For a show that spent its first 25 years reaching toward socialism and absolute equality with both hands, the physical and semiotic impact of clothing — particularly of uniforms; they’re all military of one kind or another — can’t be overstated. While the intensity of the enduring cosplay world tells us a lot about which costumes, uniforms and details have made the most impact on readers and viewers of genre fiction, comics and television, there is a specificity to “Star Trek” fandom — and fetishism — that speaks to our complicated, long-term relationship with those enduring visuals, the bodies within them, and the highly emotional and gendered response that they still evoke.
For the same reason the steel bikinis and “barely there” armor of female game and comics characters provoke such huge — and increasingly vitriolic, for whatever reason — debate, we’re looking today at a benign, less toxic — but no less meaningful, or nuanced — progression in the female “Star Trek” look, and specifically what it meant for the seven-years-plus journey of one of its most fascinating characters, Marina Sirtis’s Deanna Troi. Was she defined by her clothes, or did she — by design — set an ongoing tone for the franchise’s relationship to femininity and sexuality that continues into the current day?
When the original “Star Trek” debuted 50 years ago, Nichelle Nichols’ Lt. Uhura was the only female bridge officer: A sort of vaguely intergalactic phone operator, reimagined in the recent reboot as Zoe Saldana’s multilingual communications specialist. In both iterations, she wears our earliest female uniform: A skirt that to the 2016 gaze is more of a tunic. Above, we see Uhura with Lt. Cmdr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), below, modelling the his-and-hers uniforms of their tenure. Ginchy but not flashy, utilitarian and comfy: Optimized for long days at a computer station.
When “Star Trek: The Next Generation” debuted 29 years ago, the three woman leads’ jobs were more substantive than Uhura’s had, at least, seemed: Doctor, Security Chief, Counselor. Two basic uniform designs were available to both men and women at this time: A minidress/”skant” and an updated onesie.
Part of the mandate for “Next Generation’s” pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint,” was about demonstrating the show’s continuity and discontinuities from the original. A sequel filmed 20 years later, about an era 100 years later, updated the show’s unique ideas of futuristic optimism along with the changing society it served — the same way “Deep Space Nine” (set five years later, with its 1993 American focus on conflict and religious fanaticism) and “Voyager” (set ten years later, and a very late-’90s culture-war triumph: Female captain, leadership including several sympathetic terrorists, entire episodes about the insidious grossness of mansplaining, a full-on Native American shaman) would.
In “Farpoint,” we are treated to one of the more outre examples of this bright-eyed, unisex hopefulness: A point is made of showing at least two men who have opted for the skant (with stylish cute booties) — which appears again in three more Season 1 episodes — and later, the Captain himself gloried more than once in the magnificence of his formal, flag-officer’s maxi-dress:
That Lt. Cmdr. Deanna Troi is the only member of the command crew to also choose this option didn’t, initially, mean that she was any less respected than the onesie-clad Dr. Beverley Crusher (Gates McFadden) or brave-to-a-fault Lt. Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), who was originally to be named (like B’Elanna Torres of “Voyager”) after a goddess of war.
Here we see Troi (seated, in blue) sporting the retro boots-and-minidress uniform available at the time to both male and female crew members. Lt. Cmdr. Data (Brent Spiner), Capt. Picard (Patrick Stewart), Lt. Yar (Denise Crosby) and an unnamed, trepidatious ensign have all opted for the full-length, action-figure version:
“Next Generation’s” Enterprise took the wildly optimistic, utopian future created by Gene Roddenberry to the next level. This was the flagship of a universe-wide Federation of Planets, and though the operation had the veneer of a military operation, this ship’s mission was one of discovering and learning, “to boldly go…”
Any doubt about the ship’s mission or the widely-understood peacefulness of this solar system is quashed by the sight of Enterprise crew members happily bringing their partners and children along, that the ship contained a greenhouse with a civilian staff, there’s a barber shop and beauty spa … and Picard has no issue with Troi wearing whatever the hell discothèque chic she wanted.
Most of the first season, however, was spent with everyone else in the action-figure onesies and Troi in this belted one-piece, below. Her hair, formerly teased and slightly pinned back with a headband, is now contained in a bejeweled bun. (Here we also see Yar, Cmdr. Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Troi and Picard greeting a visiting delegation whose romantic rituals later mean that Yar must face another woman in combat — reason being that, among other things, Season 1 “Next Generation” is amazing.
In the idyllic environment of this particular Enterprise, the role of Ship’s Counselor plays more life coach than licensed therapist: Helping the crew plan out vision boards and bullet journals, dealing with the upper echelons of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — the only things that generally trouble a Starfleet starship’s crew. As such, Deanna Troi — the descendent of Betazoid royalty and owner of a variety of luxe, bedazzled headband/tiaras, not to mention various psychic powers — was more than qualified for the job.
Unlike Spock, Deanna’s appearance is entirely human — more glamorous than the other women on board, perhaps, suiting her aristocratic background — with no pointy ears or wild brows to perpetually remind us of her Otherness. As such, it’s easy to forget she’s more than just another human crewperson with good intentions and intuitions, but in fact a half-alien life form, capable of sussing out the emotions of people on different planets or spaceships.
