Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “Shadows And Symbols”/“Afterimage”
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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “Shadows And Symbols”/“Afterimage”

“Shadows And Symbols” (season 7, episode 2; originally aired 10/7/1998)

In which Sisko makes sandcastles in the sand…

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

All right: Let’s talk about Ezri Dax.

Maybe we should save this for the next episode, because Ezri doesn’t really get a storyline in “Shadows And Symbols”; the episode focuses on Sisko’s struggles to find the Orb of the Emissary, Kira’s face off against Cretak, and Worf and his crew’s effort to win a glorious victory and ensure Jadzia’s place in Sto-Vo-Kor. There’s not much room for Ezri in all that, although she does get a big scene at the start, and that scene, for better and worse, makes an impression. So let’s get this out of the way right now, because it’s weird and kind of awkward and I’m not entirely sure what to make of it.

Because why bring the character back? True, Terry Farrell’s departure wasn’t part of a planned story arc, so it could be there were symbiont plotlines the writers had in mind for season seven that they just couldn’t bear to let go of. I doubt it, though; I liked Jadzia Dax just fine, but she was, by and large, more a supporting player than a lead. This could be frustrating, as far too many Dax stories (pre-Ezri) revolved around how other characters felt about her, or about how they wanted to please her or earn her respect, as though her only real value on the show was in serving as an ideal for others to covet. It became especially problematic by the end, as Bashir and Quark started pining for lost love and Worf struggled to prove his was a good father. Either plot could’ve been fine; I’m still not a fan of Bashir’s sudden rediscovery of old feelings, but I can see how it makes sense, and Worf’s efforts were kind of sweet. But coming so soon before the lady’s death, the whole thing reeked of a writing staff incapable of putting themselves inside the head of one of their leads. The only reason Worf, Bashir, O’Brien, and Quark’s quest to ensure Jadzia a place in Sto-Vo-Kor is more palatable is because she’s dead, so it makes sense for the story to actually be more about them than her.

In which case, I ask again: Why bring her back, in any version at all? The whole reason she left wasn’t that large, and if it was a question of needing more female leads (i.e. more than one), is this really the best way to do it? Well, maybe: The symbiont aspect of Dax is fascinating, if difficult to dramatically convey, and there is automatic value in seeing how friends of the deceased deal with a sudden, undeniable reminder of what they lost. That’s especially true if that reminder comes in the form of a person with her own thoughts and needs and what have you. So I guess that also explains why the casting director felt the need to bring in an actress who isn’t an exact copy of Terry Farrell, but is still sort of close, at least in terms of race, gender, hair color, and whatnot. I mean, it’s great to keep that “two women” balance going, but did she have to be pale, pretty, and brunette? Nicole de Boer is shorter than Farrell, and attractive in an elfish way, as opposed to the statuesque thing Farrell had going on. But her casting speaks to a certain lack of imagination that’s both inadvertently funny (“Hey, I think the photocopier is acting up again!”) and a little off-putting.

Still, none of this really matters as much as the character herself, and the actress playing her. And the first impression we get here, after the initial “Gasp, it’s Dax!” wears off is… forced awkwardness? An unconvincing nebbish? To be fair, Ezri isn’t given a whole lot to do in this episode, and she’s more interesting in “Afterimage,” which has time to give her a whole storyline to herself (as well as pair her off for major scenes with one of the series’ best actors). But after explaining who she is to Sisko, de Boer launches into a twitchy, self-conscious monologue in which she attempts to explain both how she came to take on the Dax symbiont and how confused she is about everything that’s happening to her. It is entirely understandable and believable that such a transition would throw someone for a loop. But the monologue is such a distracting, self-conscious bit of writing that it doesn’t effectively convey her fears. De Boer isn’t a terrible actress, but she can’t make this work. Instead of earning our sympathies, the speech draws so much attention to its own artifice that it becomes difficult to take seriously, turning her concerns into a writerly laundry list of faux-neurotic tics.

Thankfully, she more or less sits the rest of the episode out. She’s merely the ineffective voice of reason as Sisko’s quest for the orb drives him to wander through the desert of Tyree, dragging his family behind him. Ezri’s introduction isn’t the only speed bump in “Shadows And Images”: Quark’s sudden decision to go along on the Sto-Vo-Kor mission, and, worse, pick fights with Worf, is pretty irritating. But it does lead to a nice speech from Worf in which he talks about how much he knew they all meant to Jadzia. Sure, Quark spoils it by complaining that he was hoping to find out the dead woman called out his name in her sleep (or something), but it’s fine.

