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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Paradise (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.

In a really weird way, this second half of the second season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine really has its finger on the pulse of the nineties. Whispers tapped into pre-millennial anxiety, the sort of paranoia that fed into shows like The X-Files and would play itself out through the show’s admittedly underdeveloped “Changeling” arc. In a few episodes, The Maquis will play with the old “freedom fighter/terrorist” debate in a way that was only really possible in an America completely at peace, post-Cold War but pre-9/11.

Paradise taps into some other anxieties. According to The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, writer Jim Trombetta was heavily influenced by the anti-technology philosophy of the Khmer Rouge, the infamous regime where even the stereotypical signs of learning and education (for example, wearing glasses) were justification for execution. However, whatever the inspiration, Paradise seems to tap into something decidedly more contemporary.

"This is my boom stick!"

“This is my boom stick!”

The nineties saw a new wave of “back to nature” primitivism, with people growing more and more intrigued about the relationship between mankind and nature. The United States government passed the Organic Food Production Act in 1990, and Europe introduced Regulation (EEC) N° 2092/91 the following year governing the labeling and classification of organic food. This was clearly an idea that energised the public, who actively engaged with in the setting and maintenance of these standards:

The most extreme example of social involvement in organic standards setting was the 1990s processes in the US which saw one of the largest public responses via submissions to a draft USDA organic standard which suggested the inclusion of GMOs in organic standards. Over 250,000 submissions were received on this draft, with a resounding ‘no’ vote being registered.

The quantity of organic food sold has increased dramatically every year since 1990, and the nineties saw the development and expansion of entire chains of organic food shops – Whole Foods Market and Wild Oats Markets being among the two most popular.

A hands-off approach...

A hands-off approach…

This also extended to a more “hands-on” approach with in various urban communities, an attempt to bring nature and agriculture into urban living. The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program funded the development of urban agriculture in various major American cities from the late eighties. The amount of agricultural produce harvested from urban areas has been increasing:

In the United States, more than one-third of the dollar value of agricultural produce is produced within urban metropolitan areas. An upward trend was identified by an agricultural census conducted twice each decade. As city populations and urban area increase, agricultural production also increases within metropolitan and adjacent areas. From 1980 to 1996, this increase was 30-40 percent.

“We all work for our supper,” Alexis explains to Sisko and O’Brien. “You’d be surprised how much sweeter it tastes when you do.” It’s easy to agree. There’s a tendency to romanticise the past and to blame all of our problems on the frustrations of modern living. In an era when the demands of the modern world grow more and more severe, one can understand the urge to get back in touch with our roots, to forget about technology and to sink our hands in the soil.

This is a reading according to Sisko...

This is a reading according to Sisko…

Given the horrors that technology has unleashed – the constant threat of annihilation for one thing, the idea that a single keystroke or errant code can destroy lives – it makes sense that some people might want to return to as simpler time, one free of genetically modified foods or mobile phones. Slightly more hardcore than these understandable desires to reconnect with our roots, the Luddite movement saw a resurgence during the nineties.

The Second Luddite Congress was held in 1996, two years after Paradise aired, but it seems like the logical culmination of particular trends building through the early part of the decade. The Neo-Luddite movement can trace its roots to Chellis Glendinning’s Notes Towards a Neo-Luddite Manifesto, published in 1990. In 1995, the Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski published what became known as his “Unabomber Manifesto”, a pamphlet titled Industrial Society and Its Future, espousing radical beliefs about how technological advances were damaging mankind.

Apple of her eye...

Apple of her eye…

These are, obviously, extreme points of view from fringe individuals. These movements dedicated to Luddite philosophy have gained relatively little traction, but the raised profile of these movements and philosophies during the nineties hints at trends and ideas working their way through the popular subconscious, particularly concerning the demands of modern urban living and the role of technology.

