It would be tempting to treat Let He Who Is Without Sin… as an anomaly.
After all, it is very much the worst episode of the fifth season. There is a very strong argument to be made that it is the worst episode between Meridian and Profit and Lace, which makes it easier to forgive. After all, it is not as though Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has been regularly churning out episodes like Twisted, Tattoo, Alliances, Threshold and Investigations. The second worst episode of the fifth season is The Assignment, and the biggest problem with that episode is that it is both painful generic and ground zero for a set of major future problems.
Still, it is important not to gloss over just how terrible Let He Who Is Without Sin… actually is and the very specific ways in which it is terrible. While these sorts of misfires are quite rare in the context of the series’ fourth and fifth seasons, Let He Who Is Without Sin… is not a fluke. The episode did not materialise from nowhere. It is very much the result of a number of creative impulses within Deep Space Nine firing in the worst possible ways. Unlike The Assignment, this episode does not fail because the concept and execution is an awkward fit for Deep Space Nine.
Let Who Is Without Sin… fails in ways that are very specifically tied to Deep Space Nine.
The Star Trek franchise does not handle sex very well. It is a minor miracle that Looking for Par’Mach In All the Wrong Places works as well as it does, very much the exception that proves the rule. Star Trek: The Next Generation was typically cringe-inducing whenever the subject of human sexuality came up, as it did in stories like The Naked Now or Up the Long Ladder. Luckily, that series seemed to learn its lesson quite well. In general, The Next Generation steered clear of stories about sex after its first two seasons. That was for the best.
Deep Space Nine refused to learn this particular lesson. In the series’ early seasons, every reference to the holosuites as makeshift brothels was deeply uncomfortably. However, the show continued to make jokes about Quark sexually harassing his female staff members. More than that, it dedicated an entire subplot in Meridian to a creepy guest star who wanted to create a holographic version of Kira for his own devices. Even this misfire was not enough to scare the production team away from such plots; Profit and Lace and The Emperor’s New Cloak still await.
To be fair, this stubborn refusal to acknowledge the awfulness of these particular plots, and to devote energy to make them work, is very much a reflection of the ethos on Deep Space Nine. More than any other Star Trek show, the writers on Deep Space Nine are very persistant. Upon finding an element that is not working, the Deep Space Nine writers rarely abandon it completely. Instead, they will often try to tinker with the concept in a way that would make it work, arguing that a solid underlying concept is strong enough to justify multiple returns to a particular well.
This applies across the series. For example, a lot of the strengths in the fourth and fifth seasons are rooted in the failures of the third season. Whereas the third season positions The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II as a new pilot for the show, The Way of the Warrior pushes that concept even further. While the third season struggles to present the Dominion as an ever-present threat, the fourth and fifth seasons do a much better job at building continuity. The successes of Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast are baked earlier into the seasons that follow.
It even applies to particular characters. Bashir and Dax were very much problem characters in the early seasons of Deep Space Nine. Other Star Trek shows would respond to these challenges by abandoing these difficult characters to focus on the members of the ensemble who had broken out. The studio even suggested killing off the character of Bashir, because audiences hated him. Instead, Deep Space Nine spent more time with these characters. Early results included fiascos like Meridian or Distant Voices. However, this led to episodes like Rejoined and Our Man Bashir.
Deep Space Nine does not know when to give up on something that it wants to do. In many causes, this is a good thing. Star Trek: Voyager was a show hobbled by its own fear of failure, so profoundly embarrassed by a few early missteps that it vowed never to try anything ambitious again. When Voyager‘s experiments with long-form storytelling and character development (and universe building) all collapsed spectacularly duirng the second season, the production team settled comfortably into the pattern of producing generic Star Trek shows.
In most cases, it is to the credit of the Deep Space Nine writers that they never gave up on a particular idea. However, the production team sometimes picked the wrongs hills upon which to die. Trying to produce a “sexy” version of Star Trek was perhaps the most cringe-inducing of these hills, leading to fiascos like the later mirror universe episodes where every major female character is bisexual or a lesbian for reasons. Trying to construct stories about sexuality is another example. Perhaps Deep Space Nine should stay away from sex in general.
