Saturday, January 19, 2008

Back Through the Wormhole, Part III: The Menagerie

A work of fiction passes Alison Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For test if it features two women having a conversation about something other than a man. Deep Space Nine passes the Bechdel test, but not before it passes, several times over, its SFnal corollary by featuring two aliens having a conversation about something other than a human, the Federation, or Starfleet.

Deep Space Nine
, as I've already said, has a main and recurring cast list in the high thirties (and that's not even counting important but low yield characters such as Dr. Mora or Sloan). Other series have featured cast lists as large and even larger (the potential Slayers alone put Buffy's at close to 50), but unlike Farscape, Buffy, or Angel, Deep Space Nine didn't cluster its characters around a single person or group. Instead, it allowed them to form overlapping hubs. Sisko and Kira, for example, felt great respect and affection for one another, but they were never good friends, and they tended to spend their off-time with different groups of people. And unlike on the Federation starships of the original Star Trek and The Next Generation, on Deep Space Nine humans were not the majority, and the social groups the characters formed were often made up entirely of aliens (though groups comprised entirely of non-Starfleet characters were rarer)--and often of the same kind of alien. Ziyal's closest relationships in her brief time on the station are with the two people who share her biological heritage, Kira and Garak, and in the latter case she deliberately seeks out someone with whom she has a shared culture, which they can discuss. One of Deep Space Nine's greatest strengths was that there was a culture for Ziyal and Garak to discuss, as there were for Klingon, Ferengi, and Bajoran characters. Over the course of the series these races grew from one-word definitions--aggressive Klingons, proud Cardassians, greedy Ferengi, spiritual Bajorans--to complex, multi-faceted cultures, and the show frequently traveled away from the station to places dominated by these cultures--the bridge of a bird of prey, or the rain-soaked cities of Ferenginar.

Of the four dominant races in the series, it's the Klingons who seem best-suited to this kind of in-depth exploration and development. Not only do they originate in the first Star Trek, but The Next Generation was never as Deep Space Nine-ish as when it told stories about their culture--stories which dealt with political maneuvering, courtly intrigue, and king-making on both Picard and Worf's parts. Even before "The Way of the Warrior," Deep Space Nine told a Klingon story in the second season episode "Blood Oath," in which Jadzia has to decide whether to fulfill Curzon's oath to the three legendary Klingon generals, Kang, Koloth, and Kor, to avenge the murder of their sons.

"Blood Oath" has potential--Michael Ansara, William Campbell, and John Colicos ham it up magnificently as the three Klingons--but it is ultimately unsatisfying. Terry Farrell doesn't have what it takes to carry the episode (though she gets better at playing the honorary Klingon in later seasons), and, in an episode whose purpose is to explore the potentially soul-destroying effect of violence, the sanitized, bloodless fight scenes are a fatal flaw. "Blood Oath" does, however, presage some of Deep Space Nine's core issues when engaging with alien cultures. As most Klingon episodes will do, "Blood Oath" immerses us in Klingon culture, with Dax sublimating herself to Curzon's affinity for it, his sense of obligation to the three generals, and mostly, their system of values, which demands and glorifies revenge. Sisko and Kira can only watch from the sidelines, uncomprehending--Sisko even says he never understood why Curzon too the oath in the first place--and hope that the real Dax will return to them.

Then Worf shows up, and it's off to the races. Fourth season and early fifth season Klingon-themed episodes explored Klingon culture through Worf's ambivalent attitude towards it. As Jadzia says in "Let He Who Is Without Sin" (cursed be its name and memory), Worf is one of the least typical Klingons we ever meet. He's reserved, controlled, standoffish in a way that clearly indicates unease in social situations. He has none of the thoughtless boisterousness that characterizes so many Klingons, and though he revels in battle, both hand-to-hand and as a spaceship commander, he doesn't lust for it (or at least, he tries not to show that he does).

