“Let He Who Is Without Sin…” (season five, episode seven; originally aired 11/11/1996)
In which Worf goes to Risa and has terrible time…
I didn’t go to a lot of parties in college. But I wasn’t a complete outcast, and by my senior year, I actually managed to develop a decent-sized social group. This was a mixed blessing; on the one hand, it meant I didn’t feel quite so alone; on the other, I had more opportunities to emotionally wound or embarrass people who cared about me. But either way, that meant more parties. I never quite got the hang of parties, but I liked the idea of them, and most passed in a sort of general, mildly intoxicated, moderately belligerent blur. Once, someone might have talked me into starting a fight club. It was a weird time.
Anyway, the reason I bring this up is, at this one party I went to, there was woman my age—let’s call her Sarah. Sarah was a little crazy (she joined a cult for a while after she graduated), and she had this habit of stripping down in public when she got drunk. Actually, I don’t know if she was drunk or not, but I’m thinking probably? She was a big believer in being free and the beauty of the human body and what not. And she was cute, if that’s important. So at this party I’m at, she and her boyfriend decide what the hell, they’re going to take off their clothes in the living room, and I decide I’m going to be in the other room while this happens. Sarah notices me leave, and she follows me, shouting (cheerfully) at me about the aforementioned beauty of the naked whatnot. I want to stress, she wasn’t romantically interested in me; this wasn’t some weird mindfuck she was doing on her boyfriend, or whatever. Sarah was just super cheerful and kind of messed up and convinced everybody should see her naked. And it made me incredibly uncomfortable. Seeing a cute young woman completely naked should, theoretically, be a pleasant thing for a straight guy like myself. It was not. There was a repulsiveness to the experience, not because of anything specific about her, but just the shock of it, of being forced to deal with someone else’s openness when I didn’t want to.
All of which is just to say: I get where Worf is coming from here. At least, I should get it. Risa, the pleasure planet first mentioned on Star Trek: The Next Generation, seems like it could be a nightmare of bad boundary issues if you aren’t ready for it. “Let He Who Is Without Sin…” does its best to make it look like the place is heaven for anybody but the squarest of squares, but Worf’s refusal to put on an embarrassing swimsuit and enjoy the general fuckery shouldn’t make him a monster. People have good times in different ways, and deeply private individuals shouldn’t be shamed by extroverts because they don’t want to go along with the crowd. I’m not sure that’s enough content for an entire episode of DS9 (it sounds like something better suited to a kid’s show), but it’s not an inherently broken concept. But instead, we get “Worf is a big old grump who gets super into this dreary conservative movement and threatens his relationship with Dax and is also kind of creepily controlling and vaguely psychologically abusive, before it all gets resolved in the quickest, laziest way imaginable.” Also, Bashir and Leeta break up, and apparently everyone on Bajor is super well-adjusted, because they have to go through a ritual to end their relationship. And Quark is there, because… I don’t know, really, but he gets a few funny lines. Vanessa Williams shows up, and doesn’t really have a homoerotic vibe with Dax. Also, the clothes. Sweet zombie Jeebus, the clothes.
The major problem right off the bat is the problem all modern Treks seem to have with sexiness: They’re terrible at it. I’ve never been able to pinpoint why. Maybe it’s because everything seems so easy and low-key. (Which says something horrible about my brain, I guess.) The clothes are definitely a factor. It’s like watching softcore porn with the porn part cut out, and it rarely, if ever, has any heat behind it. Risa is supposed to be a kind of new, and extremely smutty, Eden, and we’re supposed to be invested in its survival. But watching people have low-stress fun isn’t really conducive to drama, and apart from a certain “I guess I wouldn’t mind getting groped by a Sears swimsuit model” escapism, Risa isn’t a very interesting place. It lacks specificity: The show’s idea of a perfect vacation spot is at once disappointingly narrow (frolic! fuck! frolic! fuck! play some made up sports game! frolic-fuck!) and tediously vague, just a lot of generalized cliches that never crystallize into anything with dramatic potential. Williams’ character Arandis, the chief facilitator who literally fucked Curzon Dax to death, is just a well-meaning stewardess. It’s not that Williams is bad in the role; there’s just no role to be bad in.
