Caitlin Marie Walsh

Writer. Thinker. Problem Solver.

Star Trek: The Next Generation "The Outcast"

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 Do you know there’s a quote of yours that’s been archived in Memory Alpha?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