“Who is to say that our definition of life is the only valid one?”
-- Constable Odo
When genre fiction is about ideas, it’s about the big ones. The definition of life as applied to artificial organisms has been an important convention in both science fiction, horror, and fantasy since Mary Shelley wrote her masterpiece. I’ve toyed with the idea myself, somewhat glibly in Get Blank, and with far more depth (and gore) in The Dollmaker. Why? Because it’s fascinating. To me, there is nothing more tantalizing than the idea of a creature made by human hands that has both free will and the intelligence to use it. What would their thought processes be without millions of years of evolution shaping them? What kind of being would deeply flawed humans be capable of creating? What the hell do they want? It’s a well Star Trek would return to over and over, most notably with Data. DS9 dips its toes into it this week, in an uncharacteristically lighthearted, but still very good episode.
“The common conceit that the human species has evolved over the last several centuries is ludicrous. What gains we have made have come at the cost of our own core identities.”
One of the ironclad rules of writing is that no villain thinks of themselves as a villain. It’s also one of the most frequently broken rules out there. Granted, it’s very rare to actually have the bad guy say, “Because I’m evil!” and follow it up with a Haunted Mansion laugh, but murky motivations have led to a phenomenon my larger social group has dubbed Doin’ It for Darkness. This is when a villain’s motives have no larger purpose than pure evil, even if they’re completely idiotic on the face of it. Unsurprisingly, these kinds of motives are most common in paranormal action shows, but they’re present even when the genre doesn’t easily support them. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to see a truly evil person who honestly believes they’re the paragon of virtue, like the baddie in this week’s episode.
“All I could think of, as I looked at her, was that this was not my Keiko.”
-- Chief Miles O’Brien
Genre labels are, by their very natures, reductive. Even in cases that encompass the mood of the piece, they don’t account for moments that break the prevailing atmosphere, such as comic relief in the middle of a stern drama, or a romantic subplot in the midst of a werewolf apocalypse. They remain necessary, because people generally know what they like and don’t like being forced to expand their horizons without ample warning. The key to a useful genre classification is in the distinction it provides. Not long ago on Facebook, I saw an author sneer that hard-boiled and noir weren’t the same thing: hard-boiled means the protagonist is a cop or a detective of some kind, while noir does not. Turns out, he’s correct, or at the very least edited the relevant Wikipedia page. I personally don’t find the distinction to be a useful one, as it’s unnecessarily reductive on a genre I truly love.
“Marriage is the greatest adventure of them all. It’s filled with pitfalls and setbacks and mistakes, but it’s a journey worth taking, ‘cause you take it together.”
-- Chief Miles O’Brien
There’s an unfortunate truism that has become more and more apparent in the current Age of Antiheroes on television: nobody likes the wife. Beyond simple misogyny, there’s a pretty simple and obvious reason for this. If you’re tuning in to watch a serial killer dispatch bad guys, a high school teacher cook meth, or a retired cake maker operate his toddler MMA league (Call me, FX!), anyone who stands in the way of this is going to be roundly loathed by the audience. It doesn’t matter that the wife often has pretty sound, logical reasons for not wanting her husband to hunt dangerous people for money/engage in violent drug wars/watch babies pummel each other. She is standing in the way of entertainment, and so she is a monster on par with a combination of Hitler and Godzilla, vaporizing joy with her atomic fire breath.
“It’s a nickname that I barely tolerate.”
“It’s an expression of affection that you find difficult to accept.”
-- Dr. Mora and Odo
Traditionally, the outsider character in any Star Trek property has difficulty with emotions. Whether or not they actually can’t feel them like Data, actively resist them like Spock, or something in the middle maybe like Seven of Nine (I don’t know, I barely watched Voyager.), emotions are the enemy of the outsider. It speaks to Roddenberry’s vision of the future that the chief defining characteristic of humans -- indeed, much of our power -- comes from emotion. Odo is no exception, but true to DS9’s richer use of backstory and characterization, he comes to emotion from a much different place than the others.
“In the end, it all comes down to luck.”