Really, the whole episode is basically fine. I was a little worried after last season’s finale, but while season seven has some problems baked in (the increased dependence on the mysticism of the Prophets, Vic Fontaine, whatever the hell is going on with Dukat, mixed feelings on Ezri), the show still knows how to pull together an action sequence. The cutting between Sisko, Kira, and Worf does a fine job of connecting three stories which aren’t, on their surface, directly related. It all builds to a climax in which Sisko’s final decision to reveal the orb becomes a triumph that passes on to each separate story. Worf’s mission succeeds, destroying a Dominion shipyard via a manually induced solar burst. Kira’s refusal to surrender finally convinces Admiral Ross to step in and strong-arm Cretak into acceding to the Bajoran government. Oh, and the wormhole opens, which means that Sisko’s place in Bajoran culture just a got a little shinier. The only events directly connected in all of this are the orb and the re-opened wormhole, but it all feels of a piece: our heroes getting a win together, even if they aren’t all in the same place.

Which is cool—wins are good, and everything that happens here is earned, even if it’s in the abstract. Worf and his friends’ determination to pay honor to Jadzia sees them through rough times, Kira’s steel (and Odo’s pessimistic, yet unquestioning, loyalty) shows once again how suited she is to leadership, and Sisko… Okay, Sisko has a vision of himself as Benny Russell trapped in a mental institution in which a seemingly friendly doctor (Casey Biggs, a.k.a. Damar without the make-up) tries to convince him to give up storytelling forever. The whole thing is an attempt by the Pah-Wraiths to keep Sisko from opening the Orb and releasing the Prophet, and it’s a decent homage that neither detracts from, nor adds to, the episode it references. (If I’m reading this correctly, this was the Prophet who took over Sisko’s real mother’s body, only to desert her as soon as Sisko was born, which is fucking HORRIFYING)

But it’s striking how much the series has shifted away from the real causes behind the Dominion War, to focus increasingly on the Prophets’ mystical conflict with the Pah-Wraiths. We haven’t heard directly from the Founders in what seems like ages, and while episodes do occasionally cut to Weyoun and Damar debating strategy (Damar has himself quite the drinking problem, it seems), the main dramatic thrust of last season’s finale, and the start of this season, has been how Sisko gets his groove back, and how the Pah-Wraith Dukat unleashed is defeated. And as with everything relating to the Prophets, the impact of all of this is limited by its inscrutability. We can understand the basics of what just happened, but the Prophets themselves are concepts, not characters; while it’s interesting to see how normal people deal with being pawns of larger forces, that interest only goes so far. Watching Sisko go half-mad as he deals with his visions and unclear messages pretty much works, and his frustration with “Sarah” in their scene together helps add a layer of grounded, understandable emotion to the sequence. Yet if this is the overall direction the series is headed for in its last season (and I can only assume it must be), I’m a little disappointed.

Still, this was pretty good, mixing the necessarily epic with just enough intimacy that the stakes never become too theoretical. Kira and Odo’s romance continues to grow on me, largely because the dynamic between them feels so appropriate to both characters: Kira is the bad-ass warrior, with Odo offering constant support. Neither of them come across as smaller, or even significantly changed, in the wake of their pairing, and it’s gratifying to see Kira with someone who isn’t immediately slotted into a “dull father figure” role. (There’s not a whole lot of physical chemistry between the two, but hey, that’s an intensely subjective criticism.) As for everything else, well, we’ll see how Ezri fits in on the station. I’m just glad to have Sisko back where he belongs.

Stray observations:

  • Seeing Damar out of make-up is neat. He looks more normal than I was expecting. (I mean, I wasn’t expecting him to look strange or anything, but it was neat.)
  • Ezri is a therapist. I have reservations about this, but we’ll get there.
  • I like Quark, most of the time, but every so often his assholery gets too much, and the scene of Worf trying to apologize for his behavior is a good example of that.
  • The clarification that Sisko’s vision of Benny this time was just a challenge from the Pah-Wraith was a relief. While the guy wasn’t in the best situation the last time we saw him, I’d hate to see him trapped in an asylum, scribbling on walls.
  • The more I think about it, the more the reveal about Sarah disturbs me. The writers invented a character (who we never hear from) and make her a prop for the alien gods, and we literally never hear from her. Not once. Sisko is upset, but only for that scene. This casts the Prophets in an entirely new, and terrifying, light. Taking over Kira (a willing believer) for a single fight, while potentially dangerous, is understandable enough. Forcing a woman to have sex with a man, marry him, and then give birth to a son, isn't. 

