“The Ascent” (season five, episode nine; originally aired 11/25/1996)
In which the mountain will not come to Odo and Quark…
I’m not sure who my favorite character on DS9 is. The field is too rich, the selections too diverse; and besides, more than any other Trek show I’ve watched, these characters belong so entirely to one another that trying to imagine them independently is a fool’s errand. I can, however, tell you my favorite relationship. There are plenty to choose from. I love Sisko and Jake, easily the best parent/child bond the franchise has ever produced. I love O’Brien getting over his initial irritation with Bashir and the two becoming best friends, two grown-ups who bring out the schoolboy in one another. I love Odo and Kira, Kira and Sisko, Dax and everyone, Worf and Odo, Quark and Rom… And so on. All of these relationships are compelling, and they’re all distinct; there’s history and texture to each pairing, and I’m rarely, if ever, disappointed when I learn who’s going to be hanging out with whom this week.
I love all of this. But my favorite is Odo and Quark, for reasons captured by that “The Ascent.”
First and foremost, I can’t think of another relationship on a Trek show that’s equivalent to this. Which isn’t to say that all the other interactions on DS9 are familiar; far from it. But these two together are unique in a way that, say, Jake and Sisko or O’Brien and Bashir aren’t. (The only other pair that comes close is Kira and Sisko, but in a completely different way.) That’s primarily because there’s never been a regular on a Trek show like Quark before. Odo, as we’ve discussed, fits into the franchise’s love of outsiders trying to reckon with their relationship to humanity. He’s different from Spock and Data, but he fits into that tradition, making it his own.
Quark, though? He’s new. Trek main characters are always some kind of “lawful good” on the D&D morality scale. No matter how frantic things could get on the Enterprise of the original series, no one ever pushed that hard; there might be the occasional brush with “chaotic good,” but never for very long. And if anything, the folks on Star Trek: The Next Generation were even more rigid in their morality. Picard was capable of making hard choices, but his commitment to the Prime Directive helped define who he was, and it’s hard to imagine him tolerating anyone on board his ship who tried to buck his rule for long. But Quark is complicated. You could say he’s “lawful evil,” but that doesn’t really fit; he’s greedy, but his greed comes as much from his culture as from his own needs, and the writers have been mostly successful at keeping him in a kind of gray area that makes you rethink the whole alignment system. He’s a rogue, an individual always looking out for his own self-interest, and while he’s never as cruel or deviant as an outright villain would be, he’s still an antihero, someone whose regular acts of decency or self-sacrifice can still surprise us.
Odo and Quark, then, are new: the law man and the criminal, bound together by circumstance, openly antagonistic, but secretly more dependent on one another than either is willing to admit. The closest analog I can think of in the franchise to this is Spock and McCoy, but in their case, both were on the side of the angels; what’s more, the half-Vulcan and the doctor spent time together because of Jim Kirk, and it’s hard to imagine the two hanging out without Kirk to bring them together. Odo and Quark are just Odo and Quark. The law is what binds them, but it’s something more than that, and by the time we get to “The Ascent,” it’s clear both characters realize it. Odo and Quark help define each other: If Quark exists, then Odo is a determined Sherlock Holmes, hunting down his man to the bitter end; and if Odo exists, than Quark is the brilliant Moriarty, a criminal mastermind capable of eluding one of the greatest detectives in the universe. Both of them know this is patently untrue (and one of the great parts of this episode is how both characters acknowledge how pathetic they are), but the game keeps them going. So long as no one ever wins.
Plus, there’s the fact that neither Odo nor Quark have many non-adversarial friendships. Odo has associates, and he has Kira, and there was occasionally Lwaxana, and that’s sort of it; he’s not a very sociable kind of guy, although he seems to be lightening up lately. It seems like Quark’s life should be filled with people, and yet all we ever really see him doing is annoying the main ensemble, berating his brother, and kowtowing to the Ferengi government. He knows people, sure, but like Odo, his work is his life, and neither he nor the former Changeling have a lot to show for that, prestige-wise. But they have each other to yell at, anyway.
