“Time’s Orphan” (season 6, episode 24; originally aired 5/20/1998)
In which Molly needs a haircut…
Boy, when Deep Space Nine hits the skids, it hits hard. The quality hasn’t disappeared entirely (we were just talking about “In The Pale Moonlight” a month ago, and I’d say “Valiant” is very strong), but this week marks the first dud of a double feature I’ve had to review in a while. Coming off “Profit And Lace,” that stings; neither “Time’s Orphan” nor “The Sound Of Her Voice” are as bad as that nadir, and both are certainly well-intentioned and lacking in horribly unfunny sexism, but neither really works, and they fail in troubling ways. There’s something strangely empty about both hours, and considering how hard each story tries to lean on the audience’s emotions, that’s a problem.
The premise of “Time’s Orphan” certainly sounds upsetting enough: While the O’Briens are enjoying a picnic on an idyllic planet, little Molly goes wandering off and manages to fall into a time vortex that sends her 300 years into the past. Some tech babble and desperate engineering ensues, and O’Brien, with the help of Dax and a few others, is able to put together a machine that will allow them to beam Molly directly through the vortex. But the calculations go wrong, and the Molly they get is 10 years older than the one they lost, having spent the last decade keeping herself alive somehow. 18 year-old Molly is feral, mute, and doesn’t seem to recognize her parents. So after losing their daughter for a maybe a day or two of their own time, Miles and Keiko are forced to cope with this version of their child who is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the girl who got left behind.
If you strip this down to its basics, maybe imagine the whole scenario as a shipwreck or kidnapping sort of thing, it’s heartbreaking; to lose someone, then “rescue” them only to realize that everything’s changed and you can’t fix what went wrong, you can only rearrange your life around it, would be a nightmare for all involved. The scenes of Miles and Keiko carefully, patiently trying to reconnect with this hairy young woman they’ve been told is their child are well done, to the extent that the actors involve convey that what they’re doing is difficult, slow, and often unsettling. Of course, it’s possible, if one is not in the frame of mind to be charitable, to find something funny in the way adult Molly (Michelle Krusiec) acts like an ape. The actress is fine, but there’s something ridiculous about her behavior, and about the stolid, grim-faced way the O’Briens approach it. Their 8-year-old girl got turned into Encino (Wo)Man, and that’s kind of fucked up and kind of hilarious all at once.
But “Time’s Orphan” isn’t supposed to be amusing, and that’s a problem when you consider just how much goofy plotting it takes to get the premise to work. The O’Briens have to be picnicking within walking distance of a time vortex, and while kids go wandering off on their own all the time (and bad things do, sadly, happen to some of them), the fact that Molly is able to find probably the worst place on the entire planet to fall into in, like, thirty seconds, is a bit of a stretch. Also, why the hell was the vortex even on? Dax’s casual “Oh, we’ve determined she’s gone back 300 years in time,” as if that’s no more a surprise than someone accidentally sliding on some black ice, is silly; the line is there to establish that poor Molly is entirely on her own (the colonists who set up the vortex in the first place having long since disappeared), and to set up the time travel shenanigans which are about to ensue, but it draws attention to the core idea’s shortcomings by reminding us how unlikely this all is.
It gets worse, too. Miles grabs his daughter from the wrong point in time, because if he didn’t, this would be a very short episode. Which means we’re supposed to assume that little Molly, without any guidance or support or training, managed to survive for a decade on her own? That’s a long shot, to be charitable. I’m sure she’s a resourceful kid, and that her parents taught her as well as they could, but she lives in a future of magic replicators and instant medicine. It would’ve made more sense if apes had taken her in. Then there’s the weirdness when Miles and Keiko realize what happened, and decide that, instead of trying to go back to the vortex and beam Molly out at the right age, they’re going to make things work with the Molly they have on hand. I get that temporal ethics are hard to parse, and it would be strange to look at a version of a person you loved and say, “Let’s delete the last 10 years of her life,” but wouldn’t that be a mercy in this case? This Molly doesn’t seem especially happy or grateful for being stranded and alone and deeply psychologically scarred; the fact that it’s literally possible for our heroes to get a do-over, and this is dismissed as some kind of weak or immoral choice is bizarre. Especially when this is basically what happens anyway.
Any time a story requires this much plausibility stretching and hand-waving, it’s a bad sign. Once you get past all that, “Time’s Orphan” has some minor things to say about the challenges facing parents with a special needs child, but the metaphor gets clunky: at times, it’s less like a human being they’re dealing with, and more like a beast they’re trying to train. And while the situation shouldn’t have to be a specific metaphor in order to be effective, it’s not all that exciting on its own terms. For this whole premise to be even remotely believable from a character perspective, Miles and Keiko would have to be in shock for pretty much the entire hour. At the very least, they’d have to go through more emotional upheaval than we see—they lost 10 years of their daughter’s life, and the strain of having to deal with that, along with the fact that, to them, Molly has only been gone a day or two, would have to be nearly unbearable. But apart from a few sighs, neither parent comes across as truly struggling with their situation.
