Reflections on LGBT Themes in TNG’s ‘The Outcast’

Star Trek’s Brave (But Ultimately Safe) Take on Gay Rights

by Rob Heyman for TrekCore.com

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In these post-Will & Grace, post-DOMA times in which we live, gay characters and storylines in film and television seem as common today as butter on hot morning toast. It’s easy to forget there was a time when trying to get LGBT issues represented in popular media was as futile as, well, trying to cut that same morning toast with a wet noodle.

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In 1992, Star Trek: The Next Generation took a stab at the issue of gay rights with its fifth-season episode “The Outcast”. It was seen as a bold move for the show. While the early 1990s did offer some limited visibility to gay issues in film and television, most of the stories concerned the gay plight or the struggles of homosexuals within the AIDS epidemic. What made “The Outcast” different is that instead of framing the story around disease or the tragic consequences of an aberrant lifestyle, it took a more sympathetic approach by focusing on fitting-in and assimilation into a hostile culture.

It must be said that the episode does not feature a gay character, nor does it even mention homosexuality. The issue is handled obliquely using a character named Soren, who is a member of an alien race called the J’naii. As an androgynous people, they show no gender identification. Every so often, a child is born that identifies with one particular gender. Because gender identification is considered a sickness in their society, the child – once recognized – must undergo treatment to make the child normal.

In the episode, Soren has hidden her identification with being female from her people for much of her life, but when she falls in love with Riker, the secret is exposed. She is forced to undergo treatment at the end of episode and is ostensibly cured of her identification.

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For many fans of the show, “The Outcast” failed to deliver on its promise of a gay-rights episode. There was no coming-out for a member of the crew. There was no new character on the ship who was introduced as gay. It felt like a cop-out: a way of addressing the issue in a quick, one-hour installment with an alien race that no one really cared about or would care about next week when the crew was dealing with an altogether new crisis. What’s more, the alien lead was noticeably female in appearance and voice (a female actor did play the part), which kept the dynamic between her and Riker comfortably heterosexual. For what was to be a bold, water-cooler episode, it felt far too safe and conventional for its ambitions.

The Next Generation would not have been risking much had it chose to produce a far more overt gay-rights episode. The show was already monstrously successful by the end of its fifth season. The series had already broken significant ground in the past with its first interracial kiss. Fans had come to expect a bit of the unorthodox from Star Trek. It is likely that a carefully presented gay character for the show would not have damaged its already swelling popularity. It is also very likely it would have generated even more buzz for an aging show that was facing growing competition from newer sci-fi television series.

Of course, when you open this particular door as a producer, you are then forced to commit to regular storylines to justify the choice. With its end-run squarely on the horizon, it’s possible the producers didn’t want to paint themselves into a corner this late in the game. Still, there were far more effective choices the producers could have made to make this a more palatable gay-issues episode.

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First, the producers should not have chosen Riker to be Soren’s love interest. The relationship just isn’t believable. There’s nothing to suggest from Riker’s past (or from what we’ve seen over the course of five seasons) that this would be the type of person Riker would be attracted to. Riker has been largely characterized as a skirt-chaser attracted to beautiful women. As an androgynous female wrestling with complex personal issues, Soren is the complete opposite of what he usually finds appealing.

It is possible Riker was chosen to give him some character development, but the long-term implications of his attraction are never explored. It also does the character tremendous disservice to have him violate the Prime Directive in an attempt to save Soren. At this point in his service aboard the Enterprise (and in the series), this action is completely reprehensible and just plain unbelievable.

A more logical choice for the part would have been Barclay, a popular milquetoast crewman. This would have provided the producers more freedom to explore a so-called gay-themed episode in less oblique terms. Barclay is an infrequent regular on the show. He is intelligent, open-minded, and is often entrusted with assignments that put him in close contact with senior staff. It would have been completely credible to have assigned him to Soren’s mission.

Although Barclay has been portrayed as heterosexual, there’s nothing to suggest that he couldn’t be attracted to a man. Since Barclay craves companionship of any kind in his life, a case could be made for some flexibility in his sexuality, which opens the door perfectly for a male Soren. It would have provided a wonderful way to address gay issues and, at the same time, enrich Barclay’s character with some development. What’s more, the producers wouldn’t be forced into more storylines on the subject because Barclay isn’t a regular to begin with.

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A lot of criticism has been directed at having Soren undergo reparative therapy at the conclusion of episode. Was it another way for the producers to quickly flush the storyline so Riker could remain single and available? Probably. Again, using Riker painted the producers into a difficult creative corner. I never saw the ending as endorsement for reparative therapy or an attempt to make the case that gays would be happier if they were normal, as Soren appears to be at the end of the episode. This is a tragic story with a tragic ending, and that’s how I saw it. Just because she’s different — or, for our purposes here, gay — doesn’t mean she’s necessarily entitled to a happy ending.

