“Rejoined” (season four, episode five; originally aired 10/30/1995)
In which Dax finds and loses love, again.
This is a love story between two women. It’s more complicated than it sounds; there are alien organisms, gender-swapping, and past lives involved. But those are all devices to get us to that central romance, so it’s worth mentioning that at no point in the episode does anyone object to Dax and Dr. Lenara Kahn’s relationship purely on the grounds of their gender. No one says, “But when you first met, Dax, you were in the body of a man!” It’s irrelevant to the storyline. There are ways to tell this that could’ve dealt head on with the difficulties of re-establishing contact with someone you first knew (and loved) as a different person, but “Rejoined” is more interested in what happens after the reconnection. The script takes Dax and Kahn’s immediate, and intense, passion as an inevitability, which means there’s no real need to get into the logistics of the thing. In 1995, lesbians on TV weren’t unheard of, but they weren’t a normal, everyday sight, either; it’s refreshing to see Dax and Kahn presented so matter of factly. Yup, they’re women, yup they’re in love, yup they’re kissing. That’s not where the drama comes from.
The downside being, while I respect this episode and thought both Terry Farrell and Susanna Thompson (as Kahn) did good work in it, it’s not all that fun or exciting to watch. Partly that’s due to the straightforward plot. Dax hears that Kahn, whom she was once married to while she was in a different host (Torias—Kahn was Nilani, but I’m going to avoid using those names again because this is already confusing enough), is coming to the station as part of a Trill scientist team working to create artificial wormholes. Sisko offers Dax the chance to get off the station during the testing, and we learn that the Trill have very specific, very strict rules about symbionts trying to pick up old relationships in new hosts. If Dax and Kahn make the mistake of ever, ever, ever getting back together, they’ll both be exiled from their home, and their symbionts will never be allowed to take on new bodies; their experiences will die with Jadzia and Lenara.
So, of course, Dax decides to stick around; she bumps into Kahn; and the two of them reconnect as more than just friends. As anyone who’s watched a fair amount of Trek knows, the franchise is hit-or-miss when it comes to romances, but I’d say this one is solid. The two actors have the right kind of chemistry, that sort of immediate spark where you know from the first second they share a scene together that they’re going to end up kissing eventually, like they’ve got magnets in their lips and the room is shrinking. I hope this doesn’t sound prurient; there’s a long and deeply absurd history of pop culture exploiting women’s sexual lives solely for the sake of arousing men, but Dax and Kahn’s intimacy never comes across as manipulative or disconnected from the characters. There’s an eroticism to their first kiss, but the emotional charge of it is as important as the physical one. The two come across as equals, and while we’re only partial to their history through the occasional nugget of expository dialogue, it’s never hard to believe that they’re falling for one another. The whole thing seems perfectly natural.
But again: It’s not very thrilling. Dax and Kahn get closer, Kahn’s brother and team-leader grumble over it, Kahn is nearly killed when one of the experiments goes haywire, and then, ultimately, she decides to go back to Trill and let the forbidden relationship drop. This breaks Dax’s heart, and the episode wrings as much pathos as it can out of the end of the affair, but seeing as how it’s an entirely predictable conclusion to the story, the pathos only goes so far. It’s definitely possible to get grand emotion out of well-worn tropes, but this doesn’t come across as tragic, since it has zero consequences for the show. Dax briefly brushes into someone she once loved, but that was in another life, and while there’s still a connection between them, it’s not enough to power the entire episode. In order to be effective, “Rejoined” needs us to care about this couple, needs us to believe in their belonging to together as passionately as Dax does. Only, we know the relationship can’t last, and because of this, it’s difficult to invest much in the outcome; and without that investment, the hour becomes a slow, passable slog to a familiar conclusion.