“Afterimage” (season 7, episode 3; originally aired 10/14/1998)

In which Ezri finds a new home…

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

So let’s talk about Ezri Dax.

What? I—dammit. I should plan this better.

After clearing away the plot detritus lying around from last season, “Afterimage” feels like the proper beginning to the show’s final year, a standalone episode that puts aside questions about time-shifting aliens and the war for some necessary character building. The story revolves around Ezri: the effect her arrival has on the people on the station who loved Jadzia, as well as her own struggle with what she wants to do next. The latter makes for some familiar “Oh, I’m not staying”/”Hey look, I’m staying” conversations, as it’s doubtful that the show would go to the lengths of finding a new actress to fill Dax’s shoes, and then discard her at the first convenient opportunity. But it’s nice that the writers at least pretend Ezri might not want to take over the life of her previous host, and, even better, the way they choose to justify her sticking around involves multiple scenes with Garak. “Multiple scenes with Garak” will improve just about anything.

The other conflict is harder to pin down. Both the issues “Afterimage” deals with in regard to Ezri are important for establishing her place on the show. Her work with Garak is designed to convince us that she can be an effective counselor, despite her insecurity and relative inexperience. That’s standard new cast member stuff, creating a space for an outsider to transition from guest star to regular. How she deals with Bashir and Worf (and, to a lesser extent, Quark) is more important to this specific situation. Most shows, when they bring someone new in, even if that someone is basically designed to replace someone who left, don’t have this kind of baggage. I’m not entirely convinced of the necessity of bringing the Dax symbiont’s new host back to the station, it does make for some fascinatingly loaded scenarios, particularly between Ezri and Worf.

I’m not sure how you could handle it: Your wife dies, you do your best to honor her memory and move on with your life, and then this new person shows up who has all of your wife’s memories and probably some of her personality, and things get all confusing again. Ezri’s weird inability to understand this is frustrating, and not entirely believable. While she’s young and inexperienced, she is a Trill, and she grew up in a society that must be constantly negotiating difficult situations like the one she’s in now. It’s especially odd considering we already know that Trill society strictly forbids former lovers from reuniting in different hosts. (Sisko even mentions this when Ezri comes to see him, and she says, “But there’s no rule against him talking to me!” as if she has no concept of his feelings whatsoever.) Plus, if Ezri has all of Jadzia’s memories, shouldn’t she have a better idea of how Worf might struggle with something like this?

The show has gone out of its way to establish that Ezri is a bit up a creek with her new role, though, so maybe it’s best to sort of shrug off her confusion. It’s a natural effect of feeling alienated from someone she has very strong, very positive memories of. And watching Worf struggle with her presence helps to keep Ezri’s arrival (and subsequent decision to stick around) from playing too much like a clumsy attempt to paper over an actress’s departure. The scene between Ezri and Bashir is cute, even if I’m not sure I buy Ezri’s comment that, if Worf hadn’t come along, Jadzia would’ve married the doctor. It doesn’t really fit with the Bashir/Jadzia relationship, which always played better as a “guy learning to be friend with woman he hit on a lot” arc than a romantic one. But it does lead to Worf freaking out on Bashir in the infirmary, and while that scene doesn’t do much for making Worf more likable (at this point, you enjoy his stuffiness and temper or you don’t), it does help clarify what’s bothering him. At first it seems like a weird strain of jealousy, but the real issue here is that, for him, the process of grieving has very clearly defined steps, and the public element of those steps should be finished. He won the victory, Jadzia is in Heaven, and that should be that. Now here’s this weird, friendly, small woman expecting to chat about the past.

