24th Century Adoption: A critical look at adoption narratives in Star Trek TNG and DS9

Rugal, Jono and WorfDuring Women at Warp’s episode “Mixed-Race Characters in Trek,” I was inspired by their conversation on Worf,, who is described as a “transracial adoptee” by guest Claire Light. Drawing from my own personal experience, I would like to specifically focus on adoption and critically reflect upon how Star Trek depicts transracial adoptees in the 24th century. To position myself, I choose this topic because my sibling is adopted from South Korea. Growing up in a multiethnic family, I have always been sensitive to depictions of adoption in popular culture, though I am not an adoptee myself.

Starting on a positive note, I concur that the characterization of Worf as a Klingon adoptee with human parents, Helena and Sergey Rozhenko, is the best depiction of adoption I have seen in Star Trek, and one of the best in pop culture generally. While the series creators do not shy away from the fact Worf’s childhood on Earth was challenging as a Klingon in a human household, their family is consistently depicted as loving and Worf simply refers to the Rozhenkos as his parents.

 

Worf and the Rozhenkos

 

The part [of Worf] looks out the window towards home, but he’s not looking towards the Klingon Empire. He’s looking towards you. – Guinan to the Rozhenkos in “Family”

There is never an explicit or inferred competition between Worf’s Klingon parents and adopted human parents beyond challenges related to cultural differences. Worf has two sets of loving parents. This is how we always approached adoption in my family. It is not a competition about who an adoptee’s “real” family is. I have lived this multiethnic reality, and it is a rare and beautiful thing to see a loving if realistically imperfect transracial family translated onto the screen.

While I could go on for pages about Worf and other adoptees like Michael in Discovery (perhaps I shall in future), I decided to focus this blog post on perhaps less notable representations of adoption that struck close to home, from The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.

Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) Season 4, Episode 4: “Suddenly Human” (Oct 1990)

The episode begins with the Enterprise routinely responds to a Talarian ship’s distress call and rescues its young crew, including a single human named Jono, played by actor Chad Allen. In sickbay, the Talarians are less than cooperative with Dr. Crusher until Captain Picard arrives. It becomes immediately apparent that there is a connection between Jono and Picard;the captain is the only male figure of authority the young man respects. In addition to having adopted Talarians’ apparent sexism, Jono obviously identifies as a Talarian and demands he be reunited with his people.

 

Jono in Sickbay with Crusher, Riker, Picard and Troi

Send me back with my brothers, send us back to Captain Endar! – Jono

There is a particularly jarring scene in which Worf escorts Jono to guest quarters and Jono announces, “I am no more human than you are. I am Talarian.” To which Worf simply replies, “You are confused.”

Initially I interpreted Worf’s comment to mean that Jono is clearly human in appearance inferring that Jono has been indoctrinated by the Talarians to reject his humanness, as the rest of the crew presumes. However, I would instead like to think that Worf means that despite his Klingon appearance and identity, as an adoptee he is also partially human. Worf therefore does not question Jono’s Talarian identity, but reaffirms the human part of his own.

 

Worf and Jono

Later Doctor Crusher reports to Captain Picard that Jono has had several broken bones, theorizing that the only reason Jono wishes to return to the Talarians is because he has a form of Stockholm Syndrome.

They may have brutalized the child. – Crusher

Additionally, Data briefs the senior staff that Jono’s DNA matches a Jeremiah Rossa, grandson of an Admiral Rossa. He was missing, presumed dead as a young child after a group of Talarians attacked the Federation outpost. And so, the crew decides it is best for Jono to reconnect with his human roots despite his insistence that he is Talarian and wants to return to his Captain. As a symbol of male authority, Picard is tasked with helping Jono to reconnect with his “origins” and convincing him to stay in the Federation.

 

Jono sitting cross-legged on a bed, talking to Picard

My name is Jono. – Jono

Well, you were born Jeremiah. – Picard

Showing him images of his human parents, Picard questions Jono about his life with his Talarian father and asks if Captain Endar has abused him in any way. Jono fervently denies these accusations but also experiences several flashbacks where he relives his parents’ murder, with audio of people screaming and the actor burying his head in his hands.

