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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Playing God (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.

Playing God is – structurally – quite similar to Shadowplay. The episode follows the same basic format. We have three plots running concurrently. One of these plots is a science-fiction plot while the other two are centred around character development. What’s interesting about Playing God is that the script essentially changes the priority of these plot threads. In Shadowplay, the central plot concerned the science-fiction mystery in the Gamma Quadrant, while here the ethical quandary is pushed firmly to the background. (Much to the chagrin of writer Jim Trombetta.)

Instead, Playing God brings the character plotline to the front, giving us the first Dax-centric episode firmly based around Jadzia rather than the symbiote inside of her.

Quark smells a rat... er... I mean vole...

Quark smells a rat… er… I mean vole…

As Michael Piller has conceded, Dax was something of a problem character for the first year of the show. While the concept of a Trill is fascinating, it created difficulty defining Jadzia as her own character rather than a mere curiosity:

Having a Trill seemed like a really, really good idea at the time, but it was the most difficult character for us to define. Jadzia Dax escaped us. At first we thought she was going to be ethereal, a Grace Kelly/Audrey Hepburn kind of goddess, and ultimately I think Ira Behr really figured it out, probably not until the second season, when he really made her a smart-talking, wise-cracking tough cookie.

Indeed, Terry Farrell’s performance and the characterisation of Dax has shifted dramatically since the start of the second season. In her early character-centric episodes – Dax and Invasive Procedures – Dax was more of a plot hook than a character with her own agency.

Bad wiring...

Bad wiring…

The newer version of Jadzia, and the one who would endure until Terry Farrell’s departure from the show, was really first introduced in the Ferengi-centric episode Rules of Acquisition. Ira Steven Behr, who co-wrote that episode, explains the shift:

We changed Dax in year two. Originally, she was going to be the Spock character, the wise old owl, the wise old man. And then we realized that she could be the one who’s ready to go out and kick anyone’s butt, and go out and have an adventure and have fun, and be kind of witty and mercurial. And that turned out to be great. When we found that part of the character, we just ran with it.

Playing God is very clearly anchored around that version of the character, to the point where the script introduces her playing Tongo with Quark – the same way that Behr shifted her character from being the stoic and reserved mentor figure to the life of the party.

A view to a Trill...

A view to a Trill…

It works a lot better. Part of that is down to the fact that Terry Farrell always looked distinctly uncomfortable playing the wish old mentor figure. Standing tall with her hands behind her back, Farrell gives Jadzia a sense of definition and age, but she doesn’t quite have the screen presence to anchor a scene while just passively standing there. Farrell works a lot better when given scripts with a bit of energy, and the characterisation makes a great deal of sense – after all, this is a person who has lived for centuries, why wouldn’t she be adventurous and outgoing?

To be fair, the main strength of Playing God is that it focuses on Jadzia as an entity in her own right, rather than Dax. The last couple of Dax episodes were all centred around the value of the symbiote inside of her, but it’s nice to get a sense of who Jadzia is. After all, it must be hard to define your own identity when you have the memories of countless previous hosts swimming around inside your head. Playing God is really the first time we’ve seen Jadzia Dax try to firmly distinguish herself from her predecessors, and that’s a good thing.

Playing to win...

Playing to win…

Apparently Dax has a reputation. Arjin tells Bashir, “Dax is known for breaking initiates.” Even an outsider, Sisko, knows how difficult working with Curzon could be. “Field training with Dax was the nightmare of the initiate corps,” he remarks casually, as if articulating some strange universal law. Indeed, Curzon was such a tough cookie that he even turned Jadzia’s life into a living hell. When Arjin asks how she impressed Curzon, she replies, “I didn’t. Curzon recommended that my initiate period be terminated.”

To be fair, this proves to be the hook for a later and even stronger Dax-centric episode, coming back into play for the penultimate episode of the show’s third season, Facets. However, it’s important here because it provides Jadzia with a manner of differentiating herself from her predecessor. When Sisko references Dax’s reputation as a harsh task-master, she’s quick to respond, “That was Curzon Dax.” When Sisko points out that she has the authority to challenge and confront Arjin, she replies, “Yes, but I’m not Curzon Dax. And I won’t do to him what Curzon did to me.”

Let there be light!

Let there be light!

Jadzia even tells Arjin this flat-out. “Look, let’s get one thing straight,” she warns him early on. “I’m not Curzon or Lela or any of the others. I’m Jadzia Dax, and Jadzia’s only a few years older than you are. You’re her first initiate.” Later on, she assures him, “I’m not going to make this difficult for you.” However, it’s clear that Jadzia’s own insecurities are clouding the issue (she utters the phrase “I’m not Curzon” three times), making her lose sight of the fact that it’s not her job to make Arjin feel better about himself.

