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Star Trek | Trill as Trans: Trek's Evolving Attitudes Toward Gender Variance

From TNG’s ‘The Host’ to DS9’s Jadzia Dax, and Discovery’s Adira and Gray Tal, Trill has been used as an imperfect allegory for the Trans experience.

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘The Host’ (S4, Ep23), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's ‘Invasive Procedures’ (S2, Ep4), and Star Trek: Discovery’s ‘Forget Me Not’ (S3, Ep4). Proceed with caution.

It’s often said that science fiction’s visions of the future are more a comment on where we are rather than where we are going. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) bore the scars of the post-War period it was written in, while George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) was laid with more than a bit of climate anxiety.

When asked about her own portrayal of tomorrow in The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Margaret Atwood said:

“Prophecies are really about now. In science fiction, it’s always about now. What else could it be about? There is no future. There are many possibilities, but we do not know which one we are going to have.”

Historically, Star Trek has always been more optimistic, a place where we can portray the aspirations of society rather than the frailties. Nonetheless, the various shows are subject to the mores of the periods in which they were made, and that’s never more evident than in its inclusion of LGBTQ+ themes (or lack thereof). It would be half a century before the franchise would feature an explicitly gay character, Jon Cho’s Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek Beyond (2016), while the following year offered the first openly gay characters, and couple, in the first season of Star Trek: Discovery. For a universe so often ahead of its time, its representation of Queer communities has been disappointingly delayed.

Hikaru Sulu (Jon Cho) rushes over to his family, lifts up his daughter and puts an arm around his busband.
Hikaru Sulu (Jon Cho) is reunited with his husband and daughter in Star Trek Beyond (2016). | Paramount, 2016.

That isn’t to say that there haven’t been characters or storylines that have parallels with LGBTQ+ identities. One of the species that have repeatedly drawn comparisons with the Transgender community is the Trill, a species first introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and one that has been present to varying degrees in Star Trek stories since. Trill are portrayed as a joined species comprised of two separate but interdependent entities: a host and a symbiont. While the host’s body ages and dies as normal, the symbiont moves between hosts and may live for centuries through different bodies. The potential for a symbiont to live in any gender has been a key point of storylines involving the species, leading many to draw parallels with the Transgender community, transition, and attitudes toward gender. As with sexuality, Star Trek has been hesitant over the years to acknowledge that link, arguably due to societal perception of Trans identities at the time.

Further Reading: The Science of Symbionts

Just Like a Trill: The Science of Symbionts | Biologist Irene Garcia Newton explains the real science behind Star Trek’s Trill symbionts.

However, times change, and so does Starfleet. Join us as we use three episodes from Star Trek history to show the implied, and then explicit connections to the Trans community through the years and how, rather than being a show that was slow to change, was a product of the time in which its episodes aired.

Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘The Host’

Suppose production executives were skittish about the prospect of a character mirroring a Transgender person. In that case, it may be because the early ’90s did their best to portray the community in a horrific light. The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘The Host’ (S4, Ep23) would air just three months after the release of the film The Silence of The Lambs (1991), portraying the infamous Transgender serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). In the years surrounding it, Transgender characters would be used either as a shocking twist (The Crying Game, 1992) or a figure of ridicule (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, 1994).

Despite the reductive attitude of the mainstream, ‘The Host’s introduction of the Trill has been seen as a Trans allegory since shortly after the episode aired. The episode’s story concerns Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), who is revealed to be in love with Odan (Franc Luz), a Trill ambassador being escorted to mediate between two planets. An accident damages Odan’s host, and he reveals his true nature to Crusher as he pleads for her to save the symbiont. With hours until a replacement can be shipped over, William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) volunteers to be Odan’s temporary replacement, but Crusher is devastated that the man she fell for is now in the body of a friend.

Picard looks at the colorful worm-like symbiont in a glass case.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) inspects the Odan symbiont following its rejection by Riker (Jonathan Frakes) in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘The Host’ (S4, Ep23). The appearance of the symbiont would also be simplified by the time of Dax’s introduction in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. | CBS, 1994.

It's in this second act that one can really draw parallels with the Trans perspective. Odan continues to show affection to Crusher in Riker’s body, leading to an angry rebuke from the Enterprise’s doctor. “You should have told me what you were,” she says scornfully. “It never occurred to me,” Odan replies. “This is what I am! Did you ever tell me that you were a single being? Of course not, it was normal to you.” Queer fans will certainly find something familiar in that perspective, where what is perceived as ‘different’ is required to be declared, or justified. The sentiment continues in Odan’s declaration: “You must understand, whoever I seem to be, I am Odan, who loved you. That has not changed.” Shortly after, Crusher consults with empath Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), and an interesting discussion emerges where Crusher debates what it is she fell in love with – the physical, or the person who made her feel “completely free.”

