Shuttle Pod 30: Paging Dr. Pulaski: Revisiting Trek’s Least-Loved Ship’s Surgeon

Doctor Kate Pulaski - Deal with it

This week the Shuttle Pod crew examine Dr. Kate Pulaski, perhaps one of Trek’s least-loved major characters. She was mean to Data (“Dahta”), was condescending, and even dissed Picard her first day on the job. But, did Pulaski’s drama and conflict provide a missing aspect of the Enterprise crew that was sorely needed?

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Taking another look at Dr. Pulaski meant revisiting The Next Generation‘s second season. To prep for the show, we watched several key Pulaski-sodes: “The Child” (Pulaski’s first episode, and Guinan’s), “Elementary Dear Data”, “Unnatural Selection” (the only episode where Pulaski is the lead), “Icarus Factor”, and “Peak Performance” (where Pulaski finally comes around for Data).

One thing we all seemed to agree on: Pulaski’s character deserves a second look. Doing a rewatch of TNG’s second season from a modern perspective really made all of us feel a new appreciation for the character, who is sometimes described as a “Bones clone”. Although she doesn’t seem to nail the grumpy doctor the way De Kelley did (Kayla can’t forgive her for treating Data so poorly), she does infuse the otherwise conflict-free Enterprise-D crew with some interesting inner tension. She challenges them, and ultimately makes them better.

It’s actually quite a nuanced debate, and perhaps the jury is still out on Kate Pulaski. Have a listen to the podcast, and then share your thoughts — how do you feel about Dr. Pulaski?

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I love Pulaski. She is my favourite Star Trek character ever. I loved the way she treated Data at first and then came around. It’s called character growth, which was totally lacking with the other cast members. Pulaski was human, made errors and spoke her mind. In one season alone, she had more to do than Crusher did in 6 seasons and 4 movies. A shame Muldaur was treated so badly on set and left. Vowing never to return again. Pity. You were the best Kate!

I fully agree. Diana Muldaur did an outstanding job.

I’m with you. I’ve always loved Pulaski. I’ve never gotten close to understanding why people dislike her.

Bones clone or not, Pulaski totally deserved more room and some better scripts. A TV veteran like Diana Muldaur could have brought so much more to the show, if only given a chance.

Better scripts were hard to come by in those early days but I agree with you.

This to the Nth Degree.

I do think that TNG suffered because – Pulaski aside – there was no character that seriously questioned Data’s humanity. However, Pulaski just wasn’t the right character to fill that role. She was too curmudgeonly and was rude to the captain as well as Data, which is a key way in which she different from Bones. Bones was Kirk’s confidant; Pulaski could never have replaced Crusher as Picard’s confidant, and all the Trek captains have had a confidant (Dax, Tuvok, Trip, etc.) Now, the character that *should* have intiially questioned Data’s humanity should have been the empath: Troi. Who better than an empath to argue that emotions maketh man?

Great idea! Hadn’t thought about it before but I totally agree – Troi was the natural choice to provide the counterpoint to the question of Data’s humanity. Too bad they never went that way, it would have been interesting.

Pulaski was sooooo much batter than Beverly Crusher. I never understood, why they took Crusher back.

I think it had something to do with the actor, Gates McFadden. Rodenberry hated her and she was fired, which is why Pulaski came to the show. After that year, I guess Rodenberry became less influential and they brought Gates back.

I heard that Stewart didn’t like or get along with Muldaur at all, which prompted McFadden’s return to the series.

Entirely untrue. Her leaving had nothing to do with Roddenberry. She was being sexually harassed by someone on the staff, who was gone by season 3 and thus no longer an issue. According to Rick Berman, the person she didn’t get along with wasn’t Roddenberry, but rather Maurice Hurley–who didn’t get along with most people. Berman invited her back after Hurley left.

Yes, this is the story I heard.

Quite a few pages on this topic are discussed in the extraordinarily in-depth book that came out in 2015 “The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years: From The Next Generation to J. J. Abrams: The Complete, Uncensored, and Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek”

That book was an absolute *must read* for hard-hard-hardcore TNG fans.

I won’t spoil it, but 50% of the comments here are partially incorrect. (Whatever that meant).

Chaos on the Bridge discusses it at length, although it’s a while since I saw it. Gates McFadden talks about coming from an east cost theatre background where there’s discussion about the stories and character motivations. On a weekly TV show, there simply isn’t the time. I think it reflected the learning curve many of the actors were on.

I actually liked Pulaski a great deal and thought she helped liven up the show in its second season, as it finally started finding its footing. BUT, if leaving (being dumped by) the show opened the door for Diana to play Rosalind Shays on L.A. Law, then I have no regrets!