There are occasional examples where this approach does work. Looking for Par’Mach in All the Wrong Places is perhaps the best handling of sex in the entire Star Trek franchise, and it still feels like an awkward teenager, albeit one that manages to avoid saying anything too embarrassing. Rejoined is the best portrayal of homosexuality in the franchise until Star Trek Beyond, by virtue of being one of very few positive examples. These are successes, but qualified successes. They are not enough to support the repeated failures and embarrassments.
There are a number of examples why Star Trek does not handle sex particularly well. Some of those issues are outside the control of the production team, owing to the fact that Deep Space Nine is a product of mid-nineties syndicated American television. There are certain restrictions and limitations imposed in what can or rannot be shown. While working on Star Trek: Discovery, producer Bryan Fuller was happy to be free of those restrictions:
Because we’re CBS All Access, we’re not subject to network broadcast standards and practices. It will likely affect us more in terms of what we can do graphically, but Star Trek’s not necessarily a universe where I want to hear a lot of profanity, either.
While it is highly debatable whether Fuller should push the boundaries in terms of graphic violence on a Star Trek show, it is great to hear that Fuller will be featuring characters who are not heterosexual. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of Fuller’s work on the network television show Hannibal was in managing to get an explicitly lesbian sex scene past the network censors.
Of course, the fact that Fuller has managed to get queer content and sexual representation onto network television suggests that Star Trek‘s issues with sexuality are not purely down to its status as a syndicated nineties television series. After all, there are points in the fifth season of Deep Space Nine where the show pushes the boundaries of good taste in terms of violence or story content; even focusing on Fuller’s contributions, it is tough to argue that the Darkness and the Light or Empok Nor are exactly safe “family” viewing.
The truth is that blaming contemporary American television for the lack of queer representation on Star Trek is something of a red herring. After all, massively popular television shows like Friends had featured prominently gay characters for years. Will and Grace was only a few years away from broadcast. There is a sense that American television in the mid-nineties was more comfortable with the discussion of certain aspects of sexuality than Star Trek itself.
Ronald D. Moore would famously acknowledge that the only reason that Star Trek never featured gay characters was because the powers that be did not want any. Bryan Fuller revealed that there had been discussions about featuring gay characters as the godparents to Naomi Wildman on Voyager, but that the plans reduced the characters to crude stereotypes. Reflecting on this shadow cast over the franchise’s legacy, Brannon Braga hopes the producers would make a different decision now.
This is to say nothing of the juvenile teenage boy portrayals of bisexuality and homosexuality in mirror universe episodes like The Emperor’s New Cloak or the creepy voyeuristic fixation on putting the cast of Star Trek: Enterprise in their underwear for episodes like Broken Bow, Sleeping Dogs and Acquisition. The truth is that Star Trek itself was simply not in a position where it was comfortable talking about (or dealing with) sex. While there were broader issues with the handling of sex on nineties television, Star Trek had its own problems.
If the franchise struggled with concepts as (relatively) straightforward as homosexuality or bisexuality, how could it really hope to deal with the more complicated and intertwined issues of sexuality that would be necessary for a story like Let He Who Is Without Sin… to work. In the twenty-fourth century, are humans more willing to accept polyamourous relationships? Do they treat the act of sex as something that can exist distinct from traditional romantic relationships? Is asexuality accepted as an orientation?
That reluctance to talk about sex and sexuality is evident in the episode’s teaser. When Dax shows up for coffee with Sisko and Odo, she is bruised and strained. It is quite clear that she has been injured while having sex with Worf. In order to avoid the abusive undertones of this revelation, the script takes pains to reveal that Dax gives as good as she gets. “I believe Commander Dax has been treated for seven muscle pulls, two contusions, and three cracked ribs,” reports Odo. “The only person who’s spent more time in the Infirmary in the past few weeks is Commander Worf.”
When Sisko decides to talk about this with Dax, he rather delicately dances around the point. “Isn’t there any way the two of you could… you know…?” he asks. Dax has to complete the question for him, offering, “Make love?” Sisko doesn’t accept the suggestion and just finishes his thought, “… without injuring yourselves?” This is how awkward Star Trek is with the concept of sexuality. The lead character on Deep Space Nine cannot even acknowledge casually that two other leads “have sex” in the way that adults would while making conversation.
