Star Trek
Insiders and "outcasts"

by Elspeth kydd

from Jump Cut, no. 42, December 1998, pp. 39-44
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1998, 2006


Gordene Olga MacKenzie' s exploration of media and popular culture representations of transgender people focuses on the preponderance of talk show, tabloid-style exposés of transgenderism.[1][open notes in new window] These shows predicate their audience appeal on claims of realism, social commentary or personal interest news value. Clearly such shows have problematic, often pathologizing and, of course, patronizing attitudes toward transgender issues.

Yet elsewhere in mainstream television discourse, images of and debates over transgenderism also surface. One show in which the boundaries of socially accepted and proscribed gender behavior are challenged and questioned, even if only to ultimately be reaffirmed, is STAR TREK. This show's science fiction discourse often sets itself up to explore social boundaries through the projected fantasy of a futuristic narrative. Within that framework, it deals with issues of gender.

In this article I will explore one specific episode, 'The Outcast," to trace how STAR TREK invokes complex transgendered desires and how those desires become permitted through science fiction displacement onto an alien species. I find this displacement interesting in comparison to STAR TREK's other racial and cultural metaphors, metaphors that repeatedly feature an alien species embodying contemporary issues of difference.

STAR TREK producers claim that their decision to create the episode "The Outcast" was to a response to activism and fan-letter writing to create a character or situation within the STAR TREK world that would appeal to gay and lesbian fans.[2] From this perspective the show in general is certainly open to much criticism. Although this specific episode deploys the rhetoric gay and lesbian activism, the narrative situation displaces these issues onto a heterosexual context. It therefore explores moral dilemmas inherent in transgendered situations without seeming to support anything but normalized heterosexuality. Yet despite its ultimately conservative resolution, this episode is an early example from one of a few primetime television dramatic series which raise transgendered issues in a context where bipolar gender is apparently under scrutiny.


In "Metamorphosis," an episode from the original STAR TREK series, members of the Enterprise crew encounter an alien lifeform. This visual manifestation of 1960s television special effects is seen as a blob of multicolored light, "a being of pure electricity." The lifeform, known as "The Companion," has developed a relationship with a stranded human, Zefram Cochrane. Cochrane and the Companion communicate telepathically; while he stands erect, the Companion's light engulfs him. When the Enterprise crew arrive, they connect the Companion to a "universal translator," which gives it a voice, a female voice. After this first gendered communication, an interesting scene ensues. When Cochrane asks Kirk why the Companion's voice is female, Kirk replies,

"The ideas of male and female are universal constants."[3]

In the conversation that follows, Cochrane manifests distaste about the now-sexualized relationship in which he has unknowingly participated.

The knowledge of the Companion's femininity sexualizes its relationship with Cochrane. Cochrane's reaction to his newly discovered sexual liaison is one of aversion. This indicates both his fear of inter-species sex as well as his reticence at being the receptive partner of the "sexual" act:

"For all these years I've let something as alien as that crawl around inside me."[4]

When the Companion is discovered to be female, its relationship with a man is confirmed as sexual and its actions motivated by desire. The universal translator mediates this discovery as a technological device which aids the federation's exploratory and ultimately colonial endeavors on "the final frontier."

Yet what is it that gives gender to an undifferentiated blob of light? After Kirk, Speck and McCoy discover the Companion's femininity through intervention by their technology, the Companion then begins to display stereotypically gendered behavior. Spock describes its interactions with Cochrane as follows:

"Her appearance is soft, gentle, her voice is melodic, pleasing."

Undoubtedly the Companion, with no physical markers of human biological sex, performs her gendered identity. STAR TREK, however, does not differentiate between the role of biological sexual difference and performed gendered identities. After all, acting feminine, which includes the Companion's impulsive (and dare I say hysterical) behavior, is being female. Furthermore, the Companion's femininity is assured, within this heterosexual framework, through her desire for a man.

This scene from "Metamorphosis" engages several of STAR TREK's recurring themes, themes that cross from the 1960s series through to the most recent spinoff, VOYAGER. These themes include the relations between humans and other species, the intervention of technology in developing interspecies communication, and the normalization of gender roles. The scene also invokes STAR TREK's structuring concern with evolution towards "utopia." Thus, Kirk, Spock and McCoy do not have the prejudices against interspecies relationships that Cochrane espouses as the product of another generation. As Speck expresses it, Cochrane's prejudice shows "a totally parochial attitude."

