Saturday, February 23, 2008

Recent Movie Roundup 6: Special Oscar Edition

2007 is not the first year in which I've seen all of the best picture Oscar nominees, but it is the first year in which I've seen all five nominees in the movie theater, before the ceremony, and because I was genuinely interested and eager to see them (as opposed to picking up the least objectionable DVD available at Blockbusters on a dull weeknight, AKA the only conceivable reason to watch Seabiscuit). This is a surprisingly strong list of films, or maybe not so surprising given the overall quality of the films produced last year. 2007's award films started trickling into Israeli movie theaters around January, and in the last two months I've seen more films than in the six or maybe even ten months previous, and there are still films (Once, Sweeney Todd, The Darjeeling Limited) I haven't gotten around to. Though I'm not in love with all of the nominees--several are, in fact, deeply flawed--this is the first time in a while that I've cared about the Oscars.

Of the five nominees, the one whose popularity and critical reception most surprise me is Michael Clayton. It's a film made up of very, very good parts: George Clooney is his usual excellent self as the title character, a near-soulless fixer for a completely soulless law firm, but Tom Wilkinson is incandescent as the firm's star litigator who, after six years of stalling and gnawing away at a class action lawsuit alleging that his clients, a pesticide manufacturer, killed and poisoned hundreds of people, goes spectacularly insane, forcing Clayton to choose between the firm and his friend. (Tilda Swinton, as the pesticide firm's in-house lawyer, does her best with what she's given, but unfortunately her character is basically a hysterical female.) The dialogue is sharp and the direction is effective, both expertly conveying the oppressiveness of the environment Clayton operates in, in which only power matters, and in which that power inevitably corrupts those who possess it.

Unfortunately, that obvious and familiar statement is pretty much all the film amounts to. For a film that bills itself and clearly thinks of itself as a thriller, there are surprisingly few twists and revelations in the plot. The story is laid out before us so straightforwardly and anticlimactically that it seems almost inappropriate to call it that--this is simply a sequence of events. Similarly, Michael's moral awakening isn't the result of a journey, or at least not one that takes place over the course of the film. As this article (which also suggests that the film is an indictment of the realities of corporate law firms) points out, he's known for years what kind of people he works for, and what they're capable of, so why is he suddenly spurred to act? The film offers a sort of answer, but I find it unpersuasive. Though I enjoyed watching it, I'm still at a loss to say what Michael Clayton was about, or even what it was.

I fully expected to despise Atonement, an adaptation of one of my favorite novels from the same director who was so tragically mistaken about the identity of the author of Pride and Prejudice a few years ago, and starring that abomination's not-particularly-talented lead. To my surprise, it's an extremely enjoyable and well-made melodrama, though not much more than that. As an adaptation, Atonement is faithful almost to a fault, so conscientious about replicating the atmosphere of McEwan's novel that the instances in which it completely misses the novel's point go almost unnoticed. The film shines when it focuses on Briony, the character whose careless actions spin out of her control and into tragedy--Saoirse Ronan is astonishing as young Briony, an intense little girl with more brains and imagination than is really good for her; Romola Garai is very good playing Briony as a guilt-stricken young woman; and Vanessa Redgrave is, well, Vanessa Redgrave, and possibly the only actress who could have carried off the embarrassingly obvious manner in which the film's twist is revealed. Unfortunately, Joe Wright seems to have once again missed the point of the story he's telling, which, in his mind, are Robbie and Cecilia, the lovers whom Briony's actions tear apart.

On top of the comparisons to Pride and Prejudice, Atonement's reviewers have frequently trotted out The English Patient, but though the comparison is apt (mainly because, like Atonement, The English Patient is a sumptuous romantic melodrama based on a novel that is so much more than that), Atonement makes more sense when considered in conjunction with Titanic, another film which seeks to make a point through the tragic tearing apart of young lovers, and instead becomes the story of that tragedy, with the point all but forgotten. The film's final scene is a betrayal of everything McEwan's novel, and even the two reasonably intelligent hours preceding it, were trying to accomplish. Instead of a smart, thought provoking film about the power and powerlessness of fiction, Atonement is a run of the mill tragic love story--affecting enough while you're watching it, and beautifully put together, but, once examined with any amount of scrutiny, clearly a manipulative and obvious piece of work (which is why the most successful aspect of the film is its soundtrack, as music is allowed to be manipulative and obvious in ways that fiction isn't). Atonement isn't a horrible way to spend two hours, but for a truly meaningful experience you'd be better off with the book.

Juno is very nearly Atonement's polar opposite. I walked away from it thinking that I'd just seen a sweet, enjoyably quirky film whose popularity had far outstripped its merits, but the more I think about and the more I discuss it with others, the more substantial and interesting it seems. I still think the Oscar nominations are a little more than the film deserves--though Ellen Page, who is the heart and soul of the piece, certainly deserves the recognition she's received--but the amount of discussion the film generates speaks, I think, to its quality. There's the obvious question of whether the dialogue in the film is unrealistically clever, and I tend to think that it is, as certain instances of it ('swear to blog?' to name but one example) very nearly jettisoned me out of the film, but more interesting to me are the different perspectives different viewers have on the film's characters.

With very little fuss, Juno humanizes all of its characters, creating three dimensional people where another film would have delivered comedic clichés--Juno's working class parents; her airheaded best friend; the uptight yuppie wife and her manchild husband who want to adopt Juno's baby; the confused and slightly nerdy father of her child. All of them are interesting and lovable, striving to deal with a difficult situation as best they can. Which, ultimately, is what the film is about--not pregnancy, but any difficulty that emerges, as a result of your stupidity, or the mistakes of your loved ones, or just bad luck, to screw up your carefully planned life. I called Juno sweet, which is a sometimes a way of calling a film insubstantial, but a more accurate term would be kindhearted.

Which leaves me with the two best films on the ballot, and the two that I have the least to say about because I haven't yet untangled my thoughts about them. There seem to be a lot of commonalities between No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Both are quintessentially American stories which unfold in a bleak, dry landscape that is almost a character in its own right, and in a language that seems like a relic from another era. There Will Be Blood, however, is an opera (right down to the bombastic soundtrack), a turn-of-the-last-century Faust about a man who sells his soul not to the devil, whom he has rejected just as completely as he rejects God or the very idea of divinity, but to his lust for wealth and power.

The character of Daniel Plainview, as written by Paul Thomas Anderson and portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis, is making me reevaluate every on-screen bad guy and psychopath I've ever seen, all the way back to Charles Foster Kane, on whom it seems very likely to me that he was modeled. There have been complaints that Day Lewis's performance goes over the top, but to my mind it is understated, because he never hammers in the fundamental truth of Plainview's existence--that he is a hollow man, consumed by hatred and ambition. Plainview has learned to sham humanity so well that he fools most everyone he meets, including the audience, up until the moment they cross him and he lashes out. Then he fools them again because they, and we, can't imagine that that sort of evil can exist and not announce itself in every word it speaks, and keep mistaking him for a human being. The claims against the film's plotting--that it drags in its second half, and that the antagonistic relationship between Plainview and the equally mad preacher Eli Sunday is built up to a frenzy early on and then dropped until the film's very ending--are justified, but to my mind There Will Be Blood is worth watching simply for Day Lewis and Plainview.

