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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Meridian (Review)

The September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Meridian is, to be frank, an absolutely abominable episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. As a series, Deep Space Nine never really had a concentrated run of bad episodes, like the first and second seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation or the second season of Star Trek: Enterprise or the third season of the original Star Trek. The first two seasons of Deep Space Nine might not be spectacular, but they are competently produced television – while there are a few scattered stinkers to be found, the bulk of the show comprises of mediocre and solid stories.

Instead, Deep Space Nine tended to pepper its weakest episodes throughout its run, perhaps a firm reminder that the show was never an entirely serialised experience. This wasn’t one story pushing forward, despite the presence of arcs and character development; Deep Space Nine was still prone to the pratfalls of episodic television. In this case, the pratfall was the necessity of churning out filler on a tight schedule and hoping to meet a deadline while pumping out two dozen episodes a year.

So we get unforgivably shoddy episodes like The Emperor’s New Cloak or Profit and Loss or Let He Who Is Without Sin mixed in with Deep Space Nine at the height of its form. The third season of Deep Space Nine lacks the highs of the later seasons, but that doesn’t mean it lacks the lows. Meridian stands out as the weakest episode of the season, and a serious competitor for one of the worst episodes of the show.

It appears that the toxic smell of the script is suffocating Terry Farrell...

It appears that the toxic smell of the script is suffocating Terry Farrell…

To be fair, Meridian feels very much like an episode of Deep Space Nine. Indulging producer Ira Steven Behr’s predilection for classic pop culture, Meridian seems to have been pitched as Brigadoon… IN SPACE!” In that respect, it’s a spiritual companion to The Homecoming (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), Rules of Acquisition (Yentl), Profit and Loss (Casablanca), The Nagus (The Godfather) and quite a few others. Behr owns up to this in The Deep Space Nine Companion:

“[Basing the episode on] Brigadoon was my idea, I’ll give it to you,” admits Ira Behr. “I love Brigadoon, so I’m idiot enough to say, ‘Let’s do Brigadoon!’ I am a moron.”

Meridian seems to hint towards a Hollywood nostalgia at the root of Deep Space Nine. One of the reasons the show has aged so well is that many of its references to pop culture are not anchored to the mid-nineties. Instead, the show seems to draw from the middle of the twentieth century. So Our Man Bashir is a parody of classic James Bond and contemporary spy stories, while the sixth and seventh seasons introduce a supporting character drawn from the mythos of the Rat Pack.

Talking about PADD-ing out...

Talking about PADD-ing out…

Sometimes this classical influence works. After all, The Nagus was one of the highlights of the first season, and Li Nalas’ character arc in The Homecoming was compelling. On the other hand, it is occasionally an awkward fit. Rules of Acquisition and Profit and Loss seemed to coast on their influences rather than trying to tell their own compelling stories. As the show went on, occasionally this nostalgia would seem indulgent – witness the fan reaction to the character of Vic Fontaine in the final two seasons.

Meridian feels like a case of trying to get a square peg to fit a round hole. It seems the story began with the idea of doing “Brigadoon… IN SPACE!”, but nobody had nay idea of how to go about it. The fact that the first half of the third season had been beset by scripting and deadline issues only compounded the problem. Second Skin was shot from what amounted to a first draft. The Abandoned emerged as a script that really needed more work. Civil Defense was rushed through production.

This is quite possibly the creepiest image of Quark I have ever seen...

This is quite possibly the creepiest image of Quark I have ever seen…

So, under that kind pressure, the production staff needed a stronger pitch than adapting a classic musical for the twenty-fourth century. You can see the difficulties in the episode. It’s clear what needs to happen in order for the plot to work. Dax needs to fall in love and she needs to be tragically separated from her new-found love. However, the script can’t figure out how to get to those two points, so the result is an infuriatingly dissatisfying piece of work.

This seems quite out of character for Jadzia Dax, given what we know of her. Given the difficulty the show has had defining her character, we’re lucky that the show has made it this far without doing a “Dax falls in love” plot. After all, The Next Generation tended to try to compensate for its problems with Deanna Troi by having her frequently get involved with a guest star of the week. The results were unsatisfying across the board, as it was transparently an attempt to distract from the fact the show had no idea how to write her.

... actually, I take that back.

… actually, I take that back.

There’s a similar problem with Dax. She is, in many ways, the problem character on Deep Space Nine. The staff has yet to really figure out how to write a Dax-centric episode, and has compensated a number of ways. Most obviously, the scripts have turned Dax’s symbiote into a macguffin – stories like Dax, Invasive Procedures, Blood Oath and Equilibrium, for example. However, Meridian just goes all-in and decides to write Dax as a generic romantic lead, because it seems like the staff have no better way to get where they need to go.

