Days after her grandmother’s death, a young professional woman returns to her family home to sort through what was left behind. Wrapped in a blanket to warm herself from the storm raging outside, the woman senses a ghostly presence, one that visited her in a dream the night before. The presence begins to speak, bidding the woman closer, promising that he loves her as much as he once loved her grandmother. Terror grips the woman’s face, but with it, desire.
I’m not describing a beloved rom-com or a scene from a Harlequin novel. This is a scene from Star Trek: The Next Generation; specifically the season seven episode “Sub Rosa.” If you haven’t seen “Sub Rosa,” you may still be very aware of it. Known as the one in which Dr. Beverly Crusher has sex with a candle ghost, “Sub Rosa” regularly ends up on lists of the worst episodes in the series’ seven-season run, if not in the entire franchise. Sure, it’s not usually cited as much as the racism of “Code of Honor” or the misogyny of “The Child,” but it does nevertheless strike people as strange. Although “Sub Rosa” has a couple of defenders, even star Gates McFadden questioned the value of the episode and director Jonathan Frakes said “It wasn’t my finest hour.”
And yet, for all of its unusual qualities, “Sub Rosa” is an important part of Star Trek’s development. With its focus on eroticism and female desire, “Sub Rosa” pushes Trek into unfamiliar territory, giving us new ways of thinking about the human experience.
There are few things more important to Star Trek than literary references. As early as season one of the original series, Gene Roddenberry and his team wrote stories with titles ripped from Shakespeare, such as “Dagger of the Mind” or “The Conscience of the King.” This has continued all the way through to the present, from the Moby-Dick parallels in First Contact to Discovery’s Michael Burnham remembering her adoptive mother reading Alice in Wonderland to her.
Speaking of white rabbits, Trek loves to get silly, as anyone who remembers the original series episode “Shore Leave” can tell you. From the very beginning, the franchise has balanced its high-minded ideals with goofball plots that found Kirk and crew matching wits against the childlike god Trelane or cavorting with space-hippies. Later series followed suit, with the darker Deep Space Nine taking a break from the Dominion War to follow Jake and Nog’s quest for a baseball card, while the displaced Voyager crew recreated 1940s serials in the Holodeck.
For those reasons, “Sub Rosa” isn’t an outlier for the franchise, at least not on a conceptual level. Written by producer Brannon Braga, based on a story that Trek mainstay Jeri Taylor adapted from an idea by Jeanna F. Gallo, the episode puts a sci-fi twist on Henry James’s ghostly novella The Turn of the Screw.
From these high literary roots, Braga and director Jonathan Frakes include ideas that belong among the most corny in Trek history. Not only does the episode take place among the Coldos Colony on a planet terraformed to resemble 17th century Scotland, but the romantic ghost at its center takes residence in a candle passed through Dr. Beverly Crusher’s family. At the same time, the story never leaves basic TNG confines, bringing together a subplot with Data and Geordi helping a Colony leader investigate problems with the weather controller. By the episode’s end, the ghost has been revealed to be an alien parasite seeking to inhabit Beverly, who messes with the weather control stations to achieve its goals.
In other words, “Sub Rosa” brings together scientific inquiry, literary appreciation, and silly conceits, just like some of the best entries in the franchise. But is it any good?
A Family Tradition
Early in “Sub Rosa,” Dr. Crusher (neé Howard) tells Counsellor Troi about the sexual urges she felt while reading entries in her deceased grandmother’s diary. Through the diary, Crusher learns that the centenarian had a lover; a man in his 30s called Ronin. Instead of feeling odd or embarrassed about getting excited by her grandmother’s writing, Beverly expresses pride. “The sensations were very real and extremely arousing” she tells Troi, who responds, “Frankly, I’m envious.”
To most of us, that seems like an unlikely confession to make. And it’s just one of the unusual choices Braga and Frakes put into the episode. Surely, the fact that Ronin lives in a candle was intended to accentuate the gothic quality of the story. But instead, it provokes snickers from the audience, and not just because of the object’s semi-phallic design.
And then there’s Quint, whose name is one of the few overt references to The Turn of the Screw. The caretaker of the Howard home, Quint arrives shortly after the funeral of Crusher’s grandmother to destroy the candle. When Beverly stops him, Quint issues a dire warning, telling the Doctor that the candle will bring nothing but suffering, just as it did to previous generations of Howards.
