Thursday, October 22, 2015

“Geometrically Demonstrated”: A Man Alone

Of course Jadzia Dax would spend her free time meditating. With a video game, no less. Technological media does not supplant spiritual experience (except when appropriated by hegemonic forces of social control), but it can offer a glimpse of it, or at least a simulacrum of it. We can't spend every waking hour in an altered state of consciousness, so art exists that we might not lose sight of what's real. 

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is in the position of justifying its existence. With its pilot, the show has decisively seized the zeitgeist, but it still needs to let us know the sorts of things it's going to do and how it's going to operate on a week-to-week basis. What we see in “A Man Alone” is already very compelling, however: The plot is a simple sci-fi murder mystery the likes of which even Dirty Pair on an off day can do, but even that is an important indication of one of the things that sets this show apart from its sister. Star Trek: The Next Generation is ideally a show about voyaging and exploration-The Enterprise crew is best seen as a team of scientists going out and doing their jobs, which are in the business of making new discoveries about themselves and the universe. The inhabitants of Deep Space 9 are a far more heterogeneous bunch, however; most of them are civilians and business owners and the joint Starfleet/Bajoran action staff are basically administrators. My favourite analogy is to think of the Enterprise as a research vessel and Deep Space 9 as a port authority.

This means that the Deep Space 9 team are going to be spending most of their time dealing with situations that crop up in their jurisdiction, so to speak. If you can imagine the station as a kind of port city, you can conceive of a lot of things that could only happen in a setting with that sort of eclectically striated society. That's not to say we won't get a fair bit of world building to go along with that: Bajor alone is ripe with infinite possibilities for storytelling, and the Gamma Quadrant is their very own “vast unexplored reaches of the galaxy” waiting to have research teams sent into it, just like Miles tells Keiko here. But it's the station itself that will unquestionably be the primary setting, so “A Man Alone” does a great job showing us what this looks like in practice.

Against that backdrop, a murder mystery is a straightforwardly sensible thing to throw out as your first nominal episode. There's Prophets-only-know how many detective shows and police procedurals on the air, so it's a solid idea to use that as a case study for how this series can do urban slice of life in deep space. But while it's Odo's story that's obviously front and centre this week, there's a multitude of other stories going on all over the city as different family units and circles of friends try to get themselves situated: We have the expected (and ever-so-slightly stock) marital strife with the O'Briens, the beginning of the Jake and Nog Comedy Show and the quite fascinating Sisko/Dax/Bashir dynamic that's beginning to take shape that I'll be spending a great deal of time parsing out, but we even get a look at the lives of characters who are effectively extras. Quark's patrons are obviously regulars and there's a tantalizing shared history there dating back to the days Deep Space 9 was under Cardassian jurisdiction we don't get to see. But that only serves to further enrich the tapestry the series' world is hinting at.

(And outside the narrative, in sound, Jay Chattaway is continuing Dennis McCarthy's thread from “Emissary” by giving us a very New Age feeling soundtrack. It's an interesting clash with the nuts-and-bolts materialism of the plot, though not an off-putting one, and helps to set the hazy, dreamlike and wondrous tone that surrounds Deep Space 9.)

In that regard it's pretty bold to come right out and do racial hate crimes as your very first story. It actually feels like this team has been chomping at the bit to do something like this for ages, and it certainly fits the bill for that precious “conflict” we seem to adore so much. But if it's the kind of “conflict” we've had preached at us for four years it demonstrates an incredible feeling of nuance and maturation we've honestly not seen from this team before. The friction between Odo and the Starfleet officers comes purely out of Odo's stubbornness, inflexibility and unwillingness to turn to others for help. There's no “gotcha!” moment where Odo gets to call out Sisko, Dax or Bashir for being a hypocrite: In fact, he pretty much sets himself right up to fall into Ibudan's trap. That's not to say we don't understand where he comes from, though, nor does it in any way excuse the treatment he gets from the Bajorans. It's also pretty brave to have the oppressed Bajorans be the ones to form a lynch mob: The complex, multilayered politics that will define this series are already present and obvious.

And while I'm sure it's nobody's highlight of “A Man Alone” except mine, I also have to talk about the actual science mystery part of the story. It's clever enough with the whole clone deal, but, as is so often the case with Star Trek, it's the images that stick with me. This is actually one of the most visually iconic episodes in the series for me, and it makes up one of my earliest and most vivid memories of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I can't actually remember when I started watching the show (I know I was watching it on and off all throughout the 1992-3 and 1993-4 seasons), but it must have been pretty early on because I *definitely* remember Sisko, Dax, Bashir and Odo staring at that gelatin dude in the tub. That was one of the screenshots that was used all the time in my Starlog magazines as the production and early broadcast of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was being covered, and I'm *positive* I saw it on TV at some point too. After I got Season 1 on DVD and started rewatching the show later on, I grinned from ear to ear when I got to “A Man Alone” because so much of it felt familiar to me. I remember Julian working over that bubbling mad scientist tub!

