Monday, November 28, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 5: The Outcast

The Next Generation, Season 5
"The Outcast"
Airdate: March 16, 1992
116 of 176 produced
116 of 176 aired


Introduction

The Enterprise is assisting the androgynous race known as the J'naii in finding a shuttle that has vanished mysteriously. Having had two distinct sexes in the past, they eventually evolved into a genderless race. Some members of the J'naii still exhibit gender traits, and they are both shunned by their society and subject to government persecution. Matters are complicated when one of these gendered J'naii, Soren, falls for Commander Riker. With both his heart and the Prime Directive at stake, what will Riker do?

Is that a fibrous husk in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?






Writing

Kevin: Okay...where to start. I'm gonna save time, and direct everyone to my essay on Homosexuality and Star Trek. I discuss this episode in some detail, and I'm going to try to not retread too much of it here. Aside from the broader social issues, there's an episode unto itself here, and that should get its own analysis. Sadly, even setting aside the broader implications is the fact that this episode is a whiff on many counts, and the end result is a bit of snoozer. The idea of an androgynous society is interesting in theory. It would have been nice to see it manifested in a way other than a society of zombies. No one really had any life. They cast only women to play the parts and in trying to shear them of femininity, sheared them of personality. Everyone talked in a monotone. It would have been nice to really dig into the gender politics of the 24th century. It's not enough to casually comment that women still wear make-up, but otherwise the genders are equal. How does that work? Do men stay home and take care children in a way that society is not reviewed as remarkable? I did like the little bit we got on Riker's approach to sex. He's a hedonist, but he's not a dick. He likes competent women who are engaging him sexually rather than merely submitting to him, and that makes me happy. Then we get Worf's bizarre misogyny. Except for the one line about women not being able to serve on the council, everything about gender politics seems to say women are respected warriors. "A woman's hand?" Lieutenant? Just be glad K'Eylehr is dead so she didn't hear that and put you on your ass. Also, his being "uncomfortable" with the J'naii is bizarre. Dude, you liked the stasis fish people. What exactly are the boundaries of your comfort? In the end, we had a great opportunity to explore sex and gender, and we ended up with tired tropes of gender roles. Someone could have made a "woman driver" joke for all the real progression this episode showed.


Matthew: I liked Worf as the bigot. It made sense for his character. I also liked Soren's conversation with Crusher about face painting. I am in agreement on the sparse depiction of the androgynous culture. The most we got about the J'naii culture is the talk of inseminating husks, and nasty people in grade school. I think perhaps this story would have benefited quite a bit by depicting, say, an underground night club for gendered J'naii, to which Soren could have brought Riker. It could have gone a long way towards sexualizing them, and making the relationship between Riker and Soren feel both more real and more "forbidden." Instead, they just sort of blather about learning to pilot shuttles. I liked the dialogue about gender differences, genitalia, and so on. But it could have gone farther. Soren says they use a neutral pronoun. So share it with us! Soren tries pea soup. Why can't Riker try a J'naii delicacy? There were a lot of missed opportunities to make things feel more organic and less stilted. How is it hard for the J'naii to comprehend gendered existence, when they are surrounded by a galaxy of gendered beings? Soren talks about a long, varied, wonderful husk insemination process. But the way the J'naii are portrayed makes them seem like a bunch of stiff androgynes with rods up their keesters. Had they seemed fun in the slightest, it might have read better.

Kevin: The romance between Riker and Soren....well....yeah, that's about all I have to say. It was one of those things that looked good on paper, but just didn't play well. There may be just enough rapport to justify sexual attraction, but love? I just didn't buy it. I did really, really like him going to Troi and talking to her about it and her acknowledging that of course their relationship would change, but they would always be important to each other. It was a mature, grown-up conversation, and it was great for both characters.

Matthew: Yeah, my big problem is the climax of the tale - the romance isn't strong enough (for reasons elucidated by both of us above) to justify Riker's willingness to risk his career. So he just ends up seeming like kind of a fool. It's similar to the problem I had with Kirk in "Requiem for Methuseleh." Star Trek has not been great at creating realistic, organic-seeming romances for its characters. So when they then risk it all for those romances, it just seems off. And then, there are no repercussions for a Starfleet Commander and Lieutenant essentially beating up two foreign police officers. Lame.


