Queer readings of genre fiction and media can be a tricky subject. On the one hand, media that deals with worlds capable of grand, sweeping change are always going to be appealing to those who find themselves marginalized by this one. Queer readings can be a powerful way for a reader to find a place for themselves within a work (or a world) and can also be a useful tool for analyzing or developing works of intentionally queer genre fiction. It can also feed into some of the larger problems our species has with over-indulging in escapism or in uncritically celebrating nerd culture. A perfect example of the later is the now infamous Japanese interview where a Metroid developer made a transphobic joke about Samus Aran’s height implying she was a “new type” or a derogatory Japanese term for trans, which was picked up on by queer fans in the west and transformed into a story about Nintendo making Samus a “canon” trans character to be celebrated. A trans reading of Metroid is possible, of course, but the starvation for representation in media led to a celebration of a rather stupid joke rather than a discussion of what in Samus’ story resonated with those fans, and how to find and celebrate queer artists making use of those themes elsewhere.
Which brings me to this post. After my writing my original thoughts on Deep Space 9, I continued rewatching the series. As a result, I found I had more to say, in particular about the way the show deals with issues of sex and gender. Star Trek has had a rather unsteady relationship with both subjects. Roddenberry’s utopian vision was one where women were treated as equal in every way, but were still confined to short skirts and skin-tight leotards. The show has a very large queer following, but one that has had to provide their own queer readings of the show as Paramount repeatedly stymied attempts by the cast and crew to inject discussion and representation of different sexualities to the series. Every time the series attempted to do an important episode about sex, it invariably comes across as corny at best. Yet the show has managed to tell several very interesting stories that, while unable or unwilling to directly address the subject, have had very interesting things to say about sex and the future. Here we have a series that repeatedly WANTED to be queer, but was actively prevented from doing so in evocative ways by corporate mismanagement. It was then left to the fans (admittedly, myself included) to find different threads in the show’s narrative to draw queer readings from. What can we learn, both about the history of queer representation in contemporary sci fi and about what narratives resonate with us, both as individual fans and as shared “communities” of queer fans?
Star Trek’s history of failed attempts at queer stories goes back at least to The Next Generation, with the infamous episode The Outcast. In this episode, the Enterprise meets a planet without the concept of gender, where the very idea of gender or sexuality is considered heresy. Commander Riker is put off by the whole idea, and convinces the alien he’s partnered with to become a woman and bang him, which throws their society into chaos until she is reprogrammed. Essentially, this episode is about Riker attempting to save a non-binary culture with the power of his dick. To the actor’s credit, Jonathan Frankes wanted the alien species to be less obviously sexually dimorphic, and for Riker’s lover to be masculine. This was shot down by Paramount, who did not want to give the impression that potentially gay people existed in Star Trek. The version where Riker falls for an alien he perceives as masculine would not have been a story about brave hetero cis man Riker fighting the good fight against a vicious queer identity, but rather a story about a Riker who would be considered queer by Earth standards meeting a culture that would superficially appear queer by those same standards, only instead to be revealed as an alien, but still familiar, form of sexual orthodoxy. It would have been an interesting and complicated episode if that had been the case, but instead the episode posits a world where there is no doubt that Riker’s lover is a woman being “forced” into queerness by a morally dubious alien culture. What was to be Star Trek’s first big look at issues of sexuality became a muddled, and largely unloved, mess. The episode often shows up on fan lists of “worst trek episodes”, and is definitely not the brave step forward the show was hoping it would be. The series would not attempt to do any other overt episodes about sexuality until Deep Space 9.
In terms of queer DS9 episodes, the first that would come to most fan’s minds would be Rejoined. The character of Jadzia Dax, a woman who has inherited the memories and experiences of multiple other men and women through a worm-like symbiote, was one of the break-out characters of the series. She was also a convenient way for young queer sci-fi fans to identify with. A being with a mind made of composite lives and memories, who owes their existence to their past as one gender yet is still distinct and individual now that she is someone new, it is easy to see where these readings came from. The fact that Jadzia was confident, hot and beloved by everyone on the station didn’t hurt the escapist fantasy for young trans kids, I’m sure. It was natural that, of all the main cast, Jadzia would get the first gay kiss in Trek history. In the episode, Jadzia meets another of her species, a woman possessing the memories of one of Jadzia’s past lives’ wives. In their society, it is considered to be incredibly taboo for two lovers from a past life to begin their romance again in their new lives, as it threatens to make the symbiotes myopic, nostalgic and less open to new experiences. Everyone is freaking out about how well these two women are getting along, and is terrified that they’ll begin making out at any second.
Then they make out.
