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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Fascination (Review)

This 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.

Well, that could have been much more unpleasant than it ultimately was.

Yes, that’s damning with faint praise, but Fascination feels like a long sigh of exhaustion after what has been a tough run of episodes. The last episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to air in 1994, Fascination came at the end of a production crunch that had seen the show desperately grasping for time. Quite a few of the first ten episodes of the season had been rushed through, with varying results – from Second Skin to Meridian.

So the fact that Fascination is not a massive soul-destroying screw-up on the scale of Meridian is a good thing, even if the episode’s plot does smell a little bit of desperation.

Dax can be quite touchy...

Dax can be quite touchy…

“Everybody loses their inhibitions” is a classic Star Trek plot device. Indeed, like Civil Defense before it, Fascination feels like it might have made for a reasonably solid first season episode. That’s where the original Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation positioned their own “crew act drunk and horny” episodes – The Naked Time and The Naked Now. In many respects, Fascination feels like something of a belated companion piece to those stories.

(Although, much like the “station is sabotaged by ghosts from its past” plot line from Civil Defense, which had been largely prefigured by the first season episode BabelFascination is really just another entry in that “everybody acts out of character” subgenre that includes the underrated first season episode Dramatis Personae. So, in some respects, Deep Space Nine did do a show vaguely like Fascination in its first season.)

I am a little disappointed that the episode didn't end on a pudding fight...

I am a little disappointed that the episode didn’t end on a pudding fight…

Like Meridian before it, Fascination feels a little bit like an exhausted writing staff searching for ideas and finding them in Ira Steven Behr’s affection and nostalgia for classic Hollywood. Meridian was based on Brigadoon, with an emphasis on the MGM adaptation of the musical. Much is made of Fascination‘s connection to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but The Deep Space Nine Companion makes it clear that the influence was a particularly cinematic adaptation:

No one is quite sure where the idea came from, although Behr thinks it originated with Michael Piller some time much earlier. “I do remember that we all sat down to watch the 1935 film version of the play, with James Cagney, Mickey Rooney and Joe E. Brown.” Behr says, “But then we never found a way to do it.”

To be fair, seen as A Midsummer Night’s Dream is cited among the “most beloved and most frequently performed” of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s surprising that the franchise took so long to offer its own adaptation of the classic play. On the other hand, it’s not too surprising that Deep Space Nine was the show to do so.

Lifting spirits...

Lifting spirits…

Not only is it the kind of endearing oddity that Deep Space Nine does so well, but Deep Space Nine seems like the only Star Trek that could credibly support a romantic comedy. Not only does Deep Space Nine sport the largest and most diverse ensemble in the franchise, it’s also a series with a whole host of dynamic relationships. No member of the senior main cast on The Next Generation was involved in a long-term romantic relationship, with the closest being Riker and Troi’s “are they/aren’t they?” dynamic.

In contrast, the primary cast of Deep Space Nine – at any point in its run – involves several characters who are dating across multiple episodes (either within the main cast or outside it) or married (whether widowed or still involved). While Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise would try to develop similar romances, they were never as many (or as well developed) as on Deep Space Nine.

Major relationship malfunction...

Major relationship malfunction…

It is worth noting that Star Trek has a long and rich association with Shakespeare. Both Patrick Stewart and Avery Brooks have a long history of performing Shakespeare that continues to the present day. As Lincoln Geraghty notes in Living With Star Trek, there’s arguably a strong connection between Star Trek and Shakespeare:

Star Trek has been described as a space opera, implying that it emphasises the character’s representative rather than realistic qualities and that its plot structure can be equated to the traditional formats used in Greek and Shakespearean drama. Space opera was also a term used about the Golden Age of sci-fi; it usually described traditional adventure stories where the audience was expected to know the plot or at least recognise come of its familiar themes. Shakespeare’s use of familiar plots and traditional stories enabled him to garner a popular audience because people were already accustomed to the themes and plots of his work. The same is true for Star Trek, although in a different league from Shakespeare, it uses familiar and traditional stories to devise its own form of anecdotal storytelling on a weekly basis.

