Forever the “Commander”; Joanne Linville (1928-2021)…

You know her face.

Long a mainstay of 1950s-1980s television, actress Joanne Linville passed away yesterday at age 93. She was one of those faces you’d recognize if you grew up plastered to the cathode ray tube, as so many of my generation were back in the day. While appearing on many mainstream TV series such as “Columbo,” “Barnaby Jones,” “Dynasty,” “L.A. Law” and countless other roles, my fondest memories of Linville’s work were her roles in more otherworldly fare. Linville made quite an impression on me with her roles in “The Twilight Zone” (“The Passerby”) and, of course, as the Romulan Fleet Commander in the classic “Star Trek” episode, “The Enterprise Incident.” It was on Star Trek where Linville broke barriers, playing the confident female commander of a Romulan battle fleet—something unimaginable for mainstream TV at that time.

Civil War widow Lavinia Godwin wonders what lies in the road ahead, and is comforted by the late President Lincoln.

Linville’s role as Civil War widow “Lavinia Godwin” in the 1962 The Twilight Zone, “The Passerby” (written by Rod Serling himself) was one of the earliest roles of hers I remember from childhood. “The Passerby” was a hauntingly surreal portrait of an anxious young woman waiting to hear of her husband’s return after the end of the war. Lavinia’s home intersects a strange walkway where she sees a daily parade of injured soldiers, Union and Confederate, single-mindedly marching on towards an unseen, fog-shrouded destination ahead. When she sees her husband (Warren J. Kemmerling) walking on the same road, she desperately tries to convince him to stay, but he insists on walking on with the others. Lavinia doesn’t understand until she sees the recently assassinated President Lincoln (Austin Green) marching along the road himself…this mysterious road leads to heaven, and its marchers are among the ranks of the fallen. Linville beautifully captured Lavinia’s pain and longing in an unforgettable TV performance. While a war widow was a more typical role for an actress on TV in those days, it was another role of hers that really stood out from the rest…

Joanne Linville as the Romulan Commander; a single character who truly made “The Enterprise Incident” something special.

The original “Star Trek” series (1966-1969) had a lot of firsts for American television. One of which was featuring a regular character, Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), who was a black professional female Starfleet officer working in the starship USS Enterprise’s command bridge, right alongside the captain. Today such a role might be seen as tokenism, but it was quietly shattering barriers and expectations for what kinds of roles might be available for women on television. In Star Trek’s (often-unfairly maligned) third season came an episode called “The Enterprise Incident” (scripted by the show’s onetime story editor/head writer Dorothy Fontana; though heavily rewritten, sadly). The story saw the Enterprise brazenly violating Romulan space in order to steal a newly refined cloaking device which would make Romulan vessels virtually undetectable. While the story itself may seem like a standard espionage tale (and in many ways, it was) it featured the introduction of a single character that made it a classic—Joanne Linville’s (unnamed) Romulan Commander. The Commander was not only the Romulan counterpart of Capt. Kirk (William Shatner), she was his superior; commanding an entire Romulan battle fleet, not just a single starship. This wasn’t just groundbreaking; it was downright revolutionary.

Spock and the humiliated Romulan Commander share one of the most awkward turbolift rides in Trek history…

The Commander also tries to seduce Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) into joining the Romulans, passionately appealing to their common Vulcan roots. Her seduction of Spock was as much intellectual as it was physical. Typically, the role of a powerful military commander seducing a would-be subordinate would be reserved for male characters in those days, but Linville made her attempted seduction of the stoic Vulcan very credible. Sadly, the Commander was ‘the enemy’ of our heroes, so we knew going in that she somehow had to lose. This is where the episode falters. The Commander’s infatuation with Spock leaves her blind to his subterfuge, which allows Kirk precious time to steal her ship’s cloaking device. Realizing that Spock is attempting to beam back to the Enterprise, she jumps into the transporter beam with him—providing the Federation with a potentially valuable prisoner. A strong woman is ultimately broken and her career is ended in disgrace just because she dropped her guard for the love of Spock. My biggest regret is that Fontana’s heavily rewritten script (by male writers, of course) is that it didn’t allow for a more clever ending where the sympathetic Commander might’ve been allowed to save face with her crew. Like Mark Lenard’s Romulan Commander in Season One’s “Balance of Terror,” the character was worthy of a much better fate than she received. Whatever the shortcomings of the story, the late Joanne Linville played the hell out of the role, and her character is still a favorite for many Star Trek fans today, 53 years later.

Joanne Linville is the perfect astronaut wife…too bad her husband isn’t quite what he seems.

Another TV series in which Linville made an impression was one that I didn’t watch in childhood, but rediscovered on home video years later was the Quinn Martin (“Streets of San Francisco”) sci-fi communist parable, “The Invaders” (1967-1968) which only ran for two seasons, but has since gained cult status. Linville had roles in both seasons of the show, playing different characters. The first of the two roles was as Angela Smith, the wife of an astronaut who is actually “one of them”… a titular “invader.” Smith’s husband Hardy (John Ericson) seeks to use a US space mission in order to connect with an alien reconnaissance mission already on the lunar surface. Hardy also fakes a human heartbeat and other tricks to pass as a human being. It’s up to series star Roy Thinnes as “David Vincent” to convince Angela that her loving hubby isn’t what he seems.

Joanne Linville plays Prof. Pat Reed, a space propulsion expert trying to deal with a disabled husband, a young son and a conspiracy within her workplace.

