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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Melora (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.

It’s hard to believe, based on what we’ve witnessed so far, but one day viewers will be able to think “oh, a Bashir episode!” without an involuntary shudder. There will come a time when the writing staff figure out how to write a Bashir-centric episode. In fact, they’ll even revisit this central premise in the show’s final season, in a way that is much less creepy because at least it acknowledges the creepiness. However, we’re a long way from that.

It’s not that Bashir is a bad character. In fact, I’m very fond of him. I think that this version of the character works very well as part of an ensemble, or even teamed up with another major character to carry a story. However, I don’t think that the show has quite figured out how to tell a Bashir-centric story yet. Most notably because – like The Passenger before it – Melora isn’t really about Bashir. At least not in a way that isn’t creepy and disturbing and unnerving.

Instead, Bashir is mostly a vehicle for the guest character of the week, who lends the episode her name and serves as the focal point of some incredibly condescending and patronising writing which doesn’t make the optimistic future of Star Trek look particularly bright.

Floating in a most peculiar way...

Floating in a most peculiar way…

Let’s be honest. Star Trek doesn’t always live up to its own hype when it comes to offering a truly diverse future. The original Star Trek made several massive strides forward by presenting a racially (and even ethnically) diverse crew, even if nobody outside the three leads ever got too much development. Making Geordi LaForge the Chief Engineer of the Enterprise on Star Trek: The Next Generation was a nice step, as he was a character who was never defined by his disability.

However, the fact that technology effectively compensated for it almost completely diminishes the idea that a character can be disabled and still contribute to life in the future. In It’s Only a Paper Moon, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would reintroduce a recurring character with an acquired physical disability, but the story was more concerned with the psychological implications of the character’s war-time experiences than with his changed circumstances. Still, it stands as probably the best story Star Trek has ever produced about living with a disability.

Going for gold...

Going for gold…

While Too Short a Season featured an infirm and elderly Admiral Mark Jameson riding around the bridge of the Enterprise in a floating wheelchair (a hoverchair?), the show couldn’t wait to get him out of it – treating the chair as symbolic of Jameson’s weakening with age. In The Menagerie, Part II, James T. Kirk abandoned his wheelchair-bound predecessor on an alien world that had once tried to use him to breed a race of slaves. Outside of various tie-in sources like Margaret Wonder Bonanno’s wonderful Burning Dreams, there was no indication that the Federation ever thought twice about leaving Pike on a world like that.

Coupled with the complete absence of openly homosexual characters (and the fact that transgender characters are typically treated as walking punchlines in stories like Profit and Lace), the franchise has had some difficulty offering a truly representative and diverse version of the future. If you asked a lot of fans (myself included) why they liked Star Trek, a lot would cite the franchise’s optimistic depiction of a future where all kinds of people can co-exist in relative harmony. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes disappointing how little the more modern Star Trek spin-offs have tried to measure up to that.

Love is like gravity... or something... I don't know...

Love is like gravity… or something… I don’t know…

With that in mind, Melora is a bit of a problematic episode. I can understand why the episode was written. In particular, I’m sympathetic to the position of writer Evan Carlos Somers, particularly since he wrote it in response to Ethics, an episode of The Next Generation where a freak accident left Worf paralysed:

That episode had gotten a little under my skin. Even though Worf is an alien and it’s just a TV show, everyone knows we’re making statements with Star Trek. Messages and values are being broadcast loud and clear. I resented the message in Ethics – that Worf is worthless now that he’s disabled and therefore must kill himself. I’m sorry that the portrayal had to exist at all.

I can understand how Somers could read that into the episode, but I can’t quite agree. I’d argue that Ethics isn’t so much about Worf’s disability as a clash of cultures. Worf adheres to a Klingon belief that he is worthless. By any standard, that is an abhorrent belief. Just like the sexism of the Ferengi or the misogyny of the Klingons.

The naked truth...

