Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “The Forsaken”/“Dramatis Personae”
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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “The Forsaken”/“Dramatis Personae”

“The Forsaken” (season 1, episode 17; originally aired 5/23/1993)
In which there is no love in an elevator, but some minor understanding in a turbolift

There’s an elevator in the library where I work, and I use it every day. Part of my job (my non-pop-culture-ingesting-and-scoring-cheap-points job) is pulling books and periodicals from various floors, so every morning, I grab a cart, and hit the stacks. That means, on average, between seven to ten elevator trips per day. It’s not something I think about much, except when I bump into someone else. Then it gets awkward. Other staff, custodians, faculty, and students also use the elevator, and as much as I might try to avoid it, every once in a while, someone’s waiting ahead of me. Or, worse, they show up while I’m waiting, and then it’s all a lot of avoiding eye contact and trying to look like I’m not avoiding eye contact because that would make it weird. Worst of all is when the elevator arrives, and the other person assumes we’re going to share the ride. I’m more than willing to wait, and the cart helps me pretend it’s entirely due to space concerns; really, though, I just don’t like sharing an elevator with people. I like everyone I work with, and I have absolutely nothing against anyone else at the school, but there’s something unavoidably intimate about being in a small space with a stranger, even if its only for a few moments. In my ideal world, I would never have to be that close to anyone unless I chose to be. But life doesn’t work like that. Eventually, someone’s to cram themselves in next to you, ask you how your day is going, and keep on talking whether you answer them or not.

There’s an elevator in “The Forsaken,” although because this is science fiction, everyone goes to great lengths to call it a turbolift. Odo gets trapped on one with the visiting Lwaxana Troi, and, at first, it’s about as awkward as you’d imagine. Awkwardness is the main theme of this week’s first episode, featuring prominently in all three of its plotlines. There’s Odo, fending off Lwaxana’s advances until there’s no place left to hide; Bashir, stuck playing nanny for a trio of impossible to please and insufferably arrogant ambassadors; and O’Brien, whose problems with the Cardassian computer system. Those problems seem to go away when a mysterious probe comes through the wormhole and infects the station, and it’s this infestation which gives the episode its hook. As hooks go, however, this is about as indifferent as you can imagine. O’Brien downloads information off the probe’s hard drive to study it, and strange things start happening; Dax theorizes that the information they downloaded is actually a form of non-biological life; and O’Brien ultimately creates a programmed playground for the “creature” to hang out in.

Probe-wise, that’s really it. The “non-biological life form” is an intriguing idea, but the episode never goes very far with it. The various Treks have used this set-up--stumbling across an unknown device that takes over the ship/station--many, many times before, and the handling of it here is perfunctory to the point of self-parody. The only confirmation that any of Dax and O’Brien’s theories are right is that they’re able to resolve the station’s difficulties by following through on their hypothesis. That’s certainly logical, but it also leaves us with a storyline that never goes beyond the surface. Much the same could be said for the tale of Bashir’s struggles with the ambassadors. They’re pompous prats, and he’s stuck toadying to them and desperately trying to keep them happy while Sisko avoids their requests. This happens a few times, then everything on the station goes to hell, and Bashir is trapped in a corridor with the group after an explosion. His quick thinking gets them all to the safety of a maintenance duct, and the last we see of the ambassadors, they’re praising Bashir to the heavens and calling him “Julian.”

Both of these plots are enjoyable in their way, but there isn’t much to them. We don’t learn much about the ambassadors, beyond the fact that they confirm the usual Trek suspicion of bureaucracy, and Bashir’s “solution” to dealing with them is, essentially, “Just wait until something blows up.” There’s a certain level of competence, be it in television, film, or literature, that’s difficult to effectively criticize, and the tales of O’Brien and the Probe, and the Doctor vs. the Dickheads, fall into that level. I could point out that the ambassadors are stereotypes, or that the probe itself is a cliche, but that would require a specific resentment or disappointment on my part which doesn’t exist. These are small pieces with minimal ambition, and they hit their marks. Dax and O’Brien get to team up for a while, which makes me like them more; and Bashir gets to be routinely humbled and embarrassed, which makes me like him more. The show can do better, but it’s easy to spend too much time criticizing an episode for what it might have been. So let’s just say that this was fine, and move on to what really matters.

