PART THREE of Imagining Alien Sex: Alien Sex Goes Mainstream: "Star Trek"

By Jonathan AlexanderJanuary 4, 2014

PART THREE of Imagining Alien Sex: Alien Sex Goes Mainstream: "Star Trek"

THE STAR TREK franchise can be credited with several important sexual and racial firsts — such as providing television’s first interracial kiss, between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhuru. In the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” the two, along with Spock, are captured by humanoid aliens with psychic abilities and are forced to kiss. This kiss may not be an example of an actual alien kiss, even if it is brought on by alien commands and desires. Nonetheless, the kiss established Star Trek as a boundary-expanding show willing to explore not only strange new frontiers in the galaxy but equally strange socio-cultural frontiers through the fantastical medium of television. In terms of alien sexual frontiers, the opening show of the second season, “Amok Time,” shows us the strange sexual practices of the Vulcans. Mr. Spock, the Enterprise’s Vulcan crew member and science officer, must return to Vulcan every seven years to engage in procreation; he is otherwise presented as nearly asexual, a paragon of rationality and reason over passion and primal impulses. This brief glimpse into alien sexual practices suggested for a prime-time viewing audience that sex, sexuality, and gender may be organized very differently in alien cultures — a view paralleling anthropological discoveries and investigations of “alien” cultures on earth since at least the late 19th century. Unsurprisingly, the show was authored by Theodore Sturgeon, who had already explored out sexual territory in print SF in the novel Venus Plus X and “Faith of Our Fathers,” probably the first SF story to present homosexuality in a positive light.

A hint of alien sex on TV?  It was the 60s after all.  Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s liberal and progressivist stances are legendary, and many of Roddenberry’s shows explore issues of racial and gender inequity. But viewers had to wait until Star Trek: The Next Generation, one of the most popular shows of the late 80s and early 90s (running for seven seasons from 1987-1994), to see direct and explicit tackling of human-alien sexual interactions. It’s surprising viewers had to wait so long.  The universe as presented in the various Star Trek series, from the 1960s through the early 21st century, depict a galaxy teeming with intelligent, largely humanoid life. Sexual liaisons between and amongst different species seemed inevitable.

Professor Robin Roberts, author of Sexual Generations: "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and Gender, is the leading authority on the representation of gender and sexuality in the Star Trek universe, and Sexual Generations focuses in particular on some of the important, groundbreaking episodes of TNG that broach the subject of “alien sex.” She identifies two important episodes, “The Host” and “The Outcast,” as significant moments in the exploration of radical gender and sexual difference. According to Roberts, the former episode, “‘The Host,’ shows [Doctor] Beverly Crusher falling in love with a Trill, a race that has a humanoid body that periodically is replaced. The essence of the individual is a nonsexed symbiont that is placed in bodies of different sexes over time. The individual Trill, then, will change sex over its long lifetime.” The latter, “The Outcast,” depicts a fraught love affair, this time between Commander Riker and Soren, from a race of androgynes. Soren’s race, like the Gethenians in The Left Hand of Darkness, are uni-gendered and uni-sexual, though, unlike the Gethenians, they have “evolved” beyond a binary sex/gender system in procreation. When Soren starts to develop feelings for Riker and begins to believe she may actually be a woman, her people subject her to a “therapy” to cure her of such “primitive” thoughts. She is restored to her original androgynous subjectivity and the love affair ceases. In both cases, the episodes play with normative notions of gender, asking us to consider how other cultures might organize and understand gender differently than we do, and then inviting us to ponder how we, as men and women, might interact with individuals who have either lived as both men and women or with individuals who have been neither men nor women.

On one hand, such episodes provide a certain amount of viewer titillation. Will we see Riker kiss an androgyne, for instance? Or what does Beverly’s interest in a man who has also been a woman who has also been a man suggest about her sexuality? On the other hand, the exploration of such questions suggests how far into the mainstream such considerations had come. What had once been the domain of a select few feminist SF writers in the 1960s and 70s had become nearly recurring fare for television viewers of a popular (and populist) SF series. We should keep in mind, though, that Roddenberry’s commitment to exploring strange new sexual frontiers met with significant resistance early on, and a large lesbian and gay fan base was instrumental in helping prod producers into allowing these episodes to be created and aired. Indeed, as striking as the episodes may be, particularly for a mainstream audience, Roberts also suggests that they actually play it safe in some key ways. For instance, Roberts argues that, “[a]lthough casting Riker as the character who falls in love with a differently gendered alien is [pretty] radical..., casting the aliens in this episode with female actors undercuts the show’s message of acceptance of sexual orientation. A more radical choice would have been to cast men in the roles, thus making the theme’s parallel to homosexuality clearer and more convincing.” Perhaps the producers felt that casting Soren with a male actor might have made ze’s relationship to Riker seem too gay.