The more recent STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION episode, "The Outcast," also deals with gender issues in the framework of racial/species displacement. It also has at its core a relationship between a human and a member of another species. In this episode, however, the universality of the "idea of male and female" is apparently called into question. The Enterprise crew work alongside the J'naii, a "species without gender." When one of the J'naii, Soren, develops an attraction and subsequent relationship with Commander Riker, a conflict occurs within J' naii society over her decision to assume a female gender. A similar principal to that in "Metamorphosis" shapes this episode's narrative line. In this case, Soren's desire for Riker (a human male) confirms her gender as female, similar to the way that marking the Companion's female gender reveals her desire for Cochrane (human male). Yet in both episodes the relation between gender and desire, even the conflation of gender with desire, points to instabilities in the complex formation and embodiment of futuristic gendered identities.


The original STAR TREK series presents gendered discourse through absolute bipolar gendered identification; male and female are universal constructs not only for humans but for any utopian, projected other. I would like to briefly return to another moment from the 1960s STAR TREK to provide a comparative context for the different ways in which futuristic gender construction is (apparently) under scrutiny. In the episode, "The Conscience of the King," Captain Kirk indulges in one of his many romantic encounters. In this seduction scene the woman, Lenore, asks him a bizarre question.

Lenore: "Tell me about the women in your world...Has the machine changed them? Made them just people instead of women?"

Kirk: "Worlds may change, galaxies disintegrate, but a woman always remains a woman."[5]

Lenore's question, framed as an invitation for Kirk's compliment and sexual advances, alerts us to several issues in STAR TREK's imagined gendered future. The question indicates a fear that increasing similarity between genders and an utopian move toward equality will homogenize humanity and destroy gender difference. The question also signals a fear of technology's role in this science fiction construction of gender, a fear that an increasingly advanced technological society will eradicate sexual difference and perhaps by extension sex itself.

Lenore' s fear of homogenizing people — losing femininity and the reducing difference — resonates with Constance Penley's discussion of science fiction and gender difference in her essay, "Time Travel, Primal Scene and Critical Dystopia."[6] Science fiction plays on a fear of gender conformity in situations where work, uniform dress (more a case in the later series) and technological changes have created a (utopian) sense of equality. Penley argues that classical film's narrative motion

"is powered by the desire to establish by the end of the film, the nature of masculinity, the nature of femininity, and the way in which those two can be complementary rather than antagonistic."[7]

Penley finds that as science fiction uses relations between humans/ non-humans, organic beings/ cyborgs or time displacement narratives (that establish relations between those from the present or those from the past or future), the genre reinscribes difference. She writes:

"[T]he question of sexual difference -a question whose answer is no longer 'selfevident' — is displaced onto the more remarkable difference between the human and the other."[8]

Within the narrative of "The Other," the J'naii as a species embody concerns about sameness and gender conformity. Since they negate the possibility of difference, they deny the classical narrative trajectory of investigating bipolar genders and that narrative's ultimate heterosexual conclusion. At the same time they offer a heightened sense of racial/ species difference in that eradication of gender.

The character Worf expresses his discomfort with the sameness that the J'naii represent. A scene between Worf, Crusher and Troi serves as a commentary on the growing relationship between Soren and Riker. Worf express discomfort at the J'naii because "they're all alike, no males, no females." Troi replies that "we're probably as strange to them."[9] Crusher then talks about Soren's attraction for Riker, claiming that Soren "seems to be overcoming the differences [between human and J'naii]."

The J'naii within themselves represent a species lacking difference, as Lynne Joyrich describes them:

"All members of this androgynous race...look alike (featureless), speak alike (in a monotone), and dress alike (in shapeless robes)."[10]

This lack of distinctions between the J'naii enhances the viewer's sense of their difference from humans and specifically from the highly masculinized character of Riker. As relations between Riker and the J'naii develop, the plot articulates increased differences. When this interspecies relation inscribes gender onto the previously genderless Soren, the plot compounds displaced racial/cultural difference and heterosexual gender difference.

Penley suggests,

"That this questioning of difference between human and other is sexual in nature can also be seen in the way that these films reactivate infantile sexual investigation."[11]

A fairly lengthy scene by television standards is given over in "The Outcast" to Soren and Riker's discussion of their species' reproductive processes. This fascination with different reproductive and sexual practices teases the audience with the question, "How do aliens do it?"[12] (The question is repeated in "The Nitpickers Guide for Next Generation Trekkers," which feature speculation on the nature of J'naii genitalia.[13]) Although Soren describes J' naii sexual practices to Riker, the tease remains unresolved and intensified by the different species' conflicting sexual practices. Even if we know a small amount about how J'naii perform their sexual acts, we are left with the question, "How do a J'naii and a human 'do it'?" Such a question in fact was first expressed by Worf —

"a human and a J'naii? Impossible."

