Sunday, November 15, 2015
“She most lives”: Dax
I'll bet you can guess how I feel that Jadzia Dax is the character who gets the treatment in question. But what makes it even worse is that this actually doesn't make any real dramatic sense! Think about it: How much more dramatic would it had been if, rather than deciding to indulge their Buck Rogers fantasies, the writers actually let us know this was going to be a courtroom drama from the start. Imagine if in the teaser the Klaestronians approach Dax in the corridor, validate her identity, and than flatly state “Jadzia Dax, you are hereby under arrest on suspicion of treason against the Klaestronian people and the first degree murder of General Aredlon Tandro, my father”. Tandro, Jr. slaps handcuffs on Jadzia, we pan up to a shot of her stoic and unmoved expression, and then fade right to black and cue credits.
Casting doubt on characters like Kira, Quark and Odo is one thing. Quark is set up to be a shady dude right from the start, from her first appearance Kira's loyalty to us is in question (though if you'll notice, that seems to have all be resolved as of this episode: Kira is one of Commader Sisko's staunchest allies all throughout the investigation. Uh oh, the crew seems to be getting along! Guess it's time to cancel the show then!) and before we got to know him better we could imagine Odo being the kind of person who might take his dedication to justice a bit too far. But Dax? The wise woman of DS9? I mean hell, if you're looking to shock the audience and get them to distrust the characters (I mean, I personally don't think that's a great idea, but this team sure seems to think so) I can't think of a blindside bigger than accusing Dax of all people of murder. High treason...OK, maybe. But murder? That's a twist worthy of a teaser.
The rest of the story has its ups and downs and has a lot of fruitful material to discuss, and is obviously one that's quite important to me, but that whole first sequence absolutely mars the episode and singlehandedly consigns it to the rubbish portion of this season it otherwise could have marked the end of. Furthermore, in the words of Kira Nerys (or at least the words she was thinking and would have said had this show not needed to be censored and cleaned up for pre-watershed audiences) it really pisses me off. I don't know which of this story's two writers was responsible for this, but whoever it was they ought to be ashamed of themselves. We've gotten to the point where this team's fetishization of outmoded and sexist narrative tropes isn't just reflecting badly on them, it's actively working to make the finished products materially worse than they should have been. And not just by my standards: By 1993 standards this would have been seen as unacceptable.
It's things like this, especially coming so soon after Jadzia's tragic absence from “Birthright, Part I”, that conspire to hold her back out of the gate more than she really needed. Thankfully it's never going to be as bad for her as it's all too often been for Deanna Troi and Beverly Crusher, but it'll still be another year before this team will be able to completely strike a comfortable balance in writing for her as a character while keeping all her symbolism intact. And by then it'll be just about too late.
“Dax” is definitely the strongest of this run of troublingly mediocre stories though, and in spite of all that does actually manage something truly special with the title character. This is I'm sure in no small part due to the fact it marks D.C. Fontana's return to Star Trek after five years, though also sadly her final script for it (not her final contribution to Star Trek, I should add, but her final filmed teleplay). For the sake of my sanity and motivation, I'll make the quite possibly unjustified presumption that Fontana was *not* the one responsible for that train wreck of an opening act, even knowing that Peter Alan Fields is capable of some pretty masterful stuff himself on a good day: He helped give us “Half a Life”, a good deal of “The Inner Light” and, coming up, “Progress”, “Duet”, “The Circle”, “Necessary Evil” and “Crossover”. On the other hand, he's also responsible for “Cost of Living”, so there's that.
And yet it still doesn't feel like Fontana's doing anyway: Her touch is present and very noticeable all throughout the rest of “Dax”. Apparently she was brought in because the team wanted a vetted sci-fi author to handle a story that was intended to be very heavy on exposition and world-building. Which it is, and that's actually one of the other problems with it: This episode is basically “The Measure of a Man” for Jadzia Dax instead of Data (to the point I misremembered the scene where Kira questions Sisko at his request as Kira being coerced into prosecuting the case like Will Riker was), but while the earlier story had a lot of hauntingly gripping scenes deftly and profoundly exploring slavery, the self and personal identity theory to make up for its legally questionable plot, “Dax” doesn't have that luxury.
