(Mentioned this in the previous strip, but just for the hell of it here’s my little essay from this morning about Star Trek: The Next Generation missing a big character opportunity with Deanna Troi’s empathic powers.)
Can we talk for a minute about Deanna Troi and being an empath and dealing with ambient feelings of attraction and other emotions from crew-members? Because I feel like it’s something the show never really dug deep on, and I feel like the reason for that is mostly because the show in question was Star Trek and digging deep would have been uncomfortable in a way that Trek conventionally tries not to be, in it’s show-to-show status-quo approach to dealing with characterization.
Like: when a traumatic or upsetting or damaging thing happens to a character, that’s something to introduce in act I and resolve two minutes before credits. Or stretch it out across a two-parter or make a quick callback to in the following episodes, on special occasions. This is the nature of the episodic, writing-for-syndication format of TNG and TOS in particular. Status quo. Has it upsides and downsides from a storytelling perspective, but regardless of the merits it’s a practical fact of how the show tended to be structured in terms of character development. I know I’ve ranted a little bit about it before, as someone who tends to prefer a continuity-heavy story arc in my TV.
So what do you do with Deanna Troi? Here’s someone unique on the Enterprise (or at least presumably very nearly so; maybe there’s an empathic or telepathic ensign in engineering somewhere who just doesn’t rank for bridge diplomacy who we never get to see?), in that she has this capacity to sense what others are thinking. It’s a major duty for her, part of her job. But what do we see of it?
1. Quickie bridge-duty reports: Captain, I sense the Ventrusian is angry, but not lying.
2. Very Special Episodes. Which are fine as a way to explore some of Deanna’s powers and cultural background and whatnot but tend to involve extreme one-off situations prompted by abnormal conditions/anomalies/villains/Lwaxana/whatever. All tied up with a bow and packed away at episode end so we can get back to status quo.
What don’t we see?
3. Deanna seriously coping on a daily basis with the strangeness and isolation of being an empath out of water. Or Deanna seriously leveraging on a daily basis the subtle social advantages and exploitative possibilities of being an empath among normals.
And one answer to why is easy enough: this is Next Generation, where the default state of all our characters is generally of ethically-defensible happiness with their life and work unless otherwise necessary to an episode. People have bad days; they don’t have bad years. Major cast members sometimes do bad things; they are not bad people.
And so Deanna dealing with low-level stress from constantly being exposed to other people’s general mental bullshit seepage, or to other people’s specific judgemental/lustful/contemptuous/whateverful thoughts about her? Not on the table. Neither is the possibility of Deanna being a low-level creeper, the kind of person who while having their good sides is also unambiguously willing to do something not-so-cool like play off emotional vulnerabilities just because it’s personally convenient.
(And really, isn’t it sort of remarkable that on a ship full of people who can’t read minds, from cultures without mind-reading, who know she sort of can–or among the less-precisely-informed maybe think she really can–there’s no sense of constant unease from a lot of the crew in her presence? That’s a utopic degree of trust and acceptance. But that’s TNG.)
And so we’re stuck with the easily-parodied “I sense an obvious emotion” stuff and the occasional mind-meld or mental-rape episode and not a whole lot of episode-to-episode insight into Deanna’s strange-but-banal experience as a telepathic outlier. She’s just there, so often, and kept safe by her there-ness, and as a result we as viewer are robbed of anactual progressing, detailed portrait of the social/mental/emotional life of an alien working to assimilate into a culture she would have to be more or less constantly aware of her outlier status in.
It’s kind of a bummer, really.