Most of Deep Space Nine's early Worf-centered stories showed him reacting to Klingon culture with equal parts fascination and disgust. In "The Sons of Mogh," he initially agrees to kill his brother in order to restore Kurn's honor, but when his first attempt is forestalled he refuses to make another one, having come to view the act as murder. In "The Sword of Kahless," his enchantment with Kor soon sours into disgust as he glimpses the less savory aspects of Kor's quintessential Klingon-ness. His decision to claim the sword for himself is clearly a last-ditch attempt by a rejected outsider to force his society to accept him--if necessary, by remaking it in his image. On the other hand, in "Rules of Engagement" the Klingon advocate argues that Worf's own Klingon-ness runs too deep to be worn away by a life in the Federation, and that it was that Klingon lust for combat that made him fire on an unarmed transport before he knew what it was. The Worf episodes express the show's own ambivalence towards Klingon culture. Are Klingons honorable warriors or bloodthirsty killers? Is their obsession with honor laudable or a fetish? Is their exuberant, larger-than-life existence an expression of joy or mere boorishness?

In the fifth season, this ambivalence fades away. First with the premiere episode "Apocalypse Rising," which sees a rare (for that time) trip so far away from the station and sets us right in the middle of a Klingon bacchanalia. Later on with the introduction of Martok as a prominent character, and finally with "Soldiers of the Empire," which is clearly the point at which the writers threw up their hands and went, screw it, Klingons are cool. Though later episodes poke at the uglier aspects of Klingon society--Martok's wife doesn't want to admit Jadzia, an alien, into her house (and when Worf calls her a bigot, Martok breezily responds that "We're Klingons, Worf. We don't embrace other cultures. We conquer them."); in "Once More Unto the Breach" we learn that Klingon society is rife with class prejudice; and, of course, there's Ezri's stinging conclusion in "Tacking Into the Wind" that the Klingon empire is being destroyed from within by corruption and political games. Ultimately, however, the show is on the Klingons' side, as evidenced by the fact that in its later seasons stories about them are told from within. Worf, who in "The Sons of Mogh" concluded that he would never truly belongs in Klingon society, starts seeing himself as a Klingon warrior again, and Jadzia embraces the culture as well. Other, non-Klingon characters are almost entirely shut out of these stories, so that we're forced to see Klingons as they see themselves: bold, glorious, epic. It's hard not to be swept away by this grandeur, especially with the full force of Deep Space Nine's prodigious worldbuilding abilities brought to bear on us, fabricating for the Klingons customs, rituals, legends, and, of course, songs.

Another race with whom the show takes an immersive approach are the Ferengi. Funnily enough, the Ferengi were originally conceived of by Next Generation writers as an antagonist to replace the now-friendly Klingons, but though in their appearances on that series Ferengi were generally acting against the Enterprise crew's interests, they never developed the aura of dangerous coolness the Klingons wore so effortlessly, and which later attached itself to better antagonists such as the Romulans or the Cardassians. They were portrayed as lascivious, mean, stupid, and above all, obviously, greedy. Deep Space Nine initially toned down the Ferengi's antagonism, but kept their greed and stupidity. They were played for (generally unfunny) laughs. The turning point comes, I think, in the second season finale "The Jem'Hadar," when Quark gives Sisko as much-needed what-for.
You know, Commander, I think I've figured out why humans don't like Ferengis. ... The way I see it, humans used to be a lot like Ferengis. Greedy, acquisitive, interested only in profit. We're a constant reminder of a part of your past you'd like to forget. ... But you're overlooking something. Humans used to be a lot worse than the Ferengi. Slavery. Concentration camps. Interstellar wars. We have nothing in our past that approaches that kind of barbarism. You see, we're nothing like you. We're better.
From this point on, though the show never ceases to mock the Ferengi, it also accords them, and most particularly Quark, a measure of respect. If the Klingons allow the writers to indulge in Tolkien-esque fantasies about the glory of battle, the Ferengi offer a counteracting dose of cynicism in the face of that fantasy. Quark is at times an Al Swearengen-ish figure, combining disdain for the Federation's lofty ideals--which he views as a mask with which they conceal their baser urges--with a deep and abiding respect not just for individual endeavor but for individuality itself. Is it any wonder that he is, at times, the most humanistic of the show's characters? When the war breaks out and the Starfleet characters begin sublimating themselves to the war effort, knowingly and willingly going to their deaths or sending others to theirs, Quark watches in mute, and sometimes not so mute, horror. His disdain for this willingness to both die and kill for an ideal comes to a head in "The Siege of AR-558," in which he parallels his incensed speech to Sisko from "The Jem'Hadar" with another to Nog.
Let me tell you something about humans, Nog. They're a wonderful, friendly people -- as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working. But take away their creature comforts... deprive them of food, sleep, sonic showers... put their lives in jeopardy over an extended period of time... and those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people will become as nasty and violent as the most bloodthirsty Klingon.
This same respect for individuality can also be observed in the different expressions of Ferengi-ness we encounter over the course of the series. There is only one way to be a true Klingon, and one is either an honorable Klingon warrior or not, but there are many different, and sometimes contradictory, ways to be Ferengi. It is rare, in fact, to encounter a Ferengi who adheres wholeheartedly to their culture's edicts--Brunt, I think, is the only one. In "Body Parts," Quark resolves to die rather than break a contract because he feels that to do so would make him no longer a Ferengi. In the end he comes to realize that to break and ignore the rules for the sake of survival, conscience, or just because it suits you is the most Ferengi act of all, because to Ferengis the highest loyalty is to oneself. Though a Klingon, a Cardassian, or a human might see this worldview as unprincipled, in its own way it is more principled than any of theirs, because it refuses to sublimate individual judgment to any kind of value system. There's a reason, after all, that Armin Shimerman got to play a liberal humanist in "Far Beyond the Stars."