The most extreme expression of these attitudes can arguably be seen in anarcho-primitivism. Anarcho-primitivism is based around the notion that civilisation should be destroyed and society should regress to an earlier state of being. It’s related to green anarchism, an environmentally-conscious off-shoot of anarchism that gained enough ground during the nineties that there were high-profile arrests and trials of those involved in publishing magazines, pamphlets and other materials in the United Kingdom, as part of the “GANDALF” trials.

Don't be a square, just fit in...

Don’t be a square, just fit in…

In The White Man’s Indian, author Robert F. Berkhofer argues that primitivism and millennialism have a lot in common:

Primitivism and millennialism are opposite sides of the same coin of human aspiration for a way of life dramatically opposite in complexity and organisation from the present. While millennialism looks to the future coming of utopia, primitivism dreams of a paradise on earth that does or did prove that an alternative to the present age could exist.

With that in mind the increased profile of primitivism during the nineties makes sense, as another expression of the same sort of anxiety.

Trouble in Paradise...

Trouble in Paradise…

Paradise provides an opportunity for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to explore that philosophy, and the strange romanticism of the whole “back to nature” philosophy by having Sisko and O’Brien stumble across a camp of crash survivors who have spent a decade on a primitive alien world. Sisko and O’Brien quickly discover that their technology doesn’t work on the planet surface, and that the survivors have been forced to go back to their roots.

To be fair, it’s not hard to see on which side of the debate Star Trek is going to fall. The whole show is predicated on the idea of advanced technology making peoples’ lives easier, and the notion that soon mankind will evolve to a point where there is enough for everybody – all made possible through the evolution of technology. Even on a superficial level, it’s a show about traveling between the stars and seeing strange new worlds and life forms. These are the things that Star Trek finds cool and interesting.

Black-and-white morality...

Black-and-white morality…

As a result, it’s hard to imagine Alixus coming across as anything but a villain. Sure, she might be well-meaning. Some of her observations on mankind might have some merit. But she lies in order to make her point. She manipulates those around her. Not only is she willing to stand by and passively allow members of her community to die on a point of principle, but she seems willing to condone Vinod’s attempts at murder to keep her secret. Alixus is not a nice person.

To be fair to the episode, it tries to offer some hint of ambiguity. The decision to have the survivors remain on the surface after her lie has been exposed seems like a brave choice – an attempt to suggest that not only do Alixus’ beliefs have some merit, but that sometimes – in Alixus’ words – “perhaps a lie can lead to a more important truth.” That closing shot of the crowd dispersing as two kids stare at the box is Deep Space Nine consciously trying to be provocative and challenging.

Sisko can't leaf it alone...

Sisko can’t leaf it alone…

It’s a shame it doesn’t work. The ending is the weakest part of the episode, feeling like a complete tonal misfire. Alixus has been portrayed as a cynical fascist leader who has systematically lied to her people and allowed their friends and families to die to prove a philosophical argument. So it feels a little weird that everybody is just okay with it. Don’t get me wrong, I can understand that some might be. Some members of the community probably value her contributions. But the problem is that everybody unquestioningly accepts it.

Indeed, Joseph – the “last convert” – winds up speaking for the group. I understand the constraints of network television, and why the whole group couldn’t come to life, but the ending reads like the survivors have simply replaced one arrogant fascist for another. There’s no discord with what he said, no sense of questioning. Nobody holds another opinion. It might have been better had even Cassandra – a performer who already had lines – offer some response, so that we get a sense of the community making a decision rather than a sympathetic character imposing his will.

Vinod was always such a straight arrow...

Vinod was always such a straight arrow…

Again, this is the limitation of the format shining through. Paradise could be better paced. Bringing the reveal back earlier in the episode would allow for a bit more discussion and a chance for audience and characters to chew over the weighty philosophical implications of Alixus’ decision. As it stands, it feels rushed – the dialogue feels more like bullet points than arguments. The script touches all the bases (Sisko even calls her out on the death of Meg), but only fleetingly.

Still, it’s easy enough to forgive these problems. While they hold Paradise back, they feel a lot like the problems with Sanctuary. The problem with the second season of Deep Space Nine is that it tries too hard and doesn’t always get everything right the first time. It’s not the worst flaw in the world, as it betrays some measure of ambition from the writing staff. There are worse things to be than ambitious, as the franchise would discover with Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise.

