TV - Whoopi Birthday

Whoopi Goldberg is 60 today! To celebrate, Susan Omand has a look back at a time when Whoopi tended bar...

When you think about Whoopi Goldberg you think about films don’t you? From her early film career in The Color Purple and Jumpin’ Jack Flash through the comedy gold of Sister Act and (yes, I’m going to say it) her sublime performance as Oda Mae Brown in Ghost. You may think of her stand up comedy routines or her presenting at the Oscars or her appearances as a guest star in various TV series, both comedy and drama. But for me there is one TV role that outshines all others when, in 1988, Whoopi Goldberg put on the first of a selection of wonderfully outlandish headwear and stepped behind the bar of Ten Forward on the Starship Enterprise in the second season of Star Trek The Next Generation.

Guinan, (named incidentally after a Prohibition bartender, Texas Guinan), is an El-Aurian, a long-lived people rendered homeless after the Borg invaded their planet. They are by nature “listeners” who are attentive to problems and wise with advice often acting as counsellors, all of which made Guinan an excellent bar owner. Brought on board the Enterprise at the personal request of Capt Picard with whom she has undisclosed history, it transpires through subsequent episodes, as well as a couple of the films, that she has also had previous dealings with Q, who doesn’t trust her, even more than he doesn’t trust anyone else (which is saying something). As the bartender she becomes the confidante of a majority of the crew, some of whom bear witness to the fact that, as Q says, she “is not what she appears to be” as she exhibits talents such as being a crack shot with an energy rifle or having telepathic and empathic powers.

I know Guinan was never a main character but her calmness and authority, as well as her mysterious and never quite explained background and relationships, made her pivotal to the crew so casting Whoopi Goldberg seemed to be a brave move. Goldberg had apparently approached Gene Roddenberry himself, on hearing that her friend LeVar Burton had been cast in a new Star Trek series, expressing a desire to play any character , even “sweeping the floor in the background” because of her childhood admiration of Lt Uhuru, played by Nichelle Nichols in the original Star trek series. Roddenberry and the rest of the producers thought that she was joking because she was, at the time, a huge film star and it took a large amount of convincing on her part to get the part of the bartender, which Roddenberry subsequently rewrote to suit her.

And the headwear? Part of Guinan’s identity and traditional dress as an El-Aurian and a subliminal analogy for the El-Aurians as being similar to the African tribes in their scattering and reintegration with other races. It’s time to put on a party hat today instead Ms Goldberg, as we wish you a happy birthday and many more to come.

Image - IMDb
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