Friday, February 15, 2008

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.

5 comments:

helen-keeble said...

Excellent and thought-provoking series of essays - thank you!

After reading your posts, I had to rush to Amazon to order the first season on DVD. I'd forgotten just how interesting this series was! Having first watched it during my early teenage years, I'm now find it fascinating to rewatch.

Iain Clark said...

I agreee about The Emperor's New Cloak; it's one of the most superficial and low-brow pieces of TV that Trek has ever produced, sadly. I loved Crossover but the mirror universe got very silly, very fast.

Christopher Gregory said...

Wonderful series of essays. I've just finished watching the series after passing on it years ago, and your analysis is spot on. Great read.

James A said...

I know (or perhaps merely very strongly believe) that you comment on the AVClub DS9 threads on occasion; either way I've thought of these posts ever since the DS9 reviews began. I don't know if this is polite or instead the kind of ostentatiously "polite" deference that I feel the internet has started to traffic in, but either way I want to know if you would object to having that very large population pointed at this rather smaller space. Even granting that no one who puts their critical opinions out on the internet in front of god and everyone is unlikely to be a shrinking violet, AND that in those comment threads more is passed by than noticed, it is a very large and largely un-vetted group.

[You know, I had this whole, silly, multiply negated and slightly elegant sentence planned for here. I thought it up on the bus. But now it seems to clever by half, and I can only remember the other half anyway. Sorry]. Would linking from the AVClub to here cause you difficulties?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Hi James,

Yeah, I comment on the DS9 reviews from time to time (not as often as I'd like, because in my time zone the reviews go up just as I'm leaving work to start the weekend, so I rarely have time to look at the comment threads before they become unwieldy). I've been a bit hesitant to link to this series there, first because I get the sense that that's frowned upon at the AV Club, and second because when I finished this series, having written eight essays and about 10,000 words about the show, I felt as if - for me, at least - there was nothing left to say. One of the things I've really enjoyed about the AV Club reviews is how they've taken me out of that headspace and revealed all the additional conversations still left to be had, so linking to this series felt almost like shutting down those conversations - even if to most readers these essays naturally won't feel as definitive as they do to me.

All that said, if you feel like linking to this series from the AV Club, go ahead. My sense is that the discussion there is sufficiently wide-ranging that most commenters won't feel the need for my input, but it would be nice to see if they have any thoughts.

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