Remembering the ‘First Lady of Star Trek’ Whose Voice Paved the Way for Alexa and Siri

Majel Barrett-Roddenberry would have been 90 this year — and she’s featured in a current museum exhibition.
Majel Barrett-Roddenberry on "Star Trek."
Majel Barrett-Roddenberry as Nurse Christine Chapel on "Star Trek."

“And now the conclusion…”

For “Star Trek” fans during the ‘90s, there were no more thrilling words than those at the end of a “previously on” sizzle reel. They promised the epic second installment of a two-part episode to come, whether on “The Next Generation,” “Deep Space Nine,” or “Voyager.” The woman who said those words was not just the “voice” of “Star Trek” but its “First Lady”: Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, the wife of franchise creator Gene Roddenberry, and an omnipresent part of the series herself.

Barrett, who died in 2008, would have turned 90 this year, and she’s currently being featured in the exhibition “Gene Roddenberry: Sci-Fi Visionary” at the San Diego Comic-Con Museum through June 9. The flamboyant costumes of one of her later “Trek” characters, Lwaxana Troi, all frills and folds of flowing fabric, are there. Two of the characters she originated are also returning to the small screen May 5 with “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” on Paramount+. But Barrett-Roddenberry’s legacy goes even deeper: She helped inspire personal voice assistant technology, with Amazon even code-naming the project that eventually became Alexa as “Majel.”

It’s quite a legacy for a woman who wasn’t even allowed to portray the empowered character she had intended to play on the original “Star Trek.”

In the ‘60s series’ pilot episode, titled “The Cage,” the actress played Number One, the executive officer and second-in-command of the Enterprise under Jeffrey Hunter’s Capt. Christopher Pike. NBC rejected that pilot in February 1965 and singled out Number One specifically.

“They thought a woman as second in command wouldn’t really be believable, I guess, at the time, or at least accepted by a general audience,” Barrett-Roddenberry’s son Rod Roddenberry said in an interview with IndieWire. But the network did allow her to assume a different role altogether, one which didn’t shake up ‘60s gender roles: as Nurse Christine Chapel. (Number One and Nurse Chapel, now played by Rebecca Romijn and Jess Bush respectively, will both be on “Strange New Worlds.”)

“That was a huge disappointment for her,” Roddenberry said, noting that NBC also hated Leonard Nimoy’s (eventually iconic) character Spock. “My father had a cute little story that he would say, and he’d say it mostly in jest, but he said that he fought to keep the Vulcan, and married the woman. A little chauvinistic at the time, but that’s the era of that style of humor, I guess.” Barrett married Roddenberry in 1969 after “The Original Series” had wrapped.

Majel Roddenberry Photo: W/ GR
Barrett-Roddenberry with her husband, Gene.

Gene Roddenberry actually found another role his future wife could occupy on the show, as well, one she’d continue and refine on other iterations of “Star Trek” for the next four decades: as the voice of the ship’s computer, which always responds to crewmembers’ verbal commands. “Computer, analyze rate of dilithium decay,” Scotty might ask. And Barrett’s voice would reply as the computer. ”I’m assuming since my father took the role away from her of being Number One, second in command, he did everything he could to give her as many parts as possible to keep her happy,” Rod Roddenberry said. “That’s speculation on my part.”

On the ‘60s show, she played the computer as strictly stilted and robotic, with a higher pitch than she’d give the computer voices on the later series. By “The Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine,” as Barrett-Roddenberry had aged, her voice had deepened a bit, but her cadence is more relaxed, like a personal voice assistant instead of just “an electronic brain.”

Barrett-Roddenberry, who was born in Cleveland in 1932, had a slightly Old Hollywood sing-song to her voice, often occupying lower registers but with the ability to go quite high. “Warning: warp core breach in four minutes!” If you’re a “Star Trek” fan that’s got to be burned into your brain. Rarely has inexpressiveness been so expressive, a machine so human. As the various series went on, the writers threw in humorous moments for the computer: “There are 14 varieties of tomato soup available from this replicator,” proceeding to name them all.

