Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Outcast   Rewatch 
May 13, 2021 4:09 AM - Season 5, Episode 17 - Subscribe

The Enterprise responds when the J'naii need help finding a missing shuttlecraft. Meanwhile, Riker needs no help responding to questions about his sexual organs.

I assure you, Memory Alpha is extremely pleasurable:

• While both Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation frequently dealt with issues such as sexism, racism, and treatment of minority ethnic groups, neither show had to date addressed homosexuality. By the fifth season of The Next Generation, this omission was increasingly controversial. The show became the subject of a number of letter-writing campaigns demanding that non-heterosexual relationships were shown on screen.

• Michael Piller remembered, "Roddenberry had been barraged by letters and had discussed with us before his death the possibility of having two men hold hands in some scene." However, neither Piller nor Rick Berman felt that this was an appropriate way to handle the matter. Berman commented, "We'd been spending a lot of time wrestling with all the elements of the requests of the gay community for us to involve a gay character on the show. It got a lot of publicity both good and bad. We wrestled with a lot of different stories, and came up with a very obvious metaphor to the gay community and the intolerance they receive on this planet."

• Jeri Taylor enthusiastically volunteered to write the teleplay. She recalled, "I really wanted to do it, because, partly, it would be controversial and I welcome that. The idea of any drama is to touch people's feelings and engage them, whether you make them laugh, cry, angry. As long as you stir something in them, then you've been successful and I knew this would touch a lot of buttons in a lot of people." She added, "I am not a gay person, but as a woman I do consider myself in a particular minority; I know what it feels like to be disenfranchised – not in that precise way – and I felt like I had a touchstone to some of the feelings that must be involved."

• Piller noted that, unlike "The Masterpiece Society" and "Ethics" earlier in the fifth season, the writers were not overly concerned about portraying alternative viewpoints. He commented, "I don't think there is another side that's easily supportable. I think that bigotry is bigotry, prejudice is prejudice, and it can be said with all the fervor and belief, but it still comes out as prejudice. I don't know how to make an intolerant person attractive."

• Two lines of dialogue were cut from the final episode: Noor explaining to Riker that the J'naii are by all measurements an enlightened race and Riker asking, "Then how is it that Soren has no choice about her sexual orientation?"

• Rick Berman tried not to let perceptions of what the public would find acceptable "influence us too much" in the choice of Riker's opposite, adding "but having Riker engaged in passionate kisses with a male actor might have been a little unpalatable to viewers."

• Jonathan Frakes criticized the decision to cast women in the roles of the J'naii. "I didn't think they were gutsy enough to take it where they should have. Soren should have been more obviously male. We've gotten a lot of mail on this episode, but I'm not sure it was as good as it could have been – if they were trying to do what they call a gay episode." When advised of Frakes' comments, Brannon Braga mused, "If it would have been a man playing the role, would he have kissed him? I think Jonathan would have because he's a gutsy guy."

• This is the first episode in which Geordi La Forge wears a beard. While La Forge actor LeVar Burton preferred facial hair, the producers did not. The appearance here was an experiment that was not approved. Burton was permitted to grow a beard again during filming of "A Fistful of Datas" and "The Quality of Life" for the purposes of his wedding. He later also appeared with a beard in Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek Nemesis.

• Although statements Worf herein makes suggest that sexual equality may still be an issue within Klingon society, the dialogue in question is complicated by statements from Worf, in "Angel One", that "Klingons appreciate strong women."

• Director Robert Scheerer approved of this episode. He commented, "[It] was very good […] It's a unique show in that it's almost two-person; everybody's in it in small pieces, but basically, it's scene after scene of just two actors, and it's really quite touching."

• Jeri Taylor was also pleased with the end result. "It's the episode of the whole two years I'm the most proud of and the most glad I could be associated with."

• Michael Piller also approved. He noted, "I thought Jeri did a marvelous job on the script and to me this was the turning point of the season and this was where I thought we started doing excellent television again."

