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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Sanctuary (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.

Sanctuary is a very weird little episode, a nice concept with too much padding, reserving its best hook and twist for the final ten minutes, but capping it off with an attempt to soften the harsh blow somewhat. It’s another of those “shows we could only do on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine from the series’ second season, and it’s certainly more interesting and ambitious than Second Sight. However, for all the clever stuff that it does, it feels somewhat oddly structured and paced, as if the writing staff knew there were good ideas wrapped up inside here, but weren’t exactly sure how to get them out.

A blip on the radar...

A blip on the radar…

Like quite a few of the shows from the second season of Deep Space Nine, Sanctuary went through a lot of work getting from page to screen. All the Star Trek spin-offs had a tendency to by speculative scripts from new writers and then pound them into a desired shape, but the process seems particularly painful in the early years of Deep Space Nine. The show would become a lot more stable and consistent when it settled into a show with a staff of writers who knew exactly what they wanted to write.

Rules of Acquisition was developed from a pitch by Hilary J. Bader that was almost completely reworked by Ira Steven Behr. Second Sight was purchased as a Bashir romantic adventure and then moulded into a Sisko psychological drama. Even more than when working on The Next Generation, Michael Piller seemed to have a fondness for picking ideas which broadly appealed to him and then changing them massively before they reached the screen.

Moving along home...

Moving along home…

To be fair, it’s an approach that works much better than the experimental phase in the early years of The Next Generation, where the driving force seemed to be “throw it in front of the camera while we’re trying to figure out what we’re filming next week.” And arguably much stronger that the approach on Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise, which consisted of getting a rake of people who had spent several years on The Next Generation to keep churning out scripts as if they were still working on that show.

Still, it’s hard not to feel that the disjointedness of some of these second season Deep Space Nine episodes is at least partially rooted in the fact that the writing staff are trying to bend existing stories to make them fit niches, rather than filling those perceived gaps with original story ideas. It’s hard to believe that an episode designed from the ground-up as a Sisko-centric episode wouldn’t work better than tinkering with the Bashir-centric pitch for Second Sight.

Holo promises...

Holo promises…

And there’s a sense that a lot of what works about Sanctuary was the additional material appended to Frederick Rappaport’s original pitch. It was Michael Piller who decided to give the episode its strongest and most defining feature, reversing Rappaport’s happy “everybody gets what they want” happy ending. Even Rappaport himself concedes that the downer ending Piller revised into the story works much better than what was originally planned:

I worked hard to come up with a twist for the story, but the happy ending just wasn’t as strong as what we ultimately came up with. Michael Piller pointed out that, in reality, when a foreign group of people come en masse to someone else’s homeland, the natives seldom greet them with open arms and allow they to stay. Michael felt that the Bajorans should do the same thing, and I was pleased that he saw it that way. It was a brilliant stroke, and I admired his guts.

This, of course, brings us to the fact that the best aspect of the episode – the conflict between the Skrreeans and the Bajorans about the possibility of sharing a planet and the different between moral support and honest-to-goodness substantial aid – is pushed to the last ten minutes.

Layin' down the law...

Layin’ down the law…

And once it gets there, the episode has to race through everything to cover all the angles. We get a quick snippet of conversation indicating how the Skreeans feel about the rejection, some arguing and protesting from Haneek, and then the hijacking of a ship and the death of a bunch of young refugees who are just looking for freedom. That final sequence, featuring Tumak’s off-screen death, should feel more substantial – but it isn’t.

Rather than seeming like a desperately last-ditch effort to make it to paradise, it seems like a rash response. It seems like Tumak couldn’t possibly have had a chance to let the rejection and its implications to sink in, and it seems like the whole sequence is inserted because the writers though Sanctuary could do with some tension. It’s a shame, because it’s not a bad scene. It’s a nice way to underscore just what the promise of Bajor meant to the Skreean and to put a cost on Bajor’s rejection of the Skreean refugees.

Taking life by the ear...

Taking life by the ear…

Even on a practical note, playing all this out over radio in Ops is a nice way to save the show’s budget, but it should also underscore just how helpless everybody is about this turn of events. It just rings a little hollow because it’s all so rushed – crammed into the final ten minutes of the episode. There’s no reason the conflict couldn’t have been pushed to the fore a bit earlier in the episode. That would allow it more time to breath.