The truth is that Star Trek could be incredibly conservative with regards to extrapolating or exploring big ideas about the human condition beyond the twentieth century. After all, the franchise tended to treat cloning or genetic engineering as truly monstrous in episodes like Space Seed or Unnatural Selection, without actually considering or exploring the implications of a given idea. The franchise has historically been deeply troubled by the idea of artificial intelligence, with characters like Data and the EMH existing as exceptions to that particular rule.
To be fair, Star Trek has never really been about the future. It is very much a mirror to contemporary society framed through a science-fiction premise. However, even that reflection of contemporary society tends to feel retrograde and regressive. This is somewhat ironic for a television show that has historically placed so much emphasis on being progressive and forward-thinking. With all of this in mind, there was never any way that Let He Who Is Without Sin… could have been anything but an unmitigated disaster. And Deep Space Nine still pressed ahead.
Let He Who Is Without Sin… finds several members of the primary and recurring cast making their way to Risa, including Bashir, Quark and Leeta. However, the bulk of the story centres upon Worf and Dax, who are taking their first vacation together after hooking up in Looking for Par’Mach in All the Wrong Places. Worf is initially reluctant to make the trip to Risa, and with good reason. When he arrives on the pleasure planet, he finds himself confronted by all sorts of moral decay.
Ira Steven Behr has singled out Let He Who Is Without Sin… as an episode upon which he would like to call a mulligan, arguing that it was originally intended to explore the sexual mores of the Star Trek universe:
On a TV schedule there’s always room for improvement. But if I had to choose one, it would have to be Let He Who is Without Sin. It was supposed to be a show that looked at 24th Century morals and sexuality. We pretty much failed on both counts.
Of course, it should be noted that Risa hardly has the strongest track record when it comes to Star Trek episodes. Behr even provided the script to Captain’s Holiday. So it is not as if the writers were unaware of the challenges.
There are a number of glaring problems with the very premise of the episode. The most obvious is that the sexual liberation on Risa is presented in the most ridiculously juvenile manner possible. The cast try their hardest, but there is no getting around the fact that the sexual liberation in Let He Who Is Without Sin… feels like it was conceived by a twelve-year-old boy. Leeta flirting with a masseuse, explaining the intricacies of Dabo. “You need a very supple wrist. Like this…” Chase Masterson really tries, but there’s no way to make Leeta exclaiming “dabo!” sexy.
In Let He Who Is Without Sin…, sex looks… weird. A woman in an open white shirt conveniently concealing her breasts, suggestively holding hands with a male masseuse. Two women sculpting clay together in a form that might possibly be construed as abstractly phallic. Two bikini-clad models offering themselves up to a big-earred troll because he happens to be carrying the right ornaments. Lots of swimsuits, but not particularly revealing swimsuits. some flesh on display, but primarily from the female characters.
Perhaps the best example of the show’s juvenile attitude toward sex and sexuality comes when Arandis reveals the particulars of how Curzon Dax died. “We had a wonderful time together, until I killed him,” Arandis states. When Worf is shocked, Arandis explains, “Death by jamaharon. I suppose there are worse ways to go.” That is very much a teenage virgin’s attitude towards a sexual paradise. In fact, the snickering can almost be heard in the finished episode. Imagine being sexed to death by Vanessa Williams! That would be awesome!
Of course, even a half a second of thought reveals just how nonsensical that premise must be. Surely dying during sex would be really uncomfortable for the other party? More than that, it has to create quite the mess? No matter how much people are enjoying it, those last few seconds must be super awkward? Even if all of that is brushed aside, would the person responable for sexing you to death talk about it so flippantly? No matter how matter-of-fact the Risans might be, surely there’s a more appropriate euphimism that could be used in place of “killed.”
At best, Let He Who Is Without Sin… offers a version of sex and sexuality lifted from a particularly bland eighties music videos. At worst, it feels positively exploitative. When Rejoined offered a homosexual relationship between Jadzia Dax and Lenara Kahn, the episode was careful to avoid the more salacious overtones of the nineties “lesbian kiss episode” in favour of a more romantic approach. When Let He Who Is Without Sin… broaches the topic of a romantic or sexual relationship between Jadzia and Arandia, it practically lears at them.