In this case, that’s the third plotline, and easily the most meaningful of the bunch: Odo’s relationship with Lwaxana. Truth be told, if “The Forsaken” (whose title is, so far as I can tell, even more meaningless than usual) lacked this final element, I’d probably be harder on its other, less powerful segments; but while trapping two disparate characters together in an enclosed space is about as stock a TV situation as one can imagine, the drama and catharsis these two generate help justify every other aspect of the episode.

Lwaxana Troi has always been a problematic character. She first appeared in the season one Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Haven,” where she served in the capacity of the annoying relative everyone has to put up with because she’s really a good person deep down. As Deanna Troi’s mother, Lwaxana (Majel Barett) was by turns shrill, aggressive, cloying, and, in her best moments, convincingly melancholic, and whether or not she was tolerable depended on what version of the character the writers decided to have show up this week. As conceived, the character could’ve worked, but TNG too often struggled with how to use her, relying too often on the painfully unfunny “comedy” of an older woman being sexually aggressive and rude. At times, we were allowed a more complex view, and Barett was usually able to deliver in this moments; mostly, though, she just shrieked at her daughter and assaulted Jean-Luc Picard with innuendo.

At first, “The Forsaken” seems to be following the same path. Lwaxana is the fourth ambassador, and when someone tries to steal her brooch in Quark’s bar, and Odo catches the thief, the Betazoid woman is immediately taken with him. Odo, unsurprisingly, doesn’t know what to make of her interest. At first, he doesn’t understand that she’s flirting with him, and then he’s uncomfortable and asks Sisko for help. Sisko, in essence, shrugs and tells him to deal with it himself. All of this should be familiar to TNG fans, right down to the way Odo sticks his head out to see if Lwaxana is around before entering a room. It’s a little less painful than Picard’s attempts to dodge the lady, but that’s because Picard was ostensibly the most powerful man on the Enterprise, and his cowardly avoidance of Lwaxana never really made much sense--it was more something that was done because someone thought it would be funny than it was in keeping with his character. Like Picard, Odo is confident in his own world, but not comfortable with socializing, but Odo’s discomfort stems from his own rarefied existence. He’s never quite sure how he should behave around anyone when it’s not a business matter (which is why he gets on with Quark, really; every conversation they have is about business), and Lwaxana’s rudeness just throws his essential oddness into sharper focus. We can laugh at his embarrassment, but sympathize with him as well.

It’s harder to sympathize with Lwaxana, at least at first. If I have a complaint about their story, it’s that Lwaxana’s sudden interest in Odo is a little too sudden, but then, that’s always been the way with her. People who push themselves on other people have always rubbed me the wrong way, and I never found Pepe Le Pew, Ms. Troi’s clearest spiritual ancestor, all that amusing. Thankfully, we’re given reason to like her once she and Odo get trapped in the turbolift. Initially, Lwaxana gets nervous and can’t stop talking, while Odo reacts as one might expect him to react, with a lot of rolled eyes and groans. But in this context, Lwaxana’s chatter goes from pushy and irritating to a little sad. If you’ve ever watched TNG, this revelation won’t come as a surprise, but Lwaxana has always been a little sad, all the more so because she herself recognizes it. She wears colorful clothes and exotic wigs, she insists on getting whatever she wants, and she keeps shoving herself into other people’s lives because she’s rather lonely, and terrified of ever looking into the mirror and seeing something less than extraordinary.

That’s fine for what it is, but “The Forsaken” becomes exceptional when it also takes the time to get inside Odo’s head. Every 16 hours, Odo becomes a liquid, and his time runs out in the lift, forcing him to show a side of himself to Lwaxana that he’s never revealed to anyone before. It comes in stages; first he starts to sweat, then his face melts, and then his entire body loses solidity. For the first time, we learn where Odo became who is he is today, in a Bajoran testing facility, and we find out that he spent much of his “childhood” changing his shape so he could impress the scientists. So for as long as he can remember, he hasn’t belonged, and the only way he could attract attention was by showing just how different he is. He’s established himself on Deep Space Nine, and while he uses his ability in pursuit of criminals, it’s more a super-power than it is a defining trait. His Odo-ness is unquestioned, and maybe the reason he’s so gruff and single-minded is the same reason he moves so stiffly, and his features are nearly, but not exactly, human--being a person, for Odo, requires a conscious and constant act of will.

