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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Visionary (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.

Visionary confirms that “O’Brien must suffer” is to become an annual tradition on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The second season of the show had made a good start with episodes like Whispers and – to a lesser extent – Armageddon Game, but Visionary confirms that this will really be O’Brien’s niche in the ensemble from this point on. Visionary sees O’Brien randomly jumping forward through time, inevitably glimpsing some horrible tragedy that must be avoided. (Boy, it sure is lucky that he started jumping at this point, isn’t it?)

Visionary should feel contrived and convenient, hinging on a pretty flimsy plot hook. That said, the episode ultimately works quite well, even if it doesn’t stand out as a classic piece of Star Trek. Watching Visionary, there’s very much a sense that Visionary only really works as well as it does because Deep Space Nine has built up a larger mythology of characters and long-form plotting that can support what might otherwise be a fairly flimsy premise.

"Why the hell doesn't this ever happen to Julian?!"

“Why the hell doesn’t this ever happen to Julian?!”

In many respects, Visionary feels like an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. In fact, Visionary feels like something of a precursor to two future Voyager episodes – Deadlock from the second season and Before and After from the third. Behr conceded that this was an awkward fit in The Deep Space Nine Companion:

While the feeling was that Shirley did a nice job of keeping what could have been an extremely confusing plot clear and comprehensible, Behr was not entirely happy with the episode. “It was good, but it seems like a show that could have been done on TNG.”

And is this a bad thing?

“I prefer our shows to be Deep Space Nine-specific. Visionary is kind of a tech mystery, and it’s more TNG’s kind of show.”

It’s a rare Deep Space Nine script built around what is a science-fiction high-concept couched in vague techno-babble. It’s notable as one of the very few Deep Space Nine episodes that could have been developed from a pitch by Brannon Braga.

Quark already regrets volunteering for whatever the hell "William Tell" is...

Quark already regrets volunteering for whatever the hell “William Tell” is…

This is something that Deep Space Nine typically made an effort to avoid, particularly once Behr took the reins:

Behr is not a big fan of plots that rely heavily on elements like quantum singularities and tetryon particles. “I think that both TNG and Voyager go too far with it,” he says, noting that such reliance was one area about which he tending to get into disagreements with Michael Piller. “I really wanted to take the tech out of DS9, and you’ll see that in the first two seasons there was a lot more tech than in Season 3 forward.” This was when the baton was passed from Piller to Behr as executive producer.

To be fair, Deep Space Nine would do a number of high-concept science-fiction stories in the years ahead – Hard Time, Children of Time and Time’s Orphan all come to mind. However, it’s telling that most of these pitches originated outside the show’s writing staff.

"Yes, we've toned down the shoulder pads after he Praetor got stuck in a Jefferies Tube for three days during a routine inspection."

“Yes, we’ve toned down the shoulder pads after the Praetor got stuck in a Jefferies Tube for three days during a routine inspection.”

It’s also worth noting that they were also rooted in character drama; and most of them were rooted around Miles O’Brien. Even the second season’s homage to Philip K. Dick, Whispers, was designed as an O’Brien-centric episode. Much like Harry Kim on Voyager, it seems like O’Brien is the universe’s whipping boy. However, unlike Harry Kim, O’Brien is a character who is strong enough to anchor these stories. The fact that horrible techno-babble plots swarm around Harry Kim feel like trivia; when they swarm around O’Brien, it seems like tragedy.

There are a lot of reasons for this. There’s the fact that O’Brien is really the franchise’s first major working-class character – a non-commissioned officer with a family who took this post because it came with a promotion and was most likely the best he could do. There’s also Colm Meaney’s performance, which gives a sense of O’Brien as a man who keeps his head down and tries to keep everything working while those in a higher pay grade make the important decisions.

Just when you think the universe doesn't care, it sends along a bloodthirsty Klingo to make O'Brien suffer...