Mass appeal...

Mass appeal…

Of course, there’s another thread running through Paradise, reflecting another decidedly nineties concern. As Mark A. Altman notes in The Deep Space Log Book: A Second Season Companion, Paradise wasn’t the only piece of Star Trek in this televised season to deal with the issue of cults and cult membership. However, it’s a much more nuanced portrayal than the version presented in Descent, Part II. Perhaps because Alixus herself is much less cartoon-y than Lore.

Alixus has all the hallmarks of a cult leader. She fancies herself something of a philosopher. Even with just a pen and paper, even among her own community, she is “quite a prolific author”, offering “economic analysis, political commentaries, literary critiques. She says she’s spent her life examining the human condition.” When potential new members of the community arrive, her work is made easily accessible in the hopes of reeling them in. When O’Brien catches Sisko reading one, he observes, “A bunch of these were left in my room too.”

For once, O'Brien gets off lightly...

For once, O’Brien gets off lightly…

Alixus fancies herself something of a leader and a mentor to her people. “After all, the human body is a powerful tool,” she comments, suggesting that her followers are little than that to her. When Sisko and O’Brien arrive, she doesn’t view them as individuals, but as potential cogs in her machine. “Two more strong, healthy men, Vinod. That could mean an awful lot to this community.” She’s careful to appear reasoned and rational, but there’s something of the fanatic about her.

Paradise even flirts with the idea that her crusade is religions in nature, perhaps reflecting on the habit of cults reappropriating mainstream religious beliefs and iconography for their own purposes. “I’ve been wondering if in the ancient religions of man, there aren’t some new truths to be found,” she muses at one point. “Something to explain how sometimes fate delivers us exactly where we need to be.” Sisko cuts right to the chase, “Perhaps one day you’ll even feel the hand of God on your shoulder.” I love how snarky he can be. And, of course, given the whole thing is Alixus’ design, she is responsible for delivering everyone to “exactly where [they] need to be.” She is her own religious messiah.

The moral compass...

The moral compass…

In a way, Alixus can be seen as the spiritual successor of the computers that were constantly declaring themselves to be deities on the classic Star Trek television show. Again, this suggests that Deep Space Nine is a lot closer to the world view of the original Star Trek than any of the other spin-offs. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, our leads were agents of a futuristic utopia, rather than those who must destroy false utopias wherever they might exist. Deep Space Nine, like the original Star Trek, is wary of the very idea of paradise, because the soil is often fertilized with the bodies buried beneath.

The only real difference between this utopia and the kind so regularly featured on the original Star Trek is that Alixus is a human being rather than a soulless machine, even if she falls back on a lot of the pseudo-communist rhetoric that such creepy utopias often used to justify their behaviour and actions. Young Stephen justifies his punishment by reference to the greater good of the community. “I’ll be all right,” he manages to state. “I’m sorry, Alixus, that I let down the community. “

Taking a leaf out of her book...

Taking a leaf out of her book…

The lives of those living within the community are not their own. Nobody has any real agency. At one point, Alixus brings Miles O’Brien before the people, accusing him of a heinous crime. “Despite their agreement to respect our fundamental way of life, this man has committed the worst offence that can be committed against this community,” she declares. “He has selfishly wasted precious time that could have been put to productive use.” Even his time belongs to the community. Even though where Alixus ends the community begins is an open question.

Naturally, the bodies of her followers belong to her as well. Again, the heavy influence of the cult mentality shines through. Members are afforded no privacy. “Alixus doesn’t believe in doors,” Cassandra tells Sisko. “We all take it for granted now. You’ll get used to it.” She also sends Cassandra to seduce Sisko, using the woman’s body as a weapon. This sort of abuse and control – “sexual procurement” – is exactly the sort of thing that happens inside cults, where the greater good can be used to justify the sadistic whims of any leader.