Which is why I think the Oscar should go to No Country for Old Men, which manages to do so much more than deliver a single searing performance. It's a film that does so much so well, and seemingly with so little effort, that I can hardly begin to praise it. The characters and their personalities, the larger-than-life villain Anton Chigurh, the hair-raising thriller plot, and its transformation into something sadder and more philosophical in the film's final 20 minutes--these things are all established with a deceptive ease that carried me away completely. If There Will Be Blood is an opera, No Country for Old Men is a tragedy on a more human scale, and yet no less grand and no less thrilling than Anderson's film. It's also exceptionally well put together--it wasn't until someone pointed it out to me that I realized the film had no soundtrack, because I found the experience of watching it so immersive. I wouldn't be heartbroken if any of the films on this year's Oscar ballot walked away with the trophy, because they all do at least some things exceptionally well, but No Country for Old Men is the only one on the list that succeeds in practically every respect.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Back Through the Wormhole: Table of Contents

I've noticed several people linking to the series now that it's over, and to facilitate this, here is a link post.
  1. Introduction

  2. The Two DS9s - Did Deep Space Nine only get good in its later seasons?

  3. The Menagerie - Alien races on the show

  4. Looking for Ron Moore in All the Wrong Places - The obligatory Battlestar Galactica comparison

  5. What Does God Need With a Space Station? - Deep Space Nine's treatment of religion

  6. Ode to Kira - Just what it says

  7. The Justice Trick - Odo and his troubled relationships with Kira and morality

  8. Odds & Ends - A few more comments

Back Through the Wormhole, Part VIII: Odds & Ends

Believe it or not, after seven installments there's still stuff left to say about Deep Space Nine. Here are a few topics that didn't grow into full-fledged essays:
  • It's an axiom of television writing that romance, and specifically romantic pursuit, is interesting, but established relationships, and most especially marriages, are boring. Perhaps because it was generally strongest when telling stories about the conventional and the mundane, on Deep Space Nine the reverse was true. Its romantic plotlines were usually obvious and uninspired (and occasionally offensive), but its depictions of long-term romantic relationships were winning and, yes, romantic.

    Dax and Worf come together in the most insipid of ways, and the fifth season episodes that focus on their courtship are tiresome and in some cases ("Let He Who is Without Sin") borderline unwatchable. Once they marry, however, the writing for their relationship achieves a whole new level. If previously there had been a sense that the romance between the two characters was overwhelming its participants, that they were being forced into standard romantic templates whether their personalities suited those templates or not (for instance, the wedding imperiled at the last minute in "You Are Cordially Invited"), the scenes and episodes that focus on them after their marriage truly seem to be about Worf and Dax, and the entity that they create together. The most obvious example is "Change of Heart," which for my money is the most romantic hour Deep Space Nine ever produced. Worf and Dax feel like themselves, and yet there's clearly something more to them, a togetherness which they are only beginning to explore and appreciate. In other episodes--the dinner scene in "Resurrection," the babysitting subplot in "Time's Orphan"--they are comfortable with one another, and that comfort extends to their interactions with others. It's clear that marriage agrees with them and that it makes them happy--which only makes it so much more tragic when Jadzia dies.

    Though the episodes focusing on Odo's unrequited love for Kira acknowledge the unsavory aspects of his obsession--his devastation and self-loathing when he finally owns up to his feelings in "Heart of Stone," his emotional collapse, jealous tantrum, and subsequent choice to cut himself even further off from his feelings when she becomes romantically involved with Shakaar in "Crossfire," his future self's choice to commit mass murder on her behalf in "Children of Time"--once the decision is made to put them together that unwholesomeness is ignored, even as the viewers' faces are rubbed in it. The consequences of Odo's betrayal during the Dominion occupation are swept away in a single scene in "You Are Cordially Invited"--a scene which we don't even get to see--and the episode in which Odo and Kira finally come together, "His Way," expects us to find it romantic that Odo would rather date a Kira doll than the real thing, and that this is what makes Kira realize she has feelings for him.

    Once Odo and Kira get together, however, their relationship is loving, supportive, and even sweet. I've spoken already about the effect that Kira's sophisticated morality has on Odo, but she also gets something out of the relationship. Odo's unswerving dedication and loyalty during the trying seventh season is practically a return to the deep friendship the characters shared in the show's earlier seasons, but with the added heft of intimacy and emotional openness. As early as "The Reckoning"--only one episode after their relationship begins--Odo is sufficiently respectful of Kira's desires, and of her right to make her own choices, that he argues against banishing the Prophet possessing her because he knows that she wants to be its vessel. This is a complete reversal of his attitude in "Children of Time," in which Kira was an object to be rescued, regardless or her feelings on the matter.

    Deep Space Nine, in other words, is really, really bad at courtship--I haven't even mentioned the embarrassingly paint-by-numbers manner ("We're just friends!" "Yes!" *smooch*) in which Ezri and Bashir are rushed into a relationship, in spite of there having been no indication of an attraction between them in any of their previous interactions--and really good at established relationships. Just about the only exception are Sisko and Kasidy Yates, and this is probably because their courtship is so normal. It's not an explosive romance between polar opposites like Worf and Dax, or a years-long unspoken infatuation that suddenly blossoms into true love like Odo and Kira. They're just two people, with no small amount of life behind them and serious commitments to both work and family, who fall in love and work hard to fit themselves into each other's lives. They date for several years, inasmuch as their demanding careers will allow them to, because neither one of them is willing to drop everything they care for just to be together (and in an episode like "For the Cause," both prioritize their ideals over their relationship), and finally discover that they've become a family, as committed to one another as they are to the other pillars of their existence. (Another reason that the Sisko-Kasidy courtship works so well is that Avery Brooks is so good at playing infatuation--he even makes the throwaway romance in "Second Sight" appealing. Just about the only thing more adorable than Avery Brooks playing a man in love is Avery Brooks playing with a baby, and the only thing more adorable than that is Michael Dorn, in full Klingon makeup, playing with a baby.)

    Deep Space Nine is also deeply respectful of marriage (just about the only show I can think of that outdoes it in this respect is the first season of Heroes, which started by imperiling most of its married couples in ways that invited the audience to root for their dissolution, and then turned around and bolstered nearly all of them). In "The House of Quark," O'Brien is concerned because Keiko has closed down the station's school and is clearly depressed and out of sorts. It's not unusual for O'Brien to be a devoted and concerned spouse--his and Keiko's relationship is the strongest and most committed in the series--but what makes the episode special is that characters outside the marriage recognize the danger to it and treat it with all due seriousness. Sisko immediately acquiesces to O'Brien's request that he allocate a cargo bay in which Keiko can create an arboretum. Bashir, who has never been married, and who in "Armageddon Game" told O'Brien that he doesn't think men with their careers should marry, is the one to point out that Keiko needs and deserves professional fulfillment just as much as Miles does, and that an arboretum won't achieve that goal. On the other hand, as the series progresses and as Miles's friendship with Bashir deepens, the O'Briens' marriage comes to seem more and more perfunctory. In "Hard Time," Keiko can't do much to help Miles other than wring her hands, and it's to Bashir, and not her, that Miles confesses his guilt (we never find out whether she learns of it). By the time the series ends, the relationship between the two men is practically a marriage in its own right.

  • Since we've already mentioned same-sex relationships, let's talk about "Rejoined." I dreaded this episode during my rewatch, because Star Trek doesn't have a good history with homosexuality. Its good intentions usually lead to preachy, unsubtle pap like The Next Generation's "The Outcast," in which we learn that gay people just want to love each other, or Enterprise's "Stigma," which comes out against suppressing AIDS research as a way of attacking homosexuals--truly a blistering, timely statement in 2003. "Rejoined" is a better hour of television than either of these episodes, but ultimately it is no less confused and uninformed about its subject matter.

    The most important point in "Rejoined"'s favor is the matter of fact way in which it treats a romantic relationship between two women. When Jadzia says that she used to be married to Lenara Kahn, when Kira wonders why the two women can't resume their previous hosts' marriage, when Jadzia says that she loves Lenara, no one bats an eye. It's considered perfectly normal--in this episode, at least--for two women to love each other. The taboo against homosexuality is replaced with a Trill taboo against 'reassociation'--romantic relationships between joined Trills whose previous hosts were also involved. Instead of trying to argue that taboo away (as "The Outcast" did), "Rejoined" accepts its existence and depicts the different reactions of people faced with it. Some, like Jadzia, are brave and defiant. Others, like Lenara's brother and colleagues, accept it unthinkingly. Lenara is somewhere in between. She wants Jadzia but isn't willing to sacrifice everything to be with her. It's a refreshing acknowledgement that neither homosexuality nor homophobia are uniform and undifferentiated.

