This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.
If Shattered Mirror represents the writing staff on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine trying to stave off late-season exhaustion by cutting loose with an extended Star Wars homage, then The Muse represents an altogether different response to the strain of the twenty-six episode season.
The Muse was a painful episode. It did not emerge fully-formed, with writer René Echevarria struggling to bring the story to screen. The result is a mess of an episode. The Muse is not a good episode of television, and is almost universally accepted as such. Afforded the opportunity to remove one episode from his Star Trek CV, director David Livingston suggested it was with obvious choice. “Which would I erase? Which was the one with Meg Foster? The Muse. That was not very good. In fact, that was not good.”
Writing is hard. The Muse attests to this, both in front of and behind the camera. The story focuses on Jake Sisko and his attempts to become a writer. As with Shattered Mirror, there are faint echoes of The Visitor to be found in the story focusing on the youngest member of the primary cast. However, as was also the case with Shattered Mirror, these echoes are drowned out by static. In Shattered Mirror, it was a messy and clumsy space opera pantomime. Here, it is angst about writing as an artform.
If writing is hard, then writing about writing is even harder. There are, of course, any number of successful examples of writers delving into the nature of their craft. Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation is a masterpiece about the difficulties facing a writer trying to construct a story. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys are perhaps more conventional examples. Stories about creating stories become more accessible when rendered as meta-fiction, but stories about actually writing are tough to crack.
There are lots of potential reasons for this. On a very superficial level, writing is not a particularly dynamic field. Indeed, most writing is fairly dull; the writer sits down at a computer/typewriter/piece of paper and uses some buttons/pens/pencils/quills to jot down their thoughts. There is none of the dynamism of police work or fire fighting, little of the stakes that make legal procedurals or high finance so compelling. Either the writer makes a deadline or they don’t; either the ideas come or they don’t.
The Muse seems to acknowledge this. When Jake visits sexy!space!vamp!Onaya in her quarters, she immediately suggests “visceral writing.” It is an absurd description that is about as useful as “extreme writing”, suggesting that Jake will be writing his novel while ab-sailing down a cliff or jumping out of a plane. Instead, he is simply using a pen and paper. It is very much a visual conceit, much like the ridiculously elaborate decorations in Onaya’s quarters. It is hard to make writing visually interesting on a television budget, so this has to do.
The other big problem with stories about writing is that they are inevitably written by writers. As such, there is a sense of self-indulgence about even the best of those stories. Nobody likes to hear somebody complain that they have a tough job, particularly when that tough job involves earning money for what most people would compare to playing make-believe. This is not to dismiss the craft of writing. It is hard work, often emotionally and mentally draining, fickle and temperamental. But it is not tough in an appreciable way.
The stakes involved seem quite abstract. At worst, a writer is struggling to make a livelihood. However, by that logic, there should be just as many movies about cobblers or window insulators. (Well, except The Cobbler; but let’s not get into that.) Sure, there is something romantic about the idea of expression and enlightenment; at its most extreme, this view would argue that a writer is producing something that might change the world, playing midwife to a literary classic. However, there is no small amount of hubris and arrogance in that suggestion.
As such, it is hard to invest in narratives about writers in the same way that an audience invests in stories about more high-stakes professions like world leaders or military personnel. Stories about teachers can focus on the direct and appreciable impact that these individuals have on their students. Tales about parents put an entire family at stake. As such, the stakes for writers seem less tangible and more abstract. As such, there is less patience for stories focusing on the woes and difficulties confronting writers.
The best stories about writing tend to temper the self-indulgence of the writer’s angst, acknowledging that these complaints tend to get blown out of proportion. It is not the end of the world if a great novel is not written; nobody dies. Woody Allen’s scripts tend to incorporate a sense of self-awareness, his protagonists often presented as self-pitying and self-involved for allowing their issues with writing to metastasise into full-blown existential angst. It helps that he tends to fold these issues into larger mid-life crises.
However, The Muse lacks this sort of self-awareness, playing very much as a stereotypical “writer writes about writing” story. In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, Ronald D. Moore acknowledges it as such:
“The notion of this exotic, beautiful, older woman who comes to you and gets excited by watching you write is like the most ridiculous idea!” says Moore in retrospect. “Only a writer would come up with that.” Moore breaks into laughter at the image. Think of it. You’re sitting there writing and she’s just entranced. We watched that scene in dailies and we thought, are we insane? What are we doing? How did we get here?”