“if leaving the show opened the door for Diana to play Rosalind Shays on L.A. Law, then I have no regrets!”
But unfortunately for Rosalind Shays fans, L.A. Law then ‘opened the door’ and pushed her down an elevator shaft. (An awesome, unexpected demise for a great character.)

Okay, maybe I’ll go back and give her another chance :/ But it wasn’t just her, it was the first two seasons as a whole that made me go on a ~four year hiatus from any new ‘Trek. Glad that didn’t last any longer :)

Love the podcast, always enjoyable!

I loved the performance, I liked the concept, but when it comes to the execution it all falls apart for me.
First, the thing with Data. While often compared to Spock and McCoy, Pulaski was much, much more nasty towards Data than Bones was to Spock. The fact that we’d seen McCoy being more accepting of Data already didn’t help things.
And while this could have been a good source of tension, I feel like they’d already missed their opportunity for that. Rather than put strain on the relationships the crew had with one another, it pretty much just framed the narrative as Pulaski vs. everyone else on the show, and a good chunk of the audience with it. And I really don’t feel like the character was ever able to recover from that. She always just felt like an outsider.
Had she been present from the start, and accompanied by several other officers who also weren’t entirely sure about Data, then maybe they could have kept her from being the odd woman out and really delved into some neat stuff. The episode The Measure of a Man in particular could have been a fantastic chance to use a character like her in place of Riker, and god knows Muldaur had the chops to do something truly great with it. But as she is… She might be one of the show’s great missed opportunities.

That’s a pretty high nastiness bar. McCoy was pretty mean and insubordinate to Spock and that only becomes more apparent as our culture becomes more polite to diversity. Maybe a viewer in 1989 wouldn’t have been as sensitive to McCoy deserving to be sent to HR for diversity training but I certainly notice it now.

I honestly can’t recall Pulaski being any worse than indifferent to Data in an early meeting and skeptical to agnostic on his sentience. Perhaps Pulaski will be reevaluated as AI and robot companions become more sophisticated.

The thing that made Pulaski so much worse to me was that while McCoy was definitely out of line in a lot of cases, he never once failed to express it to Spock’s face. He would look him in the eye when he did it. While he obviously questioned his motives and, as you said, definitely needed to be sent to sensitivity training, there was still a basic acknowledgement of Spock as a person and even an equal. The fact that he could be made so angry by Spock only reinforced that.

Pulaski and Data though… I feel like the fact that they never overtly fought made it worse. She spoke about him like he were a washing machine at first. Yes, she was indifferent towards him, but it was played as being the same way that one would be indifferent to a piece of equipment that wasn’t acting up at the time. She doesn’t care because she saw him as being beneath her.

I can understand her having doubts, I certainly would too in those circumstances. But given that experts had already ruled that Data was a sentient creature it was the height of arrogance for her to demand further proof before being willing to pronounce his name correctly. What’s more, it suggests something very ugly about the kind of person she was that I don’t think the series ever really acknowledged, and I find that to be slightly disturbing.

Essentially, her approach of treating Data as equipment until proven otherwise presented someone who is unwilling to consider the possibility that her preconceptions are wrong, even if acting on them will cause material harm to others. Consider if she had required the same assurances of Worf or Geordi. From a Starfleet perspective, there really is no difference.

I get what they’re trying for – she’s a flawed character. That’s great, and Hubris is not a bad failing to explore. But they pushed it to this point where I feel like the only thing that saved it was Muldaur’s talent as an actor. And in the larger context of the show, I don’t really feel like her bullying of Data really ended up being in service of anything. Seems to me that given that they knew they had The Measure of a Man coming up, it would have made far more sense to have Pulaski serve as the opposition instead of Riker, and perhaps have the trial serve as the turning point that finally convinces her that Data deserves a presumption of sentience.

Anyway, that’s my excessively long analysis of it!

Man, I am so glad to see this post. I’ve always felt this way, but when I rewatched the series last year I found Beverly Crusher to be not just intolerable but embarrassing. She’s horrible. Pulaski forever. She may have been a slight rip off of Bones, but I’ll take Pulaski any day.

Not David Lander. It’s Roy Brocksmith, or the creepy red pill/blue pill guy from Total Recall.

I actually really enjoyed Pulaski because she did throw a few curve balls in and stirred the pot. I like her relationship with Worf too. I think that could have been developed if she had have stayed. I was disappointed they didn’t get her in for a cameo at least in All Good Things – I read the book and there was a page or two on Pulaski and Lwaxana Troi.

