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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Forsaken (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.

Following on directly from If Wishes Were Horses…, The Foresaken combines another bunch of familiar Star Trek clichés into a plot that fells like it has been elsewhere. To be fair, the “malfunctioning computer” plot is a plot that lends itself to a Star Trek setting, and the key is the execution of that most familiar set up. The franchise has done it quite well in the past. I’m fond of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s foray into the subgenre with Disaster. Even Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would do a number of later episodes working quite well from this starting point – Civil Defense and Starship Down ranking quite highly.

The problem with The Foresaken, then, isn’t the fact that it falls back on a bunch of familiar Star Trek clichés, but it fails to use them to tell an especially compelling story.

Oh, what a world!

Oh, what a world!

To be fair, the malfunctioning computer isn’t the only part of The Forsaken which feels like a bit of a left-over Star Trek plot recycled for the first season of a new spin-off. It’s just one of a whole bunch of elements that really feel like they were cut out from “the great big book of Star Trek clichés” and sprinkled liberally over the script for the episode. The episode also features a whole ensemble of the franchise’s typical difficult ambassadorial staff.

In keeping with the finest Star Trek tradition, they seem to exist purely to make our lead characters’ lives difficult. Sisko even confesses, at one point, that he had to deal with a potentially rapist ambassador early in his career. “It was a simple misunderstanding over his attempt to coax a young Ensign to his quarters against her will,” he explains. This creates an impression that it isn’t just that the Enterprise attracts the bad apples, and that apparently every ambassador in Star Trek is a problem until proven otherwise.

Let's argue until we're blue in the face...

Let’s argue until we’re blue in the face…

That actually does a lot to explain the franchise’s portrayal of ambassadors, even if it is a little strange and (one would imagine) counter-productive. Since ambassadors are supposed to ease diplomatic relationships, surely they should try to foster goodwill and get along? Since these seem to be ambassadors from Federation member worlds (a Vulcan, a Bolian, a Betazoid), one assumes that they are assigned to help cooperation among Federation members. So who the hell assigns these maladjusted personalities to represent them in interstellar diplomacy?

The episode also introduces Lwaxanna Troi to the cast of Deep Space Nine, the first recurring Next Generation cast member to pop over since Q back in Q-Less. Like Q, Lwaxanna’s appearance is symbolically important. Q had been the foe in Encounter at Farpoint, the character who helped launch this second generation of Star Trek. So his presence on Deep Space Nine was as something of a goodwill ambassador, a firm connection to the show’s roots.

Love in a turbolift?

Love in a turbolift?

Lwaxanna Troi serves a similar purpose. Gene Roddenberry had passed away before Deep Space Nine hit the airwaves, although both Michael Piller and Rick Berman would claim the early plans for the show had his blessing. According to Majel Barrett Roddenberry, his wife, he offered a rather qualified endorsement:

This one is going to have a lot more humor, a lot more probably what you’d call action, and a little sex and violence. Were going to mix it up a little bit. I hesitate to use the word violence — you’re all going to get the wrong idea. But I think you know what I mean. Its not going to be even as cerebral as Star Trek. So… I’m going to take questions now.

Did Gene have anything to do with this?!

Uh, he knew about it, but he was not about to become involved. He had done what he wanted to do and that was it. He just wished them Godspeed and go ahead. And as long as the name Star Trek is on it, yes, the estate will have a part of the action.

Lwaxanna Troi is played by Majel Barrett Roddenberry. She had been married to Gene Roddenberry and had appeared in the franchise from as early as the first unaired pilot, The Cage. So her presence here is something of an endorsement by Roddenberry’s estate of Deep Space Nine. Barrett Roddenberry.

Does not compute...

Does not compute…

The relationship between Roddenberry’s ideals and Deep Space Nine has always been somewhat controversial. Personally, I think it adds a lot of nuance and definition to Roddenberry’s idealised future, demonstrating that the ideals aren’t worth anything if they are practically handed to a society. It is, to quote the show, “easy to be a saint in paradise”, and Deep Space Nine examines Roddenberry’s philosophy in contrast. I know that some die-hard fans dislike it for that reason.

Majel Barrett Roddenberry herself would write a very critical letter to the Star Trek Communicator criticising the direction the show took in its final few years, and even the normally diplomatic Rick Berman acknowledged that Roddenberry himself probably would not have endorsed the Dominion War. Nevertheless, all that is in the future. For the moment, the appearance of Lwaxanna Troi represents an attempt to tie Deep Space Nine back to its roots.

