Episode: s5, ep 17
This is the queerest episode of TNG I've seen. I think it's trying to do something good, although there are various things that feel awkward and I'm not sure it works.
The Enterprise is helping a planet of androgynous people search for their missing shuttle. It doesn't have the capacity to leave the system, but can't be detected. A probe from the Enterprise disappears, and investigation reveals that there's a hidden space pocket in the system. Riker is liaising with the androgynes and offers to use an Enterprise shuttle to map the pocket and attempt a rescue. Everyone is grateful and local pilot, Soren, insists on flying the shuttle.
Riker is impressed Soren's ability to pick up Federation shuttle controls. They* ask a lot of questions about gender, and Riker has questions about genderless society, but is less nosy. The pair hang out in 10 Forward and there is more gender chat, especially about how males experience attraction. Riker expresses his own preferences initially, but doesn't apply his experience to all males. Riker and Soren map the pocket, Soren's questions become a bit NSFW. Something goes wrong and Soren is injured. In sick bay they ask Dr Crusher about being female, and how attraction works between two genders. At the poker game Worf is weirdly macho about playing cards and Crusher gossips that Soren is attracted to Riker.
Riker goes to Picard, but the Captain can't intervene in another culture's legal system. Worf (whose mobility is fine btw) approaches Riker and offers to go on any unofficial rescue mission to the surface. They sneak around on the surface until they find Soren, and Riker says she can claim asylum on the Enterprise. Soren doesn't want to be rescued, they have been "cured" and all feelings for Riker have disappeared. Riker suggests that Dr Crusher could undo the non-consensual treatment, but Soren says they're happy now. Riker is heartbroken and leaves.
Riker: adventurer, lover, middle-management
I've said it before, but it bears repeating, Riker is a sex-positive ladies man. This is something we need more of nowadays. Instead of seeing romance/flirting/sex as a hunt or a battle or [insert overly-macho simile here], he treats them as pleasurable activities between two people. In the past he has actively refused the advances of women when the situation involved a major power imbalance. When asked what kind of women he is attracted to Riker describes personality traits and non-sexual interactions he enjoys. He has to like a woman's company in order to feel attracted to her. Riker respects women and is never shown as being weak for it, in fact he's the most macho human in the main cast. When asked if his preferences apply to all human males he points out that men have varied preferences, and it isn't necessarily about appearance or lust. This is stated so straightforwardly as a fact, and yet we humans of the early 21st century don't seem to have grasped this well enough (or at least much of Western media hasn't).
Should he be moving with ease after what the last episode put us through? I know the magic spine surgery meant he could recover full mobility, but I got the sense that there would still be some work and recuperation involved. I know this isn't a Worf episode, but it does feel cheap not to have some reference to his recent medical issues.
Worf weirdly genders a variety of poker, during a game that has always had both men and women in it. I know Worf's the easiest person to use when you need a regressive opinion, but claiming wild cards are feminine doesn't even make sense. I know some poker players are snobbish about them as a variation of the game, but that doesn't appear to have anything to do gender. Was it because Troi chose? Would he have said that if O'Brien or Data had chosen wild cards? Also if Worf wants to accuse colleagues of weakness he can blame it on them being humans. When Worf claims a relationship between an androgyne and a human would be impossible Data asks why and Troi pointedly agrees. Worf reads the room, shuts down his critical opinion and goes back to moaning about his cards.
It is nice that Worf, who had scoffed at the very idea of a human and androgyne, offers to go with Riker on a rescue mission. Of course after last episode Worf kind of owes Riker his life, and Worf has long had a strong attachment to Riker.
It's Not Easy Being Troi
Troi demonstrates why she's the best ex ever. There are scattered episodes over the last couple of series that show Troi and Riker being close and possibly something more than platonic. I assume it's a friends-with-benefits thing, but it's all off screen so maybe it's just flirting. It's enough of a thing that Will feels the need to tell Deanna that he's met someone important to him. He's awkward about telling her, unsure what that means for them. Of course Troi already knows it's Soren, and she's absolutely fine and happy for him, because she's the best ex ever. Riker is concerned that their relationship will change, she points out that all relationships change, but they'll always be in each other's lives. I suspect Will's wary because he has a history of being a bit snippy when Deanna is in a relationship, but she's more emotionally intelligent than him. It's also cool that Troi has her own fun stuff going on, looking through a box of old Earth junk that belonged to an ancestor.
Planet of... Homogenous Androgynes
Future Is Better?
I'm a straight, cisgendered woman, and I try to be an ally, but I am an outsider to the issues that are being raised here. Plus this is over 25 years old, so it's going to feel awkward (a lot of TNG does). Still, I felt like the episode was trying to do a good thing, but not in a good way. My thoughts are below, but I realise there are many others better qualified to discuss or dissect how the episode handles this content.