Apparently the cast weren’t nice to her.

They admitted as much on the blu-ray documentaries. Surprised Muldaur showed up to be interviewed, tbh. Hadn’t heard an interview from her before.

I remember watching the premiere of TNG’s second season on Friday, November 26th, 1988. It had been six months since the end of the first season. From the very first shot (of the Enterprise flying alongside the Repulse) to the pan across the bridge to reveal members of the crew (Worf and Wesley with new uniforms and Riker with a beard) I instantly said to myself, “whoa, this is different.”

A lot of people claim that the third season was when the show took off, but the second season was where the characters settled in to where they would be for the rest of the series. It was certainly a better season than the first season and introduced many characters, concepts, and plot threads that would be continued in later seasons.

When it comes to Pulaski, I always felt she was more believable as a character and as a doctor. I was actually one of those fans that did not shed a tear when Crusher was removed from the cast and was annoyed when she came back. Pulaski grew and got better over time. The conflict that was written into the scripts early on in the second season was definitely contrived, but she changed and grew as the season went on. Her relationships with Riker and Worf in particular were more interesting than any interactions the same characters had with Crusher.

Agree, agree, agree. “The Child” wasn’t an exciting episode, but that opening sequence was amazingly well directed. And I would put the episodes “Q Who” and “The Schizoid Man” up against most of the third season offerings.
I liked her relationships with Riker and Worf, which both developed organically during the season.

I liked Pulaski better than ‘Bland Bev.’ She was basically a female Dr McCoy and livened things up considerably.

Her arrival seemed to be an attempt by Maurice Hurley to break the show’s characters away from the the cultish, dehumanised, ‘whacky doodle,’ characterisations of the first season. Gates McFadden talks interestingly about her struggles on the show in the William Shatner documentary ‘Chaos on the Bridge.’ I don’t tend to blame the actors in the 1987-2005 shows for their often dull, robotic performances – it was clearly an edict from upstairs. Similarly, it’s clear that Robin Curtis could have been a great Saavik, but she was told to play Saavik completely differently from Kirsty Alley’s quirky character from STII.

I’m sorry Pulaski never turned up again and that she effectively was written out of Star Trek history. Diana Muldaur had charisma in spades and that was perhaps the problem in a show where actors playing human characters were required to underplay their roles so much. As soon as Diana Muldaur walked into a scene, she owned it. She has that indefinable ‘thing’ some actors have that, for want of a better term, we call ‘presence.’

I never understood why people disliked Pulaski. She is totally the female equivalent of Dr. McCoy. She was the moral compass for Picard on several occasions.

McCoy was not a Luddite. Pulaski was repeatedly shown as such (“we don’t share meals together anymore in the 24th century” and such).

IMO, she was more interesting, more engaging, than Crusher. And, IMO, I enjoyed the actress more than McFadden. It could have been that Crusher just seemed bland. But I did like Palanski. Yes, I felt she was channeling Bones, but she still made the character her own.

It would have been interesting to see her develop relationships with the crew over time too. But alas…

“… she does infuse the otherwise conflict-free Enterprise-D crew with some interesting inner tension. She challenges them, and ultimately makes them better.”

I agree and that’s exactly why I also like the character of Captain Jellico, aside from also being a great performance by Ronnie Cox. As much as I like that next Gen crew, they needed a good kick in the butt every now and then.

I remember when TNG premiered. Aside from Data and Picard and the very likable Geordi, everyone else in the first season was mediocre at best. The only standout was Gates McFadden. A prominant role in the new Star Trek, and she could not act her way out of a papter bag. It was painful. Aside from the three I mentioned, and the very under-utilized Colm Meaney, the other actors just werent very natural or very good. But Gates was the worst offender. After stuggling through the first season, it was announced she was being replaced. Not only replaced, but replaced with Diana Mulduar, a fantastic actress! I was excited! She would add much color to the relationships and she could hold her own with Patrick Stewart. I was delighted the producers could see their judgemnet was misplaced in giving McFadden such a beefy role in the series. Pulaski came, and it was very refreshing. I liked her. Didn’t love how they tried to make her a copy of McCoy. But she was light years better than “pretty face” Crusher and I just knew she could grow into something really great over time. Never happened. Fast Forward to the third season. Crusher was back…the fact that she had been in charge of Starfleet Medicial was a joke and the next 5 years of TNG was a chore…drudging through week after week of pretentous pontificating, unsatisfying techno-babbled stories practically devoid of humor or action adventure…always looking for the next Yesterday” Enterprise yet alwayws coming back from the well empty handed. Sadly those great stories, Like The Inner Light and Yesterday’s Enterprise were the exception to the rule and were few and far between. TNG had a lot of faults, and IMO, Crusher was one of the big ones.

