“Second Sight” (season 2, episode 9; originally aired 11/21/1993)
In which Sisko falls in love with someone else’s dream
I started getting a bad feeling when Captain Sisko’s potential new love interest, a beautiful woman named Fenna, disappeared before they finished their first conversation. As Fenna kept popping up, and Sisko became more and more infatuated with her, my bad feeling got worse. It didn’t take me long to realize why; “Second Sight” feels like a Troi episode. If you’ve seen enough Star Trek: The Next Generation, you know that Deanna Troi wasn’t one of the show’s strongest characters. Marina Sirtis did what she could with the role, and she had her moments, but the premise of a ship’s counselor who could sense the feelings of others (through a telepathic link that only functioned when the narrative required) was flawed. Worse, Troi-centric episode were almost universally horrid, and tended to use the character’s questionably useful gifts to get up to all sorts of nonsense. It sometimes felt as though every other week Troi was being seduced by some creepy ambassador who wanted to drain her life force or getting knocked up by a twinkling light so an alien could have a humanoid experience. These stories forgot about thoughtful character work or smart science fiction in favor of insipid, unpleasantly creepy camp, and while Sisko’s conversations with Fenna are certainly pleasant, there’s a definite vibe of, “Oh, looks like someone lit the candle tonight, eh?” (Which is a joke about “Sub Rosa,” which is a Beverly Crusher episode, not a Troi episode, because basically TNG had problems doing stories for its female leads.)
What it comes down to is a twist with no meaning beyond being a twist: Sisko’s falling in love with the psychic projection of a woman in an unhappy marriage. This sounds like it could be fraught with drama, but it isn’t. There are dramatic moments, sure, and the husband’s decision to sacrifice himself for his wife’s sanity is an interesting turn, but all we ever know about the wife (who’s named “Nidell” when she’s awake, and played by Salli Richardson-Whitfield in both forms) is that she’s unhappy sometimes, and other times she’s not. She is pure gimmick, right down to the bone, which means Fenna’s scenes with Sisko are generically pleasing—and little else. She asks him the right questions, she wants him to show her the station and take her on a picnic, which is all very nice, but there’s nothing to her beyond the presentation of an attractive and desirable romantic partner. Nidell has barely a handful of lines as “herself”; her husband, Professor Gideon Seyetik (Richard Kiley) delivers her back-story while she’s lying unconscious in the other room. She’s a device, and, presumably, we’re supposed to be so impressed by the reveal that Sisko’s new lady friend is a “psychoprojective telepath” (oh that old saw) that we don’t notice that’s basically all she is. Abilities or gimmicks should reflect character or enhance it; they can’t work as a basic substitute.
That’s what happens here, which raises all kinds of problems. For one, despite the lovey-dovey scenes with Sisko and his eventual heartbreak, this episode is all about Gideon. He’s the forceful, gregarious one, a terraformer with a huge ego who spends as much time telling others about his ego as he does telling them about his accomplishments. Given the nature of the character, it’s not surprising that Gideon would dominate every scene he’s in, and Kiley is fun to watch, depending on your level of tolerance for this sort of thing. (It’s also fun to watch the various crewmembers’ reactions; Kira can’t stand him, and Bashir is clearly entertained.) He goes off about how wonderful he is and how much everyone, especially his wife, loves him, and he’s just funny enough for it to not be the worst thing ever. And as characters go, he’s not bad at all. His behavior makes sense, fits his job, and is consistent throughout the episode, even up to the point when he decides to sacrifice himself to save his wife from ennui. He’s the hero of the story in his mind, and if he can find a way to do a good deed while ensuring that he’ll never have to worry about topping his previous successes ever again, that’s what he’s going to do.
This works on a character level, but it doesn’t work for the story as a whole, because we never get Nidell’s side of what’s going on. We get Gideon’s version of Nidell’s side, and yeah, he doesn’t paint a sympathetic portrait of himself (again, this makes sense; egotists often get a lot of mileage out of constantly pointing out their most obvious flaws, in the service of controlling their own message—even criticism is part of the act), but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s still the one doing all the talking. Even when he’s sort of a monster, he makes the right decisions, and we never hear enough from Nidell to understand why this is such a big deal; why, in fact, their marriage is apparently so awful it threatens to kill her. Even at the very end, when Nidell is free, she doesn’t say anything for herself.
She’s a cipher, and in addition to throwing off the episode’s balance, her fundamental lack of character reduces the supposed emotional center of the hour to an empty exercise. More than anything else, this cripples “Second Sight,” turning it from an intermittently entertaining but ultimately forgettable hour into a betrayal of a character we care about. Sisko makes a point of mentioning in his log at the start of the episode that he’s had trouble sleeping lately, and he thinks it has something to do with the fourth anniversary of his wife’s death. So he’s in a vulnerable mood when he starts wandering around the station, staring out windows, and that’s where Fenna finds him. At first, this looks to be, at least in part, an exploration of Sisko’s grief. He hasn’t had any serious romantic relationships since Jennifer, partly because he’s sad and busy, and also (and I may be inferring), he’s an intense dude. Unless they have goatees and cool glasses, intense dudes don’t always have the easiest time with the ladies. Mostly, though, it’s his mourning. Then he meets Fenna, who seems like the ideal woman to help him move on from his grief, and for a while, he’s really happy. Then everything turns to shit.