This crisis of identity makes it a lot easier to understand and empathise with Jadzia as a character. The sense of stepping into oversized shoes is one that is relatable. We all know about the weight of expectation and the shadow cast by legacy.  It’s worth noting that Dax seems to be a relatively recent host. In Emissary, Sisko hasn’t seen her since the joining. Here, she reminds Arjin that she is only a few years away from where he is standing. So Jadzia hasn’t had Dax all that long. It makes sense for her to still be defining herself.

Flutin' about...

Flutin’ about…

Then again, much like the subplot with the voles, I can’t help but feel that Playing God might work have worked a lot better as a first season (or very early second season) episode. This sort of uncertainty and soul-searching feels like it’s the kind of stuff Jadzia should have been doing earlier. This feels like the kind of character definition that a show should be doing as part of its first year, rather than towards the end of its second.

Still, it’s a lot better than the last couple of Dax stories, and it serves as the spring-board towards something a great deal more interesting and compelling in the future. It’s a necessary step when it comes to defining who Jadzia Dax is and what distinguishes her from her previous hosts. Terry Farrell seems to relish playing opposite co-star Geoffrey Blake, who worked with her on Paper Dolls in the eighties. It’s an obvious step-up for the character, even if it does feel a little late in the game.

A whole universe of possibility...

A whole universe of possibility…

Speaking of late in the game, the vole subplot feels like a relic from a first season script, back when the crew were first taking over the station. One imagines the voles probably should have become a problem a lot sooner. To be fair to the script, O’Brien offers an excuse for the delay in their resurgence (“they weren’t bothering us until we started moving into areas of the station that they’ve been hiding in”), but it still feels like Deep Space Nine should be a little past this point.

Of course, it’s a nice reminder that that this isn’t a Federation starship, and that the problems facing the crew are quite different from anything the viewer will find on Star Trek: The Next Generation. The second season has really been about Deep Space Nine differentiating itself from its direct predecessor, and constantly reminding the viewer about the set-up is a pretty crucial part of that. (As are the other trends in the season – the cynicism we’re building to in The Maquis, and the arc-building leading to The Jem’Hadar.)

Stargazing...

Stargazing…

This only really leaves the episode’s high-concept science-fiction plot, involving the discovery of a mini “proto-universe.” It’s a fascinating scientific theory, particularly from an era before discussion of the Higgs-Bosen and the Large Hadron Collider had really entered the mainstream. The notion of a smaller universe inside our own is compelling, so compelling that the Large Hadron Collider FAQ feels the need to assure readers that their attempts to investigate the events surrounding the big bang won’t accidentally create a universe.

Given that the mid-nineties saw various hadron colliders shut down around the world due to funding issues, with a resurgence of public interest only emerging over the past decade, the subplot seems quite prescient. One images that – were Playing God produced today – the subplot would be promoted to front-and-centre of the episode, rather than providing some mild peril for the climax of this particular adventure.

That's a vole other problem...

That’s a vole other problem…

The pseudo-science of the plot is fascinating, even on a purely geek-ish level. Apparently these sorts of smaller universes are something that people have been speculating about for decades. John Gribbin argues:

As with much else in modern physics, the idea involves particle acceleration, the kind of thing that goes on in the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Before the LHC began operating, a few alarmists worried that it might create a black hole which would destroy the world. That was never on the cards: although it is just possible that the device could generate an artificial black hole, it would be too small to swallow an atom, let alone the Earth.

However, to create a new universe would require a machine only slightly more powerful than the LHC – and there is every chance that our own universe may have been manufactured in this way.

Apparently, in the years since, scientist have managed to create a small universe. The thought of something like this existing out there in the universe is quite intriguing.

A glass act...

A glass act…

Of course, the ending of Playing God feels like it’s dodging the bullet. Apparently you can just put a whole miniature universe back where you found it and hope for the best. Not only does this sound a little questionable – surely the universe is a lot larger now? – but it also feels like a bit of a cop-out answer. It makes all the naval-gazing and contemplation seem a little bit pointless. Why ruminate on the ethical implications of your decisions when there’s a convenient solution that just involves some mild tension? We’re told that Sisko is faced with the choice of using a force field to kill an entire universe or doing something mildly risky.

It never really feels like that much of a choice, despite the stakes. Perhaps if the episode had spent more time explaining and demonstrating the risks of trying to move the protouniverse, but it never seems any more dangerous than anything the crew is ever asked to do at the climax of any other episode, and they rarely hesitate to take those chances to maximise the number of lives saved. Ethical dilemmas like this only have weight and substance when they feel real. It is possible to escape these sorts of “no-win” scenarios, but it often requires some sort of sacrifice in order to feel credible.

