In a universe where everyone arrives in a shower of gold molecular glitter on a transporter pad, Lwaxana Troi always manages makes an entrance. Mistrustful of matter-energy transport, the flamboyant ambassador swans into every scene decked out in lamé and sequins, and ready to give her own full and formal introduction: Lwaxana Troi: daughter of the Fifth House, holder of the Sacred Chalice of Rixx, and heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed.
In image and in self-presentation, Lwaxana speaks the languages of grand dame and drag queen, both regal and campy, unassailable and offering the kind of adventures every secretly queer kid would very much like to have. Perhaps she’s not the mother most of us would choose (ask Counselor Deanna Troi about it), but she’s exactly the sort of aunt most weird kids would kill for. She’s the “Auntie Mame of the galaxy,” as Gene Roddenberry once put it; ready to open doors for you that you never dreamed existed and take you on a madcap wormhole run with bootleggers and shapeshifters. Lwaxana brings big Auntie Mame Energy to science fiction; a genre that can always use more sympathetic glamor. Like the character who inspired her, Lwaxana is always on the lookout for lost kids and foundlings; she is our Space Aunt.
Beginning with her introduction in the first season of The Next Generation, Lwaxana is brought to vivacious life by actress Majel Barrett: the original Number One, later Nurse Chapel, and lifelong partner to concept creator Roddenberry. Barrett plays it straight as Chapel, so in the later series it’s a joy to see a mature actress open up into a role as rich and nuanced as that of Lwaxana. As the Betazoid matriarch, she’s mercurial and moody. A prodigiously gifted telepath, Mrs. Troi resumes an ongoing mental conversation with Deanna every time we see them together, and then moves on to dissecting the thoughts of those around her. Watching the objects of her affection squirm as she projects thoughts (of varying degrees of appropriateness) in their direction, particularly Jean-Luc Picard, is exactly like taking your reserved father-in-law to drag brunch. It’s delicious.
But, when called upon to perform her official ambassador duties, Lwaxana reminds us that she’s not just another pretty face in a pageant gown. In the TNG episode “Manhunt,” Lwaxana is ridiculous throughout, trying to play a live version of Fuck/Marry/Kill with the Enterprise crew. Deanna warns those around her that Lwaxana is going through Betazoid menopause, which is accompanied by a quadrupling of her already powerful sex drive. Even still, the powerful telepath offhandedly saves the day when she casually notes that the supposed Antedean delegation (who have come to petition their inclusion in Starfleet) are actually terrorists, sent to blow up the conference. Lwaxana posits this revelation as an aside to the real story here; her personal saga. Her condition isn’t one of suffering; no, instead it’s a glorious change.
From her initial appearances, we see Lwaxana as mother and diplomat, but she comes into her Space Aunt persona perfectly in season five of TNG, where she steps into that role for little lost Alexander Rozhenko, son of Worf. Meddling a bit with family therapy (good aunt, bad mom), Lwaxana intercedes upon realizing that Alex is unhappy, and does what aunts always do best: staging an escape into whimsy and absurdity. Lwaxana takes Alexander to a holodeck recreation of an artist’s colony where one person juggles worlds, while another dances in nothing but body paint, and the world’s stodgiest philosopher offers gloomy observations with great import to open mockery. Here, Lwaxana encourages the son of a stoic Klingon to laugh and cavort and bathe in deep, sticky mud. Though the crux of the episode is her own arranged marriage, she’s always focused on what’s best for someone else. The end of the episode sees her ruin her own nuptials in the nude, and triumph over those who would otherwise be sticks in the mud when both Worf and daughter Deanna join her in the mud together.
But her character isn’t limited to getting her way, nor getting others to do what she wants. In the first season of Deep Space Nine, Lwaxana flirts with Odo enough to make his liquid skin crawl, but circumstances push the two toward friendship. Stuck in a turbolift, they trade painful stories about their lives and the famously guarded Odo opens up to his new Space Aunt in ways no one would have expected. The famously vain Mrs. Troi shows him her vulnerability, removing her wig and admitting her own frailty. They fall apart together, safe in one another as Odo dissolves into his liquid state and she holds him in the folds of her fabulous dress.
This arrangement Lwaxana shares with both Alexander and Odo is a painfully familiar one to many of us. Many of us grew up in a family where we had no allies, or maybe just one. Maybe there was one aunt who was sort of odd, maybe she was the one who got out of your small backward town, or just belonged to a slightly more progressive church. She was the one you could come out to, when you couldn’t tell your parents yet. She was the one who would help you dye your hair or drive you to Planned Parenthood. She was the one who understood that you couldn’t let your life be ordinary, and you knew that just by looking at her. The moments when you melted into her skirt and slipped into the proverbial mud with her came later. What came first was her swanning into the room in clothes you couldn’t ignore and declaring herself the holder of the sacred chalice, and you believed in every word she said.
The many facets of Lwaxana carry on in licensed Star Trek novels, where she’s a hero in the Dominion War’s Battle of Betazed. She’s also the hero of countless fanfiction portrayals where she takes on this exact role for the people who need her most: our horny, campy Space Aunt who always has the right wig for the occasion and is ready to accept us at our weirdest. She is a role model of flashy self-importance, liberated sexuality, a representative of her people, and a proponent of interspecies coupling. She’s not queer in the text, but she’s so closely modeled on the kind of Liz Taylor-esque, iconic drag-inspired grand dame that it’s almost impossible to separate her from that context. Space Aunt Lwaxana is the ultimate ally; the one who is always ready to accept who you are and fight for your right to be it.
She gives us permission to be outrageous, to choose the image we want to project, to say yes to love and to say no. She reminds us that women in sequined gowns can be formidable fighters and that reaching out with kindness and absurdity is valid, femme-coded diplomacy. We are allowed to be ourselves around her, because she is so entirely herself. She stands at her full height and says “I am Lwaxana Troi: daughter of the Fifth House, holder of the Sacred Chalice of Rixx, and heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed.”
But the next thing she says is what’s most important. She fixes you with her encouraging gaze and her perfect makeup and asks: “Who are you?”
Meg Elison (she/her or they/them) is an award-winning author and essayist living in the Bay Area. Find her at megelison.com or @megelison.