Tuesday, April 12, 2016

“Maya”: Shadowplay

A holographic little girl discusses the nature of imaginal reality with a formless being and a goddess. This is an interesting one.

We should begin with the personal identity theory and problem of self themes which naturally always crop up in any story like this. As one might expect from this show, particularly this show this season, the problem is addressed and dealt with rather easily. As a direct thematic follow-up to both “Inheritance” and “Whispers”, it's never portrayed as ambiguous whether or not the colonists really are sentient beings. That is, if you discount Odo. Odo's apparent uncertainty over this fact is a reflection of his own inner nature, not necessarily a statement of judgment: He's accompanied Dax to the Gamma Quadrant to look for clues about his history and identity, and he wants hard and clear answers. Of course, Dax has helped him in this regard before, earlier in the season in “The Alternate”. But seeing “The Alternate” is not a necessary prerequisite for enjoying this episode.

Odo is a neoplatonist here, out searching for an objective reality he can define himself in accordance with. He's also a detective, heavily invested in solving mysteries and getting to the bottom of a capital-T Truth he sees as being wrongfully withheld from him. It's of little surprise that the mask he crafts for himself involves serving as a constable, an elected law-enforcement officer with changeably defined responsibilities. This is, of course, and always has been, the key to understanding who Odo is: The naturally fluid and amorphous shapeshifter yearns for form and rigidity because of his own reflexive questions and self-conscious insecurities. Odo likes hard facts and hard truths, things he can hold onto and be absolutely sure of. So naturally he's going to be less than thrilled with the colony of holograms whose holographic nature is being hidden from them. To him, this is a willful Obfuscation of The Truth, a crime being committed that someone must be held accountable for.

Except Taya tells Odo that shapeshifters aren't real. Which means, by definition, Odo isn't real either. And things suddenly got all “Ship in a Bottle” up in here. Although then Taya says she wants to be a shapeshifter, because that would mean she could be anything and everyone would want to be with her. And maybe the better analogy is Promethea...

Taya and the rest of her people are real because Rurigan treats them as if they're real. He designed them to be exact duplicates of his deceased family and friends on his homeworld and loved them the same way, which means the holographic villagers have become them. This is personal identity theory working on the plane of the imaginal: Not only the psychical continuity of one person, but an entire world kept alive through one person's perspective of it. The imaginal is dynamically formless: Shaped by positionality, it can also influence it in turn. Gods inarguably exist in the realm of the imaginal, and gods can reshape themselves into new identities through mythopoeia. In essence, they are shapeshifters, with a myriad of different contextual lives identities-Not one Self, but a plurality of selves. Which is an altogether fitting bit of oversignification, considering Odo is accompanied in this episode by an actual goddess.

Yes, you read that right, and no, there's no need to act so surprised about it. She's not textually divine, of course, and yet Jadzia Dax is constructed out of a series of allegories and analogies that really make the most amount of sense if you read them as pointing to her coded divine nature. She's a living series of nested metaphors about the divine. She's an Otherworldly role model who exists on a higher plane of existence (this was, in fact, one of the very first things she told us about herself, if you recall). As a Trill, Jadzia Dax has not one identity or self, but a plurality of them, and like all powerfully divine figures she exists as a sacred union of masculine and feminine energies. She can even change her shape and form. Jadzia only ever exists in the margins of a story (when people try to write stories about her things tend to get awkward and wonky, she's someone you have to just know), as is always the case for goddesses in the written record, yet her presence is always keenly felt.

Layers and layers of parallels, mirrors and symbolic association point to the underlying reality we search for. Star Trek claims to be an ensemble show, but loves to hero worship its (male) Captain figures: On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Commander Sisko is the Emissary to the Prophets, the one who travels to the Otherworld and consults with the gods. Many cultures consider the hero archetype a semi-divine or divinely ordained figure, and there are other similar stories of prominent figures earning respect and authority through symbolic union with the gods. Celtic mythology has its semi-divine heroes travelling to the Otherworld and back for counsel, and tutelary deities who could grant or remove sovereignty to local authorities through ritualized matrimony. Myanmar has the legend of the God-King, who invokes Shiva through the ritualized joining of male and female totems, where divinity is explicitly equated with the union of masculine and feminine energies.

But in modern narrative, the feminine side is suppressed. We love our gods and heroes, not so much our goddesses and goddess energies. Commander Sisko entered the Bajoran wormhole with Jadiza Dax, yet only Commander Sisko officially gets to be called Emissary (notice also, please, how the Prophets can change how they present at will). And yet Jadzia remains, a Goddess-Queen to his God-King. She is the unspeakable Other, the one who cannot be spoken of, yet who also cannot be ignored. But Jadzia is more than feminine, or even sacred feminine, she herself is an embodiment of the divine union. She remains and exists to remind us of our latent potential, and what we've forgotten under the clattering wheels and grinding engines of the master narratives of history (why else would Jadzia Dax be paired with Odo here, who displays this power in a different way? Both she and he are pan-gendered, and thus a simultaneous male and female spirit). The sacred becomes profane and feminized, and then reappropriates that femininity to reclaim its awesome power.