The cast and crew went on a media blitz for this episode, telling everyone that the episode was absolute, positively NOT about anything gay. That the lesbian kiss was just a natural part of a story about alien sexuality and no one should or could read anything into it. Considering that the episode has most everyone agree that Jadzia’s new relationship is morally wrong, its at least good that their stated intent was not to portray a gay relationship, even if pretending it was impossible to read the relationship as queer was a bit much. Possibly anticipating the fact that people would see the first gay couple in the Federation being told they were wrong and deviant and find SOMETHING off about that, the writers made one very clever and important choice: in the script, not a single complaint about the couple is in regards to their genders. The idea they were trying to sneak past Paramount’s notorious conservative watchmen was that in the future, gay couples are so accepted that it wouldn’t even be mentioned that Jadzia was dating a woman. Not even the most conservative person on Deep Space 9 would have a problem with that, instead only dwelling on this new bizarre alien taboo. It was a pretty good idea, but one that was sadly hindered by the fact that the episode didn’t take place in a vacuum. Perhaps if we had seen any gay couples in the background, even just in that episode, it would have highlighted how little anyone cared about Jadzia’s sexuality better. Rejoined is not a bad episode at all, in fact its quite good, but its an episode that you can tell had everyone still tiptoeing around issues of sexuality without entirely knowing what they wanted to do with it. Jadzia wouldn’t get many other big queer moments, and in the end it was a different character who would be most remembered for the queer readings surrounding them.
Garak, the Cardassian spy turned tailor, was originally played by actor Andy Robinson as, at the very least, sexually open. He flirted with Dr Bashir and sashayed his way across the station stealing whatever scene he was in. But as it became clear to the show’s creators that Garrak should not be a one-time appearance but should be added to the expanded cast, it also became clear to someone higher up that the vampy, ambiguous Garrak would have to become straighter. Robinson was asked to dial back Garrak’s sexuality (not that anyone could tell, to be perfectly honest), and the show eventually tried to give him a hetero love interest, that of Zaiyal, the daughter of the show’s great villain Gul Dukat. However, the romance between Zaiyal and Garrak never rang particularly true, at least not as a romance. Zaiyal always seemed more drawn to having an older, Cardassian man around who she could project her father abandonment issues on, and rather than a sexual attraction to her, Garrak seemed at first merely amused that anyone would trust him so implicitly, and at most this evolved into a brotherly or even paternal affection for the naive girl. It still made their relationship important, and Zaiyal’s eventual death just as tragic, but it never really felt like the grand romance the writers seemed to hope it would. To the audience, it was always clear that Garrak’s heart, if he indeed had one, beat only for Bashir.
The Garrak/Bashir relationship was what gave us one of the show’s best queer-readable episodes: The Wire. In it, the ongoing suspicions about Garrak’s past are laid bare, but in a way that merely presents more confusion and mystery. Garrak, in a fit of drug-induced mental instability, rattles off several origins for his exile and fall from grace, any one of them plausible enough and none of them remotely true. The only truth in Garrak’s stories is in its subtext. Garrak is an exile from his culture, but it is not by choice nor by philosophy. Whether angel or demon in the past is irrelevant, because forces beyond his control have decided his fate. Isolated from what he loves and wants to be, surrounded by people who cannot begin to understand him, Garrak’s punishment is one of exile not just from his home, but from his identity.
Nothing in this episode is overtly about any character’s sexuality, but the subtext of the episode provides freedom for a powerful queer reading. Garrak’s mental breakdown is revealed to be the result of him abusing a device installed in his head during his spy days. In order to resist torture, agents of the Obsidian Twilight have a surgically implanted device that injects a powerful drug into their brain, creating a sense of euphoria that helps block out the worst physical pain. It turns out that for the last few years, Garrak has been pumping this chemical into his brain nonstop. Why? Because every second of his existence is torture. Every second he cannot be who he really is, every moment he has to talk to these people on this station that he’s found himself forced to associate with, every moment away from the people he wants not to hate him, every moment he struggles with the complete inability to decide for himself if he is a hero or a monster, all of this is worse pain than any Romulan surgeon could ever inflict. So he abuses the machine until it breaks and threatens to destroy him. His salvation comes from Dr Bashir, a symbol of the Federation and the world he was thrust into that does not understand him, but also a symbol of a possible future. Despite everything Garrak throws at him, despite every attempt to drive him away, Bashir never stops trying to save him or stop being his friend. Surely I don’t need to spell out the possible queer reading in feeling so tortured by your inability to freely be yourself that you bury yourself in comforting lies and lash out at genuine affection. Or the possible queer readings of an exile longing for a family that only wishes to punish them for existing, and finding a future in a deepening relationship with someone willing to accept all parts of you. Or even the queer readings of a world where lies and truth about identity are anything but clear cut.
Deep Space 9 has many episodes like this. Stories that are not explicitly about sex or gender, but that readily lend themselves to multiple different kinds of reading. This is what makes good sci if so timeless, it’s ability to present a fictional future that resonates with the many different real world futures that are to come. Yet, Deep Space 9 is also full of episodes that ARE explicitly about sex and gender, and these are… Decidedly less successful.
