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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Q-Less (Review)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is twenty years old this year. To celebrate, I’m taking a look at the first season. Check back daily for the latest review or retrospective.

And the first season of Deep Space Nine continues its trend towards mediocrity. I feel I should qualify that. The first season of Deep Space Nine is never truly terrible. Even the (very) dodgy Move Along Home is superior to any number of episodes from the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, like Code of Honour or Angel One. The first season of Deep Space Nine just winds up feeling like it’s treading water, as if it is trying too hard to emulate The Next Generation, instead of exploring the unique storytelling opportunities offered by the show’s setting.

Q-Less is arguably the most obvious example of these attempts at imitation. While episodes like Babel and The Passenger could have been reworked as episodes of The Next Generation with a minimum of fuss, Q-Less rather cynically takes two recurring guest stars from The Next Generation and allows them to steal focus from an ensemble that is still finding its feet. It feels not only a little ill-judged, but also a bit rude.

Guess Q...

Guess Q…

Q is a Star Trek institution. He first appeared in Encounter at Farpoint, the first live-action Star Trek episode since The Turnabout Intruder. He would go on to appear roughly once a season during The Next Generation, playing a major role in the show’s final episode All Good Things… Then he popped up a few more times on Star Trek: Voyager. Actually, Q made his most frequent appearances during this season. He appeared twice on The Next Generation‘s sixth season and in this episode of Deep Space Nine‘s first season.

However, Q doesn’t really fit on Deep Space Nine, even at this early stage of development. As became something of a tradition for the Star Trek pilots set in the 24th century, Emissary established that Deep Space Nine had its own set of god-like beings. The Prophets lived in the wormhole, and – unlike the Caretaker in Caretaker – the Prophets would would recur relatively frequently throughout the show’s run. Even when they didn’t actually appear, their presence was felt.

"I'm also not Kirk, Archer and I'm definitely not Janeway!"

“I’m also not Kirk, Archer and I’m definitely not Janeway!”

Q’s childishness and inquiries into human nature made him the perfect foil for the cast of The Next GenerationThe Next Generation was really suited for grand philosophical investigations into the human condition. The Prophets provide a similar vehicle of an exploration of Deep Space Nine‘s themes. Not only did these god-like aliens form the basis of a religion, allowing for a broader exploration of faith and destiny, but they didn’t understand linear time. Sisko spent a significant portion of Emissary explaining how one event follows another, a vital part of the serialised storytelling which would becomes so important to the show.

There’s also the tone of it all. The Next Generation could go to some very dark places, but it was often a relatively light show. Even the lighting choices reflect this, with lots of heavy lighting of pristine sets. Q’s trickster antics fit right in, because the Enterprise was generally a relatively happy-go-lucky place. Deep Space Nine is a different beast. Q mockingly refers to it as a “gulag.” If he’s referring to the drab set design and the dim lighting, he’s correct. The problem is that Deep Space Nine was actually a gulag not too long ago.

Move along home...

Move along home…

This is a station orbiting a planet recovering from a brutal occupation. Q showing up in that context makes him seem even more self-centred than usual, more dismissive of petty mortal concerns. It also raises the question of Q’s involvement in the affair of other species. If he could put Picard on trial for being a member of a “grievously savage child race”, where was he during the Occupation? Why is it that only humanity appeals to Q? (Although Encounter at Farpoint suggests the Q are frightened by humanity’s potential, that does seem like one of those awkward “everyone’s equal but humans are special” moments for the first year of The Next Generation.)

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not Deep Space Nine can’t do comedy. I think it does comedy better than any other Star Trek series, which makes some of the most awkward comedic interludes towards the end of the show’s run bearable. The problem is that Q seems well and truly out of place here, and Q-Less doesn’t really do anything to help him fit in. Q did much better on Voyager, which may be because the show had truly committed to doing a seven-year impersonation of The Next Generation at that point.

Q's attempts to blend in are flawless...