Riker and Soren's discussion of their species' sexual practices resonates with other moments in STAR TREK when alien sexuality is explored. In the ongoing STAR TREK narrative, the issue of "how aliens do it" resurfaces. For example, in the original series, the episode "Amok Time" explored the Vulcan experience of "Pon Farr" — a biological and animalistic projection of sexual practice.[14] A recent VOYAGER episode "Blood Fever" returned to this motif. In both these instances a male Vulcan character feels an uncontrollable biological urge to "mate."[15] This situation plays on the irony of a species so controlled and unemotional becoming overpowered by emotional sexual drives. Yet the sense of mystique and exoticism around alien sexual rituals provides narrative tension and interest in finding out about another group's sexuality.

STAR TREK's recurring theme of alien mating practices is one of the few places where the series examines sexuality. Despite the radical potential of using non-gendered characters, STAR TREK regularly introduces sexuality within the framework of reproduction and the conventions of romantic love. Plotlines conflate sexuality with reproduction to confirm heterosexuality's already centralized position in the series. Thus, in "The Outcast" the intersection of reproductive sex and romantic love mark how the script will deal with a "transgendered" character and its interspecies relationships.

The episode resolves unsatisfactorily; the J'naii treat Soren with "psycho-techtic therapy" to "cure" her of aberrant gender. This resolution terminates any romantic possibilities between Riker and Soren. Yet the resolution also is a function of how serial television narrative usually treats sexuality. Television series' formal constraints often deny the possibility of romantic involvement for ongoing characters. A relationship with a regular member of a STAR TREK crew almost automatically fails. This narrative does not resolve itself in the filmic sense, as Penley discusses, because the television series structurally disallows romance as a narrative conclusion.

Ultimately, as Joyrich suggests, part of the central discourse on difference in "The Outcast"

"presumes that all androgynous or transgendered people are absolutely the same, that without the excitement of sexual difference, there is clearly no difference at all."[16]

One of the many displacements at work in this episode is to displace onto an alien species any potential discussion of transgendered humans or questioning of the problems inherent in bipolar gendered humanity. It presents heterosexuality and unproblematic male/ female gender identification as the norm for humanity, as well as a desirable goal for non-humans.


Much critical writing on STAR TREK focuses on a structuring interest in racial and cultural difference coded into the premise of a starship exploring unknown territory.[17] The narrative drive through the many STAR TREK manifestations depends on the complex creation of various species of alien lifeforms. Those species' interaction with humans shapes most storylines. The various series repeatedly return to the issue of interspecies mixing, both sexual and reproductive.

Self-consciously, I would call this representation of interspecies relationships "miscegenation." That is, I wish to signal the parallels between this discourse and the ongoing U.S. interest and taboo around questions of interracial sex and mixed race people.[18] On television these taboos often function in similar ways to transgendered discourse: the taboos are a regular feature of talk shows and a sensationalized tabloid subject.

"Miscegenation" represents another contested site of sexuality on STAR TREK, and one that bears comparison with gender discourse in "The Outcast": the two strands of sexual discourse are ultimately interconnected. The scripts represent such an interest in "miscegenation" in terms of interspecies romances but more prominently through mixed species characters. The original STAR TREK series initiated an interest in mixed people with the character of Spock, whose representation articulated discourses of liminality and certain characteristics of a mulatto stereotype. Throughout other manifestations of STAR TREK, other mixed race or mixed culture characters have been incorporated into the diegesis. In THE NEXT GENERATION Counselor Troi is half human, half betazoid, and Worf is a Klingon raised by humans.[19] VOYAGER produces the latest manifestation of the interspecies character with the half human/ half Klingon B' Elanna Torres, whose mixed species status provides the foundation for repeated narrative conflict.

These characters maintain the series' ongoing narrative of interspecies desire and interspecics reproduction. "Miscegenetic" relations occur on various levels. In specific episodes, guest characters serve as temporary romantic involvement for ongoing characters. Difference is central to these relations and results in the plots' exploring otherness. Yet the serial nature of narrative means that often these relations provide one time experiences, not ongoing concerns. If interspecies relationships develop over the length of several episodes, in varying ways, they are marked as unstable. On the whole, despite the number of mixed species characters on STAR TREK, interspecies sexuality remains disallowed.[20]

The use of a mixed-species person is a method by which a character embodies the narrative's intercultural exploration. The larger tradition of the mulatto or mixed race character in literature and popular culture is fairly complex in how it articulates cultural difference, sameness and assimilation. In her study of the mixed race character in U.S. literature, Judith Berzon suggests that one manifestation of the "mulatto" is as "existential man."[21]

Certainly Spock fits this characterization of "existential man," a characterization that provides for exploration of differences.

