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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Invasive Procedures (Review)

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

Invasive Procedures is an interesting episode. It has a great high concept, some nice character beats, and offers an inside glimpse at an astonishingly interesting alien culture. Verad is a compelling guest character and Sisko gets to be pretty badass, continuing the presentation of the character as some weird composite of James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard.

There are however, a number of very sizeable flaws. The most obvious being that – despite this is nominally a “Dax” story – Dax winds up feeling more like a plot point than a character in her own right.

Slugging it out...

Slugging it out…

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine continues its casting hot streak this episode. While John Glover and Megan Gallagher (and hey! look! Tim Russ!) hardly have the same cultural cache as Frank Langella, Louise Fletcher, Richard Beymer and even Stephen Macht, they are two very strong performers. In particular, it’s amazing that Glover was never recruited as one of the franchise’s favoured recurring genre players like Jeffrey Combs or Brian Thompson.

Glover’s performance as Verad is probably the best part of an episode with quite a few strong elements. Glover shifts effortlessly between “timid and unassuming” regular Verad to the over-confident and disconnected Verad Dax. There’s a genuine sense that Verad doesn’t want to hurt anybody (at least not unless he has to), but also a very clear sense that he genuinely and all-consumingly wants this.

The Trill is in the chase...

The Trill is in the chase…

Verad is an interesting adversary. He’s a pathetic character, a failure, but it’s that failure which makes him dangerous. In the episode’s closing scene, Jadzia muses, “Everything he thought, everything he did, and it’s so sad.” There’s something quite touching about Verad’s sad story of struggling (and failing) to achieve greatness. Discussing the Symbosis Evaluation Board, Verad insists, “All they’ve done is condemn me to a life of… of mediocrity. Well, I refuse to accept it. I’m not going to spend the rest of my life dreaming about what I could have been, what I should have been. I deserve more and I’m going to get it.”

Given that Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek is populated by exceptional characters doing exceptional things, it feels weird to be confronted with an ordinary character who doesn’t measure up. Indeed, Star Trek: The Next Generation would touch upon this theme with its own wunderkind Wesley Crusher in Journey’s End, a show broadcast as part of the same season as Invasive Procedures. In that episode, following some time at the Academy, Wesley began to doubt whether he was truly destined to be a Starfleet officer.

"Sorry, this counts as your episode for this half of the season..."

“Sorry, this counts as your episode for this half of the season…”

Of course, Journey’s End was a mess of an hour of television, and the ending sort of copped out of the idea that Wesley wasn’t as special as everybody told him. (It turns out that he was, but in a different way.) On the other hand, Verad’s plight here is much more compelling, because there is no convenient out. “I spent my whole life trying to qualify for the joining. I studied constantly every day, every waking hour. I sacrificed everything and then I went before the Symbiosis Evaluation Board and they reduced my entire life to one word. Unsuitable.”

There must be something so frustrating and so unsettling being told that you can accomplish anything, that you are exceptional, that you are special – only to eventually realise that maybe you aren’t. We never find out exactly why Verad was refused a symbiote. The fact that he’s willing to hijack a space station in order to steal one suggests that he might not be the most well balanced of hosts. Then again, there’s also the suggestion of scarcity. “Only one Trill in ten is chosen to be joined, Jadzia assures him.

A Dax to grind...

A Dax to grind…

An early episode of the next season, Equilibrium, would suggest that Verad wasn’t necessarily the only party at fault. One of the things that Deep Space Nine inherited from The Next Generation was a willingness to invest in world-building. The Next Generation devoted considerable time to develop Klingon and (to a lesser extent) Romulan cultures. Deep Space Nine did something similar. While the Trill never received quite the development of the Ferengi or the Jem’Hadar or the Cardassians, the show still devoted considerable time to fleshing out their culture.

The Trill are interesting for a number of reasons. For one thing, they seem to be positioned in Deep Space Nine‘s mythology in a manner quite similar to the way that the Betazoid people were originally integrated in The Next Generation. Both cultures provide a female member of the ensemble; both societies are established as Federation worlds; both were revealed to be highly ritualised.

