We’re entering the final stretch of my Trekification! After this post there are only two more to go!
In September I set myself the goal of watching halfway through the third and final season of The Original Series (a total of twelve episodes) as well as finishing the fifth season of The Next Generation plus the first episode of season six so I would have both parts of “Time’s Arrow” under my belt (a total of fourteen episodes). September ended up being a strangely busy month between my day job at the bookstore and other projects but I still managed to meet the goal!
I will be talking specifically about one episode of TNG a bit further down the post but my overall takeaway from the second half of season five is that TNG continues to be very good. I’ve written in previous Trekification posts how the show began a steep climb upwards in quality starting in season three. I would say it’s evened out in the fifth season. It’s no longer improving by leaps and bounds but its plateaued at high quality. Certain episodes are better than others – I struggled somewhat with “Cost of Living” and “Imaginary Friend”, but the season also delivered stunning installments with episodes like “Conundrum”, “Cause and Effect” and “I, Borg”, an episode that very well might sit up with my personal series favorites. TNG is now consistently good and rarely subpar.
The Original Series? Well THAT is another matter entirely.
Before I get into this, a disclaimer: I really, truly and thoroughly enjoy the first two season of TOS. It is frequently dated and hammy but it is wonderful and thoughtful and hits a poignant moment dead on target just as often as it smashes its way through a potentially good story with racism, sexism and toxic masculinity.
The problem I’m having with season three? By and large, it has lost track of the former while doubling down on the latter. And it transforms the show from something trying very hard to be progressive into something that I find incredibly difficult to watch.
For instance: the first three episodes. They feature a race of women helpless and foolish without the aid of male-made technology, a cunning Romulan commander who loses a standoff with the Enterprise by falling in love with Spock and an alien culture loosely and stereotypically based off of Native Americans. When diving into this season it was a rough ride right up front.
I think it boils down to not just the era in which TOS was made but also a key difference between TOS and TNG. The Enterprise NCC-1701 is effective because Kirk is its captain. Kirk is utterly capable and good at everything, to the point of frequently making the rest of the crew look foolish or inept. Picard, and by extent the Enterprise NCC-1701-D, is effective because of the expertise of the crew around him. In TOS Kirk ALWAYS has to be the hero. So, for instance, in an episode like “Is There in Truth No Beauty”, which I LOVED until the final act, when you have the incredibly powerful and capable Dr. Miranda Jones, whose telepathic abilities make her the perfect candidate for saving Spock in the episode’s climactic moment, Kirk has to be the one to save the day, not Miranda. So she becomes petty and jealous and willing to let Spock die and Kirk has to come in, grab her roughly and talk some sense into her. After the first three episodes of the season I was about ready to throw in the towel. I didn’t. And, honestly, despite the season not picking up in quality, I’m glad. I want to finish this show. Regardless of my opinions on it – it is a classic and the start of a franchise that is nothing short of revolutionary in terms of the boundaries it pushed (and will hopefully continue to push). I can’t say that I have loved any of season three so far – certainly nothing that ranks up there with episodes like “Space Seed” or “The Trouble with Tribbles” – but it is certainly worth finishing!
Early in this post I mentioned there was one episode of TNG in particular that I was going to talk about and that episode is “The Outcast”.
Spoiler warning: I will be discussing specific details of the episode and its ending from this point onward.
This is a complicated episode for me. It basically boils down to: I am so glad they tried but fucking hell does this episode make me angry. “The Outcast” is TNG attempting to tell a story that, through parallels and metaphor, is discussing LGBTQ rights and what it is like to be gay. The episode aired in 1992 specifically designed as an allegory for homosexuality. The fact that it was even made is astonishing and THAT makes me happy. That the writers and creators of TNG felt LGBTQ rights were an important subject to tackle on their show brings me a certain amount of joy.
HOWEVER. Good intention does not equal successful representation.
The set up for the story is this: An androgynous race, the J’naii, ask the Enterprise for aid in finding a missing shuttle. Riker and Soren, one of the J’naii, become close and Soren reveals herself to Riker as identifying as a specific gender (in her case, female), something seen as criminally perverse in J’naii society. Soren gives two different monologues in the episode and they are well written and the actress playing Soren, Melinda Culea, gives a wonderfully nuanced performance. She speaks about the terror of people knowing the truth and that she is not sick, she does not need help, she needs love, understanding and acceptance. They are lovely speeches and if the episode was focusing on the idea of gender identity, that would be one matter but “The Outcast” is trying to create an allegory for sexual orientation by using gender identity. Sexuality and gender identity are two very separate things, both deserving of attention rather than being conflated into a single concept.
Furthermore, much of the “The Outcast” is seen through Riker’s eyes, putting a straight male character at the center of what is meant to be a queer narrative. It features one of the grimmest endings I’ve ever seen in Star Trek. Soren is discovered and put through psychotectic therapy, which erases her female identity and permanently alters her gender identification. It’s conversion therapy on a terrifying level – it literally changes Soren overnight. Trek, and especially TNG, is not afraid to be hard-hitting, and it might be a very personal reaction, and perhaps the darkness was necessary to hit home the horrors of such processes, but it is a violent direction to take the episode that did not sit well with me at all.
Additionally, I read that Jonathan Frakes, who plays Riker, wanted Soren to be played by a male actor, feeling that such casting would help underscore the episode’s themes. There are too many problems with “The Outcast” for this casting to fix its problems but I wish the show had been willing to cast a man in the role. An actor the audience perceives as male, playing a character from a gender neutral race who identifies as female, with Riker, a straight male character, falling in love with them would have better supported the episode overall. It doesn’t solve the issue of conflating gender and sexuality, but it would have at the very least allowed a more complex commentary on both rather than one being entirely used to represent the other.
And finally, I cannot help but observe that, as admirable as it is that TNG put this episode on the air, they were still more willing to create a ill conceived allegory rather than put a queer character in the cast and on the screen in this supposedly utopian, accepting society of the future.
I think it speaks to the strength of Star Trek that it could make this episode in 1992. It’s not a good episode – it’s too muddled and confused on the issues it’s attempting to commentate upon – but it does have a few moments that break my heart and Soren’s fate had me in tears. Star Trek does not always get it right and it frequently pisses me off but damn does it try where so many other forms of media don’t even bother and for that it has my respect.
That being said, it’s time for a queer character in Star Trek. I’m looking at you, Discovery.
And now, the tally:
Original Pilot: “The Cage” COMPLETE!
Star Trek: The Original Series: Seasons 1 – 3.12
Star Trek: The Animated Series: Seasons 1 – 2. COMPLETE!
Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season 1 – 6.1
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Pilot
Star Trek: Voyager: Pilot
Movies (TOS): Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Star Trek IV: Voyage Home. Star Trek V: Final Frontier. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. COMPLETE!
Movies (TNG): Star Trek Generations. Star Trek: First Contact. Star Trek: Insurrection.
Movies (Reboot): Star Trek. Star Trek Into Darkness. Star Trek Beyond. COMPLETE (for now…)!
I’ll be back in November with my second to last Trekification! My goal for November is to finish TOS season three and blast through as much of TNG season six as I possibly can. I’m hoping for at least halfway. However, November is also National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and I will be participating so I’m not making any promises!