“The Visitor” (season 4, episode 2; originally aired 10/9/1995)
In which Benjamin Sisko comes unstuck in time...
I decided I was going to be a writer when I was 11 years old. Like most kids, I’d wandered around a lot of ideas before settling on this one; but once it came to me, it stuck. I’m sure my parents must have had their doubts, and they were very insistent on making sure I went to college and got a degree to fall back on, but they never tried to convince me to give up, or that it was an impossible goal, or that I was being impractical or foolish, or any of a thousand of the things a loving parent will tell their child when they’re worried that child is making a horrible mistake. There was one time, it all came crashing down, the sheer improbability of what I wanted to be, the way the odds stacked against me like the elephant tower in Dumbo: ridiculous, roaring, and ready to collapse. So there I was, sitting on my bed, crying because I was lost and stupid and a failure, and my dad sitting next to me, patient, saying, “Well, somebody has to write the books. No reason it couldn’t be you.” Or something like that. It’s funny what stays with you.
Sisko’s relationship with his son has always been one of Deep Space Nine’s best relationships, the sort of stable, quietly perfect bond that helps to ground both characters without ever really needing to be underlined. The two will get the occasional episode story from time to time; maybe Jake is struggling with Nog, or he has a new girlfriend, or he’s considering leaving the station to go to school back on Earth. These are pleasant stories, mildly angsty on occasion, but there’s never any doubt of the love between the two. So many shows think the way to generate drama between a parent and a growing child is to force fake drama, to turn the developing teenager into a self-centered howling ball of contradictions because, hey, kids are crazy, right? And while sure, adolescents can be obnoxious, so can everybody; there’s something refreshing and charming about someone like Jake, who can be a twerp, but is fundamentally level-headed and kind. The fact that Sisko is a good father makes us like him more, and works to contextualize the show’s stakes and ambitions. Yeah, this guy’s the head of a space station, facing down a mysterious and utterly alien threat, dealing with all manner of bizarre technical catastrophes and squabbling races, but he’s also just a dad, making dinner for his son and trying to encourage him down the right path.
It’s one of those bizarre technical catastrophes that kicks off the plot for “The Visitor,” although we don’t know that at first. The episode is playing us from the start; instead of the station, the cold open is set in a house in Louisiana, and instead of any immediately familiar actors from the cast, we see Tony Todd in old age make-up, moving slowly about the house, looking at photos (hey, it’s Sisko!), and injecting himself with a high-tech syringe. We soon learn that this is, in fact, someone we know, and know well: It’s Jake Sisko, all grown up. A young woman who wants to be a writer comes to see him, and asks him why he gave up his work. It’s raining, and he’s tired, and she’s worshipful, so he decides to tell her. Why not. If everything goes according to plan, it will be his last chance to tell his story to anyone.
I knew the premise of the episode going in, so I wasn’t surprised by the opening, but I imagine it must have been somewhat disorienting to fans of the show. But then, this isn’t really like other episodes. It features most of the usual cast, it doesn’t try and force us to accept a completely new set of rules and universe, but “The Visitor” is strange, and makes sure to draw attention to that strangeness without making too big a deal of it. This is a bit like a “What if?” episode; it draws on established show continuity, but much of what happens over the course of the hour is undone by the end, and won’t really have an impact on future storylines. I’ve read this used as a criticism, the argument being that without real consequences, the emotions the episode tries to generate are somehow a cheat. To me, the oddness of it, the ephemeral quality of Old Jake’s life and what he does with it, is part of what makes “The Visitor” so powerful. The truths here are built into who Jake and Sisko are. Here is the problem; this is how they deal with it.
My dad had a beeper. That’s a joke now, thanks to 30 Rock and the existence of cell phones, but when I was 8, it wasn’t funny at all. It was a small black device about the size of a cigarette pack, and when it went off, it screamed in a piercing, nasal whine that you could hear anywhere in the house. I hated that fucking thing. During the week, I didn’t really think about it; Dad was off in Portland or the shipyard or Portsmouth, NH, fixing machines and drinking too much coffee. That’s what Dads did. But evenings and weekends, my father was supposed to be home, and we’d sit around the table eating dinner, and the beeper would go off. Or we’d be playing a game of Dr. Mario (I always won), or just watching TV, and the beeper would go off. Or it would be Saturday, and we’d have plans to go to the movies, and the beeper would go off. Or we’d be headed to camp, and the beeper would go off. It didn’t always happen, but after awhile, I stopped being able to trust that he’d ever really be anywhere. There was a time when the strongest image I had of my father was someone just a few steps shy of the door; whether coming or going, I could never say.
