Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “Ties Of Blood And Water”/“Ferengi Love Songs”
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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “Ties Of Blood And Water”/“Ferengi Love Songs”

“Ties Of Blood And Water” (season five, episode 19; originally aired 4/14/1997)

In which Kira doesn’t want to say goodbye...

(Available on Netflix and Amazon.)

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the pleasures and perils of binge-watching television. Like so much of what we talk about on the Internet, it’s never something I’ve really thought about before; I’ve gone on runs of shows from time to time, but it’s always felt like a private, almost shameful thing—what kind of a messed up shut-in can spend three days of vacation plowing through Slings And Arrows in its entirety? (Hand raised.) But now everybody’s doing it, and everybody else is worried about it, and like anything, there are advantages and disadvantages. I don’t binge-watch Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; I stick to the schedule, two episodes a week, and while that means I often miss on foreshadowing, it’s fun to not know what’s coming. Still, sometimes the grind kicks in, and this week got me to thinking about how that grind can affect how I watch the show, which, in turn, affects how I write about it.

“Ties Of Blood And Water” is another not-terrible-not-classic hour, with some excellent acting from the cast, Nana Visitor especially. Avery Brooks directed; it’s an old saw that actors-turned-directors get strong performances out of their casts, and this episode doesn’t dispute that. And the script’s… fine? I want to say fine. It’s better than the last Kira-centric episode, and there’s some legitimate pathos mined in the episode’s more overtly sentimental moments. Plus, Jeffrey Combs makes his triumphant return as the not-quite-dead Weyoun (it’s a clone thing), Gul Dukat is an ass, and Sisko gets to talk some smack. 

On the downside, “Ties Of Blood And Water” feels perfunctory. But “perfunctory” is a questionable criticism, relying even more on eye-of-the-beholder assumptions than normal. There comes a point in the weekly-reviewing biz (he said, sipping a latte and idly fingering a pile of cocaine) when “good enough” isn’t really good enough. It gets hard to dredge up interesting commentary, so you start to nitpick, and that doesn’t make anyone happy.

Whining aside, let’s focus on what works. The premise: Back in the third season’s “Second Skin,” Kira was kidnapped by the Obsidian Order, made to look like a Cardassian, and stuck in the house of a prominent Cardassian official under the pretense that she was the official’s daughter, back from a long undercover mission on Bajor. After a lot of shouting, Kira figured out that the Order didn’t have designs on her, but was instead using her to discredit Tekeny Ghemor (Lawrence Pressman), the official who mistakes Kira for his missing child. That episode had a happy ending, and this sort-of sequel picks up with Ghemor returning to Deep Space Nine. Kira wants him to run a Cardassian government in exile, in opposition to Dukat, but Ghemor is dying. He offers to give up everything he knows about the Cardassian political system, and Kira agrees to depose him. But she’s got some memories of her own to deal with—specifically, her own father’s death, and how she handled it.

Kira stories work best when they have a clear emotional center, and it’s hard to get much clearer than, “I abandoned my father because I couldn’t face losing him.” The Kira/Ghemor relationship seems willed into existence for the purpose of this story, but Visitor and Pressman sell what they’re given, and the straightforward, undeniable sense of loss that runs throughout the episode is hard to deny. Ghemor gives Kira some sold intel on the Cardassian government (and Dukat’s enemies), but none of it changes the fact that the dead are gone and the dying are going. Nor does it reunite Ghemor with his missing daughter, or kick Dukat out of his leadership role, or do anything but give our heroes some helpful tips, and allow Kira a chance at  imperfect closure. The drama in the episode is muted, and that’s all to the good; the power here comes not so much from tension (although there is one source of suspense), but from watching people we’ve come to care about accept once more the inevitabilities of their universe. Of all universes, really.