(It is tempting to suggest that the lead plotline of Meridian might have worked better with Bashir, as much as it would have worked with any member of the main cast. It’s hard to believe any member of the Defiant crew deciding to remain on a strange world in the Gamma Quadrant with a person they’ve known for days, but the show is still treating Bashir as a romantic fool. Then again, when you try to write Bashir as a romantic lead you end up with Melora, so it’s doubtful Meridian would have been much improved by swapping Dax for Bashir.)

"Yep, the episode's sinking..."

“Yep, the episode’s sinking…”

The problem is that this goes against everything we know about Dax. Dax has typically been defined as the most level-headed member of the Deep Space Nine cast. She’s the most grounded, the most experienced, the most well-adjusted. She laughs at Julian’s obsession with her precisely because she can recognise the difference between infatuation and true love. She is light-hearted and relaxed, but also keenly aware of how the universe works.

Dax is fun-loving and foot-loose precisely because she realises that time passes and things change. In fact, there’s no reason why Dax can’t wait for Meridian to reappear and seek the planet out then; she’s the one member of the crew most likely to be alive in one form or another in the future. It seems wildly out of character for Dax to let herself fall madly in love with a stranger, knowing that there’s every possibility he might disappear into thin air again. Even if he doesn’t, the planet is on the other side of the galaxy.

Odo's "bad episode" sense is tingling...

Odo’s “bad episode” sense is tingling…

That’s not to suggest it’s impossible for Jadzia Dax to fall impossibly in love with a strange man from another world in a matter of days, even knowing that they are unlikely to be able to have a long-term relationship. But, given Dax’s self-awareness, the script for Meridian needs to earn that emotional hook. It needs to convince us that this strange man is just that charming and Dax is secretly just that romantic. Unfortunately, the script is not up to the task. Instead, the romance is portrayed as a teenage flirtation, even as the episode treats it as true love.

While it’s hard to quantify exactly how you portray something as subjective and ambiguous as true love, the episode has several things counting against it. For one thing, the object of Dax’s affections comes across as pervy and manipulative and creepy rather than charming and sincere. The script has to cover a lot of ground rather quickly, so Dax’s suitor needs to be assertive and aggressive, but there’s a line at which flirty becomes unsettling. “If you don’t mind my asking, how far down do they go?” crosses that line.

"Isn't it a bit soon to be talking about moving in together?"

“Isn’t it a bit soon to be talking about moving in together?”

The script takes a number of shortcuts to try and make us accept Deral as “the real deal”, and to take the character as face value as a man who has fallen in love with a strange visitor from another world. However, these storytelling shortcuts are so cynical and manipulative that they make him seem a little suspect – it all seems a little too smooth and perfect, a little too practised and convenient.

“You see, ever since my wife died everyone’s been wondering when I was going to find myself another companion,” he casually offers during a conversation. It seems like an attempt to demonstrate that Deral is non-threatening and trustworthy. Instead, choosing to reveal this before trying (repeatedly) to kiss Dax on a secluded summer walk makes it seem like a sleazy pick-up routine – playing off all sorts of horrible sexist romantic clichés about how women love widowers.

Has a nice ring to it...

Has a nice ring to it…

It doesn’t help that Terry Farrell is one of the weakest links in a strong ensemble. With a poor script, the show relies on the cast to carry the burden – but there’s no chemistry here. More than that, it’s up to Farrell to compensate for the script’s awkward understanding of Dax. Without dialogue to explain why Dax is suddenly acting contrary to everything we know about her, it’s up to Farrell to find a way of convicing us that this is still the Jadzia Dax we know and care about. She can’t do that.

To be fair, it’s not Farrell’s fault. It’s hard to imagine any actor in the ensemble could have salvaged Meridian. (Except maybe Colm Meaney’s “put-upon everyman” charm. Of course, being the only married member of the ensemble, he’s the only one who can’t do a story like this.) At the same time, there’s never a moment as charming as Avery Brooks’ “Sisko in love” scene from Second Sight. There’s no reason why we should care about any of the characters here, because it feels like even the writers can’t.

Quark's got some bottle...

Quark’s got some bottle…

Which brings us to the subplot. Meridian is a special cocktail of awfulness. The main plotline of Meridian is soul-destroyingly bland and feels like an attempt to tell a bland love story by ignoring everything interesting about the character involved. It’s forgettable and inoffensive, with the primary problem being the way that it eats up vital minutes of your life. However, as if to compensate for the fact that the main plot unlikely to provoke a strong reaction, the episode is saddled with an infuriatingly cringe-worthy subplot.

