Friday, September 16, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #141: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "The Visitor" (1995)


The fourth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was one of authentic creative rejuvenation and rebirth for the series.  This sortie of episodes brought the addition of  actor Michael Dorn (Worf) to the ensemble cast, introduced a new Klingon-Federation conflict, and finally gave audiences a bald, bad-ass Captain Sisko (Avery Brook).  The season offered quite a few stunning episodes as well, including the epic "The Way of the Warrior" and my personal favorite Deep Space Nine episode of all time: "The Visitor."

Why do I enjoy this particular episode of Deep Space Nine so much?  In short, it concerns two topics that are near and dear to my heart: the father-son relationship, and...writing as a vocation.

Delightfully, the episode handles both subjects with flair, honesty and some real emotionality.  Where so many Star Trek shows are appropriately epic in scope, "The Visitor" is all about intimacy, and the intimacy of a tragic life-story -- shared between strangers -- on a  portentous, rainy night.

In "The Visitor,"  young Jake Sisko (Cirroc Lofton) is hard at work trying to wrangle a recalcitrant short story when his dad, Captain Sisko (Brooks), asks him to join him aboard the Defiant to observe a twice-in-a-century phenomenon: wormhole "inversion" 

Jake reluctantly agrees to get his head out of his writing for a spell and does as his Dad asks. But on the mission, something goes terribly wrong.  The Defiant suffers a warp core breach and while repairing it, Captain Sisko is drawn into a realm of subspace beyond the reach of Federation science.  Although he re-appears infrequently, for all intents and purposes, Benjamin Sisko is lost...a ghost.

Jake mourns the loss of his father, and attempts to carry on with his life.  The years pass, and he marries a beautiful woman, and even becomes a successful, highly-respected author.  But still, Jake is scarred by what this episode tenderly and poetically terms "the worst thing that can happen to a young man:" the death of his father. 

Ultimately, Jake's driving obsession with rescuing his lost father drives away those that he loves.  He even abandons writing to focus on the problem of retrieving the captain.  When Sisko re-appears and finds that his now aged son (played with real sensitivity by Tony Todd) has given up everything -- companionship, happiness, life itself -- for his father, he is shattered by the knowledge.  Given a choice, Sisko would have wanted his boy  to live a complete life...a life with children and grandchildren...and love.  Jake tells his father that he did it for him, and "for the boy that I was."

Told from a late point of attack, with an aged Jake sharing his moving story to a young writing student, Melanie, "The Visitor" concerns the lengths we often go to to save the ones we love. 

And though I'm often a critic of latter day Star Trek's obsession with tongue-tied techno babble, I absolutely love how the tech talk is used in this particular segment. 

Like Kirk in "The Tholian Web," Sisko keeps reappearing as a ghost...or as a memory that just won't go away.  Jake discovers that there is an invisible "link" -- likened to an elastic cord --connecting the younger and elder Sisko to one another, and this description is a perfect metaphor for a familial connection.  We are all tethered to our loved ones by an invisible elastic cord, it seems like.  Life is the process of pulling that cord tight, giving it  some slack and finally...in loss...seeing it break.  And yet even in that loss, we feel like the connection is still present, even if we can't physically touch those who have left the mortal coil permanently.

I also admire how this episode frames the father-son dynamic.  Jake will stop at nothing to save his father.  And his father, Captain Sisko, simply wants Jake to live...to have a life worth living.  Their purposes are crossed, and every time they meet, they re-engage in this debate.  The captain wants grandchildren.  He wants his son's happiness.  Yet his son desires only one thing: the return of the guiding influence in his life; an overturning of the loss that his life could never sustain  or overcome. 

