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Lower Hutt, New Zealand

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University essay written in 2005, for a Media Studies paper.   Graded A-.

Sexuality in Science Fiction TV:

Space, the final frontier - it's continuing mission to seek out new sexualities?

“The media is thus an ‘enabler’ of ideas and meanings, promoting diversity and difference which might lead to social change”.[1]   John Fiske’s claim is arguable with the effects the media has on society constantly under debate.   Does the media help to bring about change in society, or does it merely serve as a mirror to reflect the change already taking place?   Either way, once the media begins to deal with an issue it brings it to a wider audience.   We live in a deeply fragmented society so the media is largely responsible for presenting information to society as a whole.   It has the ability to, at the least influence, people’s perceptions of man cultural and political issues.   Due to this, the media wields a lot of power, and its position in modern society is important.

Of all the various media forms, television is often thought of as an inferior medium, but considering its popularity, its ubiquity in the everyday lives of so many people, “TV’s qualities of domestic and social intimacy” make television a crucial medium today.   “Since the early 1950s television has established itself as the source of a constant flow of stories which has continued to reflect (or, as some would argue, dictate) the changing morality of society”.[2]   While some consider television as just another form of entertainment, the many different genres within the medium do continually attempt to address important cultural issues.   And one genre that has been at the forefront of addressing some of the most difficult issues since the 1960s is that of Science Fiction Television.

People used TV science fiction shows as a way of thinking through their sense of ‘otherness’ – even though they were not themselves eccentric Time Lords like Doctor Who or alienated androids like Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation – and thereby arrived at a comfortable sense of their own identity.[3]

This essay will take a closer look at one medium, television through the genre of science fiction TV, and address how the issues surrounding sexuality are represented.   There are very few examples within sci-fi TV that allow for anything beyond the typical heteronormative picture.   After first ascertaining whether or not ‘other’ sexualities are visible in sci-fi, the consideration of why they are not visible will be considered.

Science Fiction (sci-fi) TV, through being set outside of our own society, whether by placement in the future, or in a different universe, can take an issue such as racism, outside of reality and place it in a different guise, in the sci-fi ‘reality’, which encourages the audience to look at the original issue from a different perspective, and hopefully an opener perspective.   Sci-fi TV, like most other genres, rests on a “knowingly ironic comprehension of the way television conventions are juxtaposed and manipulated”.[4]

Of all the sci-fi TV shows out there, Star Trek is one of the most popular, and has become a fully-fledged franchise, surviving through five different television incarnations, ten feature films, an animated series, hundreds of novels and many comic book adaptations, since the original series aired in September 1966.[5]   “In the case of Star Trek, the audience is perfectly aware that the main characters will survive at the end of each week’s episode, and that there must be some kind of ‘adventure’ to motivate the drama”. [6]   Chris Gregory suggests that the audience has learned to ‘read’ the psychological, social or political themes which are coded into its fictional scenario”.

As well as presenting people with a way of addressing their ‘otherness’, helping to establish their own identity, Star Trek presents a utopian society.   The Star Trek reality represents “an optimistic future in which humankind has overcome sickness, racism, poverty, intolerance, and warfare on Earth; the central characters explore the galaxy, finding new worlds and meeting new civilizations, while helping to spread peace and understanding.[7]

Star Trek frequently addressed racial issues, and gave many viewers with the first interracial kiss seen on television.   The alien races in the Star Trek universe can often be aligned with actual nationalities, for example the Romulans can be viewed as Russians, particularly during The Cold War years.   Another sci-fi franchise, Stargate, has also portrayed various alien races in ways that can be aligned to contemporary examples; where the problems between the Tok’ra and Jaffa races can be viewed as Israel versus Palestine.

So, given its propensity for representing difference and diversity, it is surprising that sci-fi television has (except for a few instances) steered clear of addressing issues surrounding sexuality.   Issues surrounding gender have been frequently addressed, but constantly sci-fi TV continues to give an extremely heteronormative representation of their realities.   While this is the same with most television today, the continuing invisibility of non-heterosexuality in science fiction television is curious.