    The problem with reading "Rejoined" strictly as a statement against homophobia is that the Trill taboo actually makes a certain amount of sense. Whether or not the writers intended for us to have this reaction, there's something disturbing about the way that Jadzia is shunted aside once she and Lenara reconnect romantically. When Lenara and Jadzia say 'you' to one another, they're talking about, and becoming, their symbionts' long-dead hosts. They are living in the past and sublimating the people they are in the present. The resulting relationship feels unhealthy in a way that homosexual relationships clearly aren't. (There's a similarly creepy undertone when Worf, and later Bashir, become Ezri's lovers--in the former case because Worf clearly believes that he's getting Jadzia back, and in the latter because it's hard to believe that Bashir hasn't carried his feelings for Jadzia over to Ezri when he says that he's in love with her.)

    A more significant problem, however, is that the attitude that male, female or tentacled, we love who we love is, in its own way, puritanical, in that it leaves sex out of the equation. Jadzia, one of the most sexually adventurous characters in the series, who has been the lover of men and women as both men and women, is only ever seen associating romantically with men. Are we to understand that Torias Dax's emotional attraction to Nilani Kahn somehow overrides Jadzia's sexual preferences? There can be no preexisting physical attraction between these two women, who have never met one another before this episode, and yet there's clearly tension between them. That tension, however, is derived purely from the emotional connection. By arguing that it doesn't matter what gender your partner is, the episode comes close to arguing that sexual attraction has no component in romance. Coupled with the fact that this is the first and last time we see a same-sex couple on this show (the Intendant and her seraglio don't count), it's hard not to read the episode as saying that it's OK to hook up with someone of your own gender if you love them to a degree that overrides your better judgement or sexual orientation, but not simply as a matter of course.

  • Since we've already mentioned the Intendant, let's talk about the mirror universe. By the time Deep Space Nine ended, the episodes set in this universe were clearly the writers' way of cutting loose, a chance for Avery Brooks to play space pirate and Nana Visitor to vamp in tight leather (it's also worth noting that Michael Dorn, as the Alliance's Regent, is a hell of a lot of fun in these episodes, in which he subverts Worf's dignity and gravitas in what is without a doubt one of the series's comedic highlights). After a while, these repetitions became tired, and by the time Ezri made out with Kira in "The Emperor's New Cloak" we could all see what the draw was supposed to be. So it was something of a surprise to return to "Crossover" and discover a dark and disturbing hour of television. I don't understand how I managed to miss this the first time around, but the Intendant is Dukat. Like him, she's a narcissist, a person completely without morality or conscience who nevertheless wants to be loved and revered as a saint. She claims to care about the human slaves, to be their friend and deplore their suffering. When they rebel, she chides herself for being too lenient, and laments the executions she orders. She is also, like Dukat, a sexual predator, and because she's a woman that quality is exaggerated and made prominent. In her subsequent appearances, the Intendant is reduced to a walking libido, and her more interesting parallels with Dukat are downplayed.

    It's unfortunate that Deep Space Nine failed to capitalize on the mirror universe's capacity to, well, hold up a dark mirror to its characters. "Crossover" is a scary parallel to the Cardassian occupation--its depiction of the suffering of the human slaves is as disquieting as the flashback scenes in "Necessary Evil"--and its follow-ups could have acted as similar commentaries on the series's events. The second mirror universe episode, "Through the Looking Glass," in which our Sisko is dispatched to prevent the mirror Jennifer from creating a weapon that will destroy the fledgling human rebellion, might almost have been trying to do just this. Jennifer's dilemma--to support her rebelling people or to try to prevent the loss of life their rebellion will inevitably cause--mirrors both the Bajorans' predicament during the occupation and the Maquis situation in the present day. Her arguments against Sisko's actions are almost word-for-word his arguments against his former friend who leaves Starfleet to join the Maquis (and like the Maquis, the rebels are hiding in the Badlands). In later sequels, the mirror universe episodes might have explored the challenges of creating a stable society after centuries of enslavement--which obviously parallels the situation on Bajor after the occupation--or introduced the Dominion into the mix. What we got instead were increasingly anemic adventure yarns.
And that, I believe, is that. It's a scary fact, but I've written more about Deep Space Nine in the last month than I've written about Battlestar Galactica in almost two and a half years. I suppose if there's a conclusion or a closing statement I'd like to leave you with it's that Deep Space Nine was a really, really good show, though obviously not without it's flaws, and that it should be a more important part of the conversation when discussing SF on TV, or the capabilities of television in general. Those of you who haven't seen it might want to give it a look. Those of you who watched it years ago might be surprised by what you find if you return to it. Thanks a lot for reading.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Back Through the Wormhole, Part VII: The Justice Trick

BENDER: Forget it, you can't tempt me.
ROBOT DEVIL: Really? There's nothing you want?
BENDER: Hm. I forgot you could tempt me with things I want.

Futurama, "The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings"
If Deep Space Nine's character development has a theme, it is the loss of innocence, and of an idealized self-image. The characters who undergo this process most prominently over the course of the series are Sisko—who not only loses his iron grip on the difference between right and wrong in his efforts to win a brutal war, but also surrenders his objectivity and his detached rationalism in the face of the Bajorans’ faith—and Odo—who at the beginning of the series believes himself to possess an innate sense of justice, but discovers not only that his people have no true understanding of the word, but that his own grasp of it is rather tenuous. Bashir starts out the series a literal ingénue, whose delusions about the glory of war and the glamour of spy life are soon worn away by constant exposure to the real thing. Jadzia, O’Brien and Worf do not have explicit character arcs, but in episodes like "Blood Oath," "Hard Time," and "Change of Heart," respectively, each ends up betraying a cherished principle and discovering that they are not the person they thought they were or wish to be. Even Jake gets to face up to his inadequacies when he’s dropped into a battlefield in "Nor the Battle to the Strong."

The exception is Kira, who, in spite of her violent past and the show’s tendency to put her in situations that force her to choose between personal loyalty and the greater good, never compromises her principles. The argument could be made that Kira has an easier time with this task because her principles are less demanding—she isn’t governed by a strict set of rules like Odo, or devoted to the notion that violence is the very last resort like Sisko—but to my mind she actually has a much tougher job than either of them. As I wrote in the previous entry in this series, Kira has a fundamental understanding of right and wrong, but having rejected a rigid framework through which she can apply these abstract concepts to everyday life, she is forced to judge every case she encounters individually. The result is an attitude that is compassionate without being unreasonably forgiving.

At no point does Kira forget or excuse the crimes committed against her people. She doesn’t allow her rage at these crimes to govern her, but she won’t sweep them under the rug either, no matter how much she might wish she could. Though she loves Bareil, she prepares to give him up to Winn when she believes him to have collaborated with the Cardassians, and throughout her friendship and love affair with Odo, she is both supportive and clear-eyed, tethering him to the morality he claims to hold so dear while still being prepared to let him go—which she in fact does in "Chimera." Kira is far from perfect. Her politics are sometimes disturbingly reactionary, she is more violent than the rest of the cast, and her willingness to be ruled, in some of her most important life choices, by the will of the prophets can verge on the disturbing. Nevertheless, she is the most unambiguously good character in the cast.

"Nobody ever had to teach me the justice trick," Odo Mickey Spillanes in "Necessary Evil," which is one of the more egregious examples of his capacity for self-deception. Apart from being one of the best episodes in the series's run, "Necessary Evil" is a seminal point in Odo's character development and in the development of his and Kira's relationship precisely because it is in this episode that we see him first being taught the justice trick. And boy, is he a slow study. As the flashbacks to Odo's early career as Terok Nor's chief of security show us, he came to Dukat's attention by acting as an arbitrator for the Bajorans on the station, settling their petty disputes. When Odo is given charge of a murder investigation, he goes about it as if he were determining who stole whose blanket or how food should be parceled out. When Kira, in their very first meeting, insists that he is going to have to pick sides, Odo angrily denies this, and insists that he is a neutral party, a claim which he repeats throughout the episode, to Kira's increasing frustration.

