Spoiler Alert: Contains spoilers for Strange New Worlds Season 1, episodes 4 and 9, and Season 2 of Picard
Like basically every Trekkie I know, I loved the first season of Strange New Worlds. The characters are compelling, the writing is excellent, and the episodic storytelling, when paired with ongoing explorations of emotional arcs, hits all the right buttons. But if there’s one thing I somewhat take issue with, it’s the show’s portrayal of the Gorn.
It was a great idea to bring the Gorn back, and to update them from their TOS days. But I’m not convinced the show is going about this Gorn revival in the right way. In Strange New Worlds, the Gorn are portrayed as a pretty one-dimensional, evil alien race. And that goes against so much of what Star Trek stands for in terms of celebrating diversity and refusing to otherize those who aren’t just like you.
Let’s take a look at the way the Gorn are represented on the show. In the episode “Memento Mori,” La’an describes them by saying, “They aren’t supernatural, but they are monsters. The Federation teaches that if we can find a way to empathize with an enemy then they can one day become our friends. They’re wrong. Some things in this universe are just plain evil.” And indeed, the Gorn are characterized in this episode as unrelenting predators who hunt their prey even to the point of their own destruction.
Granted, La’an lost family during a Gorn attack and is still struggling with the trauma of that. So as a character, perhaps we can cut her some slack. But in terms of the show’s overall messaging, this is problematic.
There are similar issues that come up in “All Those Who Wander.” The Enterprise responds to a distress call from the Peregrine, discovering that their crew was killed when Gorn eggs hatched inside them and the newborns burst out of their bodies, only to start hunting other crew members. The episode is written and directed like a horror movie, and the Gorn fill the role of the terrifying creature relentlessly pursuing the heroes. Like the giant alien monster in Cloverfield or Pennywise in It (or any number of other examples), the Gorn here are supposed to be seen only as monsters, not as nuanced antagonists.
In this episode, the Gorn are responsible for Hemmer’s death, which further demonizes them in the eyes of the audience. And when Pike asks La’an what she wants to do regarding their current situation with the Gorn, she replies “I want to kill them.”
And finally, Akiva Goldsman, executive producer for much of the current Trekverse, appeared on Ready Room this season and said, “What I like about the Gorn – and this is maybe counterintuitive when it comes to Star Trek – but what I like about the Gorn is they’re not every other iteration of representation of the human other in alien skin. They’re evil.”
So clearly, the creators are making a pretty definitive choice when it comes to the updated portrayal of the Gorn. But is it consistent with Trek’s overall philosophy? One of the touchstones of Trek has always been its insistence that it’s wrong to adopt and promote blanket stereotypes about others.
Time and again, relationships between the Federation and its various rivals have been addressed in thoughtful and compelling ways. Whether it’s the Klingons, Romulans, or Cardassians, there have been examples of individuals from each species who have been portrayed as highly sympathetic, and scenarios in which our protagonists have been forced to challenge their preconceptions about their supposed enemies. The Borg have even been represented in a more multifaceted way. With characters like Seven and Hugh, it’s obvious drones are much more than just assimilation machines. Even the Borg Queen is not represented as being purely evil. She does what she does out of a genuine desire to pursue perfection, not because of simple maliciousness. And now, after her merger with Jurati in the second season of Picard, we’re seeing her as an even more complex character.
In fact, the Gorn themselves were portrayed in a more sympathetic light in the TOS episode “Arena.” In it, the Enterprise beams down to a Federation outpost on Cestus III, only to find that the colony has been destroyed, and they shortly learn that it was the Gorn who did it. They pursue the Gorn, but both ships are intercepted by the Metrons, an advanced species who view both the Federation and the Gorn as violent and unevolved. They send Kirk and the Gorn captain to a desert planet to fight it out. But when Kirk has the opportunity to kill the Gorn captain, he can’t do it. As a reward for his decision to show mercy, the Metrons send Kirk and the Gorn back to their ships. So the message would seem to be that we should treat others, even those we see as enemies, with compassion.
What’s more, the Gorn claim Cestus III was in their space, and they say they attacked it as a response to a perceived invasion attempt. When he learns this, McCoy remarks, “Then we could be in the wrong,” and goes on to say, “the Gorn might have simply been trying to protect themselves.”
Similarly, Kirk says to the Gorn captain, “Maybe you thought you were protecting yourself when you attacked the outpost.”
So the original episode has a message that’s nearly opposite that of the Strange New Worlds episodes in which the Gorn appear. In “Arena”, the crew is faced with an unknown species of aliens who seem so different from themselves, but who ultimately have motivations similar to their own and are seen as worthy of compassion. It reinforces Trek’s larger philosophy, whereas the new episodes seem to contradict it.
Clearly, Trek has taken care over the decades not to portray its antagonists as evil, one-dimensional villains. And in its other episodes, Strange New Worlds does the same thing. So why this deviation with the Gorn? Yes, it adds some suspense and dramatic tension for the crew to have to face down such a merciless enemy. But in the longer run, it could do more harm than good if it undermines the philosophies that are so central to Star Trek.