"He...was a complex, multilayered…character whose basic inner turmoil and unalterably alien presence could provide a strong focal point for any number of dramatic possibilities."[22]

This kind of mixed race character is not simply reducible to the stereotype of "tragic mulatto" although it has inherent in it the drama of conflict of identities. Mixed characters also occupy a more complex narrative space whereby their access to two different cultures often makes them figures of mediation between their two worlds.[23] This mediating function also allows them to serve as potential figures of assimilation and appropriation.

When examined in the context of an interest in interspecies mixing, the character of Soren and "her" relationship to Commander Riker follows certain conventions. Soren's characterization follows the narrative practice of embodying conflicts of cultural identity through a character's personal crisis. Her choice of a gender, as well as her desire for a human, alienates her from the J'naii and brings her closer to being human, making her a figure of liminality between the two cultures. As a liminal or "border" figure, her existence within the series' discourse on sexuality can be used critically to explore the nature of gendered performance and gender construction. I see this as similar way to the use of the mixed culture character in the examples discussed above.

Additionally, Soren's desire for Riker transgresses species boundaries as well as breaks with the J'naii's (non)gender expectations. The J'naii' s treatment of her could be read as punishment for miscegenation as well as for gender transgression. Also at work here is a narrative of progression and evolution towards a racial/species utopia, mentioned earlier in relation to Cochrane and the Companion. Like Cochrane the J'naii have a "totally parochial attitude" towards inter-species mixing.

The area in which racial and gender transgression find a close relation is the problematic, yet interesting, notion of "passing." This idea evokes complexities of identity and concealment as well as other questions about the essentializing tendencies of racial and gendered discourse. The issue of passing also raises a series of questions about the way in which identities — of gender and of race-ultimately rely on performance.

In "It Takes One to Know One: Passing and Communities of Common Interest," Amy Robinson discusses the role of passing as a performative act. She identifies the moment of the pass as "a triangular theater of identity." In the act of passing, the performance is initiated by the performer and witnessed by both the "dupe" and the "in-group clairvoyant."[24] The moment of the pass occurs both racially and in terms of gender or sexuality. It can be more usefully seen in terms of performance rather than more conventional models of concealment or hiding a pregiven, essentialized identity.

In "The Outcast" the characterization of the J'naii as a species is tied to passing since their performance of no-gender functions to highlight the nature of gender. The J'naii lead the audience to speculate on what constitutes what we perceive as gendered identity. Visually the episode removes stereotypical markers of gender so that Soren explores the nature of gender by discussing Riker's beard and Crusher's make up and hairstyle. The episode follows Soren's narrative with little sympathy for the other J'naii characters, giving the impression that underlying their performance of no-gender is a group of people passing, concealing or repressing their true gendered natures.

Narratives of passing have another significant moment: the scene of confessing the pass. In racial passing narratives, often the passer confesses to a lover or potential lover "the real" nature of his/her identity. "The Outcast" also contains scenes of confession. In these, Soren's admission of gendered identification resonates with the passing narrative's scene of revelation. Thus, while Riker and Soren are working together on their shuttlecraft, Soren confesses her desire for him. She also tells him of her gender identification. The scene is structured as a confession; she admits her role as a passer and her past as a closeted female J'naii.

This is also the moment where the rhetoric of gay/lesbian activism is strongest. Not only does this scene gain the audience's sympathies for Soren, the victim of a J'naii style of oppression (that seems particularly "human" and contemporary), it disallows any sympathy for J'naii for the way they have forced Soren to live.

Projecting a fantasy of the J'naii's fear of miscegenation and of gender transgression displaces the contemporary culture's own anxieties around both of those issues. STAR TREK has a preponderance of mixed species characters without comparable representations of the mixed species romances that produce these offspring. In this way, STAR TREK continues a practice of taboo that at once negates miscegenation at the same time as it is endlessly fascinated by it. This episode also displaces fears of transgcnder issues onto the J'naii in a manner that reinstates bipolar gender. With the J'naii's punishment of Soren for gender transgression, the J'naii are in effect themselves narratively punished for their own deviance from the norm of contemporary conventions of human gender.


