I felt compelled to write about “The Outcast” because, in my opinion, it was the first real TNG stumble since Season Four’s “The Loss.” That was a good run of 32 episodes. As of the time of this review, it’s the only fifth season episode that I’ve given less than 3 stars.
I almost didn’t write anything at all about it. You’ve heard that old adage that suggests that if you don’t have anything good to say, say nothing at all. When I thought about this episode afterward, I decided that this hoary old quote didn’t really apply.
I have plenty of good things to say about “The Outcast.” I applaud the minds behind the show who decided, 26 years ago, to tackle the subject of gender identity. It’s something that’s still topical today. There are several episodes across all of the Trek series that you can point to and say that they are talking about homosexuality by using allegory. The concept of gender identity wasn’t as readily discussed in 1992. The fact that TNG addressed the subject at all is something to be proud of.
That said, I have to also point out that the way the topic was addressed was less effective that it could have been. The J’naii are supposed to be an androgynous race who’ve evolved past the need for two sexes. However, all of the J’naii in the episode are obviously feminine, even with their Heaven’s Gate/Moe Howard haircuts. Having Riker fall in love with the female Soren is not really a groundbreaking episode of television. Jonathan Frakes, who is Will Riker, criticized the decision to cast nothing but women in the roles of the J’naii. Frakes knew that an episode that featured Riker falling in love with a man would have been the stronger choice. Plus, he could have predated Dawson’s Creek‘s first passionate man-on-man kiss by eight years. This could have been Riker’s Kirk-Uhura kiss moment. Having Soren be a woman with a bad haircut dilutes the episode’s message.
This would have been bad enough. However, it is the resolution of the plot that truly makes this a subpar episode for me. Soren is given some sort of “reeducation” to rid her of the idea that she is female. She seems perfectly fine with her asexuality at the conclusion of the episode. I resent the idea that Soren no longer identifying as female would mean she could no longer be in love with Riker. It implies that only people of opposite sexes—or perhaps two androgynous people—are capable of falling in love. While this may fit the mainstream way of thinking in 1992 (I don’t believe even that’s true), it seems like a dangerous message.
So, in the end, while attempting to address some really important issues, “The Outcast” ultimately falls short, by a large margin. I have to agree with Frakes on this one. If Soren had been played by a man, even with the downer ending, this one would probably have ended up on my All-Time Best Trek List.
As it stands, TNG played it safe and missed their opportunity here.