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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Chrysalis (Review)

Chrysalis is an intriguing episode, even if it is not entirely successful.

In many ways, Chrysalis is a great example of a final season episode. It is essentially a story about how a character has grown and evolved over the run of the series, driven by his reflections on the lives of those around him. The teaser of Chrysalis sets the scene, as Julian Bashir comes to terms with the fact that virtually everybody on the station has moved on in their lives, while he remains standing in place. It is an episode about getting older, a tale about a man watching his friends move past him. It is a story about what it feels like to be alone, surrounded by everybody.

Window into his soul…

Of course, Chrysalis is more than that, for better and for worse. It is an episode that feels like a return to classic Bashir stories, the kind of tales that writers would construct around Bashir when they had no idea what they wanted to do with the character. Melora is the most obvious example, with Bashir becoming involved with a patient for a romance-of-the-week. Tellingly, the writers originally conceived Second Sight as a romance featuring Bashir, before shifting the focus to Bashir. (Even The Passenger is technically a “Bashir gets overly intimate with a patient” story.)

However, the beauty in Chrysalis is the way in which René Echevarria approaches what would have been a stock Bashir brief from earlier in the run of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Most obviously, Chrysalis is more invested in Bashir as a character, imbuing him with a sense of agency and a believable psychology rather than slotting him into a stock role. More than that, Chrysalis is a story willing to let its character beats become its dramatic beats. It is a story about how alone Bashir is, and is content to be that story. There is no need for a last-act action beat, like the hijacking in Melora.

Out of her shell.

At the same time, Chrysalis suffers from a problem that haunts many of Deep Space Nine‘s romance episodes, even the good ones. Chrysalis is a story far too invested in its male character, to the point that it obscures its female lead. To be fair, Chrysalis handles this with a great deal more skill than episodes like His Way, to the point that Bashir’s inability to look beyond himself becomes a key plot point in the final act. However, there is still a sense that Chrysalis never invests Sarina with the necessary agency and never calls out Bashir as strongly as it needs to.

Still, in spite of this (fairly sizable) flaw, Chrysalis is a surprisingly sweet piece of television and one of the more affecting one-off romances across the fifty-year history of Star Trek.

Living together in harmony.

Deep Space Nine handles romance much better than the other Star Trek shows. There is something touching in the way that the show’s couples interact with one another, in the smaller moments as much as the big ones. Odo and Kira standing together on the bridge of the Bajoran ship in Shadows and Symbols, Dax and Worf having Kira and mirror!Bareil over for dinner in Resurrection, Kasidy trying to get Sisko to lighten up in Take Me Out to the Holosuite and Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang, Keiko arguing over (and being wrong about) Miles’ beverage habits in Armageddon Game.

However, the series has a tendency to ignore the agency of its female characters in getting these pairings together, focusing almost exclusively on the male experience of attraction and sexuality. His Way is perhaps the most obvious example of this, an episode about Odo courting Kira that completely glosses over the fact that episodes like Children of Time and Behind the Lines would seem to be gigantic warning lights for Kira. Similarly, episodes like Tears of the Prophets and Afterimage suggest that Ezri Dax might be a “consolation” prize to Julian Bashir after “losing” Jadzia.

Wise counsel.

There are certain elements of this to Chrysalis, in which the “Jack pack” from Statistical Probabilities. Bashir is enlisted to treat Serena, the near-catatonic member of the pack who untied him at the climax of their earlier encounter. He manages to effectively cure her catatonia, releasing her from her shell and allowing her to step outside herself as a constructive and insightful member of society. It is a heart-warming narrative about a woman who had been trapped inside her own body who comes into her own.

However, Bashir promptly falls head-over-heels in love with Serena. It is a plot development set up in the teaser, in which Bashir finds himself surrounded by happy couples. It is also fairly effectively cemented as Bashir watches Serena break into song with her friends. Inevitably, they kiss together on the promenade, against a backdrop of stars. They promptly enter a romantic relationship. “I love you,” Bashir assures her towards the end of the episode. “I want us to be together. Tell me, do you love me?”

Bride of Bashir!

This is super creepy, to put it mildly. Bashir effectively builds his own girlfriend, releasing Serena from her catatonia and shaping her into the kind of woman that he would want her to be; he introduces her to his friends, exposes her to his interests, monopolises her time. And Chrysalis is constructed entirely from Bashir’s perspective. As Keith R.A. DeCandido explains:

But ultimately my biggest problem is that this story is only about Bashir when it should also be about Sarina. Yes, Bashir is a main character, but he’s being a jackass. His behavior is horrendous, bordering on unethical—he stops being her doctor, at the very least—but Sarina imprinting on him is almost inevitable, and his response should’ve been to back off, not double down. (Gee, if only they had a counselor on the station to help him through that. Oh, wait!) Sarina’s struggle, outlined all-too-quickly when she unloads on Bashir in the cargo bay, should have been the heart of the episode.

