The Procrustean Petard

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Star Trek Fanfiction
Title: The Procrustean Petard
Author(s): Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath
Date(s): 1978
Length:
Genre: gen, though debatable
Fandom: Star Trek: The Original Series
External Links:

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The Procrustean Petard is a Star Trek: TOS genderswap story by Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath.

Publishing History

It was printed in Star Trek: The New Voyages #2 and is one of the seven stories/poems (out of ten) in the book that was not previously published in a fanzine.

Descriptions

As the crew investigates what's happened, they discover a Klingon ship in the same predicament and the adversaries have to work together to solve it. James Kirk is now an extremely attractive woman, but weak and fragile. Spock immediately begins treating him as a helpless, defenseless girl, as he sees all Earthwomen as "fragile porcelain dolls". He and McCoy emphasize this to Kirk repeatedly. Not only is the "no female captains" rule from the TOS episode "Turnabout Intruder" still in effect, but his sexual magnetism as a female would cause him not to be taken seriously, and probably raped by every male he dealt with, everywhere he went. The Klingon males, now females, are described as feeling degraded and ashamed. Only Klingon captain Kang and Spock remain unchanged, and are later found to have been given an extra Y chromosome. They speculate this is due to their being "the strongest", although they acknowledge there may be other factors.

The solution is to fly over the planet again with the changed crewmembers, so that the machine will change them back. Only a woman security guard (now a man) and her fiance (now a woman) elect to stay as they are. Spock, passing through the machine again, is given another Y chromosome. In the 1970s, the "XYY male" was a popular concept. These "supermales" were assumed to be extremely aggressive and sexually dominant. This false premise is still used in crime novels and police procedurals and was used in this story, including a reference to Chicago murderer Richard Speck, who had brain abnormalities but not XYY.

A distress call lures the Enterprise to a strange planet where crew members are plucked from the ship and sent through a machine that changes them into the opposite sex. It’s up to Kirk and the Enterprise crew to find a way to return everyone to his or her normal gender in "The Procrustean Petard" written by the editors of the book. [1]
... a story written by Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath, published in the second volume of—mostly—fan fiction stories that they edited under the title of Star Trek: The New Voyages. In this particular story, male crewmembers were changed into females, and female crewmembers were changed into males. The only exception was Spock, who instead got a double dose of “what makes men men.” [2]

The Writers' Introduction in "The New Voyages"

You'll have to let us know what you think of this one.

And we don't doubt that you will...

Meanwhile we'll say only that this is an example of what may prove to be a vanishingly rare species: a short story from us.

Shall we admit that our Star Trek novel, The Price of the Phoenix, started as a short story for New Voyages (1)?

You should only see what happens when we set out to write a novel...

This one could have handily have turned into a novel, and threatened to, but we exercised monumental restraint. It could easily have gotten a little to hot to handle. And if you wonder what happened off camera -- we aren't talking. Maybe we'll write a sequel...[3]

Fanworks Based on This Story

  • The Etruscan Leotard (1979) by Gaylen Reiss ("Being throughly irritated with "The Procrustean Petard," I set out to write a humorous parody/satire to point out the story's faults. However, my version rapidly turned into a light-hearted/seriousness which, if nothing else, is closer to the attitude I believe the Enterprise crew would take, in place of the almost-simpering primitive fear of the original story.")
  • One Way Street (1985) by Leigh Bideaux ("Based on Marshak and Culbreath’s short story, The Procrustean Petard. Kirk and Spock must deal with Kirk having been female… the repercussions from which are far from what either might have expected.")
  • One Winged Angels (1990) by Gina Moretti ("Okay, so something on the planet had changed the members of the landing party into the opposite sex... all but Spock... and now they have to face the reality of men who are now women, women who are now men. They're all sophisticated members of Starfleet, they can handle it. Can't they?")