While Kira and Ghemor take center stage, “Ties Of Blood And Water” also brings back Weyoun, the magnificently smarmy bastard last seen in “To The Death.” Funny thing: Weyoun was vaporized by his own troops at the end of that story, but here he is at Gul Dukat’s side, snarking on the action and seemingly amused by everything. When Sisko, serving as an audience surrogate, acts surprised, Weyoun explains that the Weyoun Sisko saw killed was actually a clone—version four, to be exact, and the version we see in this episode (who survives the hour) is version five. This is the first we’ve heard of the Vorta’s cloning procedures, but it makes enough sense to work, and Weyoun is such an excellent character that I’m grateful for any excuse to have him back. He and Dukat stick largely to the sidelines; they’re on the station because Ghemor knows where some bodies are buried, and Dukat wants to bring the dying Cardassian back home. Sisko, unsurprisingly, doesn’t give a damn what Dukat wants, which means we get some fun, snippy exchanges between the two of them. Plus, Weyoun looks like he’s having a hell of a time, commenting on the action as it unfolds without really caring how things work out. Dukat is all barely restrained contempt and veiled threats, but Weyoun, apparently, doesn’t give a shit. Which makes sense. For the Vorta, Cardassia is just one more planet full of suckers to put up with. They’re the mid-level bureaucrats, the just-following-orders managers. It’s refreshing to see Weyoun enjoying himself in the middle of all this angst, and it also makes you wonder what will happen if he ever has to get serious.

So what doesn’t work? As good as the actors are, Kira and Ghemor’s relationship feels forced. Over and over we’re told how Ghemor is like a second father to Kira, and that Kira is the only “family” he has left, but this is a character we haven’t seen in two seasons; we haven’t had sufficient time to build up an investment in the relationship. And it’s not like Kira spent that much time as Ghemor’s daughter. While the performances are good, their emotional impact is blunted by the lack of grounding, by the impossible to ignore sense that this entire situation has been contrived to generate the most pathos possible. DS9 has never been one to shy away from melodrama, and maybe my reaction here is just needlessly harsh; maybe the show’s rhythms have grown too predictable for me and I need a break. This is not a caveat I’ll be using again in these reviews (because c’mon), but there were points watching “Ties Of Blood And Water” where I wondered if my already deeply subjective perspective hadn’t completely lost sight of what mattered.

Because the story of Kira’s father does work. Ghemor and his sudden death may be a means to an end, but that end is striking in its directness. Kira’s father was fatally injured in a Cardassian attack, and instead of staying with him as he died, Kira went out to get revenge. When she learned her dad passed away while she was out shooting dudes, she left to shoot some more dudes. I appreciate the unforgiving simplicity of that, the way it implicates Kira without blaming her, and shows us yet another piece of what drove the Bajoran resistance: not just rage, not just a desire for justice, but the need to keep moving, to give yourself something to do in the face of loss. That’s a strong, rich theme to work from, and maybe what really hurts is this episode has nothing do with my assumptions, or anything about me. Maybe it’s simply that the Ghemor framing device, even though it gives Kira a small chance to make up for the past, is never as effective as the idea it was created to support. Kira’s dad is even more of a cipher than Ghemor, but he’s less important than what he represents, and it’s too bad there wasn’t a more effective way to bring this all together.

Stray observations:

  • This is as good a place as any: After we finish season five of DS9, I’ll once again be taking a break from the show until the fall, to write about Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The fresh air should do me good.
  • We had a bit of a Jeffrey Combs renaissance this week. I’m cool with that.
  • “Immortality.” “Of a sort. Interested?”—Quick exchange between Sisko and Weyoun that shows the latter hasn’t lost a step.
  • Kira’s wig in those flashbacks is something, isn’t it?
  • I always appreciate it when a show is willing to let one of its heroes look bad, and Kira isn’t at her most sympathetic for much of this hour. Her near-refusal to see Ghemor before his death is a great irrational choice, because we understand why she’s doing it, even while we wish she wouldn’t.
  • “Regardless of what Ghemor’s done in the past, he doesn’t deserve to die alone. Nobody does.”—Bashir doesn’t get a ton to do this hour, but what he gets is great.
  • Kira’s monologue at the end, while redundant (it helps us understand her a little better, but we saw the story she tells unfold in flashback) is well-delivered.

