Star Trek often used aliens as allegory to deal with societal issues and The Next Generation carried on that tradition. Midway through the fifth season, “The Outcast” brings the issue of gender identity to the forefront. It was the first time the show showcased such an issue. All of the featured characters in Star Trek are heterosexual and cisgendered so they explored the concept of gender identity through an androgynous alien species.
The Enterprise is in the midst of investigating the mysterious disappearance of one of the J’naii’s shuttlecraft. They send out a probe and when it too disappears, the crew realize they have encountered a phenomenon of null space. Soren, a member of the J’naii, and Commander Riker work together to develop a rescue plan for the shuttle. In the process they fall in love, something that is taboo in J’naii society as Soren confesses she identifies as female.
Soren requests that she accompany Riker on the rescue mission because she’s a good pilot. Riker takes her to the shuttle bay and shows her one of the standard issue shuttlecraft. Soren easily identifies the controls as her parents were pilots and taught her how to fly before she could walk. Krite, who is also working to recover the missing shuttle, was her instructor at flight school. When Riker states “He had a good student,” Soren is confused about the male pronoun. The commander admits to struggling to talk about the J’naii without using any personal pronouns. Soren replies that the J’naii use a neutral pronoun that doesn’t translate well. For some reason the singular “they” isn’t brought up.
After the shuttle orientation, Riker invites Soren to lunch. Soren is interested in the concept of gender and asks Riker what makes the males different from females. He gives her some biological differences but doesn’t really answer the question about emotional differences. Instead the commander asks about J’naii society. They realize other than the lack of gender the J’naii aren’t that different.
The first time Riker and Soren go out in the shuttle, they track the mysterious neutrino emission to map the perimeter of the null space. Soren asks Riker about sexual organs, which makes him feel a little uncomfortable. She explains the J’naii mating ritual: neither parent carries the fetus, rather they both inseminate a husk. When Riker wonders if a human and J’naii could be compatible, Soren points out that the J’naii consider even the concept of gender offensive.
Soren is injured in a shuttle accident when they clip the null space and lose an engine. In sickbay she’s checked out by Dr. Crusher. Thankfully it’s just a mild concussion, so she is permitted to continue her mission with Riker. Before the two set out again she admits she identifies as female. But she explains those feelings are forbidden in J’naii society so she’s had to keep them hidden, terrified of being discovered. Anyone found with a preference for a particular gender is given “psychotectic” treatments to eliminate the gender preference.
Inside the null pocket, Riker and Soren find the J’naii shuttle and are able to rescue the crewmembers. The J’naii host a party to express their gratitude. Soren manages to slip away and share a kiss with Riker. Unfortunately Krite sees them and reports Soren. She’s taken to a tribunal. Riker barges in and attempts to clear Soren’s name by saying he forced himself on her. But Soren is tired of lying. She makes an impassioned speech where she points out she is not different from any other J’naii. But the tribunal isn’t swayed and sentences her to receive the treatment to eliminate gender preference.
Riker wants to intervene. He tries to get permission from Picard to go and rescue her, but the captain will not grant it and reminds Riker to tread carefully because of the Prime Directive. If the commander were to do something stupid, it would affect his career. But Riker can’t stay away. At night he heads back to the planet to rescue Soren. Unfortunately they’ve already had a treatment session so Soren tells Riker they were sick. Riker returns to the Enterprise without Soren.
When I found this episode during college, I loved it. But I’ve definitely changed my mind in the six years since. I hate that all of the J’naii are played by female actors. It would have been better if a few male actors were cast as well. I feel like the producers pulled their punches by using female actors exclusively. I also hate how Soren undergoes treatment so willingly. After her speech she doesn’t have any lines, except when Riker comes to rescue her. She admits she’s sick so soon after denying it vehemently. It feels rushed.