It helps this power come through that there is genuine evocative craft here. A recursive myth, “Shadowplay” imagines an entire world for us in much the same way Rurigan does for his community. In this case, the world of Deep Space 9. A rare A-B-C plot, and an even rarer one where the story's themes and motifs permeate at every level. Not only is this episode boldly mystical in a way Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has largely stopped trying to be this season, it also gives us a vertical slice of life in this world, another hallmark of the series that it proved to us early on. Aside from the Dax/Odo stuff on Rurigan's planet, there's also the story about Jake admitting to Ben he doesn't want to go to Starfleet Academy, and Kira trying to keep things in order in Odo's absence, particularly where Quark is involved (as well as some more development of her relationship with Vedek Bareil). And each and every story deals with the nature of illusions, reality, and perceptions making reality.

“Shadowplay” then does what Star Trek has been seemingly desperate to do for so long: It reminds us of the ancient truths that have been the birthright of humanity for as long as they have existed on Earth, and it does so by showcasing the potential of genre fiction. And not just any genre fiction, horrid dime-store serialized pulp genre fiction that's Star Trek's real ancestry. Whose presence is more revealing than Kenneth Tobey's, storied character actor and veteran of such shlock classics as The Thing from Another World, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and It Came from Beneath the Sea, not to mention cornerstones of United States myth and legend Disney's Davy Crockett and Gunsmoke? The hard-broiled product of the pulp serials beholds the entheodelic and dreams the world. Even in the meat-and-potatoes staples of capitalized, mass-market fluff storytelling, there remains an essential power that seeps through. Art has power no matter what form it takes, all it requires is someone to understand and channel it to reconnect with the divine.


  1. Oh, bravo, you hit it utterly out of the park with this one, and on one of my favorite episodes to boot!

    Tangentially, someday I really must write out my thoughts about the Flux and how the only unnatural thing in the universe is consciousness, That-Which-Divides.

  2. I am going to be very happy if Odo's character arc is him learning to reject neoplatonism in favor of existentialism.

    Because that is basically the best character arc for any neoplatonist.

    (Seriously, fuck neoplatonism.)

  3. Of course you spend this review mostly talking about Dax, even though the heart of the episode, all it's emotional power, is with Odo, who begins the episode scoffing at our "fixation with romantic coupling" and ends it with the knowledge that love and empathy are how we make people real to us, how we convince ourselves that the other is as real as we are.

    This is another episode, and one of the best, in Trek's illustration of how different forms of being are just as alive as we are, even radically different beings. Silicon-based creatures. Androids. And holograms, too, and I giddily point out that this episode may have laid the fictional groundwork for the most famous hologram of them all.

    We can't really know, says some philosophical quandary, whether other people are really real, as we believe ourselves to be, or just simulacra or even figments of our imagination. The hell we can't. We must. Refusal to see the other as just as much an emotional/intellectual being as we are is a cause of extraordinary suffering. We have empathy at our disposal. Why not trust that the forces that shaped our evolution gave it to us for good reason?

    Finally, I'm loving the format of separating two crew members from the main cast and marooning them somewhere together to solve a problem or overcome hardship. I like it better than many single-character episodes, better than ensemble episodes that give everyone a little bit to do but give no one a lot.

  4. "But in modern narrative, the feminine side is suppressed. We love our gods and heroes, not so much our goddesses and goddess energies. Commander Sisko entered the Bajoran wormhole with Jadiza Dax, yet only Commander Sisko officially gets to be called Emissary"

    Great post and great episode! Wonderful and true point that Jadzia is a Goddess, and I myself am weary of the male dominion of the heroic role and worship of them. That just needs changed.

    1. If I ever get around to writing The Season Seven That Should Have Been (Plus Also Changing the Season Six Finale), the fact that Jadzia is also the Emissary would be quite important at the end.

    2. You have to do it, I would read the hell out of that! Seriously, that sounds pretty wonderful.

    3. Okay, fine, a little taste since you asked. The challenge I set myself was that I could change literally nothing prior to Jadzia's death--that was the first moment at which I would be permitted to diverge from the show. And this is very much a first draft I am just dashing off in this comment. So.

      Dukat gestured. The fire of the Pah Wraiths burning with in him flowed into Jadzia. She flinched, gasped, and Dukat smirked.

      His smile faded rapidly as Jadzia remained standing. Settled, even, coming out of her flinch as her face settled into her usual expression of serenity. Dukat had always found it infuriating, but now?