Bashir is primarily driven by his own sense of loneliness, and seems incapable of giving Serena the space and freedom that she needs. Luckily, Chrysalis is constructed in such a way that Bashir’s selfishness doesn’t cause any long-term damage to Serena, but it still seems like a spectacular error in judgment that the episode never really acknowledges, because the episode never quite looks at things from Serena’s perspective.

Hold it all together.

In some ways, this is perhaps a reflection of the writers’ room working on Deep Space Nine. The writers working on the final season of Deep Space Nine were exclusively male. In fact, Deep Space Nine was the only Berman-era spin-off with an exclusively male writers’ room. To be fair, there is an argument to be made that it was also the most talented and successful writers’ room, but the show’s perspective occasionally reflected that composition. While the writers did a great job with characters like Kira and Dax, they rarely offered them romantic agency.

There are any number of examples of this tone-deaf approach to romance with the show’s female characters. Kira bounces immediately from losing her long-term lover in Life Support to becoming an object of Odo’s romantic fixation in Heart of Stone. In Tears of the Prophets, Bashir and Quark mourn the loss of Jadzia Dax as a potential romantic partner in a manner designed to foreshadow her pending death. Ezri’s confessions of feelings for Bashir in Afterimage and Strange Bedfellows seem more rooted in Bashir’s attraction to Jadzia than her own agency.

Serena’s serene.

This is quite frustrating when examined in the larger context of Deep Space Nine. Kira and Odo have a very emotionally complicated relationship, based on what Kira discovers about Odo in Children of Time and Behind the Lines. However, the writers seem to have no way to justify Kira’s decision to forgive Odo, given her own contempt for her mother as a collaborator in Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night, so that big important conversation is shunted almost entirely off-screen in You Are Cordially Invited…

It is interesting to wonder whether hiring a female writer on to the staff might have helped avoid some of these errors in judgement. After Robert Hewitt Wolfe departed the series in Call to Arms, there was a vacancy on the staff. A number of female writers had sold story and script ideas to the show, notably Lisa Klink on Hippocratic Oath and Jane Epenson on Accession. One wonders whether a female writer might have identified the issues with Bashir’s inappropriate relationship with Serena.

Patrick’s hatrick.

To be fair, Chrysalis mitigates this issue in a number of ways. It never seems as tone-deaf as the handling of male attraction presented in episodes like His Way or Tears of the Prophets. Most immediately, Bashir seems to understand the ethical dilemma that he has created for himself. “Julian, she’s your patient,” O’Brien objects at one point. Bashir responds, “Not anymore. I’ve asked Doctor Girani to take over her care.” Similarly, he is very clear to Lauren, “I’ve arranged for her to have her own quarters.”

More than that, the climax of the episode has Bashir explicitly acknowledge that what he did was too much. “How could I have been so blind?” he asks O’Brien towards the end of the episode. “What was I thinking trying to move things along so fast? She needed time. I didn’t give it to her. I came this close to driving her back inside herself. I’m supposed to be a doctor. I’m supposed to put my patient’s needs above my own.” It’s a very fair observation, and Deep Space Nine is rarely so carefully attuned to the self-centredness of its male romantic leads.

Face palm.

However, Chrysalis is careful not to reject Bashir’s position too strongly. Although Bashir is not Serena’s doctor, he still retains a great deal of control over her. When she fails to show up for a dinner date, he makes his way to her quarters. When she refuses to answer the door, he uses his authority to force his way in. “Computer, override door locks,” he commands. “Authorisation Bashir delta five seven alpha.” At this point, he has no inkling of what is wrong. Indeed, he seems more frustrated than concerned. “I’ve been waiting in my quarters for you.”

More than that, Chrysalis seeks to make excuses for Bashir’s behaviour. When he holds himself to account at the end of the episode, O’Brien quickly jumps to his defense. “You didn’t want to be lonely anymore,” O’Brien states. “Nobody does.” Although O’Brien is just trying to make Bashir feel better, it does hint at the sort of entitlement that creeps into narratives like this. After all, that same excuse is used to justify the actions of the male protagonist in Passengers, who is let off the hook even more overtly than Bashir.

“Look, if it makes you feel better, this is only about half as creepy as Passengers.”