Just when you think the universe doesn’t care, it sends along a bloodthirsty Klingo to make O’Brien suffer…

There’s a quirky humanity to O’Brien’s plight here, as contrived and convenient as it might seem. For all the big ideas driving the plot, Visionary is anchored in the mundane. O’Brien is just a poor guy who showed up for work and got swept up in events outside his control. There are wonderful moments throughout the episode, from the subplot about trying to introduce Quark to darts through to O’Brien and Bashir squabbling over the fact that O’Brien died on Bashir’s watch. “How could you just let me die?” O’Brien protests, as if Bashir landed him with the bar bill.

It’s actually quite charming that most of the other Deep Space Nine crew seem perfectly okay with this sort of thing. Being Starfleet officers, this is what they signed up for. When Bashir finds O’Brien standing over his own corpse, the doctor doesn’t miss a beat. “Chief!” Bashir offers. “Oh, am I glad to see you.” There’s a sense that Bashir is being perfectly rational about how this time travel might prevent O’Brien’s death – rather than getting caught up in the emotion of it all. Similarly, both Dax and Bashir seem positively excited by the strange phenomenon.

"Maybe I'm just sleeping..."

“Maybe I’m just sleeping…”

In contrast, O’Brien seems like a tennis ball being thrown around. O’Brien is the character who has the most extreme reaction to his predicament, the only one who doesn’t seem to treat it like a workshop given by the Department of Temporal Investigations. Even at the point where O’Brien is exploiting this time travel for his own advantage, he still seems world-weary. “I hate temporal mechanics!” two versions of O’Brien declare simultaneously.

This sense of a little guy trapped by an uncaring universe is reinforced by the fact that O’Brien is dead several times by the end of the episode – he imagines himself killed during a routine maintenance check, poisoned by radiation twice and (quite possibly) killed by the Romulans after Deep Space Nine explodes. (Because are they really going to leave witnesses?) While the last leap prevents the destruction of the space station itself, it seems like O’Brien is only ever a branched universe away from a horrible meaningless death.

A bunch of Klingons walk into a bar...

A bunch of Klingons walk into a bar…

Still, all of this seems like – pardon the pun – overkill. It seems a bit weird that O’Brien develops this foresight when it’s most handy, and repeatedly killing the character begins to play like a grim joke towards the end of the episode. Witnessing his own death is shocking the first time it happens, and it provides a nice heft to the climax, but it seems excessive when combined with his random death in the middle of the episode.

That said, the fact that Visionary is firmly grounded gives it a bit more weight than the average techno-babble-driven episode of Voyager. The interactions between Bashir and O’Brien feel like a genuine friendship – even their reaction to O’Brien’s death feels like two close friends bickering about personal betrayals. Little touches like Odo’s observation about how he “always” investigates Quark, or Quark’s willingness to get out of the way of the strange time travel, add a bit of texture to a story that could easily become an intellectual exercise.

O'Brien is twice the man he used to be...

O’Brien is twice the man he used to be…

At the same time, it is worth noting that the plot’s twist on the tried-and-tested gimmick of time travel is novel. This is a rare case of Star Trek characters jumping within their own show – O’Brien never moves outside events depicted in Visionary. More than that, it is a jump into the future rather than the past. This is an approach to time travel that seems interested in time travel itself, rather than using time travel as a vehicle to tell a particular story.

Of course, being a show featuring time travel, there are all sorts of logical loop holes. During the last jump, for example, why is O’Brien asleep? Sure he remembers the previous time jump where he discovered the station was destroyed? After all, O’Brien seems to have knowledge of past jumps when he lives through them; he instantly recognises the conversation that he has with Quark, for example. Still, it’s probably best not to over think it.

"I'm a doctor, not a chrono-physicist!"

“I’m a doctor, not a chrono-physicist!”

It’s interesting to look at Visionary in the context of Deep Space Nine‘s approach to time travel. The show’s vision of time travel is typically less concerned with paradoxes or alternate history than most of the other Star Trek shows. Indeed, Deep Space Nine seems to rarely argue for the preservation of history or the integrity of the time line. Even in Past Tense, there’s enough evidence to suggest that Sisko was meant to replace Gabriel Bell all along.

Instead, Deep Space Nine seems to suggest that time is flexible and that characters can (and should) work to make the best future possible using their own ethics as a guide. Horrific acts cannot be justified by weighing them against some abstract ideal or some future hope. The individual cannot be let off the hook for their moral choices by arguing that things were always meant to be a particular way.

