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Star Trek: TNG Actor Calls Out 'Missed Opportunity' On Androgynous Role Casting

When it comes to the TV series of today, it is common to see plots that parallel social issues which may have been considered taboo in the past. In the 90s, social commentary seemed to be less of a priority, but that didn't mean it was entirely absent. For example, in Season 5, Episode 17 ("The Outcast") of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the writers touched upon sexuality and gender identity when featuring an androgynous alien race. 

In an interview with The Companion, Jonathan Frakes, who played Commander Will Riker on the series, believes that there was a major miss in casting a major role for the episode. In "The Outcast," which first aired in 1992, viewers are introduced to a character named Soren (Melinda Culea), a representative of an androgynous race who has been tasked to assist Commander Riker with solving a mystery. Both Riker and Soren develop feelings for each other, with the alien going against cultural laws and the Enterprise Officer stepping over a possibly-taboo line. 

Looking back, Frakes believes that the mistake was casting a woman to play Soren. "Riker was sent to a planet of androgynous beings — and clearly the story was meant to be that Riker and this androgynous character had chemistry," he said. "And the character should have been cast as a man, I think." Frakes surely has a point, as that simple casting would have brought much more attention to the episode, along with its then-controversial topic.

One difference in casting could have brought more attention to the theme

Despite tackling a subject that has become much more open to discussion than it was back in the 90s, "The Outcast" still had a familiar overall plotline. An alien race who call themselves the J'naii has requested assistance of the U.S.S. Enterprise to help them locate one of their shuttlecrafts, which has mysteriously vanished in space. With Jonathan Frakes' Commander Riker joining the J'naii's representative, Soren, the two set out to the point of disappearance to help solve the issue. This gives the two characters plenty of time to get to know each other and compare the differences between their own people. 

This new bond results in Soren confessing secret personal feelings that would be considered outlawed within the alien race. It doesn't take long for this new friendship to rise to a romantic level. As Riker and Soren's work continue, the nonhuman reveals that she has secretly identified as female since she was young and has discreetly had past relationships with those J'naii who identify as male. It's this very conversation that eventually leads to Riker's affection for the alien. 

In Frakes' opinion, if this role would've been cast as a male, this same storyline would have been much more effective when it came to expressing the social commentary to viewers at home. "The network, or someone, didn't have the guts to do that, so they cast an androgynous looking woman so Riker would not be perceived as gay, perhaps," he pondered. This opinion makes sense since the different casting may have made the episode revolutionary for its time. "I'm not quite sure what the thinking was," said Frakes. "But it's always seem like a missed opportunity."