Perhaps the problems with this dynamic are best expressed through the episode’s frame of reference. Chrysalis is very much a “Star Trek does classic literature” episode, in the same way that Obsession is Moby Dick or Fascination is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. According to The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Companion, the writers conceived the episode as a vintage sci-fi homage:

“It was going to be a ‘Jack’ show, where we’d do something like Flowers for Algernon,” notes Echevarria, referring to Daniel Keyes’ story about a retard man who is turned into a genius via a scientific experiment, only only to ultimately revert. “Jack would become normal. And we tried for days to break this story. It boiled down to the fact that it was a tragedy that this guy becomes normal, which kind of glamorizes mental illness. That’s a very common sort of Hollywood story. ‘Oh, aren’t they cute – don’t rob them of their originality and make them normal.’ Which is bull. So we were stymied. Time was running out and we were just sitting there. And then all of a sudden Hans [Beimler] said, ‘What if it’s about Sarina? A love story with her.’ And boom, that was it.”

It reflects well on the writers that they understood the patronising cliché at the heart of Flowers for Algernon, although it would have made a nice companion piece to the vintage Foundation reference in Statistical Probabilities. The revised story clearly owes a lot to Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw’s classic play about the shaping of a lower-class flower girl into a woman of culture.

Someone to watch over her.

Pygmalion has been adapted countless times over the years, to the point that the story has become as archetypal as that of Moby Dick. It is not so much a single narrative as an entire genre, codified through classic films like My Fair Lady, Hoi Polloi, Trading Places and Selfie. Indeed, Chrysalis is not the Star Trek franchise’s only adaptation of the tale. Later in the same production season, the EMH will engage in a similar sociological experiment with Seven of Nine in Someone to Watch Over Me.

Pygmalion is the story of Eliza Doolittle, a Victorian flower girl who has a chance encounter with phonetics professor Henry Higgins. Higgins makes a bet that he could transform Doolittle from a lowly flower girl into a refined member of high society, pledging to fool the masses into believing that she was “the Queen of Sheba!” Higgins takes Doolittle under his wing, and successfully transforms her into a woman of higher social standing. In doing so, he falls in love with his creation. The play ends with her decision to leave him.

What happens in Holosuite #2…

In his postscript to Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw made it quite explicit that there could never be any true romantic love between Doolittle and Higgins due to the nature of their dynamic:

We all have private imaginations of that sort. But when it comes to business, to the life that she really leads as distinguished from the life of dreams and fancies, she likes Freddy and she likes the Colonel; and she does not like Higgins and Mr. Doolittle. Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable.

In many ways, Shaw was ahead of his time. However, his interpretation would be undercut repeatedly; whether by actors in the first theatrical run or in later adaptations that offer happy endings.

Designer babe.

Shaw’s ending of Pygmalion invests Doolittle with her agency, while making a pointed critique of Higgins’ possessive brand of patriarchy. On some level, Higgins seems to believe that he is entitled to Doolittle’s love because he is responsible for making her the woman that he loves. Instead, Doolittle uses that education and that insight to make her own choices, to determine that she has a life beyond Higgins that she wants to live. (Indeed, the film Her does a very clever science-fiction twist on this core idea.)

The big problem with Chrysalis is that Serena is never allowed to make that decision for herself. Even when she realises that she is uncomfortable with Bashir, or that things are moving too fast, she refuses to recognise that the relationship is inappropriate. Serena is unable to assert the agency that Bashir has literally bestowed upon her, instead trying to avoid making any decision by sinking back into herself and “resetting” to the person that she used to be.

“Don’t worry, Kurn and Vedek Bareil both left very positive reviews on Yelp.”

When Bashir finally convinces her to speak, she trips over herself to apologise. “I don’t even understand what love is,” she states. “I don’t understand anything.” She continues, demanding, “What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to feel? Tell me. I want to make you happy. I owe you everything.” As he reassures her, she apologises, “I’m sorry. I wish I could be the woman you want me to be.” Even at the end of Chrysalis, Serena still depends on Bashir to remind her that she has a choice in all this.

It is a frustrating narrative decision, even allowing for Bashir’s status as a regular character. Chrysalis is supposed to end with Serena venturing out into the universe to chart her own course on “one of those tiny specks of light out there”, but it doesn’t feel like an earned ending. It seems like Serena only leaves because Bashir tells that she should, and will be leaving to work a job that Bashir arranged for her. Chrysalis ends in such a way as to reassure the audience that Bashir is a nice guy, which feels somewhat ill-judged. It is a fairly significant issue with the story.

Departing is such sweet sorrow.

