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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Field of Fire (Review)

Field of Fire is an oddly nineties piece of television.

All television shows are inevitably a product of their time. This was particularly true of the twenty-odd-episode-a-season shows produced during the twentieth century, subject to the brutal churn of a weekly production schedule. The production team needed scripts, which meant that the writers needed ideas. Inevitably, those ideas were drawn from the wider culture around them. As a result, television is often an interesting lens through which culture might be examined, a projection of how a given society sees (or perhaps wishes to see) itself.

The noblest aim.

Star Trek: Enterprise was inescapably a product of the War on Terror, caught in the gravity of the attacks upon the World Trade Centre. Star Trek: Voyager was undeniably a child of the nineties, driven largely be a sense of listless anxiety in the shadow the millennium. While Star Trek: Deep Space Nine could never be entirely removed from its cultural context, it still stood apart. The writers tended to draw their themes from history, rather than from current affairs, creating a Star Trek show that seemed to exist beyond its cultural moment.

Of course, there are exceptions. Field of Fire is that most nineties of television episodes, the serial killer psychological thriller.

Highly illogical.

Popular culture has long been fascinated with serial killers, but that obsession burst into the mainstream during the nineties. There were any number of possible explanations for this. Most of those reasons were purely about timing. The term “serial killer” was most likely first employed by profiler Robert Ressler in the mid-seventies, although German forensic scientist Ernst Gennat used the term “series-murderer” in the early thirties. A series of grisly high-profile serial killers captured the public’s attention in the mid-seventies.

It took a few years for these advances in forensic pathology to seep from the headlines into mainstream popular culture. Thomas Harris would write Red Dragon in 1981. Although the novel introduced readers to Hannibal Lecter, its central character was the profiler Will Graham, modeled on the real-life behavioural analyst John Douglas. For there, the idea of thrillers focusing on the psychology of serial killers crept into the mainstream. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was released in 1986, the same year as Michael Mann’s Manhunter.

Killer instinct.

However, the genre truly exploded into popular consciousness with Thomas Harris’ follow-up, The Silence of the Lambs. The book was published in 1988, and adapted into a film in 1991. Jonathan Demme’s cinematic reworking of the story won the Best Picture Oscar, arguably serving as the first horror film to take the top honours. The Silence of the Lambs swept the awards that year, becoming only the third film in cinematic history to take the top five categories.

This had a massive impact on popular culture, which seemed to reconfigure itself in the wake of Hannibal the Cannibal. Serial killers became a fixture of the big and small screens, whether in shows like Millennium or Profiler or in films like se7en and Kiss the Girls. Multiplexes were saturated with dime-a-dozen psychological thrillers from Single White Female to Kalifornia. Not coincidentally, this trend would overlap with the resurrection of the classic horror slasher genre in films like Scream or I Know What You Did Last Summer.

Triggering event.

The serial killer is a figure of interest, looming large in the public imagination. There are any number of reasons why the figure appeals to audiences. As Scott A. Bonn contends:

In many ways, serial killers are for adults what monster movies are for children—that is, scary fun!  However, the pleasure an adult receives from watching serial killers can be difficult to admit, and may even trigger feelings of guilt. In fact, my research reveals that many people who are fascinated with serial killers refer to it as a guilty pleasure.

The average person who has been socialized to respect life, and who also possesses the normal range of emotions such as love, shame, pity and remorse cannot comprehend the workings of a pathological mind that would compel one to abduct, torture, rape, kill, engage in necrophilia, and occasionally even eat another human being. The incomprehensibility of such actions drives society to understand why serial killers do incredibly horrible things to other people who often are complete strangers.

As such, serial killers appeal to the most basic and powerful instinct in all of us—that is, survival. The total disregard for life and the suffering of others exhibited by serial killers shocks our sense of humanity and makes us question our safety and security.    

All of this is a fascinating cocktail, which explains why the serial killer is a figure of fascination. The serial killer is a monster that actually exists, and so serves as slate on to which all manner of anxieties might be projected.

“This isn’t quite what the producers meant when they said they wanted more serialisation.”

Indeed, it could be argued that serial killers became a fixture of nineties pop culture because they appealed a very specific aspect of the American psyche. It is interesting to wonder whether pop culture’s obsession with serial killers is in some ways mirrored in its fascination with religious cults. Both are relatively fringe experiences, but which figure prominently in the American cultural imagination. There is even some overlap through figures like Charles Manson, who has become almost a mythic figure.