The writers have never bothered to hide that Odo and Quark aren’t simply enemies, but at the same time, they don’t give in to outright sentimentality. “The Ascent” keeps this trend going. When Odo finds Quark in the cold open, he’s practically beaming over the chance to take the Ferengi into custody and deliver him to a grand jury on Inferna Prime. The first quarter of the episode has them trapped in a shuttle together, getting on each others’ nerves and debating the inevitability of Quark’s incarceration. Then Quark discovers a bomb, and the shuttle ends up crashing on a nearby, life-sustaining planet. With no sign of civilization, no replicator, and a transmitter that needs higher ground before it can be used effectively, the pair is forced to go for a long, long, long walk; and as food runs low, and freezing temperatures take their toll, tensions rise.
Except things never get as dark as they might have. Sure, Odo and Quark do finally snap and get into a fight that winds up with Odo breaking his leg (solidity can sure suck sometimes, huh?), but once tempers have flared, interactions go back to how they always were: contentious, but never actually hostile. With any other pair from the show in a similar situation, everything would start friendly, but gradually deteriorate. Here, open antagonism has always been a function of the friendship. It’s refreshing, in its way, to see two people who have no reason to hold back judgement or irritation. That’s another thing their cop/robber dynamic creates: they don’t have to pretend to be nice. Odo’s whole life has been trying to understand social interaction, while Quark is always trying to keep up a good front to increase profits. When it’s just the two of them, though, they can be as sarcastic, as contemptuous, and as irritable as they’d like, because they don’t have to pretend to be friends—a fact which somehow loops around and makes them friends. It’s neat.
The episode’s main story arc (there’s a subplot about Jake and Nog moving in together; see stray observations) is familiar enough to set your watch by, and yet that familiarity never becomes tedious or rote. It’s enjoyable to watch the heroes (or hero and antihero, I guess) struggle against impossible odds, bickering the whole way, and read between the lines to see the honest affection underneath all that snippiness. There’s never any real epiphany moment. Odo doesn’t suddenly turn to Quark and say, “You’ve always been there for me,” or something equally foolish; in fact, when it comes time for the constable to dictate what he believes will be his final log, he’s still making snide comments about Quark dying further up the path. In the final scene, Quark and Odo, bruised and battered in the Defiant’s infirmary, and Quark brings up an earlier scene when he told Odo he hated the former Changeling. “I just wanted you to know,” Quark says, “I meant every word of it.” “So did I,” Odo assures him. It would’ve been easy to break just a little, to have one or the other try and say something more obviously warmhearted, but I can’t imagine a more perfect ending. Or a sweeter one.
- About that Jake and Nog plot: It’s cute, and serves as a kind of supplement for the main story, in that it features two characters struggling to cope when circumstances force them into close quarters. The highlight is Nog’s sudden conviction that Rom, who’s personality has shifted a bit since his acceptance to Starfleet Academy, has to be a Changeling; it’s also nice, as ever, to watch Sisko and Jake interact. On the downside, the resolution is so slight as to be almost nonexistent, but everybody ends up happy, so who’s complaining.
- Quark brings root beer to Nog’s welcome home party. I suspect this is both a gift and a subtle form of protest.
- Quark ended up saving Odo this time around. I suppose this could affect their dynamic in the future, but I doubt it. Just look at the way Odo laughs at the end. Neither he nor Quark is really in denial about the nature of their relationship.
- “I’m not trying to rescue you. I’m taking you along as emergency rations. If you die, I’m gonna eat you.”—Quark
- Quark plays Fizzbin! And Odo reads romance novels!