For all that Let He Who Is Without Sin… half-heartedly suggests an open-minded attitude towards sex and sexuality, it is still extremely salacious in its handling of a potential rekindling of the romance between the Dax symbiote and Arandia. Arandia is presented as a threat to the relationship between Jadzia and Worf, the predatory bisexual with no respect for the boundaries of traditional heteronormative entanglements. There is a sense that Worf is in someway justified in his paranoia, with the narrative ultimately excusing his mistrust of Jadzia and Arandia.
This is the fundamental problem with Let He Is Without Sin…, beneath all the cringy teenage attitudes towards sex and sexuality. There is a sense that Deep Space Nine in someways agrees with Worf’s conservative attitudes towards sexual expression and that it in some small manner endorses the fire-and-brimstone politics of Pascal Fullerton. There is a sense that Deep Space Nine‘s skepticism of the utopian underpinnings of the Star Trek universe leans more towards the hateful paranoia of the New Essentialists than the goofy open-mindedness of the Risians.
Deep Space Nine is a show that is willing to embrace flawed characters. All of the protagonists on Deep Space Nine are broken in some fundamental way. It is difficult to imagine any other Star Trek show having a character labelled a coward like Jake Sisko was in … Nor the Battle to the Strong or having a lead character advocate for drug-addicted slavery like Miles O’Brien does in Hippocratic Oath. Worf is a great example of this. Along with Odo, Worf is perhaps the most fundamentally broken character on Deep Space Nine, the one the writers will push farthest.
Worf has always been presented as a controversial character. While The Next Generation was a deeply humanist television show, Worf was often presented as less progressive and open-minded than his colleagues. His arguments with Jadzia in Let He Is Without Sin… are very much an extension of the arguments that he had with K’Ehleyr in The Emissary, demanding an unhealthy amount of control over his lover. Similarly, Worf has a history of making decisions that challenged Picard’s idealism; letting the Romulan die in The Enemy, resigning in Redemption, Part I.
However, Deep Space Nine has made a point to push Worf even further. While working on The Next Generation, Ronald D. Moore famously complained that Rick Berman would not allow Worf to murder Toral in cold blood at the end of Redemption, Part II. It seems highly unlikely that Ira Steven Behr would impose the same restrictions upon Worf’s characterisation. Worf was willing to kill his own brother in Sons of Mogh. Worf was accused of uncontrollable (and downright risky) bloodlust in Rules of Engagement.
It is tempting to wonder whether these choices in characterisation were themselves an act of rebellion against The Next Generation. In many ways, Deep Space Nine defined itself as the rebellious Star Trek show. What could be more provocative than taking a beloved character from a more popular show and emphasising his least likable attributes? Worf’s characterisation on Deep Space Nine was generally interesting in its own right and consistent with what come before, but it was also very clearly amplified.
(In that regard, it is worth noting that the only member of the main cast more deeply flawed and prone to errors in moral judgment was Odo, as episodes like Things Past, Children of Time and Behind the Lines will demonstrate. In some small way, perhaps this was also a way for Deep Space Nine to tweak the noses of the other Star Trek shows. While Worf was a character who had literally appeared in another Star Trek series, Odo was the most archetypal member of the primary ensemble. Odo’s characterisation was a subversion of beloved characters like Spock or Data.)
However, there comes a point where this characterisation of Worf just goes too far. Let He Who Is Without Sin… picks up the ball from Sons of Mogh and Rules of Engagement, carries it over the line, and then proceeds to lap the pitch a couple of times to be sure. In Let He Who Is Without Sin…, Worf becomes a reactionary bigot and a super creepy boyfriend. He refuses to trust Jadzia and insists on trying to control her. He is especially creeped out when she starts hanging out with a sexy woman.
This would be a problem by itself. While it makes sense that Worf would have a rather conservative outlook on life, emphasising that aspect of his personality in this episode suggests just incompatible Worf and Dax might be together. Worf seems almost like an abusive spouse, lecturing Dax as if she were a petulant child. When Dax announces her plans to have “a big glass of icoberry juice”, Worf responds, “That is a mistake. You are allergic to icoberry juice. It makes your spots itch.”