Whatever it was, being male seemed to have something to do with it. While Crusher gives in to her feelings for the new host, Riker’s body rejects Odan just after he is able to prevent war. A new host arrives just in time, but to Crusher’s apparent horror, the new host is female (Nicole Orth-Pallavicini). In a rather cold goodbye scene, Crusher tells Odan “perhaps it is a human failing, but we are not accustomed to these kinds of changes. I can’t keep up.” Before adding that “perhaps, someday, our ability to love won’t be so limited.”

Dr. Crusher sits at her desk writing a report on her Padd. She doesn't look up as Odan's female host speaks from the doorway.
Dr. Beverley Crusher (Gates McFadden) pulls away from Odan's new host (Nicole Orth-Pallavicini) in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘The Host’ (S4, Ep23). The only episode of the show to be written by Michel Horvat, he was nominated for a 2006 GLAAD Media Award for his documentary We Are Dad about a gay couple who foster HIV-positive infants. | CBS, 1994.

Upon airing, gay panic was far more pertinent to audiences than any resemblance to Transgender people. The mere presence of two women telling each other “I love you” in the final scene caused some controversy on both sides of the political spectrum, either because of its presence on US TV (six years before the ground was broken by Ellen Degeneres on her sitcom) or because Crusher’s rejection could be perceived as homophobic.  In the 1995 book Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman, the episode’s director Marvin V. Rush is quoted as saying: “There was, or could have been, a sort of homosexual aspect and we chose not to go that route with it. I felt that it was more about the nature of love, why we love, and what prevents us from loving. To me the best analogy is if your beloved turned into a cockroach, could you love a cockroach?”

Given the horrifying connotations of that comment, it’s safe to say that most of those behind the episode may have been looking at things from a solely heteronormative viewpoint – or at least those involved in its execution rather than conception. The episode’s writer Michel Horvat guested on the Treksperts Briefing Room podcast to present a rather more edifying interpretation of the themes in his script, however imperfectly ‘The Host’ handled them: “As a gay man, it was important to me to write about the complexity of sexuality and how difficult it is to understand it.”

A story of love being challenged by a physical change, and the general message about a person’s inner self being the authentic part of them, meaning that the Trill could be seen as a Transgender allegory from their very inception.

Further Reading: Matrix Trans Allegory

Transgender Allegory, Applicability, and Me - Neo’s desperate attempts to defy a system that insists on deadnaming him and pushing him back in line, always read as a powerful transgender allegory.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode ‘Invasive Procedures’

Society hadn’t made much progress regarding Trans rights by 1993, but the Trill certainly had progressed in terms of lore. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine changed their look, introduced a history, and the concept of ‘joining’, the process of combining hosts and symbionts. This expansion is largely due to the addition of Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell), a Trill who is the eighth host of the Dax symbiont, which was previously implanted in a male host. Dax’s living between genders is explored several times in the show, but Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s strongest Trans allegory may be the episode ‘Invasive Procedures’ (S2, Ep4).

The episode’s peril comes from the station and key crew being hijacked by a Trill named Verad (future Smallville star John Glover). Verad’s reason for this invasion is that he was determined to become a host for a symbiont, but was deemed “unsuitable” for the joining process. The episode’s main plot then becomes the forced extraction of Dax to Verad, and the consequences it brings about.

Verad lies in the medbay as Dr. Bashir prepares to transfer the Dax symbiont.
Verad (John Glover) demands the transfer of the Dax symbiont from Jadzia (Terry Farell) in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode ‘Invasive Procedures’ (S2, Ep4). | CBS, 1996.

There’s less subtext here, given the plot’s main aim is to create tension through the crew’s attempts to save Jadzia, but Verad’s desperation to undergo transformative surgery has obvious parallels. The idea of a person being deemed unsuitable by authoritative gatekeepers can be seen to mirror the struggles for Transgender healthcare that continue to this day. Verad is willing to risk his life for the surgery, declaring that “I’m not going to spend my life dreaming about what I could have been, what I should have been. I deserve more”. Of course, Commander Sisko (Avery Brooks) and the series regulars are able to re-establish order by returning the symbiont to the familiar host, but the episode’s proposed antagonist may be seen as sympathetic looking back.

Sisko and Dax look off-camera towards Verad's bed.
Cmdr. Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) and the restored Lt. Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell) realize that her survival has come at the cost of Verad (John Glover)’s life in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode ‘Invasive Procedures’ (S2, Ep4). | CBS, 1996.