- At one point, while trying to goad Quark into going on, Odo mentions Sisko, Worf, and Dax as people who would handle a crisis better. It fits back into something they were talking about earlier: they both consider themselves, and each other, losers. And in a way, they are. Quark is a subpar businessman, clever enough to survive but not quite clever enough to get much higher than that, and Odo is a freak who has managed to exile himself from the only place he might’ve truly belonged. We know they’re more than that (Quark does do the right thing in the end, and his struggles to balance Ferengi custom against his burgeoning conscience put him in a good light; Odo is quite simply a hero, tortured past and all), but there’s comfort in being around someone who doesn’t expect you to pretend you’re happy.
“Rapture” (season five, episode 10; originally aired 12/30/1996)
In which Sisko’s always turning back too late…
I’m bipolar. Very mild case, not a big deal, and I’ve been on the same level of medication for years now. But I notice every few weeks or so, the world suddenly gets a lot sharper. I make connections easier, and I come up with more ideas; the sentences I write come to my fingers almost fully formed. Which is great, but the longer this goes on, the faster those connections come, and the more irritated I get with the outside world. Everyone around is me slow, or a distraction. Worst of all, at some point, the speed is so much that I can’t match it with my methods of expression. This is a minor version of manic behavior, and if I weren’t medicated (or if my illness was more severe), I’d mostly likely find myself hugely over-confident, shouting a lot, and generating work that would seem brilliant in my head, but make absolutely no sense to an outsider. But I don’t get that bad. I just get a little wound up, until I start to think I almost have everything right, that I can make the whole world make sense. And then it slips away.
I thought about this some watching “Rapture,” which details Sisko’s efforts to find the fabled lost Bajoran city of B’Hala. For most of the episode, Sisko is in the grip of that sensation that gives the episode its title, providing him with a sort of transcendental clarity and helping him achieve his goals. I’m not the human contact for an ancient alien species (that I know of), and I haven’t been zapped by a holosuite at any point in recent memory, but it’s not hard for me to relate to Sisko’s attempts to describe what he’s feeling. And, much as I love rattling on about myself, I’d bet most everyone has had a time in their lives when they felt, however briefly, that they could find the sense in the universe. It’s just an intensified version of inspiration after all, and while hopefully none of us ever had to deal with the health problems Sisko struggles with, it’s not difficult to empathize with his passion, even as his experience moves beyond us.
I’ve expressed reservations about Prophet/Emissary-centric episodes before, but this is a good one, I think; the mysticism is grounded enough in practical terms to give the story clear stakes, while still allowing for a sense of the ineffable. It helps that all of the philosophizing comes from Sisko, a character sensible and present enough that, when he starts going off into flights of fancy, those flights have more weight to them then they might otherwise have had. The story is, Sisko becomes entranced with a millennia old painting depicting the lost city of B’Hala. (Dax’s polite but uninterested reaction to Kira and Sisko’s excitement in the cold open is great.) The painting has a pillar in it with symbols which supposedly map the city’s place in the cosmos, but because of the angle of the pillar, half the symbols are missing. But Sisko catches a reflection, and gets an idea, and starts to work in one of Quark’s holosuites. Then he gets zapped by the holosuite’s computer system, and his brain is “polarized.” (Bashir says that word a lot.) Suddenly, his work is easier, and he makes great leaps forward; but he also starts getting these terrible headaches.
If you’ve ever seen Phenomenon, you may have some idea where this is going. The “polarization” grants Sisko amazing insight and peace; instead of avoiding Kasidy Yates when she returns to the station (after serving six months for her work with the Maquis), he embraces her when she comes to see him. It’s a small touch, and never underlined, but it’s telling. Over and over, Sisko tells people how he’s able to understand how everything fits together, how everything matters—which means instead of being bogged down by uncertainty or resentment, he’s more willing to reconnect with his loved ones. He seems more at peace, although his determination to find B’Hala borders on obsession. It’s good that he’s in a positive frame of mind, since the word has come through the Federation is finally going to allow Bajor to sign on, and yet Sisko doesn’t seem to care that much. He’s reaching for something greater.