Speaking of Julian, and Ben and Jadzia, their subplot *really* caught my attention. In fact, the whole Sisko/Dax and Dax/Bashir dynamics are beginning to strike me as way more intricate, complex and interesting this time around then I'd ever given them credit for being before. So the irritatingly persistent Nice Guy act of the sort Julian engages in is and always has been juvenile at best and creepy and stalkerish at worst. I have a redemptive reading that explains this away, but we need to wait until Garak gets here to start playing with it. One thing to say is that this viewing has basically confirmed something I've always kind of suspected about how this works on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which actually ties into that very utopianism some writers would be so keen to get away from: Jadzia is actually a strong enough character that this wouldn't bother her, because she's old enough she recognises the signs of brash and impetuous youth for what they are and wouldn't feel threatened by them. And because of the gender equality taken for granted in most of the Star Trek universe, she knows there's no patriarchy or rape culture that might otherwise put her at risk.

So on that note, I was almost surprised, albeit pleasantly, to see how Jadzia basically *teases* Julian here! That whole scene with the video game from when he comes in until Ben joins them she's *totally* messing with him. She is trying to teach him meditation techniques to help him clear and focus his addled mind, but she's *also* very clearly having fun with him in the process. Julian doesn't have a chance with Jadzia and they both know it (even if he doesn't want to admit it), but that doesn't stop her from knowingly flirting back in good fun. Even if you cast aside all the information we know about where her character goes later and just look at what we know from this episode and “Emissary”...Jadzia will say relationships don't mean the same thing to Trills as they do to humans and she finds romance more of a “nuisance”, and she is right: Jadzia isn't looking for romance in the everyday sense, but that doesn't mean she's not looking for an intimate (even a physically intimate) relationship with others. There are other, higher ways of loving and knowing someone than what we think of as romance.

One of them is how Sisko and Dax love each other. And they do, they absolutely do: None of their scenes together in this episode give off a “we're better off as friends” vibe. There's something way more sophisticated at play here. Ben is obviously torn as to his feelings-He sees Dax as the mentor and father figure Curzon used to be for him, but he is clearly also attracted to Jadzia. Everyone can see it: Quark can (though he'll laugh it off), Odo can, Julian can and so can Jadzia. And she's gently leading him to make peace with those feelings and integrate them into their shared life together in a productive way-That's the whole point of her “I suggest you allow yourself to be comfortable with your discomfort” line. She's trying to guide him to a point where he realises they can have a loving relationship that transcends that of best friends, mentor/mentee or boyfriend/girlfriend (it's worth keeping in mind how in the early drafts of the series bible, Dax wasn't Sisko's old mentor in a new body, but his ex-girlfriend). It's a more spiritual and intimate version of Captain Picard's relationship with Guinan.

But what really knocked me for a loop was the lunch scene with Ben and Julian. My memory of this episode has Julian cranky because he thinks Ben is his “competition” for Jadzia's affections, and it does start out that way. But in practice that actually lasts only until Jadzia brings up her desire to “live on a higher plane”, at which point his tone changes. But it's when he has lunch with the Commander himself that things get really interesting for me: They immediately start bonding with each other over their shared affection for their friend, and Sisko explicitly parallels himself with Bashir when he regales him of the hijinks he and Curzon used to get into. He remembers what it's like to be that age. And it's not Bashir, but Sisko who brings up the potential love triangle, immediately offering to bow out. But Julian keeps pressing him to admit his feelings for her, flat-out stating that “If I were in your shoes, knowing Dax as intimately as you do, I think I'd find her hard to resist”.

He's not doing this out of spite or jealousy, the tone in Siddig el Fadil's delivery is entirely that Julian is saying this out of genuine, heartfelt care and affection for his new friend (and probably the fact Sisko is his commanding officer has something to do with that too, but still). The way he responds to Ben's reaction to his prodding is really counterintutitive: He thinks it's adorable Sisko cares for Dax so much. He wants them to be together and doesn't want to stand in the way of that. All of a sudden, Julian seems to be playing matchmaker. But at the same time, he's still got his own stake in all this. Sisko assures Bashir he won't give him any “competition”. It's the graceful, adult thing to say. But he's still invested, and Julian sees that. Not only does he see it, he acts on it. To be blunt, Julian now seems to be angling for a polyamourous relationship between him, Ben and Jadzia and seems to be testing the waters to see what his boss thinks of the idea.

(I also think it's pretty funny how they both just assume that just because Dax identifies as a young woman now she won't be game for the same sort of mischief and roughhousing Ben got into with Curzon. Seems everyone here has been misjudged to some extent this week.)