If “The Visitor” has a flaw, it’s that the premise is pure Star Trek hokum: something something wormhole something flux something warp core. Given the time that passes, and the nature of that time, the episode is vaguely reminiscent of “The Inner Light” from Star Trek: The Next Generation, but there, Picard’s experience is created for a specific purpose. Here, it’s just an accident. Sisko gets hit by an energy beam and disappears. Everyone assumes he’s dead, but because this is Star Trek, and because Sisko is a main character, he isn’t. Instead, he’s kicked out of sync with standard time, and now only appears in the real world at intermittent intervals. Months and months after his own funeral, Benjamin reappears in his son’s bedroom, confused, groggy, and looking exactly the same as he did when he first vanished. He barely has time to say hello before he fades away. Jake thinks it’s a dream, but then it happens again, and this time, Sisko stays around long enough for Bashir to study him, and determine the problem. Which is, let’s be honest, basically magic. The technobabble is simple enough to make the right amount of sense, but the details of the crisis itself have no emotional impact. There’s no deeper truth Jake and Sisko have to learn about just what happened that day in the Defiant’s engine room. Before the ending, the closest thing to a reveal the episode has is when Jake realizes his father is linked directly to him—that the appearances are always around him, which is why they keep happening, even after he leaves the station.
Still, there’s something to be said for following through the real impact of one of those loopy sci-fi calamities that have always been a reliable plot generator for the franchise. O’Brien had his own bad luck with time travel in last season’s “Visionary,” but Jake’s troubles have a scope that earlier episode didn’t. Losing a parent is horrible enough (and Jake didn’t have any to spare), but he’s haunted by his old man, not just for a few days but for the rest of his life. Sisko isn’t dead. Jake knows this, but there’s nothing he can do about it but move on. There’s randomness to the event, a cruel lack of purpose or clear arc, that renders it impossible to get over. Jake tries. With Sisko gone, the Bajorans lose their faith in Federation protection, and they make a pact with the Cardassians against the Klingon threat. Later, Starfleet hands over control of DS9 to the Klingons, and Jake is forced to leave; thinking he’s abandoned his father behind for good, he goes to school, he gets married, he writes a novel and a collection of short stories. But then Dad shows up in the living room, and it’s like the past won’t let go. Avery Brooks and Cirroc Lofton do terrific work throughout the hour (Lofton gives the best performance I’ve seen him give on the show), but this belongs to Tony Todd. Old or young, there’s something sad and joyous wrapped up in him, and the look on his face when he sees his father again is everything. He’s relieved and destroyed at once. He gives up his writing career, he loses his wife, he sacrifices his own life to get back what he lost: not just the man, but the home that man stood for, back when life made sense.
Fishing at night is easier than I thought it would be. It’s easier than fishing in the day, almost. Dad and I go out to the raft after supper, and he gets a big flashlight out of the canoe. (I don’t trust the canoe, it rocks back and forth when you climb in, and I’m scared I’ll tip it and dump everything into the lake.) He turns the flashlight on, and stands it top down between two of the raft’s slats, shining white light onto the water, making glow. The light, Dad says, attracts fish, and he’s right; we don’t have to wait long before one us gets a bite, but it’s a lot of patient tugging and swearing (from Dad) before we catch anything. I catch an eel, and it is the ugliest, freakiest thing I’ve seen in my whole life. It whipsaws back and forth in my hands, and it’s hard to keep my grip, but I have to hold on long enough for my dad to get the hook out of its mouth. He does, and I throw the eel back into the lake; I’m completely convinced the eel will remember my name and hate me forever, and that, when I inevitably tip the canoe over, it will be waiting. Dad asks me what I’m reading these days. I tell him I’m on the second book of the Foundation series, which I know he’s read, because I’m reading his copy. We talk about Asimov for a while. The stars come out.
It’s no simple thing, saying why “The Visitor” is so affecting. The hook isn’t a doomed romance, or the power of science, or the horrors of war. Watching it for the first time, I was surprised at how straightforward it is, how moderated and undemanding. There’s not a lot of shouting. Jake is more desperate as he gets older, but we really only see the after-effects of that desperation. We don’t see his wife leave; we hear about it. We don’t watch him quit writing; we just know he did, because the woman who comes to see him keeps asking about it. I suppose you could say it’s not all that heartbreaking to watch his life come undone by bad luck and love, since he gets a do-over in the end. I don’t buy that though, because Jake’s agony, and his ultimate decision to kill himself in order to free his father (and, hopefully, himself), isn’t about consequence. It’s about showing us something that was already there, that was always there. I cried, but not when Sisko realized what his son had done—although that’s an amazing moment, and the way Sisko is so immediately horrified speaks to his credit. I cried when Old Jake, woke up to find his father watching him, smiling. I cry thinking about it now.
The thing is, I see my dad fairly regularly these days. He likes to come over for the weekend every month or two; we drink beer, watch movies, and talk about books. Sometimes, he asks me how my writing’s going, and I try and be honest without getting too heavy, but I think he knows I have my good days and my bad. He’ll say something supportive, but he’s got his own problems, because that’s what happens. Sisko gets to go back in time, and dodge the energy beam, and save his and his son’s life. And I’m sure they’ll stay close for the rest of their lives, but closeness never lasts the way we want it to. I talk to my dad on the phone. He gives me advice about my car, and sometimes it feels like we’re imitations of people we both used to be, like I’m a supporting cast member who left the show years ago, and only comes back for a guest spot when I need the money. This isn’t a tragedy. This is how life works. Jake and Sisko will have many more moments together than they had in Old Jake’s timeline, but after a while, that’s all they’ll be: moments. And we cling to them, no matter how many or how few, because that’s what we get. In the end, we’re all just visiting.
Next week: Happy holidays! We’re off for winter break, but we'll return January 3, with “Hippocratic Oath” and “Indiscretion.”