Better yet are the Ferengi characters like Ishka, Rom, and Nog who use their Ferengi upbringing to do un-Ferengi things--accumulate profit while female, form a union, become an engineer and marry a clothes-wearing outsider, join Starfleet. Nog doesn't abandon Ferengi culture when he decides to join Starfleet--he uses it. He buys an apprenticeship from Sisko and later auctions off his childhood belongings when he leaves for the academy, as Ferengi customs dictate. In "Treachery, Faith, and the Great River" he uses his business acumen to help O'Brien secure a rare replacement part for the Defiant. (And this might be a good time to note that rediscovering Nog was one of the most pleasurable surprises of this rewatch. He's a fantastic character, and it's a great shame that Aron Eisenberg never made it to the opening credits.) Finally, in "The Magnificent Ferengi," all these disparate and different Ferengi--clever Quark, naive Rom, gung-ho Nog, bloodthirsty Leck, desperate Gaila, craven Brunt--come together to rescue Ishka not through force of arms but by scheming, maneuvering, and making deals--by being, deep down, completely Ferengi.

When it comes to its other two dominant races, Deep Space Nine takes a different approach. Though there are plenty of episodes which observe Bajoran society from within--mostly in the first season, but also later on with episodes like "Shakaar"--it's hard to call the society that emerges from these stories alien. The values and attitudes expressed by Kira and the characters she encounters are not just human, but Western and modern. Stories that discuss the ways in which Bajoran society is foreign, sometimes to the point of being incomprehensible--which usually means episodes discussing Bajoran religion--are told from an outsider's point of view, generally Sisko's. Again and gain, Sisko bumps up against Bajoran faith, and no matter how deeply he immerses himself in it, ultimately he's an outsider trying to reason his way through something impenetrable to reason. In "Accession," he watches in disbelief as all his hard work on Bajor's behalf is undone by a man determined to return Bajor to a way of life centuries out of date, and as Bajorans, including Kira, allow him to do so because their faith dictates that they do. His only recourse is to give himself up to Bajor and the Prophets--which ends up claiming greater and greater sacrifices from him.

Cardassian society is even more of a locked room. Though laid out before us like an open book, the characters making their way through it--usually Bashir, but also Kira in the fabulous "Indiscretion" and O'Brien in the didactic "Tribunal"--can only gaze in incomprehension at a value system that is a complete inversion of ours, and which discounts the individual and rewards sacrifice and self-abnegation while encouraging arrogance and a sense of superiority. One of my favorite illustrations of the disconnect between Federation and Cardassian values comes in "The Wire," when Bashir complains to Garak that a classic of Cardassian literature is boring, its characters all living the same kind of life, selflessly serving their nation, and then dying. Of course, Garak replies, that's the point. Not that Garak is uncritical of his society--one of his many tragedies is that he's sufficiently a product of his upbringing for Cardassian ideals to resonate with him, but too smart, cynical, and observant to accept them wholeheartedly--and in fact one of Deep Space Nine's overarching sub-plots is the painful, costly, and, at the time of the series's end, as-yet incomplete transformation Cardassia undergoes as the consequences of its authoritarianism and unjustified pride come down to bear on it.

