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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Dax (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.

Dax is a very weird episode. It is the first episode centred around Jadzia Dax, but it also demonstrates the problems that will affect Dax-centric episodes throughout Terry Farrell’s time on the show. Due to the nature of the character, the stories about Dax tend to treat her as a plot point or a macguffin rather than a character in and of herself. Here, for example, Dax finds herself on trial for the actions of her direct predecessor, Curzon Dax. It’s a fascinating moral and philosophical dilemma (can you hold somebody accountable for their actions in a past life?), but it’s a story about Dax that isn’t about the character as she currently exists. It’s fascinating and frustrating in equal measure, but at least it’s a sign that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is content to do more than merely imitate Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Touching...

Touching…

Okay. To be fair, Deep Space Nine is easily the most unique Star Trek series ever broadcast. And that much is arguably evident from the first three episodes of the show broadcast. However, the middle of the first season does get a bit tied down in doing stories that could easily have been stolen from the writers’ room on The Next Generation while nobody was looking. A virus that makes people unable to communicate! Q and Vash! A Prime Directive story about the most dangerous game! A strange alien personality hijacks a body of the member of the crew! First contact with a race addicted to gaming leads to a hilarious cultural misunderstanding!

From this run of episodes, Dax stands out as uniquely ambitious and distinctive. Of course, the questions raised by Dax were teased in The Host, the episode that actually introduced the Trill back in The Next Generation, but not in such depth. Dax is actually interested in a big debate about culpability and consequences. Already, Deep Space Nine has demonstrated that its niche in the Star Trek universe will be consequences. Sisko’s whole character arc is a consequence of The Best of Both Worlds. Kira’s past has consequences in Past Prologue.

A simple investigation...

A simple investigation…

Here, Dax is presented as a being who has lived centuries. Given how many shameful secrets people tend to pick up in one life time, imagine amplifying that across several life times. How long before some past sin or indiscretion comes home to roost? And what must it feel like to carry the responsibility and the memories of some mistake that you never made? Dax is about consequences, and as such it feels like the first truly meaty Deep Space Nine episode in quite some time.

Indeed, the episode feels like a strange choice for a first season episode, revolving around the consequences of a civil war on Klaestron IV decades before. This isn’t a species we’ve encountered before, and yet we’re introduced to them after their major conflict. In a way, it’s nothing too strange or surreal – Too Short a Season was a first season episode of The Next Generation picking up on an old conflict on a new world – but it feels very strange, as if Dax is really about reopening old wounds (or refusing to allow them to close).

Everything about Klaestron IV is pushed firmly to the background of the story. We only discover who really sent the much-discussed secret transmission in the episode’s closing scene. Odo’s inquiries on Klaestron IV are kept mostly off-screen. There’s a very clear sense of distance between what is unfolding on Deep Space Nine and everything that happened on Klaestron IV. The past is another planet, and there’s something fascinating about this distance, even if it really prevents Dax from being as engaging as it might otherwise be.

It helps that there is some genuinely fascinating abstract moral philosophy at play as well here. Jadzia Dax is accused of crimes that will carry the sentence of death on extradition, so there’s a lot at stake. The questions facing the hearing are obvious. As the administrator Renora explains, “So before I grant extradition, you will convince me please, that the person named in your warrant is the person who is standing here now.” Later on, she remarks, “Lieutenant Dax, you’re either two hundred years older than I am or you’re about the same age as my great granddaughter. At first I wondered which of those you were. Now I am bothered by the likelihood that you may be both.”

Hear, hear...

Hear, hear…

It’s a fun little thought experiment to work through. Peers dismisses the idea that the union is parasitic in nature. “No,” he states, “it’s a joining. It’s a total sharing, a blending, of both host and symbiont. Neither is suppressed by the other.” Sisko uses a rather elegant metaphor to explain how Jadzia Dax and Curzon Dax must be two different people. “When the water boils off, the salt returns to its original state. Pour that same salt into another liquid, and you have something completely different. Jadzia Dax is an entirely new entity.”

