Thursday, 13 June 2019

The Outcast

We've been rewatching Star Trek: The Next Generation recently, and we've reached The Outcast, an episode which I'm sure has been discussed in more depth by more qualified people than I. Nonetheless, here is my Hot Take.

On the face of it, The Outcast is about a member of a gender-neutral alien race who expresses a gender identity, and deals with the consequences - persecution, potential abuse, and a "cure" for their condition. Which is all fine and interesting as far as it goes; it sounds like a startlingly prescient subject for a network show from the early 90s, boldly tackling such topics as gender-neutral pronouns ("it doesn't really translate," they say, and diligently avoid them throughout).

Here's the thing though: I'm pretty sure it's not actually about gender. In the context of the period, gender dysphoria was not a thing that was being discussed in any sort of a way. From the language and imagery used, from the "bashing" anecdote to the courtroom address about "how we love" to the "cure" itself, it seems more likely to me that it was intended as an allegory for homosexuality. It is, I believe, pure coincidence that they choose as their sci-fi metaphor a real thing that would, twenty years later, be much more commonly-recognised and topical.

(Quite aside from anything else, if gender dysphoria had been a thing of which they were aware, the network would almost certainly not have allowed then to do an episode so directly about it.)

Frustratingly, the decision to frame it as a gender issue serves to undermine the sexuality discussion, because to build the story around Soren's relationship with Riker, they have to have this moment where she says, "I am attracted to you, which means I must be female." This is how Soren comes out as female, and it's the primary argument in her people's case that she is female: she kissed a man. There is at no stage a suggestion that a gender-neutral person (or, heaven forfend, a male person) could possibly be attracted to a male person. I can imagine that this ties into the same reason that a gay episode had to be an allegory in the first place ("not on our network!") but dang if it's not a thorn in the paw.

It's not a bad episode per se - it does a decent job of expressing the relationship, and it has a couple of powerful monologues about not persecuting people for being different that work regardless of the context. I even rather like the ambiguity of the ending, with the "cured" Soren expressing a preference for their new condition. Certainly it's a downer ending for Riker; the audience can make their own decision on whether this is (as presented by her people) the Best Thing for Soren or (as implied by the direction and performance) a tragic abuse with no real ethical fix. After all, this is genuinely an alien species. Was Riker wrong all along in applying his culture's principles? Was he in fact taking advantage of a vulnerable adult in the throes of illness? The episode does not provide a firm answer.

Anyway. A well-intentioned, confused, confusing, and deeply flawed episode. Probably still worth watching, if you can get past the ham-fistedness of the central metaphor, and go in prepared for that ending.

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