Although relatively few serial killer narratives unfold in California and Los Angeles, it is interesting to wonder whether this fascination with serial killers might be distorted by the fact that so much of American pop culture is produced on the West Coast. Those themes and ideas that interest California, that play into its own interests and ideas, inevitably end up reflected in popular culture. It could perhaps be argued that the serial killer exists as some grotesque mirror of celebrity, fame parlayed through infamy.

The man behind the man.

Perhaps it runs deeper to that. Celebrity is a complicated abstract idea, something that can be awkward to navigate and parse. What makes a celebrity? Is there is moral onus on society to ensure that only the worthy are elevated? Or is it all vacuous? Is fame all that matters, regardless of the source? As Daniel Boorstin argues in The Image:

The celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness. His qualities – or rather his lack of qualities – illustrate our peculiar problems. He is neither good nor bad, great nor petty. He is the human pseudo-event. He has been fabricated on purpose to satisfy our exaggerated expectations of human greatness. He is morally neutral. the product of no conspiracy, of no group promoting vice or emptiness, he is made by honest industrious men of high professional ethics doing their job, “informing” and educating us. He is made by all of us who willingly read about him, who like to see him on television, who buy recordings of his voice, and talk about him to our friends. His relation to morality and even to reality is highly ambiguous.

This is worrying applicable to serial killers, individuals whose social cache derives from the media’s and the public’s fascination with them. (Oliver Stone explored this in Natural Born Killers.) It makes sense that this would interest Hollywood productions, returning time and time again to the template of the serial killer.

Dead to rights.

However, there is also a sense that the cultural cache of the serial killer has declined in recent years. To be fair, there are still occasionally successful and popular serial killer stories. Bryan Fuller would adapt Hannibal for the small screen to considerably praise, while serial killer stories still occasionally trickle into cinemas with movies like The Snowman or The Frozen Ground. At the same time, it seems fair to suggest that the serial killer is no longer a driving social anxiety.

After all, the movies and novels centring on Hannibal Lecter entered a decline at the turn of the millennium, with the campy Hannibal proving divisive while Anthony Hopkins bailed out of Hannibal Rising. While there were still shows like Criminal Minds on the air, procedurals like Law and Order or CSI only tended to trot out the serial killer when they needed a big event story. When Liam Neeson anchored the serial killer thriller A Walk Among the Tombstones in 2014, the movie’s big twist (revealed in the final shot) was that it was set in the nineties.

Replicating past successes.

This lack of interest was mirrored in the official statistics. The number of serial killers at work in the United States declined dramatically into the twenty-first century. More than that, the media coverage of these crimes also faded:

As the raw numbers have declined, the media have paid less attention, too. Sure, you’ve still got the occasional Beltway sniper or Grim Sleeper who terrorizes a community. But nothing in the last decade has captured the popular imagination like the sex-addled psychopaths of the ’70s and ’80s, such as Ted Bundy (feigned injuries to win sympathy before killing women; about 30 victims), John Wayne Gacy (stored bodies in his ceiling crawlspace; 33 victims), or Jeffrey Dahmer (kept body parts in his closet and freezer; 17 victims). These crimes caused media frenzies in part because of the way they tapped into the obsessions and fears of the time: Bundy, a golden boy who worked on Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential campaign in Seattle, seemed to represent the evil lurking beneath America’s cheery exterior. Gacy, who dressed up as a clown and preyed on teenage boys, was every parent’s nightmare. “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz milked—and, in so doing, mocked—the media’s obsession with serial killers by sending a letter to New York Daily News reporter Jimmy Breslin.

The serial killer is by no means an obscure figure on the modern pop culture landscape, but there is a sense that – as Harold Schechter argues – “the golden age of serial murderers is probably past.”

Drink it all in.

The serial killer has arguably been replaced by the terrorist in the public imagination. In many ways, the terrorist is an expression of many of the same basic fears, the randomness of violence and the grotesque distortion of the notion of celebrity. Serial killers evoked old-school ideas of celebrity, elevated by media coverage and trashy paperback biographies. Terrorists perhaps tap into more modern interpretations of fame, weaponising social media and exploiting viral distribution methods in a way that evokes a twenty-first century notion of celebrity.