The subplot is the part of Meridian that draws the strongest reactions. While Dax’s romance is out-of-character and cliché, the Kira subplot is ambitious and skin-crawling terrible. The subplot takes something that has been bubbling away in the background of the franchise for half a decade at this point, and pushes it to the fore. It’s built around the creepy subtext of third season Next Generation episodes like Booby Trap and Hollow Pursuits, exploring the issue of creating holodeck fantasies of other people in order to sexually objectify them.

After reading the script, the cast felt the need to hold each other for an extended period of time...

After reading the script, the cast felt the inexplicable need to hold each other for an extended period of time…

It’s uncomfortable subject matter, and The Next Generation tended to skirt around the sexual subtext of it all. As much as Barclay might like to play out romantic fantasies with a holographic projection of Counselor Troi, the episode was far too wholesome to delve into what exactly Barclay did with “the Goddess of Love” during all his private time on the holodeck. Similarly, Geordi’s relationship with the holographic Leah Brahms in Booby Trap was kept decidedly tasteful.

Deep Space Nine, on the other hand, has been quite explicit about what people do in Quark’s holosuites. In If Wishes Were Horses, Odo is extremely worried when he discovers Jake Sisko has been spending time inside them. Here, the episode doesn’t even bother to conceal its innuendos. When paying customer Tiron leaves the programme early, Quark observes, “Done so soon? You were barely in the holosuite ten minutes.” Tiron responds, “There was no reason for me to stay the full hour.” Quark concedes, “I understand. It’s a very effective programme.”

You're on candid camera...

I’m a little disappointed that holo-cameras don’t record in 16:9…

The episode even plays Quark’s suggestion that “satisfaction is not guaranteed” as a particularly creepy double entendre, inviting all sorts of uncomfortable questions about how Quark arranges to attend the needs of various patrons. Coupled with the show’s recurring references to Quark’s policy of sexual harassment and the trapping of sexual favours for employment, the show is venturing into particularly uncomfortable territory here.

So, when Tiron offers to pay a large sum of money for a holographic copy of Kira Nerys, we know exactly what he is planning to do with her. It isn’t even disguised with romance in the same way that Barclay’s obsession with Troi had been. When Quark offers Tiron a trip to a “picnic with the Pleasure Goddess of Rixx”, Tiron isn’t interested. “I don’t like picnics, Quark,” Tiron states bluntly, as if there were any doubt about it.

The price is wrong...

The price is wrong…

This is decidedly awkward viewing, but it might serve as a gateway to something interesting. How do you police something like that in the holodeck? How do you protect an individual’s right to their own image? If it’s not illegal to imagine it, is it wrong to visualise it? At what point does policing this sort of conduct become the prosecution of thought-crime? Does Kira’s right to her own bodily integrity extend to copies of those bodies, even if those copies aren’t objectively “real”? These are wonderfully tough philosophical questions rooted in something very sleazy.

Indeed, you could see how the subplot might function as a commentary on the boom of internet pornography that was really taking off in the mid-nineties. On top of all the usual forms of adult material, the decade saw an explosion in “fakes”, with the faces of celebrities superimposed on to nude bodies for the perverse pleasure of the person downloading at home. In a way, Tiron’s attempt to create a holographic version of Kira is just an extension of that same concept, just pushed a little bit further.

A lot to chew over...

A lot to chew over…

(It’s also hard not read a bit of criticism of fan culture into this premise as well – rather like Kivas Fajo’s desire to “collect” Data in The Most Toys. There’s a sense of entitlement to Tiron’s position, acting as if Kira belongs to him. The show wraps this up in heavy-handed anti-capitalism – “the things I do for money,” Quark sighs – but it’s also about ownership. There’s a sense that Tiron is trying to own his own piece of Deep Space Nine, even if it’s “just” a copy that doesn’t do any direct harm to the “real” Kira.)

These issues are awkward. They need to be navigated with great skill and considerable care. Unfortunately Meridian plays all this as a light-hearted sex comedy. Quark tries to produce a masturbatory fantasy involving the station’s first officer, and it’s treated as an extended joke. There’s something tone-deaf about the set-up and the execution, with Kira reacting to Quark’s plans as if they are a prank rather than an invasion of privacy, integrity or autonomy.

One in a million...

One in a million…

This draws attention to the uniting flaw in Meridian, the problem that connects both the mind-numbingly boring and ill-conceived lead story with the tone-deaf and cringe-worthy secondary plot. While by no means the most severe issue with the episode, Meridian feels like Deep Space Nine admitting its limitations. The revelation of the Dominion in The Jem’Hadar increased the dramatic stakes for the show, but it also teased a narrative transformation. The Gamma Quadrant was no longer merely aliens-of-the-week, it was home to a threat that would be bubbling away for quite some time. It alluded to serialisation.