The Muse takes a lot of the worst clichés about writing and amplifies them, resulting in a story that feels bloated and indulgent. David Livingston is one of the franchise’s most dynamic directors (see Crossover, Deadlock, Regeneration, Impulse), but he can do nothing with the material.
It does not help matters that The Muse is somewhat hackneyed in its portrayal of Jake’s writing. The Muse is essentially a story about how great artists suffer for their art, as epitomised in that shot of blood dripping from Jake’s nose on to the paper. The Muse cranks up the melodramatic angst. As Benjamin confronts Onaya, she argues that her gifts have assured great writers a place in history. “They all die in the end, but look what I gave them in return. Immortality. Their names will live on forever.”
Over the course of The Muse, Jake suffers for his art. He almost dies for his art. He is so committed to the idea of publishing a masterpiece that he is willing to sacrifice his own life in the process. It is a ridiculously heightened metaphor built around the old cliché that creativity comes at a price, that artists endure a great deal of physical and emotional hardship in order to express unique visions that can be appreciated by a wider audience. It is a narrative that is applied to any number of artists from Van Gogh to Kurt Cobain.
It is a very old cliché. The Raftsman’s Journal alluded to the stereotype of the suffering artist in September 1855, discussing Thomas Campbell:
Campbell wrote with great toil; poetry came from him drop by drop. Sydney Smith used to say that when he was delivered of a couplet, he took to his bed, had straw laid down, the knocker tied up, and expected his friends to call and make inquiries; the answer at the door being invariably, “Mr. Campbell and his little couplet are doing as well as can be expected!” When he produced an Alexandrine, he kept his bed a day longer.
The sentiment has been expressed and articulated many times, with difficult-to-attribute quotes like “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”
In a way, this sentiment feels very much suited to Deep Space Nine. What distinguishes Deep Space Nine from its siblings is the emphasis that the creative team put on conflict The Star Trek franchise is broadly utopian in outlook, presupposing a future where mankind has not wiped themselves out and has managed to reach towards the stars as a unified entity. Barring exceptions like the barbed (and slightly racist) banter between Spock and McCoy, the ensembles on Star Trek shows tend to get along.
When Gene Roddenberry reinvented the franchise with Star Trek: The Next Generation (although arguably as early as his novelisation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture), Roddenberry put an emphasis on an idealised post-scarcity economy where conflict was the only non-abundant resource. This created all manner of storytelling issues, with The Next Generation moving away from the rigid application of Roddenberry’s ethos following his departure from the franchise.
The first Star Trek show produced after Roddenberry’s death (albeit reportedly with his blessing), Deep Space Nine adopts a different approach towards the idealistic future of Star Trek. On Deep Space Nine, peaceful co-existence and material progress are possible, but they are harder fought. The cast are still professionals, and the show is still broadly optimistic in its treatment of the human condition, but Deep Space Nine also suggests that some conflict is inevitable and inescapable.
In the world of Deep Space Nine, it is not the lack of conflict that suggests mankind has evolved. Instead, the writers suggest that mankind’s evolution is measured in their capacity to resolve conflicts rather than to avoid them. The show suggests that struggle is an essential part of the human condition. Occasionally, this can seem more than slightly cynical, as it did in Shattered Mirror. However, it is very much a consistent world view within Deep Space Nine, where it seems like nothing is accomplished without a cost.
The Muse suggests that even the process of creating art is painful. Onaya suggests that creating something truly worthwhile involves considerable sacrifice, an observation supported at the conclusion of the story. “You’ve got a good start on a novel here, Jake,” Benjamin assures his son. “The dialogue is sharp, the story’s involving, the characters are real.” Jake nearly killed himself in order to write those words, but they have a lot of weight and texture to them. They are true art.
To be clear, Ben quickly qualifies this by assuring Jake that those words were always “somewhere inside.” Similarly, The Visitor suggested that Jake was always going to write Anselm. However, given how autobiographical the novel is hinted to be – with Jake describing it as a story where “main character’s mother dies” and Ben identifying with the father – even The Visitor seems to suggest that Jake’s talent is borne of trauma. Jake was always going to be a suffering artist, even if the form of that suffering were to change.