Whatever the reason, it feels like the serial killer is something of a pop culture relic at this moment in time, perhaps occasionally revisited to satisfy some vague nostalgia. This evolution from serial killer to terrorist can be traced across specific instances of popular culture. Tim Burton imagined the Joker as a “homicidal artist” in his 1989 adaptation of Batman, an approach that played into the idea of the serial killer as a malformed celebrity. Christopher Nolan would reimagine the Joker as an urban terrorist in The Dark Knight in 2008.

Forensic accounting of his whereabouts.

With all of that in mind, there is something curiously dated in the decision to devote an entire episode of the final season of Deep Space Nine to the concept of a serial killer. To be fair, Deep Space Nine had played with the horror and psychological thriller genres before, with Bryan Fuller’s pitches for both The Darkness and the Light and Empok Nor. However, there is something striking about positioning Field of Fire as a serial killer thriller in February 1999. It feels like one last gasp of the nineties on the television show that frequently seemed removed from the decade.

Field of Fire is undoubtedly intended as an homage these classic psychological thrillers and murder mysteries. Most obviously, the entire premise of the episode is built around a twenty-fourth century locked room mystery, in which a victim is murdered inside a space with no evidence that the killer was ever in the room with them. There is something very clever in the way that Field of Fire weaponises the transporter to play with that classic murder mystery trope.

O’Brien uses his melon.

There is also something very clever in the way that the episode foregrounds the reveal of the murder weapon, with O’Brien figuring out the “how” of these murders relatively quickly. Unlike Voyager, there is a sense that Deep Space Nine has always understood that technobabble is not storytelling of itself. No story that hinges on a resolution couched in technobabble can be satisfying. As such, Robert Hewitt Wolfe very cleverly explains the (very clever) technological explanation for these murders relatively early in the episode.

The TR-116 rifle is certainly an interesting concept for a Star Trek story, something that feels in many ways an extension of the universe as it has been established and defined. One of the interesting aspects of Star Trek has always been the way in which it approaches technology in twentieth-century terms. The Dominion War is largely fought like the First or Second World War… IN SPACE!!!, because audiences understand war in those terms. However, the technology of the Star Trek universe suggests things should be very different.

Rifle set to kill.

The TR-116 rifle feels like a clever use of Star Trek concepts, exploiting the advanced sensors and the utility of transporter technology to create a device that is both recognisable and futuristic. Producer Hans Beimler explained that the weapon was very much part of Robert Hewitt Wolfe’s original pitch for the story:

I  also think Field of Fire had one of the coolest effects that we have done at Star Trek in years, the rifle seeing through things, and you see it go through buildings. That was a contribution Robert Wolfe made from the very beginning, when he pitched us the story and told us what he wanted to do.

The technology in Star Trek has never fundamentally changed the way that people perform routine tasks. This is a pragmatic decision, because the show needs to remain recognisable to the audience at home. Still, the TR-116 is an interesting contrast with that aesthetic. It is a very clever idea.

“I know you’ve got a lot of actions on your priority list, but this is number one with a bullet.”

More than that, the TR-116 exists as part of the episode’s genre framework. In the scene directly following the opening credits, the characters acknowledge just how strange they find the situation. This is not something that happens frequently in the world of Star Trek, even within the more cynical surroundings of Deep Space Nine. There is a sense that this grim murder mystery is an intrusion into the utopian Star Trek universe, something as alien and hostile as the war story that has been unfolding since Call to Arms.

“He was killed by what appears to have been some kind of chemically propelled projectile weapon,” Odo reports. Sisko is incredulous. “A gun?” he clarifies. Odo continues, “Doctor Bashir recovered a single tritanium bullet from Ilario’s chest.” Bashir hands Sisko the bullet, tangible evidence of the horrible crime that has been committed. “You don’t see one of those every day,” O’Brien admits. Odo responds, “No one uses projectile weapons anymore.” As with the concept of the TR-116, there is something very interesting in this set-up.

“Well, at least we’re getting good mileage out of that flag.”

There is a clear sense that none of the characters know quite how to respond to the idea of a serial killer. Deep Space Nine has been relatively critical of the utopian Star Trek universe, but Field of Fire very effectively sets up the idea that this sort of crime exists beyond the characters’ frame of reference. The opening act of Field of Fire devotes considerable attention and focus to the idea that this is not normal. Dax and Bashir keep watch over Ilario’s coffin, while the crew seem practically shellshocked by the death of a person they knew for little over a week.