In 2001, Jonathan Kay pointed out that it was “precisely because the original Star Trek [and the spin offs] was shot through with utopian themes that it seemed natural for it to boldly go where no television show had gone before”.[8]   Other television shows have begun to deal with the issues surrounding sexuality, but Tamra King, of the Los Angeles chapter of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, pointed out that “Gay and lesbians are definitely more visible in prime time television… The disclaimer that needs to follow is the overwhelming majority of gay and lesbian representations are usually on sitcoms and usually just for an episode”.[9]   Gay and Lesbian characters have become more common on television since King made this statement in 1996, but it still seems that these characters are left to sitcoms, and “are just dandy as long as you leave out the passion and substitute punchlines instead”.[10]

Considering how the “stupidity of prejudice” tended to be a central theme in the Star Trek reality the seeming absence of anything outside the heteronormative picture is unusual.[11]   This is especially unusual considering how many fans have hoped for the inclusion of gay characters in their favourite series, or for storylines that consider the issues surrounding sexuality.   And while there are a few instances where this appears to have happened, many argue that it is tokenism, or just a superficial touch on issues that need greater consideration.

Jonathan Kay clearly believed that Star Trek never went boldly into this debate.   “Over the years, some gender-bending has been permitted -- but always with a sci-fi twist that makes it something more confusing than garden-variety homosexuality”.[12]   Here he allows a mention of the alien race the Trills, a race of joined-people, where the humanoid body is a host-body for a symbiote (a slug-like life form).   The symbiote’s lifespan is well beyond the host-body meaning the symbiote can inhabit several different hosts in its lifetime, both male and female host bodies being used.   One of the central characters in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DSN) is a Trill, Jadzia Dax, inhabiting a female host body.   And with this character the Star Trek franchise saw its first same-sex kiss, but, as Kay pointed out, “in space, just because something looks gay doesn’t mean it is”.[13]   Since both, Jadzia Dax and the other Trill she kissed, were heterosexual, having been in a ‘straight’ relationship earlier in the symbiote’s lives.

There are other instances where issue of sexuality is raised in the Star Trek universe, but Jonathan Kay completely overlooked these.   The Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) episode, ‘The Host’ is a particularly note-worthy example.[14]   Executive producer and writer for TNG, Brannon Braga, cited this episode as one of the best storylines the show ran.   “The perfect Trek script begins with a great science fiction concept.   It tells an exciting adventure, while at the same time serving as a metaphor for contemporary humanity”.[15]   ‘The Host’ was the first episode to introduce the Trill race to the Star Trek universe.   Braga explains:

Someone pitched a story about host bodies and symbiont worms, which was at first glance, a repulsive idea.   But it turned out to be the best love story we did.   Why?   Because one of our characters was forced to confront the true nature of love.   Is it the person? The body? Or Both?[16]

This episode calls upon the viewer to consider the same questions Doctor Beverly Crusher is faced with when she falls in love with the Trill.   Crusher is able to accept Odan’s move from the host she met him in, to her colleague and friend, Commander William Riker, but when the new host arrives, and is female, Crusher is unable to accept Odan as a woman.   While Crusher’s heterosexual orientation makes her unable to look beyond the ‘body’, there is nothing to suggest a same-sex relationship would be taboo in the Star Trek reality.[17]   Chris Gregory points out that the “the subject of homosexuality is dealt with by means of a subtle analogy, but some still felt that Star Trek was failing to deal effectively with the issue by presenting Beverly’s avoidance of the relationship”.[18]

Another TNG episode ‘The Outcast’ was arguably the best episode at considering the subject of sexuality.[19]   The ‘Enterprise D’ crew comes into contact with an androgynous race, the J’naii, and Commander Riker begins working closely with one of the J’naii, Soren.   The two characters have many discussions about their different cultures, specifically related to gender and sexual relationships.   Soren eventually confides in Riker, revealing ‘she’ is one of a minority of her race that feel a tendency towards a particular gender; ‘she’ considers herself a female, but this is unacceptable in J’naii society.   Soren also admits she is attracted to Riker.   After another J’naii spying on Soren, discovers her secret, she is subjected to ‘reprogramming’, despite the poignant speech she makes defending her right to determine her own sexuality.[20]

“The harsh sexual monoculture of the J’naii is a deliberate parallel with the repression of gays that has characterised much of modern history.   The reactions of the authorities is a reminder of the once-common ‘experiments’ in ‘reconditioning’ homosexuals by means of electric shock and other behaviourist techniques”.[21]   First using an idea that seems totally alien to reality, a single gendered race, and painting a touching picture of the plight of one of these people and then setting it into a situation that parallels our own reality.   It would be hard for a viewer to not see the parallels with the plight of gay and lesbian people in our society, and hopefully the viewer will look at the original issue from a different perspective, and possibly an opener perspective.

