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The Future Will Be Carpeted: An Analysis of ‘Deep Space Nine (S5E5)’

“Strange, these corporeal bodies of yours. So fragile. Burst even a tiny blood vessel in the brain and every memory, every passionate emotion, gone forever.”
— The Pah-wraith

It’s been nearly twenty years and I still don’t know what I think of the pah-wraiths. DS9’s attempt to add demons into the mix has never quite sat comfortably with me. The hard SF fan in me wants things to make sense in a non-supernatural way. The thing is, a) what am I doing watching Star Trek then, and b) the pah-wraiths do make sense in a non-supernatural way. They have the feel of the paranormal to them, and despite that being an element of Trek from the very beginning, it always makes my skin crawl as I imagine myself defending it to a skeptic.

Let’s go back to the beginning, although, for atemporal entities like the Prophets, “beginning” doesn’t really mean much. It would make sense that these creatures are not the monolithic culture they present to outsiders. It’s not like modern countries are like, “Okay, here’s our legitimate government, but don’t forget to talk to the dissident population we keep in exile.” Some long-ass time ago, a bunch of False Prophets get kicked out of the Celestial Temple (the wormhole) and forced to live in the Fire Caves on Bajor. The nature of the crime appears to be giving false prophecies, and since the pah-wraith does mention waiting for centuries (something a wormhole alien couldn’t even perceive, let alone care about), it sounds like these creatures experience time more like we do. Which makes them evil in the community of the Prophets.

That’s a pretty interesting concept. It’s also super, super weird. The hard SF fan in me, the same one that’s uncomfortable with the pah-wraiths, absolutely loves this flourish. Aliens, in my view, should really be alien. We should barely be able to communicate with them, and any internal conflicts should be utterly baffling to us. I’m also a cosmic horror fan, and whenever these conflicts have disturbing implications, well, that’s just gravy.

The pah-wraiths just don’t quite feel like Star Trek. That’s a completely subjective opinion, and not one I can really support or even defend. It could be that I’m not crazy about the way they eventually hijack Sisko’s plot. Or how they distract from the Dominion War, which ends up taking up most of the rest of the show. Or maybe my views of genre are too hidebound for this particular example.

Where it does feel like DS9 is in who has to suffer here. That’s right, we haven’t kicked the hell out of O’Brien in a little while, so it’s time to pile on. Keiko returns from a trip to the Fire Caves — the pah-wraiths are generally thought to be little more than ghost stories — with a brand new personality. She’s been possessed by a pah-wraith, and she needs something from O’Brien.

These kinds of stories are used so often because they bear fruit immediately. The stakes are understandable to the audience, and it forces the hero to get creative in their solutions to the problem. This is an enemy that can’t be killed, as doing so also kills a loved one or at the very least an innocent person. In this instance, the being inside Keiko promises that it only needs a split second to cause a fatal brain aneurysm. O’Brien runs through his options with the computer and realizes that none of them are fast enough.

Which leads to a bizarre scene where he’s literally asking the computer how to knock out his wife. Statis field? Nerve gas? Phaser? I . . . I don’t think he should be able to do that. I don’t think anybody should be able to do that.

The pah-wraith has O’Brien modifying the station in weird, tiny, incremental ways. Not planting bombs or shooting anyone, just altering a setting here and there. Nothing to get worked up over. Meanwhile, it’s forcing him to live his life as normal, which is nigh impossible. This possession even spans his birthday party, and O’Brien spends the whole thing on edge while a monster wears his wife’s body like a meat suit. The man can’t even enjoy a birthday party.

The B-plot initially appears to be lighthearted comic relief unrelated to the A-plot. Rom’s working the night shift as an engineer in waste extraction, which is basically being an all-night space plumber. It sucks, and he’s a wreck. He gets the chance to work the swing shift and attracts O’Brien’s attention when he’s ridiculously efficient at his work. O’Brien recruits him, feeding him a line (which, later, Rom reveals he saw through fairly quickly — he only looks like an idiot). For a plot concerning the sudden, brutal murder of an innocent woman, Rom’s comic presence is a welcome one. It’s Rom who also figures out what’s going on, asking a frazzled O’Brien, “Why are you trying to kill the wormhole aliens?”

That’s right, these little modifications are about turning DS9 into a massive chroniton emitter aimed right at the wormhole. Chroniton particles are harmless to humans, but for beings like the Prophets, they’re fatal. This is the culmination of what amounts to a Biblical war. Angels cast from Heaven, confined to a lake of fire, returning to slay their former brethren. Throw in a ’67 Chevy Impala and a reference to pie, and this is an episode of Supernatural.

Dax discovers the sabotage, and the hunt is on. They catch Rom fairly quickly after O’Brien sells him out. It’s the one note in this episode I don’t like, although Rom’s detention was always only going to be temporary. Odo quickly deduces that O’Brien was behind everything, and the Chief knocks the newly solid security chief out (although way back in season 1, Odo did once get KO’d by a falling rock).

O’Brien’s plan is pretty ingenious, and anyone paying close attention has likely figured it out. He and the Keiko/pah-wraith take a runabout out to the wormhole, getting it to open. The station then fires the chroniton beam… right at the runabout. The pah-wraith is killed and the Celestial Temple safe. O’Brien returns with a lot of explaining to do, but all’s well that ends well.

Most importantly, Rom gets a spot on the day shift and seems to be accepted by his co-workers. To Quark’s enduring disgust, though, Rom’s picking up a nauseating human palate. Instead of the pureed beetles he used to enjoy for breakfast, now he wants pancakes, sausage, and pineapple.

Next up: The consensus best episode ever.

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