Caitlin Marie Walsh

Writer. Thinker. Problem Solver.

Star Trek: The Next Generation "The Outcast"

It’s Complicated

Dear Rick Berman,
        It’s 2017, and I’m terrified. You see, I am queer, a proud member
of the LGBT+ community, and Donald Trump is the President. Every day feels
like a battle for survival. Waking up with a sense of dread and foreboding
about the government is an awful feeling. But I guess you’ve never
experienced that, from your lofty place of privilege, Mr. Showrunner
emeritus. Do you know there’s a quote of yours that’s been archived in
Memory Alpha? You told the San Jose Mercury News in March of 1992 that
“having Riker engaged in passionate kisses with a male actor might have
been a little unpalatable to viewers”. To have that quote in the trivia
section for the page covering The Outcast is a slap in the face as a queer
fan of Star Trek.
        I am what some would call a late bloomer: I embraced Star Trek in
college after finding Voyager on YouTube; don’t worry, I made sure to buy
the DVD set at the end of the semester! I fell headfirst into online
fandom thanks to a message board and even wrote fan fiction. Barely a
semester later, I discovered my queer identity. I hadn’t dated much in
high school and didn’t even realize I was not straight until college.
Coming out and finding a label that I liked took a while.
        I was newly out when I watched The Outcast for the first time.
Soren’s speech spoke to me. It was easy to switch out “female” and insert
“queer”, and I could see myself making the same speech about my own
identity to friends and family who doubted me. I thought the episode
showcased what it felt like to feel different from everyone else. To stand
up and proclaim “This is who I am; I am not sick!” It felt empowering.
        So at first I really liked this episode. But, looking back, I was
unfamiliar with gender as a spectrum or trans identities or the even
concept of asking what one’s preferred pronouns are. Did you and Jeri
Taylor just not know about the singular they? The J’naii have a neutral
pronoun that we are told is untranslatable, but there was an equivalent in
English when this was made. The singular they is not a new pronoun from
the 21st century but has actually existed since Shakespeare’s time. Riker
doesn’t have to just muddle through, especially if he ever discussed the
Bard with his Captain.
        As I learned more about what it means to be part of the queer
community, I realized how poor a job this episode does. Maybe you thought
it would be revolutionary to showcase a genderless species, but you cast
all female actresses to play them, and the episode revolves around a
member of that species who identifies as female and falls for Riker. I’d
like to think this relationship is different from the other ones Riker has
because Jeri Taylor writes a conversation between Riker and Troi, where
Riker says Soren is very important to him. He doesn’t talk to Troi about
every girl he falls for. Regardless of how much Soren means to Riker, it’s
sad that an episode supposedly about being different from others
effectively has a heterosexual relationship at its center.
        Who in the writers’ room came up with the ending? Did you know you
were endorsing conversion therapy? Soren believes she isn’t sick. Yet
after her speech and Riker’s protests, she surrenders and submits to her
treatment. Did the show’s format of no loose ends really hinder you enough
to strip Soren of her agency after her speech? What if we were to visit
the J’naii again in a year? Would Soren still be cured but miserable? Or
would her identity return? Using a 24th-century term and hiding it behind
technobabble doesn’t mean it’s not conversion therapy. Hindsight has
taught us that it’s been proven to do more harm than good. I refuse to
believe Soren when she says she was sick and refuses to go to Riker. And I
would rather use female pronouns for Soren because of the rushed and
inauthentic ending.
        When you started taking over for Gene Roddenberry, surely you knew
about the legacy of Star Trek. Not just that all different kinds of people
saw themselves represented on the Bridge of the Enterprise but that the
show really took off in repeats. The fandom actually grew after NBC pulled
the plug in 1969. You had a chance in 1992 to do the same for TNG and
usher in a new era of Star Trek. But instead you played it safe. Now,
thanks to you, Star Trek is behind the times instead of ahead. I can’t
tell you how frustrating it is as a queer Star Trek fan not to see any
representation on screen.
        You’re going to have to explain to me what it was like back in
1992, because I was three at the time and only remember dancing to the
theme of TNG in my pajamas before being put to bed halfway through
episodes. Why, after inheriting this show, did you put viewer’s
preferences first and not the message? I thought Star Trek was supposed to
mean something. Gene Roddenberry managed to say something in nearly every
episode of Star Trek, and his show was constantly under threat of
cancellation by the network. You didn’t have to worry about a network; TNG
was already syndicated, yet you never really pushed the envelope. You got
greedy. You saw the power vacuum, sensed an opportunity for yourself and
took over.
        As diverse as Star Trek once was, it’s nowhere near as diverse as
it needs to be now. A lot of the lack of diversity falls at your feet as
showrunner. It’s too bad you fell into a comfortable pattern of playing it
safe and developing Star Trek for the most common denominator, greatest
amount of Return on Investment, rather than seeking out material that
would challenge viewers.
        But, as conflicted and angry as I am, I know I can’t just abandon
the Star Trek fandom. Being a fan has shaped my early 20s during college,
and I am still a Trekkie now. It’s just that I can’t turn a blind eye when
my show messes up and mishandles an important issue. Especially when I
learn how different it could have been. You had the chance to flex your
creative muscles and focus on the message, but you caved in to the profit
margins. That’s the antithesis of what Star Trek is all about, Rick. So
I’m very disappointed in you.
        Live Long and Prosper. Not.


Caitlin Walsh is a writer and fandom enthusiast from Boston, living on the
internet at @walshcaitlin (and happy there's finally new Star Trek to watch)*

Published by ATB Publishing September 2017