By Dan Ortiz
For a franchise known for exploring the unknown, Star Trek made another big leap in the most recent episode of Star Trek Discovery: “Forget Me Not” marked a franchise-first in showing a romance between a non-binary character (Adira, played by Blu del Barrio) and a trans actor (Ian Alexander).
Del Barrio and Alexander play two young Trill characters - Star Trek’s race of humanoids that exist as human hosts to symbiont lifeforms that retain the host’s memories and characteristics as the symbiont passes from host to host.
The Trill have long been a part of the Star Trek universe, most notably in the form of long-running Deep Space Nine character Jadzia Dax (Terry Ferrell) who later took the form of Ezri Dax. However, the Trill began back in 1991’s Next Generation episode “The Host” which presented the Trill as a deeply complex race with a unique lineage and characteristics that would shape not just Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, but future generations of Star Trek to come.
Creator of the Trill and writer of “The Host,” Michel Horvat, took some time to reflect on the creation of the Trill in “The Host” and what they meant not just for that episode but for Star Trek as a whole.
Q: Where did the idea for the Trill come from initially? Did you originally envision that the Trill would eventually become a lens through which Star Trek could further explore complex issues of sexuality, gender, and identity?
Horvat: I had a saltwater aquarium. I was fascinated by the symbiotic relationship my fish and my cleaner shrimp displayed as one cleaned the other and the other provided a food source from itself while getting cleaned. Mutually beneficial. That got me thinking about us as humans and the sides of ourselves that we fight or with which we cooperate.
Couple that with my own sexuality, acceptance thereof, and struggles therein. I also had a name that was French for the first 10 years of my life. I was born of European parents in Chile and went to French school. Then, we came to the United States, and all of a sudden I was deemed to have a "girl's name” after that. It was not easy navigating people's ignorance, cruelty, and prejudice. (A Boy Named Sue). In many ways, I felt like a fish out of water which prepped me to explore these themes.
Perhaps like Jamal Malik, the main character in "Slumdog Millionaire," my entire life and formative years contributed to the moment where I was uniquely placed to create this species, just as the main character's entire life was uniquely built around having just the right answers when it came time to play the game. Perhaps the uniqueness of my experience allowed my creativity to flourish in this way and to come up with The Trill.
I remember thinking of the Walt Whitman quote from the epic poem "Song Of Myself": "I contain multitudes..." There was something there. So, my thinking was what if a joint species has found peace in both parts of itself and has found a deeper understanding of those parts by virtue of their interchangeability and that they (The Trill) accept that very interchangeability and concentrate on what is immutable? The memories the emotions, the relationships...these elements as the essence of self and not the body?
However, the overriding importance as a writer at the time was challenging the series regulars to face parts of themselves that would further reveal their humanity and allow the show to move forward with the growth that comes from that. That’s what made The Next Generation special, it challenged us by challenging them, so we became more invested in their struggles.
I noticed that Crusher had lacked an engaging story involving her personal life for quite a while - if at all - and I also knew, having seen all episodes thus far, that Riker and Crusher had played only casual scenes together. So, those avenues had never been explored. As such, I fought to have Crusher and Riker be forced into a situation that they would normally never be in. It was all about the emotional engagement of the series regulars through an external influence. The Trill was the device.
Q: Once Odan’s symbiont was implanted into Riker, Odan was challenged with convincing the people of Alpha and Beta moons with accepting Riker as Odan. Was that intentional as an allegory to societal acceptance - the feeling that queer people regardless of label or, in this case, a host are ‘still the same’ inside?
Horvat: Precisely. While I may not have articulated that to myself at that time, it was all about accepting the changing form of Odan (the name was an intentionally slightly changed Adam – the first male in the Bible). This was step one of dismantling the self into another self. When Alphans and Betans saw that Odan was “still in there” they relented. His skill as an ambassador overrode his external representation and perhaps their initial prejudice melted away.
Likewise, with Crusher, I used a writing convention of holding a particular and precise wording to signify that Odan was “still in there.” His calling Crusher “Dr. Beverly” was not just an endearing non-sequitur, it was a specific writing device and the most efficient method of instantly signaling that Odan resided in Riker and ultimately in Kareel. The moment you heard any of the actors use “Dr. Beverly” you knew that the essence of Odan was preserved and present. Also, as a Trill, he did not concentrate or care about lineage (a last name) but only of the individual. It was a particularly Trill idiosyncrasy.
Q. Dr. Crusher is initially angry with Odan for him “not telling her what he was” - Odan responds that “this is what I am,” and asks Dr. Crusher why she never revealed to him that she was only a single being. Could you please explain your thinking behind Odan making this point?