(Have you noticed which important, dominant Star Trek race is missing from this list? I'd always assumed that the retooling of Vulcans into an arrogant, secretive, manipulative, and hypocritical culture was an Enterprise innovation, but the rot set in in Deep Space Nine. It's this series that gives us, in "Shakaar," a venal Vulcan who insists on collecting his winnings from O'Brien after the latter dislocates his shoulder in the middle of a game of darts, and a Vulcan serial killer, explicitly though somewhat illogically described as someone who hates emotion, in "Field of Fire." And then, of course, there's "Take Me Out to the Holosuite," in which Sisko's Vulcan rival is not just arrogant and vindictive but downright bigoted--he has inexplicably been allowed to crew his ship exclusively with Vulcans--and which features a scene in which Nog has to tag all members of the opposing, all-Vulcan team because they all look alike, and he can't tell which one of them is the Vulcan he's looking for.)

Of course, there's a reason that my extrapolation of the Bechdel test isn't common currency in SFnal circles, and that is that ultimately every invented alien species is a mirror of or a commentary on humanity. Whether or not it is explicitly mentioned in conversations between Deep Space Nine's aliens, the Federation is always in the room, sometimes as an enemy, sometimes as an ally, but always as something that needs to be contended with. "Emissary" opens with the Borg attack at Wolf 359, and as the series draws on, that image begins to seem ever-more significant, presaging the Federation's own crusade--less violent than the Borg's, but no less powerful--to export its own values (a comparison that is made explicitly by Eddington in "For the Cause").

Again and again over the course of the series we see aliens muttering angrily about Federation values contaminating their cultures, and young people like Nog and Alexander (who, alone among all the Klingons we meet in both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, is repeatedly told that he doesn't have to, and in fact probably shouldn't, become a warrior) who seem to bear these dark predictions out. I've been writing these essays for people like myself, who watched, admired and loved Deep Space Nine in its original run, but who haven't thought about it much in the intervening years. These people, I assumed, would be fuzzy on the details such as episode titles and the exact progression of the series's plot, which is why I've been linking to an episode guide every time I mention an episode title. I have no doubt, however, that every single one of you remembers the exchange I'm about to reference, but I'm going to quote it anyway because it encapsulates everything Deep Space Nine had to say about the Federation's influence on the quadrant.
QUARK: Take a sip of this.
GARAK: What is it?
QUARK: A Human drink. It's called root beer.
GARAK: I don't know.
QUARK: Go ahead. Aren't you just a little bit curious?
(Garak drinks)
QUARK: What do you think?
GARAK: It's vile.
QUARK: I know. It's so bubbly and cloying and happy.
GARAK: Just like the Federation.
QUARK: But you know what's really frightening? If you drink enough of it, you start to like it.
GARAK: It's insidious.
QUARK: Just like the Federation.
Of course, this kind of influence travels in both directions. Starfleet officers also find themselves infected by alien cultures and values. Sisko tries his hardest to balance being a Starfleet officer with being the Emissary, but every time he thinks he's found a comfortable middle ground it's snatched out from under him, and by the end of the series he's become a true believer--at the cost of the respectful detachment that was at the core of his Starfleet identity. Jadzia becomes more and more Klingon as her relationship with Worf deepens. The war, in particular, seems to gnaw at the very foundations of Federation culture. In "The Siege of AR-558," Nog notices that one of the defenders is wearing a necklace of Ketracel White vials. This set of grisly trophies is a direct reference to the necklace of Cardassian neckbones worn by one of the Rotarran's crewmembers in "Soldiers of the Empire," and which, at the time, is used as a indication of that crew's derangement.

Deep Space Nine is a series in constant tension between the original Trek concept of infinite diversity in infinite combinations--the idea that you can drink Klingon coffee with breakfast, snack on a Bajoran jumja stick after lunch, eat Creole food for dinner, and relax with some Saurian brandy over a game of Tongo--and the sneaking suspicion that this kind of multiculturalism is ultimately only skin-deep, and that we are all, deep down, either one thing or the other. One of the factors contributing to Ziyal's death is that she was neither Bajoran nor Cardassian, and could never bring herself to choose just one. Odo tries to be a changeling among humanoids, but ultimately gives up the attempt as futile. Federation values, the show ultimately concludes, can't be adopted except at the cost of another culture's values, and inter-species rapport has its limits--as seen in "What You Leave Behind" when Sisko and Ross refuse to drink to their victory in the ruins of Cardassia, and Martok shakes his head over their squeamishness.