At the end of the day, Star Trek is about our main characters and their growth and journey. The episode “The Inner Light” is a terrific example of using a risky character story to properly evolve a character. As soon as Picard awoke from his experiences in that episode, he didn’t simply brush off the dirt and go about his merry way. His experiences on the planet, particular with the flute, helped inform his actions later on. He changed. There’s nothing to suggest Riker changed as a result of his experiences with Soren.

“The Outcast” is indicative of a lot of the problems the producers were having with Riker’s character post-third season. Up until the Borg finale in season three, Riker was portrayed largely as alpha-male functioning as a rather impulsive counter-point to the more professorial Picard. He wasn’t someone you wanted to piss off. After passing on his own command in “The Best of Both Worlds” (a decision that ultimately saved his life), it seemed the stage was set to start making Riker look more and more weak and uncertain. It is hard to swallow that someone who essentially destroyed the Borg and saved Earth would continue to remain a first officer.

I would think Starfleet would have forced the promotion to captain, as I’m sure they were in need of good leaders given the ongoing struggles with the Cardassians in particular. No other character has been bullied around by other officers in Starfleet more than Riker it seems. Despite his incredible achievements with the Enterprise, he was treated like a kid struggling to get respect from all adults in the room. It’s ironic that Riker had been given some of the more interesting episodes in the latter seasons. “The Pegasus” is a wonderful episode that offers some nice backstory for Riker. “Second Chances” introduces us to Tom Riker, a twin created from a transporter mishap. “Lower Decks” nicely reminds us of the 'old' Riker with his bad-ass attitude. All good episodes, but wildly inconsistent.

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For all its flaws, “The Outcast” should not be dismissed. It did get people talking and it raised some awareness of gay issues at a time when there wasn’t much discussion. With all the advances the LGBT community has made in the past 10 years, especially in television and film, “The Outcast” seems rather quaint as an issues show today. The moral and ethic debate waged in this episode, however, remains as relevant as it did in 1992.

Reparation therapy continues to attract media attention, and many people do struggle with issues of gender identity -- and perhaps that is what Star Trek has always done best. It may not always provide easy answers to difficult issues but it does open the floor to begin discussion.

This article has been edited from its original form for clarity.

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Rob Heyman writes The Absent Prompter blog, providing analysis and criticism of American print and broadcast media, and is a contributing writer for The Logbook, a retro-pop-culture site focused on movies, television, music, and gaming.

  • Chris915

    If I recall, even Frakes thinks it would’ve made a bigger impact if Soren had been male.

  • archer9234

    I totally agree on these things. ST, while it does its best in doing these types of stories. Never really cracks the proper balance with gay characters. In each few occasions they dabbed at it. it was just brushed off (The Host). Or like here. Brought it up. But had no real good plot. Even Dax’s episode doesn’t end up working that well. Because, again no continued story for it.

    • SpaceCadet

      I never noticed this episode not being reaired as much as any of the others but then again I think that may do more with the particular television market that the show would run in. For instance, IIRC, I heard that in some areas the episode “Rejoined” did not air or had a bumper before the episode warning audiences about the mature subject matter (a gay kiss) that was contained in the episode.

      • archer9234

        It could of been for certain areas. But I know for NYC, it didn’t air in repeats. And I watched TNG growing up on the repeats. They aired them in order. But this one I noticed was skipped a lot.

  • MJ

    Great article. None of the other Trek sites have the guts to touch this subject. Thanks, Trekcore.

    I’d like to see a gay character in the next movie. However, I want to see it organic to dialogue in the story….not an obvious “here’s the token male husband to Chekov” or similar.

    • archer9234

      Can’t stand that in shows. Great, you want to represent a race or sex etc. in the show. But you can’t just make them there to be there. It’s just as bad, as say, Dr. Crusher’s background. How many times did TNG ever use Jack in a meaningful way. Twice? He’s forgotten about. Or used as a “FEEL SAD NOW” moment. Create a aspect for a character. But then use it in the bigger picture. Chakotey is fully guilty of this problem. He does nothing overall in the series. And when he did. It was usually the same BS falling back on native american stuff. Over and over.

      • hypnotoad72

        The only meaningful way of Jack Crusher, that I recall, was in “Coming of Age”, a season 1 story where the B-story involving Wesley realizing why Picard had to make a judgment call; a judgment that resulted in the death off Jack. Not a bad scene… otherwise there’s “Violations”, the season 5 cliche where Beverly gets to get a nice flashback of finding Jack in the morgue (a classically trite “FEEL SAD NOW” moment if there ever was one…)

      • MJ

        Agreed. Nothing was worse than JK Rowling telling us Dumbledorf was gay, when she didn’t have the guts to organically cover that in the novels. It was like, after the fact, she want to get credit for it without even putting it in the novels…like a “some of my best friends are gay” kind of cop-out.