But Risa isn’t meant to be much more than a symbol anyway, a staging ground for Dax and Worf to work through their relationship problems in a theoretically thrilling fashion. It goes about as well as you’d expect: We learn in the cold open back on DS9 that Worf is jealous of Dax for having lunch with one of her former lovers (with a see-through skull), and generally upset with Dax’s openness about their personal lives. This is handled lightly, although it’s clear the two have issues they need to seriously discuss; those issues become more prominent over the course of the episode, as Worf’s frustration ultimately drives him to align himself (however briefly) with a fringe group calling themselves the Essentialists. The Essentialists are obsessed with returning the Federation back to the “old way,” and their leader, Pascal Fullerton, sees Risa as a symbol of all that is soft and weak-willed about modern times. Given Worf’s love of routine, security, and discipline, it’s not surprising that he’d be drawn to the group, especially given how much Risa’s charms make him into an outsider. Plus, the more he and Dax struggle to work through their problems, the more it seems like those problems are unsolvable, driving Worf to take action that, in a different context, he might not have.
There are some possibly fruitful ideas buried under all of this, but unfortunately, “Let He Who Is Without Sin…” is a mess from the title on down. Apart from the slight but pleasant Bashir and Leeta plot (the optimism about how relationships end in the future is almost charming in its naïveté), this is all Worf and Dax yelling at each other, and it’s frustrating to watch. The Essentialists are such a light gloss on the stereotypical concept of a conservative advocacy group that they’re barely even a metaphor, and Fullerton’s sneering, condescending conviction seems so out of place in our conception of the Federation that it’s hard to reconcile it with the rest of the show. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a place for disparate views, and DS9’s writers have always been interested in showing the various downsides of a seemingly utopian hegemony. But the Essentialists aren’t given the dignity of a complex perspective. They’re just straw men set up so that Worf can learn a valuable lesson about whatever. Yes, there are cartoonishly simplistic protest movements in the real world, but great storytelling exists to increase our empathy, not decrease it; these guys are just hanging out waiting for Captain Planet to show up and lecture them.
Really, though, that’s not the worst part. Neither is Risa’s terminal blandness. What really makes this hour hard to watch is how it hard it works to destroy the Dax and Worf relationship under the guise of developing it. That relationship had potential, and I’ll hold out hope that it will improve in the future, but as is, these two people are not suited for each other in any way. Dax is easy-going, mischievous, and open to new experiences. Worf is none of those things. His attempts to dictate her behavior would be unbearable if they were aimed at someone with less of a will to resist, and even as it is, he comes across as a domineering prick. Fiction often likes to suggest that opposites attract, if for no other reason than opposites attracting allows for terrific storytelling potential; but while that sort of thing can happen in real life, it’s rare for it to be the basis of a lasting, healthy romance. Dax and Worf share a love of Klingon ritual, and a clear physical attraction, but this episode underlines again and again that they want very different things out of life. If Dax really understood Worf and cared about him, why the hell would she take him to the one planet in the universe least suited to his personality? And if Worf cared for Dax, why wouldn’t he make even a token effort to enjoy himself, or at least try and communicate why he was so uncomfortable?
Ah, but I’m forgetting Worf’s big speech, where he reveals the secret magical key that explains all his dickish behavior. See, when Worf was younger, he got overzealous during a game of soccer, and accidentally killed another kid. That’s bizarre, and it sort of justifies his emphasis on restraint and order, I guess. But it comes out of left field, and the attempt to use tragedy as a kind of code-word cipher to unravel the mystery of our favorite Klingon’s behavior is baldly manipulative. Being emotionally reserved isn’t the same as being deeply distrustful of the passions of others, and Worf has certainly not shown much reluctance to apply violence to problems in the past. (This is the guy who blew up a ship last season before bothering to check if it was the ship he was aiming for, after all.) Michael Dorn delivers the monologue well, and it certainly helps soften him a little, but it’s such an obvious attempt to explain why he is the way he is that it’s ultimately more distracting than effective.
It’s telling how, three-fourths of the way through the hour, after Worf has handed over the planet’s environmental controls to the Essentialists (or at least told them that’s what they should target; I guess if he’d actually be involved with their little terrorism game, he’d have to deal with actual consequences), Bashir and Quark ask Dax what she sees in Worf. She gives a little speech about how deep down he’s wonderful, and you can believe it or not as you see fit. The important bit is that Worf is given no such speech. It’s supposed to be obvious why he’s attracted to Dax—she is, after all, hot, and I guess maybe there’s some other stuff? There’s an assumption that because the writers have decided to put these two characters together, it should just automatically make sense, and, what’s worse, that the assumption itself doesn’t need to be justified. Worf’s attraction to Dax (he treats her like you’d treat an annoying but moderately sexy co-worker) doesn’t need to come from anything. Every scene they share together seems to be some kind of a mistake, two bullheaded people forcing their way through a bad idea. Worf is a challenging character to write for, given that his natural tendencies are at odds with what we usually like seeing in stories, but he can work, and he’s a solid addition to the cast. But this episode seems to go out of its way to make him a close-minded ass. It should be easy to root for Worf in this kind of situation: In his way, he’s the social misfit, the outcast, the nerd at the cool party. Instead, everybody comes off as tiresome. The social commentary is practically non-existent, and in the end, everything’s supposed to be okay again. I will accept this, insofar as it means the episode is finally over.
