This post is concerned with “Out of the Closet and into the Universe: Queers and Star Trek” by Henry Jenkins. Even though this piece is nominally about homosexuality vis a vis popular culture, the writer’s unifying field is not an idea, however, but an emotion, the unmoored nostalgia for an unrealized past that manifests as an incurable yearning projected upon the present and future.
Jenkins article, reprinted in 2004 without updates that would have allowed for the recognition of another Star Trek spin-off television series, Deep Space Nine, which provided a deeper consideration of gendering and alterity subjects, discusses a sort of popularly-based movement fomented by fans of the sequel to the original Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation, to have an “openly” gay character join the multicultural, multispecies Enterprise crew. Further wishes included incidental portrayals of gay behavior, such as ambient, non-storyline driven asides to shots of men kissing and so on. There is certainly a genuine sweetness to the Trekkie fandom community amid the fanaticism attendant to the science fiction/fantasy core crowd.
By focusing on the Galaxyian “protest movement” and their dialogues with one another and with various representatives of the estate of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, Jenkins’s view with regard to the representation of queerness within science fiction televisions programs in particular and on television – particularly assessing programs in regard to aesthetic value – in general is quite limited. In fact gay characters have flourished on television, even prior to the broadcast of the original Star Trek in the late 1960s. Star Trek was predated by a few years by Lost In Space, a campy, Cold War saga many notches below Trek in execution and sociological ambition but possessed nonetheless of one of the most memorable presences or any sexual orientation, Dr. Zachary Smith, played splendidly by Jonathan Harris.
Harris channeled Peter Lorre from M and Casablanca to portray Dr. Smith as an effete villain: a Russian spy, possible pedophile, and general whiner and meddler whose inability to adjust robotic mechanisms in a manly way provides the MacGuffin that drove the short-lived series. Jenkins does address other contemporaneous science fiction/fantasy totems such as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s reimagining of the King Arthur stories (Lancelot’s gayness – he thus rejects Morgan le Fay’s advances – is the cause of much mayhem), so it seems strange Dr. Smith would be omitted from consideration of foundational gay sci fi television presences existing around the time of Star Trek version one. How did viewers of Lost In Space know Dr. Smith was gay, when there was ostensibly no one – he mostly fraternized with teenaged Will Smith and Robot – to be gay with? The just did, intuiting extremely caricatured signs, which, upon review do not necessarily contribute to Dr. Smith’s continued treacherousness and laziness. Thus Dr. Smith is a somewhat prescient gay construction; he was averse to work and prone to accepting bribes not because he was gay, but because he was a jerk.
Dr. Smith is also a useful touchstone in considering Jenkins’s limiting treatment of ST: TNG’s Tasha Yar character. In discussing the interaction of the android, Data, with Yar, Jenkins and panelists concur that Data’s onetime sexual liaison with Yar “straightens” the asexual robot (whom Roddenberry had nonetheless conceived and described as the most variably “human” of the Enterprise crew). This incident seemingly confirms Yar as a heterosexual as well; there is no dithering once one has had sex with an android apparently, though the Galaxyian activists express a wish in the article for Captain Jean Luc Picard to engage in shore leave bisexualism. It seems Jenkins and panel have performed the crime most fatal to gaining the upper hand in any fanboy battle over sci-fi minutiae: failing to commit to memory every single plot and line of dialogue from every single episode of the television show, book, or film being fought over.
In fact the Yar character frequently mentioned questions and doubts about her perceived and “performed” identity (as the ship’s security chief) as well as her troubled but non-explicitly described romantic past to the Enterprise’s empathic counselor, Deana Troi (Marina Sirtis). Like Dr. Smith, it was simply understood amid Star Trek: The Next Generation viewers that the Yar character was a lesbian, one who exercised the option to concentrate on her Starfleet career officer aspirations to the exclusion of any firm relational attachments. (In fact Denise Crosby, the actor who played Yar, has clearly acknowledged that her understanding and performance of Yar as “gay” was based upon direction from ST: TNG writers in two documentary films about the series.)
Considering the era of Star Trek: The Next Generation (the mid-1990s) affords observation of many more gay television characters in programs of far lower quality and general staying power (in terms of re-view-ability – as screening any “Michael Boatman” episode of Spin City demonstrates). The NBC situation comedy Will & Grace, broadcast in years overlapping Next Generation, was explicitly about two gay men with respective heterosexual women roommates/sidekicks yet Will & Grace exhibited a slick aesthetic – the characters fretted over Jennifer Lopez issues and nouvelle cuisine over a laugh track – eschewing the forays into more topical subject matter made by the Star Trek franchises.
Interestingly, Jenkins makes no allowance for or reference to the show most closely related in duration, temporality, agenda, and fan devotion/interference level to Star Trek: The Next Generation: Xena, Warrior Princess. The titular character of the latter, and other series favorites including Gabrielle and Callisto, appear, as did Tasha Yar, as more or less fully-realized adult women, so the development of their sexual identities is presented as de facto. Xena features a somewhat asexual character in comparison with Data (Joxer), who, like Data, provides occasional moments of nearly slapstick humor in contrast to the series’ generally serious investigation of personal and historical problems. Again, while Xena is clearly meant to be read – and is – as a gay woman (who sometimes is distracted by men) her personal life, particularly her attachment/attraction to Gabrielle, takes a secondary role to what is after all the important mission of defeating evil and saving the Earth.
The sequel to Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, began airing concurrently with Next Generation, so it is interesting Jenkins does not undertake an evaluation of the “progress” made by the subsequent series in the furthering of the Galaxyian agenda. Deep Space Nine, which is situated in the static environment of a satellite inhabited by various species of “aliens” and humans, thus liberated from spaceship vagaries such as meteor collisions and nebulae, derives almost its entire story line from the conflicts generated between interplanetary populations by their constructions of alterity and frequently addresses colonial politics, prejudice, land and resource aggression, and gender subjugation. As the Galaxyians had wished, women and men hold hands and kiss randomly on the space station, and a main character, Odo (played career-definingly by Rene Auberjonois) is able to alter his form to experience life and love as an affiliate of both maleness and femaleness, homosexuality and heterosexuality.
Tasha Yar’s character is echoed in the presently-airing eschatology-minded Sci-Fi Channel series (another reimagining of an heirloom program) Battlestar Galactica. The commander of the Pegasus, Admiral Helena Cain (played by Michelle Forbes, who was briefly a Vulcan on TS: TNG) is a neoconservative lesbian who may also be the twelfth Cylon (and thus a sort of deified presence). Cain directly references Yar when she discusses her formative years as a security officer.
Henry Jenkins, “Out of the Closet and into the Universe: Queers and Star Trek” in Queer Cinema: The Film Reader (New York: Routledge, 2004).