Thursday, November 19, 2015
“The city's ripped backside”: The Passenger
One interesting thing to note about this episode, or at least where this episode falls in my coverage of the series, is that it's a Morgan Grendel pitch with help from Michael Piller coming immediately after another episode with the exact same credit (though the teleplay for “The Passenger” also had help from Robert Hewitt Wolfe, who's not on staff for Star Trek: The Next Generation). If Grendel is brought up in the discussion here though, it's typically to compare “The Passenger” with his most famous work, “The Inner Light”. Both stories do, after all, deal with a person living on in some form after death within the mind of another person, and some people like to read “The Passenger” as a dark reflection of “The Inner Light”. Grendel didn't mean for it to be though, and anyway the two episodes are only similar in a very superficial way: “The Inner Light” uses its premise to examine different kinds of utopianism and a life unexplored, while “The Passenger” uses its mainly as a plot device to set another mystery in motion.
Said mystery is a good fit for this story though, in a procedural sort of way: There's a dangerous fugitive running amok on Deep Space 9, and the team have to work together using their various skillsets to find him. And in spite of any protestations that this setup is too “Next Generation-like”, this is a premise that actually works way better here: We've seen plenty of examples in the past where trying to do a story like this on Deep Space Nine's sister show requires a significant amount of hoop-jumping, often involving the Enterprise having to escort some shifty dudes for some strangled reason, typically interrupting the galactic exploration they really ought to be doing. But it makes far more narrative sense for your undesirables to crop up in the stationary setting of this show, especially given the fact said stationary setting is an interstellar port city.
So in “The Passenger” we get another good look at the Deep Space 9 team in the role of first responders, investigators, and local city officials. It's a role we've not really seen them in since “Babel”, and not used quite to this extent since “A Man Alone” (though there's a little bit of it in “Dax”, I suppose). I've said before I really like seeing this crew used this way (it's probably my favourite alongside being intermediaries to Bajoran post-colonial politics) so no surprises I like it used here, but what I *really* like is how it develops the framework laid down earlier in the season and shows the main cast more comfortable in their roles and with each other. Yes! Shock of shocks, the crew actually does *get along* with each other, *and* their interplay is optimistic and utopian to boot. I guess cancellation really is inevitable at this point, isn't it?
So the characters. First of all, cementing my theory that Julian (and we'll obviously have to talk some more about him in another context later) is polyamorous, he's clearly hitting on Major Kira in the teaser, and doing a right poor job of it to boot. For all of the single target fixation on Jadzia Dax people traditionally read in him, the vibe I'm getting from him now is much more of someone who'll make a pass at anyone who makes the mistake of giving him a platform for a moment. He's the Ataru Moroboshi of Bajoran space. He's mostly focused on women right now, but that will eventually change. His biggest flaw is probably his arrogance and self-assuredness, though the tone in Siddig el Fadil's voice very much sounds to me like he's playing Julian bragging only ironically, which adds an interesting twist to the character I hadn't thought of before.
Meanwhile, on the subject of Jadzia Dax, I love her in this episode. Terry Farrell has allowed herself to get far more nuanced in her performance over the past few weeks, switching naturalistically between exuberantly geeky, flirtatious and coy, wise and aloof and gentle and reassuring, oftentimes in the same scene. I also love how we finally get the chance to see Jadzia sink her teeth into a proper tech mystery instead of just letting Julian handle everything. Which the show has done and could very easily have done again here, especially given Julian's subplot in this episode. Naturally Jadzia runs with it and is a ton of fun to watch, and as usual I really dig her interactions with Benjamin. The scene where she talks his ear off about her hypothesis as to how Vantika survived and their exchange in the climax communicating only through expressions particularly stand out to me.
Also great is the subplot between Commander Sisko, Odo and Chief Primmin. It's an endearing and necessary bit about differing perspectives and working together that curiously goes against a lot of what the stated intent for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine seems to be, and all the better for it. It's a deft execution of what's become a staple Star Trek plot that reveals Deep Space 9 is far more similar to the starship Enterprise in form and function than not, and more than some writers and fans might want to admit. Primmin, being a guest star, is implicitly coded as being from the outside. He's not of Bajor, not one of our regulars and thus, represents the “other” Starfleet. The Command Starfleet versed in protocol and blinded to imperialism and appropriation. He won't admit it, but he can't see how Odo and his Bajoran security team, the local rubes, could ever be good at their jobs. After all, Primmin went through official Academy security training on Earth and everything!
Crucially, Commander Sisko calls him out and dresses him down for this elitist snobbery. I love his stern reaffirmation that “We are guests of the Bajorans” and the contrast between his chastising of Primmin and his placating of Odo later: On the one hand he's drawing an explicit line and putting himself on Odo's side, not Primmin's (and by extension, Starfleet's). And yet at the same time, he's also stressing the need for cooperation and teamwork, because it's through those ideals that something can be built. Even as he's acknowledging the existence of rifts and different knowledge-spheres, he's also reminding Odo and Primmin (and by extension us) that the best solution is always to talk to each other and try to understand. Apparently Primmin's role was originally going to go to Miles O'Brien, but Colm Meaney being away filming a movie necessitated the creation of a guest character. It's a very fortuitous happenstance, because had that part gone to O'Brien it just would have ruined the whole episode: As it stands in the finished product, it's a testament to what Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's *true* purpose is: Not ceaseless conflict, but healing and building something new.