Even in the midst of an extended and horrific war, there is a sense that these characters fundamentally believe that life has greater value than that assigned to Ilario. Appropriately enough, it is Doctor Bashir who gives voice to this deep-seated confusion at what is occurring, given Bashir’s long-standing role as the embodiment of Gene Roddenberry’s utopian idealism. “It’s difficult to accept,” he muses. “The whole concept of someone killing another person in cold blood, it’s almost incomprehensible, isn’t it?”

Killer discussions.

Even Odo, who lived and worked through the Cardassian Occupation, has to look outside his own experiences to provide a framework for understanding what has happened. “According to these readings, the bullet only travelled eight or nine centimetres,” O’Brien reports. Sisko builds a hypothesis on that information. “Then the killer must have fired at point blank range.” Odo protests, “I don’t think so. There are no powder burns on the body.” He elaborates, “I read twentieth century crime novels. Raymond Chandler, Mike Hammer, that sort of thing.”

Watching Field of Fire, there is a clear sense that writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe is having some fun with the conventions and trappings of the forensic procedural, especially framing that sort of story in the Star Trek universe. Quite a lot of Field of Fire is taken beat-for-beat from the stock “to catch a killer” template established by earlier narratives like Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs and perpetuated by later shows like Criminal Minds and CSI.

The perfect frame.

Some of these elements work very well, if only due to the novelty of working through them surrounding by the trappings of Deep Space Nine. There is a nice moment when a casual conversation between Bashir and O’Brien inevitably leads to a clever realisation that ties back into the mystery. When Bashir mentions how Davey Crockett would use ricochets to demonstrate his targetting prowess, O’Brien gasps. “Wait a minute. That’s it. Displaced targeting. That’s how he did it.”

Similarly, there is something very charming in the highly dramatic (if slightly unsafe and entirely unprofessional) demonstration of the TR-116 rifle by Chief O’Brien for Odo and Dax. It recalls the familiar narrative device of having one member of a forensic team demonstrate some very clever technique employed by the killer-of-the-week in CSI or Criminal Minds, turning forensic pathology into a weird show-and-tell as a way of translating the theory-heavy research and investigation into something more dramatic for the audience at home.

The rite stuff…

At the same time, these elements also suggest some of the limitations of applying these narrative tropes to a Star Trek episode. Most obviously, these two big moments focus on Miles Edward O’Brien. This makes sense within the context of the show, given that O’Brien is the station’s engineer. However, there is also a sense that Field of Fire is supposed to be a character-centric episode driven by Ezri Dax. As a result, allocating these big moments (and the scenes leading to these big moments) to O’Brien serves to distort the narrative slightly.

More than that, while translating some of these tropes to the twenty-fourth century makes for interesting television, some of these familiar plotbeats inevitably feel a little hackneyed. This is perhaps most obvious with the crude psycho-babble as the crew try to get into the head of the killer. “I wonder why he chose a TR-116?” O’Brien muses at one point. “I mean, why use a rifle if you’re going to shoot somebody from close range?” This is a very interesting question in the context of the Star Trek universe, but it is also very transparently a vehicle for exposition.

Bolianed over.

Bashir rambles through some very trite psychological explanations. “He or she may have originally intended to kill their victims from a great distance, so they replicated a long-range weapon,” Bashir observes. “Or they had some special connection to this particular rifle. A fetish or psychological obsession, perhaps?” It is inevitably revealed that the reason that the killer used the TR-116 rifle was because it would be impossible to transport a phaser beam. Still, the entire conversation feels stilted and awkward, characters clumsily expositing for the audience at home.

Similarly, there is some clumsiness in the set-up to Field of Fire. The teaser spends an inordinate amount of time on Ensign Hector Ilario, a one-shot guest character who is appearing on Deep Space Nine for the first time. The regular cast spend the evening drinking with Ilario at the bar, singing his praises and insisting that they owe their lives to him. It is a very cynical introduction, with Field of Fire straining to give the audience (and the characters) some emotional connection to Ilario before brutally killing him off at the end of teaser.

“A toast, to this previously unseen guest character who I’m sure will have a long a rich life ahead of him.”

This is bad and distracting storytelling. There is arguably no need to strain to create that emotional connection to Ensign Hector Ilario; cold-blooded murder is so rare in the twenty-fourth century that even murdering an anonymous background extra would have a similar impact on the cast. If the production team insisted on that emotional connection, it would have made more sense to seed Ilario in a few earlier episodes. For example, Voyager made a point to introduce Peter Durst in Cathexis before killing him off in Faces.

