overthinking the idiot box

June 27, 2005

A column tackling gay issues, gay themes, and just general gayness in television

Q is for Queer
Does 'Hot for Starship Captains' Have Its Own Hanky Code?

by Whitney Cox

Funny that in the whole of Trek lore, perhaps the queerest character they ever had was one who didn't even really have a definable sexuality at all — Q, The Next Generation's (and eventually everyone else's) resident omnipotent god-like figure. Q was the resident testimony to everything the universe had good to offer for someone who had transcended all the petty little concerns of humanity and operated on a literally unimaginable scale, choosing interaction with humans as a primary method of alleviating boredom, and finding particular objects of fascination with Star Trek's highest-ranking men and women.

And in the hands of your average actor, Q likely would have been exceedingly lame, a figure of generic omnipotence whose transcendental role served as a foil by which humanity could pove just how awesome it really was — but in the hands of John de Lancie, one of those men who is certifiably so funny-looking that he goes all the way around and comes out the other side as just plain hot, he was great. Q's stated reason for bugging the Enterprise-D was to test humanity and poke around, but his hobby seemed to be threatening the sexuality of literally everyone on board the ship. While on the one hand this wasn't particularly difficult on what occasionally could be the most straight-laced vessel in the galaxy, what made Q's particular brand of threatening so amusing to watch was that it was never crossed the line into the overtly sexual. Instead, his entire personality hovered around the edge of suggestive, making the true hazard of his presence not that he had made sexual advances, but that he might do so at any time, to anybody, and in any position. It's the old joke rehashed: What does an omnipotent being do in bed? Anything he damn well pleases.

To call Q gay would be about as disingenuous as calling him straight — contrary to constraints of a 20th-century television show, the character has no particular gender, automatically placing ´him' outside the boundaries of expected gender and relationship roles.
Queerness is not just about same-gendered sexual activity — it has much more to do with subverting ´normal' paradigms of relationships and interaction, often in a way that defies conventional labels. And what better way to exemplify this, really, than with a character who transcends just about everything humans use to quantify and identify themselves? To call Q gay would be about as disingenuous as calling him straight — contrary to constraints of a 20th-century television show, the character has no particular gender, automatically placing ´him' outside the boundaries of expected gender and relationship roles.

Of course, he still played favorites. Quite frankly (with the possible exception of Enterprise's Captain Archer and Commander Tucker Ă see next week's column), Trek has never had a pair with more chemistry than de Lancie's Q and Stewart's Picard1. You could have put the two of them in the ready room and told them to read from the phone book, and so long as they'd continued to be sarcastic and scandalized (respectively), it would have amounted to hours of endless entertainment2. They were a more convincing couple than anyone else the show contrived to put together, and certainly a more entertaining one. Even stealing Picard's girlfriend was its own strange kind of flirtation, a panty raid where instead of undergarments, the perpetrator takes as a souvenir one's xenoanthropologist fling. And I stand by an assertion that should really be self-evident: When the omnipotent being lets you play Robin Hood in your own private Sherwood Forest with half a dozen of your closest friends, it's time to start picking out china patterns.

I'll confess I missed his appearance on Deep Space Nine, but caught him on Voyager, with the episode that both proves my point about Q's pan-sexuality and highlights Star Trek's growing discomfort with gay themes. Third-season episode ´The Q and the Grey' has Voyager run into a Q civil war, which Q decides to end by having a child. Dubious logic not being a problem for god-like beings, Q goes to try and knock up Janeway — who, in true Janeway style, isn't having any of it — and in the process manages to produce with her not a child, but one of the queerest male/female dynamics in the history of just about anything. They're very convincingly not a man and a woman, but an omnipotent creature in male form and an ostensibly heterosexual female woman who's uncomfortable with the whole situation no matter who's got what soft parts. Combine this with the two actors' obviously having a great time bouncing off one another, and you have a thoroughly watch-able dynamic.

Cue the phone book recitations — which might have been a drastic improvement on what follows.3 Instead, the episode falls down by bringing the female Q (helpfully also named Q, but identifiable by, well, her being a female — whatever that means for Q, anyway), who calls our original Q her boyfriend and gets omnipotent jealousy all over everything before the two of them decide to make a baby Q together. (This somehow ends the war. Don't ask me how.)

Leaving aside any and all plot-related holes, the story's moral for heterosexual reproduction as a way to save the world fits not at all with all previously established Q behavior. Maybe it's a metaphor for how all human-tormenting interstellar beings eventually grow up, let go of their fetishes for men and women in captain's bars, settle down, and spawn with intensely annoying opposite-gender members of their same species. But what's the perk of omnipotence, I ask, if you just end up conforming to the same heteronormative expectations the humans to whom you're so superior force upon themselves? Immortality's got to get a better line.

You know, it's a shame that Enterprise was a prequel — it could have seriously benefited from having John de Lancie and Scott Bakula chewing on the scenery together. I'm just saying.

1Stewart's a pro at inserting homoerotic subtext where there may or may not be any to begin with. Just go watch him and Ian McKellan chew on each other through the X-Men movies and you'll see what I'm talking about.

2And endless entertainment better written than most Enterprise episodes (ooh, snap).

3Though I suppose I should give a lot of the lameness a pass here, considering that this was an obvious case of thinking of a clever title for the episode and then writing it.

NEXT TIME, ON OUT-TAKES: the disappointment that was Enterprise; or, STOP SEXUALIZING THE VULCAN NOW I MEAN IT.

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