The “suffering artist” stereotype reaches deep. It also informs associations between mental illness and creativity, with many narratives suggesting that truly creative individuals must wrestle with deep-seated personal demons and that their gifts are directly related to their mental health issues. Deborah Smith Bailey has written about the so-called “Sylvia Plath effect”:
Popular culture has long stereotyped poets as depressed and creative scientists as mad. In fact, the idea of a link between creativity and mental illness goes back to the time of Aristotle, when he wrote that eminent philosophers, politicians, poets and artists all have tendencies toward “melancholia.”
Indeed, there are numerous examples of famous creators–writers like Virginia Woolf, painters like Vincent Van Gogh, composers like Robert Schumann–who have been highly successful but had or are suspected to have had a mental illness.
It is a recurring motif in stories about creative genius. “Great wits are sure to madness near allied, and thin partitions do their bounds divide,” argued poet and critic John Dryden. This is apparent in films like A Beautiful Mind. (Indeed, it is easy enough to make a leap from this portrayal of mental illness as manic creativity to the anti-psychiatric rhetoric of stories like In the Forest of the Night; if genius is madness, medication smothers genius.)
Discussing the portrayal of the Brontes in Devotion, critic and essayist Robert Gottleib argues that the stereotype of the tormented and suffering writer has only increased in popularity since the nineteenth century, treating it as a necessary evil in this kind of storytelling:
Its roots, of course, lie further back, in the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century – the idea of a pre-Romantic Haydn or Fielding (or Shakespeare or Austen) subscribing to it is preposterous. But Hollywood has to adhere to this approach if it’s going to make this kind of movie.
As such, it feels fitting that The Muse feels almost like an eighteenth century ghost story. Onaya is cast in a role similar to the Irish “Leanan Sidhe” (or “faery lover”), a creative muse attaching herself to a young male artist like a literary succubus.
The result is a terrible mess of an episode that feels like the height of folly; a male writing staff constructing a story about a sexy alien muse who feeds off his creativity while enabling a work of creative genius. It is ridiculous, and not necessarily in a good way. It is indulgent and absurd, but in a surprisingly dull manner. An episode about about a sexy space vampire feeding off Jake Sisko’s creativity should be the height of camp excess. There are shades of this – again, Onaya’s quarters! – but not nearly as much as the story needs.
That said, Onaya is an interesting character in many respects, because she feels like a character who might have appeared in an episode of the classic Star Trek during the “gothic space horror” sections of its early first and late second season. She is a space vampire in the same style as the creature from The Man Trap and the cloud from Obsession, to the point that it is surprising that her arrival is not met with a ghostly theremin wail. (That said, the special effect shot of her abducting Jake from Sickbay is very old school.)
In many ways, Deep Space Nine is the spin-off with the richest thematic connections to the original Star Trek. (Give or take the fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise.) This is most obvious in terms of continuity, with three most memorable Klingons from the original Star Trek reuniting in Blood Oath and the show visiting the mirror universe in Crossover. However, Deep Space Nine also shares a sense of tone and mood with the original Star Trek, with D.C. Fontana writing Dax and episodes like The Maquis, Part II building off the cynicism of Gene L. Coon.
As such, it is surprising that the fourth season of Deep Space Nine fumbles the ball so completely when it comes to the two episodes more consciously anchored in the original Star Trek. Although Through the Looking Glass and Shattered Mirror transitioned the mirror universe away from the version seen in Mirror, Mirror and Crossover, it remains one of the most striking pieces of the classic show’s iconography. In theory, The Muse is a Lovecraftian space vampire story that would feel right at home on the classic Star Trek.
It seems strange that the spin-off with the richest and strongest connections to the original Star Trek should have such difficulty executing ideas that should play as homages to the classic show. Then again, the fifth season will attempt to emulate the playful sexuality of the original Star Trek in Let He Who Is Without Sin…, with even worse results. However, even if none of these episodes really work, it is a nice touch that they all aired in 1996; an awkward thematic celebration of the franchise’s thirtieth anniversary.