• After the episode aired, the producers received many letters critical of the installment. Some of these were from social conservatives. However, more objections came from the gay community, who believed that the episode was too oblique and didn't go far enough. In particular, they noted that homosexuality was not even mentioned. Rick Berman recalled, "We thought we had made a very positive statement about sexual prejudice in a distinctively Star Trek way, but we still got letters from those who thought it was just our way of 'washing our hands' of the homosexual situation."

"On my planet, we have been taught that gender is primitive."
"Less evolved."
"Maybe so, but sometimes, there is a lot to be said for an experience that's… primitive."
- Soren and Riker

"Then it is up to women to attract the men?"
"Oh no, men want to be attractive, too. Believe me. They just go about it differently. They like to pretend they're not doing anything to attract a woman, even when it's the most important thing on their minds."
- Soren and Dr. Crusher

"You see commander, on this world, everyone wants to be normal."
"She is!"
- Noor and Riker

Poster's Log:
"The Outcast" is lesson-plan material for a literature class discussion about metaphor, subtext, and context. Speculative fiction, moreso perhaps than most other genres, has the ability to tackle subject matter considered difficult in the time and place of its publication, but also to thinly veil that subject matter behind a fantastical mask (in the case of "The Outcast," the J'naii). Some of these veils are thinner than others (as in TOS: "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," with the aliens who might as well be Dr. Seuss's Sneetches), but even still, you open up the possibility to get a humanistic message across to an audience that might not have suspected it beforehand and might have been put off by a more direct approach.

For instance, we know that Star Trek has prejudiced pieces of shit among its fandom (and just in case we forgot how they reacted to Janeway, now there's Burnham, internet comments about whom I've come to reflexively dread reading). I'm sure, too, that there's a strong Venn diagram overlap between these prejudiced POSes and the Trek fans who think the franchise should be all mil-SF all the time. But I like to think that episodes like this one, by sort of sneaking their lesson in, may have forestalled the POSification of some younger Trek viewers.

I'll use myself as an example, although I was never in any danger of going down that particular POS path. I'd been taught from a young age that sometimes boys like boys and girls like girls and that's fine. Yet I remember, seeing this when it first aired, that the sci-fi concept of a genderless species was interesting enough intellectually that it wasn't until Soren's excellent speech about her youth that it dawned on Young Cheeses what this was all a metaphor for.

So, I mean, should the episode have been more direct? Absolutely. Could it have been more direct and still been a strong episode? Absolutely; this show gets direct about other things. But was it at all likely to happen, given that it's only 1992 (for context, Philadelphia is 1993), which means the suits are still worrying about how it'll play in Peoria? Not to mention the documented POSes behind-the-scenes? I don't see how.

There are other grounds on which to criticize the episode, though. In the ENT rewatch, Halloween Jack highlighted a major problematic element of "The Outcast," which is its "conflating gender and sexual preference (oddly, for an episode that was meant as a commentary on sexual preference, it's assumed that, because Soren identifies as female, then it's inevitable that she is attracted to men)." That's a fuckup that not even the 1992 factor can excuse IMO. However, in a PIC thread, Ursula Hitler said, "As a trans person, I see The Outcast differently. They may have set out to do a gay rights story and botched it, but in the process I think they (perhaps accidentally) produced a trans rights story ahead of its time. Non-binary people may see it differently, but it sure meant something to me as a confused trans kid. I think it's worth noting that in all of these stories, particularly DS9's Rejoined, the main characters are supportive of non-cishet romance."

(Except for Worf, in the poker scene here. There've been a few times throughout the franchise that I wanted to punch Worf, but perhaps none so much as this one. The Greatest Gen guys have more to say on that scene.)

One other misstep I noticed in this rewatch is that it portrays Noor so sympathetically. The root cause of discrimination on RL Earth is not Noor's confused empathy, nor misplaced faith in tradition or the effectiveness of "therapy"; it's hate. Now, in Soren's speech about the kid in her school, she makes it clear that hate is a factor, likely THE factor, behind the J'naii's anti-gender prejudice, which is a good call on Jeri Taylor's part in that we aren't asked give Noor et al. a pass for not being human and thus somehow less apt to hate. But I would've liked to have seen a smug sneer after Soren's therapy from one of the antagonistic J'naii, maybe Krite. The uncharitable interpretation is that the show was consciously worried about pissing off the Bible Belt, so they made sure the on-screen antagonists demonstrated motivation independent of hate in a way that would be implausible if they were human rather than one-shot aliens. Maybe I'm reading too much into that, and/or expecting too much.

