No Empathy for the Empath: The Violations of Counselor Troi

By Michelle T.

(Content Warning: Discussion of sexual assault/rape ahead.)

Counselor Deanna Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation is a character frequently maligned by fans. Usually you hear more comments on her outfits and cleavage than on her personality or accomplishments. It’s pretty clear that the writers didn’t know what to do with her, and it’s not until much later in the series that she gets substantive stories. What I’d like to talk about specifically, however, is how often this character is assaulted, either physically or mentally. For a show that is supposed to be progressive and egalitarian, the character of Counselor Troi is abused in a way that is unacceptable to those values.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love TNG whole-heartedly. You can love something and still see problems in it, though, and love it despite them. That caveat being added, let’s look at some examples.

There is about one episode per season where something terrible happens to Troi, but I’m going to focus on a few of the more egregious examples. The first episode of season 2, “The Child,” may be the episode that I have the most problems with. An alien entity in the form of energy comes aboard the Enterprise, and we see it exploring different areas of the ship, seemingly looking for something. It creeps through a few other crewmembers’ quarters until it comes to Troi’s room, where she is asleep. This thing moves under her blankets and slowly slides its way up and then disappears inside her body. Troi wakes up quickly, looking shocked and confused. That sounds disturbing, doesn’t it? It should. That’s because it’s what no one in the episode ever calls it: rape. Counselor Troi is raped by an alien being and becomes pregnant.

I think it’s what happens after the rape that disgusts me so much. Troi is brought into the observation lounge, where the senior staff openly discusses her situation with little thought for sympathy or privacy. Marina Sirtis plays this well, despite the bad writing. You can sense the humiliation and pain as she walks in and doesn’t meet anyone’s eyes. She sits at the very end of the table, away from anyone else, and is clearly very uncomfortable. Riker, her former lover, is completely without sympathy. Instead he’s suspicious of her and demands to know who the father is. “This is a surprise,” he says. I like her response quite a bit, “More so for me.” Troi then is forced to explain to her mostly male audience how it happened. “Last night, while I slept, something which I can only describe as a presence… entered my body.” She’s describing a rape, but has to do it in front of her coworkers and then listen to them discuss what to do about it. She sits in silence while the men try to decide whether having the baby is a security risk, or if the fetus should be aborted. Troi’s body isn’t something she has control over in this moment, but something the senior staff debate. This scene is disgusting in so many ways.

Finally, Troi speaks up and tells Captain Picard that she is going to have the baby. To his credit he gives her the ultimate decision, saying, “It seems, then, that the discussion is over.” At least one of the men in this room respects her right to make this decision for herself.

After this we see the pregnancy progress at an unnaturally fast rate. Within 36 hours she is ready to give birth. As if listening to a room of colleagues discuss her options wasn’t bad enough, she has to give birth with a room full of people watching. Some of them, armed security officers, are there without her permission. Riker is creeping just out of her sight the entire time, too. Presumably if she had wanted him there she would have asked for him. Somehow, though, Deanna remains calm, kind and patient during this ordeal. I think it speaks of a great strength of character that she is able to forgive the others and still feel a great deal of love for the child she has just given birth to and loses almost as quickly.

There’s a lot more I could say about that, but let’s move on to our next example: “Hollow Pursuits.” Yep, this is the episode where we meet the infamous Lieutenant Reginald Barclay. The episode centers on Barclay’s addiction to the holodeck and his considerable mental issues. One of the central characters in Barclay’s holodeck fantasies is Troi as a romantic object. Troi, Riker and LaForge enter the holodeck while one of Barclay’s programs is running to find him and come across the holodeck versions of themselves. The first person they encounter is Troi as the “goddess of empathy,” dressed in a ridiculous Greek goddess-style outfit. She is clearly very uncomfortable with it and tries to delete the image. Riker thinks it’s hilarious and stops her. He feels differently, of course, when he encounters Barclay’s version of himself later.

I know a lot of fans tend to play this off as comical, but pause for just a minute and think about it. How would you feel to find that someone you work with uses your image and personality as a romantic object in a fantasy? I would be creeped out. It’s creepy and weird. It would be like finding out that you are the subject of someone’s self-pleasuring fantasies. If I were Troi, at this point I might have refused to counsel Barclay and made someone else deal with him. She still does her job, despite how uncomfortable and awkward that would be. Deanna is a consummate professional in this and other equally bad situations.