“Ferengi Love Songs” (season five, episode 20; originally aired 4/21/1997)

In which you’d think we would have had enough of silly plotlines…

(Available on Netflix and Amazon.)

Well, at least this one warns you straight off in the title. It’s hard to think of a more unpromising combination of words; the cheeky reference to a terrible Paul McCartney song, the threat of another Ferengi-centric storyline so soon after the last one, the knowledge that Trek nearly always struggles when it tries to focus on romance. Who knows why it was necessary to tell this story, but at least the writers give you a chance to opt out early. Save yourself! Maybe there’ll be an Odo story next week.

I don’t have this luxury, so let’s push up some virtual sleeves and get to work. And the thing is, while I complain about the Ferengi, every hour we’ve spent with them is so, so much better than it could’ve been. I’m not a fan of “Ferengi Love Songs”; it gets better as it goes, but the first half has a lot of unfunny gags and really irritating over-scoring. But this isn’t as agonizing as some of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s comedic hours, and there’s a third-act twist I didn’t see coming that at least partially redeems what came before it. More importantly, Armin Shimerman is one of the show’s best actors, and he keeps finding ways to add a sense of stakes and reality to even the most outlandish concept. By now, DS9’s ensemble has settled into each other and their characters with gratifying effectiveness, but Shimerman has to work a little harder than others; he’s playing a character type that’s never been a regular on a Trek show before, his character’s race is one of the least endearing in the franchise, and he often has to shoulder the burden of the writers’ weakest comedic impulses. Sure, René Auberjonois is fantastic, but he regularly gets amazing material to work with. Shimerman is too often stuck with the dregs, but he always makes the most of it.

For a while, he’s the only reason worth watching “Ferengi Love Songs.” There’s a Rom/Leeta subplot, and it’s cute and everything, but like the last Rom/Leeta subplot, it’s all based on character stupidity, and that shit gets old. At least this time around, it’s all Rom’s fault; and, better still, Rom’s stupidity actually has something like a cultural and psychological basis. To whit: After a conversation with Dax and O’Brien, Rom decides he needs Leeta to give up all her property rights (a Ferengi tradition) before they can get married. Leeta is understandably upset about this, and the wedding is temporarily off, but after Rom does some soul-searching (and gets some friendly advice from O’Brien), he decides to give up everything he owns to prove his love for Leeta, and so on and whatever. If you’re invested in this relationship, this story is cute enough, and it’s nice to see nice people being all nice and everything—but while I don’t begrudge either character their happiness, the only real fun I had with this is watching Dax and O’Brien plant the seeds of Rom’s downfall in his head at the beginning of the episode. It’s almost as though the ostensibly good-natured heroes of the show like to spend their downtime fucking around with the heads of their employees.

All of that aside: Quark is once again struggling to keep his business afloat, and while the series typically uses this as an excuse to get laughs or to drive the character into questionable business arrangements, there is a definite empathy for his frustration and loneliness here, even when it’s used as a punchline. While character-centric stories can be disappointing when you don’t get the character you want (Lost fans: remember Kate episodes?), they do serve the invaluable purpose of enriching a show’s multitudes of perspective. Most of the time, Quark is a secondary figure, a background irritant that occasionally gets in the way of the more serious plots. When we shift to Quark’s perspective, some of the inherent prejudice against the character stays with us; I’d love a rich, dramatic hour focusing on his struggles to forge a new life, but I’m not holding my breath. But there’s still the realization that he’s got his own stuff going on, and that stuff matters to him, even if it doesn’t directly relate to the Dominion War, or Odo’s love life, or Bashir’s genetic engineering. Empathy is one of the most important aims of art, and as clumsy and frustrating as the Ferengi stuff can be, it’s still possible to appreciate that the writers are trying to accomplish.

At Rom’s suggestion, Quark decides to return to Ferenginar and spend some quality time with his mother. As a character choice goes, this is pretty nifty; after all his complaining over her rebellious ways (clothes-wearing, profit-earning, that sort of thing), he still knows she’s the best person to turn to in a crisis. And the fact that she’s actually busy working on her own thing when Quark shows up is a nice touch as well. Kids want their parents to be available when they need them, and invisible when they don’t, and Quark is no exception. The fact that his mom is still clearly wearing clothes and making money is awkward, but her willingness to provide a much needed hug is not. But then Quark finds out that Mom has a new boyfriend, and that boyfriend is the Grand Nagus Zek, and everything goes to hell.

