Monday, December 2, 2013

Cringing At Trek; or, When Riker Turned A Gay Alien Straight

Star Trek: The Next Generation's fifth season is punctuated by a litany of episodes About Something: politics, rape, suicide, language, abortion.  In "The Outcast," Trek takes a sci-fi look at homosexuality.  The J'naii are presented as a genderless society who occasionally have members that exist in an alien closet with secret desires of being one gender and being attracted to the opposite.

I remember watching this episode in 1992.  As a 12-year-old, it wasn't exactly fun to sit through what is ultimately a heavy-handed missive on gender and sexual orientation.  In one scene, the alien Soren (played by Melinda Culea of A-Team fame (a female actress was required by the producers because Soren would end up a-kissin' Riker)) asks about the differences of gender.  Seeing Jonathan Frakes bridge the gap between Rikerian charm and a clinical explanation of "male insemination and females carrying the baby" and "the intimacy of procreation can be quite enjoyable" was, to say the least, not fun to watch with my family.

There are further scenes which serve the story, but in a clunky manner.  Sorren comes out to Riker, stating that Soren's preference is female, and her attraction is to males.  She describes how this is a secret one identifies at a certain age, and that it is a tightly-guarded secret.  She tells the story of a classmate in school who was maligned at school for being male, how he was beaten up in school for being that way, and how the solution was mental whoosy-whatsit programming to erase his culturally-unacceptable thoughts.  

Ultimately, Soren and Riker share some secret canoodeling in the woods; Soren is caught, brought before a court, and gives a rousing speech about how she isn't a deviant, and how "the state" cannot dictate how people love each other.  Her dialogue ends the act on a high note.  After the commercial break concludes, the judge basically says, "Great, now that we know you're this way, we know for sure to take you to the mental whoosy-whatsit programmer."

Trek has a long tradition of boldly taking viewers to new cultural territory--the first interracial kiss on television between Kirk and Uhura being an oft-cited watershed moment.  (Indeed, that the modern movie Spock and Uhura kiss was of no cultural significance, and that movie Spock is played by a gay man has become a mere cultural footnote.)  Yet in "The Outcast," Trek half-asses it.  The gay metaphor is so thinly set that it isn't a metaphor (living in secret, bullying at school, "deviant urges," etc).  The show wanted to tackle homosexuality, but gave itself "takeaways" and wiggle room.  Soren is normal by our standards, whereas normalcy is gender neutrality by J'naii standards.  It's not, the show seems to say with showmanship, about anything, just the ideas between the two made-up cultures!

I'd also argue that it's a bit of a counter message to have Riker be so damned dashing that Soren voices her sexual orientation in his manly, musky presence.  Granted, her dialogue establishes that she's felt this way all her life, but it takes someone of sufficient masculinity to out her femininity.  Couldn't that be evidence for the reverse: that with sufficient mojo, Riker could turn a straight man gay?  Or a gay woman straight? 

I suppose a counter argument was that the Kirk/Uhura kiss had equal wiggle room, as in "Plato's Stepchildren" they are forced to do so.  That said, it was 1968, the height of the civil rights movement--the year MLK was shot!  The Kirk/Uhura episode also was championed by Gene Roddenberry, who locked horns with the network; NBC wanted a "non-kiss take" to show in the South.  Nichele Nichols and William Shatner, wanting to support Roddenberry and the idea in general, gave them the non-kiss take--with over the top (for Shatner!) acting, flubbed lines, crossed eyes, and other unusable takes. 

Thus, I suppose it is rather sadly fitting that "The Outcast" would air a few months after Roddenberry's death (though to be fair, his participation in Next Gen had waned since the second season).  There was no one to champion a proper Star Trek take on homosexuality--no one to fight the studio, other producers, and the world.  And thus "The Outcast," while brave in its attempt, ultimately falls flat--an outcast itself. 

No comments:

Post a Comment