As with Uhura’s specialty, the importance and impact of these skills depend entirely on a given episode’s (writer’s) interest in them, or in Troi — at worst, she swoons in silly hysteria; at best, she can figure out what’s going on deep inside your brain just by looking at you over a grainy video chat window. That’s Professor X-level superpowers if you think about it, especially considering how often this nominally peaceful vessel finds itself in life or death situations, as the years go by — as useful, at least, as the inexhaustible supply of languages Saldana’s Uhura happens to speak fluently.
Here we see Troi’s most conventional and typical (Seasons 2-5) look: Pre-Raphaelite Grecian waves and a solid maroon work romper — not a uniform in the military sense, but a uniform all the same. (It also comes in light gray, for when you want to switch it up.) But let’s go back to Season 1:
The Enterprise’s (… let’s just call it humanitarian) mission means Picard keeps Troi close — unlike any franchise captain before or sense, he values her input so highly that she sits not just on the bridge, but right next to him. Almost like an “Inside Out” for Picard’s mind: Action (Riker), Caution (Worf), and Compassion (Troi) offering their takes on every new situation. Like “Firefly’s” Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), having an ambassador aboard is more than just a gesture: She’s not just a mediator between species, but an on-call adviser.
Troi is a requirement of Picard’s command. Compare to Captain Janeway’s (Kate Mulgrew) constant eliciting of advice from the ethical (Tim Russ’s Vulcan Tuvok), to the emotional (Robert Beltran’s Chakotay) and even the professional (literally anyone who is around, because she is great). But for Picard, whose mind is central to the most important arcs and episodes of the series, we could also see it as the high value he — or “Next Generation” — puts on psychotherapy. Mental clarity, the life of reason — the legal mind required by governance — and ongoing treatment, presumably, for the various traumas incurred by the adventurer.
Like every woman on procedural TV, Troi stumbles into a series of ill-advised one-episode relationships that all end terribly — but, in Troi’s case, it means we get to see her off-duty outfits, which it turns out are … not that different from her on-duty clothes. The woman has an aesthetic and she sticks with it.
The ship’s crew numbers just over 1,000 — about the size of a small high school. One counselor for 1,000 people feels adequate — until something truly traumatic happens, the intergalactic active shooter situation, which occurs basically every other week to this squad. Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) has a team of health professionals for assistance, and when Deanna herself faces psychiatric issues, Crusher suggests she speak to one of the several crew members with degrees in psychology. Even when the crew and ship are facing non-stop terrors, Picard still feels Deanna’s one-woman show is sufficient to help everyone — and because Picard is always right, we have to conclude that she’s just that capable.
Though Troi’s futuristic, enlightened coworkers all take her and her opinions seriously, the show doesn’t always seem to do the same. The results can be awesome, of course — nothing is funnier than Riker taking anything seriously, for example; not even sitting in a chair — but they’re rarely valedictory. Yes, we’re talking about the unforgettably bonkers sequence in Season 3’s “The Price” when Deanna and Beverley take a break from spa days to team up for what a lo-fi aerobics routine while dressed as American Apparel mannequins.
It’s worth noting that this episode is entirely about consent, focusing on a Purple Man-esque politician (a quarter-Betazed played by Matt McCoy) who seems to have seduced Deanna (along with various delegations to a heated dispute over a wormhole) with his mental powers — sending her into a “Cathy”-esque tailspin of chocolate, girl-talk and “stolen kisses.” The story ends in a bittersweet goodbye and Troi telling the dude straight up that she can’t date him… because she already has a job as a counselor.
Rough journey, nice conclusion. But those aerobics costumes are no less confounding for it.
In another episode, client and subordinate (and all around freak show, generally speaking) Lt. Barclay (Dwight Schultz) repeatedly makes out with her holodeck avatar — which leads us to wonder why, in an egalitarian utopia, there is not a setting keeping folks from doing exactly that. Imagine discovering that (inveterate holodeck creep) Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge had a program where he regularly gave Captain Picard the old what-for, for example, or that Chief O’Brien (Colm Meaney) had a fun Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) copy stashed away for a rainy day.
Then there’s the time that, as a visiting alien’s Dorian Gray portrait, Troi becomes first sexually voracious (and extremely sweaty) and then rapidly ages, culminating in an attempt to stab Picard in a jealous rage. Having spent the past several years in the company of the elegant, composed Counselor, it’s a stretch that her friends and 24/7 coworkers take most of the episode to notice something is very much up with her, especially given her rapid shifts in style:
Sequences like these put Troi fans on the defensive: Say your favorite “Trek” character is Picard, or Scottie, even Janeway, and you’ll get a nod, a sense of understanding. But say it’s Deanna and you get a response similar to that of Lisa Simpson, Skyler White (Anna Gunn), or early Sansa Stark: Her? Blame the outfits, blame the bizarre storylines: Deanna Troi, like any character on any show, is a joint creation between writers, costumers, actor, and us: By our perceptions of her actions.
(N.B. There is a strong chance that your memories of Captain Janeway are not entirely encapsulated by your teen and pre-teen memories of exactly the amount, or character, of BS she was up against. Of all the “Treks,” “Voyager” has aged best and is remembered least — too ahead of its time to make sense in memory. And too much of its time, too: Think too here of the prohibitive, “Ghostbusters” level of outcry and resistance that would greet the announcement of a modern-day female Captain.)