Sisko’s excitement over a new relationship is great, especially when you notice that he (unlike Troi or Dr. Crusher) never completely loses his common sense. There’s a great scene when Jake tells him, “I just want you to know, if you’re in love, that’s all right with me,” which lets you know that whatever else happens, Sisko is doing a good job raising his son right. And seeing Dax push him for info when things with Fenna start taking off is another fun glimpse into their friendship, because it’s just so normal; if you can get past the fact that Sisko is hanging out with a young woman who’s serving as the host body for a slug that once lived inside (and took up half the brain of) one of Sisko’s best friends, this is just the sort of stuff friends do.
Unfortunately, once the main plot takes over and we learn Fenna’s horrible secret (is psychoprojective telekinesis useful in any way? From what we see, it’s just a very elaborate way for her to commit inadvertent suicide), Sisko’s story takes a backseat. Obviously he’s frustrated and disappointed when he learns he’s being unintentionally used, but that’s how anybody in his situation would react. He tries to handle the situation as rationally as possibly, but he’s basically irrelevant to what’s happening, a witness to a situation he can barely understand, let alone change. This is bad storytelling, using a strong idea—Sisko’s lingering sense of loss—in order to trick us into caring about a plot that has nothing to do with that loss. In the end, Gideon is dead and Nidell is saved, but she doesn’t remember anything about being Fenna or the time Fenna spent with Sisko. It’s the inevitable reset button that shows just how little the writers of this episode (all four of them) cared about making this matter. There’s nothing wrong with a one-off story that lacks long-term implications, but if you do that, maybe you shouldn’t start by reminding us about the hero’s dead wife.
- Fenna/Nidell represents an interesting design compromise; she has to look alien so we can believe she has magical powers or whatever, but she also has to be beautiful to help justify Sisko’s immediate attraction. So we get slightly weird ears and a cleavage-enhancing dress.
- Sisko has no moral reservations whatsoever about using Odo to track Fenna down. Not that he should, exactly, but it does tell us he’s willing to bend the rules a little to get what he thinks is necessary.
“Sanctuary” (season 2, episode 10; originally aired 11/28/1993)
In which you’ve got your Mecca in my Mecca, you son of a bitch
If “Second Sight” is an episode that started with an interesting idea (Sisko and the dead Mrs. Sisko), “Sanctuary” starts with what seems like a generic premise and builds up steam as it goes along. We’re a little under halfway through Deep Space Nine’s second season, but the hook of having some strange new alien pop out of the wormhole and cause havoc on the station is, to put it kindly, old hat. This makes complete sense. The Star Trek franchise was built on the idea of exploration, with a vehicle that made it possible to have adventures on a new planet every week. Setting the new show on a space station would presumably limit the ensemble’s mobility, but the wormhole, at least in theory, makes a perfect substitute for a warp drive. But theory only goes so far, and the more the show uses this particular trope, the more obvious it’s going to be as a workaround. You change your storytelling approach, you need to follow through; otherwise, people are going to notice the strings.
So, after some station business, “Sanctuary” gets down to business when Sisko has O’Brien beam a group of strangers out of a dying ship which, you guessed it, just popped out of the wormhole. These strangers are so new that the Universal Translator needs some time to start decoding their language, and we’re treated to a not bad, slightly silly sequence of scenes as Kira leads the group out of Ops, through the promenade and Bashir’s office, and then to their new room. The aliens—basic humanoid design, although they’ve got rough skin and loopy hairdos—grab at everything, spout gibberish at the clothing shops, and act generally goofy, until the UT finally catches up, and the leader of the group, a female named Haneek, reveals that she and her people are running from their homeworld, and they believe that the wormhole fulfills part of their search. Now, they just need to find Kentanna, the sanctuary world that will serve as their new home. Oh, and by the way, there are 3 million more where Haneek came from, just the other side of the wormhole, looking for a way to come through.
This episode has all kinds of warning signs; Haneek’s hairdo is really ridiculous, and the way she and her fellow pilgrims act before the UT kicks in make them look like a bunch of clowns. Then there’s the revelation, fairly early on, that Haneek’s people (the Skrreeans) live in a matriarchal society. The men, Haneek tells Kira and Sisko, are simply too emotional to be entrusted to positions of power, although, of course, they love their men. Matriarchies are difficult concepts to pull off, because the temptation to make them unsubtle satires of the way women are too often politically (and otherwise) marginalized in this country is strong, and those satires come off as lectures or worse. And in the process, it looks less like satire and more like a way of pointing out that the idea of ladies running anything is so ridiculous that how could anyone possibly take it seriously? (Remember “Angel One”? Better yet, don’t.) I wasn’t sure by this point in the episode where things were headed, and it was easy to get worried that the comedy would get more ridiculous, or we’d watch Kira teaching Haneek the joy of life with the Federation, or Haneek would start ordering guys on the station around just because.
