Creating Lieutenant Ilia

Persis Khambatta
Persis Khambatta on the set of The Motion Picture (The Propstop)

Gene Roddenberry created the character of Ilia for the aborted second Star Trek television series Phase II. The show’s 1977 bible described the young navigator as “breathtakingly beautiful” and second in intelligence only to the ship’s Vulcan science officer. (Leonard Nimoy hadn’t been interested in reprising his role as Spock for television but was persuaded to return for The Motion Picture.)

Her smooth, slender bare head has the almost sensually quality of delicately contoured nudity, always hidden before in other women. It gives her a striking, almost “Egyptian” look, particularly when wearing a Deltan jewel-band head ornament.

The Deltans set up an interesting contrast with the Vulcans. They could not mind meld but rather sense the emotions and thoughts of others in the form of images. Whereas the Vulcans repressed their feelings, Deltans were extremely sensual:

On 114-Delta V, almost everything in life is sex-oriented; it is a part of every friendship, every social engagement, every profession. It is simply the normal way to relate with others there.

This is the origin of the “oath of celibacy” Ilia had to take before joining Starfleet.

Costume designer Bob Fletcher borrowed heavily from the Phase II bible in his own notes for The Motion Picture, which he shared with Fantastic Films and Starlog magazines in early 1980. (Links point to scanned version of the interviews by My Star Trek Scrapbook.) He described the Deltans as “poised, proud, somewhat aloof, but with a keen sense of humor.”

Achieved Earth’s technology 100 centuries ago, but then turned away from the materialism of technology toward the richer rewards of self-realization. Have learned to live each moment of life to the fullest. Unlike the Vulcans, they value and delight in emotion. A sensual race, their senses are far more sensitive than humans.

Fletcher suggested the reason Deltans make such excellent navigators is that their highly evolved intelligence can “handle the most complex spherical trigonometric complexities of space navigation as easily as a human learns simple multiplication tables.”

He also described the Deltans as great jewelry makers:

Their jewelry is sold throughout the galaxy and is very popular.

In several of the costume and makeup tests that were shot for what was then still Phase II, Persis Khambatta, the Indian actress who had been cast in the role of Ilia, can be seen wearing various pieces of jewelry.

Khambatta told Star Trek Communicator in an interview that was published in December 1998 — four months after her death from a heart attack at the age of 49 — that hundreds of actresses had tested for the role:

There were a lot of women with hair that looked really stunning, but when you remove the hair they somehow lose the look. Basically, they had asked me if I would shave my head or wear a bald cap. I said look, if you are doing a series for five years I would want to shave my hair because I would go bald with all the gum and glue from the bald cap. Besides, a bald cap would have never looked real.

She told People magazine in January 1980 (My Star Trek Scrapbook has the original version, with pictures) that she seldom wore wigs or hats during production. “I thought I was very pretty without hair,” but — “some people must have thought I was an exhibitionist or religious fanatic.”

Khambatta’s skimpy outfit as the V’Ger-controlled Ilia probe was the actress’ idea.

“I was supposed to wear one of those same grey uniforms,” she told Star Trek Communicator.

[B]eing bald and wearing that grey starship uniform, I would have looked like a boy. I wanted to look like a sexy female.

Persis Khambatta, William Shatner and George Takei
Publicity photo of Persis Khambatta, William Shatner and George Takei (Trekcore)

Khambatta’s unique look was an ubiquitous part of the movie’s advertising campaign. Film critic Jordan Hoffman writes for the official Star Trek website that back in 1979, a woman with no hair was still quite a shocker:

Indeed, Khambatta’s real-life head-shave was enough of a news item that it was filmed for promotional purposes.

Desperate their elaborate backstory, Deltans were seldom seen in Star Trek again. But they were reinvented. The Next Generation introduced the empathetic Betazoids, which were based on the Deltans. The character of Deanna Troi, and her history with First Officer Will Riker, was based on Ilia and her relationship with Will Decker.


It was always a shame that the Deltans were not used in subsequent productions of Trek (big screen or small).

lestatdelc (Aug 16, 2019)

Thank you for this insightful report on this pivotal actor/actress (politically correct wasn’t “in” then) to the Trek universe and her character’s link to Star Trek: The Next Generation. The movie demonstrated some of our frst concerns over AI and is still relevant today. Her dedication to her role and her craft was important. May Pariss Khambatta NEVER be forgotten!

Carmen L Burnett (Sep 7, 2021)

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