However, ignoring that (sizable) problem, there is something undeniably sweet about Chrysalis. More than any other Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine invested in its characters. Chrysalis is a story about Bashir, one very particularly crafted to his character. Indeed, there are a lot of elements here that fit with Bashir’s characterisation going back seasons. His difficulty even acknowledging boundaries with Serena evokes his behaviour towards Dax in episodes like Dax. His insecurity harks back to Distant Voices. Ezri calling out his arrogance evokes The Quickening.

Chrysalis is an episode about how Bashir is lonely. It is difficult to imagine any other Star Trek show constructing a narrative like this, let alone a story without a big dramatic hook. When other Star Trek shows tend to tell quieter introspective character pieces, they tend to spice the story up with drama. In Lessons, the romance between Picard and Daren comes to a head when the Enterprise is called into crisis. The EMH’s family issues in Real Life are juxtaposed against a subplot about an anomaly of the week.

Trio of terror.

To be fair, there are clearly moments in which Chrysalis is confined by the expectations of a syndicated television series in the nineties. The writers are aware of the need for dramatic tension and suspense, even if it is very difficult to write tension and suspense into a story about the existential loneliness of living alone surrounded by everybody. As with Statistical Probabilities, there is a sense that the episode needs to strain to fit into the expected structure with the act breaks in the right place to keep the audience hooked.

Notably, Chrysalis plays with the idea that Bashir’s cure for Serena might not work, which is the most obvious and ham-fisted way to generate dramatic tension from the premise. Chrysalis wisely avoids following this thread, understanding that the real story is about the relationship between Bashir and Serena, not about technobabble concerning “neural pathways.” Still, the episode pulls a fake-out twice, with Serena appearing to regress just long enough to grab the audience’s attention, before admitting that she was faking it. Still, it is not an egregious problem.

Getting into her head.

Instead of wallowing in this technobabble-driven plot angle, Chrysalis remains keenly focused on a very relatable anxiety felt by Bashir, his sense of being alone while surrounded by everybody. It is a relatively universal sentiment, as Zack Handlen argued in his discussion of the episode:

For all the encouraging things people tell you, and for all the reasons you’re supposed to be fine on your own, realizing that many of your closest friends have a kind of life you can only aspire to is kind of unshakable. Being single as an adult is difficult partly because of all the nice, romantic bits about couplehood you’re missing out on, but also because of the basic stuff like having someone to come home to. A relationship means that when you believe you have a place in the world, there’s someone else who believes the same thing. It’s not awful to not have that, and there are definite advantages to bachelorhood, but it gets cold sometimes.

Deep Space Nine was always particularly good at dealing with mundane existential crises like that, very relatable and very human personal dramas unfolding against the backdrop of the twenty-fourth century.

Near kiss.

Chrysalis is a story specifically tailored to this character on this show. Bashir is very pointedly alone at this point in the run, separate from the rest of the cast. Sisko is in a relationship with Kasidy, and has a bond with his son. O’Brien is in a loving marriage with Keiko, and in charge of their children. Worf is recently widowed. Kira and Odo are together. Ezri has a cacophony inside her head. Quark has Rom and Nog to provide familial support. Bashir is the only character on Deep Space Nine who is truly single in the conventional sense, the only one never to have loved so deeply.

Chrysalis capitalises on this unique aspect of the series. It is an episode that essentially sidelines the majority of the primary cast, in order to make Bashir feel more alone. Sisko appears in a single scene at the start of the episode. Worf does not appear at all, perhaps owing to Michael Dorn’s work on Star Trek: Insurrection. Nog appears fleetingly in the teaser. This sort of isolation would not have been possible on Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager.

Handy relationship.

There is something very affecting and genuine in this portrayal of adult loneliness. Bashir was only a twenty-something punk when he arrived on Deep Space Nine, full of energy and verve. He played the bachelor with excitement and commitment. However, there is a sense that the seven intervening seasons have changed Bashir, allowed him to grow in a way that would be impossible for a character like Harry Kim.

The beauty of Chrysalis is the way that it tells a familiar story, but in a way that emphasises just how much the character has evolved. The basic plot of Chrysalis is very similar to that of Melora, with the biggest changes being the growth of Bashir in the five seasons between the episodes. Alexander Siddig is older at this point in the run, more relaxed and more mature. Bashir arrived on the station boasting about “real frontier medicine”, but seven years later he is falling asleep in a nerdy set of pyjamas reviewing scans of a mutating virus.

But, in Bashir’s defense, it might be a very sexy virus.

