“You can tell a man’s intentions by the way he walks.”
— Constable Odo
I chose to use that particular quote, featured in this episode’s b-plot, over ones from the a-plot, because I wanted to illustrate the way the former can underline the latter. Odo makes this comment about Fallit Kot, a former business partner of Quark’s, who has come to the station to murder our favorite Ferengi bartender in retaliation for letting him spend eight years in a Romulan prison. Personally, I think Kot should be thrilled, as I figured Romulan prisons were the roach motels of the Alpha Quadrant. Quark comes to Odo for help, and Odo makes that comment about Kot’s motive. It’s a pretty standard thing for a world-weary noir protagonist like Odo to say about one of the mooks he spends his life putting behind bars. Well, behind invisible force fields anyway. It’s more ironic in light of the entire episode, as the a-plot is all about a Starfleet officer who can barely walk at all.
Ensign Melora Pazlar is a cartographer who arrived on the station for a specific mapping mission into the Gamma Quadrant. She is also an Elaysian, a species native to a low gravity world, that, in normal gravity, has to get around either in a wheelchair or in an automated robotic exoskeleton. Neither one seems particularly advanced — I have friends with better wheelchairs than this one, and the exoskeleton can be disabled in a simple fall. It’s a pretty sobering look into the utopian future. Presumably, medical technology has advanced to the point that most injuries that would require prosthetic or mobility devices can be simply cured. The problem is, the galaxy is a pretty vast place, and although every alien is going to look basically human that doesn’t mean they’ll have the same needs. So, Melora is forced to limp along in outdated technology, her only relief when she returns to her quarters and shuts the gravity off.
Melora wants to be treated like everyone else, but continually faces the harsh fact that it’s tough to be a zero-G woman in a one-G space station. She is combative at the slightest provocation, and only Dr. Bashir, who has been cyber-stalking her, can get through her armor. In his defense, his attentions actually seem to be welcome in this case, and he and Melora do have a bit of a romance. The most significant scene in terms of continuity is the first appearance of the Klingon restaurant on the Promenade, and I find myself having to digress here. Cuisine is cultural. I know this. I understand that while I might have a problem devouring still-living worms, it’s not because that’s necessarily wrong or dirty, but because my culture says we don’t eat those. But still. Klingon food is nauseating. And not just because it’s basically a handful of nightcrawlers. The restauranteur handles things with his bare hands. He doesn’t even wash them! And you just know Klingon E. coli is bad news. Tear you up like Praxis after over-mining! Am I right? That . . . that might be the geekiest joke I’ve ever written. Moving on.
Bashir wants to help Melora live in normal gravity, which will require her to give up the freedom of living in low gravity. It’s basically The Little Mermaid — the terrifying original version, not the one with the happy, singing crab — which Dax points out in a conversation with Melora. “She lives happily ever after, right?” Melora asks hopefully, and by the expression on Dax’s face, it’s pretty clear she’s never seen the Disney movie. Eventually, as necessary with stories like these, Melora uses her low gravity abilities to save the day, subduing Fallit Kot when he hijacks a runabout to kill Quark at his leisure. Melora decides that she’d rather keep both her ability and disability, as it defines her.
Melora is a problematic character from the beginning. The episode undermines her right away by using her first name as its title — compare other titles named for women, such as “Dax” or TNG’s “Ensign Ro.” Melora is such a soft, pliant name too, a stark contrast to the prickly young ensign herself. While her defensiveness is understandable, it’s never fun to watch a guest star snipe at the heroes of a show, and it’s irritating that all it took was the love of a good man to show her that she was wrong. The episode has its heart in the right place — it was written by a disabled writer, then heavily rewritten by Michael Piller — it never comes together as a satisfying story. The a- and b-plots do play off one another reasonably well, especially the way they come together in the end.
A lot of Melora’s dialogue reminded me of John Locke’s catchphrase on Lost, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” It’s hard for me, as a (relatively) able-bodied person, to judge which character is a more accurate or sympathetic depiction of a handicapped individual. Oh yeah, spoilers. But come on, if you haven’t watched Lost yet, you’re probably not going to. I know that I would side with Locke, mostly because his extended presence on the show allowed for much greater depth in his characterization. Melora appears just once, and she feels more like an issue than a woman. This kind of storytelling works better in the other Trek shows, when the characters are used to just moving on at the end of the hour. DS9 is about consequences, and there aren’t really any to be found here.
Yet, as much as I regard this as one of the weaker episodes of the second season, it clearly had an impact on me. My first novel, Nerve Zero, is about a race of zero-gravity natives who are colonized by people from normal gravity worlds. The juxtaposition of the utter freedom of flying against the same individual struggling for air in the crushing weight that you or I wouldn’t even notice is undeniably compelling. The writers agreed: the zero-gravity character was intended to be the station’s science officer, but the flight cables were too difficult and expensive to rig. The flight scene in Melora’s quarters is the best moment of the episode, but her zero-G bodyslam in the end is probably the worst. It’s the same reason Yoda gets around in Luke’s backpack rather than floating along on a little anti-grav platform. Technology is always going to race to keep up with imagination, but sometimes that’s a good thing. The low-tech option ends up being far more compelling and relatable.
Next up: Quark hears about a new trading consortium in the Gamma Quadrant.