Nonetheless, Roberts maintains that these episodes of TNG, particularly “The Outcast,” perform significant socio-cultural work in bringing intelligent and thoughtful discussions of homosexuality and homophobia into popular culture.  Such might have served politically progressive interests for gays and lesbians, particularly at a time shortly after the advent of the AIDS crisis in which homosexuality was frequently vilified in the media and by conservative politicians. At the time, queers seemed disease-carrying, social pariahs. These TNG episodes may have allowed viewers to reconsider knee-jerk and intolerant positions on sexual difference; as we see the pain caused by intolerance, we have a chance to rethink our positions. Roberts puts the point this way: “In lesbian and gay [themed] science fiction, the figure of the alien is often used to encourage the reader to sympathize with a nondominant sexual practice. Because the character is alien, the heterosexual reader especially can feel less threatened by his or her or his/her sexuality. After we are induced to identify with the character, relevant parallels to human homosexuals are revealed. This use of defamiliarization may enable the reader to overcome social conditioning against homosexuality. In another technique, gender is so completely altered that such divisions as male and female and gay and straight have no meaning, thus questioning our society’s rigid enforcement of such social mores.” Along these lines, Estraven’s struggle in The Left Hand of Darkness, as well as Genly Ai’s struggle to relate to ze, might serve as an important early textual example. Ultimately, as Roberts argues, “[w]hen the alien characters are presented sympathetically, as they are in both ‘The Host’ and ‘The Outcast,’ even a homophobe may find him or herself rooting for a metaphorically homosexual character.”

Curiously, some of the most interesting cultural work in expanding our imagination of sexual and gender possibilities through SF occurs in fan fiction, in which fans write lengthy stories using characters from popular televisions shows or films. Star Trek fans have generated perhaps the most sizable volume of such fan fiction, and much of this work is quite sexually adventuresome. Kirk and Spock frequently get it on, while human-alien interactions abound. The pop culture critic Henry Jenkins, author of Textual Poachers, a book focusing on fan fiction and fan cultures, has authored an important article on sexuality and Star Trek, entitled “Out of the Closet and into the Universe: Queers and Star Trek,” in which Jenkins notes how important such fan fic is for individuals, particularly sexual minorities, exploring their desires. Moreover, such work, widely read and appreciated in numerous online spaces, introduces sympathetically portrayed alternative sexualities (and genders and races) to a potentially huge readership. As tolerance for difference grows, and as fans of shows push for more diverse representations, mainstream writers and producers respond in kind. For instance, Roberts notes that Deep Space Nine, another Star Trek spin off, goes even further then TNG at times in exploring strange new sexual frontiers: “In its use of a major character who is a Trill, the wormlike symbiont with a humanoid body that changes (and thus can change its sex…), Deep Space Nine advances the depiction of sexual orientation, including an intense lesbian kiss that was featured in...the series.”

The last Star Trek series to air on mainstream television, Enterprise, on air from 2001 to 2005, which offered tales of the first starship Enterprise and her crew in the very early days of the Federation, picks up on comparable themes of the earlier series and pushes them just a tad further, into the realm of multi-partner sexual activity. In one episode, “Cogenitor,” the crew encounters a species comprised of three sexes. The third sex, referred to as “it,” accounts for roughly three percent of the population and they circulate among couples hoping to conceive; apparently, the cogenitor provides a necessary enzyme. While obviously important to reproduction, the cogenitors are largely kept out of sight, not invited to take part in regular social interactions. To some human crew members of the Enterprise, the cogenitors seem hidden away and “used” more than appreciated and valued. Crewman Tucker becomes interested in the cogenitors and develops a strong attachment to one of them. He’s a bit of a tradionalist, though, even a prude.  He stops short of wanting to know exactly how the man, woman, and cogenitor reproduce, and he eventually insists on calling it “she.”  Such attitudes propel the plot as Tucker ultimately decides to “uplift” the cogenitor out of its social isolation, teaching it games and showing it movies. Ultimately, the cogenitor believes it can have a better life away from its homeworld and it seeks asylum with the Federation. The captain, however, operating increasingly from a platform of non-interference with other cultures, refuses.  The episode concludes with the cogenitor, now consistently referred to as “she,” committing suicide. Such an episode explores quite intense sexual territory, particularly as we are left with the specter of triadic or polyamorous sexual behavior — a subject truly pushing the boundaries of a culture that still largely promotes the value and primacy of the monogamous couple.  While this episode pushes boundaries, though, it also pulls back from honoring radical difference. Tucker fails to acknowledge the genderlessness of the cogenitor and doesn’t seem to respect the triadic partnering.  And the captain’s tepid response of non-interference as a way to respect cultural difference seems unfortunate, perhaps cowardly and even insincere. We should keep in mind that Enterprise began airing near the time of the September 11 attacks, and its seasons ran through an increasingly conservative, war-minded period. Perhaps the exploration of sexual frontiers needed to give way to a more conservative desire to maintain boundaries and assert more traditional understandings about intimate relationships. Curiously, Enterprise has been the last Star Trek series to air.

