Star Trek Is Finally Getting Romance Right

From Captain Kirk and Carol Marcus, to Picard and Dr. Crusher, and beyond, Star Trek has never quite nailed its romantic relationships. But Discovery, Strange New Worlds, and even Prodigy are giving us some hope that this is changing.

"Into the Forest I Go" -- Episode 109 -- Pictured (l-r): Anthony Rapp as Lieutenant Paul Stamets; Wilson Cruz as Dr. Hugh Culber of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY.
Photo: Michael Gibson/CBS

Spoiler warning for all of Star Trek!

All through the second season of Star Trek: Picard, one burning question was left unasked and unanswered – what happened (or didn’t happen) between Jean-Luc Picard and Beverley Crusher?

One of the major themes of the season was Picard’s romantic history and his difficulty building and maintaining a romantic relationship with anyone. But despite their history as a possible couple, explored in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Attached”) in which they confronted their unspoken feelings for each other, not to mention the alternate future in which they were divorced (“All Good Things”), their flirtation while under the influence of an alien illness (“The Naked Now”), and all those cosy breakfasts in Picard’s quarters, not once in all these conversations about Picard’s romantic past was Crusher’s name so much as mentioned.

We know that Crusher is going to appear in Picard season 3, so we’re hopeful that whatever may or may not have happened between them in the past will finally get some closure in this season, even if Picard is still with Orla Brady’s Laris. We also have reason to hope this relationship will get the attention it deserves because over the past two or three years, the Star Trek franchise has got a lot better at depicting romantic relationships than it used to be.

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There are a few romances from Star Treks earlier years that were well received and are still popular. In the original series, Nurse Chapel’s unrequited love for Spock, who claimed to be incapable of retuning her affection (the canon on Vulcans and emotions has shifted a bit over the years) was sweet and sad. Captain Kirk’s relationship with Carol Marcus, only ever alluded to in the past tense in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, was compelling even so.

Moving forward in time, The Next Generation’s Riker and Troi continue to be a popular couple; their romance was one of the better-written ones, despite some really odd moments like the scene in “Ménage à Troi” in which they have clearly been away for a dirty weekend together despite claiming not to be in a relationship at the time (if they want to just be “special friends” we’re not judging, we’re just confused by the lack of consistency!). Over on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Worf and Jadzia Dax were a very popular pairing before Jadzia’s untimely death and probably have one of the better-written love stories, though even there, anything involving physical harm coming to Jadzia, whether through rough sex or Klingon pain sticks, is a bit hard to watch sometimes.

There are also a few couplings that were fine, if not especially compelling. Deep Space Nine’s Rom and Leeta were fun. The pairings of Tom Paris and B’Elanna Torres (Star Trek: Voyager) and Trip Tucker and T’Pol (Star Trek: Enterprise) have plenty of fans. There’s also Miles O’Brien and Keiko, who are kind of fine. Mostly they’re just… there, from The Next Generation on into Deep Space Nine. The space station’s Captain Sisko and Kassidy Yates were sweet together and Penny Johnson Jerald gave Kassidy a lively likeability, but that time he got her put in prison must have put a damper on the relationship, and of course, it notoriously ended with Sisko disappearing off to become a Prophet and abandoning a pregnant Kassidy, something only slightly mollified by Avery Brooks’ personal insistence on adding a scene where he promised to come back.

But overall, romantic storylines were not one of Star Trek’s strong points. There was Kes and Neelix on Voyager for starters, a relationship which gets a lot of flak online because of the age difference. We’ll give that a pass on the grounds of alien biology (she only lives nine years, what is she supposed to do?) but the relationship was pretty toxic anyway, thanks to Neelix’s overwhelming jealousy issues. Its ending was also horrendously badly written. In “Warlord,” Kes is taken over by an alien who breaks up with Neelix while possessing her and that’s it – they are no longer a couple. We don’t get so much as a scene of her explaining that she felt that way herself, that the alien had accessed some of her own thoughts and feelings, nothing. They are just done.