But considering the scarcity of episodes that address any of the issues surrounding sexuality, some fans have resorted to making their own ‘queer reading’ of the texts.   Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick broadened the interpretation of the word ‘queer’ and suggested “that literature not be read with the author’s possible homosexuality in mind but instead with an openness to the queer (homoerotic and / or homosexual) contexts, nuances, connections, and potential already available within the text”.[22]   Katherine Gantz has taken this concept, and applied a ‘queer reading’ to a supposedly heterosexual television show, Seinfeld, and this is clearly an approach embraced within many sci-fi TV fan communities.  

The term ‘queer’ does not necessarily mean ‘gay’ in Gantz opinion, she argues that instead of being the opposite of ‘heterosexual’, ‘queer’ is the opposite of ‘straight’.[23]   She goes onto explain that ‘straight’ is a restrictive term, and that ‘queer’ “should be understood not so much as an intrinsic property but more as the outcome of both productive and receptive behaviours – a pluralized, inclusive term that may be employed by and applied to both gay and nongay characters and spectators”.[24]

Some fans of Star Trek have ‘read’ seemingly heterosexual characters as being in same-sex relationships, from Kirk and Spock, to Picard and Q, down to Archer and Trip.   Stargate SG-1 has also acquired a portion of fans that apply this same ‘queer reading’ to the show, and view the two male leads as being in a relationship.   Charlotte Miller commented in her blog article: “Now in season eight of the phenomenally popular television series, The Powers That Be behind Stargate SG-1 have distinguished themselves with the return of an onscreen relationship that often carries a ‘not-so-heterosexual’ subtext”.[25]  

The characters of Colonel Jack O’Neill and Daniel Jackson have always represented a close friendship, supportive, and at times openly affectionate and emotional, but whether there is any homosexual subtext is questionable.   Miller cites comments made by the actor Michael Shanks (Daniel Jackson) as proof of the homosexual subtext.[26]   She believes Shanks “openly speaks with fans about the less-than-heterosexual subtext often present between his character and that of Jack O’Neill, and has stated openly on one of the series DVDs that their bantering style of communication is due in part to ‘homosexual tension’.”[27]   Yet, having heard these comments I believe they belittle this reading, as Shanks, and others involved with the show, usually reply to these queries with humour, veering around the actual issue.   And the comments on the supposed ‘homosexual tension’ between the two are a subject of jokes in the DVD special features.

Millers’ reading of the Stargate text is even more questionable when she states she believes the “Powers That Be” have never needed to clarify an actual sexual preference for either characters.[28]   This is arguable since both characters have been in several straight relationships throughout the eight seasons of the show, and the writers have consistently pointed to the sexual tension between Colonel Jack O’Neill, and his second in command, Major Samantha Carter.   And O’Neill’s character, while not a completely stereotypical TV military officer, is often uncomfortable displaying support or emotion towards his fellow characters, male and female.

But it is the belief that the sexual orientation of the characters is not stated outright in the series that allows a ‘queer reading’ to take place.   Katherine Gantz explained that in naming the characters sexuality any possible ‘queer reading’ is subverted, and marks the other characters as the other sexuality.[29]

Sexual perimeters become limited, fixed, rooted in traditional definitions and connotations that work contrary to the fluidity and subtle ambiguity of a queer interpretation.   It is precisely the unspokenness (‘the love that dare not speak its name’) of homoeroticism between seemingly straight men that allows the insinuation of a queer reading.[30]

This ‘unspokenness’ allows many fans to continue to apply their ‘queer reading’ to their favourite sci-fi TV shows.   And some have taken this reading further and delved into the world of fan-fiction.   For as long as sci-fi TV has been around, creative fans have taken it upon themselves to write stories involving their favourite characters.   With the advent of the Internet these ‘fan-fictions’ have become readily available and many fans enjoy exchanging fan-fictions, all creating their own storylines outside of canon.   These fictions range from ‘non-romo’ (non romantic) action-adventure stories through to romances novellas with angst, ‘UST’ (unrequited sexual tension) and ‘NC-17’ (x-rated) relation-‘ship’ fiction.  