What easier, more stock way is there to force conflict onto a set of characters than to shoehorn them into a love triangle? It would have been the most obvious thing in the world for this conflict-addicted creative team to pen, and yet the *very first thing* they do is set it up just to knock it down. They'll never admit it, but Gene Roddenberry was right: We *really have* moved beyond such “petty squabbles” in the 24th century.

And so life goes on aboard Deep Space 9. That's how this show will carve out a niche for itself. Vignettes of daily life on the Edge of the Final Frontier.


  1. I'm loving your readings on this.

    Like many people watching this during their youth, I had a massive crush on Jadzia. I now realise that I also had a perhaps more intellectual crush on Dax, and the idea of the Trill.

    I got into DS9 when I was about 10, and later Doctor Who when I was about 20. I think it's clear to me now there's a through-line of interest there for me, in regenerative, near-immortal characters, always different-but-always-the-same, 'containing multitudes'. An interesting comparison, the Trill and the Time Lords, apologies if you've made it before!

  2. Solid, solid, solid.

    The two main takeaways I had on my rewatch were interrelated. One, the well-planted, well-tended seed of Keiko's resolution here and thinking in advance of the incredible (and incredibly relevant today) pay-off at the end of the season.

    Two is just what they are able to do with the large "public space" setting of the Promenade deck. In this episode and the next, and the last a little bit, we see something we've never been able to see on the Enterprise because of each deck and cabin being segmented. And that's different story paths criss-crossing.

    We get things like Dax and Sisko walking down the corridor, then we cut back to what they just walked by, and it's the kids pranking at the Replimat, and then we cut from them getting hauled off by a Bajoran Deputy to Keiko watching the whole thing and having an epiphany.

    We see a bit of it in Quark's bar as well, as the multiple levels work to give us a similar shared space intrigue that allows for some superb stage direction and narrative play in the staging, as we can follow Quark & Odo's conversation up to the O'Briens, across to Sisko and Dax, back to the O'Briens, and back down to the bar.

    Eye lines! Try spotting some long distance interactivity from the Main Bridge to Ten-Forward! It can't be done!

    The new space has afforded them somewhere for directors and script writers to really show off the goods, and not just showcase that they've finally after six years got this Star Trek thing down pat, but that they've finally been afforded the opportunity to stretch their fingers a little and show off an expanded scope of film-storytelling techniques.

    1. Oh, and all the while we see something that jogged my memory of some talks back in the Original Series discussions - a strong focus competency. The plot can't come together unless everyone can do their jobs well, and even without an engineering problem to solve, O'Brien's considerable experience comes into play as he coolly heads off the riot.

  3. OK, I'd like to get some negatives out of the way first. I've been watching these in broadcast order, and my first comment applies to this and Past Prologue (which I watched immediately before): the boob fetishism. The very worst of it is in that episode rather than this, but there's still some of it here and my reaction carries over. It's bad enough with the cutaway costuming of the Klingons, but at least they have faces and (very slight, but existent) characterisaton - the way the women in the promenade are costumed and shot is treating them as pieces of meat for the camera, pure and simple. It's awful. And in light of this attitude to women Keiko's subplot here feels somewhat sour. She's a scientist with no teacher training, so the fact that she starts a school - which is presented as an empowering move for her, and in other circumstances it could have been - feels more like "oh, let's shove a female character (the one we forgot to include in our cast dynamics plan) into a traditionally female role, and because it's a traditionally female role let's assume you don't need any training for it. After all, those who can't do, teach, right?". Which rather took away from my happiness at Keiko getting screen time.

    Having said that, this was another strong episode. I didn't mind the SF nature of the mystery at all, and it gave us more opportunity to see those dynamics I mentioned in action (I don't remember, but I'm guessing Quark defending Odo would have been an "oh, it's that sort of relationship" moment on first watch). And I'd completely forgotten how well the Bashir/Dax/Sisko trio was handled!

    So, still very definitely thumbs up, but with a caveat. I kind of wished I'd watched this one before Past Prologue, now!

    1. In regards to Lursa and B'Etor (who, just to reaffirm, are not in this episode), I think unfortunately they're going to carry sour implications anywhere by virtue of their less-than-noble origins. They're damaged characters from the get-go.

      Keiko becoming a schoolteacher has never sat especially well with me, to be honest, with the caveat "In The Hands of the Prophets" is brilliant. I didn't want to complain about that at length here though, especially with so much other interesting stuff going on elsewhere.

  4. "To be blunt, Julian now seems to be angling for a polyamourous relationship between him, Ben and Jadzia and seems to be testing the waters to see what his boss thinks of the idea."

    Great reading. I missed it at the time, but can see it now and it's really refreshing to see.