There are fine scenes throughout the entry. I’m very fond of the lengthy conversation between Bashir, Kira, and Quark near the start in which the script and the actors do their damnedest to make sure everyone in the audience understands the exact stakes of Dax’s situation; it’s a scene which could’ve come across as leaden and forced, but is instead, thanks to a light touching in the writing and the actors established rapport, is playful and charming. Also charming: Worf’s brief monologue about Klingon dreams, and Kira’s comment about how she never knows if he’s joking or not. (Actually, I think the scene would’ve played better without Kira’s comment, but I guess Worf’s sense of humor is so rare it needed underlining.) And Dax and Kahn’s wuv affair really isn’t bad. There’s not of the creepy paternalism that tainted so many Star Trek: The Next Generation relationships, and, given that they both already know each other, their interactions are less about flirtation, and more about former intimates resuming the friendship and passion that once connected them.
It’s just not enough. There’s an “eat your vegetables” vibe to much of this, a frustrating and enervating lack of fun that a few fun scenes and Dax’s brief walk across a force-field can’t fix. Fun can come in many different ways—you can still have horror and misery in an exciting hour of television. That’s something DS9 has done very well in the past. But in order to work, there needs to be something beyond what we see on the surface, a relationship or bit of plot that digs deeper, and there’s nothing like that in “Rejoined.” We learn nothing much about the group of Trill Kahn travels with, we get no sense of the challenges of re-establishing a long-dormant love, and apart from telling us it’s “unnatural” for two symbionts to try and resume an old affair, there’s no attempt to understand the cultural reasons which ultimately drive these characters apart. It’s shallow storytelling saved from complete tedium by strong acting and an admirable lack of stigma. Basically, the fact that it doesn’t make a big deal out of its central coupling is really cool, right up until it isn’t. But the kissing was nice.
- It’s possible to read the Trill objections to Dax and Kahn’s romance as a metaphor for sexual intolerance, but that doesn’t really work—after all, the objections have nothing to do with gender, and everything do with the integrity of the symbiont process. I wonder if the episode would’ve been more effective if it had done a better job explaining why this is such a taboo. As is, the threat of exile comes across more as a McGuffin to generate a forbidden love than as viable law. (I’m not saying I can’t come up with reasons as to why it matters, but it’s frustrating that the script largely ignores one of its most interesting issues.)
- When Dax needs a chaperone, she calls on Bashir. That’s adorable.
“Starship Down” (season four, episode six; originally aired 11/6/1995)
In which Worf learns to be the boss, and Kira tells a story...
Here’s how far we’ve come: One of the plotlines of “Starship Down” opens with Quark getting caught trying to cheat someone. Over the course of the episode, Quark first defends his cheating, and then manages to expand that defense into a statement of purpose for an entire philosophy—and the script lets him get away with it. Not just get away with it, but actually flourish. Quark’s rhetorical triumph over Hanok (an unrecognizable James Cromwell) is just that, a triumph, and while he loses some money in the end, he’s still basically a hero. The show has been doing this sort of thing with Quark for a while now, to the point where it’s not as huge a surprise as it once might have been, but it’s still charming, and effective. Which is probably the best way to describe the episode as a whole: there’s not much in the way of gut-wrenching twists or narrative game changers (yup, using that phrase felt as horrible as I thought it would; never again!), but it’s entertaining and brisk, and thrilling when it needs to be.
Unlike “Rejoined,” which focused on one storyline throughout, this episode starts off with one big plot, and then splits everything up into self-contained vignettes, pairing characters off with one another to act out small, short arcs before bringing everyone back together in the end. It’s a structure that we’ve seen before in Trek, and one that always reminds me of the disaster movies Irwin Allen used to make in the ’70s—something like The Towering Inferno, maybe, in which a bunch of actors get together and try and keep a straight face through a lot of really awful style choices. One of the big problems with the previous episode is that it put too much of the emphasis on a single story; “Starship Down” gets around this by cramming a lot of little stories together, so that even if one or two isn’t all that thrilling (I love Dax and Bashir, but their “Wow, it’s cold” scenes never go anywhere), it’s so slight that it doesn’t really matter. Admittedly, this sacrifices some power in the episode’s climax—the individual threads, while enjoyable, don’t add up to anything bigger than themselves. But it still makes for a well-paced hour of television, giving us glimpses of character in unexpected ways.