In some ways – in some absolutely fascinating ways – Dax recalls The Measure of a Man, perhaps the first truly classic episode of The Next Generation. Both are Star Trek legal dramas that hinge on taking basic moral questions and applying them to abstract situations outside our frame of reference. Much like our legal system won’t have to deal with an android any time soon, the likelihood of a person being charged with a crime in a past life seems remote.

Trill on trial...

Trill on trial…

However, the beauty of Star Trek is seeing morality examined through these extrapolated and extreme scenarios. The investigation into Data’ sentience tells us a lot about how we assign value to life. The inquiry in Dax’s culpability raises questions about how we handle guilt, particularly across generational gaps. Of course, Dax is nowhere near as good as The Measure of a Man, but most Star Trek isn’t. However, merely aiming for that sort of philosophical complexity less than ten episodes into the first season is ambitious.

There are several reasons that Dax falls sort. The most obvious is the fact that the episode ends on a cop-out. Although it is foreshadowed, handy evidence suddenly renders the whole trial moot. So we never resolve the question of whether guilt can pass from one life to the next. It feels a little shallow, and a little bit like the easy way out. The narrative simply contorts so that the script can avoid offering pay-off to the central moral quandary. It undermines a lot of the episode.

They've got the case (air)locked down...

They’ve got the case (air)locked down…

The episode is also centred around Dax as an abstract concept rather than Dax as a character. This is something that recurs throughout the show’s run, and it never really gets a grip on Jadzia Dax as a central character in her own right. Like Julian Bashir, she spends most of the first few years working very well as a member of the ensemble, but really failing to hold her own episodes together. Jadzia spends most of Dax being silent and passive, so we don’t really get any insight into her as a character.

She’s very well educated, and she’s stoic. Terry Farrell has Dax wander around with her hands behind her back, giving the impression of an old soul in a young body, but that’s more of an interesting high concept than a character in her own right. If Dax succeeds in making an argument that Jadzia Dax is a fundamentally different individual than Curzon Dax (and there’s a lot of evidence to support that), then we learn a lot more about Curzon than we do about Jadzia.

Hear him out...

Hear him out…

That said, what little we do learn is interesting, and will pay off down the line. In fact, pretty much the core of Jadzia’s character can be determined from the short conversation she has with Sisko. Jadzia is driven by honour. “You’ve been protecting her reputation,” Sisko realises. “That’s it, isn’t it? That’s why you won’t even defend yourself.” When Enina points out that Curzon Dax made the promise to protect her husband, Dax explains, “I felt it was important to keep that promise.” Honour above reason. It’s no surprise that Dax got on so well with the Klingons, as revealed in Blood Oath, or struck up fantastic chemistry with Worf in the show’s fourth season.

That’s not enough to sustain a character-centric episode, unfortunately, and so Dax winds up feeling like window dressing in the season’s big episode about Dax. Truth be told, I think that Dax is a great high concept, but it doesn’t really leave a lot of room for development. We are joining Jadzia and Dax after their big character arc. Sisko is still coming to terms with the loss of his wife. Kira has to deal with the current political reality. Odo is looking for his people. Bashir must temper his enthusiasm.

Tandro is desperately looking for an explanation of what Curzon was doing that night which doesn't devolve into a cheap "your mother" gag...

Tandro is desperately looking for an explanation of what Curzon was doing that night which doesn’t devolve into a cheap “your mother” gag…

However, Jadzia and Dax have already been joined together. Jadzia has, as she reveals here, undergone extensive psychological profiling. She has lived a rich and full life. The biggest shift in their life has already occurred. This is why Ezri – for all her problems – has a much clearer arc in the show’s final season. The arc is about coming to terms with her joining in a way that Jadzia seems to have done long before Emissary. And that’s really the core of the problem with Jadzia as a character, and it’s something the show never quite works past.

There’s also the small matter of Odo’s subplot, which feels a little weird. Sisko dispatches Odo to some investigations. Apparently the budget and the show’s pacing wouldn’t stretch to anything more than a single scene in a house on an alien planet. As a result, Odo just seems to phone in with a large quantity of exposition at certain points in the episode. It feels a little trite, a little too convenient and a little bit too much like a talking head. It’s a shame that we couldn’t even get a montage of Odo’s inquiry, or a few establishing shots. as a result, the scale of Dax feels somewhat more hemmed in than it really should.

