STNG: A Re-evaluation of Dr. Pulaski

Like a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation fans, the introduction of Dr. Katherine Pulaski (Diana Muldaur) in season 2, was an unexpected surprise that didn't go over well and other than maybe Wesley Crusher (sorry, Wil Wheaton), I always thought of her as my least-liked character.

I recently began re-watching the series on Paramount Plus and as I make my way through this infamous second season, I'm starting to realize maybe she isn't as bad of a character as I remember. If anything, the series' writers didn't do her justice.

For those of you not familiar with this series, Muldaur was added to the cast after Dr. Beverly Crusher actress Gates McFadden was fired at the end of the first season. McFadden/Dr. Crusher would return in season 3, in part because of Patrick Stewart (who played Capt. Picard) wanted her back and partially because Pulaski wasn't a fan favorite.

In many ways, Pulaski was actually a better character than Crusher was. She was an experienced chief medical officer who authored a groundbreaking paper on viruses and an experienced and talented surgeon. She also wasn't afraid to stand up to authority when needed and willing to risk her own life to save a patient and protect her ship. That would be the type of medical officer I would expect to see on the United Federation of Planets' flagship. Crusher, in comparison, seemed to just be there to be a love interest for Picard (at least up until this point in the series, STNG gave her more of a personality later).

I think why Pulaski is so poorly remembered has more to do with how her character was used than the character herself or Muldaur's performance. 

The problem, in my opinion, is the show didn't give Pulaski enough to do. While Crusher was often seen sitting next to Picard on the bridge or interacting with her son, Wesley, Pulaski's role was a lot more limited and, when she was on screen, her appearance usually featured her in a contentious tone, whether it was (rightfully) standing up to Picard over a medical matter or questioning Data's (Brent Spiner) limitations. Scenes showing her in a better light, like her participating in a tea ceremony with Worf (Michael Dorn) were few and far between, giving the audience little opportunity to build a connection with her or a chance for her to build chemistry with the rest of the cast.

To put this in some perspective, her character wasn't unlike Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) from the original Star Trek series, right down to her fear of using the transporter. If McCoy had been limited to the same types of scenes as Pulaski was, would he even be remembered in the same breath as Captain Kirk (William Shatner) or Spock (Leonard Nimoy) like he is today?

It also didn't help that the first season of the series committed a great deal of time and energy to building up the sexual tension between Crusher and Picard only to write off the former after a growing fanbase was becoming invested. This, coupled with the fact Muldaur was never listed in the credits as anything other than someone making a special appearance, ultimately gave Pulaski a temporary feel, even if the show's producers didn't originally intend to bring Crusher back.

As a result of all of this and the fact the character is once again fresh in my mind, I think fans give Dr. Pulaski unfair criticism. She wasn't a bad character nor was Dr. Crusher a better one. I think she was just a character (and actress) who was the victim of poor timing, a lack of investment by the writers and a lack of character development. In an alternate universe that gave her a fair shake, she might have been as well-liked as Crusher and maybe even McCoy.


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