Some of them are the victim of producer meddling from Paramount. Despite Star Trek’s tackling of various mature issues, Paramount saw it primarily as a family show first. Deep Space 9 ran into the same problem as Next Generation did with regards to Paramount’s vision of a family-friendly federation. When the writers wanted to do an episode that drew on the previous series’ fascination with fuckable holograms and pleasure planets, one that would force the audience to question how much of this future’s culture surrounding sex and consent we could really see as utopian, they ended up with Let He Who Is Without Sin. This toothless episode posits no meaningful questions about a future where the Federation establishes fuck-planets like Risa, nor does it ask us to question how our own 20th century values create their own biases and ideas about sex. Paramount wouldn’t even let them show any sex taking place in the episode. Instead it gives us a bland villain who wants to destroy the concept of relaxation in the manner of a Care Bears villain, and an even-by-his-normal-standards insufferably wet blanket Worf who lashes out at an entire planet in frustration over his girlfriend having once dated a sex worker.
Then there’s the Ferengi. The Ferengi are defined almost solely by a lust for profit and a cartoonish misogyny. Several episodes tried to examine Ferengi treatment of women, and even how this was at odds with the culture’s obsession with space-capitalism (an entire half of the planet is prevented from earning or spending profit for crying out loud). But while DS9’s larger oeuvre turned the Ferengi from failed villains into beloved scoundrels and truth tellers, there were still moments that fell flatter than Rom’s profit margins. The worst of which was the last “Ferengi episode” Profit and Lace, in which Quark undergoes a sex change in order to help win a blow for women’s rights. The episode opens with Quark at his most disgusting, where he tells one of his women employees that she must fuck his ears (Ferengi erogenous zones are their ears. Look I don’t know either) or find a new job. Then, Quark’s mother, the only member of an alien species devoted to capitalism to realize that women spend money, arrives to try and fix Ferengi society, but Quark yells at her until she has a heart attack, “forcing” him into the position of proving to a soon-to-be-arriving businessman that women can be good at business. Quark does this by getting a sex change from Dr Bashir and giving business advice to the lecherous Ferengi. Having “become a woman” and faced similar sexual harassment, he apologizes to his employee, only to find out that she actually now wants to fuck his ears after all. But only just having his junk reattached he’s still too “emotionally a woman” to act on it and be a man and fuck his abused employee in exchange for her keeping her shitty job and its all just a silly misunderstanding and women, am I right folks?
This episode is almost universally despised by fans, critics and the show’s creators equally. The cast and crew believe the show failed because no one could agree on the tone (Quark’s actor, Armen Shimerman, wanted to do it as a serious episode about a son’s relationship with his mother while the writers wanted to do a comical farce) but frankly, either tone would have still resulted in a failure. A “wacky farce” about a man-in-a-dress learning that sexual harassment is bad (except when it’s not?) is, at best, beneath even the worst Star Trek series. A “serious drama” where a son learns to value his mother by temporarily becoming a woman is 1970s comic book-levels of naive “very important” storytelling. Both possibilities also contribute to the ongoing problem with how television treats and portrays trans women’s stories, portraying very personal struggles as nothing but tools to help get some straight cis people what they want or help them learn. Considering how well the Ferengi are used to highlight the hypocrisy of the Federation and other Star Trek institutions, this particular “feeeeeeemales with profit!?” episode really stands out as misguided. Don’t get me wrong, the Ferengi dealing with the disconnect between their stated desires as a perfect capitalist meritocracy and their reality as total sexist, exploitative dickholes was usually great fodder for stories, just as the disconnect between the Klingon ideal of honor and their reality as petty war criminals was, or the disconnect between the Federation’s ideal of utopia and their reality as humans. But for some reason, with the Ferengi it was never as interesting when addressed directly, only when dealt with in the background of larger galactic conflicts and conversations or the more private stories of Quark and his familial relationships.
Is there something about Star Trek that hampers its ability to tell compelling stories about sexuality when it overtly tries to do so? I don’t think so. I think its just an all-too-common case of executive mandate and, more importantly, a lack of queer creators involved or even consulted. A new Trek series is coming soon, and fans have been calling for it to feature proper LGBT representation since it was announced. Honestly, in today’s climate where studios are either allowed to be as openly gay as possible (a la Steven Universe) or at least hedge their bets by piling on gay subtext to milk starved queer fans, its pretty much certain we’ll get some kind of gayness in the new series. It is some kind of progress that queer people are now considered lucrative enough to acknowledge (or hint about more often), but queerness in Star Trek can’t end there. The best Trek episodes from the past series were the ones that focused less on grand epics and heroes and more on ideas. Ideas about what it means to be human in a world where humanity is not alone. What it means to live in a utopia built on tragedy. What it means to be a citizen of the world in a universe of endless worlds. There is much more to being queer than our relationships, and if there is any sci fi series capable of looking at larger intersecting patterns and cultural issues it is Star Trek. If a future Star Trek, or any science fiction series, REALLY wants make compelling statements on human sexuality, the focus should be on representation in the writer’s room and director’s chairs more than in the character guides.