What Kira is trying to show Odo is that addressing a single injustice within a system that is wholly rooted in injustice, and whose participants, apart from himself, don't care about right and wrong (as Odo later learns, Dukat has him investigate the murder in order to distance himself from a politically sticky situation) does not serve the interest of justice. He doesn't listen. "You were innocent of the crime I was investigating," he proudly tells her when she tries to thank him for saving her life by not handing her over to the Cardassians, and is later heartbroken to discover that she in fact committed it. Left unanswered--unasked, even--is the question of what Odo would have done had he discovered Kira's guilt at the time of the original investigation, and whether that might not have been a greater injustice. (To a certain extent, this issue is addressed by "Things Past," which acts as "Necessary Evil"'s mirror image by highlighting an instance in which Odo handed innocent Bajorans over to the Cardassians to be executed. It is, however, a less successful episode, and comes off as derivative, rather than expanding on the issues raised by the original story.)

By the end of the series, the perception of Odo as motivated by a desire for justice has been thoroughly exploded. Though he's a good man, it's clearly not a love of justice that drives him. In the third season opener, "The Search," the Founders inform Odo that what he perceives as a love of justice is in fact a desire for order. This is in keeping with Odo's behavior throughout the second second, during which he repeatedly complains about being forced to adhere to Starfleet's rules about due process and civil rights--rules which, according to him, prevent him from making Deep Space Nine safe. For the next three years, the Founders alternately torment Odo and try to tempt him back to the Great Link. Their entire discourse with him is based not on morality, but on their understanding of the things Odo wants--Kira, whom they insist he can't have, and the solace and companionship of the Great Link, which can only be his if he accepts their immoral behavior.

Odo, whose stripped-down existence has, up until that point, afforded him very little experience of desire, its gratification or its denial, discovers that while possessing an innate sense of justice with regards to the choices of others is quite easy--all it requires is compassion and common sense, both qualities he has an abundance of--it's a very different matter when it comes to denying his own urges. In the end, Odo says uncle. I don't think it's possible to overstate the magnitude of this failure. There are few exchanges in Deep Space Nine's run that have the power to chill my blood as effectively as Odo telling Kira that he no longer cares about Rom's impending execution, the freedom of Bajor, the survival of the Federation, or the future of the entire alpha quadrant in "Behind the Lines," that he has effectively traded everything he once held dear for the comfort of the Link. Odo turns his back on everything he believes in and everyone he loves, and it's the latter, not the former, that brings him back to his senses. He may not care about the larger injustices of the Founders' quest for galactic domination any more than he let himself care about the injustice of the Cardassian occupation, but a threat to Kira's life persuades him to leave the Great Link.

This choice is uncomfortably reminiscent of the one made by the future Odo in "Children of Time." That Odo sacrifices not only the lives but the very existence of 8,000 men, women, and children, as well as the existence of their ancestors, to save Kira's life. Though he is clearly ashamed of this act, present-day Odo also seems to approve of it, or at least to believe that future Odo's love for Kira justifies it. In hindsight, it's hard to escape the conclusion that Odo is only ever motivated by his feelings for Kira--in his choice to stay on Deep Space Nine after his first and disastrous meeting with the Founders, and even in his choice to let her go all the way back in "Necessary Evil." This is certainly the interpretation the Founders would have us believe, and one that Odo violently objects to--though he is clearly not the best judge of his own character. I have to wonder, however, whether being motivated by an attachment to Kira doesn't speak better of Odo than almost any of his other actions.

In general, Deep Space Nine doesn't go in for the redemptive power of love. Whether it's Quark blackmailing his Cardassian lover into staying with him in "Profit and Loss," or O'Brien nearly killing the Prophets to save Keiko's life in "The Assignment," or Worf turning his back on a mission to save Jadzia in "Change of Heart," or even Odo himself in "Children of Time", the show seems to be saying that love comes at the cost of ideals and our better impulses. When it comes to Odo and Kira, however, love is redemptive. It is through love that Odo finally learns the justice trick. In "Chimera," Odo encounters a fellow rogue changeling, who offers him the best of both world--someone he can link with without betraying his ideals. Laas, however, proves unsuited to life among solids, whom he views with disdain and pity for what he perceives as a limited, meaningless existence, and he is soon jailed for attacking one. When Kira, whom Laas has chided for holding Odo back from exploring his true nature, frees him and encourages Odo to leave Deep Space Nine with him and find his happiness, she finally makes him understand the kind of selflessness, the willingness to think of others and put them first, regardless of one's selfish desires, that is required of true moral behavior. Odo's decision to leave Kira and go back to the Founders only a few episodes later is not a betrayal of their love but an affirmation of it, and of the lessons it has taught him.

"Some of them are decent people," Odo tells the female Founder in "The Search" when she first lays out the reasons for the Founders' antipathy towards solids. Whether or not the writers intended for Odo to be thinking of Kira at that point (and she is remarkably decent and supportive throughout the entire story, which finds Odo on the verge of leaving Deep Space Nine in a huff and behaving, in general, like a whiny teenager), it is her decency that he brings to the Great Link when he gives her up for the greater good. Through his personal experiences with Kira, Odo hopes to teach the Founders the truth that he was unable to convince them of in their first meeting. At the end of his character arc, Odo substitutes an unsustainable belief in an ideal with a sustainable--and sustaining--belief in a person who embodies it. During the three seasons between his first meeting with the Founders and the occupation arc (at which point his pretense becomes pointless), Odo repeatedly insists to the Founders that he won't join them in the Great Link because he desires justice. They, in turn, reply that what he actually wants is Kira. Is it possible that, in very different languages, they are saying the same thing?

Friday, February 08, 2008

Back Through the Wormhole, Part VI: Ode to Kira

The breathtaking awesomeness of Kira Nerys, which has been recurring theme in these essays, became apparent to me only a few episodes into my journey back through Deep Space Nine. Almost as soon as I came to this realization, I started pondering a question: how is that this fantastic character, who is strong, capable, confident, and decent, doesn't have pride of place in the pantheon of kickass female characters in genre television? Why isn't her name mentioned in the same breath as Susan Ivanova and Dana Scully, Buffy Summers and Aeryn Sun? What I'd like to do in this essay is take a closer look at Kira, at the qualities that make her so awesome, and most particularly the ways in which she works as a female character. I'd also, however, like to look at the ways in which Deep Space Nine undermines Kira, and serves both her and the show's female fans ill.

Kira's most prominent quality is the fact that she's an imposing fighter. This is the woman who, with a knife wound in her gut, took out a Klingon warrior in "The Way of the Warrior," who held her own against a Cardassian fleet in "Emissary" (as well as coming up with the insane notion of moving the station to the mouth of the wormhole) and against a Romulan one in "Shadows and Symbols," outnumbered and outgunned in both cases. Whether she's fighting hand-to-hand, organizing guerrilla campaigns and resistance movements, commanding a starship, or overseeing the station's day-to-day operations, Kira Nerys is someone you want on your side, and wouldn't want to come up against. She's tenacious and strong-willed, whether she's fighting a bureaucracy in "Progress," interrogating a prisoner in "Duet," or fighting desperately to hold on to her identity in "Second Skin."

What I like best about Kira's strength is that it doesn't undermine her femininity or her ability to relate to others. She has a healthy social life, and over the course of the series she engages in several healthy, loving, sexual relationships. At no point is it suggested that the difficult experiences of her life have hardened her to the point where she can't experience intimacy, or that her lover needs to teach her to be vulnerable. Kira is damaged, but that damage doesn't render her incapable of functioning normally, nor is it used as a justification or apology for her toughness, though both originate in the same circumstances. Neither is Kira's rage--her default reaction when she's frustrated or confronted with injustice--treated as an illness or a symptom of dysfunction, any more than Sisko's similar tendency to go off the handle in the show's later seasons is. Kira simply runs hot, and though her anger can sometimes lead her to act recklessly, most of the time she doesn't allow it to control her.

