Less organic intellectuals than morbid symptoms

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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.


  1. Dustin
    July 26, 2015 @ 11:30 pm

    Do we have any record of contemporary responses to the episode by gay and trans TNG fans? How did LGBT viewers, whom the episode purports to address, interpret it in 1992?

    Conflating sexual orientation and gender identity is something that people still do. But In 1992, being transgendered was, basically, a cultural joke. There's more information, visibility and empathy today than there was back then, but it's a long way from equal justice for all. I guess I just don't have the high expectations of risk-averse cis-het TV executives from 1992 that you do.


  2. Josh Marsfelder
    July 27, 2015 @ 4:47 am

    "Do we have any record of contemporary responses to the episode by gay and trans TNG fans? How did LGBT viewers, whom the episode purports to address, interpret it in 1992?"

    We do, and they more or less hated it. Like Rick Berman said in the quote I cited, most LGBT viewers felt this was a dismissive, handwavey and insultingly inauthentic representation of their orientation and the persecution they faced. And they made a lot of the same criticisms I did.


  3. Adam Riggio
    July 27, 2015 @ 5:58 am

    The debacle of this episode and its reception reminds me of some of the debates I've heard over the importance of diversity in a TV series' writing staff. Yes, anyone can approach a theme themselves, even one involving the struggles of a marginalized group, and their success will be a function of their writing talent. Individual talent is important, but you can be the most talented TV writer in human history, but still cock up your story if you write without any knowledge of how the group in question actually lives and thinks.

    I'm reminded particularly of the Doctor Who episode Kill the Moon, which was a brilliant example of a Doctor Who horror story until we got to the choice discussion. I wrote in my own post on that episode that the writers and creative staff of the episode – all male – just didn't notice all the anti-choice messages that were peppered throughout the latter half of the script, and that they stumbled into emphasizing these messages.

    It's not that a white cis person, like the TNG production leaders, can never write an intelligent story about a group like homosexuals or transgender people. It's that they have to put a lot more research, knowledge, and reflection into the matter before they can. A transgender person can more easily write a quality story about being transgender because they've lived through the experience. The knowledge is theirs and their friends. Folks like me have to be taught, engage, and learn. Even after such a process, which would be very long, we have to be very careful. Members themselves have already lived it.


  4. Jack Graham
    July 27, 2015 @ 6:19 am

    I remember finding the episode intensely moving at the time, and thinking to myself "oh this is about gay oppression" and not noticing there was anything wrong with the approach. Of course, that was my positionality showing. A complacent, right-on, 16yr old cis-het male. At that point I was still a year or so away from consciously knowing a gay person (she subsequently became my best friend ever) so I was horrifyingly ignorant about gay issues, despite my sympathy. Was this episode constructive in my learning process? I think the exact opposite. It probably did more harm than good, reinforcing mindless prejudices while reassuring me that I basically understood the issue and was 'one of the good guys'. Yeurch. This episode may even be greatly responsible for my subsequent violent reaction against Trek in later years. But the redemptive reading you offer is fascinating. Great work (again), Josh.


  5. Ross
    July 27, 2015 @ 6:27 am

    @Adam: Indeed, after 'Kill the Moon' aired, I mentioned to someone, my wife maybe, that while there were things I liked about it, "This is the worst mangling of a show's big important social moral since that episode of Star Trek where they tried to be pro-gay-rights by having Riker bone the only straight woman on the planet of the angry lesbians"


  6. Josh Marsfelder
    July 27, 2015 @ 7:57 am

    I suppose it would be worth mentioning, because I don't think it's entirely clear in the piece I wrote, that I find it unlikely Rick Berman and Jeri Taylor knew literally nothing about homosexuality. I'm fairly confidant they knew as much about it as a reasonably well-educated, progressive cis white straight person could in 1992. But damn if they didn't pen just about the single worst allegory for it imaginable.

    That's the rub, of course. It wasn't good enough back then, and it's certainly not good enough now.


  7. Froborr
    July 27, 2015 @ 10:18 am

    SFDebris disdainful summary of this episode tallies up the results of this episode's confluence of bad Big Message writing, all-female planet of hats casting, and heteronormativity pretty well, I think: The big gay rights episode ends up being about "one woman's brave quest for cock on the Planet of the Lesbians."

    And yeah, somewhere buried in this terribleness there's the potential for a decent episode about trans rights, but let's be honest, Trek is way too heteronormative and stuck on traditional Western notions of gender (to the point of replicating them in very nearly EVERY CIVILIZATION IN THE UNIVERSE) to be able to pull that off.


  8. K. Jones
    July 27, 2015 @ 12:08 pm

    To top it off, it's boring.

    I mean The Measure of a Man is a dishwater gray courtroom story and it's still somehow riveting and exciting compared to The Outcast, thanks to enough tension being in the air you could cut it with a laser scalpel.

    TNG just won't be the incarnation of Star Trek that handles these things very well. Because these aren't "next stop on the space tour" problems. They're long-form, you gotta live with these issues for a while problems.


  9. Adam Riggio
    July 28, 2015 @ 2:34 am

    If only there were some Star Trek franchise that stayed in one place to explore how social and individual storylines played out over a long term. It'd also be awesome if that franchise had a major Trill character, since they're the species in Star Trek that had the most potential to explore allegories, possibilities, and the social situations of science-fictional gender transition.