The story seems to be leading to a point where Worf confronts his own issues and works through them. Dax should rightly recognise that Worf is not mature enough to have the kind of relationship that she needs, unable to offer even the most superficial amount of trust. However, Deep Space Nine refuses to make that concession. Instead, the episode bends over backwards to remain sympathetic to Worf. The script has Jadzia eventually acknowledge Worf’s concerns and tries to make the audience empathise with its lead character.
This leads to a scene that almost plays as a parody of Deep Space Nine‘s grim aesthetic. When Jadzia confronts Worf about his controlling tendencies, he recounts a story about how, as a child, he played soccer with a young boy named Mikel. “Our heads had collided when we both went up for the ball. I had not feel the impact, but I had broken his neck, and he died the next day.” It is worth pausing to unpack that. Deep Space Nine is a show that is very fond of broken and misfit heroes, but Let He Is Without Sin… retroactively inserts the death of a child into Worf’s backstory.
It is an absurd moment, for any number of reasons. Most obviously, it feels like the strangest and most left-field addition to a character’s childhood imaginable. Beyond that, it seems strange that neither Worf nor anybody else has ever mentioned this before. It seems strange that the writing staff were sitting around breaking the episode and decided “… what if Worf killed a kid?” was the next logical plot point in an episode about a trip to a twenty-fourth century sextopia.
This is astonishingly lazy writing, but it is not out of character for Deep Space Nine. After all, the fifth season is packed to the brim with revisions and reworkings of character backstory for the primary cast. Odo’s integrity is thrown into doubt with Things Past. Garak’s secret father is exposed in By Inferno’s Flame. Bashir’s history as a medical prodigy is thrown under the bus in Doctor Bashir, I Presume. Kira’s deepseated daddy issues are laid bare in Ties of Blood and Water.
All of these ideas work much better than the retroactive back story in Let He is Without Sin…, but they speak to the same basic impulses. This is not an abherration. This is how Deep Space Nine approaches characterisation. It just so happens that Let He Is Without Sin… miscalculates ever so slightly and slips into self-parody. When critics and fans refer to Deep Space Nine as a television series focused too heavily on darkness and cynicism in a desperate attempt to seem edgy and mature, this is the kind of storytelling to what they are referring.
However, there is also something deeply cynical about the scene even beyond the desire to make Worf even more broken. It is rather transparently an attempt by the writing staff to avoid any lasting consequences of their decisions regarding his character. The audience (and Jadzia) are allowed to be horrified at his reactionary behaviour, but then this back story allows the show (and Jadzia) to let him off the hook. It is an attempt by the writers to have their cake and eat it, like the decision to paint Worf as reckless in Rules of Engagement before revealing he was framed.
It is also an example of extremely reductive pseudo-Freudian psychology, one that undercuts a lot of what makes Worf so intriguing as a character. Worf is generally quite nuanced and multifaceted as primary characters of Star Trek go; the beautiful irony that he is at once more and less Klingon than most Klingons, for example. However, Let He Is Without Sin… reduces Worf’s restraint and anxiety down to a single tidy narrative involving a dead kid. It is extremely lazy storytelling that diminishes the character.
Of course, Let He Is Without Sin… desperately needs an excuse to let Worf off the hook. This is the episode in which Worf becomes a terrorist. He sabotages the weather system on Risa in order to help Pascal Fullerton make a point about the decadance on the planet. (The point would appear to be that people don’t like rain when they are on vacation… or something.) Fullerton proudly boasts that the Risians would never press charges, which makes a certain amount of sense. Nevertheless, Worf still sabotages a vital system on a Federation (or allied) world.
There should be consequences. There need to be consequences. This is a man whose official duties involve the tactical coordination of Starfleet operations in a strategically vital sector, and who is second in command of the first warship to be commissioned by Starfleet. There is absolutely no way that Sisko should allow Worf anything resembling that trust and authority if he is willing to sabotage an entire planet’s environment because he was having a crappy holiday. Even if Dax and the Risians will never mention it, one imagines Quark would complain.
However, Worf is let off the hook because he has a sad story. However, there is more to it than that. Watching Let He Who Is Without Sin…, there is an uncomfortable sense that Deep Space Nine is at least a little bit sympathetic towards Worf and Fullerton. After all, Fullerton frames his critique of Risa in terms of a broader criticism of the Federation’s utopianism. “For some reason, the citizens of the Federation have come to believe that they are entitled to lives of ease and privilege,” he complains.