It’s not surprise, then, that he doesn’t want to show himself in his purest form to anyone. None of us would want that. While Odo’s position is more explicit, being human, and being around other people, already requires an effort. The face we show the world is self-constructed; for some of us, the construction is more laborious than it is for others, but every inch of it is the face we made, feature by feature, choice by choice. Lwaxana understands this better than most, and she’s able to convey her understanding to Odo in way that allows him to finally let himself go. There’s always been something a little contrived about the elder Troi, a little forced and manufactured, and “The Forsaken” finds a way to use what could’ve been a writing flaw to its benefit. “I’ve never cared to be ordinary,” she tells Odo, and while that sadness remains, there’s something beautiful in it as well. In her way, Lwaxana is as much a misfit as Odo, whether by her choosing, or else by some fundamental aspect of her personality that drives her to make her choices. At the end of the episode, Lwaxana flirts one last time before walking off, and for once, the sight didn’t make me flinch. She may not be the easiest person in the world to deal with, but some people are worth the effort.

Stray observations:

  • The effect of Odo collapsing into liquid and Lwaxana catching him in her dress is a fine idea which doesn’t really work on screen. I like the concept enough to give it a pass, though.

“Dramatis Personae” (season 1, episode 18; originally aired 5/30/1993)
In which we weave a tangled web

Once again, we’ve got what could’ve easily been the premise of a Star Trek or TNG episode, and once again, the DS9 writers give enough information to justify the main plot without bothering to go any deeper. The set-up here is hilariously sketchy: a Klingon ship, doing a survey in the Gamma Quadrant, stumbles across some energy spheres that contain the history of a long dead race. The spheres infect the Klingons, forcing the ship’s crew to re-enact ancient power struggles, and when the last Klingon survivor arrives on DS9, he dies, but not before infecting most of the crew. Ostensibly, this is another parable about the dangers of obsessive conflict and greed, but we’re never told anything about the race that created the spheres, and we never know if the spheres were intended as their memorial, or simply their way to share the wealth. There’s no time put into explaining how the spheres could have such an effect, and Odo’s method for defeating them is the usual tech-speak silliness. It’s hard to ignore the fact that we’re still in the first season, and we’ve already had seemingly half a dozen of these Wormhole Of The Week storylines.

But it doesn’t matter. Oh sure, it could matter down the line, and the more often the show uses this trope, the more strained it will seem. But if the results are as consistently entertaining and energetic as the theatrics we get in “Dramatis Personae,” it’ll be hard to object to a little predictability. “The Forsaken” used a goofy premise to get in some lovely character development; “Dramatis Personae” uses the same, and while there’s no great revelation here as there was between Odo and Lwaxana, the result is still better than you’d expect. We already know that there’s some stress between Kira and Sisko. This was established in the pilot, and nothing we see in this episode changes what we know, or offers much surprise. It doesn’t need to. This is play, pure and simple. It’s also great proof of how competently the show has managed to establish its ensemble. The great pleasure in this kind of episode is seeing familiar faces behave in unexpected ways. That doesn’t work if the cast is ill-defined, and the boundaries between them unclear.

Kira is upset. A Valerian ship wants to dock at the station, and she believes the Valerians sold weapons to the Cardassians during the war. She wants to hold them on charges of war profiteering, but she doesn’t have proof, and Sisko won’t let her search the ship without good reason. They have a discussion about this, but they manage to reach a decent compromise. Kira will continue her investigations, and Sisko will make sure she doesn’t overreach. Then a Klingon from the science vessel Toh’Kaht is beamed over to DS9 before his ship explodes. He says one word--”Victory”--and then dies, but not before making sure everyone on the station’s bridge is going to have a fun time for the next few days. Kira suddenly gets it into her head that she has enough to search the Valerians’ ship after all, and when Sisko objects, she starts asking questions of the rest of the crew. Questions about loyalty, and about whose side everyone is on, and about what’s going to happen when her current argument with Sisko finally erupts into outright conflict.