“Sub Rosa” tries to use Quint as a doomsayer, that key part of a good ghost story who knows more about the threat than the protagonist, but must ultimately be ignored. When deployed well, the doomsayer can heighten the tension of a ghost story, much like caretaker Mrs. Grose did in The Turn of the Screw (or T’Nia Miller’s Hannah Grose in the excellent Mike Flanagan adaptation, The Haunting of Bly Manor).
But Quint feels much closer to Crazy Ralph, the guy who tells teens in Friday the 13th that Camp Crystal Lake has “a death curse.” With a Scottish accent that even James Doohan would call a bit much, Quint rants and raves about spectral peril until he somehow makes his way to the Enterprise bridge and gets shocked to death by Ronin, who overloads one of the ship’s computers.
And then there’s the sex scenes. When Ronin reveals its presence to Crusher, it arrives upon her as an invisible presence, sending her into orgasmic tremors. And for those well-versed in nerd culture, these scenes resemble less the height of pleasure and more the worst scene in Ghostbusters, in which Ray Stantz receives phantasmic fellatio.
In short, it’s hard not to laugh or be concerned by many aspects of “Sub Rosa.” But these shortcomings only underscore the need for Star Trek to take on the challenges of Gothic Romance.
Where No Man Has Gone Before
Part of the reason “Sub Rosa” falls short is because it blazes new ground for Star Trek. While the franchise does dip into horror on a regular basis, it rarely becomes Gothic (the TOS episode “Catspaw,” written by Psycho author Robert Bloch, is an exception that proves the rule). And Next Generation, with its beige-colored Enterprise and ready room conversations, seems ill-suited to the task.
Even more alien to Star Trek is the episode’s sexuality. I’ve written elsewhere about Trek’s complicated relationship to emotion, and while “Sub Rosa” ultimately follows the standard model regarding feelings (Beverly’s feelings for Ronin almost destroy her, forcing Picard, Data, and Geordi to logically solve the problem and rescue her), it does introduce something even more rare on Star Trek: eroticism.
Sure, ol’ Captain Kirk liked his romantic escapades, and Risa does exist in the Star Trek universe, but rarely do we see sexuality actually portrayed in the series, especially from a female perspective. To be sure, the show was happy to stick female actors in skintight outfits and there’s no denying the allure of Picard’s Risa beachwear. But most Trek portrayals of intimacy had all the complexity of a Dabo girl uniform.
With “Sub Rosa,” we get something different: a focus on a woman’s desire, and even pleasure. At several points throughout the episode, Ronin visits Beverly and sends her into the throes of ecstasy. Gates McFadden lets her knees go weak and falls back upon furniture. She flops her red hair over her eyes and her hands search for something to grasp. Does it look silly? Well, yes, of course, because sex always looks silly to non-participants. But it is also completely authentic, a depiction of the vulnerability involved in any sexual experience.
More importantly, McFadden’s performance puts Beverly’s desire first. At no point in the episode does Frakes give in to the male gaze, nor do we see the pleasure from Ronin’s perspective. Yes, the male-presenting Ronin initiates the encounters, and we eventually learn that it’s for its own ends, to the point that you could argue that the alien sexually assaults the doctor – it’s murky territory, even if we acknowledge that the episode’s story came from the minds of two women. But during the encounters, the camera shows us only what Beverly feels and what she wants.
At the end of the episode, when all has been revealed, Crusher admits to having complex feelings about the end of the affair. “Whatever else [Ronin] might have done, he made her very happy,” Beverly says of her grandmother, putting forward the feelings and agency of her grandmother and herself, not Ronin’s plans.
The Ongoing Mission
At this point, one may reasonably ask, “Why should Trek do Gothic Romance? It’s a show about space explorers. It doesn’t need to deal with this sort of stuff.”
It is true that Star Trek began as “Wagon Train to the Stars,” but it quickly evolved into an exploration about what makes humans human. And while it has made exciting inroads into all manor of experience, sexuality remains a somewhat undiscovered country for the series. If the franchise truly wants to understand humans in all their complexity, then sexuality cannot be ignored — it must be addressed, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so.
“Sub Rosa” may be imperfect with its portrayal of eroticism, but it represents intriguing first steps into the subject for Trek.