A well-played game of chess..

A well-played game of chess..

Apropos of nothing, but interesting in the context of this dilemma, physicist Alan Guth suggests that it’s possible smaller universes within in our own could exist without threatening our universe:

I in fact have worked with several other people for some period of time on the question of whether or not it’s in principle possible to create a new universe in the laboratory. Whether or not it really works we don’t know for sure. It looks like it probably would work. It’s actually safe to create a universe in your basement. It would not displace the universe around it even though it would grow tremendously. It would actually create its own space as it grows and in fact in a very short fraction of a second it would splice itself off completely from our Universe and evolve as an isolated closed universe growing to cosmic proportions without displacing any of the territory that we currently lay claim to.

Obviously, Playing God doesn’t strictly adhere to this model, as it’s still occupying space in our universe after more than a fraction of a second, but it’s absolutely fascinating to think about. As far as Star Trek pseudo-science goes, a “protouniverse” is fascinating.

They're hiding in their voles...

They’re hiding in their voles…

Then again, I like to imagine that perhaps the get-out-of-jail free card wasn’t as easy as Sisko made it seem. I also like to think that part of the reason the Dominion gets so angry with the Federation in The Jem’Hadar has to do with the fact that Sisko has been a pretty crummy neighbour. He literally just threw a protouniverse over the fence. Given how the Klingons reacted to the existence of Genesis in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, it would make a great deal of sense. But enough speculating.

Even discounting the easy resolution, the protouniverse plot does suffer from being pushed into the background. The climax of the episode tries to push the various threads together, but it doesn’t work. The voles sabotage the forcefield. The forcefield sabotage allows the universe to grow. Dax and Arjin have to put their differences aside and fly through the Wormhole, which is suddenly an obstacle course. It all feels just a little too convenient and a little too contrived. It’s not fluid. The disconnected subplots of Shadowplay worked better, because there was no awkward attempt to tie them all up together.

What the Evek?

What the Evek?

More than that, though, there’s actually a fairly interesting moral and ethical discussion to be had here about how we prioritise life. Can we declare that the Bajoran system is worth more or less than a universe populated by billions of people we don’t know? Sisko briefly ruminates on this question in his personal log, but it never really gets properly developed or explored. Instead it becomes “are we willing to take a bit of a chance or will we commit genocide?” Reduced to that simplicity, we know the choice that Sisko must make.

That said, the set-up is interesting. There’s a wonderful relativism to all this. Kira, being the highest-ranking non-Starfleet officer, gets to play devil’s advocate here and raise some controversial and challenging points. “Single cell microbes are lifeforms too, but Doctor Bashir has a hypospray that will kill them, to say nothing of the voles,” she contends. (While Dax astutely counters that the life in this micro universe might be intelligent.) This set-up allows for some nice character dynamics, as the crew adopt positions perfectly in-character for them.

Food for love...

Food for love…

Kira is willing to accept loss of life to save Bajor. “I’m sorry, but it’s is us or them,” she states. “We have to destroy it.” The issue drives a rare wedge between her and Odo. “You can’t just wipe out a civilisation,” Odo protests. “We would be committing mass murder.” To Kira, it’s a matter of getting priorities straight. “It’s like stepping on ants, Odo.” As somebody who knows what it is to be an outsider, Odo takes exception. “I don’t step on ants, Major. Just because we don’t understand a lifeform doesn’t mean we can destroy it.”

However, this all feels like an after-thought. It’s barely touched-upon. There are a handful of scenes dedicated to this thread, and they seem to point to a foregone conclusion.  Arguably, it’s another way that Deep Space Nine differentiates itself from The Next Generation. The Next Generation would have pushed the moral issue to the fore and the character stuff to the background. By focusing on Dax and leaving the wormhole to the background, Deep Space Nine makes its priorities clear.

A vole, diggin' in a hole, diggin' at my soul...

A vole, diggin’ in a hole, diggin’ at my soul…

Unfortunately, it harms the episode. The little protouniverse plotline never has the necessary weight to anchor the episode, and its intrusion into the Dax and Arjin subplot – providing an excuse for the two to make up – feels a tad easy. If Playing God wanted to focus on character-based storytelling, the use of a gigantic threat to force the two characters to reconcile feels like a cop-out. Naturally Arjin is the only person on the station who can assist with this problem. Although it makes a surprising amount of sense. The station doesn’t really need anybody with piloting qualifications.

Playing God is a great story for Dax, which is enough to ensure that it can’t be that big a failure. After all, figuring out Dax has been a problem for the past year-and-half of the show. Still, the plotting feels a little bit off, and there’s a sense that the core ingredients here could have made for a much a stronger story under very different circumstances – perhaps even split out from one another. Still, it’s far from a misfire. It’s just an episode with a whole bunch of clever ideas that can’t quite pull them off as skilfully as it might like.