Kira and Odo (Deep Space Nine) were nothing like as toxic as Kes and Neelix, and they have a fair few fans, but they were always a somewhat awkward pairing, their personalities not really meshing all that well. That particular romance worked better when it was a tragic unrequited love on Odo’s part. Enterprise flirted briefly with the idea of a romance between Captain Archer and T’Pol, primarily in the generally reviled “A Night in Sickbay,” and in “Twilight,” an episode originally pitched for Voyager’s Janeway and Chakotay (and nothing to do with sparkly vampires). In the end the series went for Trip/T’Pol instead – both pairings seem to be based primarily on rubbing gel on each other on a regular basis, but Trip and T’Pol had better chemistry.

Star Trek also had a very strange habit of writing series finales in which the writers deliberately ignored extremely popular canon romantic relationships and put together characters with no chemistry, limited build-up to the relationship, and not much in common. Troi and Worf were shoved together across season seven of The Next Generation despite the only real thing they had in common being their affection for Worf’s son Alexander. Thankfully, later writers saw sense – the movies put Troi together with Riker, as she should have been in the first place, and Deep Space Nine created the very popular Worf/Jadzia relationship.

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In Deep Space Nine’s own final season, the last few episodes offered the pairing of Bashir and Ezri Dax. This was rather unpopular move based largely on Bashir’s long-ago unrequited love for Jadzia; it probably seemed like a good idea on paper but lacked chemistry and depth on screen, especially compared to his deep platonic friendship with O’Brien.

Most notorious of all, though, was the pairing of Seven of Nine and Chakotay in the last few episodes of Voyager. Seven of Nine had more complex and developed relationships with almost every other member of the Voyager cast, including at least two characters with a history of being attracted to her (Harry Kim and the Doctor). Chakotay had more or less outright stated that he was in love with Captain Janeway way back in the show’s second season, and while she let him down at the time, their chemistry continued to be strong and a younger Janeway (in time travel story “Shattered”) asked Chakotay whether they were ever more than friends as late as mid-Season seven. But no – a few episodes from the end we learn that Seven kind of fancies Chakotay, and in the finale, they’re just suddenly together and their future selves are married. Thankfully, that future is no longer part of the main timeline…

Even when the franchise returned to TV with Star Trek: Discovery in 2017, the signs were not good that the franchise’s writing of romance was improving. Micheal Burnham’s romance with Ash Tyler was awkward and messy from start to finish. Tyler was actually a Klingon sleeper agent called Voq, who had the memories and appearance of a Starfleet officer called Tyler. Under the influence of Voq’s personality, Tyler tried to kill Burnham and actually did kill Culber, and although Voq’s personality was later purged from him, the relationship really wasn’t ever going to work out after that.

Speaking of Culber, Stamets and Culber stood out from the beginning of Discovery as a likeable and convincing couple. This made it particularly disappointing when Culber was killed off two thirds of the way through the first season, in “Despite Yourself.” Since Culber was black and gay this hit at least two different unfortunate writing tropes at once.

Thankfully, the franchise seemed to reached a turning-point when it brought Culber back from the dead in the Discovery season two episode “Saints of Imperfection.” This immediately resurrected the most promising new romance in years, as the JJ Abrams films had not proved any better at writing romance than their predecessors (Spock and Uhura was a strange pairing that flew in the face of Spock’s usual difficulty in pursuing romance thanks to his Vulcan training, and Kirk and Carol Marcus’ Kelvinverse relationship is just slightly awkward interactions and an unnecessary underwear scene). Stamets and Culber went through a tough time after Culber’s unexpected resurrection, but they recovered to become one of the franchise’s most solid couples.

Since then, the latest Trek shows seem to have been doing better. Star Trek: Lower Decks perhaps hasn’t given quite as much screen time to Mariner and Jennifer as it could have done, but their relationship is good fun when we see it. Lower Decks has also been building a very slow-burn will-they-won’t-they vibe between Tendi and Rutherford that may or may not go anywhere over the course of the show.

