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Star Trek | Deanna Troi Teaches us to Embrace Sensitivity as a Strength

Psychic psychiatrist Deanna Troi isn’t the most obvious role model in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but she teaches us one very important lesson: that empathy is not a weakness.

“Confidence is faith in oneself. It can’t easily be given by another.”

Deanna Troi, ‘Loud as a Whisper’ – Star Trek: The Next Generation S2, Ep25.

An empathic guide, and a voice of conscience, Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) isn’t just an important character in Star Trek: The Next Generation – she’s also one of the great female icons of the sci-fi genre itself. 

Now, I know what you’re thinking; Troi – oh she the wearer of over-sexualized uniforms, a victim of psychic rape metaphors, and character thrust into Enterprise’s role of traditional feminine caregiver – has never exactly been thought of as a feminist role model. Indeed, ever Sirtis herself has openly criticized how her character was handled during The Next Generation’s seven-season run.

Deanna Troi, played by Marina Sirtis, stands alongside Data, Picard, and Yar wearing a blue and black miniskirt dress in the pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, 'Encounter at Farpoint'
Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) in her infamous miniskirt dress in the feature-length pilot of Star Trek: The Next Generation, ‘Encounter at Farpoint’ (S1, Ep1-2). “We inherited my cosmic cheerleader outfit in the very first episode from the original show,” Sirtis told the BBC. “It was ‘can we get Marina’s skirt any shorter than this?’ Fortunately, they decided that the outfit didn’t suit my character and we lost it by the second episode.” | CBS, 1987.

“Troi was not supposed to be the chick on the show,” she’s quoted as saying in The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years: From The Next Generation to J. J. Abrams: The Complete, Uncensored, and Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek (2016). 

Adding that the introduction of the plunging neckline to her leotard put an end to Deanna’s role as ‘the smart one’, Sirtis adds:

“Gene [Rodenberry, Star Trek: The Next Generation creator] said she was intended to be the brains of Enterprise, which you would never know from watching it. She was supposed to have equal the intelligence of Spock… [but] I became decorative, like a potted palm on the bridge.”

Marina Sirtis in The Fifty-Year Mission (2016). 

In a separate interview with TrekMovie, Sirtis takes this thought even further, suggesting that she was never truly satisfied with her character’s arc and development on The Next Generation.

“I’ve always said we didn’t really know very much about Troi,” she says. “We knew she had a crazy mother, she was from Betazed, and she liked working out, but really that was it.”

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In Defense of Deanna Troi

It’s a fair point, I suppose. And I’m not here to suggest that Deanna Troi is a flawless feminist creation, believe me. But here’s the thing; the sci-fi genre tends to traditionally present its “strong” women as stoic, closed off, or in extreme control of their emotions. On the opposite side, we have the “weak” women; the love interests, the damsels in distress, the overly-emotional characters who have little to no input on the important decisions being made by their male contemporaries. 

Deanna, though, offers up something different. She is an empath, a counselor, and… well, she served as lieutenant commander for years before being promoted to the rank of commander. Which means that she serves on the bridge. This means that she’s allowed to – nay, expected to – give her opinion on major Starfleet matters. 
Think about that for a moment, okay? Troi’s high-ranking position aboard Enterprise is due to her own personal strengths. Her own personal strengths, in turn, are her empathy, warmth, and sensitivity – all of which, as traditionally “feminine” qualities, are usually seen as a weakness on paper. 

That’s right, dear reader; the idea that being aware of one’s emotions should be deemed a flaw is an age-old one. Because, in a world that glorifies strength and power, being a hypersensitive person (like Troi) immediately feels like a weakness. In 2022, though, we’re finally starting to understand the truth; that feeling things more intensely than others is an invaluable asset. Why? Well, firstly because (as Troi herself exemplifies time and time again) these people possess the uncanny ability to recognize and understand emotions in themselves and others. This potent cocktail of self-awareness and social awareness makes them natural communicators; like Troi, they can reach those among us that others find difficult to approach (such as, say, Michael Dorn’s Worf) and help keep things running smoothly.