Cutting commentary...

Cutting commentary…

There was some effort to attempt to develop Betazoid culture in the early years of The Next Generation, in episodes like Haven or Manhunt. However, eventually the show seemed to lose interest, settling on the idea that the Betazoids were just generally nice people. In that way, perhaps, the Betazoids and the Trill also serve as an effective contrast between the philosophy of Deep Space Nine and that of The Next Generation.

Most notably, the Betazoids are consistently portrayed as open and honest, in keeping with the more idealised utopian trappings of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of The Next Generation. This openness extends to the point where other cultures are uncomfortable – most obviously in their sexual and nudity traditions, but also their telepathy. They exist as a race without secrets. In contrast, the Trill are a race with plenty of secrets to keep, with no real openness. They are very clearly closed off from those around them.

It's good to know he's en-join-ing it...

It’s good to know he’s en-join-ing it…

To be fair, this pre-dates Deep Space Nine. When the Trill were introduced in The Host, an episode of The Next Generation, it was revealed that the nature of their existence (as host and symbiote) was kept a secret from other races. However, Deep Space Nine built upon this characterisation to suggest that Trill tended to quite secretive. Indeed, the lack of knowledge that Jadzia’s co-workers demonstrate about her culture in episodes like Facets and Rejoined seems to suggest that the Trill don’t readily share, even with their allies.

Of course, this isn’t unprecedented. Amok Time suggests that Vulcans don’t readily discuss pon farr with outsiders, even humans. However, Deep Space Nine suggested that the Trill government was rather ambiguous. Although it’s not dealt with directly in Invasive Procedures, we see hints of it shining through. For one thing, there’s the fact that their culture is clearly driven be class, divided into the “haves” and the “have-nots.” In this case, it’s just whether or not you will be “joined.”

Well, at least Terry Farrell gets to a bit more here than she did in Dax...

Well, at least Terry Farrell gets to a bit more here than she did in Dax…

Jadzia tries to make Verad’s obsession with a symbiote seem excessive, assuring him that being “joined” is not a prerequisite for a healthy and fulfilling life. “Neither of my parents or my sister underwent symbiosis,” she assures him patronisingly. “And they live happy and productive lives.” However, her words ring a little hollow when she’s separated from the symbiote, and describes how “empty” she feels – particularly since, according to Verad, the host apparently “can’t remember any of it” after being separated.

Verad was clearly raised to believe that being “joined” was an ideal to aspire towards. In a way, it seems to mirror “the American Dream”, the belief which suggests that “success” is a concept to aim for. Like “the American Dream”, Verad was promised that joining would be within his grasp if he just devoted himself, if he worked hard. And it’s suggested that “joined” Trill enjoy a higher social status than those who live their life unjoined.

Praying to the profits...

Praying to the profits…

Rather pointedly, Verad is the first unjoined Trill we’ve met, and he’s a criminal. Before that, we’re told, he was “the communications clerk at the Federation consulate” on a backwater world. Given that Verad worked hard enough to reach the final stages of the initiation programme (and based on his actions here), one assumes that he does possess some measure of ambition and ability. So it’s strange that there isn’t a better use for his obvious talents.

In contrast, we’ve seen joined Trill serve as off-world ambassadors and high-profile science officers on prestigious assignments. Deep Space Nine might have been intended as something of a career dead-end for Sisko, and while I doubt too many career-orientated engineers envy O’Brien wrestling with a Cardassian computer, Jadzia Dax has a pretty cushy number. She might have signed up to keep Sisko company, but it’s hard to imagine there aren’t a lot off Starfleet officers who would love be in charge of scientific study of the first stable wormhole discovered.

Wait... why did Quark need to let the guy carry his weapon to make this deal?

Wait… why did Quark need to let the guy carry his weapon to make this deal?