Even more interesting to me than Kira's physical prowess and her strength as a leader is her emotional and moral strength. She is, I believe, the moral center of the series. She's the person who can always be counted on to speak the hard truths--when she tells Sisko not to go against the Propehts' warnings and marry Kasidy in "'Til Death Do Us Part," or when she urges Winn to step down as Kai for the sake of her soul in "Strange Bedfellows"--and who most fully understands the necessity of sacrifice and selflessness--when she sets Laas free and sends Odo to him "Chimera," or when she agrees to lay down her life so that the Defiant crew's descendants can live in "Children of Time."

One of Kira's greatest flaws is her tendency to assume a kneejerk us vs. them mentality, distrusting the Federation at the beginning of the series and the Cardassians throughout it, disdaining Bajorans who collaborated with the Cardassians so completely that she repudiates her own mother in "Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night," and even earning Odo's wrath in a throwaway episode like "Playing God" when she suggests that destroying a nascent universe in order to protect our own is justified because it's "like stepping on ants." Kira's moral grounding, however, is so sound that she's usually able to overcome this attitude. We see this most often when it comes to Cardassians. Though she never allows herself to forget the crimes they committed against her people, Kira is capable of sympathizing with individual Cardassians--the troubled clerk in "Duet," Legate Ghemor in "Second Skin" (whom she later tends to in his dying days in "Ties of Blood and Water"), Damar, Ziyal, and even Dukat on certain occasions. (It's particularly interesting to compare Kira's ability to judge Cardassians as individuals with O'Brien's inability to do so, in spite of the fact that his grievances against them pale besides hers.) Kira isn't a person for shades of grey--she has very clearly defined notions of right and wrong--but her capacity to overcome both her own prejudices and received morality allows to judge each case, person, and action on their own merits, which in turns makes her the most subtle and sophisticated judge of moral dilemmas on the show.

All of which is to say that I like Kira because she's an adult. It's all too often the case that female characters--even the strong, kickass ones--are portrayed as girlish or immature. Kira is a grown up--in her professional conduct, in her personal relationships, in her moral behavior. She's the person who makes the hard decisions and the big sacrifices because she won't allow herself the luxury of shirking them. There's a scene in "The Way of the Warrior" in which Dax is trying to teach Kira to relax in a holosuite program of a famous Trill spa. Kira, equal parts embarrassed and bemused, complains that the program is nothing but an illusion, and finally admits that she can't see the point of indulging in fantasies as Dax is trying to teach her to do because she doesn't have much of an imagination. On one level, this is sad--Kira's imagination is underdeveloped because she's lived the kind of life that very quickly does away with one's inner child, and the matter-of-fact, practical mindset that that imaginativeness results in is not very appealing to the more fanciful geeky mentality of Deep Space Nine's fans--but it is precisely the absence of almost any kind of childishness that I find so appealing about Kira.

Unfortunately, though Deep Space Nine's writers did an excellent job of creating Kira, they more or less failed when it came to giving her interesting things to do and developing her character. As I've already written, the best episodes of the first season focus on Kira, and on her coming to trust the Federation and see herself as someone in power rather than someone fighting power. From the second season onwards, however, Kira stagnated--she was a fantastic person, and the show never stopped showing us that or giving her opportunities to be fantastic, but she would never again get a chance to grow or change, and not until the sixth season resistance storyline would she get to headline a plot arc again. Also, though Kira continued to be the focus of individual episodes, their thrust changed in the second season. Bajoran episodes, I've already noted, were handed over to Sisko in the show's second season, and when Kira got a chance to deal with the political situation on her planet, it was usually through a personal connection.

"The Collaborator," for instance, is an excellent episode, and Kira is both smart and principled in it, but she becomes involved in the investigation of Winn's allegations against Bareil not because she's a high-ranking Bajoran officer and an important player in her planet's political matrix, but because she's in love with Bareil. The third season episode "Shakaar" might almost be a retread of the first season's "Progress"--Kira is asked to persuade belligerent Bajoran farmers to sacrifice their own interests for the greater good of Bajor. In "Progress," however, the man Kira had to evacuate was a stranger. She was sent to him because of her professional position. In "Shakaar," she's chosen because she has a personal relationship with the title character, who was the leader of her resistance cell. The episode even states that Kira's distrust of Winn is primarily rooted in her resentment of Winn's part in Bareil's death, not her intimate knowledge of Winn's moral failings. The "Shakaar" patterns persists in almost all of the Kira-centered episodes after the first season. In "Defiant," Tom Riker manipulates her into helping him hijack the ship by striking up a flirtation with her; in "Ties of Blood and Water," Legate Ghemor offers to impart his secrets to Kira before his death because he thinks of her as a daughter; in "Covenant," Kira gets a glimpse of the Pagh-Wraith cult because Dukat wants her to like him.

(There's also an unfortunate to undertone "Shakaar," in which Kira allows herself to stop grieving for Bareil, when one watches it with the knowledge that she and Shakaar will later become lovers. It's almost as though she's being handed from one to the other. In fact, though I've said that Kira's romantic relationships are healthy, they are also, with the exception of her affair with Bareil, told from the man's point of view. Shakaar exists solely to spark Odo's jealousy--his and Kira's relationship is only ever viewed from the outside--and her relationship with Odo is related almost exclusively from his perspective.)

And then there's the pregnancy. For the life of me, I can't understand why this storyline didn't appall me the first time I watched the series. I don't mind the original concept--it's a rather neat way of getting around Nana Visitor's real-life pregnancy without saddling the character with a child, and it makes sense to me that Kira, under those circumstances, would consent to carry the O'Briens' child--but almost from the minute the pregnancy is introduced Kira is infantilized. She doesn't just lend the O'Briens the use of her uterus for a few months--she lets them take over her life. A grown, independent woman, she allows herself to become a lodger in their home, a junior member of their family. It's possible to argue that Kira gets something out of this arrangement as well--a family--but her increased closeness with the O'Briens during her pregnancy doesn't translate into a long-term relationship after Kiroyoshi is born.

Just in case Kira's willingness to become Aunt Nerys wasn't creepy enough, we have "Looking for Par'Mach in All the Wrong Places," and the downright scary revelations it makes about Kira's arrangement with the O'Briens. Why in the name of all that is good and holy is O'Brien handling Kira's pre-natal care at the beginning of the episode? Why is Julian handing him medication and instructing him in Kira's care? Is she incapable of seeing a doctor and managing her health? And what about the complete breakdown of personal boundaries that is O'Brien helping Kira out of baths and giving her intimate massages? I realize the point of this hellish plotline is that O'Brien and Kira's enforced closeness gives rise to romantic feelings, which at least means that the episode isn't trying to argue that a pregnant woman is not a sexual being, but that closeness happens because O'Brien assumes that Kira's being pregnant with his child gives him the right to think of her body in a proprietary, albeit initially asexual, way, and to take liberties with it, and Kira accepting that he has those rights. Say it with me: ewwwwwwwww.

Just about the only thing that salvages the pregnancy arc is its penultimate episode, "The Darkness and the Light." I've already spoken about this episode as a vehicle for Deep Space Nine's sophisticated political writing, but it's also a fantastic Kira episode, hearkening back to the deep core badassery of first season Kira. For the first time in what seems like forever, Kira is mad. That anger drives her to violence and irrationality--when she tries to open the door to the O'Briens' decompressed quarters and very nearly vents the atmosphere in the entire corridor, when she attacks a security officer who tries to stop her from doing so, and most especially when she takes off on her own, huge pregnant belly before her, to track down the man who's been killing her friends. This last one is not a very smart thing to do, but "Between the Darkness and the Light" acknowledges that it's something Kira has to do, or else risk losing who she is--just as she has to resist the Dominion occupation in "Rocks and Shoals" if she hopes to hold onto her soul.

