Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “Paradise”/“Shadowplay”

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “Paradise”/“Shadowplay”

“Paradise” (season 2, episode 15; originally aired 2/13/1994)

In which dashboard lights are not invited

Belief in absolute solutions to the human conditions is a fool’s game. There’s no panacea, no perfect system, no universal key to the door of transcendence. Deep down, I think most of us know this. If we didn’t know it, why would we so desperately wish it wasn’t true? As adults, we recognize we are imperfect creatures, built by an indeterminate combination of genetic code and environmental pressures, and because we’re imperfect, we’re destined to a lifetime of striving to make each piece of ourselves whole. This is actually rather lovely, but appreciating that loveliness requires time and patience and the luxury of reflection. Most of us spend a good portion of the day-to-day in it up to the elbow, and on the worst days, when the world seems to be spinning at just the wrong angle from where you stand, when you’re so lost and alone that the street signs are written in someone else’s language—well, those are they days when you want to believe the lie. Those are the days when you want someone to come up to you with a steady hand and a soothing voice, and they’ll say, “It’s all right. I understand you. This will solve everything.” And you’ll follow wherever they’ll go, because the alternative is climbing back into the muck without knowing if you’ll ever again find your way free.

“Paradise” isn’t an episode for which I had high hopes; I wasn’t dreading it (I have enough faith in the show by now not to dread anything), but Big Idea Trek is hit-or-miss. The brief episode descriptions I read online said something about Sisko and O’Brien visiting a technology-free society, and going by that and the episode title, I had visions of some sort of Resurrection-style Eden, full of bland people in bland outfits espousing the sanctity of their blandness. There’s a bit of that here, but it turns out the paradise of “Paradise” is more complex than those summaries let on. The episode gives Sisko the first chance in what feels like a long time to kick ass and take names, and has O’Brien demonstrating his usual resourcefulness and cool head in a crisis. It also gives us a solid villain in Alixus, the head of the colony Sisko and O’Brien stumble upon. “Paradise” suffers from the usual problems of Big Idea episodes, in that the new characters (with the sort-of exception of Alixus) aren’t really people so much as movable objects, and the efforts the script has to go to in order to make sure there’s no real spill over from what happens here to the rest of the show. But it works well for all that, only really dropping the ball in the final scene when it makes a jump it can’t quite support.

The premise—that a group of Federation castaways, forced into a decade-long exile on a planet where all their various tricorders and phasers and other toys don’t work—is an idea that Trek has come to before, and it always plays oddly in the franchise. The idea that going back to “basics” could somehow lead to a more fulfilling, purer life has been a popular theme in art for centuries, and the appeal makes sense; it goes back to the “solution” problem I mentioned above, because everyone’s life can feel over-stuffed or detached from reality. Turning away from all that is an appealing prospect, especially when you combine it with humanity’s love/hate relationship with technology. We’re addicted to our shiny computer screens, instant access, DVRs, and on-demand, but there’s a guilt beneath that addiction, like deep down we’re all pretty convinced that this isn’t going to be good for us in the long run. Maybe it’s a Garden of Eden thing; as adults, we imagine there was once a simpler time in our lives, and then that assumption just spreads out into other areas. Regardless, it’s a weird fit for a franchise that’s otherwise based around the glorious utopian possibilities of the future. These are shows in which humans in quasi-militaristic organizations with incredibly powerful weapons explore the galaxy and meet new life and new civilizations with no greater goal than just saying “Hello.” These people already have their shit together.

Admittedly, the folks on Deep Space Nine have more complicated relationships with the world and each other, so there’s room for ambiguity and odd angles. For most of its running time, “Paradise” does a fine job avoiding easy answers. The society O’Brien and Sisko discover is full of peaceful, content people, and while a few of them are interested in what’s going on in the outside universe, no one appears to be particularly upset when it looks like the two new guys are going to be stuck for a while. But on the down side, the group has lost a number of its members to a sickness they lack the tools to effectively treat, and the group leader, Alixus, is a hardliner who punishes law-breakers by throwing them in a small cargo container underneath the hot sun. (If you’ve ever seen The Bridge On The River Kwai, these scenes should be familiar, right down to Sisko’s refusal to bend even under brutal torture.) At first, the lady is all smiles and welcome, although she urges her followers not to get too excited about the possibility of a rescue. As time wears on, it becomes increasingly obvious that she never wants O’Brien and Sisko to leave, and when you start forcing people to join your hippie-Amish commune, you’re not a prophet, you’re a dictator.

