Ties of Blood and Water is a phenomenal piece of television, and a great example of the strengths of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
It is an episode that is tied to the personal and the political, a thriller about great powers squaring off against one another set against the more intimate story of a woman nursing her surrogate father in the final hours of his life. Ties of Blood and Water is both intimate and epic, never sacrificing one for the other. Its larger political story beats feel entirely in keeping with the demands of the larger shared universe, but it never loses sight of the story’s emotional centre. There is a very personal aspect to this tale, one firmly grounded in the characters and their relationships.
Ties of Blood and Water focuses on Tekeny Ghemor, the Cardassian Legate featured in Second Skin. There, he was convinced that Kira was his daughter who had been sent to infiltrate the Shakaar Resistance. In Ties of Blood and Water, Ghemor returns to the station as the relationship turns a full circle. In Second Skin, Kira Nerys had been a surrogate daughter to Ghemor, standing in for the lost Iliana. In Ties of Blood and Water, Ghemor finds himself cast as a surrogate father to Kira, providing her with a means to work through the loss of her biological father.
Ties of Blood and Water has a certain poetry to it, extending beyond the memorable title.
By and large, the Star Trek franchise suggests that history moves in a straight line from the past towards the future. Kirk and Picard both travel in ships that push the boundaries of the frontier, always pressing further outwards. Star Trek: Voyager embraces this idea literally and figuratively, literally in the straight line of its journey home and figuratively in its fixation up the existence of a pre-determined and stable future. Even Star Trek: Enterprise positions itself as a straight line connecting Star Trek: First Contact to the rest of the franchise.
In contrast, Deep Space Nine eschews this approach to history. It acknowledges the idea of progress and growth, but does not accept them as inevitable. Deep Space Nine is a show that seems sceptical of the institutions that claim to guide civilisation into the future; as a result, those organisations frequently falter and slip. Tragedies repeat and ironies abound. The Klingon Empire and the Federation go to war in The Way of the Warrior, only to end up at peace again in By Inferno’s Light. Cardassia is a dictatorship, then a failed democracy, then a dictatorship again.
As the old saying goes, God does not build in straight lines. Nor does history move in them. As David Remnick reflected in a profile of Barack Obama following the election of Donald Trump, “History does not move in straight lines; sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it goes backward.” This is particularly apparent in the second decade of the twenty-first century, when it seems like a resurgent nationalist sentiment has committed itself to rolling back the clock on more than a half-a-century of hard-fought progress on civil rights and globalisation.
It would be comforting to believe that history moves in straight lines, that each generation moves a little closer towards a more equitable and more accepting future. It would be reassuring to believe that the future is a promise that will always be there and will always be better than today. In some respects, it speaks to the optimism of Star Trek as a franchise that the series tends to embrace this idea uncritically and unwaveringly. This is just one more thing that makes Deep Space Nine seem unique in the larger context of the franchise.
The truth is that progress is not inevitable, that history does not have a clear direction, that progress is not inevitable. Deep Space Nine embraces this idea, by forcing characters and governments to repeat themselves, trapping entire worlds in dangerous patterns of behaviour as if to demonstrate that peace and prosperity are not assured. Even when change does occur, Deep Space Nine insists upon contextualising it as part of a large narrative or cycle. Mark Twain may not have actually said it, but Deep Space Nine clearly believes that history rhymes.
That sense of history rhyming plays out across the seven years of the show, from Emissary to What You Leave Behind. However, it is a very strong theme in the fifth season as a whole. The fifth season works very hard to reverse a number of big decisions taken in earlier years; Odo becomes a changeling again in The Begotten, Quark gets his trade license back in Ferengi Love Songs, the war with the Klingons ends in Apocalypse Rising. Episodes like Things Past and The Darkness and the Light keep the memory of the Occupation fresh, for it to return in A Call to Arms.
Deep Space Nine is a show that does not believe that history is teleological. It stands in sharp contrast to Voyager, which embraces a very nineties view of historical inevitability that is influenced by Francis Fukuyama’s perspective on the end of the Cold War. This is perhaps another reason why Deep Space Nine has aged well. It does not buy into that comforting idea that utopia is the logical and inevitable outcome of history or that all civilisations and individuals are moving forward in a singular unified direction.
