Because of the reputation, whenever science fiction goes for the heart, it catches people off guard. This week’s episode, “The Visitor,” is the most nakedly emotional hour DS9 will ever make, and it is generally ranked in the top five episodes of all time. I said before that my personal opinion largely lines up with the critical consensus. This is one of the few places it doesn’t. Not that I think it’s a poorly-made episode -- quite the opposite, everything is top notch -- but I’m one of those shallow, SF fans who prefers giant space battles to explorations of fatherly love. Throw in the fact that I’m not all that close to my dad, and it’s not something that resonates with me. There’s no bad blood or anything, but even my father once told me he’s more like “Dad Lite.” Not exactly a relationship that inspires undying devotion.
This episode shows how deep the bond between Sisko and Jake really goes, something that informed even the worst episodes of season one. It’s great to see, as one of the defining racist talking points is the myth of the Absent Black Father. Sisko is unequivocally the best father in Star Trek (and ironically, his closest competition is O’Brien) and is easily one of the best fathers in fiction. It all works into Sisko’s defining trait as the Builder. He builds up Bajor, he builds the Defiant, he builds a coalition against the Dominion (Spoiler!), and he builds a man from his son. It’s not the man he thought he would get -- remember in the early going when Jake was apprenticed to O’Brien -- but Jake becomes a good and decent person in his own right.
How do we know this? Because the episode opens with an elderly Jake Sisko (played by the freakin’ Candyman himself, Tony Todd) injecting himself with something we initially assume to be medication. If a work of fiction includes an opening that doesn’t make any sense on first viewing and directly informs the end, it automatically gets a thumbs up from me. I’m easy. Melanie, an aspiring writer (and played by Andrew “Garak” Robinson’s daughter Rachel), seeks Jake out on a dark and stormy night and wonders why her favorite writer only ever wrote two books before going all J.D. Salinger on everybody’s ass. (That’s a technical writing term.)
Jake agrees to tell Melanie the whole story, but only because it happens to be that particular night. Thankfully, the soundtrack doesn’t add a menacing roll of thunder.
Back in the present, Sisko takes Jake on one of those trips parents always take kids on. In my case, I was once gotten up at the crack of dawn to watch stuntman Dar Robinson (no relation) fall off a building at the end of (I think) Sharky’s Machine, and, of course, several years later, saw the tiny, white smudge in the sky that was Halley’s Comet. Also, I’m old. In Jake’s case, this is the wormhole undergoing a subspace inversion, whatever that means. In a warp core accident at the same time, Sisko gets vaporized by a bolt of energy. And, he’s just dead. We know he’s not dead, because no Trek show is killing the captain in the fourth season on some weird flashback episode, but he’s dead.
We actually get to see Jake grieve. I personally appreciate this, because all too often deaths are just sort of brushed off. Seeing someone legitimately shattered by the death of a loved one is a rare thing in fiction, and I’m glad the episode gives this space to breathe. Also gratifying are the ways the various characters show sympathy: Dax becomes a surrogate mother (especially appropriate considering her close affection for the Sisko clan and all of Audrid’s mad parenting skills); Kira looks out for Jake (a bit of foreshadowing); Morn gives him a sympathy pat on the shoulder; and even Quark allows Nog to shirk work so he and Jake won’t lose their holosuite reservation.
Sisko isn’t dead, but it’s a little more complicated than that: he appears to Jake periodically. At first, Jake thinks he’s a dream, but soon it’s clear this is actually Ben Sisko, appearing from the mists like Brigadoon. He’s trapped in subspace, and there’s no way out. Jake at first makes an effort to move on with his life, getting married (to a Bajoran woman, because of course), and settling in Louisiana, but he can’t. Sisko begs his son to move on, but Jake will not let go. He needs his dad. Jake destroys his marriage, abandons his writing, and allows this obsession to utterly consume him to free Sisko from this strange purgatory.
Of course, the solution has to be symbolic, because that’s how these things work. That “science” in science fiction is sometimes entirely decorative. After all, the problem of dragging a loved one through time is itself a metaphor for what we do everyday. Unless you’re a wizard of some kind, you’re doing the dragging via memory, experience, and those personality traits that family member imparted on you, but you’re still doing it. Jake’s love for his father is such that this becomes hellishly literal. The solution is to target the subspace “tether” going from Jake to Ben. When this tether grows taut, Sisko appears. If Jake severs it at the tightest point -- by dying -- Sisko will snap back to the time of the accident. That’s what Jake was injecting in the first scene: poison. So, when Sisko appears (after Melanie has left), they have a final scene together, where Sisko has to hold his dying son, who has committed suicide for the life of his father.
It works, of course, with Sisko taking Jake’s warning about the energy bolt and surviving. Sisko alone remembers the alternate timeline (though only the few isolated moments he appeared to Jake), and as he holds his boy, now young once again, he nearly sobs in relief. Captain Sisko, the biggest badass in the Alpha Quadrant, is vulnerable, only for the love of his son.
The fascinating thing about “The Visitor” is that it directly, and I’m sure entirely unintentionally, foreshadows large swaths of the finale. The shot of Kira and Jake in the upper pylon is very similar to the final shot in the entire series, as is Kira’s status as Jake’s unofficial guardian. Sisko does vanish for a time, though once again, he pledges to return. His survival in this one and his victory in the finale are both predicated on kind of a silly bit of physicality: a flying dodge here, a simple shove in the last. Maybe the writers were returning to a high point in the show (and the finale is largely excellent), or maybe there were certain ways the characters resonated, and they were merely discovered here.
Both end up being an indictment of the Absent Black Father myth. Sisko is nothing of the kind (and, in fact, statistically most African American men are not), and the bond between father and son will continue to inform the character throughout his tenure. Sisko is a father to his men, a father to Bajor, but first, he is a father to Jake Sisko.
Next up: Celebrity rehab: Jem’Hadar edition.