    I'm sure the results would be wonderful.


  10. K. Jones
    July 28, 2015 @ 6:15 pm

    You know, it could be. It could also maybe completely be the salvation of the Ferengi concept by exploring issues of gender equality that its viewers might take 15-20 more years to start making any social progress on.

    They could even have a exploration Trill character interact with a Ferengi on a daily basis and really, really get into some sex & gender politics. But it all seems like such a long-shot.


  11. David Faggiani
    July 29, 2015 @ 11:54 pm

    All you comments are valid, of course, and, Jack Graham, I'm sorry you felt this did more harm than good. But I saw this as a child of 8 (it was only about the third or fourth TNG episode I've ever seen) and feel that it had a positive influence on me. Even then, I think I knew that sometimes boys would want to less like 'boys', and the same with girls, and I wanted a steer on that. I'm a cultural optimist in most cases, and think that most people can see through the metaphor and apply it to other cases. I appreciate people who, both now and at the time, thought that this steered onto the rocks by having a 'Androgynous people really want to be gendered' moral, but, I assure you, some of us who were kids exposed to this took constructive stuff out of it, were moved by Soren's plight, and went on to use it in positive, discovering sympathetic ways in our teens and beyond. Does that mean 'The Outcast' is only intellectually and emotionally useful TV for an 8 year-old child? Possibly, but I doubt it. Baby steps are still steps. Think of the kiss in 'Plato's Stepchildren'. Was that 'perfect'? Of course not. But still…..


  12. AndyRobot800
    August 7, 2015 @ 9:12 pm

    I'm usually more of an "intent isn't magic, but it's still data" kind of guy. The quote's from the awesome trans activist and writer Katherine Cross, who's written extensively about how dismissing context and focusing entirely on individual experience ultimately turns activism into a series of purity tests that can become impossible to navigate, ultimately doing more harm than good. And every now and then, I've felt like this blog has dipped its toes in the stream of "let perfect be the enemy of good," disregarding intent, history, and context in the interest of criticism.

    Not here, though. "The Outcast" was an important episode, and they blew it. Big time. I get that some folks who hadn't known any gay people thought it was eye-opening, and that's awesome, but my Gawd, this is a prime example of being super preachy AND missing the mark. You're completely right that it throws trans people under the bus in the interest of addressing homophobia, and doesn't get the difference between preference and identity. And christ, that monologue is straight out of the Big Golden Book Of Earnest 90s Monologues About Gay People. You know, the ones where "we're just like you, we complain about work…" Lotsa gay people complaining about work in the early 90s, apparently…


  13. AndyRobot800
    August 8, 2015 @ 1:41 am

    (re-reading my comment: I want to be clear that TNG blew it, not this blog. This blog nailed it with this analysis of an embarrassing episode that causes more problems than it solves.)


  14. Daru
    August 31, 2015 @ 9:46 am

    Yeah I think this episode blew it with its representation of Riker too, as he would in my vision of him, been happy to kiss a man (in the version of the story where the character is attacked by their race for wanting to be a male with a male), and Riker was in a happy poly life.


  15. EK
    March 19, 2016 @ 5:44 pm

    Just recently discovered your blog and am really enjoying it. I know these comments are coming several months late, however I hope you don't mind me adding them for others who may still come along and see the valuable analysis you've provided here.

    I've seen all of TNG many times, but have never been knowledgeable in the least about behind the scenes writing so was actually never aware the writers were trying to do a story on homosexuality with this episode. I guess ignorance is bliss because I always read this episode as a heteronormative story about a relationship between a male and female, and if you choose to look at it that way, I think there are some feminist readings that can be teased out of it – however ironic that may be considering the writers' intentions.

    Riker is often touted as the show's bonafide 'ladies man', and most of his female partners in the series are undeniably objects of the male gaze. Soren's a departure from this in that she's not sexualized, mentally or physically, and thus doesn't function simply to reinforce Riker's manhood and sexual virility the way many of his other, more fetishized female partners in the series have.

    Riker does try to play the role of the masculine protector, coming in at the end of the episode to try to save Soren from her oppressive society, but this actually doesn't turn out that well for him, and he and Worf end up looking a bit silly. Soren calmly explains to Riker that it was all a mistake, she was sick, so they have no future together – making Riker and his heroic mission appear irrational (having violated the PD) and emotionally impulsive – typically feminized traits.

    In terms of the view that Soren only decided to act and stand up for herself after having gone through a relationship with a cis white man – I can see this argument, however I've always perceived a kind of self-contained, tragic fatalism in Soren's story, independent of Riker. It wasn't simply their relationship that led to Soren's defense of her gender but also the reality that she was finally and unwittingly found out by her people after years of living as female in secrecy. Considering the society in which she lived, it is conceivable that she was going to be discovered eventually. I didn't really see Riker's relationship with Soren effectively producing her attitudes and decisions as much as it simply served as a trigger and catalyst for a sequence of events in her life that I think were quite possibly and tragically inevitable.

    As a woman and a feminist, Riker has never been one of my favourite TNG characters, because of the 'ladies man' epithet attached to him and all the patriarchal connotations that come with that; my favourite Riker episodes therefore tend to be the ones with more 'political' storylines ('The Pegasus', for example). But read as a Riker episode, I actually prefer this one over many others in which the show revels in Riker's 'ladies man' rep in all its patriarchal glory.


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