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.”