Well, I can’t forgive Playmates toys for not creating an accurate action figure of Pulaski. ;) Other than that, I remember being shocked when I learned that Gates McFadden was let go after Season 1, but when I heard ST veteran Diana Muldaur was stepping into the CMO role, my spirits were lifted. Yes, Pulaski was a “Bones clone.” She was mean to Data. She interrupted Picard. She basically shook up the Enterprise-D in Season 2. But I never disliked her. She absolutely deserves another look.

I loved Pulaski. She was a refreshing addition and broke up the stiffness of the cast. Her performances were honest, direct and believable. (Not to mention, Diana is a better actress than Gates.) So disappointed when she left. (And the title of that piece- “least-loved?” MANY beg to differ.)

It’s a shame Pulaski is Star trek’s least loved doctor. She was far better the Crusher on TNG and the doctors from DS9, Voyager & Enterprise.
She had heart & soul plyed by an excellent actress.
Oh well, most Trekkies don’t know whats good any way.

For me, bringing Muldaur onto the series was an obvious attempt at trying to channel The Original Series McCoy/Spock dynamic. Lets face it, season 1 of TNG was sometimes a little lame and the writers were hinting at a possible “Captain not permitted” relationship with Dr Crusher. Even I, the consummate Trek apologist, found the everyone-getting-along-lets-sing-kumbaya-around-the-warp-core tiresome. I appreciated the attempt at shaking up the crew dynamic that adding Dr Pulaski provided. And Data was annoying in the beginning – I appreciated Pulaski giving him the smack down.
Season 3 TNG finally got all its thrusters firing and the show warped into greatness. Whether this would have happened or not by bringing Gates McFadden back or the show would have been different had Diana Muldaur remained is the stuff that Treknerds orgasm over.
As for the Dr Pulaski character, it would have been nice had they brought her back a time or two in subsequent seasons. (Maybe they did? Can someone help me out on this one? After 50 years, 5 series and 13 movies i’m finding it increasingly difficult to keep it all filed in my brain!)

Pulaski was an old sea hag compared to the beautiful Beverly Crusher. I do think that Diana Muldaur was working with very limited material, so I don’t really fault the actress. It’s no secret that the rest of the cast didn’t care for her and it seemed mutual. What really would have been interesting would have been to have Pulaski and Beverly Crusher interact at some point. Two brilliant women that probably would have brough out each others strengths and play off of each other. That was one character interaction that I always felt somehow cheated out of. Oh well… the books do some of it.

I have often thought that the script for ETHICS should have been reworked to have Dr. Russell be Dr. Pulaski.

“I have often thought that the script for ETHICS should have been reworked to have Dr. Russell be Dr. Pulaski.”

That’s a great idea. That would have elevated an otherwise dreary episode.

Agree… awesome idea, especially with the Worf save, since Pulaski and Worf kind of hit it off.

Kolrami was most definitely NOT played by David “Squiggy”Lander. That would be Roy Brocksmith. I love this podcast, but sometimes wonder if you guys even research what is being discussed to make such obvious errors.

I never liked Crusher — easily my least favorite character on TNG. I wonder how Pulaski would have evolved had she been around as the show came into its own in later seasons. Part of the reason we don’t like Pulaski is that she only appears in the very marginal second season.

Another point against Pulaski is the horrendous judgment she showed. In UNNATURAL SELECTION, she pooh-poohed any possibility that a pathogen could get loose on the Big E. In THE CHILD, she kept insisting “it’s just a baby” when it was patently obvious that it was not, in fact, “just a baby.” Similar examples abound.

Dr. Pulaski was a breath of fresh air aboard the Enterprise. She was a more interesting character than Crusher and Muldaur was a much better actress than Gates. Shame on the rest of the cast for having treated her badly!

Thanks Brian, Kayla and Jared for the shout-out.

Lots of interesting comments in this one. The issue of Pulaski (and the way that Muldaur played her) being more of a real/gritty character, as opposed to one that always gets along with everyone, is kind of a subtle one. The way that Muldaur plays Pulaski, she doesn’t seem like she’s acting at all. Which is to say that she sells the character 100%. By contrast, there are quite a few times on TNG when you can see Gates MacFadden acting. I say this reluctantly, because I liked her character and her being on the show, but it’s true. Pulaski was kind of a love-to-hate character. She was obviously written to be unlikable—-being so obnoxiously rude to Data and so forth—-so, you don’t like her…and yet, you like having her there to look sideways at.