What makes all of this work is that the episode maintains the appeal of the Thoreau-like lifestyle without shortchanging the fact that Alixus is basically running a cult. She starts leaving books around for the newcomers to read, books she wrote about the joys of working with your hands and the way civilization lost its mojo when it started using tools more complicated than a handsaw. The irony is that she has to use technology in order to make her technology-free paradise possible, using a device buried in a nearby forest to create a duonetic field which—well, it’s basically magic, okay? And Alixus’ betrayal doesn’t stop there. The “crash” which brought the group members to this particular planet wasn’t an accident; Alixus arranged it in order to put her theories into action, and 10 years later, everyone’s happy, unless they’re dead. Or bored. (Actually, we have no idea if anyone is bored in “Paradise,” but we’ll get to that.)

This raises some concerns at the end of the hour, but before we get that far, we’re treated to the curiously rare sight of Sisko kicking some serious ass. It’s been a while since the commander has been allowed an opportunity to demonstrate just how strong he is, and Alixus proves a useful opponent. She’s a true believer, so convinced in the righteousness of her cause that she’s relaxed, confident, and immune to debate or discussion, which gives us a great chance for an immovable-object-meets-irresistible-force scenario. Sisko responds accordingly. He has Picard’s intellect, combined with Kirk’s will to action, and something else that’s entirely his own, and watching him refuse to budge to Alixus’ will is a great reminder of the character’s depth. The majority of the first and second season have seen Sisko in the diplomat/bureaucrat role, forced to negotiate the lines between warring cultures and keep the peace in an environment built for war. He’s done a good job of it, but it’s something of a relief to see this side of his personality again. Alixus suggests he take off his uniform; he refuses. Alixus’ son Vinod catches O’Brien poking around, and orders Sisko into the box as punishment; he endures. She lets him out of the box long enough to offer him water and rest if he’ll just give in to her demands; the son of a bitch limps back to the box and closes the door. In short, he’s a hero, even if his actions don’t change anyone’s mind or accomplish anything story-wise. O’Brien is the one who realizes the field is artificially generated, finds it, shuts it down, and then kicks Vinod’s ass. In terms of plot, Sisko serves mostly as a distraction. But both men are given moments to shine, and it’s Sisko’s stubborn conviction that has the most impact.

It’s frustrating, then, that the episode’s conclusion doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the hour. The last five minutes are an awkward fit: O’Brien tells the colonists the truth about the duonetic field, Alixus is unrepentant, and the others are basically okay with their life as it is. We don’t see Alixus get her comeuppance; sure, Sisko and O’Brien take her and her son with them when they go, but Alixus, who lied, betrayed, and let people die for her cause, doesn’t show any sign of distress. And why should she? She proved her point. Sisko may have stood up for himself, and O’Brien may have discovered her secret, but the colonists all choose to stay anyway. One of them basically says, “Well, she was bad, but we’re still happy, so whatever.”

This sticks in my craw some. It’s not that I object to the colonists enjoying the Gilligan’s Island lifestyle. The ambiguity here, the idea that a bad person can do some good in the world, is interesting and fits right in with this show. It’s just that the rapidity of the decision beggars belief, and speaks more of a need to wrap everything up before the closing credits more than honest human behavior. These people just found out their spiritual leader, the woman who’s been telling them how great they have it and locking them in cages when they do wrong, has been manipulating them and using them for 10 years. Shouldn’t there be a period of anger or frustration? And why does only one member of the group make the decision for everyone else? With the field off, these people should be able to leave whenever they want, which means any immediate decision they make doesn’t have to be a permanent one. But the instant universality of their desire to stay means the conflict building betwen Sisko and Alixus never pays off as thoroughly as it should. The whole scene is weirdly abrupt, and while it’s fine to frustrate the audience by not giving it exactly what it wants, there should be some reason for the frustration beyond just, “Eh, that’s all we got.” It’s the loudest sour note in an otherwise decent hour.