If at first you don't succeed, Troi, Troi again...

If at first you don’t succeed, Troi, Troi again…

In a recent interview, producer Ira Steven Behr talked a bit about the show’s first season. He explained a lot of what we’ve seen as we journeyed through the show’s rough first year, most notable the conflict between the desire to do something quite different from The Next Generation and the need for some sort of safety net:

Well, you know, what happened was, when I went to this ball game with Mike, and Mike said, “I want to read the bible” – not even the pilot which hadn’t been written yet. What he said was, “This show is going to reflect your sensibilities, it’s going to be edgier, funnier, grittier, more character driven, and after two years I’m going to hand the show over to you.” So that sounded really good, and that’s why I came back.

But almost immediately after the pilot, cold feet started to develop all over the place. It was like, “Make the show more TNG-like.” Not so much “don’t make it so dark”, it was just like, what kind of shows are we going to do?

This is why we saw Q and Lwaxana Troi coming in.

Yeah.

So, it was like, this is getting away from us. So we started to have to… not fight, so much, but make sure we came up with stories that were more specific to our series. It wasn’t until the end of the first season, with Duet and In the [Hands] of the Prophets, I think… that we really started… and there were some other good episodes at the beginning and throughout, but it was… and then the studio got freaked out and said, “Should we put engines on the space station and fly it through the wormhole? Do we need the character of Bashir?”

It’s unfortunate, and it does suggest a little insecurity behind the scenes. Luckily, as Behr notes, the show would reaffirm its own identity at the end of the season, but it’s still quite frustrating at this early stage.

Talk about heated disagreements...

Talk about heated disagreements…

I’ve never been a fan of Lwaxanna Troi as a character. Something about her usual characterisation strikes me as mean-spirited, portraying her as the butt of various jokes as she chases men who clearly aren’t interested in her. We’re meant to be embarrassed for her, and it seems a little cruel. It doesn’t help the the jokes involving the character are rarely funny, and it feels like we’re mocking a character’s perpetual loneliness.

To be fair, there are times when Lwaxanna comes close to working. I’m reluctant to suggest that it is when the writers take her entirely seriously, as I think that she can’t really support the retroactive angst inserted into her back story in Dark Page. However, there is a healthy middle-ground, and I think The Forsaken and a number of her middle Next Generation appearances come close to hitting it. It’s the point where she doesn’t seem to exist so we can laugh at her, but she still remains a larger-than-life presence.

It's a fixer-upper...

It’s a fixer-upper…

There’s a lovely little scene in the turbolift as Odo gets stuck with her. Prudently, and for the sake of his own sanity, he suggests that they should both keep quiet and refrain from talking. “I don’t think I can,” she confesses. “Well, you don’t have to say another word as long as we’re here, but I think I really need to talk.” It’s a strangely honest confession from Lwaxanna, and one that seems to acknowledge that she’s at least aware of her own dysfunction. It immediately turns into something more complex than the butt of a bunch of cheap jokes.

I also like that none of the cast seem to judge her for her interest in Odo. On The Next Generation, most of the regular cast (or at least Riker) seemed to have a good laugh at her expense when she would arrive on the ship and chase Picard. When Odo explains the situation to Sisko, he doesn’t respond with cheap mockery or obvious jokes. “What’s wrong with that?” he asks, as if to make it clear that he doesn’t judge. “Have you thought of letting her catch you?”

To catch a thief...

To catch a thief…

It helps that Odo’s inability to simply tell her he’s not interested seems more believable than Picard’s difficulties with her. Picard can command a starship and negotiate with countless alien species. One assumes he could let her down gently. Odo, on the other hand has neither the interest nor the skill to deal with her attraction. I’ve remarked before how Odo is interesting a complete inversion of Data, a character who doesn’t want to integrate or to become more human. So his interactions with Lwaxanna feel almost even-footed and  a lot less pathetic than her flirtations with Picard.

It’s a nice vehicle for an Odo-centric episode. Odo’s musings on romance are quite interesting, as he firmly rejects courtship. “Procreation does not require changing how you smell, or writing bad poetry, or sacrificing various plants to serve as tokens of affection.” It’s amazing how quickly and how consistently Odo was established as a character, and I’m really enjoying him on this re-watch through.

Spare the rod, spoil the puppy...