Mother Earth...

Mother Earth…

Cults had been part of the American popular consciousness for quite a while. Indeed, as much as The Return of the Archons can be read as a commentary on communism, it’s also informed by the rising profile of various fringe religious groups. However, events conspired to push cults to the forefront of the American consciousness in the early nineties as Henrik Bogdan notes in Explaining the Murder Suicides of the Order of the Solar Temple: A Survey of Hypotheses:

The 1990s witnessed a number of spectacular outbursts of violence associated with new religious movements. Those that received wide media coverage were the burning of the Branch Davidian ranch outside Waco, Texas, in April 1993; the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway on March 20, 1994, by Aum Shinrikyo; the murder-suicides of the Order of the Solar Temple in October 1994; and the Heaven’s Gate suicides in California on March 26, 1997.

There’s something terrifying at the way that a cult can subsume an individual, swallow them up and secret them away from friends and family. Given the debate generated by the disappearance of Shelly Miscavige, wife of the head of the Church of Scientology, it’s not to hard to imagine some futuristic cult disappearing an entire ship on some jungle planet centuries in the future.

Take a bow!

Take a bow!

Paradise has a lot of really clever big ideas, and I respect it for that, even if the ending doesn’t quite work and so retroactively weakens the rest of the hour. It’s also worth noting that the show is beginning to really get a grip on its characters, to the point where even the background references to off-screen or minor characters tend to fit with both what we know of them and what the producers have in mind over the next few months and years.

There’s still the occasional blip. Like in The Alternate, Sisko talks about his father in the past tense (“my father was a chef”) as if to imply that he is dead. Joseph Sisko would turn out to be alive and would go on to play a pretty significant role in the years ahead. However, we also get the first hints at a long-term plan for Sisko’s son Jake. Jake exists on the show mostly as a means to humanise Sisko. That’s not a bad thing. It works phenomenally well, and it’s easy to imagine that Sisko might have been as problematic as Janeway or Archer without something like Jake to anchor him.

A Commanding presence...

A Commanding presence…

However, throw-away dialogue at the start of Paradise hints at the idea Jake might have bigger things in his future. I always liked the way that Deep Space Nine would – by accident or design – foreshadow various developments through small exchanges of casual dialogue. Here, Sisko and the Chief talk about Jake’s future, and in particular the fact that he may want to join Starfleet. That though alone should elicit groans from members of the audience who remember Wesley’s convoluted character arc from The Next Generation.

But don’t worry, there’s a bit of a curve ball. “It’s not going to be easy for him,” Sisko confesses. “He placed in the lower third of his age group in mechanical aptitude.” Although O’Brien makes some nice excuses, this is the first inkling we get that Starfleet might just not be for Jake. It’s a fascinating concept. Up to this point, Star Trek has featured human administrators and lawyers and ambassadors, but with no real context. While a few of these were memorable, it seemed like every major human character was either a member of – or wanted to be a member of – Starfleet.

He's not drinking the kool aid...

He’s not drinking the kool aid…

While it’s unclear if the producers had it mapped out this far in advance, Jake is the first major human character to explore life and career options outside of Starfleet. He demonstrates that there’s more to life in the future than serving the Federation in a pseudo-military capacity. Starfleet isn’t the be all and end all. Indeed, Deep Space Nine is relatively skeptical of the institution, and more questioning. Having Jake find his own way is a very clever way of exploring that idea.

While certainly not the focus of the episode, even Dax gets some nice stuff here. The show has struggled to figure out an angle for Dax that works. Treating her as the stoic member of the crew fell short, and attempts to play up her strangeness tend to make her seem more of a curiosity than a character.

A time to stand...

A time to stand…

Building off her supporting role in Rules of Acquisition and towards her character-centric episode Playing God, Paradise reaffirms the idea that Dax is fond of living life in the fast lane. She’s cheeky and wry, knowing all the inside gossip about the fleet. She even gets a possible oblique reference to a sex life. “A very talented Hopi I knew did things with a rope you wouldn’t believe,” she boasts to Kira. I like the Dax/Kira combination, even if the show didn’t emphasise it nearly enough. The notion of Dax as a free-spirited immortal and Kira as a young woman who never had a the opportunity for these sorts of experiences works very well.