The naked truth…

However, the fact that certain characters (even primary characters) adhere to a political belief doesn’t mean the show endorses it. After all, the characters don’t always agree with each other, and drama requires that sort of conflict. Indeed, Riker calls Worf out on his hypocritical nonsense, and we’re meant to agree with Riker that Worf is simply refusing to deal with his condition in a meaningful way. Similarly, the decision to risk everything to cure Worf – rather than living a meaningful life in that condition – is portrayed as both reckless and selfish. Crusher, one of the show’s barometers of human decency, wants Worf to try to adapt to his life.

There have been insensitive portrayals of disability in Star Trek. However, Somers’ inability to separate the show’s message from the beliefs of the characters involved in the drama perhaps hints at the biggest problem with Melora. Quite frankly, the best way of dealing with a disability is to not make a big deal of it. Accommodate the person as much as possible, offer any and all assistance necessary, but don’t see the person as a disability. Keep the two separate. It might be part of who this person is, but it is not all this person is.

Now, this guy needs more screen time...

Now, this guy needs more screen time…

However, Melora seems to suggest that the guest character’s disability is really the only defining thing about her. We’re told that Melora is quite a keen scientific mind, but see little of it in action. The climax of the episode doesn’t rely on Melora busting out some science on a bad guy, instead she takes advantage of her familiarity with low gravity. Similarly, the love story with Bashir feels a little creepy, where you’re not entirely sure that he’s seeing her as more than just a quirky medical factoid.

We’ve touched on this a bit before, especially in Bashir’s flirtations with Dax, but the character has a tendency to come across as a tad… intense in his affections. Melora presents him as just a little shy of a stalker. “You make it sound as though you’ve known her for years,” Dax remarks in the cold open. Bashir explains, “I almost feel as though I have. I’ve pulled all her personnel and medical files to get ready.” That feels like it crosses some professional boundaries, especially since he’s never met her in the flesh. If a medical professional took that level of interest in me, I’d be nervous.

Odo won't get bent out of shape by Quark's death...

Odo won’t get bent out of shape by Quark’s death…

And then there’s the way that he’s just so smug and patronising towards her. In fairness, this is in keeping with the portrayal of his character to this point. Bashir was introduced as the kind of guy who could easily be a regular on the first season of The Next Generation, back when the cast were condescending jerks prone to lecturing other cultures about how stupid or primitive they were. Bashir would, to be frank, have fit right in. However, the fact that this portrayal is consistent with Bashir’s characterisation doesn’t make it any less unpleasant.

“Just think what she’s gone through to get here, Jadzia,” he tells his Dax. “What it must be like to adjust to our gravity after growing up on a planet with such low surface gravity.” She definitely deserves a gold star for effort. How about talking about her work at the Academy, or her professional background, or her drive for studies? He’s just as condescending towards her, indulging in a fairly blunt (and rude) bit of psychoanalysis as he tries to explain why she’s so harsh to people. “All of these broad shots you fire it’s your way of keeping the rest of the universe on the defensive. Has to be. You’re too good at it.” Actually, I think she’s justified.

It's all about chemistry... well, science at any rate...

It’s all about chemistry… well, science at any rate…

Later on, Bashir practically forces himself into her quarters. He manhandles her stuff, poking and prying. “Look at this,” he remarks when he sees a photo of Melora with a man. “Is this your husband? Boyfriend?” Talk about pushy. Later on, when she invites him to demonstrate the zero-gravity technology, Bashir is clearly more excited about seeing it in practise than he is about being intimate with Melora herself. “This is astonishing. I can’t tell you how curious I was about this.” Not “you”, but “this.” I mean, I like the guy, but this is creepy.

Of course, this could be the point. Bashir could realise that he’s just being a prejudiced jerk who can’t see the woman behind the medical statistics, but Melora lets him off the hook. Despite the fact that the dialogue is cringe-worthy, Melora is actually taken in by Julian’s smooth charm. After he picks apart her defense mechanism, she concedes, “Well, it always seemed to work pretty well. Until now.” Ugh.

Swept off her feet...

Swept off her feet…

The problem isn’t so much that Bashir can’t see past Melora’s disability, but that the episode can’t either. It’s interesting that so many members of Starfleet tend to have so many overlapping needs.In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the Klingon Chancellor accused the Federation of being nothing but a “homo sapiens only club.” While it’s a nice piece of self-criticism about the franchise’s occasional relativism, it draws attention to the fact that it just so happens that all the Federation facilities we’ve seen are optimally designed for able-bodied humans.