The situation brings to mind Argentina’s Dirty War when military police murdered couples in secret and then adopted their children out to families loyal to Perón’s dictatorship – children essentially raised by their parents’ murderers. When the birth parents’ relatives found their missing nieces, nephews and grandchildren after the dictatorship they oftentimes took custody of the children whether they wanted to go or not. Similarly, Admiral Rossa’s message to Jono explicitly states that he had been “given back” to them. This parallel purposefully places Jono’s adoption and relationship with his adopted family in a very morally gray area for the audience.

The Talarian captain and Jono

 

Why has this child been held in your custody for so many years? – Picard

No explanation is warranted, Captain. He is my son. – Endar

When the Enterprise finally rendezvous with the Talarian ship, Picard blatantly accuses Captain Endar of murder and kidnapping Jono. Endar does not deny the attack on the Federation station where the Rossas lived, but clarifies it was during a time of war and as such he was entitled to adopt Jono according to Talarian tradition. Picard allows Endar and Jono to meet face-to-face, during which Endar asks Jono if he wants to stay with the humans or not. Once again, Jono expresses his desire to go back to Talaria with Endar.

At this point, the audience can infer that it is not necessarily a choice, since Jono is consistently referred to as a child and possibly having a form of Stockholm Syndrome. Jono’s wishes are again superseded by the Enterpise crew’s mission to make him accept his human identity and family, the Admiral. In order to be reunited with his adopted father or die, Jono takes drastic action. Jono attempts to murder Picard to demonstrate the complete rejection of his human parental figure, his humanity.

Jono attacks picard

As I grew closer and closer to you, I knew that meant leaving more and more of that life behind. – Jono to Picard

Finally, after being stabbed, Picard realizes that Jono has consistently expressed his own desire to return to the Talarians and claimed Endar as his father. The Federation Captain chooses to validate Jono’s agency and reunites him with Endar with an impassioned speech:

When we found Jono, it seemed so clear what had been done. We knew that if we could only persuade him to make the decision to stay then you would most likely let him. So with the best of intentions, we tried to convince him and in so doing we thoroughly failed to listen to his feelings and to his needs. That was the crime, and it has taken a huge toll on a strong and very noble young man and it must be rectified. So he will return home, to the only home he’s ever known and to the father that he loves. – Picard

Before leaving the Enterprise, Jono takes off his gloves and ceremoniously says goodbye to Picard in the Talarian tradition, and in so doing demonstrates that Picard is no longer alien to him and that he can touch him. This is the only indication that Jono has come to accept the human part of himself.

Jono touches foreheads with Picard

Though “Suddenly Human” acknowledges Jono’s identity as an adoptee, the episode predominantly presents adoption as a forceful relocation from one world to the next, and that the adoptee cannot coexist in both. Picard and the Enterprise crew are constantly telling Jono who he is, what name he should call himself and how he should behave. The adoptee must choose which family and racial identity to claim in an all or nothing scenario. This approach is mirrored later in DS9, but with an even more problematic depiction of adoption as punitive, positing adoptees should ideally be with their “own kind.”

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) Season 2, Episode 5: “Cardassians” (Oct. 1993)

The episode begins with plain and simple Garak, the only resident Cardassian on DS9, introducing himself to a Cardassian boy with his adopted Bajoran father, Proka Migdal. Startled the young boy, Rugal, bites Garak’s hand.

Garak observes Rugal talking to his Bajoran adoptive father

Now there’s something you don’t see every day. – Garak

For some reason this incident brings Rugal, played by actor Vidal Peterson, and his family under scrutiny, and Doctor Bashir finds out from a dubious information source that Rugal is being abused by his adopted parents on Bajor and brainwashed to hate his own species. Wanting to take any accusation of child abuse seriously, station Commander Sisko becomes involved and Rugal and his adopted family are investigated.