Soren's recounting of her experience -not understanding herself, having no words for her feelings- sounds like most accounts of being closeted I've read/heard, be it for sexuality or gender identity. Her experience as someone afraid to be themself, of subtly finding others who understand, of a secret community within a restrictive society feel authentic. Her relief at being able to tell someone plainly is massive, but so is her apprehension. The way that scene is shot, with her down low and partially in shadow visually demonstrated oppression. This definitely feels like it's trying to highlight the struggles of those who are mistreated due to having non-mainstream gender/sexuality. The judge calls it a perversion and the treatments people are forced to have are obviously a reference to the gay or trans "cures" that religious/close-minded folk still peddle today. Soren's speech is good; she declares who she is, that she isn't ill or unnatural, and points out the many ways that gendered people aren't different from everyone else.
There's so much conflating of gender identity and sexuality, and while those both come under the LGBTQIA umbrella they aren't necessarily the same thing. The episode is doing that thing of reversing a prejudice, so in this society gender itself is taboo and Soren as a woman attracted to men is repressed and punished. That can be a tricky trope to pull off; it doesn't address the actual prejudice that already exists, plus as the reversal can make those who are oppressed look like villains (in this case androgynous -and possibly asexual- people). While it's cool that our ladies man character is attracted to an androgynous-presenting character, she is still played by an actress.** Plus it feels like the show is being a little squeamish, unwilling to show the same level of physical intimacy here as it does when Riker gets involved with femme women.When Soren is having her 'what even is gender' conversations with Riker and Crusher it's all very binary and heterosexual. I can see why Soren focuses on attraction between genders, and how genders present, but there's no suggestion of same-sex attraction among humans. Also Crusher talking about makeup as an entirely female thing ignores the various times/places/cultures where human males did/do wear makeup (Ancient Egypt and 18th century France for example). Picard's refusal to intervene due to the rules that bind them make sense, but he never expresses the anger you would think he'd feel when reacting to prejudice and ill-treatment. The ending is poignant and worked emotionally, but a closeted character coming out and then bad things happening because of it is an overused trope. Plus the fact that the "cure" works on Soren isn't great. It's not an act since she prevents her own rescue, points out she's happy and has apparently forgotten her feelings towards Riker. Does this mean that -for her species- her identity is a curable aberration? Or is it meant to suggest powerful brainwashing? I think it's the latter, but that could have been clearer. Plus there's the old TNG problem of one-episode issues that don't really impact the main cast and are never spoken of again. If this is the LGBTQIA rights episode then it has no impact, and doesn't show the people it's supposedly representing.
1. Riker and Soren give a joint presentation to civil leader on the planet about the space pocket the shuttle is trapped in, and how they might rescue it. As people are leaving Soren tells Riker they wish to pilot the shuttle, Riker is reluctant at first. Both stubborn are about their piloting skills and keeping others out of danger. Riker suggests they team up.
Not totally sure if this counts as it's outside the Enterprise and Riker is the only staff member present, but this meeting does have a presentation.
2. Riker goes to Picard after Soren is taken away. Picard offers to talk to the leader, but Riker says they won't consider alternatives. Picard points out that Starfleet aren't allowed to interfere in another culture's legal system, and he can't give Riker sanction to take matters into his own hands. Riker knows this, but says that Soren is important to him. Picard warns Riker against losing all he's worked fore, but Riker doesn't want to hear it.
At the end of the penultimate scene Riker says he loves Soren, but Soren can only apologise and turn away. She's polite and distant while Riker's heart is breaking. In the final scene Riker comes on the Bridge, Picard asks if they've finished their buisness in that system and Riker says they have. Both are being super businesslike. There's plenty of subtext, but no conclusion and little indication of how the audience is meant to feel.
* I'm going to use singular 'they' to refer to androgynous/non-gendered characters (and those who present as such). In this scene Riker explains he's been trying to carefully construct sentences to avoid personal pronouns, and he refuses to use 'it' because that sounds rude to him (which is fair enough). Soren doesn't offer an alternative pronoun -apparently the usual one is untranslateable, but surely Riker just needs a polite word to use, not an understanding of the meaning. I forgot that 'it' was used so much back in the 90s because 'it' does sond rude and maybe it's just what I'm use to, but 'they' works a lot better to my mind.
** I've discovered that Jonathan Frakes criticised the casting of a woman in the role, good on him. It's also kind of cool that Memory Alpha describes the character as TransFemale, obviously the specifics are likely to be different when you've got aliens, but that's definitely what Soren feels like since she's in a society that refuses to acknowledge her gender or call her 'she'.