Going for gold...

Going for gold…

On a superficial level, this means Sisko gets to meet Kirk and bring tribbles back with him at the end of Trials and Tribble-ations. On a more serious level, this means that Kira is not beholden to history as a sacred text in Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night. Jake Sisko can wipe out an entire timeline in The Visitor. Odo can re-write time itself in Children of Time, even if the crew are horrified at the consequences. Here, there is no question that O’Brien should use his knowledge of the future to save Deep Space Nine.

Of course, Deep Space Nine also suggests that time is somewhat cyclical – that it moves in circles and arcs rather than straight lines. Even without the use of time travel, Cardassia eventually becomes Bajor. Past Tense implies that Sisko was always Gabriel Bell. Dukat references the outcome of Kira’s trip to the past in Waltz, several episodes before she makes the journey. Sisko’s entire life is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Quark had to dart after this...

Quark had to dart after this…

This is understandably hard to reconcile with the idea of individual morality and responsibility suggested in other episodes. If moral imperatives and responsibilities exist, then how can time be so stable and so consistent? If Sisko’s decision to protect the hostages in Past Tense was an active decision, then how can it be predestined? After all, doesn’t the idea of destiny undermine the idea of free will? These are all fair questions, and Visionary suggests an answer.

Actions are a result of character decisions. Since the characters themselves are internally consistent, that means most of the events are as well. Putting particular characters in particular situations will generally lead to a vaguely similar outcome. That isn’t because of fate or destiny, that’s because people generally act according to who they are, and so – when confronted with the same information – typically make the same choices.

Showing them the airlock...

Showing them the airlock…

It is one way of accounting for ideas of historical recurrance, the way that certain themes and events keep recurring throughout history. G. W. Trompf’s The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought traces this idea from its roots in classical philosophy. It quotes the views of Niccolò Machiavelli:

Whoever considers the past and the present will readily observe that all cities and all peoples are and ever have been animated by the same desires and the same passions; so that it is easy, by diligent study of the past, to foresee what is likely to happen in the future in any republic, and to apply those remedies that were used by the ancients, or not finding any that were employed by them, to devise new ones from the similarity of events.

It’s a view that argues that patterns recur because the people making those patterns share the same essential characteristics as the people who made those decisions before. Deep Space Nine suggests a more specific form of that argument. In a universe with time travel, history can generally be said to be stable because people generally act according to their own natures.

"Hm. Looks like this is probably going to be a light week for everybody else, but we really should have a crack time of counsellors standing by."

“Hm. Looks like this is probably going to be a light week for everybody else, but we really should keep a crack time of counsellors standing by.”

So, even with foreknowledge, the brawl in Quark’s still occurs. Odo takes all the necessary steps to prevent it; Quark is instructed to keep the Klingons out of the bar. However, Quark still allows the Klingons to use the holosuites, because Quark is greedy – a consistent character attribute. Characters aren’t so much trapped by fate as they are trapped by their own innate natures – they cannot be anything other than who they are.

Indeed, the episode even points to Quark’s short-sighted greed as a trait that leads to familiar and easily-avoided patterns. When Quark reports that the Klingons have broken the holosuites, O’Brien points out that this always happens. Quark never learns. He repeats the same mistakes, leading to the same outcome. Indeed, it’s telling that the bar brawl happens after this conversation – making it clear that Quark will not learn from his mistakes.

You gotta look out for yourself...

You gotta look out for yourself…

This idea recurs throughout the plot of Visionary, with the episode giving the distinct impression that the future is easy enough to predict if you are willing to observe current behaviour. Odo and Sisko immediately identify the Klingons as the prime suspects in the espionage attempts made against the Romulans – an observation validated by the evidence. Odo states that he always investigates Quark, observing the Quark’s past behaviour makes him a likely candidate for any crime on the station.

(Visionary avoids the potentially problematic aspects of this approach by carefully divorcing it from racial profiling or suggesting that guilt can be assigned based solely on these sorts of assumptions. When Odo identifies the Klingons as prime suspects, Sisko is clear that guilt cannot be assigned on generalisations. “Do you have any evidence besides the fact that Klingons hate Romulans?” he asks. When Odo identifies the source of a bug as close to Klingon space, Sisko remains sceptical. “That’s still very little evidence to make an arrest.”)