Andrea Martin originated the role of Ishka in the third season’s “Family Business,” but Cecily Adams takes over for her here, and the switch is disappointing. Martin brought a warmth and energy to the part that Adams can’t match, and that makes the character’s scenes with Quark less affecting. Wallace Shawn is back in the makeup as Zek, but the romantic business between Ishka and the Nagus isn’t anywhere near as funny as it needs to be to make the middle of this episode work. Their relationship makes the Ferengi home world seem smaller than it was before. Admittedly, this is just how TV shows tend to work: Quark is a main character, so if Zek is going to hook up with a woman, it’s just more convenient that he hooks up with Quark’s mom, thus generating more story possibilities in the process. And we know that Ishka is a strong, smart woman, which, Ferengi culture notwithstanding, is bound to attract a powerful man. (Plus, there’s Zek’s fading memory, but we’ll get to that.) But the whole thing just seems so tossed-off, designed more to make Quark suffer than to enrich the show’s universe. If this whole thing turned out to be a bad nightmare of Quark’s, I wouldn’t have been surprised; Brunt’s arrival just seals the deal.

A pileup of awfulness can work, but there’s no rising tension to any of this, or comedic momentum. The problem comes down to a lack of stakes. While Shimerman does a good job selling Quark’s misery and loneliness, the writers never seem to take his financial troubles all that seriously; intellectually, we can understand that a Ferengi without wealth or a way of getting wealthy is in a special kind of Hell, but given how much of the Trek franchise is dedicated to painting material greed as inherently corrupt and valueless, it’s hard to know what to root for. In a way, this is part of what makes Quark fascinating—he’s someone we like whose values are completely at odds with the values the rest of the show espouses. But it kills the comedy in stories like this, because there’s no weight to any of it. Brunt getting Quark to break up his mother and the Nagus is a plot out of a TGIF sitcom, and while Quark’s immediate willingness to go along with the plan is a nice reminder that he’s no goody two-shoes, the whole arc is as weightless as Rom and Leeta’s temporary estrangement. There’s a sense that none of this needs to be taken seriously, and, counterintuitive or not, that kills the comedy dead. If the writers are just dicking around for 40 minutes, why should we care?

As I said, the story picks a bit in the last act, largely because it takes a turn I wasn’t expecting: Instead of leaning heavy on Ishka’s sadness over the broken-up relationship (which would then have forced Quark to act on his conscience and do the right thing), the story finds the Grand Nagus struggling to remember key details about the Ferengi economy. Quark soon realizes that Zek’s memory is slipping, and that the only reason the whole system hasn’t collapsed in recent months is that Moogie has been picking up the slack. While this twist doesn’t suddenly turn the episode into a meditation on the fragility of consciousness, it does give us enough plot to push through the final 15 minutes with minimal scarring. The whole thing goes from unfunny and tedious to fleet and—okay, still not really funny, but the fleetness helps a lot. The big resolution is anything but: The climax happens offscreen, with Quark using Ishka’s advice to help Zek defeat Brunt’s F.C.A. questioners. (This whole thing is a Brunt plan to take over the Nagus position, which could be fun if it keeps happening.) Then Quark reunites Zek and Ishka, and everything’s fine. Again, like Rom and Leeta, the drama is really just a matter of a protagonist realizing he has to stop being an idiot, but at least Rom gave up all his money. In the end, Quark gets his business license back, and he gets his action figures back, and we get the end credits, which is pretty much all I wanted.

Stray observations:

  • The voles are back! Damn voles.
  • I think somebody must have stolen Ferenginar from a Dr. Seuss illustration.
  • Quark’s speech about developing a conscience is pretty great.

Next week: Dax and Worf spend some time with “Soldiers Of The Empire,” and then everybody gets involved with some “Children Of Time.”  

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