While Kira gets her evil on, Sisko becomes fascinated with clock-building; O’Brien decides it’s his job to defend Sisko from Bajoran predations; Dax gets lost in her own memories; and Bashir, well, Bashir becomes slightly devious. The doctor spends most of this episode on the back bench, which is too bad, but thankfully Evil Kira and Evil O’Brien (and Sort Of Evil But Also Crazy Sisko) offer more than enough amusement. After weeks of being racked by self-doubt, guilt, and insecurity, Nana Visitor seems to relish the chance to enjoy herself, and she goes to it with gusto, flirting with Odo, throttling Quark, and basically proving that, if she ever really wanted to, she could make one hell of a villain. O’Brien does his best, but he can’t really match her. She’s got the contacts aboard the station that O’Brien and Sisko lack, and more importantly, she’s got a gusto for her work that the Chief can’t really compete with. Maybe we can take that as character development. O’Brien: decent chap, and smart in his work, but not really suited for the role of tyrannical power behind the throne. Kira: Bad-ass held largely in check by her conscience. Sisko: when allowed to follow his deepest impulses, makes clocks.

That works all right, but it’s certainly not necessary to believe any of it to enjoy the episode. This is where our lack of knowledge about the spheres becomes more problematic. We don’t know how much of what Kira and the rest do is informed by their actual personalities, and how much of it is created by whatever force infects them. Kira apologizes at the end for her behavior, and Sisko accepts her apology, but it doesn’t seem like something she needed to say. While DS9 has yet to fully invest in serialization, it has done well at character continuity, and in that regard, “Dramatis Personae” plays like an exception which proves the rule. Sisko and Kira’s relationship, and by extension the Federation’s relationship with the unsteady Bajor, has been building for a while, and the conflict which plays out here is one possibly outcome of that relationship. But it’s also entirely disconnected to who these characters are.

About the only character who gets to stay himself for any substantial amount of time is Odo, who is having something of a banner week. Apart from a single, terrifyingly convincing seizure in Quark’s bar, Odo is unaffected by the infecting influence, and it’s up to him to stop everyone else from murdering each other. He goes about this with a minimum of fuss, which is another reason to like this episode. In most other shows doing a body-snatching plot (or mind-corruption, or whatever you want to call it), the hero takes a while to catch on, and even when he suspects something is amiss, he can’t help himself from being confused, or trying to appeal to the reason of his friends and co-workers. It does take Odo time to realize what’s happened, long enough for me to wonder, at first, if he hadn’t also been affected, but once he catches on, he doesn’t question it. Better still, he uses his knowledge to his advantage, playing Sisko and Kira off each other as needed, and even convincing Devious Bashir to help him find a solution to the invasion. Odo is immune because he doesn’t have the same sort of insides as the rest of the crew, but it makes sense from a character perspective that he’d be the one to recognize the problem. His whole life has been built around watching others for cues on how to behave; he’d realize quicker than anyone else when that behavior turned sour. I thought last week that Kira was by far my favorite part of the ensemble, and “Dramatis Personae” certainly doesn’t do her any harm. But Odo is also terrific. The first season of DS9 has its faults, but it’s showing, week in and week out, that when you have the ensemble and a world worth building, those faults are fleeting.

Stray observation:

  • It’s a throwaway line, but someone, I believe Odo, explains that the Klingon from the Toh’Kaht brought the sphere influence to the bridge crew. Which means that the only people who should’ve been affected were those characters on the bridge when the Klingon was beamed over. There are going to be some complicated questions in the next few weeks from all the guards and personnel who tried to help Kira fight a rebellion.
  • I wonder why Dax got so distracted? It was funny, and worked well for the actress, but there’s never any explanation for it.
  • Straight guys, talkin’ ‘bout Trek: Nana Visitor is feisty when she’s villainous.

Next week: We come to the end of the first season with “Duet” and “In The Hands Of The Prophets.” 

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