After a while, this gets dead predictable...

After a while, this gets dead predictable…

In fact, even Sisko’s final warning to the Romulans is based on the assumption that the Romulans’ future behaviour is dictated by their character. While O’Brien can inform Sisko of what happened, only his understanding of the Romulan psyche can explain why it happens, a leap he make apparent when confronting Ruwon. “At first, I couldn’t understand why,” he states, “and then I remembered what you said about the Dominion. How they were the greatest threat to the Alpha Quadrant in the last century. If you really believed that, then the only way you could ever be truly safe from the Dominion would be to collapse the wormhole.”

In a way, this seems like a very cynical perspective – the idea that we are essentially fated to walk certain paths because there are certain inalterable aspects to ourselves – we will typically make the sorts of decisions that it is in character for us to make, even if that makes us predictable and even if that leads us to some very dark places. In many respects, this is something of a bridge between Past Tense and Home Front. In that earlier episode, Bashir wondered whether mankind had truly vanquished all of its worst aspects, or whether mankind would revert to its true nature under the right pressure.

Food for thought...

Food for thought…

This is very in keeping with Deep Space Nine‘s world view – the idea that Roddenberry’s vision is somewhat complacent. Deep Space Nine repeatedly suggests that mankind will never be so far evolved that we can ever stop worrying; that the quest and desire to be better isn’t something that miraculously happens overnight, that it’s a battle waged on a daily basis. It takes effort to be good, it takes commitment to be the best that we can be. If mankind allows itself to forget that, then bad things can happen. It’s a version of Roddenberry’s utopian vision, just filtered through some light scepticism.

After all, O’Brien can change the future. Although he’s just an average schmo swept up in events far larger than he might like – it’s telling that O’Brien never directly interacts with the Romulans, despite foiling their scheme; he isn’t even present during Sisko’s denouement – O’Brien can change the course of the universe. Despite the cynicism of the idea that we may be fated by our natures, there’s an optimistic nugget at the heart of Visionary.

"You know, I'd like to think Starfleet would have pensioned me off by this point..."

“You know, I’d like to think Starfleet would have pensioned me off by this point…”

The episode ends with O’Brien weighing the dilemmas raised by his adventures. After all, this isn’t really Miles O’Brien any longer. “I have this nagging feeling that I don’t really belong here, this isn’t really my life,” he confesses to Bashir, “maybe this life belongs to that other Miles O’Brien” It’s an understandable concern, but irrelevant. Like the original proposed ending to Robert Hewitt Wolfe’s script for Second Skin, identity ultimately isn’t about your DNA or you genetic make-up.

“Listen, Chief, whether you’re living in the past or in the present, you are Miles O’Brien,” Bashir offers with certainty. “The only difference is, you have a few memories the other one didn’t have.” Identity is about who you are, not who you were or will be. It’s a sentiment that Kira offers to Tora Ziyal in By Inferno’s Light. The actions that you take define who you are, whether you control them or not. They shape the future.

"He's complaining that he won't get to guest star in Voyager until at least Ronald Moore moves over."

“He’s complaining that he won’t get to guest star in Voyager until at least Ronald Moore moves over.”

As if to underscore how radically different Deep Space Nine is from Voyager, Visionary takes a bunch of Voyager-esque high-concepts and puts them through a blender. O’Brien’s time travel is rooted in his character. Even the episode’s B-plot unfolds against the backdrop of Deep Space Nine‘s long-running arc. It involves Romulan and Klingon politics, while also pointing forwards toward the Dominion and pointing back towards The Search. Although the entire plot is fairly throw-away, it does create a sense that Deep Space Nine exists in a universe that changes from week to week.

The subplot involving the Romulans is a nice touch, reinforcing the idea that the Dominion are a pretty big deal. After all, the Dominion have really slipped off the radar since The Abandoned, despite a few small references made here and there. With the three big iconic Star Trek aliens all gathered around talk about the threat posed by this new power, we get a sense of how credible the threat is. We haven’t really seen the Dominion’s capacity for war yet, despite references made to the mass slaughter of New Bajor in The Jem’Hadar. It seems like we’ve spent more time this season with the Ferengi than the Founders.