Horvat: For Odan, being a joint symbiont was as natural as humans having a body and also a mind. Now Odan did not want to disclose why exactly he did not want to beam down to the planet, but that was about being protective of the symbiont joining and its delicate structure and being leery of the beaming technology and its possible effect on the symbiont. Again, another device to add intrigue to what he might be hiding. Hinting at possible nefariousness, as it were. After all, I placed Odan’s undulating tummy scene where something is lurking under the surface right before the commercial break. You gotta love a good hook, right?
For me, Odan and The Trill knew that it was difficult for non-Trill to understand and appreciate their joint species, so they were somewhat circumspect of revealing the joining. They were also a relatively new addition to the Federation and were being cautious of this sacred unique co-existence. They didn’t want to experience prejudice any more than an LGBT person wants to experience recrimination for who they are once they reveal it.
So, he could have "come out" to Crusher from the beginning, but since it was so natural to him, it did not seem necessary. A similarly annoying question to humans would be, “What made you gay?” or “What made you straight?”. We don't think about being one way or another throughout the day, we just are.
Transgender people know intrinsically what sex they are – their bodies simply don’t agree with that understanding. It is perhaps the freedom of that tension that might very intensely resonate for people when it comes to The Trill, in that there is a fluidity of self-understanding inherent in the species. Otherwise, there could never be an acceptance of the joining. That might feel like ultimate freedom to some.
I was adamant and continue to be around calling The Trill just that. Never adding an “s” at the end. They are a joint species making one, not The Trills, but The Trill. That pertains to a single joint Trill and of the species at large. This further elucidates this self-understanding as a single while joint creature. It actually makes me a little crazy when I read them described as The Trills because it defeats the purpose of their own self-understanding. My original title for the episode was “E Pluribus Unum” “Out Of Many, One” It’s The Trill.
The mystery of The Trill was their strength, like Two-Spirit individuals in the Native American traditions, it was the unknown and the strength of the Two Spirits that made them special. The Trill have the collective knowledge of their previous hosts and their previous incarnations to rely on, that’s what makes them such great ambassadors and peace negotiators. They know what it means to embody different perspectives.
The revealed truth made them vulnerable. Coming out can feel very much like that. The idea of passing, of being accepted was being challenged there. And frankly, if a singular species like the Alphans and Betans of Peliar Zel or humans for that matter are working with an ambassador, they expect constancy. A singular bodied species would initially be put off by external changes to their arbiter mid-negotiations. Now that the cat is out of the bag, as it were, it is not so much of an issue, but back then they were a private species.
And the practical implications were that I needed to have Riker be engaged in the dangerous choice of temporarily adopting the symbiont to bring intrigue and further explore The Trill mentality both at the negotiating table and Crusher’s bedside. No danger, no intrigue, no show.
Q: Once Odan’s symbiont reaches its new host in the form of female host Kareel, she approaches Beverly with the intention of continuing their relationship in her new female form. Did you encounter any challenges writing that into the script?
Horvat: I insisted and had to convince the producers to make the final recipient host female. That was the final payoff for the episode, I believed. Otherwise, it would have been a tepid, uninteresting ending without any punch or food for thought.
This was also a way to seal the deal for that romantic relationship, first, the body would die then the symbiont would live but in a differently sexed host body. It would be too much for Crusher and therefore she would be released to carry on with the show as before, without attachment.
That was the coup de grâce of the episode as far as I'm concerned. I decided to come at this part of the story with the producers as a writer, neutral - not as an LGBT person or advocate with some specific agenda, which I really didn’t have. I just had a point of view and a curiosity and a desire to tell the most compelling story I could. I knew that my strongest hand was as a creative, not as a biased point-maker.
The producers were reticent but intrigued (as you mention it was 1991) but I persisted – and they were frankly quite courageous to agree. It was also much easier to sell two women kissing on screen at the end than two men. That would have been impossible in 1991. Maybe because straight males, historically the main Star Trek audience base, would more readily accept the fantasy of two women together. So, inherently there might have been an easier road to sell that concept. I don’t know. But two men kissing would have been a non-starter – I knew that much.
Just like in TNG’s “The Outcast” Riker’s love interest could have been played by a male actor that got feminized through makeup instead of a female actress that got masculinized. Because the suspension of disbelief would have been too disturbing for audiences if a feminized male was Riker’s love interest. And frankly, I don’t know if it would be accepted even today. The male series regular would forever be pegged as questioning or confused or unsure, less than masculine or less effective. Labels still haunt us.
I knew that many questions would emerge, what it is to be Trill and by extension, what it is to be human. I saw some of that exploration in Deep Space Nine but none that resonated with what I knew was the full potential of the species as a vehicle of exploration until Discovery revisited the Trill again. I also read in an article that it was a question whether the producers intended for this to be a source of exploration. The Star Trek: Next Generation producers might not have, but as the creator of the Trill, I certainly did. I just had to wait 29 years to see it happen.
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