To be fair, Field of Fire is a result of the same production crunch that affected Prodigal Daughter and The Emperor’s New Cloak. As with those stories, there is a sense that Field of Fire is a rough outline of an episode that was rushed into production, rather than a story that had been filtered through the usual development process. Field of Fire has that same sense of fatigue that pervades Prodigal Daughter and The Emperor’s New Cloak, as if scenes and plot beats were filmed off first-draft script pages that were never properly revised.

“A born helmsman, and everybody knows what happened to the Defiant’s last helmsman…”

In fact, the production team working on the seventh season of Deep Space Nine was under such pressure that they drafted in Robert Hewitt Wolfe to handle Field of Fire while the writing staff tried frantically to put out other fires. As Keith R.A. DeCandido explains:

Because half the writing staff (Ronald D. Moore, Bradley Thompson, and David Weddle) were trying to salvage Prodigal Daughter, and the other half was writing the two episodes on either side of this one (Ira Steven Behr & Hans Beimler working on The Emperor’s New Cloak and Rene Echevarria writing Chimera), Behr approached former staff writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe, who took a break from the development of Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda to pen this script freelance for his erstwhile writing partner.

To be fair to Wolfe, Field of Fire is marginally stronger than the two episodes immediately preceding it. As with The Emperor’s New Cloak, there is a sense that the writers have a fairly decent idea of what they want to do with the episode, but struggle in the execution. At the very least, Field of Fire manages to have some fun with its concept.

Worf’s core values.

At the same time, the episode hinges on the already very tired template of having an investigator consult with a known serial killer in order to solve a series of brutal homicides. It was a small part of Red Dragon, but was expanded to be the entire premise of The Silence of the Lambs. Audiences are very familiar with the story structure, one which seems to offer a genre-friendly slant on Friedrich Nietzsche. Of course, “he who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not consult with monsters” is slightly less catchy.

Field of Fire is an Ezri-centric episode, much like Prodigal Daughter before it. (The Emperor’s New Cloak was a mirror!Ezri-featuring episode, so it kinda counts.) This is certainly an interesting direction in which to take the story. In theory, Odo should be in charge of hunting a serial killer on Deep Space Nine, but he remains a curiously peripheral figure. To be fair to Field of Fire, Odo is present with Ezri at key moments of the investigation and there is a recurring suggestion that Odo is investigating the case in parallel. However, his absence is notable.

Fruits of their labour.

It makes a certain amount of sense to make the station’s counsellor the central figure in this story. After all, one of the big issues with having a mental health professional as a regular character on a weekly Star Trek series is that they don’t typically get much to do; people in utopia don’t tend to need much counselling. As a result, there is an understandable impulse to seize upon every possible storytelling opportunity for that character, even when that might mean depriving another character of a story that fits more comfortably in their job description.

It should be noted that Star Trek: The Next Generation would do this quite frequently with the character of Deanna Troi, the ship’s counsellor who caused no end of frustration for the writing staff. Indeed, Field of Fire arguably has a lot in common with Eye of the Beholder. Both episodes are mid-seventh-season installments of their respective shows, heightened psychological thrillers featuring a counsellor investigating a horrific event involving members of the crew. Eye of the Beholder was a psychic ghost story; Field of Fire is a forensic thriller.

A murder wizard did it.

However, Field of Fire inevitably circles back around to the inevitable. When Bashir suggests that cold blooded murder is incomprehensible to most inhabitants of the twenty-fourth century, Ezri contradicts him. “I know exactly what it feels like,” she reminds him. “To feel the urge, the need, to take a life.” Bashir immediately understands. “You’re talking about Joran,” he states. Joran Dax, the long-lost host of the Dax symbiont. Joran was introduced in Equilibrium, an early episode of the third season. Joran was also a murderer.

Joran is a troublesome character, in large part because he suffers from pretty egregious concept creep. In any long-running series, ideas and characterisation are inevitably exaggerated over time. Once characters worm their way into the popular memory, they are prone to be distorted and simplified, warped and smoothed. In sit-coms, characters tend to be flattened into a bunch of broad character traits and familiar punchlines. In drama, characters come to be defined by single actions.

A Trill walks home alone at night.

Star Trek is particularly prone to this tendency to distort continuity through memory. After all, consider the use of the Vulcans on Enterprise. Fandom practically mutinied at the idea that Vulcans were anything less than sainted, despite the fact that almost every appearance of the Vulcans had consistently portrayed them as underhanded and adversarial; Amok Time, Journey to Babel, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Shakaar and Take Me Out to the Holosuite. Even Spock himself was frequently unpleasant during the original Star Trek.

