In the seventeenth episode of the fifth season of The Next Generation, no. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For continued talk of homophobia, cissexism, misogyny, acephobia, nonconsensual medical procedures, conversion therapy.
I want to commit to what I said during the video of this episode – that I think there’s something admirable in “The Outcast” – but the more I think about this, the more furious I become. In 2014, I was on a panel at WorldCon in London where I spoke of a very specific thing that writers, particularly those in the science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy genres, need to stop doing. I mentioned being tired of the use of metaphorical oppressions. The example I gave referred specifically to J.K. Rowling’s use of racial prejudice as a basis for her pureblood/Muggle-born conflict within Harry Potter, and I think it’s a serious flaw of the series. If Rowling aimed to show us through her work that racism was a deplorable thing, then perhaps the very people she claimed to sympathize with should have appeared in her work and in much better ways than they did.
It’s a common thing in genre fiction: writers think they can create representations of marginalization within their work without including any of those marginalized people in the narrative itself. I still maintain that this is, in essence, a copout. It allows a writer to claim progressive values without having to do much about them. Because when you get right down to it, the vast majority of the time these scenarios exist so that straight white cis folks can control a narrative and give it to themselves. Is it a method to develop sympathy? Maybe. I might give up that point, except that I hardly think that this device counts as healthy or realistic or beneficial representation.
So where do I even start with “The Outcast”? It’s infuriating to think about how much potential there is in this episode because finally, after over a hundred episodes, we get a story where an alien species DOES NOT ABIDE BY THE GENDER BINARY. It’s one feature of The Next Generation that has continued to astound me, given that there is absolutely no reason for ANY other alien species to have such a ridiculous concept of gender. Even further, the J’naii are ASEXUAL. CANONICALLY SO. An asexual, androgynous, agender community of aliens???? IT’S LIKE THE SHOW LEAPED FORWARD A MILLION STEPS IN ONE MINUTE.
And then, they promptly bulldoze us all backwards in an attempt at progressive sympathy. Perhaps that’s the most glaring and frustrating thing about this. Amidst all the misconceptions, bigotry, and bad writing, someone thought this would be seen as a brilliant allegory against homophobia. You can see it all over this episode! From the positioning of Riker as the moral center, to the way in which Soren details their own oppression while referencing numerous real-world implications for homosexuality and queerness, to the big monologue they give to the ruling court, you can feel the self-righteous assurance in every goddamn word. Someone thought they were writing a magnum opus, one of the most important Star Trek episodes imaginable, the first time canon would seemingly openly address LGBTQ issues!
Except it doesn’t fucking count when there’s not one queer or gay person anywhere within sight of the script. There’s a mind-boggling set of scenes where Soren questions both Riker and Dr. Crusher about gender and BOTH CHARACTERS HAVE EVERY CHANCE TO MENTION OTHER SEXUALITIES OR GENDERS AND NEITHER OF THEM DO. I call bullshit on the claim that this was a product of its time because clearly Jeri Taylor and the rest of the folks working on this show were aware enough of LGBTQ issues to namecheck a number of microaggressions and prejudicial behavior. So why not mention that some men prefer men? Or that some women have no interest in other men? Or that some people don’t want to have sex with anyone? Or that some people exist outside of the binary? Why not mention anything at all? If the Star Trek universe exists in a post-oppression world, why is it that we can’t ever see any demonstration of that?
So fuck that. And fuck the idea that queer folks or LGBT people or anyone under whatever umbrella term you prefer should feel honored by an episode where the antagonists are the first agender and asexual species ever introduced in canon. It’s obvious no one thought this through, either. The villains here despise the gender binary so much that they are cast as an unforgivable evil. How does this manifest to us? Well, we’ve got a non-cis species oppressing a cis woman, so NO THANK YOU. (I struggled with how to define this because the truth is that these terms might not even apply to the J’naii. We have no idea how their anatomy works, and it’s possible that Soren wasn’t a woman in a sense that Riker would understand that statement. But the truth is that these fictional characters represent an inversion of a pervasive oppressive system here in our world. That’s how The Next Generation is able to address, so for the sake of discussion, that’s why I refer to Soren as such.) In this act, the show gives an oppression narrative to someone who, in our world, would never once experience such a life. Here, they try to show us that this is the point; the J’naii live in a society that’s so unlike our own!!! It’s OPPOSITE DAY, apparently, because simply reversing a framework like this means it totally doesn’t demonize people who are already demonized in our own world.
Bullshit. If your story is barely indistinguishable from the thoughtless, bigoted hoards who believe that queer folks or asexuals or bi people or some mystical gay agenda are out to ruin and control the majority, then perhaps you should rethink your goddamn story. If you can spend an entire episode talking about how love matters, that gender should be irrelevant when it comes to romance and attraction, and you can’t even say the words “gay” or “lesbian” or “bisexual” at any point, then you have failed.
Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: “The Outcast” is cowardly. It was written by people who wanted to say something meaningful but didn’t want to commit to the work required to do so. There’s no risk taken here, and it does nothing to make anything better for the people it claims to be fighting for. It was cast by people who couldn’t dare to have Riker develop feelings or express attraction to someone who wasn’t clearly a cis actress. It darts around any real representation except when it casts marginalized characters as villains. And in the end, Soren’s life is ruined after they’re subjected to “psychotectic therapy,” and everyone just goes on their way. It’s an immaterial development to know that someone was forcibly brainwashed into being a person they are not, and all these cis, straight characters move on into a brighter future – but one exclusively for themselves and none of the people the writers claim to be writing for. In the end, “The Outcast” takes people outcast in our own society and pushes them even farther onto the fringes. And that’s pretty fucking ironic and tragic, y’all.
Fuck this episode.
The video for “The Outcast” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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