- Oh, and Leeta is into Rom now. Which… fine, whatever.
- Odo is amused that the O’Briens are going to name their son “Sean,” which means “swamp” in Bajoran.
- “I do trust you. I do not trust Captain Boday.”—Worf, being a tool. (Not trusting Boday means, what, he thinks Boday is going to hit on Dax? And that Dax is somehow going to be powerless to resist her ex’s charms? Unless Worf suspects Boday of being a potential rapist, not trusting the captain is denying Dax agency and not trusting her.)
- “All is ours, is yours.”—a Risan, being hella creepy.
- “Arandis was Curzon’s lover, not mine.”—Dax, apparently forgetting the time she was willing to go into exile to be with one of her symbiote’s former flames.
- Alexander Siddig is really skinny.
“Things Past” (season five, episode eight; originally aired 11/18/1996)
In which Odo isn’t perfect…
We want to believe in people. We want to find someone and say he or she is a hero, a symbol of all that’s good in the world, someone we can put our unquestioning faith in; here is someone who will always do the right thing. This is a natural, understandable impulse. It’s also a bad idea, and it’s the sort of bad idea we’re rarely willing to confront. The ideas of “good” and “evil” are abstract concepts, and people are not abstract, no matter how much we might pretend otherwise. It might hurt a little to realize that our idols had selfish thoughts at some point, that they fucked around from time to time, that they could be mean or dumb, but if we’re unwilling to accept this, we’re setting ourselves up for injury down the line. Being inspired by someone can and should be powerful, but worshiping them requires turning a blind eye to the vagaries of human behavior. It means pretending that an individual can stand up to an ideal; and then, when the pretense fails, acting as though it’s the individual’s fault, and not an inherent flaw in our way of thinking.
Odo isn’t the sort of person to feel comfortable on a pedestal, but apparently, that’s where the Bajorans have decided to put him. It’s only mentioned briefly in the episode’s cold open, but it drives the rest of the story, leading to a devastating final scene between Odo and Kira back on the station. Odo, it seems, is seen as a voice for pure, undiluted justice. Even though he served as security chief on the station during the Cardassian occupation, his time there is viewed as above reproach—the Cardassians may have been vicious bastards, but Odo served a higher purpose. At least, that’s what the Bajorans want to believe. It’s such a nice idea, really. Even with the shifting political situation, the corruption, the fascism, the forced mining, the Kafkaesque legal system, the hopelessness, Odo was was a constant. He stood for something apart from the petty infighting of the mere solids around him. And even with the Cardassians gone, Odo is still on the station, still doing his job. It’s a comfort to think there are some things can exist outside of politics.
Except, that’s not really true, and “Things Past” once again puts Odo through the ringer to show even he can be compromised. And this time, it’s not his Changeling family running the torment, but a minor plasma storm that just happens to set off the few Changeling cells still lingering in Odo’s system. (“Lingering” may be bad choice of words here; Bashir doesn’t suggest that Odo is going to return to his former self anytime soon, but the revelation that he isn’t completely solid does have some hope to it.) It’s a great explanation, because it means there’s no conspiracy or guiding mind behind what happens beyond Odo’s own guilt—the storm zaps the cells, the cells try and create a Great Link, and they simply latch onto whomever happens to be nearby. In this case, that’s Dax, Sisko, and Garak. Sure, as justifications go, it’s a bit of a hand wave, but it’s plausible enough to accept on face value, and it makes sure the dramatic center of the episode stays where it should be: on Odo, and his guilt.
Narratively, that guilt doesn’t come into focus until late in the hour, but Odo’s horror at finding himself back on Terek Nor makes it clear from the start that he’s hiding something. That’s another reason to enjoy “Things Past.” Typically, time-travel stories deal in practicalities: don’t change the timeline, how do we escape, etc. But while Sisko immediately starts looking for a way out of their situation, it’s obvious straight off that this isn’t a typical time-travel adventure. For one thing, none of our heroes actually look like themselves in the past. To others, they appear as Bajorans, and even more critical, they appear as specific Bajorans. Garak’s able to hack into the station’s security system, and he discovers that each one of them has an identity corresponding to a specific, presumably historical, individual. Garak ID’s Sisko and himself, but Odo knows his “own” name before needing to be told. Which, right there, tells you a lot. Especially when they learn that Thrax (Kurtwood Smith, always a treat), the current security advisor, shouldn’t actually be on the station at the time they traveled to. Odo should be in charge, but the past Odo is nowhere to be seen.
