Culture

Star Trek 50th anniversary: How Gates McFadden kept her son from confusing her with Dr. Crusher

The Star Trek star who played a single mom on TV also had a child during the show's run. Though she's happy with her real son, her fictional one could have used more work.

CBS

As part of our coverage of Star Trek's 50th anniversary, I chatted with nearly a dozen cast members from across the franchise about everything from Star Trek's inclusive message to how to play a fake doctor in the future.

Gates McFadden didn't watch much TV before she landed a role on the Star Trek revival "The Next Generation." And when she admitted to friends she had almost no Trekkie knowledge, they were horrified.

"I didn't understand what warp speed is or what a Klingon is," she said.

That's probably why she turned down the role. Twice. It took several conversations with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry to turn her around. His goal for her character, Dr. Beverly Crusher, was to give a woman a command position on the Enterprise and much more substance than Communications Officer Nyota Uhura had in the original series.

Gates McFadden as Dr. Beverly Crusher.

CBS

"It's a character that has authority and it's something people didn't have in the show," she remembered Roddenberry telling her. Crusher would be able to challenge Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, played by Patrick Stewart. She'd also be his love interest, in addition to being a widow and single mother.

"I had grown up when Gloria Steinem had happened and the question was, Can women have it all?" she said. "This was a different role. There was something modern about it."

Even so, she felt the show didn't dig as deep on some aspects of her character, like single parenting.

She also faced the challenge of being on "The Next Generation" and raising her son, who was born about halfway through the show's 1987-94 run. Though many of us would be jealous of parts of his childhood ("My son learned to walk on the bridge, literally"), she struggled with separating Gates McFadden from Beverly Crusher.

One way she handled that was by letting her son watch rehearsals, but not the finished show. "I didn't want him to project onto my character," she said. "I didn't want him to confuse realities."

There were times the situation worried her. Once, she was inspecting an action figure of her character for approval, and her son blurted out, "Oh, a mommy doll!"

It all turned out fine, she said, and she's happy with the 25-year-old man he's become.

As to her on-set son, Wesley Crusher, she felt he got a bad rap from fans who complained he was both annoying and boring.

Some of that could have been fixed, she thinks, by giving his character more interactions with other young people on the show. There could have also been stories with deep philosophical questions about parenting as a single mother and what to do when there isn't a clear father figure -- especially since Capt. Picard professed in the pilot episode that he was not good with children.

startrek50cropped2.jpg

Click for full coverage.

Instead, Wesley's character became typified by weird sweaters and odd moments, like when he was disciplined on the bridge.

Another criticism leveled at Wesley was that he was an unconvincing genius. He became an acting ensign without going through Starfleet training and he was depicted as so otherworldly smart that a powerful alien chose him as a traveling companion. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and people Wesley Crusher's age and a bit older certainly seem like geniuses who can fix computers with little effort. "Who does not have a 25-year-old who is constantly showing them shortcuts on their computer and fixing their iPhone?" McFadden said. "I have it all the time."

A saved life

McFadden's favorite Star Trek story comes from her own medical emergency. Her appendix ruptured while she was in Hawaii and she had to have surgery. When the doctor walked in, he took one look at her and said, "Dr. Crusher!"

At that moment, she knew she was safe. She remembers thinking that if he was a fan of the show, he'd more likely be up on the most modern techniques. "We're on the same wavelength," she thought.

While she was in recovery, the doctor showed her images of her insides and began talking to her as if she were a colleague, even though she didn't have a medical background.

The whole episode reminded her how popular the show had become.

McFadden has since sold off her Star Trek memorabilia to fund an organization called Gates Plays that helps develop theatrical and musical productions. She still acts on the stage as well.

Here are McFadden's answers to my warp-speed round of questions.

Dr. Beverly Crusher and her on-set son, Wesley.

CBS/TrekCore

If you could've played a character other than Dr. Crusher, who would it have been?
It would have been so much fun to play a Klingon or to play a robot. Because they're different, and different is fun. To do someone like Q, that would have been fun. If you're an actor, you really want to lose yourself in a lot of different things.

As you were going into it, what did you think the good and bad was of playing this role?
There was just so much I truly didn't understand. I don't think I understood filming. I don't think I understood how to hit your mark and not walk over your mark. There were so many things I really was learning and on some level wasn't even aware of. The whole way that television is.

It was an exciting world to learn about. I wish I had learned more about it, I wish I had been more open. One thing that's so wonderful for people today is young people are making movies.

What's your favorite piece of real-world tech?
My MacBook Air. It's my preferred thing. It's light, it can fit in my purse.

I assume the smaller one?
It's actually the bigger one. That and my phone I travel with.

One of the things about your character is you always had a gadget in your hands.
You always had a tablet. Or a hypospray. I was the prop queen for sure. I had the most cumbersome medical bag you could imagine. It would fall all over, exactly like a woman's purse would.

What's interesting is that a lot of the stuff in your hands during the show is now real.
It's all happening, I know. So many of the props I used are absolutely realities. It's just amazing what we can do. It's something I believe we already are taking for granted and that we shouldn't because it is extraordinary.

What type of Star Trek tech do you wish we had?
Those computers were just unbelievable. And obviously the tricorder is fantastic. That would save lives.

For me, the one that would be the most fun would be the holodeck, without a doubt. You're in a sort of semiprotective environment -- unless it breaks down, which it would do every five episodes. But yeah, that would be great. Maybe then people could work out their aggression in ways that we wouldn't have to have war, you know?

It's funny, because most of the people who have responded to that question have almost immediately said transporter, because they all live in LA.
Here's the thing: The transporter thing is great, except that the journey (of life) is sometimes humbling. I've started to realize that sometimes being on the plane where nobody can really reach me, my phone has to be off, and sometimes just being on a train and looking at the countryside makes me deal with my own impatience about things and your grandiosity of entitlements.

So I don't know. A transporter would be great. But on the other hand, there's something that might be lost.

Who's your favorite Star Trek captain?
I don't know the other shows enough to even have an answer. I think Patrick was an amazing captain.

Who do you want on an away mission?
I'd like to have the captain.

Capt. Picard?
Yeah, we might be able to take a weekend.