However, Paradise is – at its core – a Sisko episode. And he’s much better served here than he was in Second Sight. We get a pretty succinct summary of Sisko as a character here, and it’s an early attempt at definition which is surprisingly accurate. Avery Brooks’ performance style can be an acquired taste, but the man knows how work a scene. Indeed, the best Sisko moments so far come from ensemble-heavy episodes where Brooks takes a moment and runs with it – his conversation with Kira in Progress, his “action hero!” fight sequence in Dramatis Personae.

Let's blow this anarchist popsicle stand...

Let’s blow this anarchist popsicle stand…

Paradise gives Sisko an antagonist, and sets Avery Brooks opposite an actress who can hold her corner of the screen against him. I’ve described Sisko as a combination of Kirk’s passion and Picard’s sophistication, but here we begin to see something unique creep into the mix. Sisko can be incredibly stubborn. Picard will adhere to a principle because it’s a core part of who he is. He will stand tall because he doesn’t know to do anything else. Brooks’ Sisko seems to draw on some deep-seated and almost petty reservoir of internal energy. You get a sense here that part of the reason he is so committed to doing the right thing is because he just doesn’t like Alixus.

This will remain a part of his character for the rest of the show. Sisko can be incredibly stubborn and wilful, with episodes like For the Uniform relishing the ambiguity when the needs of Sisko’s ego seem to conflict with the greater good. Here, however, Sisko is entirely justified in his resistance to Alixus, but there’s still something wonderfully impressive about his refusal to budge under pressure from the cult leader. When she takes him out of the box and offers him a glass of water, he climbs back into the box.

Giving it arrest...

Giving it arrest…

It’s hardly the most constructive course of action – Sisko probably would have died if it weren’t for O’Brien figuring out the dampening field – that doesn’t make it any less compelling. Indeed, it’s nice to get a plot for Sisko that is more firmly focused on character (how Sisko reacts to Alixus) than on action (getting off the planet). Sisko’s stand is one of determination and principle, and that makes it much more interesting than any proactive attempt to defeat Alixus.

Paradise isn’t the strongest episode of Deep Space Nine‘s second season, but it remains an intriguing and thoughtful one. Like quite a few of the episodes this year, there’s a sense of ambition to the writing – a breathless desire to push the envelope a little bit and to play with big toys and ideas. The ending doesn’t quite come together as well as it should, but it’s still a fascinating little adventure.

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

2 Responses

  1. I just knew you’d have an interesting analysis to offer on this episode.

    In hindsight, Alixus can be seen as something of a prototype for the Founders of the Dominion. Whether you regard her as a cult leader or a well-intentioned extremist or a fascist, the rationale she provides is “I am going to create a peaceful, ordered society, no matter what it costs, and I am going to do so for everyone, whether they want it or not.”

    Your description of Sisko shows why he was such a wonderful adversary for Alixus in this episode, just as he would soon be for the Founders. He is stubbornly individualistic; he is the last person who would allow himself to succumb to groupthink or propaganda. Even if it is simply because he possesses such a contrary nature, Sisko is not going to let anyone else take away his freedom to make his own decisions.

    • Yep.

      I think it took me another year or so to really peg it, but there’s a huge philosophical difference between DS9 and Voyager in their philosophical positions and you hit on it here. DS9 is essentially an anarchist collective, where different values and ideals come together in their own unique ways; the baddies on DS9 tend to be fascists like the Cardassians or the Founders or Alixus.

      On the other hand, Voyager is terrified of the breakdown of order; getting the Maquis in Starfleet uniforms is the most obvious example, but the two major baddies for the first two years of Voyager – the Vidiians and the Kazon – are anarachistic and chaotic societies. Even the Borg Collective is repeatedly threatened with decay and collapse, the erosion of unity and order.

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