Everything from the trial framing device itself to various bits of dialog all throughout feels ever-so-slightly stilted and unnatural, as if it's been forced to service the episode's numerous infodumps about Dax's backstory and Trill culture instead of the other way around. Which it kinda is. People say things that don't really sound like what we'd expect their character to say because most of them sound like questions the writers are assuming the audience has about the setting and the plot, so they get said just to get addressed. This is like Trill Biology and Culture: The F.A.Q. But credit where credit is due, Fontana is an old hand at this, her having been there when this style of genre fiction writing was in vogue, and while it's not her personal style she acquits herself well to it.
All of the players, including the regulars, never lose their voice in spite of the stifling sci-fi weight hoisted onto them, and for a lot of them this is their best outing to date. The succession of witness testimonials at the climax as Sisko, Kira and Bashir in turn take the stand is absolutely gut wrenching as you can read on their faces and in the tone of their voices that they all know they're running out of time and options as they look imploringly to Dax to help them help her. And naturally, it's Sisko and Dax themselves who shine the brightest: Ben is an open sore of emotion and raw passion, while Jadzia remains almost irrationally calm and placid. But that doesn't mean she doesn't feel: This is Terry Farrell's first real showcase since “Emissary”, a test of her physical acting she excels at. Everything she does here from her reaction at hearing the name Tandro to the way she starts to choke up when talking about Curzon's ring is simply masterpiece work.
And whenever the two of them are together, sparks fly. Fontana finally drops all the show's pretense-If you don't see in her writing or Avery Brooks and Terry Farrell's acting a portrayal of a relationship that has gone well beyond friendship into something more deeply and uniquely meaningful, you're pretty much willfully trying to ignore it. As Ben tries to prove Jadzia and Curzon are different people, he's also trying to come to terms with that reality himself. In his testimony, he admits to the court, to us and to himself that while Curzon was his mentor and biggest inspiration, he doesn't know how he feels about Jadzia yet. Or at least he's not sure he's ready to admit it.
He's overwhelmingly protective of Jadzia, almost endearingly so, and one assumes he might not have taken quite the same tone had Curzon still been alive to defend himself for a lot of different reasons. Dax herself must be flattered at the overture and touched by his loyalty, but she probably also sees in him a reflection of the excess youthful exuberance exhibited by Julian. Their entire subplot here is about reexamining and coming to terms with what they both mean to each other. The scene where Ben breaks down at Jadzia's feet as she gently caresses his cheek and assures him he's done all he can and there's nothing she expects from him just melts me. It shows the scope of their feelings in their purest, rawest form and even doubles as foreshadowing to the eventual plot twist. Any sense of duty or honour indeed. This isn't what a mentor consoling a protégé looks like. This goes beyond friendship, and it's no simple basal romance either: What Ben Sisko and Jadzia Dax share is something altogether grander than both.
This episode is an interesting one to give to D.C. Fontana on other levels too. She's always been known for her imperiously powerful matriarch characters, for pretty obvious reasons, and “Dax” has four of them. First there's Kira, who, though she's a supporting character this week, Fontana clearly took a liking to and had her proudly show off her confidence, competence and swagger whenever she got the chance. Then there's the frankly amazing arbiter Els Renora whose wonderfully sardonic attitude gives us many of the story's memorable lines (hell, they're some of the season's most memorable lines). You have to wonder if the by this point assuredly crotchety Fontana, bitter after decades of putting up with Star Trek's shenanigans, saw Renora as a kind of author avatar, particularly when she tells off the testy Sisko and Ilon Tandro like a pair of hormonal teenage boys, One can imagine her expressing similar sentiments to herself speeding away from the Paramount production lot never to return, possibly muttering something to the extent of “I'm too old for this shit”.