The mother of all alibis...

The mother of all alibis…

That said, and speaking of the other Deep Space Nine character who – at this point in the show’s run – works better as a part of the ensemble than as the focus of a story, we do get a couple of lovely Bashir moments early on. Again, Bashir skirts the line between awkward flirting and sexual harassment. “I can think of better ways of keeping you up,” he suggests. “And they’re more fun than drinking Klingon coffee.” Classy fellow. If Siddig El Fadil weren’t so damn charming, this would be creepy. He’s also downright persistent. “May I escort you to your quarters?” he offers. When she declines, he decides it’s time for some good old-fashioned stalking. “Not necessary, Julian. But not forbidden, either.”

What follows is one of the most hilarious fight sequences in Star Trek history and it works because it plays off Bashir’s rather wonderful smug superiority quite well. Bashir is, after all, a character who ended up on the wrong show. He would have fit in perfectly on The Next Generation. So he gallantly charges in, hopefully to Dax’s rescue. It’s the perfect knight in shining armour moment. Until he sort of stumbles and proceeds in bashing his own head against the bulkhead while taking down one goon. His chivalrous side hesitates when he discovers that he’s fighting a woman, and she proceeds to knock the stuffing out of him.

Jules to the death...

Jules to the death…

It’s actually hilarious, showcasing the gap between what Bashir thinks he is doing (riding to the rescue as knight in armour) and what he’s actually capable of (flailing around rather clumsily). Like a lot of the early episodes featuring Bashir, it’s hard to reconcile with what we learn about him later on. However, in context, it is absolutely hilarious and a demonstration that Bashir’s best moments come as a supporting character, rather than the main attraction. At least until the fourth season, when we get three phenomenal Bashir episodes in quick succession.

There’s also some nice stuff in there about attempted extraordinary rendition, underscoring just how murky the politics of Deep Space Nine actually are. (Although the characters refer to it as “unilateral extradition.”) The opening kidnapping sequence seems to exist merely to up the dramatic stakes and provide some action at the start of a court room drama, but it’s nice that the writers seem to have actually thought through the political logic about such an action. Even the show’s court room episode involves the politics of Bajor and Cardassia.

He's Ben and gone...

He’s Ben and gone…

More subtly, Dax actually works quite well as a story about change, on quite a few levels. It’s about the old and the new, appropriately enough considering it’s the story of an old soul in a young body. This is the last Star Trek screenwriting credit for the wonderful D.C. Fontana, who worked as script editor on the original Star Trek. She wrote for The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, and has been notable for her staunch support of the latter. The episode enters with a log explaining that Chief O’Brien has returned to Earth for his mother’s one-hundredth birthday. Renora, the administrator overseeing the extradition hearing, admits to being over 100 years old.

However, Dax is also about the new and the young. Fontana’s co-writer on Dax is Peter Allen Fields. Fields had written a few episodes of The Next Generation, but this was his first Deep Space Nine credit. He’d go on to have a long involvement with the show. It also marks the first appearances of recurring Star Trek guest stars Gregory Itzin and Fionnula Flanagan, both of whom would go on to appear throughout the franchise’s remaining life. Indeed, both appeared in the last Star Trek series to air, Star Trek: Enterprise. So there’s a curious blend of the old and the new at play in Dax, in a way that feels appropriate.

Ch-ch-changes...

Ch-ch-changes…

Anne Haney deserves special mention among the supporting cast, and she’s great as the impatient and no-nonsense arbitrator in charge of Dax’s extradition hearing. While the supporting cast in general are pretty great, Haney makes the most of the best lines of the episode. When she is told that she can’t simply split Dax “down the middle”, she sarcastically responds, “Oh, what a surprise.” Trying to keep the hearing in order, she suggests, “In short, I intend being here until supper, not senility. Understood?”

Dax is a good episode, but it isn’t a great one. It is – like the eponymous character – more of a great concept, executed with a reasonable amount of skill, albeit with more than a few flaws. However, it is an ambitious episode, and that’s something that is great to see in the midst of all these relatively mediocre adventures. It has a whole host of fascinating questions, a great guest cast and a solid hook. It might not make the most of all of these, but it works well enough to keep the viewer engaged.

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

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