However, fandom’s memory of the Vulcans flattened their established characterisation, building an accepted mythic narrative that the Vulcans had always been friendly and trustworthy. This template seemed to have been built primarily on the presentation of Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the closing scene of Star Trek: First Contact. It did not matter that there was ample evidence that Vulcans were deeply unpleasant, because the cultural memory had already settled upon an idealised fantasy.

Mind games.

Something very similar happens with Joran over the course of Deep Space Nine. In Equilibrium, the character is presented as a fundamentally unstable individual who never should have been joined with the Dax symbiont. He is guilty of murdering the doctor who recommended him for joining. This is treated as something of a psychological break for Joran, rather than as a pattern of preexisting behaviour. There is very little in Equilibrium to suggest that Joran was a serial killer, rather than just a person who had a psychological break.

According to Bashir, Joran was “an unstable personality with violent tendencies.” According to his brother, Joran had always “had a violent temper”, but he changed after being joined. He became “more confident, even colder than usual.” Incidentally, this description ties into the suggestion in episodes like Invasive Procedures that the symbionts are far more ruthless and pragmatic than their biological hosts; especially the Dax symbiont. There is no indication in Equilibrium that Joran was a master criminal; he was killed trying to escape the crime scene of his only victim.

He’s dead on.

However, the myth of Joran Dax grew over time. Facets was a large part of that, with the production team consciously channelling Hannibal Lecter as Jadzia was forced to confront that buried part of herself. Benjamin Sisko allowed Joran to use his body, allowing Avery Brooks to chew on the scenery while softly teasing haunting psychobabble. Even the framing of the sequence, with a young woman confronting a psychotic held in a transparent cage, consciously evoked The Silence of the Lambs.

Field of Fire goes all-in on this idea of Joran Dax as a twenty-fourth century take on Hannibal Lecter. Like Hannibal, Joran promise to help his young inexperienced female protege track down a serial killer in return for greater freedom. Discussing Jadzia and Curzon, Ezri explains, “They buried your memories as deep within them as possible.” Joran mockingly responds, “That was a mistake. I have so much to offer.” Joran seems to enjoy the freedom offered by the Rite of Emergence, much like Lecter longs for a view or some fresh air.

Talking to herself.

Much like Hannibal Lecter teases Will Graham or Clarice Starling, Joran encourages Ezri to put herself in the shoes of the serial killer. “I want you to feel what the killer felt,” Joran warns her. “Now, hold the weapon as if you’re going to use it. Feels good, doesn’t it?” There is something quite Luciferian in how Field of Fire approaches the character of Joran, constantly whispering in Ezri’s ear as he tries to push her towards violence and bloodshed. Much like Hannibal Lecter, Joran Dax is portrayed as a tempting and corrupting influence.

To be fair, Field of Fire wears its influences on its sleeve. The script owes a sizable debt to Red Dragon. As in that first Hannibal Lecter novel, there is considerable discussion about how the killer is choosing their victims, and the investigator tries to immerse themselves into the killer’s psyche. As with Red Dragon, it is revealed that the killer is choosing their victims based on photographs capturing happy moments. As with Red Dragon, the serial killer makes a desperate climactic attack on the investigator, only to find themselves thwarted.

Picture this…

As Hans Beimler explained to Cinefantastique, a large part of the thrill of Field of Fire was juxtaposing the timid Ezri with the psychotic Joran:

The fun of Field of Fire was finding the hard edge that we knew Ezri had all along. We knew that she had a side of her that been buried very deep, but she had been playing this kind of confused, fun, intelligent, but ultimately gun-shy person. This allowed us to bring up the side of her that would stay with her from now on. After Field of Fire, that woman was not the same. She now had Joran in the forefront, and she was part killer. That was the goal of that episode, to bring that side out of her, so she could keep that for the rest of the season.

This is not the worst reason to build an episode around Ezri. There is certainly something striking in the image of Nicole deBoer holding a gigantic rifle and tracking a serial killer while embracing her darker nature.

The darkness within.

The production team very clearly want to generate a sense of tension or ambiguity here, to put the audience on the edge of their seats. How far will Ezri go? How far will Joran push her? Will some part of Ezri enjoy this, because at least some part of her is Joran? Will this case awaken something primal and something terrifying in Ezri, something that will not be suppressed as easily as Joran was by Curzon and Jadzia? Is Joran still dangerous, even as a projection of Ezri’s psyche? Has Ezri made a deal with the proverbial devil?