Season Two’s “The Pit” saw Linville’s return to the show as Professor Pat Reed, a space scientist whose husband (Charles Aidman) is being driven insane in order to keep he and his wife off the invaders’ nefarious trail. “The Pit” sometimes indelicately broaches the subject of mental health (and the stigmas surrounding it) at a time when the medium of television wasn’t quite sophisticated enough to tackle it well, but it still gets points for trying. The episode also deserves kudos for featuring Linville as a strong woman scientist who is the glue of her household—trying to keep it together with her temporarily disabled husband and young son, as well as aid David Vincent in stopping a conspiracy within the space agency (!). “The Pit” was a superior episode to “Moonshot” in nearly every way. Linville’s character, a working mother and prominent researcher, was a role more suited to Linville’s strengths than the typical ‘frightened wife’ more commonly seen in those days.

IMATS (International Makeup Artists Trade Show), Pasadena, 2018.

Thanks to my wife’s love of cosplay and exotic makeups, I began attending the IMATS (International Makeup Artists Trade Show) with her, and our friend Alison, back in 2014. As a fan of sci-fi & horror films/TV shows that regularly use exotic makeups, I have enjoyed the IMATS convention nearly every year since. It’s at these shows I have met makeup legends such as Michael Westmore, Ve Neill, Rick Baker, Joel Harlow, Howard Berger, and so many others. It’s also the kind of show where many unexpected faces will casually drop by unannounced to watch their fellow show biz artists strut their stuff.

It took me a moment to realize that I was sitting next to Joanne Linville herself, as she watched her own daughter being made up into her iconic Star Trek character. What crazy luck!

At the 2018 IMATS show, I once grabbed a seat in the main theater to witness a live demonstration by makeup artist Thomas E. Surprenant (“Star Trek Next Generation,” ”Deep Space Nine”) and fellow makeup artist Lisa Hansell (“Star Trek Continues”), as they worked to transform Linville’s daughter, actress Amy Rydell, into Linville’s “Romulan Commander” character from “The Enterprise Incident.” Rydell herself played the Commander in two episodes of the online fan-made series, “Star Trek Continues”. As luck would have it, Linville herself was sitting in the relatively small audience right next to my wife and I, as we watched the makeup artists transform her daughter into Linville’s iconic role. 

Amy Rydell, an actress and stunt person, begins to assume her mother’s iconic Star Trek look from 50 years earlier. Occasionally, I would see Rydell’s eyes meet her mother’s in the audience, and a warm smile brightened her stoic Romulan features…

The makeup session was streamlined to fit into the hour-plus long panel. Rydell smiled as she noticed her mother in attendance.  It was a warm moment to witness, as a mother saw her lookalike daughter becoming her own iconic role.   Since I was sitting nearby, I assisted Linville (she struggled with a stubborn backpack) in order to help her to retrieve a glossy photo of herself as the Romulan Commander to be used for comparison at the end of the demonstration.  I was more than happy to help.

Take one! Another fan accidentally interrupts as Romulan Commander Amy Rydell poses with her mother Joanne Linville.

When the demonstration was over, Rydell, looking uncannily like her mother 50 years ago, stepped down from the stage to be with her mother in the audience. As a lifelong Star Trek fan, I couldn’t believe my luck—sitting right next to these two ladies in what appeared to be a convergence in the spacetime continuum itself. The “Romulan Commander” was now sitting next to the actress who first gave her life (in every sense!). I humbly asked if I could take their photo together, and they graciously obliged. I took two photos, since Linville was momentarily distracted by an off-camera fan in the first attempt, but both gave a perfect shot on the second.

This is the shot I can’t believe I had the good fortune to witness in person. If I didn’t see it myself, I’d never believe it.

I can imagine the sense of loss for the family and loved ones of Joanne Linville right now, as even in my brief meeting of Linville, she seemed to be a delightful character. She leaves behind a solid resumé as a hardworking professional actress, beloved mother and unwitting sci-fi trailblazer.

Joanne Linville, January 15th, 1928–June 21st, 2021.

Images: Trekcore.com, CBS/Paramount+, Author.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. John S says:

    Incredible tale, incredible lady, an incredible moment caught on camera – Ms Linville and of course her lovely daughter Ms Rydell are beautiful. Amy’s transformation was just about perfect, the resemblance…no words! The purple and black section of the outfit, at least – part of the original costume??

    A strong female character who most certainly deserved better all those years ago, just as you say. I’ll definitely have to look up the Romulan Commander’s ‘return’! Wow. Thank you very much for sharing.

    RIP Ms Linville. You’ll indeed be missed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. First, thanks for reading.
      And yes, I felt ridiculously lucky to be at that place and time to witness that moment; I’ve been going to conventions a long time now, and unrehearsed perfect moments like that are rare, indeed.

      As for Amy Rydell’s costume? No, it wasn’t the original material, but a very very close copy made from several source fabrics, if I remember correctly.

      And yes, Linville was amazing, as is her daughter’s performance in her mother’s go-go boot-steps! You can find links to all of the STC episodes (including “To Boldly Go,” Parts 1 and 2) right here if you wish, at the bottom of the column–enjoy! https://musingsofamiddleagedgeek.blog/2017/11/18/star-trek-continues-finishes-the-original-five-year-mission/

      Like

  2. firemandk says:

    Nice tribute ! I saw this the other day and being a huge “Invaders” fan , knew that she was in two episodes. Very classy lady …. you were so fortunate to be in the right place at the right time….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks.
      I couldn’t believe my luck in meeting these two during such a unique moment for both.

      Joanne Linville was a memorable lady.

      Like

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