So remember back in the “The Host” essay when we were talking about clumsy, confused, poorly handled episodes that kind of make a big mess of gender and sexuality? I said there were three big ones that, due to their relentless terribleness or just general incompetence, singlehandedly saddle Star Trek: The Next Generation with a reputation for heteronormativity and homophobia, no matter how many admirable strides it manages to make elsewhere. The first was “Blood and Fire” (and by extension “The Naked Now”) and the second was “The Host”. “The Outcast” is the third.
Buckle in tightly, kids.
“The Outcast” is a story about a planet (of hats, natch) where there is no concept of gender. They view “dividing people into two genders” to be a retrograde and “primitive” notion and consider themselves more “enlightened” as a result (and Holy Goddamn Shit that’s a can of worms I’m not even going to go anywhere remotely near the ballpark of). Commander Riker gets involved (in more than one way) with one of their scientists, an individual named Soren. During their time with the Enterprise crew, Soren learns more about the human notion of gender and it influences culture, society and behaviour, especially when it comes to romance. Soren takes to Doctor Crusher in particular, viewing her as a model female because of her more traditionally femme aesthetic, and ultimately confesses to harbouring long-held strong feelings of being female too. Because identifying as either male or female is punishable by death in their society, Soren has explored her feminine side by engaging in romantic relationships with men in secret. Eventually, Riker and Captain Picard violate the Prime Directive again by criticising the gender laws and negotiating for Soren’s clemency.
It would be eminently understandable if, given the rough plot synopsis above, you would be considerably taken aback to learn what the creative team actually meant for this episode to be about. You see, the real doozy is when you find out that Rick Berman and writer Jeri Taylor considered “The Outcast” to be a strong “Issues” story about homosexuality and homophobic prejudice. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion, Rick Berman said
“We thought we had made a very positive statement about sexual prejudice in a distinctively Star Trek way, but we still got letters from those who thought it was just our way of ‘washing our hands’ of the homosexual situation.”
While in Star Trek: The Next Generation 365, Jeri Taylor said
“’The Outcast’ allowed us to explore the issue of sexual intolerance in a unique, offbeat way. I identify with the disenfranchised and the powerless of our world. So I really wanted to make a statement for tolerance, broad-mindedness and acceptance for those who are disenfranchised.”
And it’s at this point the wincing and cringing commences, because I don’t think there’s a single episode where the creative team is more ignorant, ill-informed, off-target and off-the-mark aboutanything than they are in this one. You would be entirely forgiven if, as a new viewer lacking in this context, you were to be flabbergasted by how utterly out-there and out-of-touch Berman and Taylor sound in the above quotes, as the actual extant text of “The Outcast” has essentially zero things to do with homosexuality or homophobia. The persecution Soren faces, first of all, is very explicitly about her gender identity, not her sexual orientation (more on that later), and furthermore actually seems to conflate the two through a deeply heteronormative lens.
There is simply no getting around the fact that Soren only begins to act on her feelings of dysphoria and take a stand against her oppression after she goes through a relationship with a straight white cis man. I know some homosexual people figure that part of themselves out as the result of an initial crush or romantic encounter, but it’s incredibly insulting and reductive to do a story like this implying that this is the only way that can happen. Likewise, it’s also a big issue that there are no secret men in J’naii society who are romantically involved with other men, or secret women involved with other women. In the episode about homosexuality. As is the fact that Star Trek: The Next Generation put Will Riker in a straight romantic relationship with a character coded as gay played by a woman.
Rick Berman said that last one was due to business reasons, that “…having Riker engaged in passionate kisses with a male actor might have been a little unpalatable to viewers”. But isn’t that the exact sort of close-minded bigotry and intolerance Berman claims this episode exists to combat? That’s cowardly, plain and simple: Your convictions and ethical positions are hollow and meaningless if you’re not prepared to stand by them and put your money where your mouth is when it really counts, and flipping off overly pragmatic and pandering studio executives or narrow-minded nerdboy audiences is precisely when it really counts. Star Trek is in a unique and powerful position among large-scale Soda Pop Art things to critique society and show a path forward, and it’s nothing short of squandering and irresponsible to not take full advantage of that. And it should be noted that Jonathan Frakes himself has publicly gone on the record to call this decision out numerous times, as well as the one to cast female actors as *all* the J’naii characters.
Then there’s the just straight-up overt sexism. I have no idea what possessed Taylor to turn Worf into such a flaming misogynist in this story, but boy is he ever, complaining about “women’s games” featuring “wild cards” and loudly proclaiming on several occasions that heteronormativity is the right and natural way of things. All this apparently from the same guy who “appreciates strong women”. I know Ron Moore turned Klingon society into an explicitly patriarchal one where women are second-class citizens and Worf apparently seemed to have a sitcom level understanding of women in a couple episodes, but those are the issues of other people, and one would have thought Taylor would have understood Worf’s unique position as an expatriot better. Doctor Crusher barely avoids falling into this too, as her discussion with Soren teeters dangerously on the brink of declaring that stereotypical western signifiers of masculinity and femininity are the sole arbiter of gender. Thankfully, the script gives her a line where she “can’t recall” a time when men and women weren’t considered equal, and Gates McFadden gives her usual exquisite touch to hedge against any infelicities.
