The Good: Generally positive message, Good character, Interesting enough plot.
The Bad: Ending is a downer in relation to the social message (not bold enough), Nothing superlative on the acting front.
The Basics: Despite some lackluster acting and a disturbing counter message, "The Outcast" is an attempt to make arguments for gay and lesbian civil rights on television.
One of the common themes in Star Trek The Next Generation was hiding current social issues in the guise of the futuristic setting. In this way, the series was able to get away with discussing some of the more touchy issues of the time, much the same way Star Trek made comments on the Vietnam war. While Star Trek Deep Space Nine would openly confront issues of sexuality, its predecessor slyly attempted a gay rights themed episode in "The Outcast."
The Enterprise arrives at the home planet of the J'Nai, a race of androgynous beings under the pretense of aiding the J'Nai in locating a lost shuttle. While the Enterprise discovers pockets of null space that might be housing the lost vehicle, Commander Riker begins to work closely with a J'Nai named Soren. After a period, Soren reveals that some of the androgynous J'Nai occasionally have gender-related feelings. These outcasts are "reprogrammed" and sent back into society as androgynous once again. Soren admits she has feelings of being female and Soren and Riker begin a relationship. Once the taboo affair is exposed, Soren is taken in for reprogramming and Riker must face losing his new partner.
This episode works well enough as a character work with Commander Riker having one of his more meaningful relationships in the series. Here, Riker finds himself so drawn to Soren that he actually discusses his relationship with her with Troi. This represents a bold step of commitment for Riker and it enhances the believability of the episode.
In the end, the piece is about Soren, though. It is about her struggle with gender identity issues. It does not take long for the phrases she is using to resonate with those of us who do have genders; the androgynous person experiencing gender ideas is a thin metaphor for the homosexual identity struggles of modern times. The episode is courageous enough to present the viewpoints of the frightened and socially oppressed, the sexually confused and the sexually empowered. In the end, "The Outcast" is about standing up for what's right; the freedom of self-expression and self-determination that those of us in the United States have come to cherish and take for granted.
The problem is that the message becomes too obvious. The episode stops being about a different culture or about a romance, but it becomes about an issue. At that point, the episode becomes preachy and rigid in its pursuit of a thesis. The latter parts of "The Outcast" seem like a rally as opposed to an organic experience set up from the beginning.
Melinda Culea, who plays Soren, does a fair job playing the alien of the week. It's not a spectacular performance by any means. Indeed, it is her lack of convincing androgyny in the beginning of the episode that instantly suggests to the viewer when the topic comes up of people with gendered feelings that she is one of those people. It's impossible to describe more succinctly than that. Even more than the amount of airtime, it's Culea's acting which fails to persuade us from the beginning that she's not a female.
Similarly, Jonathan Frakes does an adequate job of portraying Riker getting into a serious relationship. But we've seen him have deep attachments before ("The Vengeance Factor" comes instantly to mind) and there's nothing in his performance - that is outside the written lines - to convince us that this is more than one of his casual relationships (like in the earlier episode "Silicon Avatar").
The episode's conclusion, wherein Soren is taken for reprogramming, was no doubt intended to be a creepy, surprise ending. In a rare move, I am ruining the "surprise" because it bears discussing. If the purpose of "The Outcast" is to give a voice to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc. rights movement in the United States, then Soren's successful "reprogramming" in the end seems to undercut all of that. It endorses the archaic and ridiculous notion of "straightening" the homosexuals and it's beneath the rest of the argument made in the episode. It defeats much of the purpose of the episode. Indeed, it undercuts all of the good arguments and worthwhile aspects of the episode.
In the end, though, they try and that's more than most television out there. In the final analysis, I decided to recommend "The Outcast" because it has a decent message and Soren's "reprogramming" is treated as morally reprehensible (though it works) and in this day in age, any positive message embracing diversity ought to be embraced. It won't be until Star Trek Deep Space Nine's episode "Rejoined," though, that the argument is made better.
[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Complete Fifth Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the fifth season by clicking here!
For other Star Trek episode reviews, please check out this link to visit my index page on the subject!
© 2011, 2007, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.