Q’s attempts to blend in are flawless…

Of course, it helps that that Death Wish (Q’s first Voyager appearance) was actually a very good and well-considered episode. The characterisation of Q made sense, and his interactions with that show were logical. However, Q-Less suffers because it’s really not a great episode for Q. As John DeLancie has conceded:

I don’t think that that episode [‘Q-Less’] was a particularly successful episode because from the point of fact that… the episode was low on philosophy. Q works best when there’s a big philosophical issue… and whether Q loves Vash or not just isn’t. I think that once the writers saw that there was sort of a comedic flair, they began writing to it, to which I would say “Please don’t do that. I can undercut, I can spoof, I can give a wink and a nod. But if you start writing me comedic, I don’t have anywhere to go.”

In The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, DeLancie is even more to the point, “Q is best used when he deals with large philosophical issues. And skirt-chasing just isn’t one of them.”

Strange bed fellows...

Strange bed fellows…

It doesn’t help that this was one of three appearances by the character in this season of Star Trek. Q-Less is definitely the week link, as True Q is a solid adventure, while Tapestry stands as one of the best episodes of Star Trek ever produced. Three appearances by a god-like trickster within a single year – even scattered across two shows – was always going to seem excessive. Unfortunately, there’s a reason that Q-Less is the weak member of the pack.

Quite frankly, Q-Less presents Q as an abusive possessive boyfriend. To be fair, it’s not out of character for Q. It is perfectly fitting with what we know of the selfish and petulant god-like being, who tends to think the universe revolves around him – if only because he could make it revolve around him. The problem isn’t that this doesn’t match up with what we know about Q (because it does), the problem is that this is a comedy episode centred around an abusive boyfriend with unlimited power.

A flash of inspiration...

A flash of inspiration…

Some of Q’s possessive antics can be dismissed with a curt shake of the head. Warning Bashir away from Dax while posing as a Bajoran waiter, and then sending him into a coma seems playful – if only because Q wakes him up after he leaves. Had Q wiped Bashir out of existence, it would be a different story. However, there’s one truly creepy scene where Q attempts to remind Vash that “the galaxy can be a dangerous place when you’re on your own.” And he reduces her to a quivering wreck, to underscore his power over her. And that’s to say nothing of abandoning her in the Gamma Quadrant with no way home in the first place. If not for the wormhole and the runabout, Vash would likely have died anonymous, lost a long way from home.

The weirdest thing is, though, that the episode never quite calls Q on the fact that he has become an abusive ex-boyfriend. Shrewdly, the episode ends with Vash going her own way, which is certainly better than allowing the two to continue exploring together. However, Vash actually seems a little sorry to see Q go. “Well, I guess in some ways I’m going to miss you too. Maybe she was just humouring the man who nearly killed her on the Promenade to prove a point, but it seems like the script wants it to be genuine.

Q is floored...

Q is floored…

It’s a bit of a shame, because there is one nice moment for Q towards the end of the episode, when he makes one last appeal to Vash. He explains precisely why he wants Vash to travel with him. “When I look at a gas nebula, all I see is a cloud of dust. Seeing the universe through your eyes, I was able to experience wonder.” This feels a bit like Steven Moffat’s justification for why the companion appears on Doctor Who.

In fact, you could probably make an interesting argument that Q as seen on Star Trek is a deconstruction of the Doctor from Doctor Who. He’s a practically all-powerful being who travels freely in space and time for his own amusement and who acts as a trickster threatening to tear down your world based on his own moral code. Of course, the Doctor is a good guy, and far more sympathetic and selfless than Q, but it’s an interesting comparison. It also creates the impression that a show about Q and a human companion touring time and space might be quite fun.

A hole load of trouble...

A hole load of trouble…

So that’s why Q-Less is a disappointing Q episode. Now to explore why it’s a disappointing Deep Space Nine episode. Primarily, it seems to exist purely to assure viewers that this is part of the same universe as The Next Generation. Which is strange, seen as O’Brien is part of the main cast. But let’s just go with it. Q and Vash appear and become the centre of attention, to a far greater degree than they would if they were two original characters. Indeed, it seems like Q-Less spends more time talking about Picard than it does about Kira, Odo or Dax.

More than that, the cast seem to flock around these two characters, creating the impression that the show is lucky to have two cast-off guest stars from the mother ship. “You’re good,” Quark assures Vash, “you’re very good.” Q keeps his Next Generation uniform for a lot of the episode, as if to remind viewers that he comes from the parent series. “Aren’t we the hub of activity?” Q asks, as another regular cast member comes to pay homage to Vash. He’s not wrong.

But Q loves her, really...