I realise part of this is the limited budget of a television show at play here, but the franchise did present all manner of diverse background characters in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Even the fairly low-key breathing apparatus used for Benzite characters in Coming of Age and A Matter of Honour at least hinted at the idea that Starfleet occasionally dealt with recruits not used to the same air or gravity or other elements. Diane Duane takes great care to suggest that Starfleet is home to characters with genuinely alien biologies in her tie-in novels.

Quark's subplot is quite dark...

Quark’s subplot is quite dark…

The point is that it feels like Melora’s difficulty with standard gravity shouldn’t be as big a deal. The Federation really should have standard operating procedures for that sort of thing, given how statistically likely it is that different planets would have different gravities. The fact that Melora is “the first Elaysian to join Starfleet” is something the episode barely touches upon. Are they a Federation member? If so, how do they handle diplomatic relations with standard-gravity outsiders? Is there a cultural and institutional prejudice which keeps them out of Starfleet?

The episode also attempts to justify the focus on her disability by suggesting that this is because Deep Space Nine is a Cardassian station. “Her normal anti-grav unit isn’t going to work here,” O’Brien explains. “Same problem we had with the Starfleet cargo lifts. Cardassian construction just isn’t compatible.” It’s a nice attempt to blame the Cardassians for the problems, but Melora never addresses the substantive issue about why this the first time we’ve seen anything like this in the franchise’s history. We’ve never seen a member of the Enterprise crew in a “normal anti-grav unit” as if it were a regular occurrence.

To dine for...

To dine for…

Unfortunately Melora never registers as a character. I feel sorry for Daphne Ashbrook. She is really saddled with a truly dire script, one which never defines Melora as anything other than a disability with a chip on her shoulder. She never feels like a fully-formed character, she’s never interesting in her own right in the way that the show’s other supporting characters are. The fact that she’s so quickly swept off her feet that she admits it to Dax (she starts talking about long-distance long-term relationships with Dax after one night in zero-g!) suggests that Melora doesn’t really have too much depth.

However, it’s quite clear Melora won’t be sticking around, despite the show’s knack for picking up recurring guest stars. The audience knows early on that Melora will fade from memory quickly enough. On the other hand, Bashir is the regular character most affected by this episode – and not in a good way. Melora isn’t really a Bashir episode, in that it focuses more heavily on the guest star than on Bashir, but what we see of the good doctor isn’t encouraging. He’s selfish, stalkerish, emotionally short-sighted and narrow-minded. Which would be grand if the show called him on any of this.

Free-wheeling...

Free-wheeling…

I’ve remarked quite a bit this season that’s interesting to connect these early character-based stories to the later arcs of the characters. For example, Cardassians makes for a much more interesting Garak story when we discover more about his childhood. Quark’s conduct in Rules of Acquisition lines up quite well with his family history as explored in Family Business. So it’s interesting to look at Melora through the prism of who Bashir would eventually become.

To be fair, it actually makes some semblance of sense, given what the show eventually establishes about Bashir (but which hadn’t crossed the minds of any of the writers involved in the show at this point). Melora is about Bashir trying to “fix” his girlfriend to help her conform to the Federation’s ideal of normality. It seems rather ironic, given what we discover about Bashir’s childhood and his own strong feelings on the matter. Of course, it’s one of life’s ironies that it’s easy to fall into a pattern of behaviour which we would object to under other circumstances.

Appreciating the gravity of the situation...

Appreciating the gravity of the situation…

However, this doesn’t serve to make Bashir’s actions here come across as any more likeable or complex. Because his back story doesn’t exist yet, there’s no opportunity to explore the behaviour here. In fact, the show would revisit the “Bashir builds his own girlfriend” plot in its final year, in the context of those subsequent revelations about Bashir’s childhood, to much greater effect. Then again, Chrysalis is a much stronger episode than Melora in just about every way.

