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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “Life Support”/“Heart Of Stone”

Illustration for article titled Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “Life Support”/“Heart Of Stone”

“Life Support” (season 3, episode 13; originally aired 1/30/1995)

In which Vedek Bareil says goodbye…

So long, Bareil. You’ll be—well, maybe not “missed,” exactly, but you were certainly not evil, you were definitely more likeable than Kai Winn, and, hey, you made Kira happy, and we do like Kira. As character deaths go, yours was well-handled. There was no warning this was coming; the last we saw of Bareil, he was putting the moves on Dax because of an empath’s influence, which means we had no real idea what was going on with him. According to the always useful Memory Alpha, the producers decided to sacrifice his character this episode because they weren’t happy with his relationship with Kira, and they weren’t sure what to do with him anymore. That’s not the most organic reason to off a recurring character, and at times, “Life Support” struggles a little with the import of what it’s doing, especially balanced against what must be one of the more ill-advised B-story pairings I’ve ever seen. There’s also the fact that despite his importance to the plot, this isn’t really a “Bareil” episode at all (if such a thing were possible); the focus is on Bashir, as he struggles to save a life, then has to deal with the consequences of success. But it’s not as though the vedek was ever a central figure to the series in any meaningful way—he was a symbol at best and worst—and the episode does take his passing seriously. I may not miss him much, but I did find myself mourning him.

About that B-story, though… Yowza. We might as well get that out of the way first, although if I truly wanted to capture the inanity of this episode’s structure, I’d start in about Bareil’s accident, and his condition, and the stakes of his situation, and then I’d keep interrupting myself to talk about Jake Sisko’s dating life. Because that’s roughly how the episode itself plays out: On the one hand, you’ve got a guy struggling to stay alive long enough to complete the most important act of his career; on the other hand, you’ve got Jake going on a disastrous double date with Nog. The intention is to lighten the mood of Bareil’s downward-sloping narrative through line, but the result is pure tonal whiplash. It’s not enough to sink the episode on the whole, but it’s grating and noticeable, in a way that effective storytelling shouldn’t be. (Unless the writer in question is trying to prove some kind of point with the gear-shifting, which is definitely not the case here.)

How does Jake’s wild night play out of context, though? It’s all right, raising questions about tolerance and friendship which the show has dealt with before, and recognizing the challenges inherent in a friendship between two sentient beings from different backgrounds, however well-intentioned those beings might be. Jake and Nog’s friendship has always been an asset to the show, with Cirroc Lofton’s low-key naturalism contrasting well against Aron Eisenberg’s expansive (and, let’s be honest, occasionally grating) performance.

My only real criticism is that the episode treats Nog’s culturally formed contempt for women as a kind of “belief” that should be respected under the general rubric of open-mindedness. The basic philosophy that Sisko gives Jake is a good one: The only way to get by in this world is to accept that other people won’t always agree with you, and while you should stand up for your own beliefs, you can’t just run around shouting at everyone who believes differently. It’s just that the kind of male chauvinism Nog displays during the awful double date is more a matter of Nog trying to force his beliefs on others than it is Jake being insensitive; he ruins an outing which he forced his way into in the first place. Plus, if Nog really does want to continue dealing with non-Ferengi, he needs to learn that openly insulting someone before demanding she cuts your food isn’t going to make him a lot of friends. The core of Sisko’s message—patience, compassion, understanding that just because you think your way is right doesn’t mean it is—is good. But set against Nog’s behavior, it feels like mistaking one issue (misogyny) for another (tolerance).

Bareil’s story is more palatable; its core is based on the conflict between Bashir’s patient-focused approach to healing and the broader concerns of both Kai Winn and the patient in question. Winn and Bareil arrive at DS9 with secret plans to meet with a Cardassian legate named Turrel. The goal is an official peace treaty between Bajor and Cardassia; Winn isn’t a huge fan of the idea (given her belligerent, isolationist past this isn’t a huge surprise), but Bareil has been pushing for it, and is, in fact, largely responsible for this meeting. But things go a bit pear-shaped when the shuttle Winn and Bareil ride in on has a breakdown, and there’s some exploding, and Bareil winds up horribly, mortally injured. Bashir does all he can, but ultimately is forced to admit failure.