The first 15 minutes or so the episode seem to be building towards something else than what we get, as Sisko and the Defiant crew face off against a pair of Jem’Hadar warships. It’s tense enough to make me almost wish the whole episode had dealt solely with that conflict, instead of using it as an excuse to separate the ensemble into pairs and small groups. Sure, the Jem’Hadar threat does disappear, and Worf’s efforts to defeat them are sharp, but by fragmenting the focus, the suspense becomes less claustrophobic, and thus, less immediate. Once you realize where the episode is headed—and you should understand the design by the time Worf shows up in Engineering, if not sooner—than the threat of the Jem’Hadar loses much of its immediacy. Instead of a cat-and-mouse game of increasingly high stakes, we have something much less dangerous, a group of people who all need to learn valuable lessons about each other before the bad guys can finally be defeated. It still works, and it’s fleeter of foot and less stolid than “Rejoined,” but there’s a cost to that fleetness: the possibility of the unexpected, and the raised intensity a more narrow approach can create.
Thankfully, the vignettes are at worst fine, and at best engaging and moving. I mentioned Quark’s story above; his dealings with the Karemma in the Gamma Quadrant are what kick off the episode, and he spends most of the hour stuck in a room with Hanok, working to convince him of the importance of being willing to take a risk in business dealings. Like I said, it works, especially when their conversation is interrupted by a photon torpedo breaking through the hull, forcing them to put their differences aside long enough to diffuse it. This is potentially very silly stuff, and the episode isn’t shy about playing the scenes for laughs, but there’s a sincerity behind Quark’s dialogue that grounds everything, and makes it more than just comic relief. Again, there’s the suggestion that the Ferengi’s pursuit of profit isn’t as cold-blooded or venal as we were once led to believe; he’s greedy, but that greed is motivated by a deeper desire to get the most out of life, to prove himself, and to enjoy the thrill of putting himself on the line and seeing what happens next.
The weakest of the storylines has Dax and Bashir trapped in a room together in a sealed off area of the ship, slowly freezing to death and comforting one another by being nice. Bashir tells Dax he used to fantasize about getting her alone in a shuttlecraft under similar circumstances, which would be creepy and sad if the actors weren’t so comfortable in their roles and with each other. But even past the weirdness of Bashir’s confession (I tend to over-share, and even I’m having a hard time imagining the reasoning behind telling someone, “Hey, you know how we’re dying now? I used to dream this would happen, only in a way that ended with us having sex!”), there isn’t any meat to their scenes. It’s cold, they’re worried they might die, and then they don’t. This feels like filler more than anything else, and only works as a sort of conclusion to Bashir’s early determination to woo Jadzia; there’s a nice moment at the end where Dax rescues Bashir from a tedious conversation (Morn!) and the two are clearly the best of friends, but, well, we already knew that.
