Mar 30, 2021
Deanna Troi’s role on Star Trek: The Next Generation: What’s so bad about a therapist on the bridge?
Is Counselor Troi the “heart” of the Enterprise senior staff? No, I don’t mean the “heart” like the emotional core, I mean the power “heart” from Captain Planet. As in, you’ve got cool powers, like water, earth, wind, fire, and then… what kind of lame power is “heart”, anyway? Whereas characters like Worf and Data get cool positions as tactical/security officer and operations officer respectively, Troi is… the ship’s psychologist.
It’s been written that what dates Star Trek: The Next Generation as an ‘80s show more than anything is the presence of a therapist on the bridge. But what does that mean? Does it mean that therapy became chic in the ‘80s, but is going to fade in importance? I don’t think that’s it. If anything, as we move toward a more biological understanding of psychology and the close link of bodily health and mental health, the latter will remain important. This would especially be the case when you’ve got the equivalent of a small town, families and all, cruising through space on a long-term exploratory mission far from home.
So perhaps it’s not Troi’s job that’s being questioned, it’s her prominence and location on the ship. Yet on the original series, Dr. McCoy was frequently on the bridge, hanging around for no obvious reason, as well as tagging along on away missions. Yet you don’t see a lot of “Bones is useless, he’s just there to complain and argue with Spock” complaints in Trek fandom, whereas you do see a lot of comments along the lines of “Troi is useless, she’s just there to state the blindingly obvious” (“I sense hostility from that Klingon with the huge, wicked-looking sword!”). Okay, it’s a little bit different, because while McCoy may have used his rank or seniority to hang out with the cool kids, he didn’t get his own spot on the bridge. Also, he dressed in a standard Starfleet medical uniform. He apparently tried to show up on the bridge once in a purple dress, but one icy glare from Kirk dissuaded him from future attempts.
I think the “therapist on the bridge” complaint is misguided for another reason. Though it’s not stated, I’ve always assumed that Troi’s spot derives not so much from her job as from her empathic abilities. In a communication situation, she’s there to act as an early warning of potential deception or hostility. If that’s the case, then criticizing her for being on the bridge as a therapist makes as much sense as criticizing Voyager for having Neelix the cook in staff meetings. He wasn’t at staff meetings as cook, he was there as their Delta Quadrant guide, morale officer, ambassador, ship’s mascot, and whatever else he happened to be in a particular season.
I don’t know how to go about finding a definitive answer to this. None of the other Star Trek shows except for Deep Space Nine had a counselor as a main character, and DS9 didn’t have one until Ezri Dax was introduced in season seven, and that show didn’t even really have “bridge characters”. So I don’t know if it was standard practice in 24th Century Starfleet to have the ship’s counselor on the bridge, or if Picard just had the leeway to put Troi there, like he did with Wesley, despite Wesley not having any formal qualifications. Maybe Picard could have put Mr. Mot, the ship’s barber on the bridge if he felt like it. Rank has its privileges.
Turning from the location issue, there’s the “uselessness” complaint about Troi. This may be a function of a desire for realism as much as problems with writing the character. A ship’s counselor wouldn’t be able to solve psychological issues with the wave of a wand, because psychology isn’t magic. Nevertheless, we see Troi using her skills in a variety of circumstances, be it helping Picard recover from assimilation by the Borg, helping to advise Riker on his career (“Yes, Will, it’s important to your happiness that you stay on the Enterprise for fifteen years, playing second fiddle”), helping Geordi recover from abduction and brainwashing by the Romulans, and so on. When Worf’s son Alexander became a recurring character in later seasons, she helped smooth the transition Worf had to make as a single dad, and from there we can extrapolate how involved she might have been in helping other families on the ship.
I think that some of the criticism came from the earlier seasons and hardened there, becoming impervious to the way the writers changed the character. Early TNG Troi could be annoying, as the writers often had trouble figuring out how to use her. There’s an old, old issue of Trek: The Magazine for Star Trek Fans (and hello to the one other person out there on the internet who’s familiar with this magazine!) that features a review of the TNG pilot “Encounter at Farpoint”. In the article, there’s a review and analysis of each character except Troi, of whom the author only writes something along the lines of “I have little to say, I just hope that the writers of the show change the concept and portrayal of this character very soon.” That was the episode in which Troi’s role involved a good deal of making pained faces and crying in anguish. Writers on early TNG had such difficulty with the character that she was almost written out of the show as a result of under-use. However, Troi got a lot of solid episodes that gave Marina Sirtis interesting stuff to do as the show went on.
I keep going back to the Neelix comparison, which may not be the most flattering one for Troi, but I think it works. Early-seasons Neelix could also be extremely irritating, coming across as needy for approval, as well as insecure, jealous, and possessive toward Kes. Once Kes left, though, and that relationship came to define Neelix’s role less, he grew into a better character, especially as he had to find new positions onboard when he could no longer act as guide due to the distance Voyager covered.
Troi also had a relationship that played a significant role in the early seasons (Riker), but one that the show largely moved away from, at least until the movies, when it didn’t really matter. Similarly, they found Troi opportunities to grow as a character, having her wear a standard uniform to look more professional, and having her take the bridge test (commander test?) to allow her further responsibilities as an officer.
The latter was a nice way of belatedly making up for the idiocy of the episode “Disaster”, which featured Troi in command of the bridge by virtue of formal rank rather than experience or qualifications. (Star Trek has frequently played fast and loose with distinctions between staff officers and command line ones. Troi, as ship’s psychologist in a specialized department, should not have been in a position to take command if she didn’t have that training or background, whatever her rank within her specialized field would be.) Had Troi been through something like the commander test earlier in the show, her place on the bridge might have seemed less odd to fans.
I can see a place for Troi on the bridge as either ship’s psychologist, as an empath with a special advantage in contact situations, or as a special advisor as a result of whatever training or background she might have. As TNG sought to distance itself from TOS to establish itself as its own vision, having a counselor with the prominence Troi had was a way of doing that that made sense, given the new situation when it came to the show’s setting. The TOS Enterprise was a more austere, no-nonsense ship, whereas TNG had softer edges, and a community with families onboard, one where a captain had to be more of a diplomat and consensus-builder than Kirk ever had to be. Troi’s role fit with that vision well, as does the “therapist on the bridge”.