Portland has its own “Trek in the Park”, a spiritual companion to “Shakespeare in the Park.” And that’s before we get into Klingons quoting (and perhaps misunderstanding) Shakespeare in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

I'm sure his dad will give his problems a fair earring...

I’m sure his dad will give his problems a fair earring…

That’s not to suggest that Fascination is a successful appropriation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Although it might have a fine literary pedigree, this is really just another a in a long chain of Star Trek episodes built around the novelty of having familiar characters act in unfamiliar ways. It can work well – Crossover, Dramatis Personae and even Defiant are highlights of the show to date – but it can also feel a little contrived and lazy.

As a rule, Star Trek does not do comedy well. It also does not do romance well. There are exceptions, of course; many from this very series. However, as a general principle, those are two genres that don’t inspire a lot of confidence in Star Trek. So constructing a romantic comedy is a somewhat audacious move on the part of the show. It becomes particularly ambitious when Fascination is essentially a sex farce broadcast on a franchise that had become very sterile in the eighties and nineties.

Lightening the mood...

Lightening the mood…

To be entirely fair, Deep Space Nine could be a little bit sexy and cheeky when it set its mind to it. (Mostly this involved getting Nana Visitor to play characters who weren’t Kira, although the show did eventually push the Intendent too far.) It was never as aggressively and campily sensuous as the original Star Trek, but it was the product of a different time. It certainly did a better job than The Next Generation, Voyager or Enterprise. Not that it was passing an exceptionally high bar.

However, the show would occasionally hit a stumbling block when trying to do sex comedies. Meridian had a very dull and generic lead plot, but it was killed by a comedy subplot about Quark’s efforts to produce porn starring Major Kira, without her consent. Two of the worst episodes in the show’s second half – Let He Who Is Without Sin and Profit and Lace – are tone deaf stories about sex.

Kira is reluctant to tell Jake where he can (jumja) stick it...

Kira is reluctant to tell Jake where he can (jumja) stick it…

There are really two key problems with Deep Space Nine and its attempts to do “sex” stories – whether comedic or dramatic. The most obvious is that the show isn’t really sexy enough to pull them off. This is a syndicated network show in the nineties. It’s a franchise that prides itself on being family friendly. Nobody can get too naked or sensuous. This is the same franchise where The Emissary made it look like Worf got K’Ehleyr pregnant through their clothes.

And that’s in play with Fascination. For all that it’s a comedy about sex, that’s never anything too absurd or uncomfortable going on. When Kira and Bashir start making out, it seems like they just spend however long it takes Odo to find them just kissing each other in the middle of the Infirmary. There’s some very light necking going on, but nothing that screams “passion!” Everything seems very sterile. (Kira’s opening not-under-the-influence scene with Bariel is as sensuous as anything in the episode.)

A spotty attraction, at best...

A spotty attraction, at best…

Then again, it’s not too bad – largely thanks to the charm of the cast. Avery Brooks does a wonderful job portraying Sisko’s awkward discomfort as Dax begins to grope him. Most of the cast seem to be game for the episode, and it helps that there’s actually relatively little mutual attraction at play here. Relatively speaking, Fascination handles itself well – particularly when compared to Let He Who Is Without Sin. That episode has the same problem, with sex paradise Risa seeming about as sexy as a middle-class health spa.

(That said, the entire franchise’s attitude towards sex tends to be rather… juvenile. When trying to make Star Trek sexy, Voyager responded by putting Jeri Ryan in the catsuit – playing a character with the emotional intelligence of a child, to make things even more awkward. Enterprise pushed the boat out even further with the tacky and tasteless “de-con” sequences, scenes so blatantly and absurdly aimed at the lowest common denominator I’m surprised they didn’t have a “sexy” bass riff. And I like Enterprise.)

Quark: Marriage Counselor...