However, there are several key problems with this. The most obvious is that Field of Fire directly follows The Emperor’s New Cloak. That episode got considerable mileage out of the surreal image of Nicole deBoer as a punk rock leather-wearing bad ass, the violent and forceful mirror!Ezri providing an effective contrast to her more restrained and gentle mainstream counterpart. Obviously, Field of Fire is built around Ezri rather than mirror!Ezri, but it still feels like the audience has only just seen Nicole deBoer subvert her “sweetness and light” persona.

Grave concerns.

The other big issue with this is that nothing that happens in Field of Fire really carries across the rest of the season. Ezri seems to successfully integrate Joran into herself, in a way that Curzon or Jadzia could not due to their wiped memories. However, there is never a sense of what that really means. Ezri has long talked about the strange subconscious character quirks that she carries over from the earlier hosts, but there is never a sense that Joran properly asserts himself in the rest of the season. Ezri never takes up an instrument, to give one example.

However, there is also just the clumsiness with which Field of Fire attempts to execute this particular plot. Joran seems like a generic Hannibal Lecter knock-off, the kind of character populating countless nineties feature films and television shows. Lon Suder made a much stronger impression in Meld, partly because of a stronger script and partly because of a stronger performer. In contrast, Leigh McCloskey never quite manages to get a proper read on Joran. The script does not help. Joran never met a serial killer cliché that he didn’t like.

Klingon to past relationships.

“You remember what it was like,” Joran teases Ezri at one point. “The excitement, the passion, the looks on their faces as they realised we were the last thing they’d ever see.” Joran might as well be quoting from “The Big Book of Lecterisms”, stock serial killer dialogue. Indeed, Wolfe’s script stops just short of embracing the more discomforting aspects of the serial killer genre. Joran never challenges Ezri to play god, never wonders whether this is how mortal lives must appear to omnipotent beings. Joran’s dialogue is very safe, and never as unsettling as it should be.

This is perhaps the biggest issue with Field of Fire, the hard boundaries that the script sets upon itself. There is never any real sense that Ezri is danger of being corrupted by Joran. To be fair, Ezri is a series regular and there is quite simply no way that Star Trek would allow a series regular to murder in cold blood. However, Field of Fire repeatedly backs away from any genuinely unsettling plot or character beats. Tuvok went much closer to the edge in Meld, but Ezri stays perfectly between the lines in Field of Fire.

A sight for sore eyes.

Consider the moment in which Joran convinces Ezri to use the TR-116 rifle. This might just be the most tense moment in the episode, if only because the camera is willing to put Ezri (and the audience) inside the killer’s head. The tension mounts very effectively over the scene, as Joran pushes Ezri further and further along. Ezri is reluctant to hold the rifle; then Ezri is reluctant to aim the rifle; then Ezri is reluctant to peer into private quarters. It all builds to the moment when Joran urges Ezri to pull the trigger so that she might feel what the killer feels.

The scene ends with Ezri refusing to pull the trigger and Joran revealing that the rifle is unloaded, the limpest possible conclusion to the sequence; Ezri would never kill anybody and she couldn’t have if she wanted to. The sequence would be more effective if it reversed either premise. What if Ezri had pulled the trigger, and only realised after the fact that the gun wasn’t loaded? What if Ezri didn’t pull the trigger, but realised that she had subconsciously loaded the gun? Either beat would add some tension and ambiguity to the relationship between Ezri and Joran.

“You might feel a sharp stabbing pain.”

Field of Fire keeps trying to escalate situations that seem fairly routine. At one point, Sisko and Odo seem to freak out about Ezri when she tackles a fugitive at the bar. Sisko seems willing to bench her for threatening the suspect with a knife. “You mind explaining this?” Sisko asks. “I’m told that if Odo hadn’t stopped you, you’d have stabbed Ensign Bertram.” It is a stock moment in any narrative like this, one suggesting that the character is feeling the pull of the dark side.

However, Field of Fire refuses to properly commit to the moment. Ensign Bertram is innocent, but Ezri could know that at the time. Ezri simply saw a man fleeing the authorities during a manhunt for a serial killer. She intervened to stop his escape, at which point he hit her. Ezri then wrestled with a man who looks to have been considerably larger and stronger than her. In order to subdue this violent and larger (and potentially murderous) opponent, Ezri grabbed a knife and threatened him with it.