This perspective seemed a little contrarian in the context of the nineties, after the United States had vanquished the Soviet Union to close the twentieth century as the single global superpower. People living through the nineties understandably saw history as have a clear forward march towards a more stable and enlightened future. After all, one of the biggest horrors of the War on Terror was existential, the shattering of this idea about the triumph of western liberal democracy.
That was just the beginning. Donald Trump ascended to the United States presidency on a platform of xenophobic nostalgia, setting back the clock on gains in feminism and civil rights. Boris Johnson led a campaign to convince Britain to depart the European Union, rolling back decades of globalism. As Timothy Stanley and Alexander Lee argued, a progressive view of history is hard to justify in the twenty-first century:
It was the great liberal philosopher Karl Popper who first exposed the weaknesses of historicism as a mode of political justification in his devastating critique of Marxist and fascist determinism. It is ironic that his arguments now apply to the liberalism he sought to defend. Following Popper’s argument, it’s easy to see at least two fundamental logical problems with the historicist approach to liberalism. First is the claim that anyone in the past who expressed any degree of egalitarianism or concern for individual conscience is a liberal. The idea that there is a straight line of human progress that leads from Saint Paul through Luther, the Philosophes, and Lloyd George to Jack Kennedy is patently absurd: They all had different definitions of freedom and what it ought to accomplish. Second, the idea that there is a “historical law” guiding the development of societies is fanciful. Even if there were some weird sort of pattern which suggested that “liberal” ideas did indeed “win out” in the past, it wouldn’t be anything more than a mere curiosity. It wouldn’t prove anything about liberalism in itself, nor would it say anything about the future. It would just tell us what happened before. To read meaning or predictive power into any pattern in the past is, in fact, about as intellectually respectable as reading tea leaves.
History is very much an area of interest for writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe, who contributed the teleplay for Ties of Blood and Water. Wolfe frequently cites historical influences for his work on Deep Space Nine, filtering Crossover through the lens of the collapse of the Roman Empire and citing Weimar Germany as a major influence on his approach to Cardassia in By Inferno’s Light.
Ties of Blood and Water plays with the idea of history recurring and rhyming on several levels, both epic and intimate. Ties of Blood and Water is the first episode since By Inferno’s Light to deal with Cardassia’s membership of the Dominion. It marks Dukat’s first appearance since the mid-season two-parter. Dukat has appointed himself head of the Cardassian government and reverted his old ways. It is a dramatic change to Cardassia’s political power structures. Following the destruction of the Obsidian Order in The Die is Cast, the Union has embraced democracy.
As such, Dukat’s ascent represents a reversion and a reversal. The Dominion might be a new player on the scene, but the status quo is familiar. Dukat has restored things back to the way he believes that they are, his ideal Cardassia presented as a fragment of history cycling back into the present. Indeed, as Sisko points out, there is a rather pointed nostalgia to Dukat’s appointment. “Still calling yourself Gul?” he muses. “I’m surprised you haven’t promoted yourself back to Legate by now.”
Dukat responds to an appeal to popularism that characterises so many of these fascist movements. “I prefer the title Gul. So much more hands-on than Legate.” One imagines that Dukat has declined to take a salary for his new position. Of course, Dukat cannot resist a sly jab that suggests his own insecurities. “And less pretentious than the other alternatives, President, Emperor, First Minister, Emissary.” Dukat seems to use his power to paint himself as a common man, even as he betrays own anxieties about Sisko.
Dukat’s tragedy has always mirrored that of Cardassia. Dukat is fixated upon the idea of restoration and validation. Dukat does not believe in progress or growth. In Return to Grace, Dukat found himself demoted and humiliated after returning home with Ziyal. This should have been a humbling experience, an opportunity for the character to begin again and reinvent himself, to acknowledge past mistakes and seek a better future. It would have required hard work and soul searching, but it could have been done.