Of course, the vedek isn’t quite dead, not yet, but it’s a shocking way to start the episode, particularly because Bareil is just minor enough of a character for his survival not to be assured. This is further reinforced by the fact that, while he manages to make it through most of the hour (albeit suffering most of the way), Bareil does, in fact, die in the end. It’s the only natural conclusion to this arc: the whole moral thrust of “Life Support” is the line between healing the injured and sustaining a life beyond all reasonable expectations of survival. For Bareil to walk out at the end comparatively unscathed would’ve been a horrible cheat; for him to survive as some kind of monotoned husk (er, more monotoned, anyway) would’ve been agonizing—and unjustified. The hour finds drama in Bashir’s attempts to balance his role as physician against the practical demands of culture and society, and for this to work, for both his quiet anger and Kira’s tearful goodbye to have meaning, there need to be consequences. I’ve complained in the past about television plots which attempt to mine pathos out of grief, all the while reassuring us that this grief is only illusory; that death is just another kind of bad dream, troubling in the moment but destined to evaporate on waking. This episode commits to its premise, and for that alone, it’s commendable.

To get critical about how it commits, I’d say it’s somewhat successful. While Bareil is not a dynamic figure on the show (both in terms of the performance, and in terms of how he fits in with everyone else; the whole point of the character is that he’s a pleasant, calm, vaguely mystical fellow), he doesn’t need to be for “Life Support” to be effective. In fact, if he was more interesting, he’d probably distract from Bashir and Winn’s sparring, which is very exciting and dramatic and deeply satisfying. Which would’ve made for a different episode entirely. A better one, maybe, as it’s sad to see a character go out in an hour which so clearly has little use for him—as a symbol, he matters, but as an individual, he’s a McGuffin designed to facilitate the responses of others. Which he does quite well, thankfully. This is another great Bashir episode (he’s got McCoy’s tenacity with Crusher’s balance, which is a change from the callow, charming idiot Alexander Siddig played in the first season), and there’s a powerful idea in all of this about the limits of medical science, and the danger of mistaking our own needs for the needs of others.


All of this largely comes through, and, again, to see Bashir repeatedly take down Winn and her selfishness is, I’m not going to lie, awesome. As an added bonus, the Kai herself has calmed down since the last time we saw her; she’s still cold and insincere, but you get the impression that winning her life’s ambition has actually made her slightly more reflective. At the very least, she has no real need to scheme against anyone now. Her arguments with Bashir over Bareil—Bashir wants to put Bareil in stasis, Winn desperately needs him to complete the negotiations with the legate—is more driven by her insecurity and, as Bashir rightly points out, cowardice. She’s a bit less evil, which is nice, and that makes the whole thing more interesting, allowing us to focus more on Bareil’s slow decay and Bashir’s desperation, and less on wondering if Winn was the one who sabotaged the shuttle, and if she has some sort of master plan. (She didn’t, and she doesn’t.)

While I appreciate the reason the writers settled on killing a recurring character, the way Bareil is used here is brutal, going against the show’s rough, but essentially humane, approach to its stories and its world. As mentioned, he’s a prop; the episode relies on our knowledge of the character from previous appearances to give emotional weight to his condition, which sort of works, but he’s still scripted as a guest player. The intent is to put as much focus on Bashir as possible, and it’s a tricky balance to pull off. I’m not really sure there is a better way to accomplish this storyline, with these goals, and “Life Support” is effective enough that I certainly wouldn’t want to wish it out of existence. But it’s only in the final scenes, as Kira says goodbye to her comatose former lover, that you realize what’s actually happening, and that’s a shame. Maybe if the hour hadn’t spent a quarter of its time teaching Jake a valuable lesson about tolerating bigotry, it might have been more successful.


Stray observations:

  • Normally, any “accident” which leads to a character’s death raises suspicions, but the episode does a good job of getting that out of the way straight off. But then, this is the show that justified two episodes worth of time travel with “freak chroniton particle interference,” so obviously it knows its business.
  • Nog’s extreme dickishness—and Jake’s utter astonishment in the face of such dickishness—doesn’t make sense when you consider how long they’ve been friends. We’ve seen Jake and Nog talk about girls before. Surely the fact that Nog thinks women should be seen and not heard would’ve come up. Maybe he’s struggling with insecurity, or maybe this is just his way of trying to be more of a Ferengi (which could, theoretically, lead to the totally awesome Nog plot coming up next), but neither are suggested by the script.
  • “And doctor, I won’t forget what you’ve said here.” “Neither will I.”
  • Quark made a dish called “Kai Winn.” It looks awful.

“Heart Of Stone” (season 3, episode 14; originally aired 2/6/1995)

In which Odo breaks his…

There was a moment in “Heart Of Stone” when I thought the writers had gone too far. Kira is trapped in a slowly growing prison of rock, and Odo’s efforts to save her have all failed. She pleads with him to leave her; the caves they’re in are unstable, and could collapse at any moment. He refuses. She asks why, and he finally comes out with it: “I’m in love with you.” It’s a lovely piece of acting from Rene Auberjonois, full of terror and embarrassment and conviction, and a fine payoff to the hints we’ve been getting about his feelings all season. That’s not the part that bothered me. What bothered me was Kira’s response: “I’m in love with you, too.”