Fullerton proceeds to rattle off a standard list of complaints that are frequently labelled at the utopianism of Star Trek. He states, “If you want something to eat, you get it from a replicator. If you want amusement, you go to a holosuite.” These are not criticisms that make a lot of sense within the narrative of Star Trek, but they are valid criticisms of the utopia portrayed on screen. After all, is it really that big a deal to suggest humans could live peacefully and happily in a society where every material need was met?
This is a valid criticism in the context of discussing Star Trek, given that the franchise’s utopian idealism seems built upon a number of assumptions that would render it largely moot; what good is it to suggest that mankind can conquer their demons using technology that is all but magic? However, it makes less sense to criticise it within the universe; if a replicator exists, why the hell wouldn’t anybody use it? Fullerton’s criticisms of the Federation make little sense in the context of the world that exists, but they make sense from outside that world.
Indeed, Deep Space Nine seems to largely agree with Fullerton’s points. This is the Star Trek series that dedicates so much time and energy to chipping away at the utopian idealism of the franchise, daring to ask what happens if remove some of the underlying assumptions of the Star Trek universe? In fact, Let He Is Without Sin… suggests that Fullerton is more correct than he could possibly know. “Someday, someday soon, you’re going to have to learn to take care of yourselves.” Given that the writers are pushing the show towards war, Fullerton is not wrong.
The episode even seems to suggest as much. Apparently a couple of days of rain is enough to reduce a sexually liberated paradise to the most depressing planet in the universe. If Risians cannot have sex outdoors in tropical surroundings like nature (or the designers of the weather grid) intended, then their spirits are broken. Let He Is Without Sin… gives Fullerton far too much credit. Arandis actually reflects, “Maybe Mister Fullerton is right. Maybe we have forgotten how to deal with adversity.”
This puts Let He Is Without Sin… in the awkward position of half-heartedly agreeing with a reactionary bigot. The show’s philosophy lines up loosely with that of the New Essentialists, which makes it deeply uncomfortable when Fullerton chooses to make a sexually liberal community the target of his ire. Is Deep Space Nine suggesting that Fullerton’s social views have some legitimacy, given that his political views seem more finely attuned than some of the lead characters? Given that the difficulties the show has expressing that sexual liberation, it is fair to ask.
Allowing Worf to walk away from all this without any consequences suggests that there is some legitimacy to his decision. After all, it is Worf who has the whole idea of sabotaging the weather grid in the first place. Without his input, Fullerton would have simply remained a crazy person shouting at the locals. More than that, Worf makes a point to leave Fullerton in control of the weather grid. It is a reckless decision that could have potentially horrifying consequences. After all, Fullerton has hardly shown himself to be the most level-headed of individuals.
(There is something almost amusing in how Fullerton’s defeatist attitude. He spends a lot of time complaining about the crappy ineffectiveness of his activism. When his sidekick credits him on a lavish stunt, Fullerton dismisses it, “It’ll be forgotten by tomorrow.” When his sabotaging of the weather grid works better, he concedes, “By tomorrow, the weather grid will be restored to normal and no one here will remember this ever happened. But I intend to send a message they won’t forget.” He hardly makes the most imposing or convincing antagonist.)
Still, Worf is never taken to task for anything that happens over the course the of the episode. Worf gets a sterner dressing down about his lack of respect for Federation values in both Sons of Mogh and Rules of Engagement, whereas Let He Is Without Sin… treats his decision to mess with the ecology of an entire planet as nothing more than a sulk. When Fullerton tries to push the threat a little further, Worf responds by beating him up and all is forgiven. It feels almost like Deep Space Nine is reluctant to punish Worf.
Let He Is Without Sin… is a spectacular disaster. However, it is tempting to treat it as a freak occurance, something out of character for Deep Space Nine. The truth is that the episode is very much the result of a number of tendencies within Deep Space Nine pushed past breaking point. More than that, it is a demonstration of lessons that the series will steadfast refuse to learn. Let He Is Without Sin… is comfortably the worst episode of the fifth season, but it also paves the way for the worst episodes of the sixth and seventh seasons to come.