Spare the rod, spoil the puppy…

The Forsaken‘s strongest moments come from the interactions between Odo and Lwaxanna, amid all the generic technobabble and the ambassadorial problems. I like the insight that Odo’s desire to stand apart is rooted in his own failed attempts to blend in. He discusses the way he used to perform party tricks. “My way of trying to fit in. I found I could be entertaining. Odo, be a chair. I’m a chair. Odo, be a razorcat. I’m a razorcat. Life of the party. I hate parties.” There’s no mention of “the Cardassian neck trick”, at least not yet.

The notion of a young eager-to-please Odo realising that he will never truly belong and then deciding to cut his losses is almost heartbreaking. Rene Auberjones is fantastic here, and it’s remarkably how much dignity he allows Odo throughout his tenure on Deep Space Nine, despite the fact that Odo is one of the most tragic and dysfunctional characters in the franchise. That’s particularly obvious here, as Odo melts and finds himself forced to be completely naked in front of a total stranger. It is actually a pleasant little subplot, and the best part of the episode. And it enriches both Lwaxanna and Odo as characters.

It is not logical to be such a jerk...

It is not logical to be such a jerk…

The only other part of The Forsaken of note is the introduction of O’Brien’s assistant, Anara. It’s a little more evidence of the way that the writers were structuring the season, as they introduced Anara as something of a Chekov’s Gun, a seemingly innocuous character designed to pay-off in the season finalé, In the Hands of the Prophets as a would-be assassin. However, as The Making of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine explains, this didn’t quite work out:

One of the drawbacks of series television is that criminals almost always come out of the ranks of guest stars. For In the Hands of the Prophets, the producers were worried that if O’Brien had a new assistant and an assassin was suspected on board in the same episode, viewers would immediately guess that the assistant was the assassin. To try and prevent that from happening too quickly in the story, Piller decided to write in O’Brien’s assistant several episodes before the last of the season so that she would become familiar to regular viewers. Thus, Anara, a character who was created for In the Hands of the Prophets, first turned up in episode 417, The Forsaken.

Unfortunately, after that episode was filmed, the producers decided that the actor playing Anara wasn’t the right type to play an assassin, and so decided on a different actor for episode 420. Since the name Anara had been used for the first actor’s role, a new name, Neela, was created for the Anara replacement. Neela first appeared in episode 419, Duet. A leftover trace of Anara still remains in the episode, though. In Act Five In Act Five, O’Brien and Dax break a computer code for which the key letters are A-N-A-R-A. If you have a still-frame VCR, you’ll be able to read the code as it’s being broken — and thanks to a mysterious programming virus originating in the Deep Space Nine art department, the intermediate codes that appear make it a very entertaining sequence.

Actress Benita Andre doesn’t seem to work in the part, so you can see why the character was changed. (Albeit not radically. Casual viewers might just wonder why the actress in the blue uniform changed between episodes.)

Odo goes soft...

Odo goes soft…

Still, even if it didn’t quite work out as well as the writers had planned, it’s still good that they were beginning to plan in the medium- to long-term. The presence of a character like that isn’t a radical evolution in terms of the serialisation of Star Trek. After all, there have been characters introduced to pay off plot points down the line before, with Coming of Age playing into Conspiracy during the first season of The Next Generation. However, with everything else going on in the background of this first season, it is a good sign that the producers are starting to figure out how to write and plot for Deep Space Nine.

The Forsaken is a fairly bland episode, full of familiar Star Trek clichés executed in a manner more efficient than exceptional. That said, I still quite like the small subplot with Odo and Lwaxanna, even if the rest of the episode feels like a bit of a generic drag.

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

2 Responses

  1. Funny that O’Brien talks about the smoothness of the Enterprise’s computer voice when that voice actually visits the station… And Odo strikes me as just the sort of “baby” probe coming through the wormhole. And the computer solution in the last third with the Ops crew outsmarting the computer looked and sounded a lotdeconstructing HAL in “2001”. And Odo complimenting Lwaxana that she was not at all what he expected was so nice – giving so much respect to her like TNG never bothered to, showing how she too has to preserve an appearance just like Odo.

    There were so many great things – the comedy with the ambassadors and Julian, the alien program “living” in the station computer and so forth – that really make this one a jewel of the first season. I find the whole episode much underrated – even if it does not really forward the “great arc” and I agree with a lot of your criticism above – because it allows for some pretty good character moments and a pretty decent show with familiar and somewhat cliché elements.

    • I mean, this is the stage where DS9 is still finding itself. So these episodes tend be more collections of interesting moments than satisfying wholes.

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