More than just advances, science fiction has to predict how people will realistically react to situations that are beyond our current experience. We have yet to be invaded by aliens, but that’s been a favorite topic of sci-fi for over a hundred years. How a crucial piece of technology will resculpt our culture is Neal Stephenson’s entire career. Sometimes, it’s way off base. Sometimes, it’s generally correct. And sometimes, as in this week’s episode Homefront, they score a precise, eerie bulls-eye.
Homefront aired on New Years Day of 1996, yet it is one of the most prescient depictions of post-9/11 America I have ever seen. While it’s tempting to conclude that one or more people in the writers room of DS9 are warlocks, they just did something so many people outright refuse to: They read some history. If you want to know what people will do in a hypothetical situation, chances are the precise thing you’re thinking of has either happened or something reasonably close to it has. Look to the past if you want to predict the future.
The Changelings have announced their presence on Earth with a terrorist attack, blowing up a Federation-Romulan peace summit, killing twenty-seven people, including the Tholian observer. As Sisko is the foremost Federation expert on Changelings and the Dominion, he, and Odo as the only non-Dominion Changeling anyone knows about, are invited to Starfleet Headquarters for an emergency meeting. Sisko is met by his old commanding officer Admiral Leyton, and his adjutant Commander Benteen (who Trek fans will instantly recognize as Dr. Leah Brahms). As a side note, Sisko comes to Earth in the USS Lakota and meets a person named Benteen . . . it’s like they were writing this one specifically for history nerds.
Anyway, Sisko enacts the policies he used previously with some success: blood screenings and phaser sweeps. The thing is, DS9 and the Defiant are (kind of) military installations. Earth is a peaceful utopia where everyone gets to live in peace and whatnot. Sisko is running into the classic dilemma, the one faced in America right after 9/11: How much freedom will you sacrifice for safety? In point of fact, it’s not even for safety itself, but for the feeling of safety, a clarification they make with Sisko’s father Joseph.
Sisko’s father is a delightful old man whose failing health has his son rightfully worried. Joseph Sisko is also a product of this utopia, a man who unapologetically enjoys the freedom he is allowed as a Federation citizen. “We have rights, Ben,” he remarks when Sisko informs him that blood screenings are now required not just for Starfleet personnel, but their families. While Sisko wants to respect the human rights of the people he loves, there is a chilling moment when he realizes, if only for a second, he was unsure whether or not his own father had been replaced.
As for the tests insuring safety: Joseph points out that a clever Changeling could easily find a way around them, something retroactively ironic as we later learn one already has. The point is, there are no tests stringent enough to truly eliminate the threat, and all that remains is a spiraling paranoia that keeps anything of importance from being done as the rights that define the Federation are slowly eroded away by the people ostensibly tasked with defending them. When you’re jumping at shadows, it’s that much harder to see the real threat. When the Changelings knock out Earth’s power grid, martial law is declared, and armed Starfleet troops swarm the streets.
While Sisko is the primary protagonist of the hour, Odo has an interesting time as well. It begins with pranks being played on him by Dax and Quark. (They move his furniture a few centimeters, which drives the constable up a wall.) At first, this seems like a bizarre bit of padding, but it’s actually leading up to an Odo rant. “Humanoids are all alike! No sense of order!” It’s such an odd juxtaposition in a species. A Changeling’s form is chaos, so they try to impart that lacking order on their surroundings. A humanoid’s form is order, so they embrace the chaos around them. “Dax is the most humanoid person I know,” Odo grumbles darkly. You’d think so, what with her eight lifetimes of experience.
Odo also expresses regret at leaving his friends O’Brien and Bashir behind. While they don’t understand how anyone might blame Odo for the actions of other Changelings, Odo has a far more jaundiced, and realistic, view of the xenophobia of solids. Then again, maybe he shouldn’t yell things like, “Humanoids are all alike.” Seriously, dude. Racist.
He encounters this racism on Earth almost instantly from Admiral Leyton. The Admiral expresses wonder, saying he’s “never met a shapeshifter.” Odo blanches, as this has been used as a pejorative for him before, beginning in the third episode of the entire series. Probably before that too, but the term is “Changeling,” guys. That’s what they like. “Shapeshifter” is their word.
Odo susses out what his people are after: They’re seeking to undermine the trust the Federation was built on. This probably sounds familiar in the context of the all-encompassing fear after 9/11. The terrorists weren’t trying to blow up the country, they were trying to get us to act out of fear and do something stupid. Hell, it’s right there in the name: terrorist. As in creator of terror. In retrospect, they got exactly what they wanted, as we proceeded to do literally everything stupid we could think of. The question here is whether or not Starfleet, three hundred years later, will be more intelligent than we were.
No spoilers, but yes.
Next up: Preserving utopia.