That’s subdue, Ezri. That’ll subdue.

Ezri is undoubtedly very stressed out by the whole situation, but nothing in that sequence seems unreasonable or indefensible. Jadzia or Worf might have been able to subdue their opponent in a cleaner fashion because of their martial arts experience, but Ezri reacted reasonably well under the circumstances. It seems absurd that Odo and Sisko should react so strongly to Ezri’s reaction, particularly given that neither character is aware that Ezri has been consulting with Joran on the case.

It is a great example of Field of Fire straining to heighten the stakes, but unwilling to commit to the necessary discomfort. Had Ezri actually cut Ensign Bertram after he was subdued, then Sisko and Odo would have cause to worry. Had Ezri begun torturing Ensign Bertram for information, or for a confession, then Sisko and Odo would have cause to worry. However, Field of Fire understands the beats that this story needs to hit, but struggles to actually make them compelling.

“On this station, we do things by the book! … Mostly! … Frequently! … Occasionally?”

Similarly, the episode’s ending feels very rushed and abrupt. It also hinges quite heavily on racial profiling. Literally all that it takes for Joran and Ezri to figure out that they are looking for a Vulcan is a single line of dialogue. “A killer who hates laughter,” Joran muses. “Who hates emotion.” That seems like some questionable logic right there, right up there with Sarek’s assertion that all Tellarites argue for the sake of arguing in Journey to Babel. It is a thin line between world building and casual racism. This is certainly an unfortunate way to wrap up a forensic thriller.

In some ways, the revelation that the serial killer is a Vulcan makes a certain amount of sense. Psychologists argue that repression is not healthy, and can lead to disruptive behaviour. Vulcans are certainly nothing if not repressed. However, there is more to it than that. Deep Space Nine seems to have been particularly cynical about Vulcans, as established in episodes like Shakaar or Take Me Out to the Holosuite. Perhaps this cynicism is an extension of Deep Space Nine‘s irreverence towards some of the franchise’s sacred cows.

Not so green behind the pointy ears.

Indeed, the final exchange between Ezri and Chu’lak seems almost intentionally provocative. Riffing on the kind of snappy closing dialogue that audience expect from shows like Law and Order or Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Ezri demands, “Tell me. Why did you do it?” Chu’lak responds, practically trolling, “Because logic demanded it.” It is very much a non-answer to Ezri’s question, but the decision to fall back on a stock Star Trek cliché seems to be teasing those fans in the audience who might be offended by the idea of a Vulcan serial killer.

Field of Fire is a much stronger episode than Prodigal Daughter or The Emperor’s New Cloak, even if it suffers from many of the same weaknesses. Field of Fire at least plays with a couple of its interesting ideas, particularly the surreal attempt to do a forensic thriller in the Star Trek universe. That said, the episode fumbles an intriguing premise. The result is far less compelling than the idea underpinning it. Still, Field of Fire brings a close to this mid-season slog, allowing the final season of Deep Space Nine to get back on track.

5 Responses

  1. I really wish Chu’lak was following orders from an imaginary dog.

  2. Couldn’t agree more on the “racial profiling”. I really like the mood and style of this episode a lot. De Boer’s performance is great, the story works pretty well (though I wonder how this exographic sensor or what it’s called might actually work and how it would be a great tool for voyeurs), especially the link to Dax’ own past and it is quite suspenseful not only the first time you see it. But the whole show is stained by the obvious “essentialist” racism at the end. As a child/youth it did not bother me so much, but now it really feels strange. I mean, I do not object the conclusion itself, but the way Ezri gets the idea is too rushed indeed.

    • Yep. There’s a debate about how this is just the species essentialism (as you describe it) is just the logical conclusion of something that has been running through the franchise since at least The Next Generation. The idea of species that have defining traits. (One thing about the original Star Trek was that the Klingons featured were different enough from one another that they felt quite diverse; of course, about half of them were horrific racial caricatures.)

      • I guess it might okay to portray some phylogenetic traits (fear reactions, etc.) that are common among a species. But in most cases ideologies are basically linked with species. It also strikes me as a grave tactical error because it would suggest that you can basically know how your enemy will react. And it would seem strange, even if most planets in the ST universe are basically pretty unified, half-militarised planetwide societies. Which would suggest that maybe the unification into one world-state (which is also a prerequisite for acceptance to the Federation) has its disadvantages when it comes to cultural diversity? Not sure if this is what the people behind ST really want to convey…

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