"Quit stalling and tell us where T'Rul is!" "We just want closure."

“Quit stalling and tell us where T’Rul is!”
“We just want closure.”

To be fair, this is still a problem with Visionary. There’s a sense that this probably should have happened earlier in the season, as a way of keeping the Dominion current. It’s also a little weird that the Romulans are so fascinated with the cloaking devices. Whatever happened to T’Rul? Obviously, Martha Hackett is working on Voyager, but it would be nice to have a line or two explaining where the character has gone.

More than that, the episode draws attention to how lackadaisical Deep Space Nine has been about the Dominion. It is revealed early in the episode that the Romulans have never sent a ship through to the Gamma Quadrant. They only hear about the Dominion second-hand. “Well then maybe they should send their own ships through the wormhole and find out for themselves,” Kira offers, which raises the question of why the Federation is casually sending the Defiant through the wormhole in shows like Destiny or Meridian.

Daze of future past...

Daze of future past…

As an aside, it’s quite nice that Visionary plays with the idea of Klingon culture as depicted on Star Trek. It’s nowhere near as deconstructive as House of Quark, but it can’t help but evoke Dramatis Personae. That episode featured a Klingon science mission, a rather atypical expedition for the warrior race – a reminder that the Klingons must be more than mindless thugs. For all that it’s fun to imagine Klingons riding through the cosmos slaying their enemies, a culture cannot function like that.

Here, we get to see Imperial Intelligence at work, demonstrating that Klingons are just as willing to commit espionage as their neighbours. Spying on meetings between the Federation and the Romulans would hardly be the most honourable course of action, even if it is perhaps the most pragmatic. In fact, Odo blackmails the Klingons with the threat of exposing them, suggesting that the discovery of such an operation would be particularly embarrassing. Although Odo identifies the operatives pretty quickly (they are hardly subtle), he does note that they did a “very sophisticated, very professional job.”

Over his dead body...

Over his dead body…

Also noteworthy is the apocalyptic imagery in Visionary, climaxing the destruction of the wormhole and the attack on Deep Space Nine. The third season of Deep Space Nine is packed with stories featuring the “death” of regular characters and the narrative collapse of the show itself. The Search sees the Dominion effectively forcing the cancellation of Deep Space Nine. Destiny promises the destruction of the wormhole. Civil Defense sees the station’s history reasserting itself. Distant Voices will feature the characters being picked off one-by-one in the style of a slasher horror film.

It feels like something of a recurring theme, perhaps a sense of anxiety now that Deep Space Nine has become the eldest running Star Trek show. Maybe it’s some millennialism bleeding into the show, some sense of unease about the coming of the year 2000. Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Still, it’s remarkable, and Visionary is perhaps the most obvious example of this sort of grim funereal atmosphere. Miles O’Brien dies three times and the station blows up, all in visions of the future.

Throwing it out there...

Throwing it out there…

Visionary is not an exceptional piece of Deep Space Nine, but it is stronger than quite a few of the episodes surrounding it – a science-fiction high-concept elevated by the character development and universe-building in which Deep Space Nine has invested so heavily over the past two-and-a-half years. This is Deep Space Nine acting like something of a big brother to Voyager, as if to demonstrate that these sorts of fantastic ideas work better when grounded in a world about which the audience has come to care.

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

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2 Responses

  1. Was the first season’s O’Brien must suffer episode The Storyteller? The two O’Briens both say “I hate temporal mechanics” Darren. Maybe Ruwon’s aide was intended to be Martha Hackett but she couldn’t take the time away from Voyager. Visionary seems the TNG equivalent of All Good Things and the VGR equivalent of Before and After, so it’s a surprise that it’s script wasn’t written by Brannon Braga.

    • Good spot! Corrected.

      And you’re right about the episode seeming very Brannon Braga. (Although I’d peg it more as Deadlock than Before and After, right down to the ending with not!quite!O’Brien.)

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