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Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is revisiting the idea of Spock and romance again, but more cautiously. The series is building on how the franchise has developed the issue of Vulcans and emotions over the decades, as Voyager had established clearly in fifth season episode “Gravity” that Vulcans do feel emotions, but that they are trained not to respond to them (in contrast to Amanda’s statement in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home that Spock had emotions because he was her son, i.e. half human, implying that full Vulcans did not have any).

Spock in Strange New Worlds clearly follows this model of having emotions but choosing to suppress them. However, the series has also cleverly developed his relationship with his fiancée T’Pring, a relationship we only ever saw at its dramatic end in the original series. Chapel’s growing feelings for Spock are therefore complicated by the possibility that Spock could return her affection, but he is committed to T’Pring. Their love triangle is a complex one with all three well written and well rounded, and good chemistry between Spock and both women.

Picard season two spent a lot of time developing several romantic relationships, including a romance for Picard himself that was convincing enough to clear the fairly low bar of “better than Picard and Vash” and Rios getting written out with a fairly well-developed time travelling love story.

Seven of Nine and Raffi’s romance had an odd start, consisting of a single shot of them holding hands at the very end of Picard seasons one and two saw them given proper interactions as an on-again-off-again couple, finishing as a convincing pairing, with Raffi becoming the only character original to Picard to be kept on for season three. Their romance also, of course, finally put the nail in the coffin of the idea of Seven and Chakotay, who had been immediately broken up in the novels that followed Voyager’s end on screen and whom no one has much interest in knowing any more about.

Chakotay may also finally get a romantic happy ending in Star Trek: Prodigy, depending on where season two of that animated series takes us. Its first season revealed that he had set off back to the Delta Quadrant accompanied by a hologram of Younger Captain Janeway, apparently for training and advice purposes (as Prodigy is an all-ages show that airs on Nickelodeon, we will keep our adult speculations about the purpose of this hologram to ourselves). He then got lost again, this time in the future, and Admiral Janeway has been hell bent on rescuing him.

The hopes of all Janeway/Chakotay shippers have been raised by this series, and not without reason. In “Mindwalk,” Admiral Janeway swaps bodies with Prodigy’s protagonist Dal, and for most of the episode we see Dal and hear Janeway’s voice coming out of him. But for one scene, when Janeway talks to her own hologram, we see Admiral Janeway as herself. This allows the show to provide an image of Janeway reaching out, full of emotion, to touch a screen showing an image of Chakotay sending out a Mayday, and there is really no other reason for the change in the visual, other than the minor satisfaction of seeing two Janeways on screen. If that isn’t a sign that Prodigy’s writers are intending to finally bring the two of them together as more than friends, we’ll eat our holographic hats.

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The writing of romance in the franchise is still far from perfect. There was the total lack of acknowledgement of Crusher’s existence in Picard season two, which we already mentioned, and although Stamets and Culber are great, Discovery still hasn’t quite cracked romance writing in general. Burnham and Book are a more compelling couple than Burnham and Tyler ever were, but the collapse of their relationship in season four felt a bit forced. Adira and Gray’s relationship is complicated and made a bit weird by all the plot shenanigans around Gray appearing as a “ghost” of sorts for a whole season, and the fact that they are both hosts of the same Trill symbiote, and Gray was packed off to Trill halfway through that fourth season.

But on the whole, there seems to be a major upward trend in the writing of convincing, complex romantic storylines featuring actors with good chemistry in this new phase of 2020s Star Trek. And so we’re keeping everything crossed that Picard season three will finally give us some proper closure on Picard/Crusher, that Prodigy season two will finally let Janeway and Chakotay be happy together, and that going forward, all the various branches of Trek will offer up some new, compelling romantic storylines built on strong chemistry and actual character compatibility.