Worf eventually comes to terms with her, but it’s clear it’s going to be a process. Which makes sense; grief isn’t something that just disappears once you decide to face it. The episode’s other plotline works towards a more definitive conclusion, and while I’m not convinced that Garak would be able to overcome his attacks of claustrophobia quite so neatly as he does here, I think the writers do enough of the necessary back and forth for his recovery to be acceptable. Psychological problems are rarely as neatly schematic as they are on television series, but Garak’s distress, and the resolution of that stress, are necessary for two reasons. Those reasons matter more than accuracy of how his mental problems are handled, and I only mention it here because I do think it might’ve been handled a bit more deftly. At the same time, I think it worked well enough as is that I wouldn’t hold that too much against the episode.

Right, I should probably explain what those reasons are. Well, the first one is what I mentioned earlier: We need to have a justifiable reason for Ezri to want to stay on the station, and ideally, that reason should be based around finding her a place within the show’s ensemble. At this point in the run, every character has a basic function, and bringing in someone new isn’t going to work if she doesn’t fill a space we hadn’t realized was empty. Dax was sort of a catch-all smart person who spent most of her work time doing, well, smart person stuff that O’Brien wasn’t qualified for—scholar stuff, like translating and whatnot. (I’m mostly remembering her last few episodes here; I’m not sure her role was ever rigidly defined or anything.) It makes sense not to shove Ezri into that sort of work, because she needs a chance to be her own character. Therapist isn’t a choice I’m delighted about, given the franchise’s history with the occupation, but DS9 has earned a considerable benefit of the doubt at this point. Plus, it’s definitely true that the station does not have a qualified therapist aboard, at least none that we know of. While this inadvertently suggests it doesn’t really need one, there is a war going on, and all the stress with the Prophets and the wormhole, so hey, it couldn’t hurt.

While her work with Garak doesn’t demonstrate what I’d call a tremendous amount of authority or tact, she does help him. It’s not even all that unbelievable that her clumsy, sincere, Nancy Drew approach to brain-fixing works: Garak is a brilliant, incisive ex-spy, with a mind contorted by decades of subterfuge, trickery, and deceit. Any therapist looking to help him who showed even the slightest hint of guile would arguably get nowhere, because a large part of his training (both the stuff he received from his father and the Obsidian Order, and the stuff he’s done to himself) has been designed to protect him from any kind of questioning. Ezri fumbles and runs into a few walls (psychologically speaking), but she’s determined and utterly without defenses. In one of the episode’s most brutal (and effective) scenes, Garak basically rips her to shreds, and all she does is stand there. That kind of vulnerability can, in the right circumstances, be utterly disarming, and while I won’t say the episode entirely sells Ezri’s big insight, I think it comes close enough to pretty much work. It’s like Garak’s relationship with Bashir, only Bashir would, eventually, have gotten angry. Ezri just takes it.

The other reason this is important is a less obvious one, given how much the episode revolves around Ezri. But whether or not the show’s writers ever thought about Garak’s internal conflict before deciding to use it in “Afterimages,” it makes so much sense in retrospect. Garak’s devotion to his home and his people has always been one of the cornerstones of his character; even when he disapproves of the direction Cardassia is headed in (which is often), he still wants what he thinks is best for his race. And right now, he’s effectively turned traitor in his efforts to end the Dominion War by aiding the Federation. It’s all too easy to see Garak decoding Cardassian transmissions for Starfleet and be happy that he’s on the “good” side, but the revelation in this episode that his position is leading to severe panic attacks reminds us that everything he does just places him farther away from what he once was. Garak remains one of the show’s tortured, fascinating figures, and the brilliance of Andrew Robinson’s performance has always been that the tortured part is hardly ever on the surface. For the most part, he’s glib and sarcastic and friendly in a way that you can’t quite pin down. As much as his trauma in this episode served to convince Ezri she did have a place on DS9, it also enriches our understanding of Garak. It reminds us how complicated and difficult these characters lives will always be, even when they try to make the “right” choice. In other words, it’s a DS9 episode—and a gratifyingly solid one at that.

Stray observations:

  • I’m still not quite sure what to make of Ezri’s “confession” to Bashir about Jadzia’s feelings for him. I suppose, were I in either of their shoes, I’d want the truth to come out, but it’s just such a forced, reductive expression of their friendship. Jadzia and Bashir were good enough friends that she didn’t need to be sort of in love with him for their connection to matter. As characters, I can accept that Ezri would think this necessary to share, but I don’t think the writers made the right call in giving her the chance to.
  • “Now get out of here before I say something unkind.” Andrew Robinson is just the best.

 

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