There is an incredible warmth to Chrysalis, a feeling of genuine emotional sentiment. The script completely understands where Bashir is coming from, and works hard to demonstrate just why Bashir might think that it is okay to fall in love with Serena. The story beats all feel organic, the gradual evolution of their relationship never feels forced. It is easy to see why these lines might possibly have become blurred, and how Bashir could fall so quickly head over heels.

It is hard to convincingly craft a romance in forty-five minutes, particularly for an audience that understands the limitations and conventions of the television format. Viewers know that Bashir will be around for the rest of the season, but that Serena is highly unlikely to be added to the recurring roster. As such, it takes a lot of work to sell the relationship, but Chrysalis does so beautifully. In many ways, the strength of René Echevarria’s script is a willingness to let images (rather than dialogue) carry big moments, like that first kiss at the window or the two cuddling together.

Food for thought.

As with Take Me Out to the Holosuite directly before it, there is an endearing sweetness to Chrysalis, perhaps best captured in the episode’s standout sequence. When Serena first wakes up, she struggles to speak. “It just takes a little practice,” Bashir assures her. Jack decides that vocal exercises are required. What follows is a beautiful improvised musical performance. As Faith Salie recalls:

Three of the four of the Jack Pack were delighted to be in music rehearsals on the Paramount lot. Jack not so much. We rehearsed for a couple of days in between shooting other scenes. It was a sweltering August, and I remember how cool the music rehearsal room felt. I had always been a belter, but this do-re-mi-style foursome (surely there’s a technical term for that? Music experts, please inform) called on my highest of notes.

The day we spent filming the song was a blast. I loved doing it over and over; it felt like a theatrical rehearsal to me, which was more comfortable territory than getting a couple of takes in front of many cameras. It felt special and different and fun in a way that the long days of shooting one-hour dramas don’t usually feel. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the cameras zoomed around me, making me feel like I was having a Julie Andrews The Hills Are Alive moment.

It is one of the most joyful sequences in the fifty-year history of franchise, notable for its willingness to let sounds and visuals carry the story and character beat without relying on clunky exposition. It is a beautiful piece of storytelling. Faith Salie is particularly proud of it, noting, “The best thing about being on Star Trek was being able to sing an aria with the camera spinning around me a la The Sound of Music.”

Composing himself.

It is a sequence that communicates a lot very effectively and without resorting to awkward dialogue. The use of the camera during the sequence, the tone of the set piece, and the performances from Alexander Siddig and Faith Salie effective communicate everything that needs to be said with smacking the audience over the head with this blossoming romance. It is a staggeringly effective choice, and a very prudent use of storytelling real estate. It more effectively conveys Bashir’s attraction to Sarena than most one-shot romance episodes.

(It also sets up a particularly sly production gag. As Jack tries to teach Serena to sing, he is taken aback. “Are you tone deaf?” he challenges her. Lauren speaks up in Serena’s defense. “You’re the one who’s tone deaf.” While the audience might agree with Jack based on what they have heard, the reality is that Faith Salie is a much stronger vocalist than Tim Ransom. Although Jack sings very well, the production team had to dub over his voice for the sequence. It’s a very humourous joke.)

Smiles to go.

Chrysalis suffers from problems common to many of the romantic episodes of Deep Space Nine, prioritising the perspective of its male lead over that of its female lead. However, Chrysalis at least has enough self-awareness to call this behaviour out. Looking past this misstep, Chrysalis is a surprisingly touching and affecting piece of television, capturing a sense of loneliness and isolation that is universal. It is a wonderful demonstration of how Deep Space Nine is the most human of Star Trek series, even when focusing on those who have supposedly better than human.

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2 Responses

  1. I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to class ‘Chrysalis’ with the Odo/Kira dynamic, which I find less problematic than you do but admit I find one sided. I like Serena a lot (Faith Salie really is wonderful and there is something very sweet at times to their story) but Alexander Siddig is in the main cast so it is surely only natural to focus more on Bashir than Serena in the same way Bareil’s feelings are not given equal weight to Kira’s.

    (Of course that goes into an argument about DS9’s rather poor showing even by standards of the 90s when it comes to women in the main cast but that’s a slightly different problem.)

    Still I have to admit to some bias here as Bashir is one of my favourite characters in the show and I really grok his loneliness.

    • Bashir is also one of my favourite characters, to be fair. Which is amazing given how long it took the writers to figure out his voice. He’s one of the franchise’s most human characters, in a weird way that sort of mirrors O’Brien. He’s just a big ball of insecurities and uncertainties, of awkwardness and overcompensation, of poor choices and good intent. I adore Bashir.

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