A cursory glance at some of the many fan-fiction websites illustrates the proliferation of ‘slash-ship’ fiction.[31]   These stories all revolve around same-sex relationships, usually involving characters that are generally perceived as heterosexual within the canon of official series.   Clearly, there is a portion of the sci-fi TV audience that may be more receptive to an opener discussion of ‘other’ sexualities, and the inclusion of gay characters in their favourite series.

Sci-fi TV producers may be concerned with losing their more conservative audience if they step out into this area.   Their shows still need to meet the commercial needs of any television series, and in a particularly fickle market this is surely a big concern.   But now in the era of niche marketing, many of the existing sci-fi series, and new series, are moving straight to cable TV networks like The Sci-Fi Channel, and cable TV has always been less conservative than terrestrial broadcast TV.

Sci-fi TV viewers are accustomed to themes dealing with cultural and political themes, and they have learnt to read these storylines alongside our own society.   And this genre has been trying to break down the barriers of prejudice, to help overcome racism, and intolerance, since that first interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura, in the late 1960s, on Star Trek.   So moving away from the constraints of the commercial television market, sci-fi TV needs to remember its roots.  

The Star Trek franchise defines itself “as a system of modern mythology which focuses on fundamental human concerns, but always maintains an attitude of tolerance and open-mindness.   Above all, it offers a range of new perspectives on the present and a believable way of imagining a hopeful future in which human beings can avoid the mistakes of the past”.[32]   Star Trek does not pretend to always have the resolution to the many cultural and political themes they encounter.   For example, in the TNG episode ‘The Outcast’ the crew of the Enterprise had to leave the androgynous J’naii without resolving the seeming violation of a person’s rights.  

The issues surrounding sexuality do not have an easy answer, and sci-fi TV will not be able to solve the problems.   But in addressing the theme they open up a new discourse, a new way of thinking, on the issue.[33]   Michael Foucault claimed that discourse constructs the topic; it defines and produces the object of our knowledge.    Discourse governs the way that a topic can be meaningfully talked about and reasoned about.   So by providing an opener discourse this may helps to construct the way that the audience considers the issue and place the building blocks for creating a world where tolerance and respect is the foundation.

Notes:

[1] David Gauntlett.   Media, Gender and Identity.   Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2002, pp.27-28.   (Subsequent references included in text).
[2] Chris Gregory.   Star Trek: Parallel Narratives.   London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 2000, p.7.   (Subsequent references included in text).
[3] David Gauntlett.   Media, Gender and Identity.   Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2002, p.27.
[4] Chris Gregory.   Star Trek: Parallel Narratives.   London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 2000, p.6.
[5] Star Trek: Enterprise (the most recent series in the franchise) was cancelled earlier this year, after completing four seasons.
[6] Chris Gregory.   Star Trek: Parallel Narratives.   London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 2000, p.6.
[7] ‘Star trek’.   Wikipedia.org.
[8] Jonathan Kay.   ‘Gay Trek; After Will & Grace, is it too late for Star Trek to cross the sexuality frontier?’   The Hamilton Spectator.   September 1, 2001.   (Subsequent references included in text).
[9] Lynn Elber.   ).   ‘TV Makes Room for Gay Characters, But not Sexuality’.   Associated Press.   January 12, 1996.   (Subsequent references included in text).
[10] Ibid.
[11] Jonathan Kay.   ‘Gay Trek; After Will & Grace, is it too late for Star Trek to cross the sexuality frontier?’
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Michael Horvat (Star Trek TNG writer).   Star Trek: The Next Generation - ‘The Host’.   (Subsequent references included in text).
[15] Jeff Greenwald.   Future Perfect: how Star Trek conquered planet earth.    England: Viking Penguin, 1998, p.199.   (Subsequent references included in text).
[16] Ibid.
[17] Chris Gregory.   Star Trek: Parallel Narratives.   London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 2000, p.118.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Jeri Taylor (Star Trek TNG writer).   Star Trek: The Next Generation - ‘The Outcast’.   (Subsequent references included in text).
[20] Chris Gregory.   Star Trek: Parallel Narratives.   London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 2000, p.187.
[21] Ibid, p.188.
[22] Gantz, Katherine.   ‘”Not that there’s anything wrong with that”: Reading the Queer in Seinfeld’.   Straight with a Twist: Queer Theory and the Subject of Heterosexuality, Thomas, Calvin (ed).   Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000, p.165.   (Subsequent references included in text).
[23] Ibid, p.168.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Charlotte Miller.   Sex, gender issues and Stargate SG-1’.   Stargate SG-1 Solutions Blog.   7th February 2005.   (Subsequent references included in text).
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Gantz, Katherine.   ‘”Not that there’s anything wrong with that”: Reading the Queer in Seinfeld’.   P.168.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Area 52.   Heliopolis 2.   FanFiction.net.
[32] Chris Gregory.   Star Trek: Parallel Narratives.   London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 2000, p.195.
[33] David Gauntlett.   Media, Gender and Identity.   Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2002, p.116.   (Subsequent references included in text).