And to briefly return to the topic of context, the psycho-Tic-Tac treatment in here is maybe even more chilling now than it was in 1992, probably because conversion therapy still isn't over. I dunno y'all, I'm starting to wonder if a hundred years is enough time for humanity to outgrow hatred in time to meet the Roddenberry deadline.

Poster's Log, Supplemental:
The shooting script, in describing the kissing scene, notes it thusly:
"(and finally they get down to the real purpose of the walk, with Riker trying to eat her tonsils)"
We will meet another Soran who's a different type of outcast in a couple years. link for 2001 Salon article "Gay Trek", with discussion of this episode as well as some dire behind-the-scenes details about TNG's origins.

Previously on the Blue:
Some discussion of this episode from a 2015 thread.

Previously on FF:
ENT: "Cogenitor" rewatch thread, a quite heated discussion of a much bigger misfire on a related topic (and where I found the Jack quote above).
• The similar Orville episode "About a Girl."
posted by CheesesOfBrazil (11 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The previous thread on PIC"The Outcast" started here, to save some scrolling.

I did not appreciate this episode taking the sins of cisheteropatriarchy against straight people (text), gay people (intended subtext), and trans women (most natural reading) and laying them at the feet of a flanderised homogenous society of nonbinary people (text, most natural reading when starved for nonbinary rep) because it thinks we're a convenient sci-fi concept to paint over its intended-subtext villains.

There's a comparison to be made between the J'naii majority and the Twitter TERFs who use a line about gender being a social construct to push for everyone to... conform strictly to their birth-assigned gender??? But to actually make The Outcast a coherent criticism of them would take a diverse recasting of the Enterprise crew and a strong context of LGBTQIA-positivity throughout the series, which just isn't there.

Anyway, Adira Tal and Gray would tear these fuckers to shreds and keep Soren safe with Stamets's and Culber's help.
posted by polytope subirb enby-of-piano-dice at 7:01 AM on May 13, 2021 [3 favorites]

Riker and Soren, okay. The evil J'naii, and their controlling and brainwashing, horrible. But the end, oh! Riker and Worf beam down to rescue Soren. That's bad enough. I mean, we are talking about Starfleet officers here. But Picard gives tacit approval. That's just... not cool.

Why does Riker get to beam down and raise hell but Picard made Lwaxana promise she wouldn't cause trouble at the end of Half a Life? Alongside inconsistency, there is that Picard can make the hard choices; he's done so before. But here, not only does Picard let Riker go, there's not even a private dressing down in the ready room. Not a good moment for the Picard character IMO.
posted by Stuka at 7:50 AM on May 13, 2021

Thanks for this very thoughtful post, COB. It's really interesting (in the sense of the proverbial "may you live in interesting times" curse) to come back to this episode and regard it for itself rather than specifically in contrast to "Cogenitor", which I haven't changed my mind about WRT its awfulness. Especially in the context of the present moment, with transgender rights being even more of a political football than they were... was that thread less than two years ago? Sheesh--it resonates differently. And my major misgiving about the episode is precisely what polytope subirb enby-of-piano-dice identified: that they ended up making nonbinary people the villains in this.

But, by the same token, I was even more taken by Soren's speech:
"I am female. I was born that way. I have had those feelings, those longings, all of my life. 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?"
That is maybe the best speech made in all of Trek by someone not a regular or recurring character. And it brought tears to my eyes, in part because Soren has to know that it probably won't make a bit of difference in her own case, but maybe it will make its way to other people like her, and might even cause members of her society to feel some shame, some time in the future.

A couple of comments about other characters: Noor isn't portrayed as pure evil, but one of the things that stuck out to me on rewatching was that the actress, Megan Cole, also was one of the people to play the Romulan Senator Cretak in DS9, and I think that she did a similar interpretation of this character: outwardly amiable, but with a certain coldness underneath. Also, even though Worf's comments in the poker game were indeed not great--sometimes I think that the Klingons' true hat isn't being a Proud Warrior Race, but just being paleoconservatives--he goes ahead and joins Riker's not-really-legal mission anyway. (That may be more of a conscious revival of the Riker-Worf bromance, but still.)