Speaking of guest stars, I really loved Caitlin Brown's Ty Kajada. She's one of the most memorable guest stars of the year for me, and she provides the other side of the argument Chief Primmin's presence hints at. What we've basically got in “The Passenger” is another instance of a trend I started talking more at length about back in the fourth season: That while it sounds completely counterintuitive and goes completely against Michael Piller's original dictum, Star Trek tends to work *best* when an episode's dramatic and emotional weight goes to the guest stars, *not* the regulars. While the Deep Space 9 crew are most certainly invested, the story here is really Kajda's, not Odo's or Julian's or Quark's. Dax touches on this when she and Doctor Bashir point out how Kajada's life has been defined by her relationship with Vantika, and how as a result she knows him better and more intimately than anyone else.
And I thought it was perfect that she executes Vantika herself in the denouement, and the look Brown gives in the final shot tells it all: She's overwhelmed by the freedom the weight of her responsibility to him being lifted has afforded her, but her life is finally hers again and she's free to do as she will. It's almost as if she's finally ended an abusive relationship, which in a way she did. We always say on Vaka Rangi that one comes to the Enterprise to become a better person through the act of voyaging and exploration that's equally inward- and outward-facing. But couldn't we also say that this is almost more true of Deep Space 9? A city that one physically has to actually “come to” and that's built on the ideals of rebirth and reconstruction, a quite literal gateway to enlightenment. Like so many other things about these two shows, it's the same idea, but examined in each case from a slightly different perspective. And yet we need those differing perspectives, because they all tell us something about the whole.
I also think it's significant that Kajada is surrounded in that moment by Sisko, Dax and Bashir. Julian was a potential love interest for her, something that was more clear in the earlier drafts and that yet again plays into my theory he's just ready to jump at anything. Ben is many ways a parallel reflection of hers, being the most notable example of a person who came to Deep Space 9 to leave their old life behind and begin a new one. And there's Jadzia, who can't help but be a metatextual spiritual guide and teacher. It's a skill she just radiates and she has an impact on the narrative through her presence alone.
Another scene I liked along those lines, although I didn't when I first rewatched this episode, was right after Bashir was revealed as Vantika's vessel. Dax goes looking for him, can't find him, then rushes to Ops telling Ben “I can't find Julian anywhere!”. She never gets to actually tell us she's figured it out, even though she's the one who came up with the theory in the first place, but Terry Farrel's tone paired with the direction and editing of that scene gives the impression that Dax has moved the plot forward and the crew is diegetically aware of this. It's as if the information was communicated telepathically (and hey, didn't we say back in “Babel” that Jadzia doesn't need words to communicate?) and right after that Sisko, Kira and Odo figure out exactly what they have to do.
Making Doctor Bashir Rao Vantika's receptacle is obviously more of an excuse to give Sidding el Fadil the chance to show off other parts of his acting range than it is an attempt to define Julian's character further, although I suppose one could make the halfhearted argument that there are parallels between Julain's mild narcissism and his status as a healer and Vantika's obsessive complex to preserve his life at all costs, a dark reflection of sorts (and I'm also reminded here of “Criados' Heartbeat” and all the accompanying transhumanist themes that went along with that episode as well. Interesting too how they crop up again on a show with similarly explicit mystical and sublime themes).
This is also where I was going to level my biggest criticism of “The Passenger”, because frankly I didn't find Sid convincing as Vantika at all. it seemed a very laboured and stilted performance, and I was all ready to gently critique him for perhaps being a younger, less seasoned actor, but then I found out that all his lines as Vantika were actually *dubbed over* after the fact and this wasn't the performance he'd intended to give at all. That explains everything-Apparently he originally gave a take that was reminiscent of Bela Lugosi, which I personally would have loved to see as I think Vantika's part definitely demands a more overtly inhuman and monstrous approach. One of the original pitches, as Grendel points out, was to make Vantika a sort of Hannibal Lecter character, and I think that would have been a blast to see. But, the team didn't like it for whatever reason, so they had Sid go and re-do all his lines in post. I don't know what the original take was like, but I daresay it surely would have been a bit less awkward to watch than this.
And just to round out the main cast, I want to make special note of Quark's role here. It's oftentimes too easy to write Quark off as a goofy comic relief character (in fact, there are a pair of episodes coming up that do their very best to cement this in the audience's minds), but I think that's an appalling waste and shortshifting of Quark's potential. Although there's the tendency and temptation to write him that way, Quark is actually most effective in episodes like this one and “Emissary”: He does some very unpredictable and often morally questionable things, any silliness derived from his Ferengi heritage used more for obfuscation. “The Passenger” is a great example, because while he's not outright hijacking the freighter, he *is*, as is mentioned several times in the story, acting as a middleman to facilitate it. And while Quark has enough of a conscience and set of morals such that he's definitely still a good guy, he's not someone you should just write off or turn into a buffoon either. What he offers is yet another perspective, and it's a perspective well worth paying attention to as the show develops: Effectively, he's a a Ferengi Humphrey Bogart character.
With “The Passenger”, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is finally back on its feet. Well, barring one particularly egregious face-plant next week that is. But in spite of that, and granting there's still more experimenting to be done with it, I think we've found the winning formula that will keep us afloat from here on out.