So Invasive Procedures does raise questions about Trill culture. Observers who are particularly interested in the studio of class system politics could argue that the Trill have cultivated a system of exploitation, where the majority are controlled and kept in line by the promise of a better life. It’s a system that inherently benefits the symbiotes, who live incredibly long lives being partnered with the very best and brightest humanoids that the planet can offer. It’s quite a cushy number, this social model they’ve created here.

It might be a bit harsh to suggest that the Trill symbiotes are pretty close to being cultural parasites, but Invasive Procedures raises some very interesting questions about the morality of the Trill symbiotes. After all, Verad spends half the episode as Verad Dax, Verad “joined” with the Dax symbiote. Given that “joining” is presented as a merging of minds – a union between host and symbiote – it’s interesting to note how Verad’s personality shifts.

Under lockdown...

Under lockdown…

Of course, if the Dax symbiote makes him more compassionate or sympathetic, the show is over. If the symbiote convinces him that his actions are wrong and that it can’t led Jadzia die, that hardly makes for a compelling resolution to an hour of television. “Oops, I guess I was kinda a jerk,” doesn’t really offer too much in the way of pay-off. So I understand that Invasive Procedures needs to keep the symbiote in Verad’s body until it is forcible removed.

That said, doesn’t that raise all manner of ethical issues? Regardless of how immoral the decision to separate the symbiote from Jadzia might have been, it doesn’t seem like Dax quite wants to leave Verad. Forcibly transplanting the symbiote feels like the kind of thing that somebody on the show should at least raise a question about. That said, the symbiote doesn’t seem to resent being back inside Jadzia at the end, so I suppose it’s retroactive consent. (Then again, doesn’t that retroactively validate Verad’s Trill-jacking?)

Nothing too jarring...

Nothing too jarring…

Once inside Verad, the Dax symbiote gives him confidence, and access to its memories. However, there’s something more to it than that. It changes Verad’s mind about his plan to escape through the wormhole. “I’m not going to the Gamma Quadrant to hide,” he boasts. He seems to want to remain friends with Ben Sisko, unable to perceive how the whole “murdering Jadzia” thing might put a dampener on this. “Not many friendships last over two lifetimes,” he observes. “I wish we could have made it three.

Part of this could arguably be Verad responding to the influx of memories and emotions from the symbiote, the confidence bringing out an arrogance previously buried under a lot of insecurity. However, his coldness towards Mareel – a woman he helped out of “a bad situation” , and whom he seems to genuinely care for – suggests that at least some of this new amoral behaviour is rooted in the symbiote.

You do not mess with the Sisko...

You do not mess with the Sisko…

Indeed, the refusal to return to Jadzia seems rooted in a sense of self-preservation. When Sisko suggests returning Dax to Jadzia, Verad shoots him down. “Benjamin, the symbiote’s still weak from the operation. If we attempt another joining so soon, it might not survive. Are you willing to risk that?” Later on, confronting Benjamin in the airlock, he makes the same argument. “We both know that if you shoot me, even on stun, you risk killing the symbiont.”

While Verad argued he was entitled to the symbiote as a right, Verad Dax instead argues for the protection and conservation of the symbiote itself. Indeed, it sounds like it’s Dax rather than Verad who is attempting to pragmatically justify Jadzia’s death. “What’s one girl’s life compared to eight lifetimes of knowledge and experience?” he asks Sisko, which seems a very callous argument.

Unwashed and somewhat slightly phased...

Unwashed and somewhat slightly phased…

On the other hand, when you consider the place the symbiotes have created for themselves in Trill culture, where there are ten (or more – if you believe Equilibrium) hosts to every single symbiote, such callousness seems quite rational. Invasive Procedures crafts a very cynical view of Trill culture, suggesting that perhaps the relationship between host and symbiote isn’t as symbiotic as the Trill would like to believe.

However, despite these interesting conceptual ideas, Invasive Procedures feels rather… impersonal. Dax was always one of the more problematic characters for the writers on Deep Space Nine, and Invasive Procedures is an even better example than Dax. Quite frankly, Jadzia Dax is an interesting vehicle for high-concept plots, but there’s very little attempt to develop her as a character in her own right. For a “Dax” story, Farrell gets relatively little screen time, and is more of a plot point than an integral character.

