Friday, April 30, 2021

Star Trek: The Loss

Episode: "The Loss"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 4, Episode 10
Original Air Date: December 31, 1990

Counselor Troi has lost her empathic powers.  The loss is presumed to be connected to the Enterprise's proximity with a deadly cosmic string and/or a swarm of two-dimensional lifeforms being drawn towards said string.  It's becoming part of the Next Gen narrative formula: our heroes confront two crises at once and thankfully the solution to one proves to be the solution for both.

"The Loss" is a popular choice for worst TNG episode lists but I think the common criticisms are unfair.  Perhaps that balances out all the Q episodes others seem to love a lot more than I do.  I'm not going to say it's a great one.  There are definitely issues.  The secondary narrative is tech-babble heavy, for instance.  But the issues I see are not the complaints I read about among the fandom.  A lot of them accuse Troi of being whiny...

Okay folks, it's time to have a come to Jesus regarding Deanna Troi.  I will concede this much: she is by no means the strongest character in the series.  Nor is Marina Sirtis the strongest actor in the cast.  It takes quite a while for her to look even comfortable in the role.  The same could be said for many of the principals but Sirtis definitely takes the longest.  All of that acknowledged, the character and the actor's struggles reflect deeper problems within Star Trek and science fiction in general.  Folks, it's time to get real about sexism.

30 years after his death, it has been clearly established that Gene Roddenberry was a deeply sexist man and the franchise he created often reflects that.  He had well-known affairs with cast members in the original series, including Nichelle Nichols and Majel Barrett who would, of course, eventually become his wife.  He hired a costume designer in Bill Theiss who unashamedly built his reputation on clothes which, especially for women, looked like they could fall off at any moment.  TNG was better but consider the fact that during the first season, Denise Crosby (Tasha Yar) left because she wasn't getting enough material, Gates McFadden (Dr. Crusher) was fired for complaining too much about the sexist stories and Sirtis herself was worried she would be let go.  The fact that those three are all women - indeed, the only three women in the principal cast - is not a coincidence.

Deanna Troi, over seven seasons, was never not a sexualized character.  Naturally, it starts with costuming.  The low cut, tight fitting jump suits are certainly flattering.  Sirtis is a beautiful woman and I would hope she's proud of that but she didn't dress herself.  The costumes send a message: this woman's sex appeal is the most important thing she has to offer the show.  Meaningful character development for her always lags behind most of the others because, it would seem, it's not necessary.  It takes work to bring sensuality or vulnerability to Worf, Data or even Picard.  For Troi, you've just gotta speak softly and show some cleavage.  Who cares if she has any dimension beyond that?

Sexism also runs deep among the fans.  It's gotten better over the years.  Interestingly, Japan has led the way, rather surprising from such an historically chauvinistic culture.  My daughter's generation has grown up with Miyazaki's strong female protagonists and the generally more sophisticated narratives of anime.  As such, the 21st century kids expect more and damn right they should.  But historically, the geek universe is a boys' world and the tolerance for female characters is limited, to put it kindly.  Internet debates over a female Doctor Who, a female James Bond, a Star Wars trilogy with a female lead are ridiculous.  Most of the fanboys (forgive the expression, Tony) are content to see a character like Troi contained within her glass box.  Wait, she's complaining about something?  Never mind the fact that anyone in her situation would be understandably upset for a long time.  She's on the show and she's hot.  Isn't that enough?  Why do I have to listen to her going on about this?

Unfair?  To the geeks, I mean?  I don't think so.  It's all part of a pattern.

Getting back to the episode, I do regret that such a complicated scenario as a sudden disability was so brutally oversimplified for the time constraint - much as Tony Stark was able to kick alcoholism in a single comic book issue.  I get that's a limitation of the medium but, to my broader point, we've seen this with Troi stories before.  In "The Child," she must process rape, unintended pregnancy, reproductive choice, childbirth, motherhood and the loss of her child all within one 42-minute stretch.  That's a lot to ask of a character, never mind an actor.  But we're only going to give this lady one or two featured episodes a season at most so we'd better pack a lot in to each one.

Interestingly, the writers considered making the loss of empathic abilities a permanent part of Troi's character.  Being a geek who fears change myself, I'm glad they didn't but I can't deny it could have been interesting - perhaps even spinoff-series-worthy.

Acting Notes

Kim Braden plays the role of Ensign Janet Brooks, a patient of Counselor Troi's.  She was born in London to Canadian parents, November 1948.  As she is a natural redhead, it's not exactly surprising to learn that she made her breakthrough as Anne Shirley in two BBC miniseries: Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea.  Now, there's a satisfying female protagonist!

"The Loss" is her first of two Star Trek appearances.  In the 1994 film Generations, she played Elise Picard, Jean-Luc's wife in an alternate reality.  Probably not coincidentally, Braden's husband, David Carson, was the director of that film.


  1. Sirtis and/or Troi steals “Skin of Evil,” easily, from the death of Tasha Yar. It’s not the actress or the character but bad writing that kept getting in the way. By the time she’s pretending to be a Romulan, being actually drunk, it’s pretty clear, I think.

    “The Loss,” specifically, is neither here nor there. It’s a decent allegory. If it was a “temporary blindness” episode (which I know used to be popular, but not sure it still crops up), it wouldn’t really be different. The way you (not you specifically, but in general) feel about it probably has more to say about what you think of Sirtis and/or Troi. If you think she’s only walking cleavage and/or “the emotion chick,” then you’re not going to get much out of it. The material itself is sound enough.

    1. I would agree that she finds her way eventually but it takes a long time. And, just as with Wes, the fault lies with the writers, not the actor. At this stage of the series, Troi still feels like a lot of effort.

      I would say she seems the most relaxed (actor-wise) in the Lwaxanna episodes. The bristling daughter comes naturally for her.

  2. Yeah this was a weak episode. Whenever I catch Sirtis being interviewed I like the lady, she seems as open and friendly as a person can get while dealing with a fan base that can get creepy.

    That being said, it was late in the series before I felt comfortable with her character. I couldn't help but think her character would have made better sense if they abandoned the ship's mental health expert angle and went more with the alien culture expert.

    1. As with Wes, I think Troi would have worked better if they had simply let her be a real person. The writing was one problem. I also wonder how often she got meaningful stage direction beyond "stand there and look pretty." To be fair, I also wonder the same about the Wil Riker character.

      Acting was not a strength for the show in the beginning. Everyone gets the feel eventually but in all honesty, for everyone beyond Patrick Stewart and LeVar Burton, it takes quite a while to look comfortable on camera.

  3. Yes, does sound interesting.

    1. The two-dimensional beings concept is definitely interesting. Troi's story had more promise than it delivered.

  4. Sokath his eyes uncovered :)

    1. Oh... thank you for that...

      I love "Darmok," undoubtedly one of the best.