Inevitably, conflict arises. As Sisko works on finishing the hat, he spends less and less time at his duties, to the consternation of Admiral Charles Whatley (Ernest Perry Jr.). That’s the problem with inspiration: it’s almost impossible to explain to the people around you why what you’re doing is so important, because so much of what you’re experiencing is intuition and passion. That doesn’t change the fact that Sisko has a very real job to do, and even after he uncovers B’Hala, he’s still putting aside his duties and spending his time staring at the remnants of the city, reaching for something he can’t articulate.
The situation only becomes more dire when the headaches get worse, and Bashir determines that Sisko could very well die if he doesn’t get treatment for his condition. Sisko refuses the treatment, which upsets Jake and Kasidy. This isn’t the most exciting conflict, but the actors manage to sell it. Mainly, it works because of Avery Brooks, who does a fantastic job of selling Sisko’s sudden transition from levelheaded station captain to galvanized prophet. Sisko’s moments of quiet reflection, and his bursts of passionate, almost-there revelation come across equally well, and intentionally or not, the episode manages to put us more on his side than on the side of his family and friends. While they want what’s best for him, it’s impossible to watch Brooks speechify about his visions without wanting to see him follow through, risk to his health be damned. The tension in “Rapture” comes not from concerns over Sisko’s safety (it’s not like the writers were going to kill him off), but from hoping he’ll be able to hold out long enough to get what he needs from his dying brain.
“Rapture” doesn’t have much in the way of subplots. The possibility that Bajor will finally join the Federation is one of those things that sounds like a bigger deal than it actually is, even before Sisko’s revelations put an end to the proceedings. It’s a nice bit of ongoing serialization, though; while Bajor has been interested in signing on since the start of the show, applying for Federation membership is presumably a long, tedious process, so it makes sense that most of it would’ve happened behind the scenes.
The signing ceremony also means the return of Kai Winn, whose her usual sunshiny self. There’s some effort made in the script to try and, well, not redeem her character, exactly, but at least make her less horrible. She apologizes to Kira about having once doubted Sisko’s role as the Emissary, and later, she gets a monologue about how much she suffered during the Cardassian occupation, accusing Kira and her fellow revolutionaries of not taking Winn’s struggles seriously. Louise Fletcher is excellent as always, and she delivers the monologue well, but it doesn’t land; like Worf’s dead-soccer-boy speech, it’s too obviously a ploy meant to make us react a certain way. I doubt any of the writers really believed Winn’s complaint would make her totally sympathetic, but there is the sense that the anger she shows to Kira is a righteous anger, and that doesn’t really play. It’s too simplistic, and too late.
Ultimately, Sisko decides to commune with the Orb of Prophecy, and in doing so, he gets what he needs: the understanding that the visions he’s been seeing are a warning that it’s too soon for Bajor to join the Federation. So he stumbles into the ceremony and manages to block the signing. Then he collapses, passes out, and Jake gives Bashir permission to perform the surgery, much to Sisko’s eventual dismay. The despondency in Brooks’ voice when he wakes up and realizes what has happened is very convincing, and helps keep this from being too neat and tidy. At first, it seems odd that Sisko disrupts the entrance ceremony without any repercussions from the Federation, but as the Admiral points out, the Bajorans value their Emissary so highly, it’s not like Starfleet could replace him without serious repercussions. It’s still a little neat and tidy, especially for a storyline with such cosmic ambitions, but honestly, I’m just relieved to have Sisko back to normal again. Whenever I find my thinking has slowed back down, and the work comes a bit harder, I’m disappointed. But it’s still good to know where the ground is.
- Huzzah for Kasidy Yates! She’s mostly a spectator this time around, but it’s good to have her on the show again.
- At one point, Sisko wanders through a crowd of Bajorans and answers unasked questions about their lives. If he ever wanted to ignore the Emissary part of his job, I think that’s a lost cause now.
- How great is Brooks? He sells this line: “The baby that I’m holding in my hands now is the universe. I need time to study its face.”
Next week: We get a longer overdue Kira episode with “The Darkness And The Light,” and Odo adopts in “The Begotten.”