Oh no, not again.
I have to filet another Star Trek: The Next Generation sacred cow tonight. I hate doing this. But this one’s time is long, long overdue, ’cause “In Theory” is bad. Really bad. How bad? Well, in terms of gender, this is right down there in the same league as “Reunion”.
I’ll let writer Ronald D. Moore explain himself in his own words.
“I loved the notion of Data involved with a woman who fell in love with him because it was sort of a callback to when The Original Series was on. There were so many women who were in love with Spock. So much of Leonard Nimoy’s fan mail was from women, women who were falling in love with this remote, inaccessible character with the idea that ‘I could touch his heart-I could get to Spock like no one else.’ I was fascinated by that aspect of fandom. So I thought, well, what if we did that with Data and there was a woman who fell in love with a man who literally doesn’t have a heart, who could not give her something emotional. I wanted to see that relationship crash on the rocks. I wanted to see the moment when she realizes that he really can’t give back to her what she wants.”
The mean-spirited cynicism is self-evident. It always is with Moore. Like his compatriot Ira Steven Behr, that’s a signature of his. But the sheer, stupefying extent to which Moore is off the mark here is so galling I don’t even have the words to properly convey it, and what it reveals about how much Star Trek creators truly understand their fanbase and the history of their own damn show is absolutely frightening. Moore has essentially penned a 45-minute up-yours to the heart and soul of Star Trek and science fiction fandom and delivered one of the most inexcusably and hurtfully misogynistic sentiments this side of his precious Original Series. Jenna D’Sora is every single bro-ish stereotype of “clingy bitches” rolled into one: She’s vapid, shallow, air-headed and programatically dedicated to a man who doesn’t care about her in the face of all sense and reason. She’s even “on the rebound”. And she, and by extension this entire fucking episode, exists for no other reason than to bully and ostracize Star Trek’s original and most loyal fans.
That Moore’s conception of Star Trek fandom (I refuse to use the phrase “female fandom” because in the 1960s and 1970s women were the only fans of any consequence Star Trek fucking had) is blindingly ahistorical goes without saying. Those women who Moore would be so quick to belittle and infantilize were the young people of the 1960s that Star Trek inspired and who worked hard to make sure it had enough episodes to become syndicated, thus guaranteeing it a legacy and a life beyond its pathetic initial network run on NBC. And, once it did become syndicated, these were the people who continued to watch it in reruns and kept a fandom community alive a decade after Star Trek was canceled. These were the people who welcomed in a new generation of fans (who were also women) who got their first taste of the world of the starship Enterprise in syndication. It was Paula Smith, not Gene Roddenberry, who ran Star Trek in the 1970s. Yes, there probably were female fans who sent love letters to Leonard Nimoy, but to imply that the only reason these people watched and wrote about Star Trek was because they were flighty teenage girls who all had unrealistic crushes on Spock is so beyond insulting I’m not even going to dignify that assertion with a real response.
What Moore has done here is play right into a sentiment that, while nascent in 1991, will soon begin to linger and fester until it grows into one of the most dangerous reactionary movements of today. This is the exact line of thinking that paves the way for the male supremacist and patriarchal fundamentalist Nerd Culture, which would in turn give way to things like the Men’s Rights movement, the Sad Puppies and GamerGate: Affluent, privileged, upper middle-class straight cisgender white men who feel persecuted and oppressed because they like electronics and science fiction and don’t know how to behave in public properly. That’s not to say Moore himself is like this, but he does unfortunately write from a perspective that’s easy to be appropriated by this rhetoric: Moore’s biggest credentials, and this is something he himself would validate, were of being a big Original Star Trek nerd. His biggest writing credits on the show are on episodes that explicitly deal with the Original Series, or that contribute to world-building involving concepts inherited from them. And I’m sorry, there’s a culture of privilege, insularity and entitlement that kind of obsessively fannish dedication encourages and is connected to.
And it’s not just Jenna D’Sora and the female fans she was created to caricature: “In Theory” smears all women. We’re right back into the territory of “The Dauphin” and “Elaan of Troyius”, with various characters bemoaning how confusing, erratic and illogical women are. We’ve got Geordi hemming and hawing about whether or not D’Sora really is on the rebound, and Captain Picard happily telling Data he’ll “pass along any advice” on women to him “as soon as [he has] any”. And then Worf telling Data that Klingons “conquer what they desire”, but warning Data that, as her superior, he doesn’t want Jenna “mistreated”, as if Worf were Jenna’s daddy and she was his baby girl. The whole production has a sickeningly warped, stereotypical and tropish conception of femininity and gender roles-Even down to the whole idea that Jenna uniquely “needs” “something emotional”. Devastatingly, this is the precise sort of thing we would expect someone influenced by a proto-Nerd Culture to write.
But what might even be the most insulting thing of all about “In Theory” is that it’s hailed as a classic. And it’s not even because of the misogyny, which would be sad, if predictable. The thing is this isn’t even a story about Jenna D’Sora, not even in a kind of reactionary, anti-Mary Sue sense. This is read as a Data story, and hailed as a beloved classic because of how it supposedly furthers his exploration of humanity. Even Patrick Stewart, who makes his directorial debut here and is someone who should really, really know better, reads it this way. That in itself is pretty awful as it renders Jenna’s pain subservient to Data’s Epic Journey, just like the show did before with Tasha Yar: The show itself hides its blatantly ugly misogyny under the guise of a comparatively more tame variation of sexist narrative structure.
But even if you do read “In Theory” as a Data episode, it can only be seen as a terrible, terrible Data episode! Here, Data is depicted as being cartoonishly inept and self-centred when it comes to understanding women and romance: Indeed, the whole point of “In Theory” is to portray him as literally heartless. But that’s not at all the kind of person Data is-In “Data’s Day”, he was very serious about the idea of potentially pursuing not just any romantic relationship, but a committed, monogamous one. And the very first thing he said was that he believed he had a lot to offer his prospective partner: He was thinking of other people first and foremost, not himself. What’s happened here is that Data is being written as the kind of innocent, hapless man strung along by the whims of fickle womanhood Nerd Culture people like to paint themselves as. And that’s not who Data is. If you’re not swayed that “In Theory” is a wretched episode on the virtue of its blatant misogyny, at least grant it’s bad because it assassinates Data’s character.
“In Theory” is very possibly the most archetypically Nerd Culture episode in all of Star Trek. Not just because the story itself is openly misogynistic, but because everything about it is built around pushing women aside. Ignoring and dismissing their perspectives and their positionalities. It’s a production so insular, selfish, thoughtless and uncaring that it thinks it has the right to take a young woman’s story about her painful feelings and make it all about a man. Data takes Jenna’s story away from her just like Ron Moore wants to take Star Trek fandom away from the women who built and nurtured it. Because this is what Nerds do. This is what men do. Take things away from women and try to pretend that the women never had them to begin with and that they’re inherently undeserving of them anyway. This is what truly defines Nerd Culture, not fanwank. This isn’t just what patriarchy looks like, this is what male fundamentalism looks like. And it’s productions like these and attitudes like the ones articulated by people like those in Ron Moore’s place that has allowed this all to happen.