Bibliography:

Area 52.   (Fan Fiction site).   Internet WWW page, at URL:  <http://www.area52hkh.net/>

Elber, Lynn (AP Television Writer).   ‘TV Makes Room for Gay Characters, But not Sexuality’.   Associated Press.   January 12, 1996.

FanFiction.net.   (Fan Fiction site).   Internet WWW page, at URL:  <http://www.fanfiction.net/>

Gantz, Katherine.   ‘”Not that there’s anything wrong with that”: Reading the Queer in Seinfeld’.   Straight with a Twist: Queer Theory and the Subject of Heterosexuality, Thomas, Calvin (ed).   Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000, pp. 165-190.

Gauntlett, David.   Media, Gender and Identity: An Introduction.   Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2002.

Heliopolis 2.  (Fan fiction site).   Internet WWW page, at URL: <http://helio2.sg1-heliopolis.com/>

Kay, Jonathan.  ‘Gay Trek; After Will & Grace, is it too late for Star Trek to cross the sexuality frontier?’   The Hamilton Spectator.   Hamilton, Ontario (Canada), September 1, 2001.

Miller, Charlotte.   Sex, gender issues and Stargate SG-1’.   Stargate SG-1 Solutions Blog.   Internet WWW page, at URL: <http://stargate-sg1-solutions.com/ipw-web/b2/index.php?p=236&c=1>  (Uploaded 7th February 2005)

‘Star Trek’.   Wikipedia.org.   Internet WWW page, at URL:  <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Trek>  (Version current at 2nd June 2005).

TVTome. (Episode recaps for basic review).   Internet WWW page, at URL: <http://www.tvtome.com/>

 

Television Shows:

Stargate SG-1.   Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner.   1997- still in production (ninth season)

Star Trek (et al).   Gene Roddenberry (creator), Rick Berman, Brannon Braga, Ronald D Moore, Manny Coto (executive producers throughout the franchise’s history).   1960s – 2005.

Note (2010):

 

Stargate SG-1 completed 10 seasons, and finished in 2007.  This was followed by two straight to DVD film releases, The Ark of Truth and Continuum, both in 2008.  The 1st spin-off, Stargate Atlantis (SGA), ran for 5 seasons, ending in 2009.  And Stargate Universe (SGU) began in 2009, and is currently filming it's second season.

The Star Trek franchise doesn't have any new spin-offs running on TV anymore, though all the the shows can usually be found in re-runs somewhere.   Star Trek (TOS - The Original Series) completed 3 seasons (1966 - 69); Star Trek The Next Generation (TNG) completed 7 seasons (1987 - 94); Star Trek Deep Space Nine (DSN) completed 7 seasons (1993 - 99); Star Trek Voyager (VOY) completed 7 seasons (1995 - 2001); Star Trek Enterprise (ENT) completed 4 seasons (2001 - 05).  There have been 11 movies to date.  Star Trek I: The Motion Picture (1979), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), Star Trek V: The Undiscovered Country (1989), Star Trek VI: The Final Frontier (1991).  Star Trek VII: Generations (1994) (this film brought the TNG cast in, and said goodbye to the TOS cast), Star Trek VIII: First Contact, Star Trek IX: Insurrection, Star Trek X: Nemesis, and then the most recent movie Star Trek (2008) revolving around the characters of the original series (TOS), not the same actors, but it did feature the original Spock, Leonard Nimoy.

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