Reactions and Reviews

1978

I've had the chance to put Susan's and my arguments attacking "Procrustean Petard" to its authors, Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath. They said (and gave me permission to print) that they set up a prejudiced Starfleet based on "Turnabout Intruder" for the purpose of attacking it in future stories. I hope it's soon. [4][5]
After reading ‘Care to Debate That?: Antifeminism in Treklit, the K/S Premise’...I honestly can’t see the two strongest men on the Enterprise being sexually involved with each other. The only time it was remotely possible is in ‘Procustean Petard’ in NV 2. With as much love and trust between Kirk and Spock, I think Spock couldn’t help being attracted to Kirk as a woman.” [6]

My principal reaction to "Procrustean Petard" was one of distress at a number of scientific errors which constitute part of the basis for the plot. My objection is not literary. I hope that the readers will bear with me for a short course on Genetics...

The occurrence of an extra chromosome is relatively uncommon among humans since animals In general and vertebrates in particular are intolerant of deviations from the normal number. The particular form of polyploidy (extra chromosome(s)) which is dealt with in"petard" has an incidence of roughly 1 in 3,000. There was a great deal of fuss generated in the popular press In the early sixties when a correlation study was done that found a higher than average Incidence of XYY individuals in the prison population at the time.

Ignoring the somewhat questionable sampling techniques used and the difference between correlation and causation, the assumption that these findings indicate that violence is at least contributed to by the polyploid condition has not borne up under close scrutiny. The number of peaceful, law abiding XYYs outside of the prison population vastly exceeds the number of Inmates with this condition. Furthermore, any behavioral scientist with any degree of competence can tell you that while excitement is a state which all humans can achieve at or soon after birth, behaviors as complex as aggression, in all of its myriad forms, are learned. Stating that a behavior is learned is not necessarily to imply that it must be deliberately taught; merely that Its roots are to be found In the environment.

This is an idea that apparently makes a number of people very uncomfortable. They find it much easier to evade the question of how people like Charles Manson came to be the way they are and instead hide behind the poorly understood explanation of "he was born that way." This type of thinking not only provides a comfortable out for those to whom responsibility is frightening, but does nothing to alleviate the true causes of such behavior.

So much for general information. On a more specific level, the condition is not termed "genetic". The anomaly is chromosomal in nature. Such conditions arise from errors during the meiotic division during gamete formation. They are not caused by mutation or an unfortunate combination of allelic forms of one or more genes.

At one point in the story, there is a reference to a famous XYY who killed seven nurses. I am assuming that this is a reference to Richard Speck. I am constrained to point out that, despite rumors of this being used as a defense, it is a matter of record that Mr. Speck is not an XYY. Chromosomally, at any rate, the man was found to be perfectly normal.

These comments arise from a very real concern for the damage that can be done by the spread of this sort of stigmatizing idea, not from some desire on my part to cause trouble. I am perfectly aware that the willing suspension of disbelief Is an integral part of all science fiction, but the Idea of Faster Than Light travel has little contemporary social significance.

I hope that these comments can counteract the inaccuracies in "Petard" at least to some extent and publicly urge the authors to investigate the feasibility of a disclaimer being appended to the present introduction and to give careful thought to the construction of the proposed sequel; either by modifying the premise or including a disclaimer. [7]
Permit me a timid squeak on the subject of "Procrustean Petard." I agree 100% with [Ann P] but there's something I'd like to add. Look, this is an alien planet, right? Now I don't know all that much about genetics, but it seems to me that it's highly improbable the double-helix would be identical with Terran genes, in which case you got a lot of mixed-up Terrans drifting around the galaxy—not to mention Spock! I always thought it a miracle that Amanda didn't die of copper poisoning, but this is ridiculous! Look, assume the inhabitants of this planet are humanoid, Go further, and say that they're genetically identical to Terrans. Carry the whole thing to the point of absurdity, and say Sargon was right and Terrans are descended from these people. OK—WHAT ABOUT SPOCK? He's got copper-based blood and a Vulcan arrangement of organs—if these people are like Terrans—and if they aren't you have a worse problem—the machine would probably reject him. If not, being a computer—and computers I do know something about—it would follow its programming, reassemble Spock (in a Terran pattern, remember) and continue operations. In which case, Marshak and Culbreath, you don't have an XYY male, you have, to put it bluntly, one very dead Terro-Vulcan hybrid and one heck of a mess on the floor. I may be completely wrong, but that's the way it seems to me. If this be treason, make the most of it! [8]

