TNG: "The Outcast"
Star Trek's flawed first attempt at an LGBT story
In 1992, Star Trek: The Next Generation featured an episode that was designed to finally explore LGBT issues through Star Trek's allegorical lens, something which had been virtually unexplored in all the seasons of Trek before. Well-intentioned as it was, "The Outcast" missed its mark and muddled its message, but in the process, managed to become something else that was ahead of its time.
By the fifth season of TNG, there had been no serious exploration of homosexuality on Star Trek – the only episode which had come close had been the previous season's "The Host," and this was a throwaway moment at the episode's end. This omission had become a source of controversy among many fans, who wrote letters to the showrunners demanding that the series finally address the issue and represent non-heterosexual relationships. It was finally decided that homosexuality would be addressed with a tried-and-tested Trek method, the allegorical alien society. Regular writer Jeri Taylor volunteered to write the script, which revolved round the J'naii, a species who have evolved to become completely genderless and androgynous. At least, that is how it appeared; when one of the J'naii, Soren, reveals they are attracted to Commander Riker, it becomes clear that some J'naii do ascribe to a gender and that they are shunned by their society for revealing it.
We learn only bits and pieces about the J'naii while the Enterprise visits their planet. We discover that they did indeed once have two distinct sexes, but evolved beyond that, and that they now consider gendered species primitive. Their mating process involves a long, complex ritual that ends with two J'naii implanting a "fibrous husk" in which the foetus then gestates. Doesn't sound like much of a party, but the J'naii seem to enjoy it, and it's clear that they do experience romantic feelings, merely without gender roles. We don't learn much about the way the loss of gender has influenced their society beyond that, but we do find out that it's the taller of a couple who leads a dance. The episode touches on gender discrimination in our own culture (not as extinct by the 24th century as Federation types would like to believe), and this is suitably baffling for the aliens.
The main point of the episode is the treatment of those J'naii who express a gender identity or sexual attraction. They are mocked, bullied and abhorred; charged with indecency and forced to undergo invasive treatment to neutralise their gender identity. The parallel with our society's treatment of gay people is obvious, but it gets muddled in the telling, and that's the fault of both the script and the production.
For a start, all the J'naii are played by female actors. This isn't a new thing for Trek or sci-fi in general, with women made up to look neutral used as a way to make an alien race appear a little off to viewers (Star Trek used this technique for the Talosians in its first produced episode, "The Cage"). This doesn't have the effect intended, though, and the impression is of a planet of women rather than a world of neuters. There's no discussion of J'naii genitals, thank god, but there's still a lot to question about whether the androgynous people really are biologically alike, or merely express themselves the same way. In any case, the concept of gender-neutrality is put across by robbing the J'naii of personality – they're mostly rather drab, emotionless people dressed in dull, uniform clothes. It's frustrating on two counts: J'naii looks like a world of gay women, not genderless people, and the assumption is that non-binary folk must have no interesting way of expressing themselves or their personality. In reality, non-binary and gender neutral people vary in appearance and expression as much as, if not more than, any other group of people.
Soren is played by Melinda Culea, and she shares some nice chemistry with Jonathan Frakes as Riker. Soren secretly identifies as a woman, but has kept this to herself out of fear what will happen, until she is exposed to the presence of gendered people on the Enterprise, and Riker in particular. Unfortunately, the overall effect isn't of Riker falling for a member of a neutral race and discovering that's she's actually female. It's more like Riker hanging out with someone from the planet of the lesbians and turning her with his mighty beard.
It would have been far more interesting and more powerful if Soren had been played by a man, and Riker had fallen for a woman who appeared masculine to the eyes of the viewer. This would have made the gay allegory clearer and avoided a lot of the above problems. Frakes, to his credit, said as much himself, and thought the showrunners missed a trick. Rick Berman is on record saying that "having Riker engaged in passionate kisses with a male actor might have been a little unpalatable to viewers." If you're too scared to show two men kissing, then why are you even trying to do an episode about homosexuality?
Notably, there's no mention of homosexuality in the episode. The idea that there might be sexual attraction between people who aren't of the opposite sex isn't even considered. While the allegory works on the level of how people with "unconventional" lifestyles and identities are treated by the majority, it fails to actually show homosexuality in a positive light, or any light at all.
However... in its own muddled way, "The Outcast" pushed the envelope for Star Trek at a very conservative time, and perhaps views better now than it did at the time. Discussion of gender identity were limited in western culture in the nineties, whereas now they're a hot topic that is generating much debate. Non-binary and transgender people are finally getting some representation in media, whereas fair portrayals of gender non-conforming people were beyond rare in TNG's time. "The Outcast" works better as an exploration of gender identity, with the J'naii largely as baffled by the gender binary as the Enterprise crew are by them. It's an alien society that could well be worth a revisit, offering a chance for non-binary actors to play J'naii, and to approach the subject with more understanding and sensitivity. If it were to happen, of course, the show would need to address that non-binary and genderless humans exist, and that genderless people can and do experience sexuality.
"The Outcast" was a noble attempt at an LGBT episode, but it didn't really work out. It could, however, act as a stepping stone to something better in the future.
This is part of a series of articles on LGBT subjects in sf media. If you enjoy it, please consider making a donation to MindOut or your preferred charity.