As initial warning, most of this post contains an episode spoiler for part of Season 5 of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Ah. Star Trek.
I’ve never been much of a Trekkie. Star Wars was always more my thing, though frankly I didn’t understand why they couldn’t cohabitate. It’s like the whole thing between Mac and PC – just let people use whatever they want to use. Why does it need to be some facile battle for a misguided sense of superiority of one over the other?
Anyway. That aside, I’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek recently. A lot. I was originally only particularly fond of Voyager. Events over the last couple of years have prompted me to expand that considerably.
Now I’ve watched Voyager, Deep Space Nine and Enterprise in their totality. I’ve watched a handful of episodes from The Original Series. I’ve seen some of the films – First Contact, as well as the ‘Kelvin Timeline’ movies, Star Trek, Into Darkness and Beyond. I’m keeping up with (and I genuinely enjoy) the new Discovery series. Yes, even the first season. Even the Klingon redesign. Don’t bother trying to ‘at’ me, I’m not going to bother fighting about it.
I’m honestly not sure if I can stomach The Original Series. I might give it another go after this.
Most recently I’ve been binge-watching The Next Generation on Netflix. I’m up to Season 5 and although I find some of it a bit of a struggle, there are some genuine gems in there and I certainly get why people want to give the franchise their loyalty.
But this blog entry is about a very specific episode, one that charmed and horrified me in equal measure. It spoke to me, resonated with me, pleased me and upset me all at once, as excellent writing can.
Specifically, I’m talking about Season 5: Ep. 17 – The Outcast.
As noted above, this is not a spoiler-free post, so if you haven’t seen this episode and you want to avoid spoilers, this is the part where you stop reading. Anything below the next horizontal line may contain spoilers, so don’t blame me if you continue and don’t like that you’re reading spoilers.
!! Spoilers Ahead !!
The Outcast was written by Jeri Taylor, veteran and respected writer and producer within the Star Trek franchise, and the basic plot is as follows.
The U.S.S. Enterprise is giving assistance to a species called the J’naii, helping them to locate and recover a pair of their people from a shuttle that has gone missing in a particular sector of space. Once they get there, they don’t find anything, until they suddenly find something: a pocket of ‘null space’ (basically a tiny dimensional fold in space which appears invisible to sensors as all particles either get bent around it or sucked into it). This is, of course, where the shuttle has gone.
Commander William T. Riker and his haircut are working with the J’naii, in particular one skilled pilot, Soren. They differ from Humans in several ways but the most important is that they have no genders.
Soren is curious about genders. Riker is kind of adorably awkward about it. Several of the conversations involve talk about sexual characteristics and mating practices, and are by necessity somewhat vague. Humans, according to Riker mate by the male inseminating the female and the female carrying the child – accurate, but sanitised. The J’naii, by contrast, have a long mating ritual which ends with the genderless parents each inseminating a husk (however that works). Both ways are apparently pleasurable.
Pronouns are brought up, and Riker finds difficulty with the idea of calling the J’naii ‘it’ as it seems rude. Soren says the J’naii have a neutral pronoun but it doesn’t translate well. No mention of singular ‘they’ is made.
As things ramp up, Soren confesses an attraction to Riker (and presumably also his hair). Only Riker is surprised by this. Additionally, Soren also identifies as female, and has since she was very young. This is not only a known phenomenon on her world, it is also forbidden as a criminal perversion. She relates an instance of a child in her class when she was young being found to identify as male, and he was mercilessy teased, bullied and injured by the other kids until being taken away and having ‘psychotectic therapy’ to remove his gender identity completely. As a result of this taboo, Soren has had to live her life with this secret hanging over her, lying and deceiving just to remain safe.
Riker falls in love with her (she is pretty damn awesome, and Melinda Culea plays the part phenomenally well). Chances are reasonable that about half the audience does as well. The two save the J’naii from the null space pocket in a Starfleet standard-issue Dangerous Mission In Which They Almost Can’t Transport Back To The Ship But Do At The Last Second scene.
Later, the J’naii host the senior officers to a celebration. Riker is hanging around outside. Soren finds him, suggests they look at the flowers in the garden and sneak off for a snog. Because they’re in love. You know how people in love want to express their love. They do that. With kissing.
As they leave, however, Soren’s mentor Krite watches them go with shifty and suspicious eyes.
The next morning Riker goes to visit Soren’s quarters. Soren isn’t there but Krite is, telling him that she’s been arrested and he can’t do anything about it. He immediately beams down to the planet and storms into the trial (Soren has been put on trial for identifying as female). He tries to take the blame but Soren doesn’t let him.
What follows is a passionate and well-reasoned monologue that has to be one of the single best pieces of writing in Star Trek, a franchise which is well known for having some freakin’ doozies of good monologues (as well as some seriously bad ones). Soren insists that she and others like her are doing no harm. They love, worry, converse and otherwise live exactly the way other J’naii do. They identify with a gender from birth and are in no way perversions or unnatural.
Of course, the judge gives exactly no shits about this and sentences Soren to psychotactic therapy because she’s ‘sick’ and it’s their people’s duty to care for their sick.
Riker beams back to the Enterprise, stomps around furious for a while, then beams back down at night with Worf to try to save Soren.
However, they’re too late; the psychotactic therapy was done before it was scheduled. Soren has had her gender identity entirely erased, and with it all belief that even having a gender identity could be natural.
The Enterprise continues on its way, with Riker looking impassive, because he’s obviously heartbroken and has no way of fixing it.
Here’s an interesting thing. Apparently this episode was written to obliquely address the issue of homosexuality and the resultant homophobia. The traditional J’naii are a metaphor for the homophobic assholes who run society and decide that homosexuality is wrong because they’ve decided it’s icky, and hide behind both science and belief to cover their bigotry.
Soren, by contrast, is a metaphor for homosexual people who just want to live their lives and to be allowed – allowed, as if they should have to ask permission – to love whoever they want.
Psychotactic therapy, whether Jeri Taylor intended it or not, is a perfect analogy for ‘gay conversion therapy’ (with the exception that psychotactic therapy apparently results in its victims being content, as opposed to miserable and horribly traumatised).
Now… Two things really hit me during this episode.
The first is that the show is, through nobody’s fault, very dated. If this story were written nowadays it would be very different – in particular, the language would be markedly changed. We know more about non-binary identities nowadays. The global dialogue has widened more and, with it, the language used to discuss these matters has evolved. So considering that the story is set in the 24th Century, the writers would most likely have Riker struggle a lot less with the concept of a genderless identity, if not an actual genderless species. The concepts would be far more familiar.
The second thing is that this story is, painfully obviously, absolutely applicable to the struggle we now face against gender identity deniers. We are under attack from bigots when all we want to do is live our lives, work our jobs, fall in love and all the normal, everyday things that the majority of the population take for granted.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s still applicable as a metaphor for homophobia. Humanity hasn’t evolved past that yet, not when people are still being ridiculed, mocked, beaten up, imprisoned and literally beheaded for daring to love someone with the same tackle as their own.
Worst of all, to me, was the violation visited upon poor Soren. She had a fundamental part of her identity torn away by a hateful society who expected her to be grateful for that act of violence. Hell, they even altered her mind to make sure she agreed with them. They literally took away her free will. Not just her right to love whoever she wanted and to identify however she felt, but the very right to have an opinion about what had been done to her.
If this concept doesn’t utterly horrify people, I’m not sure what they’re missing. Yes, I know it’s fiction – but as a metaphor it’s really not at all far from truth.
The Outcast does not have a happy ending. And it’s one of the best Star Trek episodes I’ve ever watched.