Where No Ma'am Has Gone

updated 01/30/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/30/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

RED ALERT! A FEDERATION STARship is (yet again) careening out of control, under attack by (yet another) alien force and, yes, we're in for the usual mess: Sparks! Screams! Starfleet officers sprawled on the bridge! Fortunately, actress Kate Mulgrew has done her homework. "Reset I.D.F. thrusters at three-zero-zero," she shouts in her role as Kathryn Jane way, captain of the USS Voyager. "Reinitialize!" A nanosecond or so later the ship stabilizes. Cut. Print it.

So far, so good for Mulgrew, 39, whose gimlet-eyed turn as Captain Janeway on TV's Star Trek: Voyager is light-years away from her first prime-time star trek as Kate Columbo, the sleuthing spouse of, yes, that Columbo, in a short-lived 1979 spinoff.

Last week, with the long-awaited debut of Voyager, the third series to be spun off from the original '60s Trek—and the first to feature a woman in command—Mulgrew boldly goes where Patrick Stewart and William Shatner (Captains Picard and Kirk) have not quite gone before. Captain Janeway must take her ship and a companion crew of intergalactic rebels through a distant, uncharted realm of the galaxy back to Earth. Even more daunting, perhaps, is all that Trekkian technobabble Mulgrew must convincingly speak.

Which is why, between scenes on the Paramount lot in L.A., Mulgrew can usually be found in her trailer, poring over the Star Trek Encyclopaedia. "When I'm barking out lines about transporter beams and plasma fields," she explains, "I have to understand it."

Executive producer Rick Berman has no doubt that she will. "Kate is the personification of grace under pressure," he says. "We needed somebody who brought a sense of command and dignity to the role but also the nurturing qualities of a woman. I can't see doing Voyager with anyone else."

He could, initially, of course. Although Mulgrew thought she'd aced her audition last summer, the part of Janeway went to actress Genevieve Bujold. Then, on Sept. 8, after only her second day at the helm, Bujold walked off the show. As a source on the set put it, "The rigors of episodic television were too much for her." (Bujold declined to comment.)

But you won't find her replacement grousing about the grueling hours. On the contrary, says Mulgrew, a divorced mother of two sons who has returned to TV after a career dry spell: "I'm grateful for the sheer, unadulterated work. Because when I'm not able to act, I feel really deprived. At 39," she adds, "I feel my dream is finally coming to fruition."

That dream began at age 12, when Mulgrew—a native of Dubuque, Iowa, and the eldest daughter of eight children of Thomas Mulgrew, a contractor, and his artist wife, Joan—gave a stirring school recitation of Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach." "Kate was very passionate," says Joan. "I expected her perhaps to be a doctor or a lawyer." When Kate announced that she wanted to be an actor, "My mother handed me the dictionary," she recalls, "and underlined the word discipline. Then she bought me some Shakespeare. She said, 'After one year, if you're still serious, we'll play ball.' "

They played: Mulgrew took acting classes and, after graduating from Wahlert High School in 1973, enrolled at New York University to study drama. But she dropped out after her sophomore year when she landed the role of headstrong Mary Ryan on the ABC soap Ryan's Hope in 1975. Four years later, she was playing Mrs. Columbo. Then, while doing a play in Seattle, she fell in love with her director, Robert Egan. The couple wed in 1982, settled in L.A., and had two sons, Ian, now 11, and Alexander, 10. Mulgrew took a three-year hiatus to raise them. However, she says, "I never wanted to be a full-time mom."

She returned to acting, but a few years ago, the roles began evaporating. Partly it was a case of Mulgrew's turning down offers she deemed "mediocre." Also, she admits, "there were a lot of rejections."

And plenty of heartache at home. Her marriage to Egan dissolved in 1993 for reasons Mulgrew prefers not to discuss. Then Captain Janeway changed her life. "There were three other actresses there," she says of her post-Bujold callback last September. "But I knew they were not Janeway. I was." Her new castmates agreed. A week later, Mulgrew's first day on the set, all hands on the Voyager bridge rose in unison and quietly stood at attention. "I felt there was no way I was going to let these people down," she says.

Commanding a starship is easy, though, compared to teaching her son Alexander math. Now there's a challenge. "Mom," he says, hunched over his bedroom desk, doing homework, "I remember you saying something about multiple numbers floating out in space."

Mulgrew, whose mind has lately been filled with thoughts of deflector shields, warp engines and other esoterica from the Trek Encyclopaedia, smiles at her son. "Oh, sweetheart," she says, "that's just calculus."

BETSY ISRAEL
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles

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