It's an emotional and beautiful dynamic, wonderfully portrayed by all the talents involved, and the story gets at another truth about family.  We all believe we know what is best for a child or parent, and we fight for that outcome.  Even if, importantly, that child or parent desires something else.  Again, this is just...the nature of family.  I'll be honest, every time I watch "The Visitor," my wife and I tear up. I believe this is so because we both know in our hearts that we would do anything -- even die -- for our beloved son; and we both know that our fathers and mothers have felt the same way about us.  The parent-child connection we see played out so dramatically in "The Visitor" is a universal one. 

It's icing on the cake for me, I suppose, that "The Visitor" also concerns the profession of writing, and more than that, gets its observations about a writing career spot-on accurate. 

Jake is portrayed here as a mysterious, Salinger-esque figure who only wrote one book and then disappeared; the weight of crisis too heavy in his life to continue as a public figure.  That's a nice bit of myth making, but other aspects of the tale are more realistic.

For example, I absolutely  love the moment in the episode when Jake's gorgeous Bajoran wife tries to lure him to bed (and sex...), but it's clear he would rather be writing his story.  As crazy as that image sounds, writing -- getting it down right -- can sometimes be just like that.  It consumes the mind, and when it's going well, you don't want to stop.  For anything.  Not even hot sex with a beautiful Bajoran soul mate.

But Jake's writing career fits into the story in another way as well.  Writing is a consuming passion, and as a career, it can be a cruel master.  Even a writing career as established as my own (some fourteen years since my first book was published, and two-dozen books behind me...) is one of severe ups and downs.  You have years where everything you publish turns to gold, and years where nothing sticks. Your book sales go up.  Your book sales go down.  There's no security or consistency to a writing career, and yet -- because you love writing -- you stick at it.  You absolutely cannot stop.  And at some point, this dedication does take a toll on your family life.  It's silly to insist that it doesn't.  I'm blessed to have the support of those I love, but I'm sure that sometimes my wife, Kathryn, feels like she must share me with the art of writing.  I'm lucky she puts up with me.

The point of this meditation is that in "The Visitor," Jake does the one thing that every writer absolutely dreads doing yet must, at some juncture, seriously consider.  He gives up writing.  He gives up writing to save his father, and studies to become an engineer instead.  This kind of transition is just absolutely murder for creative types.  I'm always being asked by well-meaning people: why don't you become a lawyer?  Or being informed that I'd be great at writing advertisements! 

As a writer, there's always that invisible but considerable gravitational pull to undertake a career that is more secure, or pays better than writing.  And yet I stubbornly cling to my chosen profession, to this crazy roller-coaster of a career.  So Jake bravely makes two supreme sacrifices for his family: both his writing career and his life.   And I would like to hope that if it came down to it, I would make the exact same decision for Joel and for Kathryn.

Star Trek is often about intergalactic politics, space battles, and adventures.  Occasionally, in episodes such as "The Visitor" or "The Inner Light," the franchise really gets down to the nitty gritty; about what it really and truly means to human; about the connections that make us who we are, and the things that we would do to preserve and protect them. 

In its meditation on fathers and sons, "The Visitor" is one of the most affecting Star Trek programs of any generation, and a real masterpiece of the canon.  I strongly identify with Sisko in this episode, because I understand his agony at seeing Jake age and suffer.   When your child's life doesn't go as you hope -- even on a small, day-to-day level -- you don't merely grieve...you feel real physical pain.  I see that pain in Avery Brooks' face and in his mannerisms too.   Yet "The Visitor" also reminds us Dads (and Moms) to live up to our child's image of us; to remember how large we loom in their imagination and psyche.   That's an ideal we must also seek to honor and cherish.

To read another writer's great retrospective on "The Visitor," I hope you will check out my friend Michael Alatorre's blog at It Rains...You Get Wet.  Michael also has some touching insights to share about fatherhood, family and Star Trek in his post.

5 comments:

  1. Jane Considine8:55 AM

    Deep Space Nine really hit it's stride in the later seasons. There are some seriously underrated episodes, and this is definitely one of them. Excellent review.