To be honest, Sisko and Garak should’ve figured out what was happening sooner. (Dax spends most of the episode chilling with Gul Dukat, so she has an excuse.) But that’s another asset to the story’s design: It’s just as easy to argue that none of them, apart from Odo, were able to think very clearly. The Great Link isn’t something non-Changelings are designed to experience, and while none of our heroes show any obvious signs of muddy thinking, it’s not unreasonable to assume their powers of perception are a bit off. “Things Past” starts off like a typical time-travel tale, but everything is just a little skewed, and that skewed quality is exaggerated as the story progresses. The tension here isn’t “Will Sisko and the others escape?”, although the script maintains that illusion for a good part of the running time. The tension is whatever Odo’s keeping hidden, and even that’s not exactly a secret. This episode isn’t really about suspense or present conflict. It’s just a very clever, effective way of delivering a flashback, and reminding us (and Odo) of how the past is never as far away as we’d like it to be.
There are flaws, though. Given the static nature of the situation, it makes sense that Odo is going to be the center of interest; the episode tries to hide this as long as it can, but that doesn’t make the non-Odo scenes easier to take. Watching Bashir poke around uselessly in Sick Bay isn’t particularly illuminating, not even the feint toward a threat when we see that Garak’s nose in the “real world” is bleeding after he gets struck by a Cardassian guard in the past. Simply staying in the past until the end of the story would’ve been far more effective, given that the disorientation and mystery of what was happening are the main initial hooks. Every time you see everyone lying unconscious on the station, it reminds you that this is all in their heads, and that erodes the immediacy. But then, if you got rid of the Bashir scenes, you’d have to find more for Sisko, Garak, Dax, and Odo to do on Terek Nor, and that has its own difficulties. As it is, Dax’s scenes with Gul Dukat are fine, but far from essential. It’s strange to have her sidelined from the action for so long, especially since Dukat isn’t relevant to Odo’s story. He brings Dax back to his quarters because he wants a friend, they chat a bit, Dax is nearly killed in an explosion targeting Dukat, and then she knocks Dukat out in an escape attempt. Sure, Dukat’s speech about considering the Bajorans as his “children” is creepily in-character, but it’s not anything new. Mostly, these scenes exist to try and distract us from Odo’s increasing desperation. It’s a trick, and not a very effective one.
Dosn’t really matter, though. The last act, as Odo finally comes to terms with what he’s being forced to relive, is powerful enough to overcome the minor padding. The story is fairly simple: While Odo was serving as security chief on Terek Nor, there was an assassination attempt on Dukat’s life. In his rush to judgement, Odo accused a trio of recent Bajoran arrivals on the station. The Bajorans were executed on the Promenade, and it was only later than Odo discovered he’d been wrong; they were innocent, and he was responsible for their deaths. Given how much value Odo puts in upholding the law, it’s no wonder that he’s kept this a secret from the others, and you have to wonder how much of it was just rash assumption, and how much of his mistake was driven by a need to fit in, to deliver what the Cardassians wanted him to deliver. His desperation as he argues with Thrax is all the more affecting when you realize he’s essentially arguing with himself, and that it’s an argument he can never hope to win. What’s done is done, no matter how much he regrets his actions, and no matter how much shame they cause him in the present. And now his sins are exposed to everyone.
Which brings us to the last scene, which helps to bring everything into focus. As much as Odo values his own self-confidence, Kira’s opinion of him must mean nearly as much, if not more; and her belief in his goodness, his righteousness, is shaken by the truth. Odo has ostensibly given up his romantic feelings for Kira, but she’s still arguably his dearest friend, and the idea that he’s hurt her must be deeply painful for him. It’s partly her fault, really. As she tells him, she wanted to believe that he was something better than the rest of them, someone who didn’t get his hands dirty during the Occupation, and that means she’s bound to be disappointed when he turns out to be more than just a symbol. But then, it’s partly Odo’s fault too. He’s compromised, but more than that, he held himself up as a that symbol Kira wanted so much. We want to believe in people. But just as dangerously, we want people to believe in us.
- Garak doesn’t get a lot to do, but he does it with aplomb. I want a Garak-centric story again, dammit. It’s been too long.
- Quark seems to enjoy the Occupation a little too much. It’s weird to see him ordering people around on Terek Nor, after his gradual but definite character growth in the present.
- “There’s more to life than the rule of law.”—Odo. And then, awfully, when Kira asks if these three Bajorans were the only innocents to die under his watch: “I’m not sure. I hope so.”
Next week: Odo and Quark must make “The Ascent,” and Sisko gets a bad case of “Rapture.”