Instead, Dukat does not seek to move forward. Dukat yearns to move backwards. Through his alliance with the Dominion, Dukat seeks to restore that which he believes was taken from him. Regardless of his technical rank or status, Dukat will always see himself as a “Gul” and cannot imagine himself as anything more. From the moment that he aligns himself with the Dominion in By Inferno’s Light, he communicates a desire to Sisko to reclaim Deep Space Nine and Bajor. He fulfils that ambition in A Call to Arms.
Dukat is so fixated on that sense of restoration and repetition that he assumes command of the station in A Time to Stand. This is a man who is technically the leader of Cardassia, who has argued that his planet and people enjoy “unparalleled autonomy” within the Dominion, but who would abandon all of that to take command of an outpost on the frontier in orbit of a minor planet. The Dominion is invested in Deep Space Nine because of the wormhole, but Dukat is fixated upon it because it represents what was taken from him.
The past is a trap, exuding a gravity that threatens to consume. It is fitting that the first significant threat to Dukat’s position should come from a dying old man telling stories about their shared history. Dukat is so fixated upon the past that he journeys from Cardassia to prevent Ghemor from undergoing “shri-tal.” This is a Cardassian ritual, whereby “the dying give their secrets to their family to use against their enemies.” It is the literal weaponisation of history. It seems appropriate that this should be considered so dangerous to Dukat, a man so rooted in the past.
Dukat surrounds himself with the trappings of history. His new Dominion “advisor” is Weyoun, who appeared in To the Death and who shares a history with Sisko. There is just one problem; Weyoun was murdered by his own troops. However, history tends to recur on Deep Space Nine. The dead seldom stay dead, the past seldom remains buried. In fact, Weyoun is just the most memorable and literal of resurrections in Ties of Blood and Water; William Lucking reprises his role as Furel in flashback, following his death in The Darkness and the Light.
Ties of Blood and Water reveals that the Vorta are cloned, which is a clever way to allow the production team to bring back Jeffrey Combs. Combs has argued that the production team had originally envisaged the Jem’Hadar as the stars of To the Death, only to be surprised when their Vorta handler stole the show:
They thought that the Jem’Hadar could be more interesting characters as themselves, but what they realized from that episode was really, that Weyoun was a really interesting individual and they just decided that the Vorta had the ability to clone and the next thing you know…Weyoun is back! Then they though it would be funny to kill him…and have him come back. And they killed him a number of times.
This is not the first time that Deep Space Nine has resurrected a dead character and brought back an actor. J.G. Hertzler reprised the role of Martok in In Purgatory’s Shadow, while Philip Anglim will return for Resurrection. As Combs quipped, “At least on that show, you knew that having your character die was of no consequence.”
Ties of Blood and Water continues the fifth season’s renewed fascination with the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor. Ties of Blood and Water features the second set of extended flashbacks to the Cardassian Occupation in the fifth season, following on from Things Past. However, even those episodes without flashback sequences are still informed by it. In Rapture, Kai Winn suggests the Occupation is still at the root of social division on modern Bajor. In The Darkness and the Light, former terrorists are still haunted by sins past.
The Occupation inflicted a trauma upon Bajor. That trauma is consistently portrayed as an atrocity that left horrible scars upon those who lived through it, Deep Space Nine repeatedly suggesting that forward movement is not always easy in such circumstances. In Ties of Blood and Water, the slow and painful death of Tekeny Ghemor reminds Kira of the loss of her father. Her father was murdered by Cardassian troops for nothing more than trying to “reason” with them. Unable to confront his death, Kira instead took her anger out on the Cardassians.
It makes sense that these wounds are still fresh. The Cardassian Occupation of Bajor only ended shortly before the events of Emissary. Those atrocities are still in living memory. The might be abstract to the audience or to the Starfleet crew, but the wounds are still raw to the Bajorans who lived through it. Indeed, as a character who is so fixated upon restoring past triumphs, it makes sense that Dukat should see this trauma as a way to undermine the relationship between Kira and Ghemor.