As I've already said, "The Darkness and the Light" dares to paint Kira in an unflattering light by presenting us with the ugly consequences of her actions during the occupation and her complete lack of remorse for them, but it also challenges us by breaking a sacred taboo--that a pregnant woman is never allowed to put her unborn child in danger by engaging in risky activity. There isn't even any justification for Kira's decision to go after her tormentor--by the time she does, Odo is already closing in on him--but it's something she has to do, and the episode makes no apologies for it. "The Darkness and the Light" also plays around with the familiar plot of a female character pursued by a serial killer. Like those characters, Kira's decision to go after the killer herself lands her in trouble, but she gets out of it by herself (or rather with the baby's help--the killer keeps her alive because he doesn't want to kill the innocent baby, and the anesthetic he gives her is ineffective because of a pre-natal medication she's on, which allows Kira to overpower him). All Sisko, Odo and Bashir can do when they find her is give her a ride home.

Deep Space Nine's ending finds Kira bereft and alone. All of her adoptive families have left her--Bareil, Ziyal, Jadzia and Ghemor are dead; Shakaar, Odo, and a significant portion of the station's command crew have left. There is, however, no doubt in our mind that Kira can survive and even thrive. The last shot of the series pulls away from Kira and Jake, gazing out of one of the station's windows at the wormhole that has carried away both of their loved ones, but also together and willing to continue with their lives and the tasks ahead of them. It's a testament to Kira's strength that she can survive the ordeals she goes through over the course of Deep Space Nine's seven seasons. Just as it is a testament to the strength of the character that it can survive the alternating bouts of neglect and character assassination inflicted on it by the show's writers, and still emerge from them a remarkable, admirable creation.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Recent Reading Roundup 15

This recent reading roundup is brought to you courtesy of my brand new MacBook Pro and the almost anticlimactic process of setting it up--simply connect the new computer to the old one via a FireWire cable and come back in an hour to find your old computer mounted on a device with double the RAM, triple the disk space, and four times the processor speed. To quote Giles, I felt so useless, just sitting there and not contributing. Incidentally, if anyone in Israel is interested in a PowerBook G4 in good condition, drop me a line.

At any rate, to dispel the perception that the last month has been spent doing nothing but watching and writing about Deep Space Nine, here are a few books.
  1. The Child in Time by Ian McEwan - Dan Green at The Reading Experience recently wrote an essay comparing McEwan's early novels to his later ones, and concluding that the former are better, sharper, and more savage critiques of the class issues that permeate most of McEwan's fiction. I seem to have the opposite reaction. I've loved all but one (Amsterdam) of McEwan's later, post-Enduring Love works, but like The Cement Garden, The Child in Time left me cold, and with the distinct impression of an author still finding his voice and developing his skills. The Child in Time is the story of a couple's disintegration after their three year old daughter is kidnapped from a supermarket, never to be seen again, and McEwan's description of her parents', and particularly her father's, devastation and inability to cope are deft and heartbreaking. The novel's conceit is that, just as young Kate has become disconnected from time, prematurely prevented from growing older and making a life for herself, so her parents are unable to move forward, trapped in the moment in which she was taken from them. In order to convey this timelessness, the narrative moves back and forth in the protagonist's lifetime with very little warning or explanation, but McEwan's technique is not yet strong enough to support this kind of ambition. He's not yet the writer who could create a latter-day Mrs. Dalloway with Saturday, and as a result I found myself bored and uninterested. The novel improves in its latter half, but the good character work gets lost in the shuffle, amidst a lot of messy stuff about politics and philosophy, and some rather obvious speechifying about the redemptive power of love and the importance of moving on from grief. I can't help but compare this novel to Enduring Love, another book in which a couple has to survive a terrible ordeal, which is understated, subtle, and ultimately a great deal more convincing than The Child in Time.

  2. Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler - The question of whether Fowler's first novel is or is not SF (because the title character, who appears in the American north-west in the mid-19th century and drags a Chinese laborer off on an adventure, may be an alien) is a famous litmus test among fans of literary SF. I'm not so sure what my answer would be (though I'm leaning towards no), but I do see points of correlation between Sarah Canary and Fowler's Nebula-winning short story "What I Didn't See," as well as the James Tiptree Jr. story it, in turn, references, "The Women Men Don't See." Like both of those stories, Sarah Canary isn't so much about aliens as it is about alienation, specifically of disenfranchised minorities--women in the Tiptree story, women and non-whites in Fowler's story, and just about anyone who isn't an able-bodied, able-minded, white male in the novel.

    In all three works, there's a yearning among the disenfranchised to escape--to run off with aliens in Tiptree's story, or with gorillas in Fowler's. Sarah Canary, being a novel, is broader and deeper than the two stories, and explores the causes and effects of disenfranchisement more fully (including the way that reviled classes oppress one another--Chin, the protagonist who is swept up by Sarah Canary, thoughtlessly approves of foot-binding, and Adelaide, the suffragette he meets, is just as thoughtlessly prejudiced against him because of his race). As a result, it avoids neat solutions such as the promise of straightforward escape. Though they touch wonder of one sort or another--if she isn't an alien, Sarah Canary might be a figure out of Chinese or Native American myth, or she could just be a garden variety lunatic--its characters can't hold onto it, and at the novel's end they remain very much in our world, and still the victims of prejudice and oppression (which, as the novel's coda reminds us, are still very much with us today). It's a powerful work, but I'm not too thrilled by its construction. There are points where the narrative gets bogged down in historical detail and just plain weirdness, and others when the plot just races and pulls you along irresistibly. Technically speaking, Sarah Canary is a very uneven work, but it's so thought-provoking that I can't make much of its failures, and it is probably my favorite of Fowler's novels.

  3. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver - I was a little dubious about picking up Shriver's extraordinarily well-received and popular novel, as I'd long ago been spoiled for its twist ending, and wasn't quite certain the novel would work for a reader who knew what to expect. As it turns out, the novel was something of a disappointment, though not for the reasons I'd expected. Kevin, which unfolds in a series of letters from Eva to her husband Franklin, written in the wake of a school shooting in which their son Kevin kills seven people, is compulsively readable and fascinating, but I can't help but feel that Shriver is trying to have her cake and eat it too. She seems to have wanted to tell a story about the pressures and expectations of motherhood, and the way that women feel forced to get it absolutely right, and unable to express themselves when it fails to suit them, or when their children turn out unlikable. Which makes her choice to make Kevin evil almost from the moment of his birth inexplicable. Throughout the novel, Eva is tormented by the knowledge that she doesn't love her son, but as Shriver portrays him, Kevin, a malicious, manipulative, joyless monster, is inherently unlovable, except to his father, who steadfastly refuses to see the kind of person his son actually is (which ultimately turns Franklin into an insufferable character, and further strains the integrity of the novel's plot when Eva, fearing for her life and the life of her younger child, refrains from leaving home because she still loves him).

    By the time We Need to Talk About Kevin arrives at its climax, it is more a horror novel, along the lines of The Bad Seed, than a meaningful discussion of the realities of motherhood. I'm almost tempted to read the novel as a political allegory with Kevin standing in for America itself, in which Eva is a leftist, clear-sighted about the monster she's created but unable to stop it, and Franklin is a rightist, so besotted with the idea of parenthood (as he is with the idea of America, for which he gleefully ignores its faults) that he refuses to acknowledge its less than perfect reality. It must be significant, after all, that Eva begins to write her letters soon after the 2000 presidential election. Whether or not that's the reading Shriver intended, the novel's ending, in which Kevin inexplicably and with no foreshadowing expresses remorse for his actions, and in which Eva decides to forgive him and try to act like a mother to him, seems to have come from an entirely different novel, one in which Kevin's problems, and Eva's inability to care for him, were portrayed more subtly. For all of my problems with it, however, I gulped We Need to Talk About Kevin down. Eva is an engaging narrator and she tells her story well--even if you know where it's going. It's just a shame that Shriver couldn't find a way to say more with what is clearly a prodigious storytelling talent.