It only gets really difficult for them when Molly’s inability to adjust to her new life results in her stabbing a dude in Quark’s bar. The problem shifts from “how can we reconnect with our daughter” to “how can we provide a life for our daughter when she’s been significantly altered by her time in the wild.” The solution: send her back to where she was. This is a very stupid solution. The script (by Bradley Thompson and David Weddle, based on a story by Joe Menosky) struggles to create an inescapable dilemma much the same way it struggled to give us Feral Molly in the first half of the episode, but it falls apart under even a moment’s consideration. Molly stabs a guy, but the guy survives; he’s pressing charges, but so what? What’s the legal system involved here? The Federation wants to put Molly in a special care facility, which isn’t great, and clearly she’s struggling to adapt, but she’s just fine in the holosuite, and it’s only been, what, a week? A month, maybe? These things take time. The idea that the O’Briens, having committed themselves to dealing with this particular Molly, would decide that the only way they can save her is to send her back in time, to what will most assuredly be a lonely, painful existence and an inevitable early death, is selfishness in the guise of charity. “This turned out to be harder than we were expecting, so let’s get rid of it.” The only way this scenario works is if Molly was actually an animal they’d been trying inadvisably to tame. And she’s not.
Really, the only point of sending Feral Molly back is so O’Brien can once again screw up the timing on the vortex, giving Feral Molly a chance to meet herself as a scared little girl, who can she can send back home through the vortex, erasing herself from existence in the process. Which makes this entire story meaningless. I’ve heard criticisms that “The Visitor” didn’t work because the ending undid everything we’d seen, but in that case, the story was less about the plot, and more about the relationship between Sisko and Jake; how strong that relationship is, and how much impact even a fleeting connection could have on a person’s life. “Time’s Orphan” has no similar lessons to impart. It’s very serious and well-meaning, and decently acted; there’s a lovely bit where Odo lets Miles, Keiko, and Feral Molly go when he has legal cause to arrest them. But it’s built on a relationship between two characters we know (Miles and Keiko) and one who barely exists (Molly, at any age), and it tells us nothing new or interesting about any of them.
- There’s a subplot about Worf wanting to prove to Dax that he can be a good father. As Dax has met Alexander, this poses a bit of a challenge, but he pulls it off. It’s cute, and at the very least, gives Michael Dorn a chance to smile a few times.
- Molly wants to be an exobiologist when she grows up. Which is cool.
- So, what happens with the alien who was pressing charges against Feral Molly for assault? Temporal law must be baffling.
- Really, the biggest crime is how boring this is. Because it is very, very, very—oh let’s move on.
“The Sound Of Her Voice” (season 6, episode 25; originally aired 6/10/1998)
In which someone is listening…
Look, I love me some high-concept. I do; one of the reasons I tend to watch sci-fi and horror shows more than traditional cop or doctor stuff is that I need a little extra to get my interest before I’m willing to commit to a series long term. But high-concept is something that needs to be earned. You can’t just attach vampires or aliens or time travel unless the premise requires those elements to be effective. Otherwise, you’ll have a story working against itself, as those very parts that served to draw people like me in stand in the way of good writing and effective performances. This is a fundamental structural problem, and it’s not one that Deep Space Nine typically struggles with. The universe it exists in was, to an extent, previously established, and most of the mythology, a few ludicrous twists aside, plays like an extension of core philosophy. Sisko’s visits with the Prophets aren’t always perfect, but they speak to the Star Trek goal of exploration, and communication. The fact that, say, the Founders are shape-shifters gives them a strong motivation, and also opens up ample opportunities for them to torment their enemies.
What I’m saying is, generally, the sci-fi trappings feel perfectly suited, and in fact integral, to the series. I’m not sure I’d say that about the ending of “The Sound Of Her Voice.” It’s possible to make a case that the time vortex that allows Sisko, O’Brien, and Bashir to chat with a dying shipwreck survivor even though she died years ago is justifiable. It certainly puts a spin on the episode that would not have been there if the script took a more traditional route. But I’m not convinced that spin was worth the effort. As unimpressive as “Time’s Orphan” was, the vortex Molly falls into is a necessary element to tell that particular story; since the point was that Miles and Keiko had to deal with a child substantially different than the one they knew, and those changes had to happen (to their eyes) very quickly, time travel makes sense. (It doesn’t mean that premise was a good enough premise to justify its existence, but if you’re set on telling that story, the vortex is a reasonable solution.)