And then of course Enina Tandro, who really has the bulk of the emotional and dramatic weight here. She represents a different side of age and experience, and her story arc is a genuinely moving Star Trek: The Next Generation kind of attitude about aging and time. The defining moment for her is when Odo reveals that her son is about to condemn Jadzia Dax, an innocent young woman, by wrapping her up in the thirty year old dirty laundry of people who are all too dead to care. Enina knows the younger generations should not be made to answer for the crimes of their elders and that they must be allowed to live their own lives, a moment that interestingly hearkens back in more than one way to “Half a Life”. Her farewell to Jadzia in the denouement, one of the all-time greatest scenes in the history of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine can thus be read at a somewhat superficially metatextual level about Fontana's own farewell to Star Trek, placing it in the hands of the person she sees as most deserving of inheriting the mantle.
There's an aspect of truth to this, as Fontana has herself stated Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is her personal favourite Star Trek. But there's way more to the scene than just that. Because Jadzia is of course the fourth lady of power in this story, even though perplexingly this episode isn't really about her. But that's sort of fitting: Jadzia is the ultimate Star Trek character because she's the ultimate supporting character. She's going to work best when the show doesn't force her to bear her own interiority, but rather uses her to elicit certain reactions from the people around her. This episode isn't about Jadzia Dax (even diegetically, as Tandro, Jr.'s argument she and Curzon are the same person is plainly nonsense and he's just using that to justify satiating his bloodlust), it's about what other people think Jadzia Dax is and why she's important to them. Benjamin is very openly grappling with this, and while Julian and Nerys don't have quite as powerfully personal a stake in the matter as he does, they're still clearly affected. And Tandro, Jr. and his lackeys can't even see Jadzia as her own person.
(That scene with Enina and Odo reminds me: I'm spending so much time talking about Sisko, Dax and the female characters I'm almost forgetting to mention how utterly brilliantly Fontana writes Odo! He almost steals the show and to me this is the moment where he finally comes into his own as a character. There's the curt, yet admirable dogmatism in his fierce loyalty to justice which in this case prevents him from entirely dismissing Ilon Tandro's claim outright, but his scene with Enina is one of the absolute highlights of the whole piece. He's a full-on 24th century Columbo, standing well back, both in terms of narrative and visually in terms of blocking, asking polite, though leading, questions until he eventually gets at the truth he needs. And furthermore, inspiring her to take the action she must take to allow the healing to begin. A shape shifter goes where needs to and takes the form he has to to get his job done.)
Jadzia then must be a fascinating figure for D.C. Fontana: So many of her matriarch characters have been just that; older mother figures. And there's a bit of that here, what with Enina's plot, some of Renora's lines and even the fact Jadzia seems to take a subtly mothering and nurturing tone with Ben on occasion. The only time she's really had the chance to work with an actual younger female lead is in “The Enterprise Incident” when she tried to turn Joan Linville's Romulan Commader into one. But, as Renora points out, Jadzia is both 200 years her senior and about the same age as her great granddaughter. Here, Fontana gets the chance to synthesize both of her favourite (or at least familiar) character archetypes, and it's intriguing that it's in a character who spends most of the episode deliberately in the background. Amusingly enough, the staff writers seem to think Jadzia's dual nature is a source for sweet, juicy inner conflict given some of the things they've written about this story, as if Jadzia is somehow in a state of permanent identity crisis, constantly struggling to come to terms with who she is.
But that's clearly ridiculous. Jadzia Dax is straightforwardly and obviously both young and wise. She's her own person, but she carries the experience of many other people with her. There are parts of her that are as much Curzon as they are her own: Her sense of honour and loyalty and the love she has for people like Ben and Enina. Just like we all do, she tries to take the best parts of her forbears while casting aside their vices and negative energy. The eternal now, where we revisit our memories to help make us better people now. There's no conflict, because she's absolutely at peace with who and what she is. She couldn't be joined if she wasn't. That's sort of the entire point of this episode, isn't it?
Live, Jadzia Dax.