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Star Trek – Worlds of Deep Space Nine: Unjoined (Trill) by Michael A. Martin and Andy Mangels (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.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry.

Worlds of Deep Space Nine was an ambitious project, but one that existed as a testament to the world-building that defined Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. A series of six novellas published in three books, each covering one of five planets associated with the television show (plus Andor), the book series was intended to launch the unofficial “ninth season” of the show. Beginning unofficially with The Lives of Dax and A Stitch in Time, the idea was for the spin-off novels to continue to develop and expand the series’ loose threads.

It’s quite something that Deep Space Nine left enough fertile ground to support a relaunch that ran so long, covering story beats that couldn’t necessarily be included in the television show – Bajor’s admittance to the Federation, the rebuilding of Cardassia, the aftermath of the war. Unjoined builds off the Trill storylines running through Deep Space Nine, using the events from the “eighth season” (the books through Unity) as a stepping stone to explore Trill culture.

ds9-unjoined

I’ll discuss the Deep Space Nine relaunch in a bit more depth when I get towards the end of the television show. It is a breathtakingly bold idea, and one that is rather ingenious. The relaunch saw Pocket Books using the tie-in novel licence not just to tell stories fitting smugly amid established continuity, or dancing carefully between raindrops, but to actively fashion its own unique and expansive story arc. Character could die, romances could be destroyed, worlds could be altered.

I loved that idea in concept, and I still do. And I think that using the relaunch as a background story setting is a great idea – it creates the impression that time goes on, characters grow, society evolves. It plays into the core themes of Deep Space Nine remarkably well, the notion that there is no real status quo and that everything eventually changes, even if history does move in sweeping arcs and shapes resembling circles.

However, I think the execution was occasionally a bit clunky or awkward, with writers trying too hard to connect various dangling story threads – working off the assumption that any connection to established Star Trek lore is inherently better than none. As a result, everything seems to be tied to everything else, and the universe seems a lot more crowded and claustrophobic – more a collection of threads and overlapping relationships than an expansive and epic narrative.

Martin and Mangels manage the weight of continuity quite well. Unjoined is a book that seems driven by the demands of the over-arching relaunch arc. It seems dedicated to providing answers to mysteries raised in earlier instalments, and it is sure to end on a significant plot point that radically alters the character dynamics for the line going forward. In that respect, Unjoined feels like a lot of house-keeping and tidying for the book line, about manoeuvring Ezri Dax and Julian Bashir to where they need to be going forwards.

It’s sometimes a little clumsy – in particular, the story thread dealing with the relationship between Dax and Bashir feels a little heavy-handed, a little rushed. It feels like a character arc that could have use more nuance and space, instead of being grafted on to a story already preoccupied with so much else going on.

I’ll confess that I’m a bit surprised by the relaunch’s fascination with Ezri Dax as a character. Introduced in the final season of Deep Space Nine, the character was put in a most unfortunate position. In order to develop her character, the series had to devote considerable space in an already over-crowded final season. I like Ezri quite a bit. I much prefer Ezri to Jadzia, in terms of writing and performance. However, I certain would never have imagined her the breakout character of that final season.

The relaunch has had Dax transfer from counselling into the command hierarchy, promoted her, and later spin-off books even give Dax command of her own ship. It’s nice to see a female character receiving that sort of high profile, but it’s strange that Ezri Dax seems to be such an integral part of the expansive tie-in novel universe. The focus seems a little strange, and it’s something that I’ve never been entirely able to make sense of.

Anyway, Unjoined devotes considerable space to this relaunch world-building, and Martin and Mangels handle that aspect of the novel quite well. I was uncomfortable with the relaunch’s decision to tie up the open ending of Conspiracy by tying those mind-controlling parasites to the Trill. Martin and Mangels inherited that plot point, and do some good work with it – loosing that sense of mystery and uncertainty is almost worth using the parasites as an avenue to explore Trill philosophy and history. I’m still not convinced that it was a good idea to strip all the mystery from those creepy aliens, but Unjoined does use that link quite well.

Indeed, although I’m not a huge fan of the “everything is related” school of Star Trek novel-writing, I’ll admit that I’m impressed with the decision to anchor the development of the parasites to the Kurl, a species mentioned in passing during The Chase. On one level, referencing The Chase feels quite clever. After all, The Chase is a prime example of the “everything is related” school of Star Trek, suggesting that it couldn’t be coincidence (or the fact that actors tend to be human) that explains why so many bipeds inhabit the universe, instead suggesting some grand linked cosmic theory of everything.

The Kurl were only touched upon in the episode itself, with Picard given a nice ornament by his old teacher. However, that ornament was a weird sort of nesting doll, which provides a nice metaphor for the whole “joined” experience. It’s strange to make that statue the crux of an entire novella, but it’s a very clever observation from Martin and Mangels that takes something very small and tangential to the Star Trek mythos and plays with it a bit. That said, the best parts of Unjoined are the big ideas that barely get room to breath with everything else going on.