As Ghemor lies dying, Dukat presents Kira with her surrogate father’s war record. Ghemor is implicated in a horrific and brutal massacre. Dukat seems to believe that this will be enough to condemn Ghemor in Kira’s eyes, as if convinced that Kira is as trapped by her past as he is by his own. In a way, Dukat is half-right. Kira uses evidence of Ghemor’s complicity as an excuse to cut him off. She is full of vitriol, condemning him in conversation with Odo and Bashir. However, Dukat is also entirely wrong.
Kira latches on to the atrocity to justify abandoning Ghemor as he lies dying. However, the massacre at the Kiessa Monastery just provides a convenient rationalisation. The trauma that Ghemor evokes for Kira is far more personal; the image of her father dying on gurney, begging for her to be with him during his final hours. It is very much tied into the epic historical traumas of Deep Space Nine, but remains deeply personal. Kira cannot face the death of her father, instead throwing herself into violent retribution and missing his passing “by less than an hour.”
In its own way, this is a family dynamic very much in keeping with those dysfunctional relationships that are so common on Deep Space Nine. It recalls the lies and deception that nestle at the heart of the Bashir family, the sense of simmering resentment that Odo held for Doctor Mora for so long, the unspoken contempt that Quark holds for Ishka, the isolation that Worf feels from his (now lost) brother and his (mostly absent) son. There is something very grounded in all of this.
Kira’s inability to confront the loss of her father is something quite a few viewers will understand, on some level or another. In The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, Robert Hewitt Wolfe acknowledges that the story held a deep resonance for him:
The idea for Ties of Blood and Water originated in a pitch by husband-and-wife team Edmund Newton and Robbin Slocum, a Deep Space Nine production associate. The story held deep resonance for Robert Hewitt Wolfe, who wrote the teleplay. “Their pitch was that Tekeny Ghemor, from Second Skin, comes to the station to die and he wants Kira to take care of him.” But when Wolfe sat down to write the teleplay, “it was about the death of my mother,” he says thoughtfully. “This was a very personal script.”
The story told by Ties of Blood and Water makes perfect sense. No wonder Kira committed herself so aggressively to the fight for Bajoran independence, because it was a way of avoiding the more personal pain that she wanted to avoid. No wonder Kira’s long-term relationships tend to be with physically remote men, literal emotional distance.
On Deep Space Nine, history tends to repeat and loop. It echoes and resonates. Deep Space Nine suggests a symmetry. Sometimes that symmetry is epic and galactic; Bajor and Cardassia swap places between Emissary and What You Leave Behind, while the Cardassians retake the station in A Call to Arms. Sometimes that symmetry is personal; Kira travelled to Cardassia as Ghemor’s surrogate daughter in Second Skin, but Ghemor comes to the station as her surrogate father in Ties of Blood and Water. Once again, Kira is forced to watch her father die.
On the surface, this might seem grim. After all, this repetition of pain and suffering is horrifying. However, there is also something cautiously optimistic about it. Deep Space Nine is frequently considered to be the most cynical Star Trek show, but it retains the franchise’s trademark humanism. As much as history might repeat itself on Deep Space Nine, there is always the possibility of improvement. Deep Space Nine seems to suggests that these patterns can be broken, that these past sins can be redeemed. Every piece of repetition is a an opportunity.
Dukat might juxtapose himself with Sisko, but the script contrasts him with Kira. After all, Ties of Blood and Water makes a point to illustrate how much Kira has changed in the years since the end of the Cardassian Occupation. In the teaser, Worf is surprised at the welcome that Kira is extending to Ghemor. “Major Kira, friends with a Cardassian,” he observes. “It seems wrong.” Dax explicitly frames it in terms of character growth. “You should’ve known her five years ago. Back then, I never thought she’d be friends with anyone.”
When Kira claims outrage at Ghemor’s participation in the massacre, Odo is smart enough to see through her. He knows this is just bluster. “I thought he was different, but he’s just like the rest of them,” she complains. Odo responds, “Is he? Really. I’ve seen his file, too, Major. He was nineteen when Kiessa was destroyed. He’d been in the military for less than a year and was only one of four hundred soldiers at the monastery. There’s no way of knowing if he even fired a shot.”