Kevin: In addition to what I said in my previous post, there's a few avenues they didn't really explore that could have been fun. Soren references her classmate's clothes being torn and that "outing" him as gendered. That implies that their self-identified gender has some basis in biology, not choice. It could have been an interesting parallel of the nature vs. nurture debate about human homosexuality. I don't really think it matters if it's a choice, because...you know...it's my choice, but people seem to take persecution more seriously if the status being persecuted is intrinsic and unchangeable, so seeing that argument sussed out could have been fun. In the end, on the issue of the 24th century approach to alternate sexuality, this felt like they were trying to pander to everyone at once. They will do the episode to appease the left, but not say anything interesting, as to appease the right. All that said, Soren's speech at the end, in a vaccuum, is pretty good, and was pretty moving. For all the focus on how we are different, the LGBT isn't seeking something that far off what the right would consider "normal." I mean how revolutionary is it really to demand the ability to form a nuclear family and pay income taxes?

Matthew: When it comes to actually pushing the boundaries of issues, Soren's speech in the hearing scene was the best we would get. I thought it was a fine speech, and did indeed press the issue of lifestyle choice vs. genetically predetermined difference. "I do not need to be cured" was a great stab at anti-gay attitudes in the present. It also had a good flavor of ethical thinking - gendered J'naii have the same hopes, fears, joys and pains as the androgynous. But I do agree that it wasn't pressed far enough. Having ANY mention of human sexuality with respect to homosexuality as a parallel would have been a big start. I also think the sci-fi angle of the story should probably have been the "psychotectic treatment" idea, as opposed to the null space idea. The fact that they thought it necessary to include a science B story indicates that the producers did not support the idea of a "gay issues" show whole hog.


Acting

Kevin: Megan Cole comes back as Senator Cretak in DS9, and I liked her there. I think the script is so heavy combined with the leadeness the J'naii portray as a species, it kind of reduced her to a bit of a zombie. The same goes for the other J'naii. I think its an interesting meta-commentary on gender that when told to not act like women, the actresses apparently acted like no one. It would have been more interesting to see them retain and embellish their natural personalities with stereotypically masculine traits like assertiveness or aggression. It would have added some life to the parts.

Matthew: Yeah, in a way, I almost would have preferred the chicks from "Angel One" to these people. As written, acted, and dressed, the J'naii were uniformly boring. Since when does "androgynous" mean "vaguely lesbian seeming?" There was no fire or creative spark or real individuality to this race, and some of this must be put on the actors. I think the best of the bunch was Melinda Culea as Soren. But then, she did get the most interesting of the parts, didn't she? Her speech was easily the highlight of the show. She definitely seemed more vibrant than the rest, and her transformation after her treatment had a creepy "body snatchers" feel to it.


Kevin: Soren tried. She did. I bought her fear really well, and her resolve in the speech, but she just couldn't get around the heaviness of the portrayal of the J'naii. Riker, by association seems to sleepwalk through the episode. Everything just kind of happened here. Nothing really moved or felt alive. I did like the scene with Troi and I did like how Picard played the knowing-but-not-knowing at the end of the episode.

Matthew: I thought Frakes did a yeoman's job with a difficult script. I believed his investment, even though it was not supported by the writing. He seemed sensitive, hurt, confused, and passionate. His chemistry with Culea was only as good as the script allowed. I liked the way Dorn played "bigoted." He got the natural cadence of it just right with "they just DO." Gates McFadden was great yet again, talking about outmoded human gender roles, makeup, and picking up on the Riker-Soren attraction. And as you mentioned, the Frakes-Sirtis scene was gold yet again.


Production Values


Kevin: The white space stuff was kind of interesting, just as a change of pace. Seeing the shuttle in the white space was oddly jarring. The okudagram describing the null pocket was pretty good. I was not the biggest fan of the make up. Again, in an attempt to avoid gender, we went straight to bland. Maybe if the J'naii weren't gray, that would have helped. I did also really like the courtroom or whatever. Big, lots of tiers, bright and open. I liked the wall hangings, too.

Matthew: I liked the sets on planet, including the forests and "foreign" computer displays. I really wanted to see more of the planet, for reasons mentioned above as well as because they simply looked nice. On the other hand, the J'naii outfits were the worst, blandest upholstery clothes since, well, since ever I think. Why would androgynous necessarily mean "boring and ugly earth tones?" I liked the camera angle outside the shuttle after it was hit by a null space pocket. It was a nifty use of the exterior of the shuttle, and made it unnecessary to do an optical effect that might have failed.


Conclusion


Kevin: So the episode stumbles on actual social progress and is otherwise boring, the one true mortal sin for television in my eyes. It almost pains me to say it, but I think this is a 2.

Matthew: I've got a "3" feeling on this one. I agree that the writing was subpar. But there were enough good scenes to keep me entertained, including the Riker/Troi scene, the poker game, and the "big speech." I also appreciate the chutzpah of such a story - despite the androgynous angle, it is clear that this is about gay rights on today's Earth. Did they do it the way you or I might have wanted it? No. But it's still a mildly entertaining, average episode of Trek. So that brings our total to 5.


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