I guess at least in Worf’s case you could make the, admittedly stretched beyond recognition, argument that this is his way of dealing with his confusion and embarrassment over potentially developing feelings for Deanna, because he’s a big dumb man who’s too prideful to come out and admit that, especially to himself. Maybe that’s what happened in “Ethics” too. But while that may be something one or two people on staff may have been able to relate to, that’s not how I like to read Worf and contradicts his behaviour as recent as last week’s episode. Speaking of weird things involving Deanna, there’s also that odd scene where Will asks her permission to get involved with another woman, as if he was still involved with her. I mean, he never has before. Neither has she, for that matter. Granted it would be a nice scene if, say, Will and Deanna were in a polyamourous relationship but, as I keep pointing out, they aren’t supposed to in any kind of a romantic relationship at this point, let alone a poly one.
Now after all that, you might be surprised to hear me say there is one way you could read this story that would turn its entire legacy 180 degrees. This redemptive reading does, however, require one to completely ignore everything absolutely everyone has ever said about “The Outcast”. Although it may well be a shockingly poor story about homosexuality and homophobia, by either divine providence, sheer dumb incompetence or some combination of the two, you can actually read it very convincingly as a halfway decent story about being transgender. Because that’s really what Soren is: She’s known she was female since she was very young, had to explore her identity her own way with no guidance, help or support in absolute secret and knows if this ever got out her life would be in extreme danger. Ironically, through their appalling ignorance about what it means to be homosexual, Rick Berman and Jeri Taylor have, completely accidentally, pegged what it’s like to be transgender pretty much bang on. Even more ironically, should you choose to read it this way, “The Outcast” goes from a washout to being even more admirably progressive than it was trying to be in the first place.
This is hard to do though, especially given Soren’s big speech at the end:
“I am female. I was born that way. I have had those feelings, those longings, all of my life. It is not unnatural. I am not sick because I feel this way. I do not need to be helped. I do not need to be cured. What I need, and what all of those who are like me need, is your understanding. And your compassion. We have not injured you in any way. And yet we are scorned and attacked. And all because we are different. What we do is no different from what you do. We talk and laugh. We complain about work. And we wonder about growing old. We talk about our families and we worry about the future. And we cry with each other when things seem hopeless. All of the loving things that you do with each other – that is what we do. And for that we are called misfits, and deviants and criminals. What right do you have to punish us? What right do you have to change us? What makes you think you can dictate how people love each other?”
It’s a lovely sentiment, to be sure, and the first few lines back up our redemptive transgender reading pretty strongly. But then it quickly swerves back into the obvious intentionality sphere, as the second half of that speech couldn’t be more about homosexuality and homophobia if it literally came right out and said it was. And again, not at all to take away from that intent: It’s obviously correct and something certain kinds of people are still grappling with to this day. But it makes my job more difficult and frustrating given how poor everything else about this episode is.
(Indeed the only other thing noteworthy about “The Outcast” is that it’s also famous for introducing the life-size model of the Type 6 shuttlecraft that will be used throughout the rest of the series. It’s not the first time we’ve seen the ship itself, which debuted in “Darmok”, but this is the first time we got to see the full set for the little craft. Galoob had a Type 6 miniature as part of its Micro Machines starships line and described it “as seen in the episode ‘The Outcast’”. Although Galoob’s model was very appropriately named the Berman, the actual shuttle in this episode is the Magellan. The Berman shows up *next* week. Either way, the Type 6 is an iconic ship for me regardless of “The Outcast”, and got two miniature playset vehicles based on it from Playmates.)
As much as this might redeem, however, I still don’t think even that’s quite enough to salvage this one. Let’s be perfectly honest: Even in the kindest of lights, this is no “Love is Everything. Risk Your Life to Elope!”. It doesn’t even come anywhere near the same county, let alone the same ballpark. Even if you do grant the transgender reading, you’ve still got the script conflating sexual orientation with gender identity, and it’s still an enormous problem that Soren only starts to act after falling for Will Riker. Actually, it’s even more of a crippling problem in this case, because a person’s internal sense of gender has even less to do with romantic relationships than their sexual identity does. You could argue that this kind of sloppy handling of gender and sexuality might have been fair and progressive for 1992 and that I should be kinder to Star Trek: The Next Generation for dipping its feet in waters we’re only beginning to fully understand now, but I maintain that it’s telling Star Trek: The Next Generation is still finding itself outclassed by the now seven year old Dirty Pair TV show.