It’s also interesting to hear Bashir talk a bit about his father here, in light of the way the show develops their relationship. Again, the back story didn’t exist when Melora was written, but it’s strange to hear that Richard Bashir served as a Federation ambassador. While the notion of Bashir’s father as a high-ranking Federation official plays into the idea of Bashir as a fairly well-connected young go-getter. It’s precisely the sort of background you’d expect an over-achieving and over-eager frontier doctor to have. So it fits quite well with the version of Bashir the show had established up to this point, as a man with a lot of idealism, but one who lived a relatively sheltered and privileged life inside the Federation.

He's Kot a lot to live for...

He’s Kot a lot to live for…

That said, it’s hard to reconcile the story with the version of Richard Bashir presented in Doctor Bashir, I Presume, where the character couldn’t hold down the position of a steward on a shuttle for more than six months. It’s quite possible Bashir is lying. Homefront established that Bashir doesn’t keep in regular contact with his parents, and the story is generic and cliché enough to pass for a personal anecdote when Bashir doesn’t want to delve into his own personal history.

That said, if it is a lie, it’s a pretty manipulative one. Making up a story to cover the fact your father is an abject failure is one thing, as is providing a convenient excuse for your interest in medicine. However, making up a story about a dying child in order to garner sympathy from a girlfriend feels a little too cynical and manipulative for Bashir. As such, it’s a plot point it’s hard to reconcile with what follows, a throwaway line which doesn’t fit with the image of Bashir the show would eventually develop. It’s better off forgotten, much like the rest of this episode.

Love is on the menu...

Love is on the menu…

I can’t help but feel like the Klingon restaurant on the promenade serves as a more effective demonstration of Deep Space Nine‘s tolerant and optimistic outlook on life than anything else in the episode. The Klingon restaurant is just there, and it creates the impression that Deep Space Nine is a truly open-minded and welcoming installation than any of Bashir’s interactions with Melora. It’s not a big deal that your former enemies are opening a restaurant here. It doesn’t matter that the food isn’t what most humans would consider normal. It just is what it is, and is appreciated for it.

Plus, it has a Klingon restauranteur who serenades his guests on what looks like a Klingon fiddle. If ever a character needed more screen time and deserved to get bumped up to the recurring cast, Klingon Chef is that character. He was played by the late great Ron Tayler, and would pop up briefly in Playing God, but this is the kind of character I’d love to just see hanging around with Quark and Garak and the other denizens of Deep Space Nine’s promenade. As it stands though, he does demonstrate that the promenade is a cultural melting pot.

A dish best served however the customer wants it...

A dish best served however the customer wants it…

Speaking of the promenade, there’s a subplot involving Quark here which is all kinds of banal, as a former business associate comes back to kill Quark for sending him to a Romulan labour camp. Fallit Kot is just a bland bad guy, which is a shame – Michael Westmore’s make-up design for the character is superb. It’s more than “just” a forehead, and Kot looks fairly convincingly alien. Westmore doesn’t get enough credit for the work that he did within the confines of the television budget and various demands.

However, despite the nifty design and fairly solid premise, Kot is a non-starter as a character. Part of this is the script and part of this is the performance of Peter Crombie. Combie tries to downplay Kot to present him as a brooding and simmering psychopath, but the script isn’t strong enough to support such a portrayal. Instead of seeming intense, Kot just seems boring and undefined.

He's not taking it on the chin...

He’s not taking it on the chin…

Somers apparently went a different direction with the character in early drafts, when he was referred to as Megsy:

Megsy was going to kill Quark by using the Ceti eels introduced in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but this variety didn’t cause mental vulnerability for mind control. […] Megsy had Quark pinned and he was going to insert the creatures in Quark’s ears. I thought that would be a fitting, torturous end for someone who had caused eight years of suffering. But in the aired version, Fallit Kot just strangles Quark. It’s not quite titanic enough.

While I’m not entirely convinced this would be much better than what we got (where Kot eats screentime until it’s time for him to intersect with the main plot), at least it’s a bit more creative and the concept packs a visual punch. (Plus, handled right, there’s a sense it could be downright unpleasant and at least make Kot a more credible villain.)

Parting shot...