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  2. Anonymous4:06 PM

    Ah, this episode is probably the only episode of the entire series that sticks in my mind. Truly haunting. Just recently my husband and I were discussing DS9 (he was a much bigger fan than I) and this story came up. I never could remember its title to look it up on YouTube to watch again. Thanks much for the timely review!

    ~~Meredith

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  3. An extraordinarily written post for a remarkable ST:DS9 episode, John. I found your take on it very touching and insightful, especially how the story hits upon you as a father and as a writer. As with mothers and daughters, fathers and sons are a unique pairing. For the most part, each parent half mentors their child equivalent in totally different ways. In many ways, our's does this in the most indirect and silent of ways, yet they mean just as much as our counterparts. Perhaps, you and I are most lucky in this endeavor compared to our fathers. We, of the later generations, can formulate and express more things to our sons (and daughters) verbally, or through the written word, that our earlier age group dads rarely (or only on occasion) could.

    I am especially moved by your closing:

    "I strongly identify with Sisko in this episode, because I understand his agony at seeing Jake age and suffer. When your child's life doesn't go as you hope -- even on a small, day-to-day level -- you don't merely grieve...you feel real physical pain. I see that pain in Avery Brooks' face and in his mannerisms too. Yet "The Visitor" also reminds us Dads (and Moms) to live up to our child's image of us; to remember how large we loom in their imagination and psyche. That's an ideal we must also seek to honor and cherish."

    An absolutely wonderful thought, and written piece, that speaks volumes, my friend. Thanks so very much for this, and the very kind and generous shout-out, John. All of it means a lot.

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  4. Hello John.

    A wonderful tribute to our fathers.

    I actually read this last night in bed and then attempted to comment, but "Poof" it disappeared.

    Both you and Michael have eloquently captured the emotional strength of this particular episode and you both stoke my anticipation of sitting down to enjoy this episode and others.

    I have a good friend at work who swears by Season Four and beyond. Worf, the Klingon conflict and the Defiant all make the final seasons some of the best from what I've been told.

    I was particularly touched by several of your reflections, as I often am over at It Rains. How true that we must be aware of our influence and our impact on our children. Even those small things we do that may seem insignficant may be quite profound. I'm often aware of those things because there were so many things that our fathers did that remain with us.

    As L13 said, it's funny how they were often less communicative, but somehow their influence was very significant.

    Anyweay this was a lovely post infused with your own personal input.

    The aspect of the writing thread also generated some funny but thoughtful observations from you regarding the passion for it and its complement [or not] to family.

    Like the story mentioned here, we give up an awful lot for those we love. I haven't seen this, but I look forward to it, because I understand Jake's love for his father. I might give it up too, despite the fact no one who loves us would wish us to do so.

    A touching post and obviously a real highlight for Star Trek. Wonderful read.

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  5. Hello my friends,

    I want to thank you all for the heartfelt comments regarding my favorite episode of DS9 "The Visitor."

    Jane: You make an excellent point (as you always do...). DS9 really, really hit its stride in the fourth season, and the series was revitalized in a powerful way. The Visitor is great, and this was also the span of strong, provocative shows such as "Rejoined."

    Meredith: I agree with your feelings about "The Visitor." It's a haunting hour of television, and a really strong story. For me, it's probably in the top ten most powerful hours of all Star Trek combined, because it deals so affectingly with ideas of family and love.

    Le0pard13: I loved your review of The Visitor, and I wanted to write my own review not simply because I love the episode, because I wanted to honor you, sir. You are a great father, yourself, and I know that this episode also affected you deeply -- as a father and a son. It did me too.

    Sci-Fi Fanatic: And you sir -- another excellent father and family man -- this post is for you too. Thank you for your kind words about this post. In terms of "The Visitor," you are in for one heck of a treat my friend. This is a really stellar episode of Deep Space Nine, and knowing your own feelings about family...I know you'll be moved.

    All my best,
    John

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