In 1969, a Terrible Star Trek Episode Helped Save the Fandom — And the Franchise

Let’s go behind the scenes.

Spock, Kirk and Bones in the last episode of 'Star Trek: The Original Series.'
Star Trek
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Endings are hard, especially when your last episode wasn’t planned. Star Trek: The Original Series was ingloriously canceled after three seasons, despite valiant fan efforts to keep it on the air. That means its finale wasn’t written as a finale, and it generally ranks among the worst entries in the entire franchise.

On June 3, 1969, the last episode of Star Trek, “Turnabout Intruder,” aired. Originally slated for March 28, NBC delayed the episode after the passing of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Loyal fans had to wait for one last episode, several months after the previous episode had aired, in a countdown to a letdown. Fifty-five years later, “Turnabout Intruder” isn’t secretly great; its basic premise is embarrassing and outdated. But despite its deep flaws, the world of sci-fi fandom would be much, much darker without it. Here’s how “Turnabout Intruder” accidentally ushered in a new age of fandom.

Janice and Kirk switch bodies in "Turnabout Intruder."


Written by Arthur Singer from a story concept by Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, “Turnabout Intruder” is a Freaky Friday-style episode in which one of Captain Kirk’s ex-girlfriends, Dr. Janet Lester (Sandra Smith), switches bodies with him in an effort to destroy his life. If Dr. Lester were the episode’s main character, or if this was a different TV series, it could almost be read as a kind of feminist revenge story. But because Kirk is the show's hero, the sympathies lie with him, and Lester is portrayed as a heartbroken, man-hating lunatic.

While Star Trek is often lauded for its progressive vision, the classic series’ sexual mores are far less advanced than its push for diversity. And because “Turnabout Intruder” writes Janet Lester as an utterly unsympathetic person, the story comes off as sexist. One can imagine a rewrite in which the tone is slightly different, and Kirk has to answer for messing up Lester’s life. But we’re not given any reason to doubt Kirk, so anything potentially interesting the episode might say is muddled.

Still, “Turnabout Intruder” is a gender-switching Original Series episode in which manly man Willian Shatner plays a woman. This, from a cultural curiosity viewpoint alone, makes it worth watching. “Turnabout Intruder” is replete with the now-classic Shatner overacting and body spasms, but in 1969, Star Trek wasn’t playing this concept for laughs. Right up until the end, Star Trek thought of itself as a serious drama, even if camp had taken over the aesthetic.

Spock (Leonard Nimoy) mind-melds with Janice Lester (Sandra Smith), who’s really Captain Kirk.


The episode also accidentally fueled an emergent fan phenomenon: slash fiction. As fanfic readers know, the concept of slash fiction, in which fans pair one character with another, derives its name from Kirk/Spock fanfic, which imagined the famous duo as lovers. In “Turnabout Intruder,” after Spock mind-melds with Janet Lester and realizes Kirk is in her body, he holds their hand, treating Kirk like his girlfriend. It’s not subtle. Supposedly, even the actors were aware the story’s gender-role-switching elements prompted all kinds of questions about Kirk and Spock’s true feelings. In a famous outtake, William Shatner jokingly reworked his line to say, “Spock, it’s always been you, you know it's always been you. Say you love me too.”

We know this because super-fan Joan Winston got herself onto the “Turnabout Intruder” set. In the fan-made essay collection Star Trek Lives! Winston recounted the experience in great detail, including the anecdote about Shatner jokingly professing his love to Spock. By 1972, Joan Winston would become one of the key organizers of the world’s first Star Trek conventions.

In 1970, only 300 people attended the first San Diego Comic-Con. In 1972, Winston brought 3,000 people to the first Star Trek convention. By 1974, Winston’s fourth Star Trek Lives! convention attracted at least 15,000 attendees. Star Trek conventions helped create large-scale genre-themed conventions in general, which is partially why today’s geek landscape even exists. Small fantasy and sci-fi conventions existed before Star Trek, but Trek made the idea of having a big convention possible, and Joan Winston was one of the movement’s key pioneers.

Joan Winston with Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley on the set of Star Trek’s last episode, “Turnabout Intruder.” Winston

Crucially, Winston made personal connections with Star Trek’s stars while on set. She drove around LA with DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy), which later helped her recruit him as a convention guest. As television moved on, she documented what it was like to see Star Trek end. In her essay “My Six Glorious Days on the Star Trek Set,” Winston goes into great detail about what the filming of “Turnabout Intruder” was like, and the cast’s mood as the show ended. Winston focuses on how Shatner fought through the flu, and on the cast’s hard work and commitment, despite their sadness that this would be the USS Enterprise's final voyage.

The last Original Series scene filmed was the episode’s first scene, in which Janice and Kirk switch bodies. Nimoy and the other cast members had completed their filming the previous day, and Winston saw some weighty moments. “I got there just in time to see Leonard slowly and ceremoniously remove his ears for the last time,” she wrote. About the wrap party, she said, “It was a quiet party, no one really felt in a party mood. Some gifts were exchanged, good-byes were said. Soon the set was cleared, all the props were put away, and just the empty sound stage was left.”

While “Turnabout Intruder” is a lousy episode, its legacy is its impact on real-world culture. Joan Winston’s writing and her subsequent galvanization of a fledgling fandom reshaped the pop culture landscape we all live in. In another universe, maybe Winston would have visited the set of Star Trek while they were filming a good episode. But there’s something beautiful about Star Trek ending on a low note, just as its fervent fans were getting ready to light a spark that would change fandom forever.

Star Trek: The Original Series streams on Paramount+.

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