Deep Space Nine was a wonderful show about consequences and repercussions, but it also had a tendency to let its characters off the hook slightly. It was very fond of moral ambiguity, of dwelling on the independent morality of characters’ actions, rather than the potential consequences of those decisions. Sisko’s actions in In the Pale Moonlight aren’t a big deal because they push the Federation closer to war with the Romulans (despite what is teased in the third act), they are important because they break his personal code of honour. They change the way he looks at himself.

The show never returns to explore what happens if or when the truth is discovered. In a way, this is a brave form of storytelling, because it puts morality in a vacuum. Consequences are always a bit of a cop-out when it comes to arguing morality – an easy way to make a choice seem “right” or “wrong” by demonstrating the positive or negative results of that action. Instead, by positioning the moral question in a vacuum, the debate becomes a lot more ambiguous. On the other hand, it does occasionally feel non-committal, and perhaps even a bit of a cheat.

Like Sisko’s conduct in In the Pale Moonlight, the revelations about Trill society made in Equilibrium are unsettling because they mean that our characters’ assumptions are built on lies. Sisko believes that he is a good man, but he discovers how far he will go when the chips are down. Trill society is built on the myth that only the best and brightest can ever be joined, but that simply isn’t the case. It’s a myth designed to placate a population that couldn’t deal with the truth.

Ever since Invasive Procedures, Trill society has been defined as a society built on class structure. More than that, though, it’s a society built around class structure that pretends not to built on class structure. It’s built on the great myth of opportunity – the notion that anybody could be joined. It is – if you will forgive a lazy cliché – the Trill dream. While Martin and Mangels shrewdly avoid so direct a comparison, the duo make some pointed turns of phrase, playing on Edward George Bulwer-Lytton for “the Great Unjoined.”

Unjoined works quite cleverly as allegory and social commentary. America is built on the idea that social advancement is possible – that you can arrive in the country with nothing and become a massive success over-night. Of course, the statistics don’t quite bear that over, especially over the past decade or so. Social mobility is not as common as people might like to believe. The poor are not seeing their lot in life increase, and no rising tide seems to have ever raised all boats.

Unjoined starts in a hospital, something that seems quite well-observed. Over the past couple of decades, health-care has become one of the primary areas of social stratification. (For example, as Philip Sandifer as noted, Russell T. Davies’ modern Doctor Who tends to use health-care as its primary allegorical vehicle for social commentary.) It’s not a debate that looks to be going away any time soon. One of Bill Clinton’s first major political defeats was his 1993 Healthcare Plan. Barrack Obama’s health-care initiatives are a particular hot-button topic.

Hospitals provide a fitting setting for these sorts of stories because they put class into stark contrast – the notion that some people are inherently more worthy of being saved than others. Bashir watches as the (admittedly cliché) sick child he is treating is brushed aside so he can work on “a very important doctor from the Symbiosis Commission that needs to undergo surgery right now.” Meeting with a young family on the streets, Bashir is told, “They turned us away from the hospital because Mama isn’t joined…”

It’s hardly subtle, but then it doesn’t need to be. Even Star Trek: Voyager was able to do Critical Care, an episode based around inequality in healthcare, in its final season. It’s just a very clever way of exploring a social divide in a life-and-death manner, suggesting the the way that society measures the value of life might be somewhat skewed. The Trill are defined as a race built around class in Gene Roddenberry’s class-less future, arguably a fertile vehicle to explore class in the United States, a society that – as Raymond Ledru and John Chandler argue in Civilization of the United States – often claims to be “classless.”

This exploration is a little heavy-handed, but it’s the best part of Unjoined, feeling a lot more fluid and organic than the tying up of loose ends left over from Unity, or dealing with the relationship between Bashir and Dax. That said, I am quite fond of Mangels and Martin’s oral history of Trill evolution, particularly their willingness to allow a hint of ambiguity, rather than firmly tying everything down:

And thanks to Joran, whose existence the Symbiosis Commission had concealed from her for nearly a century, Dax knew very well that memory was a very malleable thing; because of this, all of the “first symbiosis” memories she had glimpsed might be false to a significant degree—or true, at least in certain respects.

I’ve never been a big fan of anchoring everything down and cementing every minor detail of a massive shared universe. It’s nice to have a little room left for the reader and for later writers to play with. Given how much space in these relaunch novels has been wrapping everything up together, it’s nice to see the novels leave a little wriggle room and ambiguity.

Unjoined is a pretty solid novella, even if it is a bit hampered by the demands of the shared universe. It does a nice job exploring the consequences of a reveal from the show, arguably in more depth than might have been possible on television. It creates the sense of a universe that is still coming to terms with the events depicted on Deep Space Nine, suggesting all the problems didn’t magically go away once the credits started to roll on What You Leave Behind.

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

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