This is my third time through the entire series of DS9, not counting the innumerable instances I’ve caught full or partial episodes on TV or cued up one of my favorites from the collection. I have a pretty good idea of the contents of an episode before I screen it for review. Sometimes, it’s down to only the basic skeleton of the plot, but there’s always something. Which is what made this week’s episode, “Rivals,” so weird. I couldn’t remember a single thing. Oh, I had a vague image of Chris Sarandon -- that’s Prince Humperdink -- standing at a doorway with lights, but that’s all. It was like the episode had abducted me like a UFO, and I was going to wake up with bits of latinum in my skin.
“I think you’ve made a terrible mistake. All of you. Maybe we could have helped you. Maybe we could have helped each other. The Skrreeans are farmers, Kira. You have famine on your planet. Perhaps we could have made that peninsula bloom again. We’ll never know, will we? Fifty years of Cardassian rule have made you all frightened and suspicious. I feel sorry for you.”
The nature of longform fiction -- by which I mean anything where the first installment is released before the later episodes are even written, such as a TV show or series of books -- guarantees a certain amount of flab. Superfluous characters, plots that never go anywhere, or foreshadowing that never pays off are all inevitable when the writers have only the vaguest idea of where the story is ultimately going. It’s understandable that as fans we want everything to be part of a brilliant creator’s master plan, but that is not a realistic desire. It’s so rare, especially in the early days of intense serialization, that when it happens it feels a bit like magic. That’s the special part of this week’s episode, the innocuously named “Sanctuary.”
“So honor the valiant who died ‘neath your sword,
But pity the warrior who slays all his foes.”
-- from Fall of Kang, by G’Trok
Traditionally, the captains are the stars of each Trek show, so it might be surprising to note that until this hour, Sisko has not been the main character of an episode since the pilot. There’s a compelling argument to be made he’s the hero of the Dax episodes (and that’s a whole other problem), and possibly parts two and three of the Bajoran Trilogy (Though those are so sprawling, it’s tough to single out one person.), but a show really entirely about the man in charge? Sisko had turned into an aloof authority figure, and it was time to humanize him.
It did not go well.
“In this job, there is no unfinished business.”
-- Constable Odo
I have a bit of a passion for noir. While both of my fans will probably give a theatrical eyeroll and a muttered, “No duh,” it’s pertinent to this week’s episode. Of my eight books, five and a half are noir, and a good deal of my recreational reading is consumed by mugs and dames, bullets and betrayals. My personal take has always been the layering of another genre on top of the noir, whether it’s science fiction with Nerve Zero, zombie survival horror with Undead on Arrival, or comic conspiracy thrillers with Mr. Blank. I can trace the flashpoint of this obsession to a single moment. To settle me down before a flight, my mother bought me the classic Isaac Asimov novel The Caves of Steel in an airport bookstore. Now, leaving aside that I was the kind of child who could be mollified by a book written in the ‘50s, this was the first time I had seen two genres -- mystery and science fiction -- melded into one and became a building block in my understanding of genre. This week’s episode, “Necessary Evil,” owes a debt to The Caves of Steel and is almost as much of an influence on my present aesthetic. As a self-conscious celebration of noir fiction, it explored the dark days of the station, when it was still the Cardassian ore refinery Terok Nor, and the partial origin story of a certain faceless detective.
“Let’s just say, if you want to do business in the Gamma Quadrant, you have to do business with the Dominion.”
When working on a long-form project, writers are engaged in a sub rosa battle with their fans. Much like the Spanish Inquisition, that battle’s chief tactic and goal is surprise. The writer has to properly lay the foundation for crucial plot twists in advance, so that they feel organic, but not foreshadow them so heavily that the audience figures it out beforehand. Meanwhile, the audience desperately wants to be able to lean back with a smug smile, take a victory sip of their macchiato, and mutter into the face of a stunning turn, “Called it.” Who can blame them? It’s fun being the smartest person in the room, even if the price tag is having all your friends hate you. Writers hate these superior bastards more than you do, and there’s nothing we like more than the gobsmacked expression of a truly shocked fan. You think George R.R. Martin writes stuff like the Red Wedding for his health? To preserve surprises, writers will often resort to underhanded tactics. Stories have a language that we all understand from our years of listening, reading, and watching. This language informs a specific unwritten contract between writer and audience, and there are writers who love to violate this contract with intent of surprising people. In this week’s DS9, Ira Steven Behr did just that when he hid the first mention of the Dominion inside an otherwise innocuous Ferengi episode.