      Now it frightened him.

      The fires of the Pah Wraiths continued to flow into Jadzia's belly, which glowed orange in their fury. It was accomplishing nothing, so Dukat ended the attack.

      Or tried to. The fires kept flowing, refused to stop.

      "What... what is happening?" he demanded.

      "I came here to pray to the Prophets to give me a child," Jadzia replied. "And then you offered me ten billion frightened children who missed their home. How could I say no?"

      "The Pah Wraiths..!" Dukat gasped, sagging to his knees as the power flowed out of him into Jadzia. "The power of the Pah Wraiths... is..."

      Jadzia shrugged as the last of the energy poured out of Dukat, into her. "Power," she said, dismissively. Then she gave Dukat a teasing smile. "You're confused. Let me help with a little story. Once upon a time a man newly arrived to Bajor took a runabout in pursuit of a mystery, discovered the Celestial Temple, and spoke to the Prophets. When he came back, everybody hailed him as the Emissary, and nobody ever thought to ask the woman who went with him if the Prophets said anything to her."

      She sighed, almost blissfully, as the orange glow turned blue. Then it flowed out of her, out of the station. The wormhole flowered, took the Pah Wraiths into itself, and closed again. "Ten billion down, infinitely many more to go."

      She looked back down at Dukat, his wide-eyed stare, his expression of total incomprehension. "The Prophets sent the Emissary to help the inhabitants of Bajor come out of their long suffering, guide them, bring them to healing. But just like everyone forgot that two people discovered the wormhole, they forgot that there are two species suffering on Bajor." She turned to look at the tabernacle holding the Orb. "Benjamin is the Emissary to the Bajorans. Just between you and me, though? I think the Prophets gave me the harder job."

      *fade to black, closing credits*

    4. Synopsis of my version of Season 7, episode 1 (reflecting Terry Farrel's stated desire to be downgraded from regular to recurring guest star): Jadzia is offered a promotion to Commander, but is unsure whether to take it. A new counselor, the unjoined Trill Lt. Ezri Tegan, arrives on the station. Bajor and the Federation nearly come to violence over which one will try Dukat for his war crimes, because Bajor wants him executed and Starfleet Intelligence wants him alive to be pumped for information. Sisko resolves the situation by pointing out that Dukat committed crimes against the Cardassians, too, which are a Cardassian internal matter, and therefore the Prime Directive requires handing him over to be tried by them, which the Bajorans accept because it means Dukat will be executed. Jadzia accepts her promotion and says goodbye, because the promotion entails leaving DS9 to become captain of the USS Sao Paolo.

    5. Thanks for indulging mr Froborr! Great stuff, which I will start using in my head to replace the TV show as presented - after all that is only one version in one reality.

      I genuinely had goosebumps up my back and neck when I read the line:

      "When he came back, everybody hailed him as the Emissary, and nobody ever thought to ask the woman who went with him if the Prophets said anything to her."


      And the line about the two species on Bajor. Beautiful.

      Really, thanks for putting this out in a comment, you made my morning! I look forwards to reading more sometime.

    6. Thanks! I'm glad you liked it. I felt pretty good about it as I was writing it. And truth is, Jadzia told me that she's not just another Emissary, but specifically the Emissary to the Pah Wraiths while I was writing, somewhere between "Dukat smirked" and "Now it frightened him." The parallel of two emissaries to two species suffering and "Oh, duh, instead of having the Pah Wraiths just disappear out of the narrative because I hate Manichean BS, I can make their S7 story be about healing and redemption!" flowed from there.

      I will probably post synopses, maybe ficlet versions of important scenes, as comments on Mark Watches in a few months when he gets to the end of Season 6. I will probably then compile them on my blog in some form.

  5. And I love coming up against terms I've not heard before - such as 'entheodelic" - which was totally new to me. I found an interesting quote from Benton Rooks who says that he coined the term with Graham Hancock, Rak Razam, & Jeremy Johnson. On his site (https://bentonrooks.com/what-is-entheodelic-storytelling/) he says that:

    "Sacred stories at one point in time were holographic visions that the shaman actually shaped through words, but were also predominantly visual, morphed and structured by words, but seen on the astral plane and material plane simultaneously. These stories were specific in function. They were a means of passing along wisdom and to help newly initiated members navigate in Innerspace. According to Grant Morrison in Supergods, comics popularity as a medium is a testament to the longing that the West has to contact the Gods and connect to the primal magic of the invisible world once again. In it’s temporal amnesia, the West has temporarily lost sight of this ancient storytelling tradition, but these secrets are not totally lost."

    That first sentence sounds like a lot of Star Trek to me. And thanks so much for the post, as this links right in with the purpose of my storytelling and a lot of the sources of my inspiration for my work in general.