Star Trek fans and the creative community lost a diverse and talented artist when Catherine E. Coulson passed away on September 28, 2015, at age 71. Catherine was a proverbial jack-of-all-trades (literally – she belonged to several creative trade unions at the same time). She was a stage and screen actress, most famous for her role as the “Log Lady” in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and for her work in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. She was a producer and director, and a frequent collaborator with Lynch. Of all her creative roles, it was her behind-the-scenes work with the camera crews of Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan where she would make an indelible mark on Star Trek.
In what is largely believed to be a first for women working on a major Hollywood studio production – and a real life example of the merit-based society that Star Trek promises for the future - Catherine broke new ground with her role as the First Assistant Camera for TWOK. The behind-the-scenes talent behind the film deserves a lion's share of the credit for the success of TWOK in addition to the honest, emotional performances of the actors. A majority of the film occurs on a single set – the bridge of the Enterprise, which doubled for the bridge of Reliant – and yet, brilliantly, that re-use limitation does not impair the film’s scope or quality because of the talented set designers, lighting crews, direction, cinematography, and camera work that makes the film’s budget and environments seem bigger and more mythological. Catherine played a major role in that creative process, working closely with writer/director Meyer, director of photographer Gayne Rescher, camera operator Craig Denault, and the entire camera crew to shape the feel and look of the film. To capture the stunts and practical effects, there were at times four or five cameras that Catherine was responsible for coordinating.
Catherine embraced her role as a pioneer behind the camera and brought with her a wit, sense of humor, and a charm that helped make the films she worked on – be they low-budget independent productions or major motion pictures – all the better because of her involvement. In interviews with her, her respect for colleagues like Nicholas Meyer and Gayne Rescher is evident. Her enthusiasm for her work is on display in quote from an interview she granted Kenneth George Godwin for Cinefantastique conducted at the time of TWOK’s production, on December 12, 1981, and which is available on Cageyfilms.com. Catherine said of TWOK: “They decided to make another one (STAR TREK) and this time they got a very good script and they found a wonderful young director named Nicholas Meyer." And, "It’s still kind of fun to be spending all this time on a spaceship.” She could not know at the time that her work on that film would be appreciated more than 30 years later or that she was helping to create one of the films that became a benchmark by which all Hollywood sequels are measured. Catherine enjoyed that she was able to wear several hats on the film, pitching in to help whenever and wherever she could on the films she helped make.
In the more than 800 images we have been privileged to study from the Papers of Nicholas Meyer Collection at the University of Iowa Libraries, we are struck by how many have Catherine in them, sometimes in the forefront and sometimes in the background, yet always contributing, always a constant presence on set.
To celebrate her legacy on screen and off, and her special place in Star Trek history, these are images of Catherine – some never before made available - working on the sets of The Wrath of Khan, courtesy of Nicholas Meyer, and his collection at the University of Iowa.
Of Catherine, Nicholas Meyer says, “Catherine was an absolute delight. The world is a smaller place without her.”
Special thanks to: Nicholas Meyer and The University of Iowa Libraries
Resources: Cageyfilms.com and Obnoxious and Anonymous YouTube channel both have detailed interviews with Catherine E. Coulson
Maria Jose and John Tenuto are both sociology professors at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois, specializing in popular culture and subculture studies. The Tenutos have conducted extensive research on the history of Star Trek, and have presented at venues such as Creation Conventions and the St. Louis Science Center. They have written for the official Star Trek Magazine and their extensive collection of Star Trek items has been featured in SFX Magazine. Their theory about the “20-Year Nostalgia Cycle” and research on Star Trek fans has been featured on WGN News, BBC Radio, and in the documentary The Force Among Us. They recently researched all known paperwork from the making of the classic episode "Space Seed" and are excited to be sharing some previously unreported information about Khan's first adventure with fellow fans. Contact the Tenutos at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.