Parting shot…

Melora is a massive misfire, a story which has its heart in the right place, but doesn’t seem to understand that tolerance of a disability means not making a big deal of it – doing what you can to help and assist, but recognising the person for more than just their condition. Melora never bothers to see past the title character’s mobility issues, and the episode is the weaker for it. It becomes a bit of a non-starter, and the first real clunker of the second season.

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

3 Responses

  1. It’s funny how you mentioned in the Enterprise reviews how they tried to show other facets of the Klingon Empire by showing us a Klingon lawyer and doctor. But in the span of two unrelated almost back-to-back episodes of DS9, we get a loser Klingon merc in Invasive Procedures, and the wonderful Klingon restaurateur.

    Maybe Tim Russ was not altogether convincing as a Klingon, but that kinda added depth to that character, since he was a merc working for a loser. That’s pretty low, one get’s the sense he washed out of the Klingon military or something, and his bluster is his attempt to screen the fact that he’s a bottom feeder. But then again, Klingon-Tuvok manages to take over DS9 with the crew at his mercy when an entire fleet of Klingons in Way of the Warrior failed, so maybe he’s an example of someone’s talents not being recognized because he doesn’t conform.

    And that Klingon chef is a fun idea, non of that warrior pomp or honor zeal, he just likes serving Klingon food an interacting with customers and singing Klingon folk songs. I can imagine joints like this all over Kronos, and it’s nice that DS9 isn’t so horribly blunt with all the characters going “What, you didn’t think Klingons had chefs?” “What, you’ve never heard of a Klingon bounty hunter?” “We’re not all warrior you know”.

    Still, I kinda miss the portrayal of Klingons from the TOS movies. They weren’t all space vikings, they were more reserved and calculating, and of course, enjoyed Shakespeare.

    • Chang is a great character. (I love Kruge too.) I’m a big fan of TOS movie-era Klingons. I’d kinda loved an Abrams-verse reimagining of Chang, although the reaction to Into Darkness makes it quite… unlikely.

      But, yeah. Klingon Chef forever. One of my favourite once- (or twice-) off characters in the franchise.

  2. “The climax of the episode doesn’t rely on Melora busting out some science on a bad guy, instead she takes advantage of her familiarity with low gravity. Similarly, the love story with Bashir feels a little creepy, where you’re not entirely sure that he’s seeing her as more than just a quirky medical factoid.”

    I found Jadzia’s way of treating her much more respectful. Great point though about the irony of Bashir trying to fix Melora and thus repeating his childhood trauma somehow.

    Melora “solving” the hostage crisis in the end felt to me like showing that diversity has “evolutionary” advantages and there is no real need to worry about your disability or better: disabledness. I thought it was mildly touching, though it did reduce her somewhat to her body (as well as her being just an ensign although she is supposed to be such a professional). And I liked the few allusions to the problem of identity if technology alters your body. Body, mind, identity: This is one large “nexus”, even if cerebreal “Federation” philosophy/enlightenment would not want you to be reduced to your body.

    It might be a good thing they never made Melora part of the main cast as originally intended (if I am not mistkane.. I guess she is one in the Titan-novels as part of a very diverse/non-humanoid crew. Though I always felt it plausible that there are starfleet ships with crews mostly human, mostly Vulcan, and so forth to reduce this problem of integration, and occasional exchange programs.)

    “Fallit Kot is just a bland bad guy, which is a shame – Michael Westmore’s make-up design for the character is superb. It’s more than “just” a forehead, and Kot looks fairly convincingly alien. Westmore doesn’t get enough credit for the work that he did within the confines of the television budget and various demands.”

    I found his performance much more menacing than the make-up (and the soup scene is very funny). The make-up seemed to me like an intended (or unintended?) joke. This guy was in prison – and is now as “disabled” or imprisoned in his own body. How can a species survive if it can barely eat because of this skin? Seems highly implausible… Westmore should have made this skin-attachment in two parts, like a beak or so.
    From a point of science a lot did not make sense, not even mentioning that some anti-gravity technology could have helped her a lot (or is it just allowed for freight?). Melora’s origin made no sense – such a low gravity? How could an oxygen atmosphere exist on her planet? Why did she develop like the typical humanoid-model?

    Long comment for an underwhelming show. At least it was not unwatchable enough to not deserve some critique.

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