Quark's about to get it in the ear...

Quark’s about to get it in the ear…

There is potential here. It might be interesting, for example, to separate Dax from Jadzia. The episode intimates that the warmth the character exudes comes from Jadzia, so it might be fascinating to get to know her with the symbiote. However, once the symbiote is removed, Jadzia simply lies there, shivering about how “alone” she feels. She becomes a convenient damsel in distress for Sisko and Bashir and even Quark to rescue.

The episode’s ending seems to try to mitigate this by suggesting that the trauma will have some long-term implications for Dax. “I guess he’ll always be with me,” Dax muses. However, it seems more like something to break an awkward silence than a sincere attempt to tie this problem back to Dax as a character. For a show that is quite good with continuity, Deep Space Nine mostly ignores any potential repercussions of Invasive Procedures.

The penny drops...

The penny drops…

Despite Jadzia’s claim that Verad will always be a part of her, he’s never mentioned again. He doesn’t appear in Facets, even though he might have added a bit more colour to an already strong Dax episode. He doesn’t even get a mention when Ezri runs through a list of her hosts in the final season. Granted, Verad is “barely” a host, but – given the episode’s final line – it seems like the show wanted to imply he’d have some lingering impact on Dax.

Of course, it isn’t only Dax who seems to avoid any of the logical fallout from this episode. Invasive Procedures is also the single biggest demonstration of the problems facing Quark as a main character. Quite frankly, he’s a convenient tool for lazy writers to endanger the station. The first season had quite a few “Quark does something illegal and/or stupid to get the plot moving” hooks in stories like Babel, Q-Less, The Passenger, Move Along Home and Vortex.

Quark tackles a problem head-on...

Quark tackles a problem head-on…

Not all of them were entirely foreseeable, but it undermines the character to use him as such a convenient plot device, and it makes the regular cast look like idiots for keeping him around. Here, he makes an exceedingly stupid mistake with incredibly foreseeable consequences. It’s hard to argue with Yeto’s assessment that, in letting a bunch of armed Klingons on to an abandoned station, Quark is a “stupid Ferengi.” He didn’t realise that they would try to kill Dax, but it was still a dumb move.

This makes Quark look like an idiot, but also undermines the ensemble. If he’s this careless, how could Odo not catch him? Why does Sisko keep him around? At least Invasive Procedures acknowledges this, with Kira being fairly blunt about what this means. “Save it, Quark. You crossed the line this time. You sold us out and now Dax may die because of it. Whatever happens next, one thing is certain. You’re through here.”

Station-keeping...

Station-keeping…

Only he isn’t. The episode gives Quark several big heroic moments here. He tackles a Klingon twice his size. He unlocks the container housing Odo. He’s vital to saving the day. The fact that he is still around in later episodes suggests that this is enough to at least mitigate the damage he caused. It doesn’t work. It still feels weird. Deep Space Nine characters (especially supporting characters) tend to skirt the line, and often do fairly dodgy things. Even though they tend to stick around, it works better when there’s at least the suggestion of punishment.

We don’t see Garak spend time in custody for his actions in Broken Link, but we’re told he serves a sentence. Instead, Quark seems to go about his business for the rest of the season as if none of this ever happened. Still, at least this is the last time that a plot hinges on Quark’s completely amoral stupidity. It’s a plot device which wore out its welcome far too quickly, and Invasive Procedures suffers for having to rely on it.

Storming the station...

Storming the station…

Speaking of continuity, it does seem weird that this episode aired so close to The Siege. It’s the second consecutive episode where the majority of Deep Space Nine has been evacuated. It’s a little weird, as it creates the impression that this sort of thing happens quite regularly. Given how none of the stuff in this episode returns in any meaningful way, I can’t help but wonder if it might have been a bit stronger shuffled further into the season’s running order.