How do your parents feel about Cardassians? – Miles

They hate them. – Rugal

Why would you want to live with someone who hates you? – Miles

They hate other Cardassians, not me. My parents have never done anything wrong to me. – Rugal

During this process, Rugal is forcefully separated from his adopted father and the Cardassian government becomes involved as it comes to light that Rugal is the son of a prominent Cardassian politician, Kotran Pa’Dar. This official demands his son, whom he thought was dead for years, be returned to him. However, Rugal does not recognize the man as his father and wishes to remain with his Bajoran parents. To avoid a conflict with the Cardassians and somehow circumvent the rights of Rugal and his Bajoran parents, Sisko acts as an arbitrator to settle the custody conflict.

 

Sisko addresses the disputing parties

 

You gave up custody when you abandoned him here! – Proka

He is my natural-born child! – Pa’Dar

During the hearing, Garak and Doctor Bashir reveal that Gul Dukat intentionally placed Rugal up for adoption eight years ago as a political move against Pa’Dar. As the result, Sisko agrees to allow Pa’Dar to take Rugal back to Cardassia, and Proka goes from being Rugal’s adopted father to his “foster” father (these are two different things as fostering infers care for a child before they are adopted rather than being adoptive guardians).

Garak and O'Brien talk to Rugal

 

You are a Cardassian butcher, a butcher. They killed your son for your crimes. You are not my father and I will never go back to Cardassia, never! – Rugal to Pa’Dar

Once again, the adoption occurs as the result of extraordinary circumstances with intergalactic political ramifications. Though this time the adoptee is forced to return to his “birth” parents against his will. Very vocal up until this point about wanting to go home to Bajor, Rugal silently leaves with Pa’Dar, demonstrating he is powerless in this situation.

Adoption is IDIC

Recognizing his identity as an adoptee, Captain Picard permits Jono to return to his adopted family in “Suddenly Human.” Though the framing of his adoption as the result of his adopted parent murdering his birth parents is problematic to say the least, in this instance Picard respects the adoptee’s agency. This is not the case in Deep Space Nine, where Rugal is seen as a victim of a larger political conspiracy and therefore has no say in his fate even though his adoption was technically a legal one. In both instances, the transracial adoptees are pressured to return to their birth families, members of their own species. This sends a dubious message that people belong with their “own kind.”

Side by side of Endar and Jono and the Bajoran father and Rugal

Moreover, the characterizations of both adopted fathers as racist and somewhat manipulative sends a negative message about parents/guardians who adopt, reminiscent of fairytale evil stepmothers. They love their adoptee but hate where they came from. In “Cardassians” especially, these episodes also create a false dichotomy in which adoptees have to choose between their “birth” family and culture versus that of their adopted family. These depictions unnecessarily problematize diverse family structures beyond the nuclear cis hetero mom, dad and children and erase the existence of multiethnic families.

I want to go home. – Rugal

Well, he’ll [Sisko] will understand that. You are a Cardassian and they should have taken you home when they left. – Miles

No, I mean home to Bajor. – Rugal

It must be tough for you, you know, living on Bajor. – Miles

Why? – Rugal

Being Cardassian. – Miles

That’s not my fault. I was born that way. – Rugal

Given the celebration of IDIC: infinite diversity in infinite combinations is one of Star Trek’s central messages, these depictions of multiethnic families seem like outliers in that they highlight difference and unnecessarily problematize adoption. Why did Jono and Rugal’s parents have to murder each other and teach them to despise their own species? What does this say about transracial adoption in the real world? Are adoptees doomed to always be at war with themselves? Though “Suddenly Human” is a slightly better representation in that it recognizes the adoptee’s agency, both these episodes leave much to be desired in terms of adoption representation. From a gender perspective, both episodes almost exclusively present father and son relationships.

Though redundant on Women at Warp’s platform, it is nevertheless important to reiterate that representation matters. Star Trek has proven that it can and should continue to do better at positively and accurately depicting diverse families in mainstream media, including the presence of transracial adoptees in the far future.

  4 comments for “24th Century Adoption: A critical look at adoption narratives in Star Trek TNG and DS9

  1. This is a great blog post, but can you fix the coding error that has underlined the whole thing? I’ve got visual pprnlems and it makes it very hard to read. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for this! I love this especially: “…the characterizations of both adopted fathers as racist and somewhat manipulative sends a negative message about parents/guardians who adopt, reminiscent of fairytale evil stepmothers.” It’s something I went off on all the time in the days of Once Upon a Time.

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