While it’s nice to have world-building elements like the idea that the Skreean language can’t be deciphered by the Universal Translator, or the suggestions that the Skreean people are a matriarchy, the episode seems to use these elements to eat time. There’s no reason that Tumak’s interactions with the Ferengi couldn’t play out against the backdrop of Haneek making her case to the Bajoran Council of Ministers, rather than beforehand.

A quick scan...

A quick scan…

Still, it’s a nice ending, and it underscores one of the philosophical truths of Deep Space Nine. The utopian vision of Star Trek is fine in a post-scarcity economy where everybody can have and can do whatever they want, but that is a purely theoretical concern to most people. It’s very comforting to think that people will share when there is enough to go around, but that doesn’t change the fact that there isn’t always enough to go around.

Bajor is a world recovering from an Occupation. It’s still struggling to feed its own people and determine its own cultural identity. While it would be nice to be able to offer these people a home, the reality is that they can’t. “I know, and I wish there was some way we could help them,” Virani confesses to Kira. “But Bajor is in shambles, Kira. You know that as well as I do.” Those sorts of best wishes are nice, and it’s good to know that the Bajorans aren’t as close-minded and racist as the Ferengi, but those sincere best wishes make no material difference to the Skreeans.

Morn mourns...

Morn mourns…

It’s a very honest way of addressing the problem, and it’s to the credit of the writers that there isn’t a cop-out convenient miracle “everybody gets what they want” ending. “Everybody wins” endings do occasionally happen in real-life – and it’s important not to confuse cynicism for reality – but they also offer something of a cop-out. As Haneek argues, maybe the Skreean farming techniques could have revolutionised Bajor’s food production and made everything better, but there’s no way to know that.

It’s nice to hope that these things would work out, but it would have been reckless for the Provisional Government to take the gamble. After all, assuming that it will pay off because it’s television and the more remote the odds the more likely the outcome (or even just because that’s the way that Star Trek usually works) is not a credible position for characters in the show to take. Having the Bajorans reject the Skreean refugees and having Kira support that position is a very honest solution to the dilemma, and I respect Sanctuary for taking it.

Major difficulties...

Major difficulties…

However, it’s the most interesting aspect of the episode. The rest of the show – the previous half-hour – isn’t unpleasant, but it does feel rather bland. It’s almost as if the script is sort of waiting for the moral dilemma to arise, and doesn’t want to commit to anything too significant so the dilemma will remain the central focus of the episode. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any interesting ideas here, but it does mean that none of them really go anywhere.

There’s a continued sense, like in Second Sight, that Deep Space Nine is more of a hub or a stop-over than a centre of galactic attention. That was one of the few elements I liked about Second Sight, the sense that Sisko and his crew are pretty much tasked with flying the flag and keeping the lights on while the universe goes about is business around them. The Skreean are, like the Prometheus in the previous episode, just stopping over on their way to another destination.

They would do well to shed some of their hopes...

They would do well to shed some of their hopes…

The Skreean aren’t really Sisko’s (or the Federation’s) problem, beyond finding some place to put them. It’s more filing paperwork and doing inventory than meddling in the great affairs of empire. Once Sisko has identified a potential planet for the Skreean, he’s reduced to serving as a mediator between the Bajorans and the Skreeans. He doesn’t even seem too stressed about that.

There’s something cool about seeing Odo playing more of a small-town sheriff, whether arresting repeat offenders or advising kids not to run on the promenade, or updating the ten most wanted. (A nice touch that even Nog keeps up with the list.) It’s little touches, like Kira trying to do her best to help Bajor rebuild on a day-to-day basis, from hassling ministers through to trying to get Quark to celebrate Bajoran culture in his bar. Deep Space Nine would become a major galactic hub in its later seasons, but I like the sense in the early second season that the universe is just “passing through.”

The Skreean are not of Bajor, and they will find no rest there...

The Skreean are not of Bajor, and they will find no rest there…

As an aside, I like the idea that Kira is doing her bit for Bajor. Just because she’s on a space station doesn’t mean she’s disconnected. It’s nice to get a sense she’s invested in her homeland’s fate, and her relationship with the musician might feel a little clumsy, but it’s a nice way to make the point that Bajor has to do more than merely feed itself if it is going to thrive. Varani argues, “Bajorans must reclaim their artistic heritage if they ever hope to regain their sense of self-worth.” Bajor is more than just a planet with mouths to feed. It’s a culture which needs to be nourished

Varina is another of those older respected men Kira seems to collect. It’s a nice character touch that Kira seems to have immense sympathy and patience for these old men struggling to find their place in the world. Ties of Blood and Water would retroactively anchor this character trait in guilt over the loss of her father, but it’s nice that she has this consistent character trait – a particular sort of character who tends to bring out the softer side of the station’s firebrand second-in-command.