In an otherwise stellar season that brought us amazing episodes like “Darmok,” “Ensign Ro” and “The Inner Light,” twelve episodes into season 5 we get “Violations.” We see in “Ensign Ro” that the writers can create and write for compelling women, but they still drop the ball with Counselor Troi. In “Violations” the Enterprise is hosting an alien race with telepathic abilities, and Troi initially tries to help Jev, whose father speaks poorly of his abilities, by bonding over their overbearing parents. He repays her sympathy by forcefully inserting himself into her mind. He creates a memory of Troi being sexually assaulted by Riker, possibly raped. We don’t see the end of the memory, as Troi falls into a coma at this point. So in this episode, not only is Troi essentially mentally raped, but the memory inserted into her mind is of a sexual assault by someone she loves and trusts. Later on, after she awakes from her coma, she is forced to relive the experience. Jev is supposedly trying to help her find out what happened, and she has to explain the false memory of the assault in front of Captain Picard and Worf. She breaks down recalling it and ends up weeping. Once again Troi has to deal with an assault in front of others, and is not seen dealing with or talking it about in any really meaningful way.

A very similar incident also happens in the last of the TNG movies, Nemesis. Shinzon pushes himself into Deanna’s mind as she is being intimate with her new husband, Commander Riker. It starts off as a romantic scene between two of our beloved crewmembers, but is perverted by Shinzon inserting himself in Riker’s place. Troi is clearly disturbed and traumatized. She yet again goes through a medical examination and debriefing in front of the senior staff. She requests to be relieved of duty, seeing this connection as a liability. I would imagine she wants time to deal with the assault emotionally as well. Picard denies her request, and says that if she can endure more of these assaults that he still needs her at his side.

So, to get this straight: Picard’s counselor has just been violated, and he denies her leave. Not only that, but he asks her to endure it again. He has asked Troi to endure mental rape multiple times. The complete and utter lack of sensitivity in this scene is disturbing. The sexual assault, which it is, despite not being physical, is treated as no big deal. They still refuse to call it what is. It’s referred to as a “violation,” and not mental rape.

This scene seems to serve little purpose beyond Shinzon’s amusement, and to later be used as a plot point. Deanna uses her forced mental connection with Shinzon and his viceroy to locate and target Shinzon’s ship. She does this voluntarily, too, sacrificing her own comfort to help the Enterprise. Deanna says, “remember me” as she targets and fires on Shinzon’s ship, and it’s clear that this is her recourse for justice. For once we see her getting revenge for the wrong done to her. She has to take the opportunity herself, however. Her fellow officers or captain do not give it to her.

Most of the time, Deanna does not take the matter into her own hands. She remains professional and keeps doing her job, despite the violations she continually suffers. We do not see her given a chance to talk to anyone about what has happened, or deal with the assaults in any meaningful way. We know Star Trek can deal with important social issues and hit it out of the park. Just look at “The Outcast,” “Measure of a Man,” or “The Drumhead.” With the issue of sexual assault Star Trek falls far short. I am not saying, by any means, that it should never be used in television or movies. It needs to be done in a sensitive and meaningful way. Deanna Troi’s assaults were not handled meaningfully or even sensitively. They are plot devices and little more.

It can be used in good ways. Take, for example, a show like Jane Campion’s ‘Top of the Lake.” The main character, Robin, suffered a rape as a teenager. We see Robin still dealing with the consequences of her rape as an adult, and her process of working through it. That rape is what drove her to become a law officer specializing in sexual assault. She uses what happened to her as an impetus that drives her to keep it from happening to anyone else and to help victims seek justice. A show like “Top of the Lake” shows the effects of sexual assault on women and the men around them. We are not given a chance to see those effects in Deanna Troi’s case.

For a show like Star Trek: The Next Generation, this is a huge disappointment, particularly to many of its female fans. There are times when TNG handles female characters extraordinarily well, but this is not one of them. Deanna Troi was treated very poorly in this area. In the very least, if they wanted to include those violations of her character, they could have used her as a vehicle to explore the issue of sexual assault in a meaningful way. But they don’t. For some reason this issue is taboo, and they do not even name it for what it is.

Deanna does eventually develop into a character with more depth, but it is a shame that it had to be at the expense of being treated so badly for so long. So if you’re one of those Star Trek fans that dislike Counselor Troi, give her a second shot. For everything this poor woman has gone through, it’s amazing that she has not given up on her career entirely or had a mental breakdown. She’s a lot stronger and more resilient than she seems. Here’s to hoping that any future Star Trek incarnations use sexual assault as a way to initiate dialogue on the issue, rather than just a plot device.

Michelle lives in Fargo, ND, where she does normal people things by day and nerdy things by weekend and night. Her interests range from Star Trek, to history, archaeology, languages, fantasy and sci-fi, and cats.

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