Here, though, it’s almost like everyone involved decided they needed to have some kind of twist at the end, and went from there. And sure, the reveal of Lisa Cusak’s desiccated corpse is a decent surprise; I don’t know if the episode would’ve worked if they’d just showed up and rescued her and everything had had a happy ending. Yet there’s something unsatisfying to all of this, to the degree that I found myself snickering at the casual “Oh yeah, the planet is surrounded by, um, energy fields that could send radio waves or whatever back through time” explanation, rather than being moved at the horror of poor Captain Cusak’s plight. While there’s an attempt in the final scene to make this uplifting and even inspirational, Cusak still died alone, talking to people who couldn’t possibly reach her before the end. The fact that Miles, Bashir, and Sisko all find ways to use her existence as an excuse to reach out to others and heal themselves is nice, but also slightly unsettling; it was more convenient for everyone that she turn out to be a corpse, because then they can use her as a symbol.
Does that sound a bit cynical? Maybe it is. It certainly isn’t anything suggested by the text, and the script (by Ron Moore, based on a story by Pam Pietroforte) does everything it can to make Cusak a vital presence. Miles first catches her distress signal while the Defiant is heading back to the station after a mission, and as it’s coming from a sector with no nearby Federation presence, Sisko decides they’ll need to go after her themselves. Initially they can’t communicate with the signal, which is an idea with enough potential that I was slightly disappointed when Miles finally gets the right wires crossed. I’m not sure it would’ve been possible to manage a one-sided dialogue for the entire hour and not have it grow stale, but in a way, it would’ve made Cusak’s agency in the story less of an issue. This was always going to be an episode more about Sisko, Bashir, and Miles than it was about some stranger we’ve never seen before and never will again. It might’ve worked better if everyone had been upfront about that from the start.
Instead, though, Miles gets things up and running, and Cusak begs (in a way that isn’t artificial or forced at all, no sir) for someone to talk to her constantly, to help her feel less alone. Which is a lovely idea, and leads to scenes of various characters learning about her, and about themselves, in ways that always feel more conceptually effective than practical. It’s hard to build instant rapport between characters, especially when one of them is just a voice, and “The Sound Of Her Voice” doesn’t really manage to establish Cusak as an individual. I’m not sure anyone could have. Debra Wilson (who I mostly remember from MADtv) has a strong, empathetic vocal presence, but so much of what she says sounds designed to break through the male characters’ various concerns that I found myself wondering if they twist was going to have her turn out to be some desperate to please alien. She helps Sisko deal with his relationship woes, forces Bashir to realize he needs to let himself be open with his friends and again, and gives Miles a chance to vent about his time as a soldier. It’s not so egregious as to be outright offensive, but these conversations are so obviously designed to serve as a kind of half-assed therapy (an idea Cusak herself alludes to) that they lose the vitality of a real exchange. Cusak talks some about herself, but the details mostly exist to reflect our heroes’ concerns back at them.
Those concerns aren’t all that exciting, either. Bashir gives a big speech at Cusak’s funeral about how he’s learned he needs to tell everyone how much he cares about them, which is fine, I guess. It would be good to have the doctor act a bit less dour, and I’m glad the show decided to address his increased detachment from the rest of the ensemble, but I’m not sure I buy that it wouldn’t have been better to see him cheered up by one of his actual friends. And Sisko’s relationship concerns with Kassidy are just odd. Sure, a couple working together professionally isn’t always an ideal situation, but to have Sisko suddenly turn into a grumpy, pouting twerp over it, when we’ve never seen him struggle with this issue in the past that I can remember, does a disservice to his character for the sake of generating a plot.
In the end, Sisko and the others do everything they can (including using up the phaser reserves for a burst of speed, something which Worf isn’t happy with; but then I guess he didn’t get his problems with Dax solved by a ghost), and it’s too late, and everyone moves on. The fact that Cusak was long dead before they even set out on their rescue attempt should play like a sucker punch, a sick joke by the universe, but it doesn’t really. It also doesn’t play like the life-affirming wake up call the characters seem determined to treat it as. Ultimately, it’s a person who died. Trying to make that into a lesson about how you should live your own life is understandable, but maybe not the best foundation for an episode of television.
- There’s a subplot about Quark trying to use Odo’s relationship with Kira as a way to distract him from his duties. It’s sweet, in that Odo actually catches Quark in the act but decides to let the Ferengi bartender have a win for once (because Quark helped Odo when Odo was depressed over Kira), and seeing Odo and Kira dressed up to party in 1920s Paris is nifty. Quark’s willingness to tell Jake about his plans seems like a subtle reminder as to why he’ll never exactly be a criminal mastermind, though.
- This has one of the lamest commercial break cliffhangers I’ve seen: realizing that Bashir isn’t paying attention to her, Lisa fakes being attacked by a monster and we’re initially supposed to believe she actually was. It’s just embarrassing.