Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "The Visitor" (October 9, 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 honesty.  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 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 would 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 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 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. The parent-child connection we see played out so dramatically in "The Visitor" is a "universal constant," as Dr. McCoy might report.

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 (nearly twenty 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. 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.  Today, I still write, of course, but my day job is as a full-time communication instructor at a local college.

So Jake bravely makes two supreme sacrifices for his family: both his writing career and his life.   

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 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.


  1. One of the best episodes from my favorite Trek series. Thanks for your insights. I have been following your blog for years now and it is always awesome.

    1. Thank you, Rob. Those words mean a lot to me! I am glad you found the review meaningful...

    2. I also wanted to tell you that reading your blog inspired me to start my own. I read a LOT, and my wife said I should start a blog to write about what I read. I have been doing it for over 2 years now, and have reviewed 112 books in that time. Your blog has given me a lot of inspiration. I can tell you write about what you love and because you love it. same here with books. Thanks again. - Rob

  2. John,
    Although I love the original Star Trek and have great affection for The Next Generation and its cast, I never really warmed to Deep Space Nine. I've yet to see every episode, and yet, I was fortunate enough to catch "The Visitor" when it was first broadcast, and have seen it since. It's a remarkable achievement, easily holding its own with the episodes you mentioned, such as "The Inner Light." Such a beautiful statement on the intertwined simplicities and complexities of being human.
    I feel your review really captures these qualities and adds to them. You really are a great writer. How many times you've changed my perspectives, or allowed me to see from a different angle through your words. The commentary you provide could only come from a place of great affection for the written word, and moreover, the affection of a father and husband for his family. They are appreciated.
    I think I owe it to myself to watch "The Visitor" again. My own Father passed away in 1993, and I still feel that loss very strongly. I recently lost my Mom in 2014, and I may never fill the hole in my heart that remains. However, they would absolutely want me to continue, to live and love and ultimately, be happy. In a sense, their wishes for me are even stronger now than ever before. I trust you understand what I mean.
    Thank You for your words, which add meaning to thoughts undiscovered. Keep writing. Clearly, you were meant for this.

    1. Steve,

      I am so sorry to red about the loss of both your Mom and your Dad. You carry them inside you, with you, every day now. But it is not the same. This episode makes us remember how lucky we are to have people in our lives that we love, and who love us.

      Thank you for such a beautiful comment.

    2. Thank You John.
      You'll be pleased to know that I watched "The Visitor" on Hulu last night and was moved to tears. It resonates for me more strongly now, and will help me heal.
      Without the strength of your words, I probably would have not had this experience.
      As the kids say, "Respect."