Sunday, December 13, 2015
“What war hasn't been a war of fiction?”: The Storyteller
The biggest problem Star Trek has from an ethical anthropological standpoint is its well-known predilection to fall into the “planet of hats” issue. In less netspeak terms, this means Star Trek has an annoying tendency to depict extraterrestrial civilizations as monocultures in service to metaphor and allegory. Star Trek isn't the only sci-fi-fantasy work to have this problem (in fact I'd argue it's effectively endemic to the genre) and I don't even think it's anywhere near the worst perpetrator of it, but it is a problem Star Trek is famous for having. There are a number of reasons for this, most of which have to do with the inherent problems of using people or groups of people as dolled-up metaphor in this way, but the one that's relevant to tonight's discussion is the inescapable fact that a voyaging starship can't stay in one port of call long enough to flesh out any given society to the realistic extent they really deserve. Because in theory this is something Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is primed to alleviate and another huge reason why it's such a necessary second perspective on the Star Trek universe. With our city's proximity to Bajor, there's really no functional narrative reason why it need be depicted in the traditionally shallow and superficial sci-fi-fantasy way.
(Actually I tell a lie for the purposes of argument. Star Trek's biggest problem from an ethical anthropological perspective isn't the planet of hats issue, it's the Prime Directive. But I'm not about to dig up that old chestnut again.)
“The Storyteller” is the first episode to really grapple with the potential this setup offers the show, and it succeeds with flying colours. We get not one, not two, but *three* different representations of Bajoran culture that differ from what's been established thus far across both the A- and B-plots and the story even throws us Kira in specific opportune moments to further the contrast. There's of course the village of the Sirah that Julian and Miles visit, but also the Paqu and Navot delegations that Commander Sisko has been asked to mediate between. In each case, we get to see glimpses of folk belief and cultural norms and attitudes that differ just enough from established dogmatic Prophets theism that it's uniquely memorable: The first Sirah obviously talks a lot about destiny and chosen ones being sent from on high wand whatnot, but it's obvious this is mostly rhetorical bluster and the village has a special set of folk spiritualism all its own based around the Dal'Rok and the telling of the tales that's found nowhere else on Bajor. Meanwhile, the Paqu and Navot come across as practically agnostic, more concerned with immediate (and hyperlocal) material concerns like borders, treaties and trade agreements. A far cry from the priests, monks, refugees and former resistance fighters we've seen so far.
This means “The Storyteller” is kind of the perfect way to follow on from this past week and a half's crop of episodes. Firstly, it's an important continuation of certain thematic strands from “Battle Lines”: Among other things, that episode showed how Star Trek: Deep Space Nine could still do stories involving exploration and voyaging to new places (in the Gamma Quadrant), but while giving that brief its own unique twist. This one gives us the flipside, showing us what being stationed in one place can offer the show by, in one episode, fleshing out Bajor leaps and bounds beyond what was capable before. Secondly however, and more importantly, it makes up for the lazy, lackluster and kiddie pool depth world building of “Rightful Heir”. The Klingons are probably the most egregious example of a monoculture in all of Star Trek, and there's frankly no reason for that to be necessary. Star Trek: The Next Generation has (or *should* have) Worf, a uniquely Klingon diasporan, shaped by Enterprise values. “Rightful Heir” gave us not just Worf, but Gowron's imperial court, Viking Space Opera Jesus *and* a Klingon ice monastery and somehow *still* managed to be possibly the most boring and inept fucking thing all year.
Like other standout episodes before it, such as “A Man Alone” and “The Nagus”, “The Storyteller” is a great showcase for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine capturing snapshots of life across all striations of society. Just about every main character has some level of investment in the plot of the week, and everyone seems to be thinking about its themes in their own way. There's Julian and Miles needing to learn to work together for the first time, setting the stage for their fire-forged odd couple friendship in the second season. That's almost subtly mirrored in the Paqu and Navot needing to find a way to resolve their conflict peacefully, as is Hovath's need to come into his own and take his rightful place as Sirah of his village with Varis Sul's need to find away to prove herself as Tetrarch and defuse the powder keg political situation she inherited from her late father. Everyone has something to do this week (OK, Jadzia gets like a line, but Ben and Kira didn't need her, so it's OK for her to get some time to herself) and Deep Space 9 feels like a busy and cosmopolitan place where something's always going on.
I want to take some real time to single out and praise Varis Sul's story here, because she's always been one of the most memorable parts of this episode to me. And that says a lot in an episode where working man Miles O'Brien becomes The Man Who Would Be King and tries to help a village of Bajorans ward off a monster from fiction by reminding the townsfolk that belief and perception make reality through the medium of oral history and storytelling. And all that stuff is absolutely brilliant, it's every bit as oversignified and I love it every bit as much as you'd expect I would and it's definitely a huge part of the reason “The Storyteller” is one of my all-time favourite episodes: It's something only Star Trek can do and something Star Trek: Deep Space Nine does especially well. But it's the added wrinkle of Sul, and her relationship with Jake, Nog and Benjamin, that really cements this one's classic status because it shows Star Trek: Deep Space Nine not just aiming for and hitting one of its signature targets, but *all* of them.