Aside from that, though, there is a lot to like about Invasive Procedures on its own merits. For one thing, Sisko gets to be a wonderful badass, beating the stuffing out of a Klingon in ham-to-ham combat and getting a pretty cold showdown with Verad in the airlock. “Don’t call me Benjamin.” That stuff is cold. I do like how Sisko is a hybrid of Picard’s higher philosophy and Kirk’s machismo. It’s sort of the way that Brooks’ operatic tendencies are half-way between Stewart’s Shakespearean training and Shatner’s scenery chewing.

Bashir puts his neck on the line...

Bashir puts his neck on the line…

I think that Sisko became a lot more unique as the show went on, but this isn’t a bad place for the character to be at the start of the second season. He’s not Picard, and he’s not Kirk, even as he incorporates some of the attributes of each. Brooks is really beginning to hit the sweet spot with the character, and he seems to be starting to have a great deal of fun in the role. Like Dramatis Personae, this isn’t a script which demands a lot of the actor, but he puts a lot into the role and it shows.

There’s also some interesting world-building here. The episode features two Klingon supporting characters acting as mercenaries. However, they suggest that the peace between the Federation and the Klingons is still something which makes certain subjects of the Empire uneasy. When O’Brien points out the two powers are at peace, T’Kar protests, “The Empire is governed by doddering fools and frightened old women who aren’t worthy of the name Klingon!”

Why don't you get lost... in the Delta Quadrant or something?

Why don’t you get lost… in the Delta Quadrant or something?

Given these are two hired guns, it’s hardly indicative of anything, but it’s interesting that Deep Space Nine was already suggesting that the Klingons are uneasy with the peace – while The Next Generation tended to suggest that everybody was friends. The only Klingons who seemed to be unhappy with peace with the Federation were either Romulan spies or frozen cold warriors. Ronald D. Moore wasn’t on staff at this point, and The Way of the Warrior hadn’t even been suggested, but it’s quite a telling suggestion from Deep Space Nine, the suggestion that the status quo is so much more precarious than we like to think it is.

There’s also something quite Deep Space Nine about Mareel’s back story, in which she is pretty clearly (albeit not explicitly) a prostitute. The Federation seems unlikely to approve of such practises, and not just because they operate a money-less economy. Although it is a far more complex issue than it might seem, as with any aspect of sex and morality on Star Trek. That said, do staff on Risa count as sex workers, given they seem to provide sex as a tourist attraction?

That's what happens if you call him Benjamin...

That’s what happens if you call him Benjamin…

Still, The Next Generation never really dealt with the issue. Early episodes of Deep Space Nine were more willing to skirt the topic. They had Sisko explicitly confirm that Quark could not write sexual clauses into his contracts with his dabo girls. So, in that light, it’s interesting that Verad could frequent an “accommodation house” on a world with a Federation consulate so regularly that he could form so profound an attachment to one of the girls working there. This is a long way from the sterile world of The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine again suggests that the future isn’t necessarily quite as clean as The Next Generation might lead us to believe.

Invasive Procedures is a fascinating episode, even if it feels like it a lacks a personal touch. This is a big “Dax” story, but Terry Farrell is relegated to the sidelines as her character is reduced to a mere plot point. It offers some fascinating world-building, a wonderful adversary and some great Sisko moments, but it feels like it loses sight of some of the other characters a bit.

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

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6 Responses

  1. My thoughts upon watching this episode were quite along the lines of yours:

    1. Threatening the symbiont is a pretty obvious plot for the Dax character. Not that all obvious plots are bad, mind you.

    2. Once the transfer of Dax to Verad was complete, I expected that Dax would influence Verad in the way you describe: making him guilty or working against Verad to get back to Jadzia. Nope. Is the idea that Dax was weak from the transfer supposed to excuse its lack of action? It just makes it seem like we can’t trust Dax.

    3. By this point in the show, Quark had gotten far too much screen time for my taste. The show kept trying to say, “Hey, here’s this Ferengi! He’s, like, horny and greedy and stuff! He’s funny! HE’S FUNNY!” But in actuality, he’s a creepy skeezball.