Deanna Troi, played by Marina Sirtis, comforts the grieving Ensign Janet Brooks, who is played by Kim Braden, in Star Trek: The Next Generation episode 'The Loss'
Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) comforts the grieving Ensign Janet Brooks (Kim Braden) in ‘The Loss’ (S4, Ep10). Despite poor reviews, Sirtis noted in Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages (1995) that the Next Generation episode struck a chord with many people with disabilities: “That’s exactly the way they feel, it’s the way I expressed their emotion. ‘The Loss’ was very, very popular.” | CBS, 1990.

Perhaps this skill of Troi’s is, somewhat ironically, best depicted in ‘The Loss’ (Star Trek: The Next Generation, S4, Ep10). In the episode, the counselor temporarily loses her empathetic abilities. Even without them, though, she is able to listen to the words not being said and recognize that one of the ship’s crew members – an Ensign Janet Brooks (Kim Braden) – is really struggling to deal with the loss of her husband. And that’s in spite of the fact that Brooks has been presenting herself to the world as being very much okay. She’s volunteering, she’s working on improving her language skills, and – as she proudly tells Troi – she hasn’t missed one single hour of work.

While everyone else aboard Enterprise might have taken Brooks’ self-appraisal as fact, Troi listens instead to the words which have gone unspoken. 

“Recovery from a great loss involves a great deal of pain,” counsels Troi. “If we try to avoid that pain, we can make it harder on ourselves in the long run.” 

Later, when a shaken Troi reveals to Brooks that she is resigning as the ship’s counselor, insisting that the disappearance of her empathic skills means that she can no longer perform her duties effectively, Brooks urges her to reconsider.

“Deanna, you were right about me,” she tells her. “I had to go back and look at what I was doing, see why I was trying to convince myself and you that I was a new woman. You made me realize I was doing exactly the same thing to myself as I was before. I was trying to hide from the pain. 

“Maybe you couldn’t sense what I was feeling, but you helped.”

Janet Brooks, ‘The Loss’ – Star Trek: The Next Generation S4, Ep10.
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Mind the Gap: Deanna is in the Details

As if her ability to read people weren’t enough to assure us of her quiet power, there’s also the fact that Troi’s empath abilities help her to stay attuned not only to the feelings of her fellow Starfleet officers but also to those tiny details that they may have missed. Tiny but not insignificant details such as, say, the fact that the “offspring” of Brent Spiner’s Dat, Lal (Hallie Todd), is a very different kind of android – one which is able to feel complex emotions such fear and love. Or tiny but oh-so-vital details such as the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it time distortions which signify that Enterprise is frozen in time while in battle with a Romulan warbird – not to mention seconds away from destruction.

Thirdly, it’s important to remember that teamwork really does make the dream work; a leader is only ever as good as their ability to work with and inspire others. As Troi possesses the innate ability to take people’s feelings into account, she isn’t just able to think through different parts of complex decisions; she absolutely thrives when given a chance to do so – all you need to do is watch her collaborative skills at work in ‘Timescape’ (Star Trek: The Next Generation, S6, Ep25) if you don’t believe me. Or her stepping up to serve as a diplomat in ‘Loud As A Whisper’ (Star Trek: The Next Generation, S2, Ep5), using her “fine mind” to effectively communicate on behalf of the peacemaker Riva (Howie Seago) following the death of his chorus. Or her constantly helping people to turn their disadvantages into advantages, solely by allowing them to talk through their problems with her.

Deanna Troi, who is played by Marina Sirtis – in conversation with deaf ambassador Riva, played by Howie Seago, in Star Trek: The Next Generation episode 'Loud as a Whisper'
Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) urges Deaf and mute ambassador Riva (Howie Seago) to resume peace talks on the planet Solais V. Seago, who was deaf, approached the producers with the concept that became ‘Loud as a Whisper’ (S2, Ep5). Originally, the Next Generation writers wanted Riva to learn how to speak, but Seago objected, telling LA Times that “it would perpetuate the psychological harm that’s done now in forcing deaf children to use their voice whether they can or not.” | Paramount, 1989.

Fourthly, there’s a reason everyone aboard Enterprise turns to Troi when they’re feeling strung out – and no, it’s not just because she’s the ship’s appointed counselor. Rather, it’s because her honesty and highly conscientious approach to the world around her makes her trustworthy and dependable. That’s why Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) immediately chooses her as his confidant. That’s why Data is able to open up to her in a way he cannot with anyone else aboard the ship. And that’s why Worf… well, that’s why Worf allows himself to do what no Klingon has ever done before, and allows himself to share his more vulnerable side (yes, he has one) with Troi.