But Q loves her, really…

This sort of raises the question of who has really hankering for another Vash appearance? I liked Vash in Captain’s Holiday and she was grand in the forgettable Q-Pid, but she’s hardly the biggest guest star from The Next Generation who demands some plot closure. Jennifer Hetrick is solid in the role, but Vash feels entirely out of place. It might be nice to have a cameo or a supporting appearance, but to make her the focus of an episode like this – and to make it clear that she only has the focus because she appeared on The Next Generation – feels a little lazy.

There really isn’t too much development of the primary cast here, with so much focus on the two guest stars of honour. The show actually has Sisko state “I’m not Picard”, which gives you an indication of how nuanced the character work is here. Once again, Quark is at the root of something that puts the entire station at risk, even if he couldn’t possibly have know about it. I am really hoping that Quark’s insurance premium is at least increasing. All joking aside, that’s a plot device that the writers use entirely too often during the first two years, and it really undermines Quark as a character that one of his primary plot functions it to put the station at risk.

Quark's latest bid for profit...

Quark’s latest bid for profit…

That said, it is nice that Quark isn’t overly taken aback by the fact that Vash gets the better of him. Given how Star Trek tended to portray the Ferengi, you’d imagine that their interactions woul have some creepily misogynistic undertones, but Deep Space Nine gives Quark the benefit of the doubt. He’s very clearly excited that Vash is a shrewd negotiator, underscoring that perhaps commerce is just Ferengi culture, more of an artform than a stick to beat them with. Quark appreciates fine artistry in his chosen field, going a long way towards moving past some of the more problematic portrayals of the Ferengi since they first appeared in The Last Outpost.

There are also some nice touches with O’Brien, as Q-Less takes every opportunity to remind the audience that this is the same guy who used to work on the transporter. He’s delighted to see Vash again, and relishes sharing his deep personal insights into Captain Picard and Q, as if he’s just happy to have some link to the time when he worked on a ship where most of the stuff worked properly. In one of the episode’s better touches, both Q and Vash deflate O’Brien’s ego a little bit. Vash is polite, but clearly can’t remember who he is. Q hesitates a moment. “Weren’t you one of the little people?” he eventually asks. It feels a bit ironic for Q-Less, an episode so cynically exploiting its links to The Next Generation, to underscore just how tangential O’Brien was on the Enterprise, but it’s one of the episode’s most subversive charms.

In a bit of a fix...

In a bit of a fix…

We do get a nice little Bashir and O’Brien moment at the start of the episode, as O’Brien listens to Bashir’s self-centred attempts at seduction. “Starfleet Medical finals,” he explains. “Gets them every time.” It’s a testament to the quality of Deep Space Nine that this small sequence would eventually become vitally important to Bashir as character. O’Brien’s clear discomfort with his arrogant and over-zealous colleague would give way to one of the lasting Star Trek friendships, while the mistake alluded to here would become a vital part of Bashir’s character in Distant Voices and (implicitly) in Doctor Bashir, I Presume?

Still, that’s hardly the strongest recommendation for Q-Less. I do feel like I’m being overly harsh. It’s not necessarily as bad as all that. It just feels decidedly mediocre, an attempt by the show to play off the popularity of The Next Generation by bringing over two recurring guest stars and letting them hijack the show for a week. In hindsight, setting Voyager in the Delta Quadrant may have been a shrewd move, as it at least prevented these sorts of awkward guest appearances.

Thinking outside the box...

Thinking outside the box…

The first season of Deep Space Nine started out quite strong. Emissary, Past Prologue and A Man Alone all worked hard to establish the show a distinct identity. It feels like the middle of the season loses sight of that a bit, which reduces Deep Space Nine to a lame knock-off of The Next Generation. All those “to boldly sit” gags feel a bit more legitimate when Deep Space Nine is clearly attempting to emulate a show set on a star ship, instead of playing to its own strengths.

It’s not a terrible episode, but it is a frustrating one, because it represents a step backwards. A lot of the second half of the first season would be spent trying to recover lost ground during this stretch of episodes.

You might be interested in our reviews of the first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:

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2 Responses

  1. I don’t know, setting Voyager in the Delta Quadrant didn’t stop Q from showing up there. Or Riker. Or Troi. Or Barclay. Or those two Ferengi from The Price.

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