I haven't said anything about the Founders, or their servants, the genetically engineered Jem'Hadar and Vorta, in this piece, though they are prominent in the series's later seasons. At first glance, there doesn't seem to be much to say. The Jem'Hadar are genetically engineered to fight; the Vorta, to administrate and carry out the Founders' orders. Neither species has anything resembling a culture beyond their belief in the Founders' godhood, and if the Founders have one it is hidden in the Great Link. At a second glance, a national character seems to emerge, and certainly when it comes to the Jem'Hadar the writers seem to be trying to appeal to the same part of us that responds to the Klingons, by making them, in their own way, honorable and dispassionate. But this is a fallacy. The Jem'Hadar are honorable only because they aren't really people. When they gain a measure of individuality--like the Jem'Hadar immune to Ketracel White in "Hippocratic Oath" or the alpha quadrant Jem'Hadar in "One Little Ship"--they become just as petty, just as given to arrogance and selfishness, and just as capable of compassion and decency, as regular people. The real Jem'Hadar are the ones who, in "Rocks and Shoals," knowingly go to their deaths for no reason because their Vorta--who is sacrificing them in order to save his own skin--has ordered them to. The Vorta are not much better. Though they make a show of being in charge, ultimately they the Founders' puppets, ruled, at all times, by their unswerving faith and dedication to their gods. It's somewhat disturbing that Deep Space Nine expects us to respect this complete abdication, perhaps even complete absence, of autonomy.

My preferred reading, though I somehow doubt that it is the intended one, is that the Jem'Hadar are the Klingons' dark mirror, and the Vorta are the Bajorans' (with the Cardassians combining qualities of both races). They are an example of what results when these species' core traits are exaggerated, and the individualism that characterizes the Ferengi is done away with--monsters, with almost no free will or moral identity. And if this reading is correct, where does that leave the Founders? As the Federation's dark mirror, of course. Or rather, the anti-Federation. As I've said, if there is a Founder culture it's contained within the Great Link, which isn't something we, or the show's humanoid characters, can ever explore. You can't eat at a Founder restaurant, or listen to Founder opera. In "Chimera," when Ezri tells Laas, a non-Founder changeling whom Odo and O'Brien discover swimming through space, that she's always wondered what that would be like, he simply responds that "it's a shame [she's] incapable of experiencing it." Though Odo tries to live as a humanoid he can't experience that life fully, and eventually concludes that its pleasures pale against those of the Great Link.

Unlike the Federation (or the Borg) the Founders aren't trying to export or impose their way of life on other races--what would be the point? Their attitude towards the rest of the galaxy can best be described as aggressive isolationism. They want to be left alone, and by God they'll conquer every species in two quadrants to make sure that happens. They don't care about the races they conquer or the territory and resources they accumulate, and the adulation of the Jem'Hadar nd Vorta means nothing to them. As the female Founder tells Weyoun in "Favor the Bold," she'd give up the alpha quadrant if it meant bringing Odo back into the fold, because all that matters to the Founders is each other and the Link.

At Deep Space Nine's end, every one of its dominant alien species has been infected, to one degree or another, by Federation values. Martok, who has close ties with the Federation, is now Chancellor of the Klingon high council, and his closest adviser is a Starfleet officer who believes the empire needs to be taken apart and put back together. Ferengi society has been turned completely upside down. Bajor is back on track towards Federation membership, and Cardassian society is in shambles, and will no doubt be relying on Federation aid in its reconstruction efforts and, in the process, imbibing Federation values. Even the Founders have been rejoined by Odo, who will spread his message of tolerance, and his greater understanding of humanoids, throughout the Great Link. It is to the show's credit that it is ambivalent about these changes, portraying them as losses as well as gains, and hinting that in many cases change will be slow and uncertain. Especially nowadays, with the issue of cultural imperialism so prominent in the public discourse, it's interesting to watch Deep Space Nine grapple with that very question. "There is a limit to how far I'll go to accommodate cultural diversity among my officers and you've just reached it," Sisko angrily informs Worf after the latter nearly kills Kurn in "The Sons of Mogh," and this, too, is a question that has become more prominent in the last half-decade, as the dream of a truly multicultural society gives way before irreconcilable differences in values and cherished beliefs. Deep Space Nine can't offer any answers to these questions, but it can explore them, and it does so without ever surrendering the complexity and integrity of its own universe. All alien species are ultimately a commentary on humanity, and in Deep Space Nine's case, on Western society, but because Deep Space Nine was good science fiction and good TV, its aliens are also entirely real, and entirely alien.