Still, the various Star Trek franchises may have inspired other television writers and producers to boldly go into the exotic realms of alien sexuality. The 1980s series Alien Nation depicted a group of humanoid aliens stranded on earth; intended for slave labor, their slave spaceship veers off course and lands on earth, greeted by a human population trying to figure out what to do with these new refugees. Set largely in Southern California, the show uses the arrival of the aliens to explore real-world issues surrounding an increasingly multicultural population and the real-world arrival of political refugees (from China and Vietnam, for instance) in California. As such, the aliens in Alien Nation are used metaphorically to explore contemporary socio-cultural and political issues — much like Roddenberry explored issues of race and politics in the earlier original series of Star Trek.  Alien Nation, though, features significantly more sexual content than Star Trek. We learn a great deal about the aliens’ sexuality and reproduction—apparently, the men carry their embryos to term. We also see increasing interest in alien-human sexual and intimate interaction. Several episodes focus on political issues and debates surrounding such interactions and the bigotry and prejudice that they unfortunately incite amongst some humans.  The parallels to both inter-racial relations and even same-sex relations are clear, and they are metaphorically explored through such human-alien encounters and the difficulties of loving across species lines. Other more recent series, particularly the BBC’s new Doctor Who and its spinoff Torchwood, are much more daring in their exploration of same-sex and alternative sexual arrangements. Captain Jack, the lead character in Torchwood, is a fun-loving, bi-erotic, polyamorous playboy.  A recent scholarly book, the collection of essays Illuminating Torchwood, focuses on the sexual and gender boundary pushing nature of this series and its characters. In many ways, such characters couldn’t exist on television, even cable television, without the forerunning experimentations of Star Trek.

As we reflect on these pop culture representations, we are struck by the continuing interest in exploring both the constraints of gender identification on one hand and the tantalizing interest in same-sex sexuality on the other. Trills, with their histories of inhabiting differently gendered bodies, intriguingly draw on the experiences of multiple gendered bodies, while androgynous aliens continue to fascinate. Closely linked with both multiple genders and androgyny, however, is the specter of same-sex attraction. If you are dating a Trill, are you dating a man, a woman, or both? If you are making love to an androgyne, does your own masculinity or femininity still count? Such questions tease viewers with erotic possibilities. For instance, Christopher Pullen writes that Captain Jack’s character intrigues us with “resistance to fixed sexual identity,” and, in the process, “offers ambivalence to [both] heterosexual and homosexual audiences.”  In a dominantly heterosexual society, still grappling with gender roles and still tentative about offering full equal rights to queer people, such questions and characters may provoke the mainstream into thinking about its values and assumptions about gender and sexuality. Feminist science fiction may challenge more substantively than mainstream television shows, all of which show us only fairly limited human-alien relations.  But the small steps TV takes, even if only in the imaginative confines of a 45-minute television program, are nonetheless an invitation to consider alternatives. That the alternatives continue to cluster around questioning rigid gender roles and trying to make a place for honoring same-sex sexuality is telling—suggesting two of the central preoccupations of our culture: gender identity and same-sex eroticism.   We may very well take such preoccupations with us into the future as we continue to explore our own relationship to gender and sexuality through the imaginative encounter with alien difference.

Next up: Preparing for the Alien

LARB Contributor

Jonathan Alexander is the author, co-author, or co-editor of 22 books, including the Creep trilogy, which consists of Creep: A Life, A Theory, An Apology (finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, 2017); Bullied: The Story of an Abuse (2021); and Dear Queer Self: An Experiment in Memoir (2022). Other recent books include the memoir Stroke Book: The Diary of a Blindspot (2021) and the scholarly work Writing and Desire: Queer Ways of Composing (2023). Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. 


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