Quark: Marriage Counselor…

The second problem is a general difficulty with tone. It’s quite difficult to tell when jokes about sex are funny, or when they are uncomfortable and awkward. There’s a point at which a gag isn’t witty, it’s just sexist or painful. This tends to happen when episodes play blindly off clichés or classic romance tropes, dating back to times before society had really acknowledged issues like casual sexism or gender equality.

This is the biggest problem with Profit and Lace, an episode that seems to work on the assumption that “men in dresses are inherently funny.” The episode also bookended itself with scenes of Quark extorting sexual favours from his employees. Similarly, Meridian treated Quark’s production of pornography starring a female character as nothing more than wacky hijinks. Fascination isn’t quite as bad.

Quit that racket!

Quit that racket!

There’s something a little unnerving about watching various characters aggressively and persistently pursuing others who clearly aren’t interested, but it helps that Jake and Bareil are just about the least threatening members of the cast. The moment where Bareil tries to fight Sisko for Dax’s affection is one of the comedic highlights of the episode, with Sisko more mildly irritated than injured, while Dax quickly floors Bareil. At the same time, it’s interesting to imagine just how much more uncomfortable it would have been if Bareil or Jake got as handsy as Dax does.

That said, there are some genuinely creepy moments to be found. Towards the end, Bashir identifies the infatuation as rooted in an external cause, and thus invalidating (or at least undermining) consent. However, it doesn’t alter his plans. “Excuse me. I promised Nerys that I’d meet her in her quarters this evening.” It’s a deeply unsettling scene – one hopes that Bashir might mention that there’s an external force at play before hoping into bed with Kira, but it’s still a moment that plays like Bashir trying to take advantage.

You just gotta scroll with it...

You just gotta scroll with it…

(Similarly, O’Brien’s not-under-the-influence objection to Quark’s infatuation with Keiko is less than flattering. When Quark begins to flirt with Keiko, she doesn’t respond with interest and O’Brien steps in to intervene. However, he bluntly informs Quark that “she’s taken”, a rather awkward way of making his point. The fact that O’Brien can’t write that choice of phrase off due to Lwaxana’s influence is a little troubling.)

The episode also tries to undermine the potentially problematic issues of consent by suggesting that these outbursts must have been rooted in “some pre-existing latent attraction.” This is problematic in a number of ways. Most obviously, it should really have some lasting impact on the relationships on the station. Sisko’s relationship with Dax remains unaffected by the fact that the “old man” fancies him. Kira continues to date Bareil despite the fact Bareil has the hots for the “unpredictable” Jadzia.

Quark's quite pen-sive this week...

Quark’s quite pen-sive this week…

(While on the subject of Bareil, Philip Anglim drags down the episode considerably. Anglim is a pretty one-note performer, and the show has had a lot of trouble with his portrayal of Bareil Antos. None of the actors are necessarily well-served by the material, but Anglim is particularly leaden and unable to inject any fun into the role. One can’t help but suspect that the decision to turn Bareil into an unfeeling robot in Life Support was a none-too-subtle jab at Anglim’s acting skill.)

Still, despite this, there’s some stuff to like in Fascination, albeit more in concept than in practice. There is something quite nice about the way that Deep Space Nine could do these sorts of “day in the life” stories, where there wasn’t a massive threat or impossibly high stakes. Fascination is essentially set on the station during a bank holiday, and it’s great to get a sense of the station as a larger community rather than a strictly strategic outpost.

This episode doesn't tank as badly as it could..."

This episode doesn’t tank as badly as it could…”

Avery Brooks captures the mood of the episode well. There are several impressive sweeping shots of the station creating the sense that this is an area where people live and work and play. It’s nice to see “street performers” working both on the promenade and in Quarks, giving the impression that this is what a family festivity might look like. You get a sense why people might live and work on the station, despite incidents like Civil Defense.

In a way, it fits the “get visually interesting performers to do visually interesting things” brief a lot better than Equilibrium did, and Fascination demonstrates that the show has a solid enough cast that it can rest somewhat comfortably on them. These seem like people who have lives outside of their assigned roles on the station. Even the poker game on The Next Generation seemed weirdly official, consisting of “the senior staff… and O’Brien.” Here, the crew hang out with each others’ partners and friends and family.