Kira is a major fan of the arts...

Kira is a major fan of the arts…

We get more of a sense that Bajor isn’t yet a functioning political entity. There’s a sense that the Provisional Government is struggling under the weight of its obligations. Trying to convince Haneek that it was not an easy choice to turn the refugees away, Minister Rozahn confesses, “The debate in the Chamber of Ministers became quite heated at times. Though I suppose you could say that about all of our debates.” Of course, you could make the case that Bajor can’t make real steps forward until it comes to terms with the Occupation.

“Fifty years of Cardassian rule has made you all frightened and suspicious,” Haneek accuses in her rather pointed final speech. Although Haneek’s dialogue in the final scene does seem a little too neat and tidy, it’s a valid point. How much of the Bajoran reaction to the Skreean is motivated by fear. After outsiders pillaged your planet, would you be quick to welcome more strangers to your world?

Odo's priorities shift...

Odo’s priorities shift…

The Skrrean themselves are relatively interesting. During the first season, I was quite skeptical of the way that the Wormhole could be used as a narrative crutch, a way of generating convenient plot points for this week’s adventure. It is very tempting to try to compensate for Deep Space Nine‘s unique set-up by using the Wormhole to bring the exploration to them. “Something crazy comes through the wormhole” makes a for a nice plot on a slow week, but it also diminishes the strength of the show as a whole.

At the same time, I don’t mind its use too much in Sanctuary. The notion of three million refugees emerging from darkness and wanting to settle on Bajor is a strong enough hook that it doesn’t feel as blatant as Move Along Home or The Forsaken or even Q-Less, where it was convenient for the threat of the week to come from the Gamma Quadrant because “here there be monsters.” Early in the second season, you can see the writers trying to figure out what lies beyond the Wormhole.

“Look, you’ll like us a lot more than most of the stuff that comes through the Wormhole…”

After all, it can’t just be unexplored space in the Gamma Quadrant. We’ve had six years of that on The Next Generation, and one more was airing concurrently with this second year of Deep Space Nine. Voyager would be spending years cruising through unexplored space. There’s a point where you risk over-saturating the “space exploration” market, and two Star Trek shows exploring strange new worlds at the same time (three within years of each other) is just too much.

You can see the Dominion taking shape here. It would not be directly introduced until The Jem’Hadar, and many of the details would be unresolved until the writers’ meeting for the third season – the point at which the writers decided the Changelings would head the Dominion. However, this is the second time we’ve heard their name. Haneek also makes it clear (as was implied in Rules of Acquisition) that they are more than just one race of bad guys.

Taking arrest...

Taking arrest…

“I don’t know their name,” she remarks of the invaders who came to her world. “I only know they were members of something called the Dominion.” In hindsight, it’s easy enough to assume she was referring to the Jem’Hadar, but the line makes it clear that the Dominion aren’t on homogenous entity like the Romulans or the Klingons. The inference is that they are a large interstellar political alliance with colonial aspirations, an anti-Federation. That view would be borne out in later episodes.

The Skreean themselves are a more a collection of quirks than a compelling race on their own terms. Most obviously, they appear to be a rather unfortunate collection of Jewish stereotypes. Haneek reveals that her people were former slaves. “For eight centuries my people have lived under their rule,” she remarks of the T-Rogorans. “We’ve been forced to work as labourers and servants. We were able to escape when the T-Rogorans were invaded and conquered.” After wandering through the void as a dispossessed and homeless people, they eventually make their way to the promised land.

Nog the battle to the strong...

Nog the battle to the strong…

To be fair, it’s not an overly specific metaphor. Star Trek doesn’t deal too directly in literal metaphors, with alien cultures often a mish-mash of various cultural stereotypes. Klingons have aspects of early Japanese warrior culture, the Romulans were originally space Romans, but not exclusively. Some racial stereotypes tend to get reused quite a bit. In particular, Jewish archetypes and stereotypes.

On Deep Space Nine alone, the Ferengi have prompted discussion as a possibly anti-Semitic stereotype, and the Occupation casts the Bajorans as Jews to Cardassian Nazis. So perhaps it’s not a surprise that the Skreean get particularly strong reactions from the Bajorans and the Ferengi. These two grounds arguably cover a significant portion of the same racial and ethnic stereotypes that the Skreean are now laying claim to.

Looking for freedom...