Just take a look at their friendship during ‘Night Terrors’ (Star Trek: The Next Generation, S4, Ep17), in which the crew find themselves adrift in a remote area of space, and find themselves unable to dream thanks to its negative impact on their REM cycles.
Worf, feeling real fear for the first time as a result of his sleepless state, struggles in particular with his mental health. During one particularly dark moment of the episode, he seriously considers suicide, as he convinces himself he is no longer a true warrior. It is Troi who manages to get through to him, who gains his trust, who convinces him to go with her to a safe place aboard the ship. It is Troi who reminds him that bravery is not the absence of fear; rather that to “admit that you’re afraid gives you strength.”

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Deanna Troi as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)

Troi is emotional, but it is her unwavering ability to keep in touch with her emotions that serves as her greatest strength. It helps her to boost morale, promote unity, and serve as a bridge between her crew and the “new life and new civilisations” they are so boldly seeking out. In fact, Sirtis is quoted in Star Trek: Communicator issue 102 as saying: “To me, Troi was the nicest person aboard Enterprise, because, instead of being wacky and zany, she was always understanding and sympathetic towards people.”

Or rather, in making kindness her superpower, Troi gifts herself the ability to bring a positive change to the lives of those around her.

Essentially, it’s all too easy to dismiss Troi as less than, solely due to her status as a Highly-Sensitive Person (HSP). But, according to neuropsychologist Nawal Mustafa, aka The Brain Coach on Instagram, an HSP actually possesses something not unlike a sixth sense or superpower for unspoken dynamics.

“In an fMRI study, researchers found that HSPs have more activation in brain regions involved with awareness, integration of sensory information, empathy, and preparation for action in response to emotionally evocative social stimuli,” explains Mustafa in her now viral post on the matter.

Dr. Elaine Aron, meanwhile, has conducted research into HSPs – revealing that they are far more likely to excel in the workplace than others in the process. In The Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Aron writes: “[HSPs] are intuitive visionaries, able to see the big picture, creative, aware of and thoughtful to the needs of others, good influences on the social climate, vigilant with quality, highly conscientious, loyal, able to pick up on subtleties in the environment and in interpersonal communications, and are often gifted. 

“In short, they are ideal employees.”

Sounds a lot like our beloved Deanna Troi, eh? Could it be that, despite mixed feelings from Star Trek fans, she’s the ideal Starfleet officer? This writer is going with a resounding “hell yes”. And, sure, I get it; as mentioned already, there are plenty of flaws to Troi’s character. She’s often used as a love interest to keep the plot ticking along, for example, and she doesn’t always get the opportunity to shine bright like the diamond we all know she is. But, in a world which dismisses those women ruled by their hearts and emotions as being “hysterical” or “oversensitive”, the fact that she flies the flag for emotional intelligence is no small matter. In fact, it makes her feel incredibly ahead of her time – even by Trekkian standards. And it means that she is the undeniable glue that holds everyone together on The Next Generation; for that, and for that alone, she wholeheartedly deserves our respect.

We could all stand to be a little more like Deanna Troi in our day to day lives, it seems. So, rather than dust off our favourite leotard, let’s start by reframing the narrative of strength. Rather than making it about stoicism, let’s instead make it about intuition. About compassion. About listening to the needs of not just those around us, but ourselves, too. Because that, my friends, is a beautifully bold and iconic approach to take to life, no matter what the more jaded members of society might have to say about the matter.

If we were all more Troi, we might find that the world was a kinder and happier place. And that, I think, is worth whipping up a Troi-approved chocolate sundae and raising a spoon to, quite frankly. All hail Deanna!

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Kayleigh Dray has somehow managed to balance her severe sci-fi addiction with a pretty full-on career as a working writer for going on 10 years now. During the week, you can find her hunched over her laptop and tapping away furiously. On a weekend, though, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of hot chocolate, rewatching Stargate for the millionth time, and/or playing Dungeons & Dragons with her friends.

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