  4. The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith - I don't think I've ever read a novel so full of its own importance. A noir mystery with a lesbian twist, The Blue Place came highly recommended by several of my favorite bloggers (and its sequel, Always, was a Lit-Blog Co-Op pick a few months ago, which is what prompted me to pick the book up in the first place), but for the life of me I can't figure out what book they read, as the one I slogged through honestly put me in mind of fanfic, both in terms of the quality of writing and due to the sheer tonnage of angst the narrator, Atlanta cop turned bodyguard and all-around badass Aud Torvingen, experiences. Her voice is a ceaseless drone of self-aggrandizement by way of self-pity: look at me, I'm so tormented as I wear my $1,000 dollar suit to my practically optional job doing something I'm widely recognized as being exceptionally good at, while constantly musing over how much smarter, stronger, and better I am than everyone I know or meet. Isn't it horrible that I can kill a person using only my eyebrows? And by horrible, I mean cool, but I'm going to keep calling it horrible so you'll feel sorry for me and won't notice what a conceited, humorless bore I am. Griffith seems to have grasped that a noirish detective needs to be flawed and very nearly irredeemable, but she's missed the corollary to that rule, that those flaws need to be unattractive. Aud's flaws are the emo kind that get teenage girls all aflutter.

    The plot is largely forgettable, and takes about twice as long as it needs to unfold because Aud is, quite unintentionally, I assume, as dumb as a sack full of hammers. I have almost no investigative ability, so a good rule of thumb is that a mystery I can work out is far too easy. In The Blue Place, I worked out not only the identity of the killer (by using the same logic that tells you who the traitor in Star Trek VI is) but also every single investigative leap several dozen pages before Aud got around to it. The other characters are mostly stock types--the super-efficient office manager/den mother, the courtly southern gentleman, the wise matriarch--with very little individuation. The exception is the femme fatale and Aud's love interest, Julia, but, in a bizarre twist, she's just as flat and inhuman as female characters in traditional, male-centered, noir. She has no existence in her own right, and no purpose besides teaching Aud to love--something she obsesses over even on her deathbed. Right now, The Blue Place is strongly in the running for worst book of the year--I certainly hope I don't read anything worse.

  5. St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell - I was blown away by the title story in this collection when I read it in Best American Short Stories 2007, and most especially by the way it combined genre elements--the title is quite literal--and a mimetic attitude with a deftness that mainstream writers rarely demonstrate. As it turns out, my mistake was assuming that Russell is a mainstream writer. In fact, she's a writer very much in the vein of Kelly Link, and like Link her stories feature fantastical happenings reported in a matter-of-fact tone and set in mundane, modern day American settings, usually of the white-trash variety. The comparison to Link is unkind--Russell lacks her sharpness and her focus, and far too many of the stories in St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves feel underdone, and often seem to stop midstream. Nevertheless, there's a lot of promise here, and though none of the stories measure up to the title piece, most of them are worth reading: for the narrators, usually precocious and slightly odd children, for Russell's way with words, and for her odd sense of humor. I'll be interested to see what she does next--with a bit more discipline she could really produce something special.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Back Through the Wormhole, Part V: What Does God Need With a Space Station?

No one who watched Deep Space Nine's pilot episode, "Emissary," would have had any reason to expect a subtle, multi-faceted treatment of religion from the series. Though by no means disrespectful or dismissive of religion, "Emissary" treats it in a manner familiar from many other genre stories--the SFnal trope of alien (or human) gods who turn out to be aliens themselves, the fantasy standard of a prophecy fulfilled by our heroes (a prophecy whose existence, as Sisko patiently explains to Jake in "In the Hands of the Prophets," makes perfect SFnal sense given the Prophets' non-linear nature). The Celestial Temple is important not for its spiritual significance to the Bajorans but as a conduit for traffic and commerce. For a while, that was all Deep Space Nine's treatment of religion amounted to. When an extremist resistance fighter proposes to destroy the wormhole in order to prevent alien races from interfering with Bajor in "Past Prologue," an early first season episode, Kira is appalled not for religious reasons because he's about to destroy Bajor's greatest resource. In contrast, when Sisko proposes to destroy the entrance to the wormhole in the fifth season episode "By Inferno's Light," in order to prevent the Dominion from bringing troops into the alpha quadrant, Kira quietly prays for the Prophets' forgiveness. By that point, Deep Space Nine had cemented its position in that tiny group of intelligent, thought-provoking treatments of religion in popular fiction, alongside such works as Russell T. Davies's The Second Coming, Myla Goldberg's Bee Season, and Ted Chiang's "Hell is the Absence of God."

From the moment they started taking a serious look at religion--in the first season finale, "In the Hands of the Prophets"--Deep Space Nine's writers never lost sight of a simple truth. Religion is about people. Even if you live next door to heaven. Even if your boss is God's instrument on earth. Religion is about people, and people shape their gods just as much, or even more, than those Gods shape them. Terry Pratchett makes much of this theme in the Discworld novels, most particularly Small Gods. His gods are opportunistic beings, something along the lines of parasites, who feed off belief, and whose personality is shaped and changed by the wishes and desires of their believers. Neil Gaiman does something similar in American Gods and Anansi Boys, albeit with existing earth myths. In both cases, divinity is brought down to a human level--in order to serve Pratchett's humanistic message, or because Gaiman sublimates it to his obsession with storytelling. Deep Space Nine, however, manages to discuss the reciprocal relationship between gods and their believers without making those gods any less numinous or incomprehensible.

It does so at least in part by making those gods numinous and incomprehensible to begin with. I've already said that Deep Space Nine was, visually, a conservative and unimaginative series, but that doesn't hold for orb experiences or encounters with the Prophets. The devices used to signal the Prophets' otherness--using castmembers to portray the Prophets, the golden haze that characterizes encounters with them--are simple, but they stand out powerfully against the straightforwardness of the show's day-to-day storytelling. The effectiveness of the Prophet interludes is even more impressive when one considers what an unimaginative hash Deep Space Nine generally made of symbolic, surreal storytelling--Quark's guilt-stricken dream in "Business as Usual," or the use of a physical space to represent a person's damaged mind in "Distant Voices" and "Extreme Measures."

As I've said, Deep Space Nine starts taking Bajoran spirituality seriously in the first season finale, "In the Hands of the Prophets." Though well-made and featuring some fine performances, it isn't yet the intelligent treatment of religion we would come to expect from the series. Its premise is a straightforward evolution vs. creationism story--Vedek Winn, looking to score political points, attacks Keiko for teaching that the wormhole is a naturally occurring phenomenon rather than the seat of Bajor's gods--mixed in with Bajor's political storyline, as Winn uses the resulting unrest to lure Bareil, her main rival for the position of Kai, onto the station, where he is vulnerable to an assassination attempt. The political-cum-thriller storyline soon overwhelms the religious question at the story's core, which is actually more tangled than the Inherit the Wind comparison initially suggests--there isn't actually an inherent contradiction between the scientific and religious views of the wormhole as there is between evolution and creationism, and the question is really whether it's right to demand that Keiko supplement her science class with religious instruction--and not very deftly handled.

The episode sets Winn, a power-hungry zealot, against Bareil, a humanistic progressive. In his first meeting with Sisko, Bareil sets himself apart from Winn, and Kai Opaka before her, by calling him Commander instead of Emissary and refraining from testing his pagh. These, as well as his opposition to Winn's condemnation of the school, are clearly intended as indicators that Bareil is the kind of modern, forward-thinking leader Bajor needs. They also, however, portray him as being less pious than his fellow Bajorans, an impression that is only strengthened the more we get to know him. Bareil hardly ever mentions the Prophets, and it's only in his last appearance as himself, the third season episode "Life Support," that he speaks of them with anything approaching the kind of reverence that is a matter of course from Kira or even Winn. The issues that plague Bareil are rarely spiritual--he is concerned for Bajor's survival, and worries about the threats to it from within and without; he tries to preserve Kai Opaka's memory by concealing her collaboration with the Cardassians; he negotiates a peace treaty with Cardassia. He's a politician, a good and decent man and an outstanding public servant, but not, as far as we can tell, a man of faith. What "In the Hands of the Prophets" seems to be saying is that it's not one's faith that matters but rather the ways in which it is used to express one's policies and politics. Which isn't necessarily a sentiment I disagree with, but it does leave spirituality out of the equation. The reason that Deep Space Nine's later religious stories are so much stronger than "In the Hands of the Prophets" is that they managed to describe the myriad and often contradictory ways in which Bajorans express their faith and view their religion without doing away with that religion's foundation--the provable existence of God.