Another thing…I recall an interview—-I think it might’ve been on “Chaos on the Bridge”—-with some of the TNG and/or producers cast saying that Diana Muldaur expressed, while on TNG, that she expected her character to last only one season. Either it was because she saw how unlikable they were making her character (Dr. Pulaski), or because she wasn’t jibing with the rest of the cast.

On an even more trivial note, I’ve always assumed that Dr. Pulaski’s name was inspired by the Pulaski Bridge, which connects Greenpoint, Brooklyn to Long Island City, Queens. Rick Berman grew up in NYC and I’m sure some of the other producers and/or writers did, as well.

Also I agree that Muldaur was great in TOS “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”.

And look at her here:

Very beautiful Lady.
At least she will always be part of the history of Star Trek.

“Also I agree that Muldaur was great in TOS “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”.”

True. I liked her role in “Return to Tomorrow” better, though.

I think one reason she gets the “least-loved” title is that she’s portrayed as a bit of a foil to Data, in an attempt to recreate the ‘Spock – Bones’ dynamic of TOS. But while she shared some traits with Dr. McCoy, Data is not Spock: Spock was able to handle himself, but Data was more child-like in his perspective and approach. To me, Pulaski always seemed ‘mean’ to Data, and Data didn’t really have the sharp wit to respond. (One of his lines – ‘are you able to turn off your ability to think, Doctor?’ – just seemed too mean-spirited to come from Data.)

That said, I was a big Muldaur fan from her two TOS episodes, and I think she was a good addition to the Big E. I liked her relationship with Worf & Riker, and it would have been nice to have more mentions or sightings of her. (She gets a shout-out in “Who Watches the Watchers”, but I think that was it, right?) Would have been cool to see her on the Enterprise in one of the alternate realities when Worf jumps dimensions in ‘Parallels’ or something.

I think Pulaski would have worked out better if they gave her character more of a sense of humor.

Although the Crusher family had great potential for storytelling, I always felt Dr. Pulaski’s character was stronger and more interesting. It would have been great to see her pop up in later seasons and spinoffs. (Pulaski does get an audible tip-of-the-hat in Voyager’s finale, when she’s paged at Tuvok’s medical facility.)

Fortunately, for those of us who wanted to see more of the character, check out the novel, Double Helix #2: Vectors, at The whole Double Helix collection is a fun romp through the various series, but Vectors is particularly interesting because it shows the Crusher-Pulaski handoff on the Enterprise, and then places Pulaski on Terok Nor in the pre-DS9 era. It’s great to see her interacting with DS9 personalities like Dukat — and using all her usual gumption in that environment.

Nice idea for an episode! I’ve come to appreciate Pulaski and Diana Muldaur’s portrayal of her over time – although didn’t care for her at first (as a kid).

What I did find interesting, and watched last year, is roughly a 2-hour long-form interview with Muldaur done in 2011 for the “TV Legends” series. Fascinating watch/listen for anyone wanting to know more about her.

Part 1 of 2 – 57 minutes:
Part 2 of 2 – 1 hour:

I should also add for anyone wanting to hear only the TNG discussion bit, the discussion starts in Part 2 of 2 in the above link from time index roughly 15:00 to roughly 24:30.

Where is the Star Trek Nemesis podcast?

Like Kayla I saw TNG season 2 as a kid, but I watched it as it aired. But like Brian I appreciated the new dynamic Pulaski brought to the show. Her abrasiveness never bothered me. She was a rich, well developed character.

What occurred to me listening to this episode of the Shuttlepod is that the season 2 writers really put in effort to develop Pulaski as a character. She had multiple layers and complexity (giving her fans and non-fans plenty of ammunition either way). She was given major connections with multiple characters (to Data, to Picard, to Riker) unlike most characters who just have one connection with one other character. Crucially, she had a Point of View, an ideology, which whether you agree or disagree, always meant that when she spoke up it would be interesting. She also had a character arc where her relationship with the crew, especially Data, changed over the season. Im going to go out on a limb and say that Pulaski was given more character development in her single season that Geordie, Crusher or Troi were in 7 seasons. They HAD to make her a rich character because she was joining a cast that already had nearly 30 episodes under their belts. But in retrospect it is sad that the writers did not do for all the other regulars what they did for Pulaski. On TNG characters were given entire episodes that centered on them, but that is not the same thing as character development. So here is a suggestion for a Shuttlepod episode: success and failures of characterization for the seven TNG regulars; how do we define strong characterization on Trek, and how does the TNG crew stack up against that standard?

I wish she’d stayed on for the rest of the series and Beverly had never come back.

She was a far better character and actress than Crusher