Just to be Nerys to you...

Just to be Nerys to you…

In a way, this plays to the two strongest plot points in the episode – even if neither shines through quite as well as they might. The marriage between Miles and Keiko gives the story a little extra “oomph” that it otherwise wouldn’t have. Their dynamic feels (relatively) organic, without quite falling into the standard television clichés about marriage. There’s a sense that these are two people who work hard at their relationship, without being excessive or showy, and who each have their own goals and ideals.

To be fair, there are points where Fascination pushes a little bit too hard. Miles and Keiko haven’t seen each other in months, but it still feels a little strange that they wind each other up so fast – neither seems to spot the warning signs leading into their big argument, and it all escalates very quickly. They go from tired and awkward to fighting and bickering incredibly fast.

Morn could not speak about his problems to anybody else...

Morn could not speak about his problems to anybody else…

At one point, O’Brien seems to be accusing his wife of cheating on him – which seems like a topic that anybody would handle a bit more delicately, even if time was limited and everybody was tired. It does lead to some nice scenes. The sequence where O’Brien decides his family is worth more than his career is especially heartfelt, for example; explicitly identifying a conflict hinted at as far back as A Man Alone. However, there’s a sense that the subplot is a little rushed and doesn’t have room to breath.

And then there’s Lwaxana Troi. Lwaxana is a troubled character, in that she’s treated as a walking punchline far too often, as if the idea of a sexually aggressive older woman is inherently hilarious. To be fair, Deep Space Nine uses her a bit better than The Next Generation did, and there’s always a sense of “Lwaxana as a person” underneath “Lwaxana as a joke.” The jokes about her pursuit of Odo (and his evasion of here) get a little tired, but there is just a hint of genuine emotion buried underneath it all.

A-door-able couple...

A-door-able couple…

At the start of Fascination, Lwaxana reveals that she has come to Deep Space Nine because she heard about Odo’s discovery in The Search. Odo’s reaction to discovering his people are oppressive tyrants is something the show has only dealt with obliquely since that episode – it’s the central subtext of The Abandoned, but Odo doesn’t really talk about it all. Of course, Odo’s stoicism is perfectly in character, and maybe his work colleagues are respecting that, but that revelation has to take a toll – as we discover in The Die is Cast.

It makes sense for Lwaxana to want to be there for Odo on hearing that news. Lwaxana really seemed to get Odo in The Forsaken, and it’s nice to see that connection used here. She has seen Odo at his most vulnerable, regenerating in the folds of her dress, so of course she recognises his pain – even if he tries to hide it. It’s especially nice that the pair don’t talk about the Founders or the Dominion at all over the rest of the episode. Lwaxana realises that Odo might need a friend, but that he doesn’t necessarily want to talk about it. Just being there is the important thing.

Strangely touching...

Strangely touching…

Of course, it’s quite likely that the writers just wanted a reason to justify sending Lwaxana back to Deep Space Nine and this was a convenient excuse. However, it’s a great deal more touching to suggest that Lwaxana has a far greater emotional awareness than she lets on – that she is mindful of others, contrary to some of the more shrewish characterisations she has had over the years. Even if Fascination does go back to the tired-the-moment-it-was-first-used-in-Haven “sexually aggressive older women are funny” gag, it at least gives the character some measure of decency and dignity.

And that’s really all there is to say about Fascination. “Best not think about it too much,” Bashir offers at the end of the episode, and he’s probably right.

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

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2 Responses

  1. I agree that Fascination isn’t offensive like Meridian, it’s just silly. But it’s not one I dread having to re-watch like Meridian either. I can grit and bear it, although Bashir wanting to bed Kira at the end does seem like his S1 characterisation rearing its ugly head again. It’s sad that after Dark Page we get to see Lwaxana as the strolling joke again.

    • See, the little scene where Lwaxana explains that she visited Odo because she cared kinda allows me to forgive a lot of the episode. It’s a very human and sweet moment, far removed from the walking punchline of Manhunt.

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