In a franchise with iconic images galore — Spock’s pointy ears, those boxy tricorders, that delta logo — it wasn’t something visual that defined Barrett-Roddenberry. It was sound. Her sound.

Rod Roddenberry with his mother in the 1990s.

“She and I talked about how iconic her voice was,” her son said. “And how it should one day be the voice of everything automated on this planet. Anytime you call something or go to an ATM or whatever it is, it really should be her voice. So we got a professional audio crew in and we recorded her voice. And what we attempted to do was to get everything phonetically from her, as well as some key ‘Star Trek’ phrases. And we did all that with the idea that we would approach a technology company, because what had happened is that when Amazon and Google and Apple and those guys were starting to come out with Alexa and Siri, or the precursors to those ideas, they actually approached her to do that. And for whatever reason, she turned it down at the time.”

“Since then, it’s been about 15 years. We did talk to Google about trying to do something with the technology, but we had some gaps. We didn’t capture everything phonetically. And they suggested maybe a voice actor to come in and fill that in. And I just didn’t feel that was authentic enough.”

Barrett-Roddenberry used her voice in another way too: After her husband’s death in 1991, the Roddenberry estate was in disarray as there were disputes to Gene’s will. The family bank accounts were frozen. So she ramped up her appearances at “Star Trek” conventions and brought out her husband’s old speeches he’d give on the college lecture circuit when trying to keep “Star Trek” in the public eye after the cancellation of the “Original Series.” And she’d “modernize” them as she saw fit, just as you can see the handwritten notes she made on an original script of “The Cage” at the San Diego Comic-Con Museum exhibit.

“She went out doing this to make money, to keep me in college and to pay the bills,” Roddenberry said. “We weren’t destitute, living on the streets, still a beautiful home in a very nice area. But again, accounts were frozen, money still had to come in to pay the bills. So she didn’t complain about it. She rolled up her sleeves and she did what had to be done. And that is what blew me away. She never asked for anyone to thank her, she just did it, and she did it because she loved my father, she loved me. And to be honest, she loved the fans. And she would make eye contact with people, and talk to them, and listen to their questions. She knew that these were the people that saved ‘Star Trek.’ She knew this is what kept ‘Star Trek’ alive. And she never forgot that.”

STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, (from left): Marina Sirtis, Majel Barrett, (Season 1), 1987-94. ©Paramount Television / courtesy Everett Collection
Barrett-Roddenberry played Lwaxana Troi, the mother of Marina Sirtis’s character, on “The Next Generation.” Because they were “siblings” Sirtis would call Rod “bro” when he was a teenager.©Paramount Television/Courtesy Everett Collection

Barrett-Roddenberry took up the mantle of her husband’s legacy and preached the gospel he spread through “Star Trek”: that a better future could be possible through IDIC, “infinite diversity in infinite combinations.” The last “Star Trek” audio she recorded as the ship’s computer was for J.J. Abrams’ 2009 “Star Trek” film a few days before she died.

You can see why Rod Roddenberry wants the voice of his not just “strong” but “over the top strong” mother to be everywhere. But it’s because he wants her voice to be everywhere that he’s skeptical of partnering with any one company.

“I don’t want just AT&T to own this voice and have it, or just Alexa to have this. I would like, anytime there’s an automated system, for them to go online to this public resource, download her phonetic files, and then implement it.”

There’s also a question of, is this Barrett-Roddenberry’s voice or is it the voice of “Star Trek” and CBS/Paramount? That legal question alone makes her son’s dream more difficult to realize. But it doesn’t deny that her voice set the stage for the technological revolutions of the past couple decades, just as “Star Trek” also helped inspire cell phones and tablet computing.

Barrett-Roddenberry’s voice echoes in the heads of every “Star Trek” fan… and on into the future.

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