One Trek Mind: Celebrating Persis Khambatta
By Jordan Hoffman - October 02, 2013
At every Las Vegas Star Trek convention I've been to there's always one woman (the same woman?) who goes for broke, shaves her head and knocks 'em all dead as Lt. Ilia. This week would have marked the 65th birthday of the Indian actress and model who played her, Persis Khambatta. As a tribute, here are some things you should know about Khambatta, Lt. Ilia and her Deltan species.
Persis Khambatta's unique look was a ubiquitous part of Star Trek: The Motion Picture's advertising campaign. 1979 was a long time ago, and a woman with no hair was still quite a shocker. (The kids today with their neo-post-punk rock wouldn't understand!) Indeed, Khambatta's real-life head-shave was enough of a news item that it was filmed for promotional purposes. (If you are cruel enough to want to watch a woman cry, you can check out the video HERE, which is set to Jerry Goldsmith's score.)
With her big-budget debut in ST:TMP, Khambatta rode quite a wave as she entered Hollywood. She was already a very successful model (and former Miss India) and had appeared in some British films. Take a second look at the teaser trailer for the film HERE and listen to the way Orson Welles lowers his voice as he says her name. (Yes, that's Orson Welles doing the voice over, not an Orson Welles impersonator.) It's as if he's saying “this name, this name here is something special.”
After ST:TMP, she became the first Indian actress to serve as a presenter at the Academy Awards. She then landed another high-profile role with the gritty New York cop thriller Nighthawks with Sylvester Stallone. Then, the ion storm of fate blew in a different direction. She stopped landing the top gigs (appearing in such notable clunkers as Megaforce; click HERE for a video to forget) and, sadly, died at the young age of 49.
In ST:TMP, Lt. Ilia was the Enterprise's new navigator. (Chekov had by now been promoted to tactical officer/security chief.) Her Deltan species was part of the early plans for Star Trek: Phase II, the proposed television series that eventually morphed into The Motion Picture. A lot of the backstory Gene Roddenberry had planned for her (which surfaced in his novelization of the film and in various “making of” books) is quite fascinating. But, to be honest, not all of this is evident in the final cut of the film.
Indeed, one of the stranger moments in TMP is when Lt. Ilia first arrives on the bridge and, after it is implied that she and Commander Decker have a past history, she blurts out that her “oath of celibacy is on record.” This odd comment (which might be interpreted to imply that no intimacy is allowed aboard a Federation starship – something which is very much not the case) is actually due to the fact that Deltans are meant to have highly advanced senses, and this includes a sexual manifestation.
In other words, they don't just hear music, they HEAR MUSIC and they don't just engage in physical acts of love, they do it in a way that we mere Earthers could never understand. So much so that hookin' up with a Deltan could actually DRIVE SOMEONE INSANE.
Here's something funny, though. While there were follow-up lines that gave some context to Ilia's statement in the original script, they were cut out of the finished film. But the (predominantly young) readers of Marvel's official comic version got to learn more about interplanetary prurience. See below:
That's right, something that was considered too blue for the movie still made its way into the funnybook. Maybe Frederic Wertham was right!
Other Deltan facts – and you can glean this from the film if you watch closely. They have a healing touch (note how Ilia comforts a burned Chekov before the medics get there) and a little bit of ESP.
A good percentage of Khambatta's screen time in the film is actually not as Lt. Ilia, but as a projected manifestation of V'Ger in Ilia's body. (But, with Ilia's memories intact – it's not like V'Ger is needlessly cruel!”) This is sad for those of us who are #TeamIlia (which, granted, may just be that one woman who dresses as her at the con each year), but it does give us the opportunity to hear Persis Khambatta's voice put through some sort of electro-warbling effect. I particularly like the part when everyone is on the bridge, they are making their way through the nebula, she raises her arm, points and robotically announces “V'Ger.” (It's the little things with me.)
While Ilia (and Decker) conclude the film by zipping off to V'gerville, Ilia still made some brief appearances in non-V'Ger form in some of the early newspaper comics. Methinks somebody didn't get the memo.
Deltans never got much play after the first film. Yeah, they show up here in there in the books and games and you can spot them in the background of some other films, but the cool stuff created in the Phase II story bible never got that much attention on the center stage. Or. . .did it?
Turns out that The Next Generation's Betazoids, including our beloved Deanna Troi, were adapted from the original concept of the Deltans. In addition to both being named for Greek letters, they had capabilities of extra sensory perception. And then there's the delight in the senses. The TNG writers pushed the sexual angle as far as they could go (and more for a laugh with Lwaxana than with Deanna), but maybe now you'll understand why the ship's counselor enjoys chocolate sundaes so much.
Do you recall how you felt when you first saw Persis Khambatta as Lt. Ilia? Please share you memories below.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, ScreenCrush and Badass Digest. On his BLOG, Jordan has reviewed all 727 Trek episodes and films, most of the comics and some of the novels.
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