        Gay characters in genre movies should be organic to the story. Having them inserted as obvious out-of-context pandering moments in movies kinds of defeats the whole purpose of being more inclusive and open.

    • SpaceCadet

      I agree it should be organic, like the equivalent of having say Picard be gay so that his love interests Vash or Commander Darren were men as opposed to women. His being gay is not even an issue, it’s just that men are his love interests. I think this is much easier to achieve in series form versus in a film though because in the next Trek film I doubt a whole plot line would be constructed around Sulu’s same-sex partner for instance.

  • SpaceCadet

    This is a very thoughtful article and it’s nice to see the issue broached and using this particular Trek episode to talk about it. However, I do have an issue with the last paragraph which I don’t think is accurate. Speaking as a gay man myself, I never had any gender identity issues and I doubt very many other gay and lesbians do. Rather, we would have an issue with accepting our sexual orientation because of external influences punishing or admonishing the behavior of same-sex attraction. That has nothing to do with gender identity. That is an issue with the transgender community and also with the alien race depicted in “The Outcast”. Perhaps the author was just getting himself confused with the issue in the episode versus the allegory it was meant to represent.

    I myself have always appreciated the episode for even existing at the time it came out and for the fact the powers that be even tried to address the issue albeit in a science-fiction kind of way. I was 13 at the time it aired and even though I did not recognize that I was gay at the time (I basically ignored my same-sex attractions and had no interest in the opposite sex), I think I was aware that Soren was a stand-in for a gay person and I found it all very touching and thoughtful the way it was handled. But looking back on a more objective lens, I do also see now that a more powerful statement could have been made by having Soren be portrayed by a male actor (as Frakes wanted) or just have a recurring gay character. Even Gene Roddenberry himself was in favor of having same-sex people acknowledged on the ship by being in the background holding hands. Even that small gesture would be way more significant than what has ever been portrayed on Trek which is no same-sex attraction between any human characters. If we ever get to a new series, or even the next movie, that simply has to be addressed. Just as racial minorities were inspired by the original series and again on DS9 by their depictions in the future, and for women seeing the first starring female captain on Voyager, the same hope would be instilled in gay people (especially gay kids) by seeing a gay character integrated as just another regular crew member existing in the future. That’s pretty powerful all in itself.

    • Bjoernar Dohm

      Yeah, that last remark rubbed me the wrong way as well. But as a matter of fact, as a youth I briefly (very briefly) did contemplate whether being attracted to my own sex made me a transwoman, but then again I realized I’m not a woman, nor did I yearn to be. Calling such musings “gender identity confusion” seems a bit over the top.

      • SpaceCadet

        Ah, interesting. Maybe you’re younger than me since when I was younger and questioning my sexuality I wasn’t even aware of what being transgender was so it was never really a question to me. Nowadays there is a greater understanding and awareness of the trans community.

  • hypnotoad72

    It comes across as a society that says “sex is bad, use test tubes instead” with the token dissidents saying “let’s have heterosexual intercourse and breed and show how great Darwin is.”

    The only person who reflected any gay themes was behind camera, named Jonathan Frakes, who wanted the love interest to be male. At which point the story WOULD have been about homosexuality.

    If you want anything approaching a gay-themed allegory based on the dialogue, try “Encounter at Farpoint”.

    If you want an allegory that actually works on just about every level, try “True Q”.

    • Chris915

      As a gay male, this episode resonated more with me than I would say EaF did… especially because of Soren’s speech toward the end and Riker being the LGBT ally supporting her.

  • Platitude

    “The Outcast” is a good episode, but its sort of just dipping its toe into the water of these themes.

    As much as I love TNG and consider it one of the greatest television series, this article brings up one of the biggest issues with it for me which is the lack of continuity as far as character development goes. Events that should really effect a character deeply are usually never mentioned again. When a series like “King of Queens” does this, you think its just a silly sitcom so it doesn’t really matter. But for TNG its a little disappointing, especially when they could have taken these characters in some more interesting directions over the course of seven years and four films. If you look at Battlestar Galactica, the characters in the final fourth season are vastly different than they were when we met them in the pilot mini-series.

    • SpaceCadet

      I agree but then I think that is just a symptom of the era the show was produced in. The series was supposed to be episodic and lots of stand-alone adventures and to make it more appealing to the syndication market where the episodes could be shown out of order without confusing audiences. There was at least some character development and serialization though: Picard in his experiences both being assimilated by the Borg and his experiencing a whole lifetime in 20 minutes by the Kataan probe; Worf and his discommendation; and Data becoming more human-like when you compare him at the beginning of the series versus the end.

  • kungfuhobbit

    The oblique allegory allowed reception by a broader audience; featuring universally-respected, alpha-male Riker rather than unpopular misfit Barclay played to the complexity of real-life, lending credibility to the story and hopefully provoking more thought amongst viewers. The safe but boring option of choosing Barclay would’ve been a hackneyed caricature and disengaged people from watching