Thankfully, things didn’t go any of those ways. The comedy disappears, as does any serious talk about matriarchy. Though Kira and Haneek’s friendship proves important to the episode, “Sanctuary” is more about how difficult it is to go from being helpful to being willing to put up with the challenges of forming long-term bonds. Soon after Haneek explains the plight of her people, the rest of the 3 million Skrreeans come through the wormhole, and some of them (presumably the most important ones) invade the station. They’re noisy and dirty and they get in everyone’s way; as Quark points out later, they clog up the shops but don’t have the money to buy anything. Nog, presumably after hearing his uncle complain about the newcomers, sprays one of the boy-men who came with Haneek with a “stink spray,” and the talks sort of break down from there. None of this is handled with much subtlety, but the episode does a decent job of showing how even the best intentions can beget chaos. Yeah, Quark is a jerk about it, and it’s a little convenient that the only person to have any problem with the Skrreeans at all is the character in the ensemble who tends to represent all the least-pleasant aspects of our own natures. But while he’s wrong, it’s difficult to suddenly have a place you consider your home overrun with strangers. In a situation like that, it can be hard to maintain your basic decency.
Case in point: Haneek decides that Bajor is actually the sanctuary the Skrreeans are searching, and she wants to move all 3 million of her people to the planet at once. The Bajoran government politely, but firmly, rejects her request, claiming they already have enough mouths to feed, and despite Haneek’s repeated assurance that her people would never ask for government assistance, well, the Bajorans feel they would simply be obligated to help in time of crisis, and then where would everybody be? It’s a bit of politicking, designed as much for the Bajoran’s own sense of decency as it is for Haneek, but it boils down to, “We don’t want you, because we’ve got our own problems.” Even that’s probably finessing it the truth; the Bajorans, as we’ve already seen, are gunshy and on edge and prone to pushing away outsiders, for the simple fact that they finally have a chance to establish their own place in the universe, and they’ll be damned if a bunch of wart-faced zealots try and claim Bajor as their homeworld.
Haneek is understandably disappointed about all of this, and one of the things that makes “Sanctuary” work is that the episode never pretends that she’s unreasonable or demanding in her disappointment. Yeah, she says some harsh things to Kira at the end, thus demonstrating that friendships and governments don’t really mix, but it’s not hard to see where she’s coming from. As she says, she and her people are farmers, and they might have been able to help Bajor with its current food crisis. (Although maybe not; that’s basically a dig against the farmers already on Bajor, as though the Skrrreeans have some special touch that would allow them to grow crops more readily than the natives who’ve been doing it for years.) She’s not likeable, really, but maybe that’s important; maybe it serves as a reminder that just because someone isn’t exactly likeable doesn’t make them wrong, especially when one of the reasons we’re not fond of them is that they remind us of our own failings.
“Sanctuary”’s biggest drama comes when a frustrated Tumak decides to take a ship and fly to Bajor on his own recognizance. The Bajoran fleet is under strict orders not let any strangers land, there’s a confrontation, and despite the efforts of everyone involved, Tumak’s ship explodes. It’s a well-handled sequence, showing better than anything else in the episode the way bureaucracy can mangle good intentions, and how fast a problem can turn from a minor irritant to an outright tragedy. If more of the episode had managed this feel—a mix of urgency and almost blackly comic chaos—it might have been more gripping. But the setup is too easy. Tumak is the only Skrreean who takes action after the Bajoran decision, and he’s literally the only Skrreean we meet who is anything but polite and nonviolent. Which supports Haneek’s comment about emotional men, but it also makes his death both surprising and weirdly convenient. Once Tumak is gone, everyone else is willing to leave without a fuss. Haneek manages a parting shot at poor Kira, and that’s the end.
That’s what keeps this episode from being more than basically good, I think. It raises a number of interesting issues, but raising interesting issues doesn’t necessarily lead to great drama, especially when you don’t have much in the way of followthrough. Haneek and her people show up, they receive some back-story, they annoy some strangers, and then they move on. The only consequence is a dead kid (who, let’s be honest, was kind of a dick), and Kira has one more scratch on her conscience. “Sanctuary” is more complex and satisfying than “Second Sight,” but too much of it feels like a civics lesson instead of a story.
- I appreciate that it’s difficult to come up with new names for alien races in the Trek-verse. Given the show’s history and the scope of its media presence, most of the easy names have been taken. Still… “Skrreean”? Really? That’s just “Skreean” with a canonical typo, and the only people who would ever even notice it would be obsessive nerds, and those folks don’t really need more pointless details to drive them insane.
- The Skrreeans were conquered by the T-Rogorans, who were themselves conquered by the Dominion. Hm. Those guys have been popping up a lot lately.
- Tumak is played by the late Andrew Koenig, Walter Koenig's son. He's fine here, if a little over the top.
- Oh right, Kira gets a musician a gig at Quark’s place. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see him again, but for now, he’s incidental (and annoying.)
Next week: We face off against some “Rivals,” and come face to face with “The Alternate.”