And The Search followed up on that promise – constructed as an elaborate second pilot for the show. Teasing what was to come while assuring us that the Dominion could not be casually dismissed, The Search made it clear that Deep Space Nine would be a story about developing long-form storytelling. The Dominion were coming. The game had changed. The pieces were all in motion and nothing would ever be the same again.

Holo threats...

Holo threats…

Except that Deep Space Nine was not yet at the point where it could change everything. It was not a show that could become serialised. So the stakes hadn’t noticeably changed. The scripts have repeatedly alluded to the Dominion and insisted that the threat remains clear and present, but Deep Space Nine is still an episodic science-fiction adventure. Shows like Second Skin and House of Quark and Equilibrium have little to do with the Dominion of the larger structure of the show. Each could easily have been slotted into the first or second season.

Meridian, however, stresses the point. This is the first time that Sisko has gone exploring in the Gamma Quadrant since the end of the second season. This is a stock Deep Space Nine plot – exploring the Gamma Quadrant and discovering strange phenomena. Indeed, this is a stock Star Trek plot – exploring space and discovering strange phenomena. However, this is precisely the sort of plot that doesn’t fit within the framework of Deep Space Nine‘s larger narrative at this point in time.

"Quark wants to make porn featuring me without my consent? And we're playing this is a comedy?"

“Quark wants to make porn featuring me without my consent? And we’re playing this is a comedy?”

“Despite the continuing threat posed by the Dominion, I’ve convinced Starfleet that we must continue our exploration of the Gamma Quadrant,” Sisko’s opening log states. It’s a very clear attempt to cover over the fact that this is business as usual in a climate the show has been trying to define as unusual. However, it just draws attention to the problem. The Defiant should not be cruising through the Gamma Quadrant as if the Dominion have not wiped out entire colonies.

Barring a brief mention in the first scene on the Defiant, the Dominion remain undiscussed throughout Meridian. It feels inorganic. It feels awkward. It feels staged. Given the threat posed by the Dominion, they should be weighing on everybody’s mind, especially when travelling in enemy space. Sisko should be asking local cultures for their own history with the Dominion; the Defiant should be moving under cloak. However, the plot glosses over all of these issues. Deep Space Nine is still an episodic Star Trek show.

Holding together...

Holding together…

That sense bleeds into the subplot as well. While perhaps not as immediately dangerous as the “Quark lets something dangerous on to the station” plots from the first two seasons, the subplot of Meridian features Quark trying to produce and distribute pornography using the likeness of the station’s highest ranking Bajoran officers. There should be consequences for Quark beyond the lame end-of-episode punchline. Kira should try to force Quark off the station; Odo should clamp down harder on him; even Tiron should follow through on his threat to humiliate and destroy the Ferengi.

In a way, there’s an unintentional irony to Tiron’s anger. As with a lot of Deep Space Nine, it’s something that meant nothing at the time, but become more intriguing in hindsight. Tiron’s threat to ruin Quark is an ultimate pointless ending to the episode. The character never appears again, and the audience can be pretty sure Quark will never experience any blow back from this. However, Tiron is played by the wonderful Jeffrey Combs. Combs would go on to become one of the franchise’s strongest recurring guest stars, playing two recurring roles on Deep Space Nine, including the Ferengi Commerce Authority official Brunt.

Bearing the Brunt of all this...

Bearing the Brunt of all this…

“I don’t know how, I don’t know when, but I will ruin you,” Tiron vows at the end of Meridian, and the statement feels almost poetic. Although Combs would not reprise the role of Tiron, he would play a character who would eventually ruin Quark. As Brunt, Combs would oversee the Quark’s decline and commercial collapse. This lends the otherwise idle threat a delicious level of irony. It’s not enough to salvage the subplot or the episode, but it is interesting to note. That is the faintest echo of meaning that can be derived from the threat, the shadow of serialisation rather than any substantive form of it.

Meridian ranks as one of the worst episodes of Deep Space Nine ever produced. It’s trite, cliché, dull, unimaginative, lazy and poorly written. While this has no bearing on its quality, it is also a firm reminder that the series has yet to fully transcend the limitations of episodic television. (That said, it wouldn’t fully do so until the final ten hours of the series.)

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

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4 Responses

  1. Meridian is my least favourite episode of S3, mainly because I find it all so boring. I actually dread having to re-watch this whenever DS9 is in syndication. Although Dax could reappear to Deral in 60yrs time in a different host, would Deral want Dax in another form, and what if it’s male? “How far do they go down” sounds like something Bashir might say to hit on Dax in S1 or 2.

  2. Agreed wholeheartedly. This episode is as bad as the early seasons of TNG — which I am unable to watch.

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