Anyway, Adira Tal and Gray would tear these fuckers to shreds and keep Soren safe with Stamets's and Culber's help.

Headcanon accepted. (They're looking at some old log entries, come across this, and realize that time travel may be illegal in the 32nd century, but not exactly impossible.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:54 AM on May 13, 2021 [3 favorites]

Cards of the episode in the Star Trek CCG:
Null Space is one of those super easy dilemmas mostly useful for giving yourself points. Navigation is very easy to come by.

Soren is an Astrophysics mission specialist, generally more useful than regular Physics. The lore box, is, unfortunately, a bit yikes, taking the J'Naii society's values as-read in a way our crew, and the viewer, generally does not.

Soren is immune to our previously discussed hetero-normative Love Interest cards. The best one can say is that it's trying, imperfectly, to represent the society portrayed in the episode. Weird to say that a card being 'more powerful' represents, to some extent, a lack of inclusivity in the game in one regard.

There were more personnel in the game with no gender specified than one might expect, but they generally cybernetic/synthetic beings: all the Borg drones, the Exocomps, a Think Tank member, the Cravic and the Pralor. You could run a whole crew of NB Soong-type Androids if you wished, and it's generally advantageous to do so.
posted by StarkRoads at 8:47 AM on May 13, 2021

For instance, we know that Star Trek has prejudiced pieces of shit among its fandom

My girlfriend walked in on me watching this one yesterday just about in time for Soren's speech that Jack quoted above. After the speech, she turned to me, literally crying, and asked how the fuck some Star Trek fans can be so toxic when Trek itself has such poignant and aware moments.
posted by hanov3r at 8:51 AM on May 13, 2021 [10 favorites]

Soren shared her innermost secret with Riker. They were bonding. Then they rescued the people on the other shuttle and the Enterprise was hanging around just to finish mapping the null space. Where did they think the relationship was going to go from there? Was it just going to be a brief liaison? If they did indeed intend to have a long term relationship, the only course was for Soren to go with Riker. So why did she beam back down to her planet?
posted by Fukiyama at 12:32 PM on May 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

Almost every criticism of this episode is incredibly valid, and I probably find another few I agree with every time I've watched this episode, but there's always going to be a part of me that watched it as a 17 year old in 1992 who hadn't even considered he would ever come out that has a very special attachment to it.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 1:20 PM on May 13, 2021 [3 favorites]

I have such complicated feelings about this one (and so few spoons about entertainment right now, especially after some threads on the blue yesterday) that I can't really formulate thoughts, but I just wanted to say CheesesOfBrazil, that is a really excellent post you put together. Thank you for the hard work.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 2:15 PM on May 13, 2021

I definitely want to see the PIC episode where plot reasons make them go to post-revolution J'naii where everyone dresses different and their contact is currently trying a beard-and-breasts look and keeps a locket photo of their happy mum Soren and suspiciously Riker-looking dad.

Unfortunately this episode is not yet on AO3.
posted by polytope subirb enby-of-piano-dice at 2:46 PM on May 13, 2021 [4 favorites]

It's strange -- I remembered that I'd been very angry about this episode back when it first aired. But watching it this week for Fanfare, I was puzzled, because as I was watching it was turning out better than I'd remembered. It wasn't until I listened to the ST:TNC podcast episode that I realized I'd completely forgotten that it was TNG's 'metaphorical gays' episode, and how angry it made me back then that the show kept refusing to acknowledge the existence of actual gay people. On re-watch, it seemed so much more of a trans story - it's as if the passage of time transmuted it into a better episode than it was written to be.
posted by oh yeah! at 3:42 PM on May 13, 2021 [5 favorites]

It's a little bit interesting that Steven Universe also goes with a genderless alien race (though one that presents female) to insert something other than cisheteropatriarchy into a mainstream TV show. In both cases, despite a solid two decades between them, using aliens as a metaphor still barely got it past executive pushback.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 7:10 PM on May 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

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