Stray observations:

  • If the writers were pressed for time, they could’ve chucked some of the Dax/Kira subplot. It’s fun, and I love watching those two characters bounce off each other, but most of it isn’t completely necessary, and I would’ve rather had a more satisfying conclusion planet-side.
  • I have absolutely no desire to live a technology-free life, and, apart from the fumbled ending, the episode’s biggest problem is that it never manages to sell its “paradise” as anything more than a generic commune of pleasantness. But that’s basically what I expected. However, the Sisko/O’Brien stuff is so great, I didn’t mind bland so much.

“Shadowplay” (season 2, episode 16; originally aired 2/20/1994)

In which someone wakes up the Red King

“Paradise” is a classically structured television episode. By which I mean (he said, hoping no one would check his academic credentials), it’s a script that could’ve played out roughly the same on the original series. There’s one story, and all the characters who appear in the episode revolve around it. Once that story runs its course, there’s no sense any of the events in the episode will have an impact on the rest of the season. This is focused, operating on a standard genre arc—we get a mystery (Who are all these strange people dressed like hippies?) and a conflict (How will Sisko and O’Brien get back to their ship?), the answer to the former feeds into the latter, until everything comes to a head and our heroes resolve the issue at hand and go about their way. It’s efficient, and neat, and gets the job done.

“Shadowplay” has a similar structure. The difference being, in “Shadowplay,” that structure is only part of the overall whole. The story which gives the episode its title follows Dax and Odo doing some exploring. They find strange omnicron particles, land on the planet with the apparent source to investigate, and find a small town where some of the locals have been disappearing. All the expected, familiar stuff here, and it’s not too hard to imagine this sort of set-up taking over the entire hour. Except it doesn’t. The Dax-Odo section of the episode has the most screentime, but the amount isn’t so large as to overwhelm the adventures back on DS9. This is an hour driven by the ensemble, even though the ensemble is never all in the same place at the same time; this is an attempt to tell a bunch of small tales which add up to a picture of life going on much as it always does. Star Trek: The Next Generation tried this more than once (“Data’s Day” comes to mind), but DS9 is better suited to the idea, since it’s more willing to embrace serialization than TNG ever was. There are things which happen in this episode which will carry over as the show goes on. Not many of them, but still—Kira hooking up with Bareil isn’t going to be forgotten the next time the credits roll around, whether we’d like it to or not.

If I give too much emphasis to the structure here (and it’s not like “Shadowplay” is the first time DS9 has ever played around with the form), it’s because there isn’t a whole lot to get into with the meat of the episode itself. Which is an odd response, when you consider the hour gives us apparent artificial intelligence, a major romantic relationship, and Jake’s decision to forego Starfleet and find his own path. And sure, I liked all of these elements. There’s a soothing, affable vibe to the episode as a whole, and while no grand theme connects these disparate threads (at least, none that I could find), all the stories are unified by a sense of low-conflict entanglements. When Dax and Odo arrive in the new town, the local sheriff (Colyus, the Protector, played by Kenneth Mars) points a gun at them. But once Dax and Odo explain who they are and why they’re visiting, any danger disappears. Hell, Odo makes it a point to demonstrate how easy it would be for him and Dax to leave at any moment. Unlike Sisko and O’Brien in the previous episode, they’re under no pressure to solve any mysteries. They hang out because they’re curious, and because Odo is defined by a need to restore. This makes sense from a character perspective, and the low-key approach is a nice change of pace, but it doesn’t exactly create much drive.