5 comments:

ad said...

This same respect for individuality can also be observed in the different expressions of Ferengi-ness we encounter over the course of the series.

I rather like this aspect of the Ferengi. They remind me of Voltaire’s comment on the Royal Exchange, that there Christians, Muslims and Jews could act together, “and give the name of Infidel to none but bankrupts”.

But it did make me a little uncomfortable with the Ferengi attitude towards women, and non-Ferengi: “A contract is a contract – but only among Ferengi”.

A hierarchical society would naturally tend to always rank one person above or below another, and a collectivist one should try to fit people into groups, and treat them differently, according to what they thought of those groups.

But Quark is an individualist: why should he care if a business deal is with an alien, or a female Ferengi, or a male Ferengi? All he should care about is whether that person can be of use to Quark, and how to get them to be of use.

I thought this was a hangover of the tendency to view Ferengi as villains, and the modern convention of making villains more racist and sexist than the heroes. Even when this makes no sense.

(Of course, the Klingons had not-dissimilar views of women and aliens, but that fit in with the rest of their culture.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

There are plenty of instances in which we see Ferengi exploit and cheat one another - Quark has Ferengi employees (including Rom and Nog) whom he underpays, Quark and Gaila manipulate one another several times, and then there's Quark's rivalry with Brunt, and Brunt's attempts to unseat Zek.

The sanctity of contracts strikes me as something that has more to do with the contract than with the person you made it with. It's just that outsiders, who don't share Ferengis' reverence for the rules of acquisition, can't expect to enjoy their protection.

Or so I'm rationalizing. I've talked the Ferengi up in this piece, but what I've left out is that there was always a sense in Ferengi-centered episodes that the writers weren't taking their material very seriously. This was particularly evident in the painfully preachy and unpersuasive sub-plot about women's rights. The disenfranchisement of Ferengi females, and Quark's scandalized reaction to Ishka's efforts to counteract it, were played for a joke, which made it difficult to take either their oppression, or the allegedly feminist message of the Ishka stories, seriously. I suspect the same is true of many aspects of Ferengi culture - Quark's horrified reaction when Brunt calls him a philanthropist in "Body Parts," for example.

ianras said...

These DS9 posts have been a pleasure to read. Thank you.

paul said...

Thanks for posting the Dykes link, very cool. And even though I don't like DS9 at all, you've made a very convincing case for me to revisit it. Good analysis.

In a nutshell, I was one of those people turned off by DS9 and it's "not trekness" as you describe. I think it was somewhere around the end of Season 2 and the very beginning of Season 3 where I realized I didn't care for this version of the star trek universe, and I tuned out of regular watching, and probably stopped altogether around Season 5.

I'll have to explore my disatisfaction at another juncture, but a lot of it had to do with the portrayal of the Federation by the franchise. All the points you mentioned, with the aliens reacting negatively to the Federation and it's tentacles of (fill in the political mechanism blank here), I really got bored with and unhappy over. I like your point that the aliens struggled with their points of view against it, and many of those quotes I actually remember. On that point alone, it might be worth it to watch it again.

Incidentally, I missed the first Season of Babylon 5 because it "looked like a ripoff of DS9", but had the occasion to get involved in the Second Season when my friends got excited about what was happening.

But good stuff Abigail. I'm glad you went down this road again and shared. Worth mulling over now that Star Trek is dead and buried, with the endless reboot beginning again for one last glory ride.

Mark Jones said...

Yes, indeed--that exchange about root beer is one of the scenes etched into my memory of the series. And for exactly the reason you state: it summarizes the entire series and its take on the Federation and other cultures.

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