“A-ha!” I thought (because all critics think like a Hardy Boy). “They’re trying to push forward a relationship without doing the proper groundwork. Nice try, fellas, but I’m on to your tricks! Points off for cheating, and if it happens again, I’m telling my dad. He knows lawyers.”

Really, I was mostly just disappointed. Up until that point, “Heart Of Stone” had been shaping up to be one of my favorite episodes of the season so far, with equally strong A- and B-plots, a simple but suspenseful science-fiction twist, and a showcase for Odo and his difficulties with socializing. But for most of the episode, Nana Visitor’s performance had been a little off; she’s always a passionate actress, but here that passion crosses over the line into mild haminess. That wouldn’t have been enough to derail the proceedings entirely, but it’s fairly distracting, and for Kira to respond to Odo’s pained declaration of love with her own feelings in a way that exactly matched what he most (and, given the circumstances, least) wanted to hear makes the distraction too large to be ignored. It gave me something to write about, but it hurts what was, on average, working rather well, and that’s always a let-down.


I needn’t have worried, although all things considered, I’m glad I did, because that made the eventual reveal all the more striking. See, my instinct that Kira would never tell Odo “I love you” so baldly and easily was actually built into the episode itself; Odo reacts with the same suspicion, explaining (in one of the character’s more heartbreaking monologues) how his abilities as an impartial observer meant he already knew Kira did not return his feelings. Which meant that the Kira supposedly trapped in stone wasn’t really Kira at all. I’d briefly thought something might be hinky earlier in the episode, when Odo and Kira split up, and then Odo received a distress signal from her almost immediately after, but I’d forgotten all about that. “Heart Of Stone” managed to pull the wool completely over my eyes, and it did so with a character whose abilities had already been established at the start of the season. In other words, all the clues were there, and I don’t feel cheated by the twist; the episode got me good.

Even better, I’m not sure I can decide which storyline I enjoyed more. While Odo’s struggling to save Kira, Nog pays a visit to Sisko. He’s got a bag full of latinum, and a request: His coming of age ceremony has passed, he’s now considered an adult by his culture, and he wants to apprentice to Sisko. This would mean joining Starfleet Academy, which no Ferengi has ever done before, and Sisko is understandably confused. As is the audience. Nog has never been the most user-friendly character. He’s always a little off-putting, a little aggressive, a little weird, and the main reason he’s been tolerable at all is his friendship with Jake; the fact that Jake (a good kid) would like hanging out with someone so shrill and loud meant there had to be something decent in Nog on some level. That, combined with his occasional flashes of decency are enough to make him not entirely despicable, but that still doesn’t make him someone you’d imagine having much place in the Federation.


Sisko decides to investigate, because he is a much better man than I am, and with some help from Dax, he determines that, if nothing else, Nog is a determined enough worker to qualify for cadetship. But determination isn’t entirely enough, and it’s important to Sisko that he understand why Nog is suddenly so keen. After dealing with Quark this long, it’s not hard to sympathize; Quark isn’t a monster, but his entire life philosophy is based around finding the best profit in any given situation, and as Ferengi go, he’s actually pretty laid-back about it. If Nog is doing all of this just to make some cash on the side, or as part of some scheme, or to get back at someone, Sisko needs to know, so he can put a stop to it here and now.

This leads to the best scene of the episode, as Sisko tries to trick Nog into giving up his ambitions in order to force him to reveal what’s really driving him. As I’ve said, Nog has been off-putting in the past, but he’s amazing here, with Eisenberg rising to the occasion admirably. Nog wants to go to Starfleet Academy because he wants a better life for himself. His father, Rom, is a genius with machines. But Rom is terrible at business, and because of how the Ferengi operate, this means he’ll always be at the mercy of his brother’s insults, stuck repairing equipment behind the bar and toadying to someone with a slightly keener instinct at cheating strangers. Nog has watched this happen again and again, and while he can’t save his dad, he wants out. He knows he shares his father’s poor business skills (and given how generally inept he’s been at dealing with people, this makes sense) as well as the old man’s gift for engineering, and the only way the latter will ever be more important than the former is if he opens up his horizons.


