Discussing whether she could have been in an alternate role in the series just takes us down the rabbit hole – she wasn’t, they didn’t develop her, Crosby asked to be released from her contract. All of this happened because the character was weak, Crosby didn’t like playing her because of the lack of development, and the episodes she was in were pretty lame. She has an important role (in a certain sense), but only insofar as her failure as a character probably encouraged Roddenberry to try it again with Laren. They really didn’t get a chance to pull it off, though, until DS9, which have the strongest characters in Star Trek by half and by which point Roddenberry was dead, which to my mind was a major contributor to why that series was as good as it was – they could break all the rules Roddenberry established that actually inhibited character development.
I agree. The development of characters like Yar, Ro, and Kira is based on inter-personal conflict. And inter-personal conflict was not on the menu for season 1 of TNG. Ro works because she is in conflict with Riker, and to some extent Picard. Based on quotes from Memory Alpha, it seems like Berman and Piller were probably more involved in Ro’s creation than Roddenberry was. Which would make sense.
Since you just watched season 1, how does the development of Yar compare to the development of Miles O’Brien?
O’Brien is scarcely in it. I’m not even sure they mention his name. He really appears as a character with lines in season 2 (currently re-watching), but he’s still just ‘that guy’ – basically an extra. Comparing him to Yar, therefore, is a bit pointless – he wasn’t originally intended as a major character and only became so gradually over time. Yar is more comparable to Troi or Data, honestly – she’s an original staff officer and present in more scenes than the lower ranking characters overall (Jordi and Worf are right behind her). While both Troi and Data have fairly wooden characters early on, they ‘work’ in the sense that their purpose and motivations are interesting and inherently clear and their gimmick is more obvious and interesting. This is never the case for Yar, who kinda just stands around and spouts exposition, but whom is constantly presented as an important character with ‘background.’ You get the sense the show is trying to make you like her, but it just doesn’t work because there is just about *nothing* there. She’s very much like Amidala from the Star Wars prequels in that sense.