This would not have mattered to Kira in the old days. As late as Duet at the end of the first season, Kira seemed ready to hold any Cardassian accountable for any involvement in any atrocity. As recently as The Darkness and the Light, Kira refused to apologise for her actions during the Occupation, insisting that Cardassian support staff and civilians were legitimate targets. In spite of all that, Kira has changed in the intervening years. Kira has reached a point where she is willing to acknowledge a Cardassian as a surrogate father figure.
Odo understands this. He quite astutely points out that if Kira still held such absolutist views, she would never have welcomed Ghemor to the station in the first place. “This isn’t about Ghemor’s war record,” Odo reflects. “If it really mattered, you wouldn’t have waited for Dukat to hand it to you. You would have looked it up yourself.” Kira was ready to forgive Ghemor for anything that happened in the past, to believe he could represent a better future for Cardassia. These allegations are just an excuse that Kira uses to avoid dealing with her own pain.
Indeed, Ties of Blood and Water seems sympathetic to Ghemor, particularly when he tries to explain himself. “They were hiding weapons for the Resistance,” he offers. “Weapons that were being used to kill my friends. It was war. It was easy to despise you.” This is a reasonable justification in the context of warfare. The script presses further, by having Ghemor acknowledge, “But you weren’t the monsters, we were. I wish I’d never joined the military, never volunteered for duty on Bajor. But I did. And I can’t change that, no matter how much I might want to.”
Ghemor can be redeemed for his past sins by taking ownership of them. He cannot undo the harm in which he has been complicit, but he can acknowledge his past mistakes. This is one thing that Dukat refuses to do, something that leads to untold suffering for both Dukat himself and Cardassia as a whole. Ultimately, Ties of Blood and Water suggest that nobody is beyond redemption, so long as they are willing to confess and confront their misdeeds. In his dying days, confronting his own involvement in atrocities, Ghemor finds some measure of redemption.
Ghemor also offers Kira that same measure of redemption. Through Ghemor’s death, Kira is able to stand by his side. She is able to redeem her mistake in running from her father’s bedside, to get a “do over.” In its own way, Deep Space Nine seems to suggest that all of this happens for a reason. The universe is not cruel for forcing Kira to live through this trauma for a second time. Instead, it conspires to offer her some much-needed and well-earned catharsis after years of guilt and shame. If history repeats and loops, then that means mistakes can be fixed.
Kira’s story is inherently optimistic. Very few characters on Star Trek have suffered as much as Kira. O’Brien has certainly taken his fair share, but Kira grew up in the face of tremendous suffering. As Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night will reveal, her mother was abducted at a young age. Her father died when she was very young. Growing up, she had brothers; these same brothers are never mentioned in the present tense. Kira watched her world ravaged by a hostile force, her people beaten and enslaved by these oppressors.
However, Deep Space Nine refuses to wallow in Kira’s suffering and angst. Kira is one of the most competent and pragmatic characters on Deep Space Nine, but she is also a character who has integrated relatively well. She might occasionally reference past traumas in conversation, as in The Way of the Warrior, but these horrors do not define her. Kira is never portrayed as fundamentally broken or damaged. Given all that she has lived through, she is positively well-adjusted. She might be more well-adjusted than Worf or Odo, for example.
In some ways, Kira’s arc is mirrored in that of Bajor. At the very end of Ties of Blood and Water, Kira decides to bury Ghemor alongside her biological father. The idyllic hillside is contrasted with the hellish landscape portrayed in the flashback sequences. That silent juxtaposition is remarkably clever, demonstrating how far both Kira and Bajor have come in the last five years, from a broken and scarred world to a blissful paradise. Kira and Bajor make an effective contrast with Dukat and Cardassia.
After all, Bajor has rebuilt itself. Kira has reinvented herself. Kira lost everything in the Occupation, her entire family seems to have been obliterated. However, in the rubble, Kira found herself a new family. Indeed, Ties of Blood and Water reinforces this idea in an early scene where Kira introduces Ghemor to Kirayoshi. “It’s silly, but I almost feel like a grandfather,” Ghemor confesses. “After all, you’re the closest thing I have to a daughter.” Kira responds, “Yoshi’s the closest thing I have to a son.” This is a very strange family unit, but no less legitimate for that.