That’s a lumpy summary of an absolutely terrific monologue, and it’s exciting because it’s unexpected (I’d heard once, a while back, that Nog eventually joined Starfleet, but I’d largely forgotten), and because it’s triumphant in a way that doesn’t come across as forced or sentimental. We’ve seen Quark abuse Rom dozens of times, to the point where it’s hard to get bothered by it; for Nog to comment on it changes the whole dynamic, and forces use to look at both him and his father in a different light. And for him to use what’s largely been a running gag as a serious motivation for real change in his life is an unexpected, and entirely welcome, pleasure. Characters often deteriorate as a series goes on, whether by authorial intention or just basic entropy, and it’s wonderful to see one actively work to better his lot. It feels revolutionary, in an enthusiastic, respectful, and utterly adamant kind of way.

Odo and Kira’s story (which is largely Odo’s story) doesn’t allow for the same transcendence, which is fine; as a shapeshifter, Odo’s sanity requires rigid adherence to a core identity, and any real course-altering from him would be unsettling at best, terrifying at worst. But in his attempts to struggle what he believes to be the woman he loves from a death trap, he’s forced to reveal a few more pieces of himself. Early in the episode, he complains to Kira that she didn’t ask his opinion about a routine matter on their recent trip to Bajor. It’s a petty, if understandable, concern, and the script goes on to drop reminders of just how difficult it is for Odo to make himself known outside of his life as “constable”—how much of Odo’s conversation relies on gruff responses, knowing looks, and cynicism. These traits are undeniably parts of who he is, but they aren’t all of him, and the non-professional side to his personality must be feeling starved for attention, and maybe a little resentful at how easy everyone else seems to have it.


“Heart Of Stone” once again highlights Odo’s position on the show as the self-aware outsider, the observer who understands humanoid folly largely because he believes himself separate from it. But of course he isn’t, as his gradually rising panic demonstrates. The fake Kira trick works on him as well as us because it’s so weirdly plausible; the idea that some random moon might have a bit of carnivorous geology on it isn’t that far removed from a dozen other similar Trek premises. The rock doesn’t have any personality, there’s no complex concept to swallow, just a nasty trap that keeps growing no matter how hard Odo tries to break it. So he gets frustrated and scared, and as “Kira” becomes frightened, he tries to comfort her. This leads to a lot of “Odo doesn’t know what to say, then talks about how he doesn’t know what to say, then says something anyway” exchanges, in which the fake Kira is reduced to reassuring him as much as he’s trying to reassure her.

It works beautifully, apart from the aforementioned overacting from Visitor which I’m going to assume is intentional. The build from concern to despair happens organically, so that when Odo’s big confessional moment arrives, it doesn’t seem like a stunt, or as though everything else in the episode was intended to get us to his line; it’s merely the only thing he has left to say. The monologue about how he got his name is great (I love how Auberjonois always underplays this stuff; the speech itself is already well-written, but his matter-of-fact, somewhat desperate delivery makes it even better), and then, finally, he has to admit the biggest secret he has left, believing that this will almost certainly be the last time he’ll ever get a chance to express how he feels, even while he knows those feelings are unreciprocated.


But when Kira tells him she loves him back… there has to be a second when he believes her, right? Probably not much longer than that, but at least a second or two. But Odo’s curse is that he’s too smart, and too dependent on truth, to believe anything that’s too good to be true. So he works it out in his head, explains his deductions, and forces the fake Kira to reveal herself as the female Changeling Odo met back at the start of the season. She’s testing him to find out what keeps him on DS9; she believes Odo’s attachment to Kira is stopping him from joining the rest of his people, but she’s wrong. Odo’s entire life has been a hard-fought battle of self-determination, and while the Changelings presented a serious blow to his identity, he remains thoroughly, unrelentingly himself. At his core is someone who does the right thing. Everything else, even what he feels for his closest friend, is secondary. At first, I didn’t understand the connection between Odo’s story and Nog’s, but in retrospect, it’s obvious: Both are characters intent on being themselves, no matter what the cost.

Stray observations:

  • I already praised it, but Odo’s speech about how he knows Kira doesn’t love him is quietly, simply devastating.
  • As if that wasn’t enough: “She just said something I knew you would never say.” “What’s that?” “Just a slip of the tongue.” The scene isn’t even played with any particular emphasis! It’s just Odo and Kira walking away, and all of a sudden your heart is on the floor, broken and everything.
  • Also great: Rom basically telling Quark to go suck eggs when Quark tries to forbid Nog from going to the Academy. It’s a rare win for the character, as well as being a sweet exchange between father and son.
  • Odo turned himself into a force field. Which is cool.

Next week: Sisko has a date with “Destiny,” and Grand Nagus Zek returns in “Prophet Motive.”