Deep Space Nine was more open to acknowledging the flexibility of gender when regarding the Trill (Sisko regularly called Jadzia Dax “Old Man” in reference to their previous friendship in Dax’s male host), but as with so much representation, the limits of what was deemed acceptable for mainstream television meant it was left to willing fans to fill in the gaps.

Star Trek: Discovery episode ‘Forget Me Not’

What a difference 27 years makes! In the time between the second season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and the third season of Star Trek: Discovery, a lot of changes occurred in the way we perceive gender. If Transgender issues were something previous productions were not willing to broach, Non-Binary is likely something writers in the 90s wouldn’t have heard of. It’s far from perfect, but the growing strength of the Trans community and its allies means that change is possible, however overdue.

Discovery’s third season introduced the first regular Transgender actors and characters in Star Trek history, turning the Trill allusion to gender variance into a reality. The Star Trek: Discovery episode ‘Forget Me Not’ (S3, Ep4) explores Non-Binary character Adira (Blu del Barrio), who doesn’t have any memory prior to becoming a host for the Tal symbiont. With the help of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), they begin to remember the path that took them there: one of love. Through flashbacks, it’s revealed that they were in love with a Transgender male joined Trill named Grey Tal (Ian Alexander), having lived together as orphans aboard a ship that was searching for Federation Headquarters. Disaster strikes in the form of an asteroid hit, and Grey is killed. It emerges that the Tal symbiont, along with Grey’s memories, is able to be saved, and so Adira offers themselves as host to their former lover, wishing to join with him in order to save his memories.

Adira and Gray rest their foreheads together and hold hands.
Adira Tal (Blu del Barrio) and Gray Tak (Ian Alexander) in the Star Trek: Discovery episode ‘Forget Me Not’ (S3, Ep4). Alexander previously starred as Buck Vu in the Netflix science fiction series The OA. | CBS, 2020.

It's a sweet story of love that isn’t without its problems, despite the groundbreaking casting of two Transgender actors (del Barrio is Non-Binary and uses They/Them pronouns, while Alexander is Transmasculine and uses both He/Him and They/Them pronouns). Grey’s introduction as a character who is already dead led some to accuse the show of reinforcing the “Bury Your Gays” trope, in which Queer characters’ joy is cut short by tragedy. Discovery history with this, killing Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) in the first season, although like Grey, he would be brought back in later episodes first through visions and later through sci-fi loopholes.

While the characterization isn’t perfect, it feels like a full-circle moment to make a modern Trill storyline featuring Trans characters. For so long an avatar for transition, albeit unwittingly, we now have a story of love between two Transgender characters, played by actors within the community, with a path found (eventually) to continue their happiness. Behind the scenes, the series creators were also doing the work, consulting with the advocacy group GLAAD on the creation of the characters.

Adira Tal steps into the milky colored pool in a cave.
Adira Tal (Blu del Barrio) visits the sacred Caves of Mak'ala on the Trill homeworld to commune with their symbiont in the Star Trek: Discovery episode ‘Forget Me Not’ (S3, Ep4). | CBS, 2020.

Representation of Trans people in Star Trek has grown recently, but it continues to draw criticism in some aspects. However, this isn’t a problem unique to the historic franchise. As with Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, these stories are only as advanced as the societies that consume them and change only happens when we move forward and demand a wider variety of storytelling. The 2021-22 GLAAD TV report stated that there were 42 trans characters in scripted primetime broadcast, cable, and streaming television programs that have aired in the year covered, with eight Non-Binary characters in that number.

Putting aside issues surrounding the execution, the creatives who bring Discovery to our screen have identified what is needed, and the symbolism that the Trill have come to have with certain areas of the fanbase. Just as Star Trek led the way by showing heroes from a number of different backgrounds, we can only hope it continues to push this ethos for Trans characters into the future.

This article was first published on October 12th, 2022, on the original Companion website.

Further Reading on All Topics

  1. Just Like a Trill: The Science of Symbionts | Biologist Irene Garcia Newton explains the real science behind Star Trek’s Trill symbionts.
  2. Transgender Allegory, Applicability, and Me - Neo’s desperate attempts to defy a system that insists on deadnaming him and pushing him back in line, always read as a powerful transgender allegory.
  3. George Takei on Coming Out and Captain Sulu – Watch the Full Video | Actor and activist George Takei on coming out, memories of the late Nichelle Nichols, and fighting for command of USS Excelsior in To Boldly Ask…
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