It is no small irony that Shattered Mirror and The Muse arrived sandwiched between some of Star Trek: Voyager‘s own stylistic homages to the original Star Trek. While Innocence is not a masterpiece, it does capture the goofy plotting of the classic Star Trek better than Shattered Mirror or The Muse. More than that, The Thaw ranks as one of the best episodes of Voyager‘s troubled second season, if not the show as a whole. It is odd to see Deep Space Nine and Voyager overlapping so clearly at the same moment, with Voyager outperforming its sibling.
Given that Voyager is so often (and generally quite accurately) described as a spiritual successor to The Next Generation, it is strange that it should do a better job of capturing the aesthetic of the original Star Trek at this moment in time. Of course, the moment would not last long. When it came time to actually stage an official tribute to the classic Star Trek show, Deep Space Nine would stage an elaborate and affectionate homage with Trials and Tribble-ations while Voyager would offer the rather limp Flashback.
To be fair, the “sexy space vampire!” plot was not originally envisaged as the a-plot of the episode that would become The Muse. While Shattered Mirror had seen the production team fighting off late season fatigue by indulging in some self-described “fun”, The Muse was very much the opposite side of the coin. The development and breaking of the story was a long and arduous process, draining for all involved. Ironically, the production of The Muse makes a better case for the difficulty of writing than the episode itself.
According to the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, the writing staff took almost a week to properly break:
“We usually break a story in two days,” adds Behr. “A really tough show will take three days, and that’s a really tough show. This one took at least five days, maybe six. It was the toughest story break of the year.”
During that time, the emphasis changed. The original a-plot had been the story focusing on Lwaxana.
This is a shame. The Lwaxana story has some serious flaws. On its own terms, it would easily be one of the weaker stories of the season, rife with the sort of logical and plotting holes that hobbled Rules of Engagement. However, it also has a lot more heart and focus than the storyline centred around Jake. Lwaxana has worked much better with Odo than she did on The Next Generation, with Majel Barrett Roddenberry playing quite well off Rene Auberjonois in her three appearances on the series.
Of course, the actual logic driving the plot is somewhat questionable. Given that Cost of Living already did the whole “Lwaxana hooks up with a stuffy blowhard and culture clashes ensue” plot, it seems strange to return to it here. More to the point, the central character beat of Cost of Living was Lwaxana realising that she could not compromise her happiness for the stability of a relationship with a man like Campio. Having Lwaxana marry a grim misogynist like Jeyal.
To be fair, Echavarria’s script for The Muse manages a half-hearted handwave. “He had said it was going to be different with us because I wasn’t Tavnian,” Lwaxana assures Odo. This is not to suggest that Lwaxana is at all to blame for the situation in which she finds herself. Rather, it feels like some very clumsy and lazy plotting. Between Half a Life, Cost of Living and The Muse, it really feels like Lwaxana is beyond the point where she would marry into a culture with some beliefs that are offensive to her and simply hope for the best. The character should be past that.
Similarly, the insistence that Odo stage a Tavnian wedding in order to protect Lwaxana and her child is a transparent plot contrivance. After all, she certainly has grounds for political asylum within the Federation. Regardless of how culturally relative the Federation might be, there is still a man plotting to abduct Lwaxana’s child. What little we see of Tavnian culture is horrifying sexist and misogynistic. Part of the Tavnian wedding vow is, “I say for all to hear that this woman is mine. If anyone challenges my claim to her, let them do so now.” Women are chattel.
On the other hand, it could be argued that the decision to have Odo engage with Tavnian culture on its own terms reflects the cultural relativism at the heart of Deep Space Nine. More than any of its siblings, Deep Space Nine seems tolerant of other perspectives and cultures, even those repugnant or offensive. (The handling of the Ferengi is perhaps the most obvious example.) Sons of Mogh set a limit case for that tolerance, but perhaps The Muse offers a strong statement of that relativism.
However, all of this hinges on the awkward idea that Jeyal will play entirely fair, that he will accept Odo’s declaration of love rather than pragmatically employing his veto regardless of what Odo actually says or does. There is a weird idealism at work in The Muse; the implication is that Jeyal might be a misogynist, but he is a fair and unbiased misogynist. As with Shattered Mirror, there is a sense that the plot crumbles under too much (or any) scrutiny. But the plot is not the point here.