I didn't always though, because this gets back to the themes about adolescence we talked about in the context of “The Nagus”. When I first saw this episode I thought the B-plot felt tacked on and kind of juvenile and didn't work well with the clever metafictional stuff the Miles/Julian story was doing. But that couldn't be further from the truth: Not only do the A- and B-plots flow effortlessly into one another, the B-plot is doing something terribly important in its own right by continuing the show's examination of the struggles of young people. As always you've got Jake and Nog, who bring with them their own signifiers we've talked about before, but here we also have Varis Sul, a teenager who's not allowed to be a teenager because she's had her adolescence stripped away by the Cardassian occupation. Like so many kids with similar stories in the real world, she's been coerced by imperialistic forces to grow up immediately to take care of her people in the aftermath just so she and they can continue to survive.
The episode could have gone the “Rascals” route here and treated Sul the same way Guinan treated Laren, with Jake and Nog giving her back the childhood they felt she was robbed of by showing her the joys of good old fashioned teenage mischief, but it *doesn't*: Instead, while she enjoys their company, Sul hangs around Jake and Nog mostly to get information on Jake's father so she can decide if she can trust him, and she's clearly uncomfortable during Nog's prank with the oatmeal and the bucket (although wonderfully, the show pulls the frankly astonishing feat of redeeming the Ferengi capitalist mindset, as it's those very skills of barter and cost/benefit analysis that help Sul figure out how to work out a compromise that will appease the warring factions). But more importantly, “The Storyteller” never depicts Sul as a tragic figure forced to grow up too soon: She's plainly more mature for her age than Jake and Nog because she has to be, her mind is always on her duties and she has no desire to recapture some idealized fantasy childhood that's been stripped from her. She wants to be a strong leader for her people and knows she's fully capable of it-Indeed the only reason she took such a seemingly “childish” hardline stance is because she felt the Navot would view her as a weak-willed and unsteady girl instead of a leader, which frankly is a not an unwarranted concern for her to have.
(I think my problem with the adolescence stuff is quite simply that it's not a set of themes I really like engaging with. I'm a bit sick to death of ruminations on teenage anxiety, no matter how well done they may be, because of how oversaturated pop culture is with them as a result of pop culture being overwhelmingly directed at adolescents. Once again Star Trek: Deep Space Nine does it exceptionally well, the best I've ever seen it done, but I just can't get invested. I want to read stories by adults, for adults and about adult issues. The entire prank scene is action I flatly did not need to see and the show could have cut straight to Ben and Sul in the office and I would have been perfectly happy. But that's just personal preference.)
And a huge part of why she finds such a close ally in Commander Sisko is that Ben *respects* her for all of that and everything else she stands for. I *adore* both Avery Brooks' performance here and the lines he's given: The contrast between his attitude towards Jake and Nog (and Jake and Nog's bumbling depiction here) and the tone he takes with Sul is night and day: He never once talks down to her, thinks less of her or expresses reservations about her abilities because of her age or her gender. I mean not that Ben talks down to Jake, but he's always aware Jake is still a learning and growing teenager, because he is. That's not patronizing, that's good parenting, but it just serves to highlight how Ben treats Sul as an adult and an absolute equal without reservation, no different than if it had been her father. And even so, at the same time, you still get the feeling Ben feels sorry for this poor girl and all the responsibility that's been hoisted upon her, and that all that Sul tells him about her own father isn't just idle conversation: Ben becomes for Sul a kind of mentor as well as a mediator, and I thought that relationship was handled exceptionally well. I always wanted to see how it could have developed further, with Ben seeing Sul both as a strong local political ally and perhaps the daughter he never had.
(In that regard, one scene I really loved was Sul's question to Ben “Didn't you, in your youth, ever do something stupid to impress a girl”? to which he responds “Perhaps I did”. Of course, we know he did because we saw it happen in “Emissary” with the lemonade on the beach fiasco!)
This is also a good episode to compare the diplomacy styles of Commander Sisko and Captain Picard that will become more of a central theme a year from now. Personally, I don't think either should really be written as diplomats: One's an explorer and the other's an administrator, but they do both have some basic understanding of and skill with diplomacy. But Jean-Luc is written as a skilled diplomat far more often to the point it's become a basic assumption made about his character, and as such one could argue he's a bit more tactful than Ben, who tends to prefer playing hardball to get things done. Or maybe it's more accurate to say Ben is tactful in a different way: After all his mentor was Curzon Dax, and you could conceivably see some of that influence shining through in the way he deftly and respectfully works with Sul here. That's another reason I'd love to have seen the Ben/Sul relationship developed further: I would have loved to see it paralleled (literally mirrored, in fact) with Ben's relationship with Jadzia.
I'm not sure where “The Storyteller” stands in fandom these days, but I don't recall it having a hugely positive reaction back in the day. And it should, because this is a really stellar outing. It's got fascinating things to provoke discussion at every level, one of the most trailblazing and redemptive scripts we've seen yet and a host of memorable performances from just about everyone: Colm Meaney and Siddig el Fadil are obviously standouts, as is Avery Brooks, but Cirroc Loften and Aron Eisenberg are endearing and believable as always and I adore René Auberjonois as basically a grouchy truant officer or campus security officer. And guest star Gina Phillips gives a formidable turn as Varis Sul. The fact that the boldy and openly metafictional implications of the story are what I wound up talking about the least should speak volumes.