1979

[My story, The Etruscan Leotard was] written in desperate response to "The Procrustean Petard," by Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath printed in Star Trek: The New Voyages 2.

The authors' idea of switching the sex of the Star Trek characters intrigued me, and that is what kept me reading, in hopes that they would do interesting things with it. I was, to say the least, deeply disappointed. Despite some of the negative implications we saw in "Turnabout Intruder," I don't think Kirk would be overwhelmed with despair to find himself in a woman's body, especially if a good portion of the crew were going through the same experience. (And," in today's button-pushing society, let alone in one 200 years from now — the Star Trek century — one's success does not depend on male muscular strength.)

Being throughly irritated with "The Procrustean Petard," I set out to write a humorous parody/satire to point out the story's faults. However, my version rapidly turned into a light-hearted/seriousness which, if nothing else, is closer to the attitude I believe the Enterprise crew would take, in place of the almost-simpering primitive fear of the original story.

I also refuse to copy their use of little-known parables and quotes to make a cute point at the risk of alienating most readers. Instead, I took one of the theories rejected by those authors and turned it into a plausible reason for the existence of that strange sex-change capability. I think you'll agree with my reasoning. If not, you'll at least understand it, which is a giant step in the right direction.

I even came up with a ST-oriented explanation of how the thing works -- which also happens to take care of some of the unmentloned but deficient aspects of the original story, such as hairstyle changes. I won't, however, try to explain why everyone looks "ravishing" in their new bodies. That is a bit much.

I leave the Klingons out of this story also. Suffice it to say that when the Enterprise crew finds the solution, they'd probably offer it to the Klingons who have been changed, as well. Now, whether the Klingons would trust members of the Federation to control a machine that messes around wth Klingon's bodies is another question, and probably another story, as well.

My story ends up regaining the status quo. This is not imperative in Treklit, but, in my opinion, it is preferable to the alternative given by those authors. If the purpose of their story was to incite objectionist counter-literature, they were successful. (And why else would they have written it that way?)

If they are serious (and boy, do they write it like they were serious) about this story, I offer my version as soothing medication for other wounded Trekfen. [9]

1995

Rereading it now, it's still fairly decent fan writing. The characters are fairly true to their televised versions, though what differences there are may be due to both inexperienced writers *and* the gender changes in the plot. (Perhaps the most distracting aspect of the whole piece is that they decided to continue using the original gender pronouns, so that Kirk continues to be "he" even as they try to convince you that he's now "she" -- it's hard to get one's mind around the switch when you hit the next pronoun.) That it seems a bit dated in the themes it covers is a testimony to how much society has changed in the past 18 years. (Hmmm, maybe it's time to reread some of the other classics, and see how well they stand up. The Weight is a logical candidate, but I don't know if I have the stamina for it. 8-) [10]

1998

Although there is no overt sexuality in those books, there is enough going on beneath the surface to keep psychoanalysts and K/S hurt-comfort writers working for years. In direct language the books were very proper but in feel they should have made my hands sticky <EEW!>. Marshak and Culbreath made a lot of noise about Federation culture and the male dominated Starfleet that was interesting. the cultural stuff bears looking at and thinking about. The gender issues always seemed anachronistic and a touch hysterical to me. One of their Short Stories in "New Voyages" called the "Protruscan Petard" <sp?> was a delightful story just because they put the characters in a wonderfully bad spot. I didn't quite care for Spock with the double X chromosome, or the testosterone charged madness that came from it. Actually I thought the whole "Alpha Male" thing was way, way over done, but the basic idea was sound. Anyway, I take it from the context of your post, Meg, that K/S is something you like. The Phoenix books are loaded with sexual energy even if they aren't really allowed to say so directly. K/S, hurt-comfort, and dominance games are just not my cup of tea, but they're in there.... [11]

2001

The Procrustean Petard is a good example of the problems I have with Marshak and Culbreath, and how very far their vision of K/S (which, since they were writing pro, is not explicit, but it's pretty obvious) is from any attempt at achieving equality.