Contrast that against Kira and Sisko’s story, which doesn’t offer any seismic shifts in their relationship, but does draw attention to something the show usually keeps in the background: the fact that Sisko is a key part of Kira’s religion, even if he isn’t exactly comfortable with this. It’s a bit like a Christian working in Jesus’s carpentry shop. You can spend your shift talking about dowels and chairs, but every once in a while, somebody’s going to cross two bits of wood together, and things will get awkward. We learn early in the hour, we learn that there was a religious ceremony on Bajor that Sisko purposefully ducked, and that Kira isn’t entirely happy with how much more distant the captain is with her, as compared to the way he treats the rest of the crew. Then disaster strikes, and Sisko is seriously injured, leaving Kira to wait by his side for help as the rest of the crew filters out into the ship. It’s mostly just Nana Visitor trying to comfort the semi-conscious Sisko without breaking down, but it works, because the drama isn’t so much the captain’s survival (although Brooks does a good job selling the concussion) as it is trying to clarify what these two mean to each other. We’ve had plenty of time to see, say, Bashir and Dax hang out. We know where they stand. But while there’s no question Sisko and Kira are on good terms (even when they fought in the first season, the mutual respect was obvious), there’s an uncertainty between them, as he keeps her at arm’s length not wanting to interfere with her beliefs, and she struggles with how to bridge the gap with someone for whom she must feel no small degree of awe. While Dax and Kira talk about this a bit in the beginning, most of Kira’s conversation with Sisko is her trying to think of things to say to him; there’s no grand confrontation or explosion of feelings, but in the end, they laugh, and after the crisis passes, Sisko invites Kira to a baseball game. It’s deftly handled, really. There’s no simple moment you can pinpoint where the wall between them is surmounted, and it wasn’t that big of a wall to begin with. But there’s a point to their scenes which is lacking in the Dax and Bashir segment, and one of the reasons it works is that the script doesn’t go out of its way to underline its intention.
The same can’t be said for Worf’s lessons in command. While everyone else is struggling not to die, Worf winds up in Engineering with Chief O’Brien and his crew; they managed to port the bridge controls down, and Worf and the others work together to find a way to defeat the Jem’Hadar and save the ship. Except Worf’s command style leaves a little something to be desired. Once again, we have Worf as the social misfit, the stuck-in-the-mud, by-the-book officer who needs to learn a little flexibility when it comes to dealing with others. In a way, this can be seen as a extension of his routine humiliations on the Enterprise, where he mostly served as someone who existed to be contradicted and/or beaten up. But there’s a logic to his behavior on DS9 that wasn’t always there on TNG. Worf is driven by a desire to be honorable at all cost, to do the right thing even when it causes him discomfort or pain; he believed in the old Klingon ways even when the rest of his people had given in to corruption and greed, so it makes sense that he’d be naturally inclined to follow the letter of the law without understanding the spirit. Not because he’s an idiot, but because he’s a perpetual outsider; and one of the things outsiders look for is a system they can grasp to help them belong. So it doesn’t occur to him that being in charge means more than judging people by the same standards your judge yourself; he reprimands the engineering crew for minor errors and orders them around with little thought to their stress level or morale.
Thankfully, Chief O’Brien is there to set him straight. This is all fairly obvious, and, if the storyline had more screentime or was given much more dramatic emphasis, it probably wouldn’t work; turning every Worf arc into an Aesop fable can only go so far. But because of the episode’s structure, we only have a few scenes of Worf learning the right way forward, and the fact that the instruction comes from O’Brien makes it go down easy. The brevity also means that we don’t have to deal with Worf getting irritated when O’Brien tries to explain the situation to him—partly this is because it’s not in Worf’s character to object to good advice (which is one of the reasons why he’s likeable despite being sort of a tool sometimes), but it’s also just a simple matter of logistics. All the storylines in the episode are cut down to the bone, which means they go down easier. When it comes to Worf, that means we get two scenes of him being a dick, then O’Brien politely mentioning he may want to reconsider, and then some very satisfying stuff with Worf taking O’Brien’s words to heart. Like the rest of the hour, it’s far from rocket science, but it gets the job done, with admirable efficiency, wit, and no small amount of heart.
- Another positive to the Worf story: it’s his efforts (along with the engineers) that end up defeating the Jem’Hadar. He may be a bit stiff, but he gets the job done.
- It’s nice touch to have Hanok admit his people sell the Jem’Hadar torpedoes. Especially when the torpedo doesn’t work.
- “It’s very important you listen to me, because… because there’s gonna be a test later.”—Kira, flailing
Next week: Quark plays around with some “Little Green Men,” and Worf and Dax go hunting for “The Sword Of Kahless.”