The same could be said for events back on the station. With Odo gone, Kira is on the warpath, determined to catch Quark (who is in full-blown Ferengi-creep mode) in the act, and while there’s certainly some tension as to just how he’ll escape this time, her surveillance is largely left in the background. She asks Bashir to spy on Quark for her, and Bashir is puppy dog eager to use some of the tricks Garak has taught him, but he doesn’t accomplish much. Most of Kira’s time in “Shadowplay” is spent dancing the awkward dance with Bareil, forming a romantic bond based on their genial discomfort around one another. It culminates in a face-rolling session which is roughly a quarter as hot as the one you’re imagining right now. Jokes aside, it’s not a cringe-inducing development, but it’s no reason to cheer, either. It simply exists. Then Kira realizes Quark got Bareil onto the station to distract her, and she goes off to tell Quark how foolish he was, even thought you’ll notice she still doesn’t actually arrest him, despite her clear desire to do so.

Before my apathy overwhelms my writing, the other big plot on the station, which has Jake joining O’Brien for his very first job, is quite neat. For one thing, it’s a pay-off to a conversation Sisko and O’Brien had in “Paradise,” which demonstrates that even in its closed-off episodes, the show is working to create a textured, persistent world. Plus, I just love the idea of Sisko’s kid working on O’Brien’s crew. But the real point of interest here is Jake’s confession that he doesn’t love Starfleet the way Sisko does, and has no interest in following in the old man’s footsteps. O’Brien tells a story about his own past (I really want to see him playing a cello now), and urges Jake to tell his father the truth. Jake does, and Sisko is supportive. Again, low stakes, low drama, but it’s a wonderful look at people just being basically decent to each other, and it helps to strengthen our connection to these characters. And it’s just cool to see a father-son bond on television that isn’t fraught with painful, humiliating conflict.

That leaves us with Odo and Dax back in the town with the mysterious disappearances. This would be the most obvious place for conflict. A strange place, creepy goings on, and a town elder who’s hiding a secret? Add some thunder, lighting, and a few feet of coiled rope and you’ve got yourself a show. Only it doesn’t play out that way. Colyus introduces our heroes to Rurigan (the great Kenneth Tobey), the town elder, and Odo quickly realizes he has something to hide. Rurigan’s dying, too, which makes him the prime candidate for malfeasance; nothing left to lose, wanting to leave your mark before leaving this mortal coil, etc. But the solution is entirely benevolent. All those omnicron particles Dax was registering come off the generator which makes the town real. The whole thing is just a big hologram, and the reason people are disappearing is that the generator is malfunctioning. Dax and Odo explain this to the townsfolk, and ask their permission to turn off the system for long enough to fix it; when they do, all the buildings and people disappear except for Rurigan. He’s the only real creature in the area; he came to the planet after the Dominion (there’s that name again) took over his home and changed everything. So Rurigan recreated what he lost the only way he could.

This is all like a far less guilt-ridden induced version of “The Survivors” from TNG. There are implications which are only partly explored; Odo gives a passionate speech about how the people in the hologram are real enough to matter, and there’s some question about just how sentient they are, but you get the impression that no one involved with the episode really wanted to go much further than that. And for what it is, it works. Odo’s bond with a young girl who lost her mother is sweet, and there’s something effectively melancholy in how it ends; Rurigan is still going to die soon, after all, and once he’s gone, it will just be these imaginary/real people, wandering around, waiting for the generator to finally collapse.

There are good ideas and strong moments spaced throughout the episode. They just don’t build to anything. The writers of DS9 were experimenting and working towards a new kind of Trek, but they’d yet to find a way to match the demands of episodic storytelling with the needs of season-long arcs. The cast remains strong, and their world has become impressively rich. Now it’s just a matter of finding the best way to use all these wonderful toys.

Stray observations:

  • You know it’s coming, but the moment Odo finally changes shape in front of the little girl is well-done. And I love the way he spins into a top, and then comes back out of it mid-spin. (That whole friendship had a very Data-esque feel to it.)
  • I’m starting to appreciate Dax more and more. She may not quite work as a focal point, but she does a great job supplementing everyone else.
  • Kenneth Tobey and Kenneth Mars in the same episode? Damn nifty.

Next week: Dax tries her hand at “Playing God,” and Quark struggles with the agonies of “Profit And Loss.”

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