The Great Star Trek TNG Rewatch: The Outcast

When a J’naii shuttle goes missing in their home star system, the Enterprise is enlisted to assist them in locating and recovering it. Unlike most races, who have distinct genders, the J’naii are all androgynous – in fact, any kind of gender expression is strictly forbidden. But when Riker develops a rapport with the J’naii pilot Soren, she risks everything by coming out to him as female.

I last watched this episode a few months before starting the great rewatch, and I’ve been looking forward to getting to it – although actually I’d misremembered and thought it was in season six. Although obviously coloured by the prevailing attitudes and trends of the early nineties, this is TNG’s one attempt to do a story about sexuality, and it manages to pack a lot in. The intent of the writers was clearly to focus on a world where one has to hide one’s sexuality, and Soren’s speech to the court could just as easily have been made by a gay person on Earth:

It is not unnatural. I am not sick because I feel this way. I do not need to be helped. I do not need to be cured. What I need, and what all of those who are like me need, is your understanding. And your compassion. We have not injured you in any way. And yet we are scorned and attacked. And all because we are different. What we do is no different from what you do. We talk and laugh. We complain about work. And we wonder about growing old. We talk about our families and we worry about the future. And we cry with each other when things seem hopeless. All of the loving things that you do with each other – that is what we do. And for that we are called misfits, and deviants and criminals. What right do you have to punish us? What right do you have to change us? What makes you think you can dictate how people love each other?”

It’s also interesting to note that the episode inadvertently touches on the idea of gender identity, which wasn’t really considered its own issue back in the nineties, but now gets a lot more attention. The J’naii might be more evolved in that they don’t force gender roles on anyone, but they’ve clearly taken it too far in punishing people who want to identify as a particular gender. Although it’s unclear what this means overall – does it just mean that they want intimacy only with other people who identify as gendered? Or do they want to reclaim gender stereotypes as well?

Further thoughts

  • I’d like to imagine that the 24th century will be truly enlightened, and that Riker would have more to say about human sexuality than merely describing the bare bones of heterosexual relationships. Of course, we never see any gay people in Starfleet, but since homosexuality has been around forever, unless something drastic has happened, they must exist.
  • It’s nice that Crusher tries to make us believe that men and women are equal, because they should be, certainly by the 24th century – it’s just that in TNG everything is coloured by late eighties and early nineties attitudes.
  • Worf is a dreadful sexist.
  • Even though null space is presented as this new and amazing thing that was theorised but never seen before, it sounds an awful lot like the region Nagilum trapped the ship in during Where Silence Has Lease. I feel certain there must be other examples too, although I can’t call them to mind right now.
  • In Time Squared, we learnt that Riker’s father hated to cook, but here Riker has gone to the effort of programming the replicator with Kyle’s split pea soup recipe. Maybe this was the one thing Kyle could make, or maybe he just got it ready made and pretended to young Will that it was homemade.
  • Riker says he prefers the outdoors because that was where he was raised, but he doesn’t seem all that bothered by the confines of the Enterprise. Nor has he ever mentioned this discomfort at previous social functions.
  • Soren’s reprogramming takes place remarkably quickly. Maybe psychotectic treatments are amazingly effective.

Summary – The Outcast: Enlightened 24th century attitudes on sexuality? Maybe just late twentieth century attitudes, but points for trying.

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