The narrative of "The Outcast" assumes that desire for others constitutes a foundation for a gendered identity. It offers in simplistic terms heterosexual desire normalized through gender: to desire a man is to be a woman. This way, gender is not only constructed performatively but through the matrix of expectations about heterosexual desire. This plot line adds a rich irony to the episode's deployment of ideas from gay/ lesbian activism. Soren pleads for the right to partake in heterosexuality in terms of freedom from oppression that remind us of much contemporary lesbian/gay discourse. Watching "The Outcast," however, a gay or lesbian viewer may be left with questions about how the show's formulation of gender intersects with heterosexual expectations. One contradiction or question that the episode raises for me is, "What does it mean to desire gender?" And how is this desire for gender sexualized in relation to the desire for others?

While I am left with questions, I would also like to return to the question posed to the hyper-masculinized character of Captain Kirk: "Has the machine changed them?" As with many STAR TREK episodes, the question of difference between the alien (J'naii) and the human characters is articulated through an intersecting discourse of evolution. If the J'naii have progressed beyond the limitations of gender, they have done so by sacrificing their ability to indulge in interspecies relationships and therefore stepped back on the evolutionary ladder to be at the same point as Cochrane and his fears about his sexual relationship with the Companion. However, Soren claims that the J'naii have evolved beyond the primitive practices of bipolar gender. The nature of this evolution is not specified, but resonates with the series' earlier fear of technological intervention, in which the machine

"has made them people instead of women."

The episode's script constantly ties questions of culture and environment to essentializing references to biology and biological difference. Perhaps a technology that allows for gender reassignment surgery is the ultimate cause of the fear about eradicating difference in "The Outcast." Maybe the J'naii's "misguided" evolution towards a gender-free utopia is this episode's ultimate source of conflict. If the "The Outcast" allows a space in mainstream television to question gender, what it disallows is a chance to celebrate multiple genders or move beyond normalizing bi-polar gender identification. It could have allowed narrative space to speculate on the potential "utopia" of a gender-free society, as many feminist science fiction models offer.[25] STAR TREK condemns this potential post-gender fantasy as an evolutionary mistake-as if political correctness has gone wild and not only targeted gendered language but conventional bipolar gender itself. Would that we were so lucky.


I. Gordene Olga MacKenzie, Transgender Nation (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994).

2. Phil Farrand, The Nitpicker's Guide for Next Generation Trekkers (New York: Dell Books, 1994).

3. STAR TREK (Paramount, 1968).

4. STAR TREK (Paramount, 1968). It is difficult to imagine that Cochrane assumed a gender for the Companion at all. If the Companion is male would this statement contain homoerotic overtones? Or is the Companion, in Cochrane's view, ungendered?

5. STAR TREK (Paramount, 1967).

6. Constance Penley, "Time Travel, Primal Scene and Critical Dystopia," The Future of an Illusion: Film, Feminism,
and Pyscho-analysis (New York: Routeledge, 1989) 121-140.

7. Penley, 131.

8. Penley, 132.

9. STAR TREK (Paramount, 1994).

10. Lynne Joyrich, "Feminist Enterprise? STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and the Occupation of Feminity," Cinema Journal 35:2 (1996).

11. Penley, 132.

12. Penley, 131.

13. Farrand, 187.

14. "Amok Time" and "Blood Fever." For an interesting discussion of the some audience interpretations of the Vulcan "Pon Farr," see Constance Penley, "Brownian Motion: Women, Tactics and Technology," Technoculture, ed. Constance Penley and Andrew Ross (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 199!) 135-161.

15. Penley argues that there are interesting parallels between "Pon Farr" and PMS. Penley, "Brownian Motion," 140.

16. Joyrich, 64.

17. For example, Taylor Harrison, Sarah Projansky, Kent A. Ono and Elyce Rae Helford, Enterprise Zones: Critical Posi-
tions on STAR TREK (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996.)

18. See Rhonda V. Wilcox, "Dating Data: Miscegenation in STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION," Harrison et al., 69-94.

19. See Leah R. Vande Berg, "Liminality: Worf as Metonymic Signifier of Racial, Cultural and National Differences," Harrison et al., 51-68.

20. There are of course exception to this — Kes and Neelix in VOYAGER and Worf and Dax in DEEP SPACE NINE. Interestingly these relationships are generally between two nonhuman races, rather than between human and other.

21. Judith R. Berzon, Neither White Nor Black: The Mulatto Character in American Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1978).

22. Quoted in Freda Scott Giles, "From Melodrama to the Movies," American Mixed Race: The Culture of Microdiversity, ed. Naomi Zack (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield: 1995) 63-78.

23. Hazel Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

24. Amy Robinson, "It Takes One To Know One: Passing and Communities of Common Interest," Critical Inquiry 20:4 (1994).

25. For example, Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness  (New York: Ace Books, 1969).