In "Procrustean Petard," all crewmembers have their sexes swapped, except for Spock, who has an additional Y chromosome tacked on to his genetic structure that's supposed to turn him into a violent, testosterone laden "hypermale." Never mind the fact that a, Spock is already such a weird genetic mixture that it's unlikely *anything* could have such an effect without seriously messing him up, that b, the studies they were using to justify this (which have turned out to be seriously flawed) indicated that double-Y is associated with violence, criminality, and *retardation*, but Spock stays a genius, and that c, Spock is genetically, by human standards, *already* a violent being, and his methods of control were designed to reign in a people that were naturally more like Klingons than like humans. No, Spock proceeds to become a sexist, domineering hypermale, snarling at McCoy for daring to treat him now that McCoy is female. Blah blah blah.

Meanwhile, Kirk has become physically feeble. He can't fly a shuttlecraft. Even though he observes that women *can* fly shuttlecrafts (and damned if he knows how), the authors don't seem to guess from the fact that women fly shuttlecrafts, and that we're shown that people fly shuttlecrafts by punching buttons, that maybe it *doesn't* take physical strength to fly the things. Yes, I can imagine that having become weaker than he was before, Kirk is not experienced with the level of strength he needs to apply to do everyday things, but this is a man who's dealt with dying of weird illnesses, being poisoned, aging too fast... he knows about physical weakness. And being a healthy woman should be a lot stronger than being a poisoned or seriously elderly man.

Marshak and Culbreath seem to *want* to picture a world where Kirk's command ability is seriously compromised because of his physical weakness in comparison to Vulcans (which they exaggerate in this story to be "in comparison to males" as well), while Spock's physical strength is coupled with a sense of bubbling under-the-surface animal violence, Vulcans are bigoted against humans and see themselves as deserving to be in control, and so Spock comes across as the Gothic romance hero to Kirk's heroine, Kirk being plucky and smart but too physically weak to keep himself out of trouble or protect himself against various threats that Spock has to save him from like a damsel tied to the train tracks. Procrustean Petard is the one that *literally* turns Kirk into a woman, but all of them do, and I don't mean this in a good way. [12]

References

  1. by Christopher Randolph in Enterprise Incidents #6 in The Many Faces of Fan Fiction
  2. from The Sound and the Fury: Early Lettercols and Letterzines 1975-1981
  3. from Star Trek: The New Voyages #2
  4. from Johanna Cantor in R & R #6/7
  5. A prejudiced Starfleet and the challenge to the "no female captains" rule are the subject of the Star Trek Continues episode "Embracing the Winds" with Vic Mignona as James Kirk and Todd Haberkorn as Spock.
  6. In R & R #8, the author of that article (Johanna Cantor), responds in a letter: "This is a comment several fans have made. Which only goes to reinforce my annoyed opinion that the ‘Procustean Petard’ premise is only K/S disguised, and pretty thinly disguised at that. There is still so much to explore in the Kirk and Spock presented in ST. Why this need to stretch/chop them out of shape?
  7. a letter by Ann P in Interstat #5
  8. Meredith M in a letter to Interstat #6
  9. author's comments preceding the repsonsefic] The Etruscan Leotard
  10. comment on Virgule-L, quoted anonymously (November 15, 1995)
  11. comment by Jay P. Hailey alt.startrek.creative, February 25, 1998
  12. 2001 comments by Alara Rogers at ASCEML