They're here – and now they're queer: is rewriting TV characters' sexuality just a gimmick?

The recent first season of Star Trek: Picard boldly went in an unexpected direction, ending with the consciousness of the titular starship captain downloaded into a new synthetic body – meaning that the high-minded humanist of The Next Generation was technically no longer human. But for many fans, the transformation of another legacy character felt even more significant.

Seven of Nine was formerly a catsuited “babe” who was added to the cast of Star Trek: Voyager in 1997 to lure back the 18-30 male demographic, who had apparently jumped ship thanks to the show’s female captain. Played by Jeri Ryan, she was reimagined in Picard as a gun-toting, hard-drinking vigilante. Even more strikingly, in the closing moments of the season finale, she was glimpsed holding hands with another woman.

Those who were paying attention five episodes earlier had already noticed the reference to a “close personal relationship” between Seven and the villain of the week, Bjayzl. But the ambiguity of their brief exchange – cut short when Seven vaporised her – left fans in limbo. Had Star Trek really just queered Seven of Nine?

Many were thrilled at what they saw as a bold new direction for the character. A former member of the Borg collective (a group of cyborgs known for physically mutilating and mentally controlling their unwitting victims), Seven had long proved a source of inspiration to survivors of abuse, and now she could do the same for queer fans as well. Others remained unconvinced, pointing out that, 20 years earlier, Seven once propositioned a male crewmember and shared a romantic picnic with another. As far as they were concerned, she was straight until “canonically” proven otherwise.

It was just the latest chapter in Star Trek’s chequered history with queer representation. Although creator Gene Roddenberry promised to introduce a gay character back in 1991, it took a quarter-century for his pledge to be fulfilled. Star Trek: Discovery now boasts three gay crewmembers (played by Anthony Rapp, Wilson Cruz and Tig Notaro) among the regular cast, so why is Seven of Nine’s sexuality so important to fans? The answer, it seems, goes further than just representation. When she was first introduced in Voyager, Seven was a symbolic battleground for the politics of the time. While Trek’s liberal-minded creatives wrote about a young woman gradually recovering from decades of trauma and abuse, the show’s producers squeezed Ryan into an outfit so figure-hugging that she would occasionally pass out on set. (In Picard, she returns in a gender-neutral sweater, jeans and leather jacket.)

From the start, Seven’s sexuality was a source of controversy. A rumoured lesbian plot never came to pass. Voyager showrunner Jeri Taylor, who was committed to honouring Roddenberry’s promise, shared her frustration with TV Guide, saying: “It gradually became clear that this is a fight I could not win.’ In the end, the best Taylor could do was include a couple of brief gay moments in one of her licensed Trek novels. Meanwhile, fans took to the nascent internet forums, imagining a relationship between Seven and her on-screen mentor, Captain Janeway.

Star Trek’s conservatism – somewhat at odds with the progressive model of the original 1960s Enterprise, which featured Russian, African and Japanese-American crewmembers – was to some extent a product of the time, when genre shows often included characters who were “queer-coded” rather than unambiguously queer. Perhaps the most notorious example was Xena: Warrior Princess, in which the title character shared a bed, plenty of meaningful looks and even a number of on-screen kisses with her sidekick and friend Gabrielle.

Arguably, such a coy approach came perilously close to “queerbaiting” – teasing an LGBT audience with the prospect of an onscreen same-sex relationship, while refusing to actually depict one for fear of alienating heterosexual fans.

These days, the bait doesn’t always end in a switch, but savvy producers still use the prospect of a gay character as a way to attract audiences. It has been five years since Kevin Feige promised a gay hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and so far none has materialised (unless their superpower is complete invisibility). In the same period, on the small screen, the other comic-book behemoth, DC, has provided a lesbian Batwoman, taking her cue from a 2006 reinvention of Batman’s 1950s love interest in a limited comics series. It even presented, in the prequel series Gotham, a romance between the arch villains the Penguin and the Riddler.

Reinventing legacy characters is, of course, a mainstay of comic-book storytelling, a way of keeping them fresh throughout the decades. But other long-running entertainment franchises can afford to follow the same example. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was perhaps ahead of its time when Willow shared her first same-sex kiss with another witch in the show’s fifth season. The Simpsons, meanwhile, took 16 years to reveal that Marge’s sister Patty was a lesbian.

However well-intentioned, the timing of such coming-out moments can be critical. When JK Rowling let slip in 2007 that Harry Potter’s headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, was gay, a mere three months after the final book in the series was published, many readers felt it was a shame she hadn’t mentioned it earlier. And when the writers of the reboot movie Star Trek Beyond announced in 2016 that the franchise’s first gay character would be a reimagined Hikaru Sulu, George Takei, the prominent LGBT activist who had originated the character 50 years earlier, called the move “unfortunate”, feeling it suggested he had been living in the closet for half a century.

In fact, Sulu’s “gay moment” in Beyond – putting his arm around another man as he is reunited with his daughter – was so brief that had it not been highlighted in the film’s press campaign fans might easily have blinked and missed it. Similarly, the much-touted gay storyline in the most recent Star Wars movie, Rise of the Skywalker, turned out to be a momentary clinch between two background characters. Evidently, fan pressure for the bromance between Poe and Finn to spill over into something more serious had fallen on studiously deaf ears.

Unlike Takei, Ryan seems delighted with the queer reinvention of her Star Trek character, enthusiastically tweeting out rainbow flags when the Picard season finale was released. But so far that reinvention has hinged on an ambiguous line of dialogue and another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of physical contact. In the next season, the writers will need to do much more to prove that queering such a popular character is more than just a gimmick.