For all my problems with Bareil, I do love his interactions with Winn, especially this one from "The Collaborator":
WINN: (to a crowd of Bajoran children) Remember now, honor the Prophets, and they will always love you.
BAREIL: As I understand the sacred texts, the Prophets' love is unconditional. They ask for nothing in return.
WINN: Thank you, Vedek Bareil, for reminding us how the sacred texts can be easily misinterpreted.
Which, right there, in what is only her fourth appearance in the series (and her second of note, as she's not much more than a stock villain in the the three-parter that opens the second season), tells us everything we need to know about Winn and why she ends up burnt to a crisp in the Bajoran fire caves. It also expresses one of the most important themes in Deep Space Nine's religious storylines, which is also an important theme in religious fiction in general: people get the gods they look for. Winn wants to believe in gods who are wrathful and vindictive, who withhold their love from those who fail to honor them properly, because that's the kind of god she'd be, and the kind of ruler she tries to be. In "The Reckoning," she is beside herself when Sisko removes and later destroys a tablet from the holy city of B'hala. She blames him for floods and earthquakes that plague Bajor after the tablet's removal, calling them punishments for Sisko's act of sacrilege. That's the kind of religious thinker Winn is--she believes in sacrilege, in cruel and disproportionate divine retribution.

We can all think of examples of people whose own cruelty is mirrored in the god they fashion for themselves, but they are fortunate enough to be working with a more or less blank slate. Winn has the misfortune of living in a time when her gods are highly accessible to her, and their attitudes easily discernible. What a disappointment the benevolent, remote Prophets must be to Winn. Is it any wonder she turns to the Pagh-Wraiths, divinities more to her taste? But of course, even the Pagh-Wraiths reject Winn, because she approaches them with the same pride and self-importance with which she approached the Prophets. In "The Reckoning," Winn pleads with the Prophet possessing Kira to speak to her, but it doesn't even acknowledge her presence. Her injured pride is what persuades her to stop the contest between the Prophet and the Pagh-Wraith, which might have prevented much of the evil that later befalls Bajor. Watching this scene in hindsight, one is almost angry with the Prophets--would it have killed them to say hello?--but how could they have reached Winn when her heart is so obviously closed to them, too full of her own importance, lust for power, and bruised ego to accommodate anyone or anything else?

Opposing Winn's prideful mockery of faith is not Sisko--who never really comes to believe in the Prophets so much as he accepts that they have the right to direct the course of his life--but Kira, whose humility and devotion make her worthy to carry a Prophet within her. Kira is, in some ways, the character Bareil should have been, and the portrait of the kind of deeply spiritual person who truly is an advertisement for their religion. She is humble not only towards her gods but in her outward representations of her relationship with them. She never wears her piety on her sleeve, or takes her religious devotions for granted--there's a childlike wonder and a peacefulness that come over Kira when she's discussing her religion or taking part in religious worship. It never ceases to affect her, to touch something deep inside her, because she is always open to her gods. Her faith is at the root of Kira's righteousness, and it informs her moral compass, but she never seeks to impose it on others--only the moral lessons it teaches her, and she is fearless in expressing those. It's Kira who lambastes Winn for stopping the battle in "The Reckoning," correctly deducing that Winn did so because she couldn't stand to have her faith even further belittled by the comparison to Sisko's, and it's Kira who tells Winn the hard truth in "Strange Bedfellows"--that she can earn the Prophets' forgiveness only by changing who she is, and by rejecting the ambition that led her to her spiritual crisis (she makes a similar offer to the mirror Bareil in "Resurrection"). Though she's eager to help Winn find her way back to the Prophets, Kira can also see that her advice has been rejected, and rejects Winn in turn.

What's especially enjoyable about Deep Space Nine's portrayal of Kira as a person of faith is that it doesn't downplay the more disturbing aspects of that faith, and of religious faith in general. What starts with relatively benign pronouncements about the ineffability of religious faith--not just from Kira, but from Worf, who in spite of the Klingon belief that their gods became too much trouble and were eventually killed, respects the fact of Kira's faith and the strength it gives her--quickly becomes indistinguishable from insanity. It's all very well and good that Kira is honored to have been chosen as the Prophets' instrument in "The Reckoning," but what that honor amounts to is her complete abnegation and exploitation, however willingly submitted to, and it might easily have resulted in her death. In "Accession," a Bajoran from 200 years in the past, Akorem, emerges from the wormhole and lays claim to the title of Emissary. He promptly reinstates a restrictive caste system that was in effect in his era, which among other things forces Kira to resign her commission and become an artist. (It is eventually revealed that the Prophets brought this man through the wormhole to light a fire under Sisko and get him over his ambivalence about his role as emissary, which neatly expresses one of my favorite religious themes, succinctly summed up by Paul Thomas Anderson in his film Magnolia as "When the sunshine don't work, the good Lord bring the rain in.") There's something very sad about Kira's, and the other Bajorans', desperate attempts to remake themselves in the image Akorem sets out for them. "We would've tried to do whatever you asked of us when you were Emissary, no matter how difficult it seemed," Kira tells a bewildered Sisko by way of an explanation for what appears, from the outside, like communal insanity, and may very well be. Then, of course, there are the obvious parallels drawn between the Bajorans' faith in the Prophets and the Vorta's faith in the Founders--a comparison which Kira herself makes in "Treachery, Faith, and the Great River," when speaking of the rogue Weyoun's devotion towards Odo.

A religious story set in a universe in which God's existence is in question can only describe two scenarios--good people worshipping a good god, and bad people worshipping that god. Because it made its gods into actual characters, Deep Space Nine was free to add bad gods into the mix, and much like the Prophets' followers, those who worship the Pagh-Wraiths are neither uniformly good nor evil. In the seventh season episode "Covenant" we get a close look at a community of Wraith-worshippers, and the plain truth is that apart from the fact that these people are being duped--first by Dukat and secondly by the Pagh-Wraiths--there's really nothing wrong with them morally. One can even sympathize with their argument for rejecting the Prophets--that throughout the occupation the Prophets did nothing to aid Bajor though they clearly had the power to do so, and that the Pagh-Wraiths are willing to actively intervene in Bajor's affairs (which is true, though that interference would have involved mass murder--which is my chance to say that one of the most important flaws in Deep Space Nine's treatment of the Prophets' struggle with the Pagh-Wraiths is that it never really explained why the Pagh-Wraiths were so hell-bent on destruction). The result is a somewhat dizzying story. The Wraith-worshippers' faith is as pure as Kira's--her friend Vedek Fala even kills himself for it--but they're worshipping the wrong god. You could go back and forth forever about whether that fact invalidates their faith.

"Covenant" is the fullest expression of the tension that permeates most of Deep Space Nine's religious storytelling--the awareness that no matter how permissive, how progressive, how respectful of other beliefs one's own beliefs are, ultimately they boil down to something irrational. It's the antithesis of "In the Hands of the Prophets," which deals only with the temporal expression of religious beliefs and argues that it's only that expression that matters. At the beginning of "Covenant," Kira is sitting with Bashir, Ezri, and a disgruntled Odo, who wishes he believed in the Prophets so he could attend services with her. Ezri takes this as an invitation to pitch Odo on some other religions, and asks Kira if it would bother her if she and Odo had different faiths. "Not as long as he gets something out of it," Kira says, which is one extremely comforting way of looking at it--religion as an emotional crutch, something to help you get through the day, regardless of whether the god you believe in exists or is anything like what you imagine them to be. Towards the end of the episode, a furious Kira is the prisoner of the Pagh-Wraith cult, and is faced with the inadequacy of her previous nonchalance. Here are decent, moral people, who obviously get something out of their faith. "You believe the Prophets are the true gods of Bajor, I believe the Pagh-Wraiths are. Let's just leave it at that," Vedek Fala tells her, and Kira, to her and to Deep Space Nine's credit, says the one thing that popular depictions of religion hardly ever say: "I'd be happy to. There's just one thing: we can't both be right."