Kira has built a new family unit, populated by people whom she never would have met but for her time on Deep Space Nine. This is in some way a theme of most television shows that don’t concern literal flesh-and-blood families, with the ensemble in long-running episodic dramas often evolving into a makeshift “found” family for the title characters. This is true of most of the Star Trek shows, to some extent or other, but it is particularly true on Deep Space Nine. The station frequently feels like an island of misfit toys, of parts that do not fit anywhere else.
Of course, the fourth and fifth seasons of Deep Space Nine find the station and its inhabitants undergoing some sort of transformation. Deep Space Nine was originally a dusty outpost in orbit of a minor planet, only notable as a stop-over point between various major powers and the wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant. In the show’s first few seasons, Deep Space Nine often felt like a strange little exile for its characters with lives intersecting almost at random.
However, since the start of the fourth season, it seems like Deep Space Nine is becoming more of a nexus point. This is reflected in any number of ways. The opening credits have been recut to make the station seem like a hub of activity. Starting with episodes like Accession and Rapture, the Prophets are taking a more active role in shaping and sculpting events. In By Inferno’s Light, Gowron draws attention to the fact that fate seems to have decided to render Deep Space Nine as the most important point in the universe.
In its last few years, the world of Deep Space Nine will seem to shrink. Everything will begin to seem incestuous and smaller. There are fewer degrees of separation, less sense of chance. In In Purgatory’s Shadow, Garak finally admits that Enabran Tain is his father. In Ferengi Love Songs, Quark discovers that his mother is dating Grand Negus Zek. In Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night, Kira discovers that her mother was the lover of Gul Dukat. In Shadows and Symbols, Sisko will discover that his birth was no accident.
More than that, Deep Space Nine increasingly finds itself tethered to the leaders of major galactic powers. In terms of the grand history of the Alpha Quadrant, this lonely space station will seem like a twenty-fourth century Skull and Bones. Deep Space Nine inherited Gowron, and it makes sense for Sisko to know the religious and political leaders of Bajor. But Dukat became leader of Cardassia in By Inferno’s Light. Martok will take control of the Klingon Empire in Tacking Into the Wind. Rom will become Grand Negus in The Dogs of War.
With all of that in mind, Ties of Blood and Water exists amid a reinvention for the series. The universe is clearly getting smaller, and the characters seem aware of that. Ghemor reveals that Kira is something of a celebrity on Cardassia, which makes sense. “Like it or not, you’re a public figure, Nerys,” he insists. “First officer of one of the most important military installations in the quadrant. Your feud with Kai Winn has become already something of a legend. Did you know that you have your own section in the Cardassian Central Archives?”
And yet, while acknowledging that, Ties of Blood and Water is much more interested in the connections form by biology and decision more than fate. A more contrived script would have awkwardly revealed that Ghemor was somehow involved in the murder of Kira’s father, as if to suggest that Kira and Ghemor have been tied together by fate and that there must be a clearly defined connection between them. In terms of basic storytelling, there is a strong temptation to tie everything together, to adopt the most efficient approach to plotting.
Ties of Blood and Water resists the urges that will become overwhelming in the final two seasons of Deep Space Nine. Instead of suggesting that Kira and Ghemor are fastened to one another as part of some grand design, the episode instead suggests that there is no meaning or pattern to be discerned in suffering and loss. It is possible for both Kira and Ghemor to have lived through the Cardassian Occupation, to have seen and experienced terrible things, without ever crossing paths. What happened before was tragic, but it does not define their story.
There is a humanism and optimism to Ties of Blood and Water, one found in the episode’s strange symmetry. This is a story about memory and tragedy, but it is not defined solely in those terms. Instead, Ties of Blood and Water is a tale of healing and redemption. This is a story about hope, one that finds some small sense of comfort in these historical repetitions and visitations of sins past. If our sins and our shame must inevitably catch up to us, perhaps they might also be forgiven and reconciled.