    • The Trill are a more fascinating species than most give them credit for, because the show seems to imply that they are somewhat mercenary. (They are also more subtly class-based than most Star Trek aliens, which I think makes them more pointed.) Equilibrium also hints at the idea that host is just a disposable shell for the creature. I think there’s an interesting theory to be constructed around the Trill. Have the symbiotes effectively brainwashed the planet’s poor humanoid population into constructing a cult around them. I mean, the first joining could not possibly have consensual, could it?

    • The question of who is really in control in a joined Trill and if it is just some kind of alien invasion was also raised in a good TNG-DS9-crossover comic, authored by David Mack.
      I felt that Verad did indeed have some second thoughts, and obviously/logically it was due to his experience as part-Dax. I guess neither symbiont nor host are in full control – it is a unique individual that comes out of the joining. In Jadzia the Dax-symbiont is trustworthy for that matter, I would say…

      With regards to Quark: Shimerman is just great. Character/plot issues aside, I wonder how anyone of the cast could not have just burst with laughing when he simulated his hurt ears and made those shrill sounds. Hilarious!

      • That’s a fair point. It’s just weird how consistently Deep Space Nine paints the Trill as kinda monstrous and predatory. It’s arguably really clever and pointed (and underdiscussed) class commentary.

  2. Your point about the Trill as a society with distinct classes and the show’s heavy suggestion of exploitation within that society—of the unjoined by the joined, of the hosts by the symbionts—is a pretty striking one. I didn’t pay the lackluster early-season Trill episodes much attention when the show first aired; I assume why is because they never really told us much about the Trill character we saw on TV each week.

    Whether the writers realized they were doing it or not, though, the Trill make complex class commentary possible within the world of 1990s Star Trek in a pretty sneaky way: the divide between the upper and lower classes on Trill is dictated by the existing elite and it’s part of their biology, even part of what you might call their form of reproduction.

    From what we can gather about the Federation, in their fictional world, they would hardly have interrogated the Trill about the joining process before allowing them to join up any more than they would have demanded the Bynars stop replacing their newborns’ parietal lobes with computer parts or made the Vulcans’ post-“Amok Time” participation in Starfleet dependent on developing a cure for their violent seven-year sex mania. Star Trek: Voyager suggests that even after it’s common knowledge that Vulcan officers enter a murderous rage on a regular schedule, they aren’t required to tell their doctors when it’s due.

    So, the Federation can do away with money and ban eugenics in its pursuit of a class-less utopia, but so long as members aren’t tinkering with the genetic material of zygotes in laboratories, it draws the line at demanding people revise the way they create more of themselves. Really, it seems like the Federation doesn’t even ask detailed questions about that topic when vetting new members. It maintains a well-kept, heavily-armed service corps to seek out new forms of life, but the Federation, as a rule, doesn’t know where babies come from.

    That lets the Trill stand as metaphors for class society in the real world without completely breaking Star Trek’s fictional one. They’re analogies that allow Star Trek heroes both to transcend and inhabit our reality, because their society won’t break its (apparent) rules to enforce its (apparent) ideals. That means the heroes must engage with class society in the same ways we must in the current moment: they encounter its problems, which are sometimes serious and even fatal, but they’re part of the authority that sets the heroes’ own rules, too. They can’t just tell the Trill, Hey, knock it off or I’ll tell on you.

    As a result, these Trill episodes, even when they don’t really work as good TV, are still a hell of a lot more effective than most other Star Trek episodes about class society, where heroes lecture a bunch of brainless barbarians and snobby dummies about ideals of equality, while the heroes themselves seem to come from somewhere that’s less of a class-free society than it is a complete mystery that somehow spits out advanced spaceships and crews of quasi-military astronauts to fly them.

    • Yep. I don’t think any of the Trill stories are classics. Even the ones that come closest to working as allegories – Equilibrium – fall apart as character-centric stories. (This is partially an issue with Dax as a character in the first three seasons, she’s largely a plot device within her own character-centric stories.) But I have a soft spot for what the show was attempting with the Trill. (See also: the Bajorans in the first five seasons.)

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