Looking for freedom…

All joking aside, there are some unfortunate implications to the decision to cast the Skreean as a collection of Jewish stereotypes. One of the more remarkable features of their design (a superb job from Michael Westmore) is the fact that they are very unpleasant to look at. They are ugly and grotesque. They’re portrayed as filthy and useless scavengers who make the crew of Deep Space Nine uncomfortable.

“Come to my place,” Quark invites Odo. “You’ll see little pieces of Skrreean skin all over the bar and the floor. It’s disgusting.” With their molting skin and their rags, the Skreean act as beggars and scavengers, stealing leftover food from discarded plates in the replimat. This portrayal invites somewhat uncomfortable comparisons to stereotypes about migrating Jewish populations in Europe and beyond, where they were frequently subject to discrimination base on their appearance, treated as subhuman or dirty and forced to live in poverty.

If that isn't the creepiest thing I've seen all week...

If that isn’t the creepiest thing I’ve seen all week…

There are a few interesting quirks about the Skreean, but there’s a sense that the episode is just using these to buy time. The universal translator takes a while to interpret their language. O’Brien notes, “Their syntax and their grammatical structure must be completely unlike anything in our database.” It’s nice to see the device doesn’t always provide a magical method of communication, but it does raise some questions about the translator. How come the aliens’ lips start moving in English, for example? What’s the accuracy of it? It’s probably best not think about it, although it is nice to see the show make a deal of it.

Similarly, the show raises the idea that the Skreean are a matriarchal culture. To be fair, Deep Space Nine deals with the concept much better than The Next Generation, but it seems weird that such attention is paid to it. I could understand a passing reference or several (similar to the set-up with implied matriarchal Dosi in Rules of Acquisition), but it’s weird to get threesome jokes in Star Trek.

Somebody's about to get a dressing down...

Somebody’s about to get a dressing down…

It also seems strange that the episode uses this to get Haneek to bond with Kira – first by recognising her as the highest ranking female and then through (ugh!) gossiping about clothes. “Who would wear that?” is one of the strangest attempts to humanise Kira so far on the show, and there’s something just a little troubling about the idea that women bond over shopping and dresses. It just feels a little shallow.

Still, Sanctuary isn’t bad. There are nice ideas here, and it’s never too dull. The problem is that it is structured in the most awkward way possible. The plot doesn’t kick off until the episode is almost over. It’s certainly far from the worst episodes of the second season, but it still feels like something of a missed opportunity for the show.

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

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4 Responses

  1. I really like this one, despite the fact that it’s not a technical masterpiece. I think it’s wonderfully subtle that the Skreean evoke the historic image of the Jews in the minds of anti-Semitic Europeans. The Bajorans seem to get the more positive archetypes related to the real-word Jews: they’re ancient, spiritual, righteous sufferers.

    This has the potential to be very uncomfortable, but I trust that the writers aren’t trying to say anything about real-world Jews. I think this episode uses the stereotypes related to the Jews to show how all people have the potential to be hypocrites, how we won’t help someone else out of the same bad situation that we have just been freed from. Of course, the sympathy is there; Kira sympathizes strongly with the Skreean. Maybe it’s more a comment about institutions and inevitability.

    • It’s a fair point about the Jewish stereotypes. Still, I felt a little uncomfortable. It would have been one thing to have Quark make those observations as groundless – as many of the rumours or propaganda about Jews people were. (And quite clever, given how you could argue the Ferengi themselves began as anti-Semitic stereotypes brought to life.)

      It feels altogether different to have the Skreean sort of conform to these stereotypes. Still, you make a good case. Even if the Jewish people conformed to anti-Semitic stereotypes and rumour-mongering, the prejudice would be unjustifiable. (And you’re right that the show does remain sympathetic to the Skreeans.)

  2. Robert again texts that Darren’s text needs to be checked by a human that uses the English language natively. Another option is to spell check and grammar check the text in Microsoft WORD. The text “It would be directly introduced until The Jem’Hadar,…..” needs to be changed to ““It wouldn’t be directly introduced until The Jem’Hadar,…..”.

    • Good spot.

      That said, I do use the English language natively. However, the blog is not for profit, and thus I cannot afford a copy editor. (And Microsoft Word would not have caught the error in question.)

      I do try to maintain a high level of spelling and grammar, but the sheer volume of output on this blog (4,000 to 6,000 words a week day, on average) means that errors do slip through. When they are pointed out to me, I do endeavour to correct them as quickly as possible. However, like replying to comments, this is impaired by the fact that this is not my full-time job.

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