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

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5 Responses

  1. I’d have to say this is another Dax mis-fire episode, but for different reasons then before. Here we’re introduced to hypocrite asshole Jadzia. She pushes Arjin around by scheduling a whole mess of activities he clearly doesn’t want to do, then patronizingly tells him he should be more assertive about what he wants, despite the fact that he doesn’t really get a say, does he? Arjin is trying to get initiated because he is driven by his father’s dying wish, his literal last words, which is not something to take lightly, but all Jadzia sees is a casual reason to wash him out, because it wasn’t Arjin’s own decision. Then Jadzia uses the fact that he’s been doing things better then expected and trying to do what the program wants him to do, as a reason he doesn’t belong in the program…which is an impressive bit of troll logic. Sure Arjin’s nervousness and timidness are off-putting, but it’s hard to forget it’s the man’s most important day of his life, with the dying wish of his father riding on Dax’s decision, that’s not something to take lightly. Almost immediately after meeting Arjin, she seems ready to write him off, and he has every reason to blow up at her, cause she’s hardly the paragon of virtue herself. She shows up naked to their first scheduled meet, she has booze for breakfast, and it appears as if she’s trying to get half the station to sleep with her, which is hardly “inspiring”. And this is just what we see in the span of a few hours.

    I’m afraid the Jadzia hypocritical personality will eventually lead us to Let He Who Is Without Sin where she constantly pushes Worf around until he’s miserable, then complain that he so controlling (despite the fact he isn’t in control of anything) and complains that he’s miserable.

    Also, when it comes to the proto-universe subplot, there’s a whole lot of stupid going around. A whole dilemma over life in a universe that hasn’t even formed yet? I wouldn’t expect there to be much sophisticated life before the Big Bang, and I expect when the universe formed proper with the Big Bang, such theoretical life would have the bejeezus blown out of it. And yet, Sisko acting like destroying such compact microbial life is akin to the Borg, all the while balancing this super-mega decision with “OMG my son is dating a dabo girl!”.

    And I truly hate Odo’s line “Major, I don’t step on ants!”. Really Odo? When you were investigating disappearances on that holodeck planet in Shadowplay, you certainly didn’t look like you walking around with super-OCD avoiding all the tiny ants on the ground. Odo would have a hard time keeping his gruff exterior if he walked around like Monk. Frankly, this cast took way too long considering deciding whether or not to save all life in the their own universe. I’d imagine that’d piss anyone off, including the Dominion, knowing they were almost wiped out by goodie-two shoes Starfleet because they were almost unwilling to defend the universe.

    • Yep. There is a reading of DS9 that is broadly sympathetic to the Dominion.

      Dominion: “All we’re saying is, respect our borders.”
      Federation: “But we’re explorers. Look, colonies, message receivers, infrastructure through the wormhole!”
      Dominion: “Look, could you at least not dump potential galaxy-eating mini-universes right on our doorstep?”
      Federation: “That was one time! Anyway, got to go, meeting one of your members for secret trade negotiations!”

      Of course, that reading is somewhat undercut by the sheer monstrous behaviour of the Dominion with their planetary-destruction and bio-weapons and slavery and so forth.

  2. “… fly through the Wormhole, which is suddenly an obstacle course.”

    I never got that. Aesthetically, it is an insteresting image. But where do those broken-up asteroids all of a sudden come from? Are these the “planet” that Jadzia and Sisko land on in “Emissary”? If not, one really has to wonder what got into screenwriters and the whole production team.

    I guess they should not have tried to combine those two main stories. Both suffered from this a lot. The only redeeming aspect were some good dialogue parts, Sisko’s log entry and especially – once again – Quark’s/Shimerman’s slapstick humor. I adore Shimerman for his squeaky screams. The whole O’Brien-Quark-vole-scene felt very natural.

    • Yeah, the wormhole obstacle course is… a strange choice, one that is never brought up again. Why not just put the obstacle course in the Denores built or something?

  3. My favorite part of the episode happens when Arjin is drowning his sorrows at the bar after he thinks he’s blown his chances to become joined by blowing up at Dax, Quark explaining that you don’t don’t get second chances in life is a funny moment.

    This is also the first episode which makes Jadzia an interesting character. I think the concept of Jadzia Dax is really nearly impossible to make work. Robert Heinlein did the old man in a young woman’s body thing in “I Will Fear No Evil”. I think Heinlein’s book is exactly what many Heinlein fans want, but it’s really only successful in that very limited sense–it’s very creepy, and not in a good way.

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