The point is the relationship between Odo and Lwaxana. In a way, Lwaxana Troi works better on Deep Space Nine than she did on The Next Generation. Part of this is down to the fact that she is more consistently characterised in her three appearances on Deep Space Nine than in her six appearances on The Next Generation. On Deep Space Nine, Lwaxana is never subjected to anything as mean-spirited as Haven or Manhunt, immediately softened in her first appearance in The Forsaken.
However, there is something more to it than that. Lwaxana is fundamentally a sad and lonely character. She is a widow whose daughter has left home and who is haunted by the loss of her eldest child. She might be ostentatious and loud, but those qualities serve to conceal a deep-seated anxiety and insecurity. Lwaxana is a character who doesn’t seem particularly at home with herself, which makes her an awkward fit in the smooth and professional working environment of The Next Generation.
In contrast, Deep Space Nine is populated with lonely outcasts. Most obviously, Lwaxana gravitates towards Odo because he offers perhaps the sharpest contrast. However, Sisko is a widower who was considering washing out of Starfleet; Quark is a business failure running a bar surrounded by people who tolerate him at best; Worf has been cut off from his own people. That sense of loneliness and sadness runs through the supporting cast. Lwaxana might be a counterpart to Kor, for example, another older character grappling with his relevance.
It helps that the writers on Deep Space Nine have generally been quite even-handed in tackling Lwaxana. She is still the same character that she was on The Next Generation, but the scripts seem less patronising and mean-spirited. The character is never subject to the humiliations imposed on her by the script to Manhunt, which seems to take offense at the idea of a sexually-active woman over the age of thirty. Instead, Lwaxana’s appearances on Deep Space Nine are tempered and reflective. They treat as a character rather than a punchline.
This is perhaps most obvious during her appearance in Fascination during the third season. It is an episode that might easily have reduced Lwaxana to a punchline, with her emotions projected on to the rest of the show’s ensemble. However, the script makes a point to allow Lwaxana her dignity. The final act reveals that she traveled to the station for a very personal (and relatively selfless) reason, out of concern for Odo’s emotional well-being following the revelations in The Search, Part II.
The relationship between Odo and Lwaxana affords the character an honesty and maturity that was lacking in her earlier appearances, making her seem more like a real person than a walking stereotype. When she asks about the state of Odo’s relationship with Kira, she acknowledges her past behaviour, sincerely promising, “Are you over her? Don’t worry, I’m not going to throw myself at you if you say yes.” The episode captures her sense of loneliness, allowing her to acknowledge that she lied about her broken replicator so she wouldn’t have to be alone.
The Muse is quite candid about Lwaxana, which makes it seem like an appropriate place to leave her. It quietly weaves together the various strands of continuity into something resembling a thesis on the character. “Kestra was six years old when she died,” she explains to Odo. “My sweet little girl. I lost my parents, a sister, a husband.” More than that, it brings her relationship like Odo a full circle, a recurring motif of the fourth season. The two end up back where they started, positions reversed.
“How are you feeling now?” Odo asks. Referencing their time in the turbolift, Lwaxana responds, “Like a changeling who’s had to hold his shape too long.” While The Forsaken found Odo forced to regenerate in the folds of Lwaxana’s dress, The Muse finds Lwaxana falling asleep in Odo’s lap. There is something very sincere and well-earned about this. The interactions between the two are charming, easily the best part of the episode. Auberjonois is one of the strongest members of the ensemble, and he does well with the quieter plot.
Still, the plot hits a bit of a speed bump when it comes to Odo delivering his vows to Lwaxana. It feels like a moment from a Richard Curtis film, and one completely at odds with the low-key nature of their mutual affection for one another. There is a lot of drama to be mined from forcing a character as repressed and as internalised as Odo to verbally and publicly profess his love, but there is simply not enough room for The Muse to explore than angle. Instead, it feels almost like Odo and Lwaxana should be running to a runabout labelled “JUST MARRIED.”
The Muse si a disjointed mess of an episode. It is probably the weakest episode of the season. As with Shattered Mirror, there is a sense that the fourth season got off relatively lightly; it is no Profit and Lace. But that doesn’t mean it is any good.