Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Deep Space Nine's wartime morality plays show that good writing is timeless

Pretty much since its inception back in the mid-sixties, Star Trek has often told stories within its far-future setting that are an allegory on events in our own time.  It was Gene Roddenberry's way of telling provocative (and in the context of the time, perhaps subversive) stories under the guise of being simple science-fiction.  In one of the more infamous examples, he tackled the idiocy of racism by showing a race of people with two classes.  Both classes had faces that were white on one profile and black on the other, though those whose right profiles were black despised those who were their mirror images.  Likewise, those whose faces were white on the right side were equally devoted to destroying their alternate cousins.  It's a conflict that comes at a terrible cost.

Of course to the viewer, this war would have seemed stupid.  "Both these aliens have half-black and half-white faces, why would they fight over such a thing?"  Hopefully, that's the point where the light bulb goes off and the viewer realizes "So why exactly should whites and blacks on Earth be at odds."  A trifle clunky, I admit, but it was the sixties.  Throughout its history, Trek has made use of even defter metaphors.

With that in mind, what if I pitched you a Star Trek story like this:  The Federation is facing an enemy that might have infiltrated them at the highest levels.  They've got hidden agents on the Federation's homeworld - Earth.  They can blend into the population and they've recently pulled off an attack on a diplomatic conference on Earth that left psychological damage at least as bad as physical.  With tensions high, Starfleet security demands more authority to implement stricter, more invasive security measures.  The Federation President is reluctant to give the military that authority, but when the planet's entire power grid is taken out - leaving Earth defenseless - he has little choice but to give the Starfleet admiral the authority he wants.

But soon we learn that the destruction of the power grid was actually engineered by the corrupt admiral, intent on manufacturing a crisis so that he could seize power.  Essentially, this admiral will have used the paranoia to pull off an overreach of authority.

I have a feeling that if this episode were produced today - and especially if it had been made during the Bush Administration - there would be a lot of voices on the right decrying liberal Hollywood for such a pointed attack on George W. Bush.  But here's the kicker - that's actually the plot of an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that aired in early 1996!  It was a two-parter contained in the episodes "Homeland" and "Paradise Lost," written by Ira Steven Behr & Robert Hewitt Wolfe.

(If you're so inclined, these episodes are available on Netflix Instant, in the 4th season.)

The enemy at that point were the shape-shifting Changlings, aliens with the ability to look like anyone.  They had declared their intent to infiltrate the Federation and had already used their powers to lure the Romulans and the Cardassian fleets into a horrible defeat.  Starfleet had never faced an enemy so able to slip within their own ranks. 

"Homeland" focused on the aftermath of the attack on the conference, with Captain Sisko recalled to Earth to help develop new security measures against the Changlings.  In a sneaky bit of plotting, the viewer is actually made to sympathize with Sisko and Admiral Leyton as their proposals are met with resistance from the Federation President.  Because we - the viewers - have seen just how dangerous the Changelings are, we're frustrated when the President pushes back against tests that only seem reasonable.

The President isn't the only opposition.  Captain Sisko's own father is greatly offended and resistant when he's told that as a relative of a Starfleet officer, he must consent to a blood-screening (purportedly the only way to expose a Changling imposter.)  Of course, his refusal to take the test only makes him look suspicious.  After all, why should an innocent man have any reason to oppose this sort of compulsory search-and-seizure?  Surely if he resists, he must have something to hide and be viewed with suspicsion, right?  As it turns out, he isn't an infiltrator - though he offers one of the episodes more resonant lines: "There's no test a smart man can't find his way around." 

The first episode ends with the President finally giving in in the face of a planet-wide power outage.  In fact, it's Captain Sisko who delivers the critical line: "Give us the authority we need, Mr. President, and we will take care of the rest."  It's a line that feels far more chilling than in 1996, just like Mr. Sisko's warning about tests. And yet, it was written in a world where a trip to the airport didn't necessitate full-body scans and invasive searches and pat-downs; A world where the Patriot Act sounded more like something from the mind of George Orwell than anything that would could ever become real.

With a cliffhanger that featured martial law being imposed, most viewers expected that Part II would be a tense action-packed hour of our heroes taking on the Changelings.  But that's not what Trekkers got, as we will explore tomorrow.

Part II

1 comment:

  1. For me, Deep Space Nine has always been the forgotten middle child of the Star Trek franchise, and the one with the best writing.

    If you think this war story is good, I'd like to submit "...Nor the Battle to the Strong." Jake Sisko tries to be a war reporter, covering the front, and at one point, he runs away from helping. Bold move. They'd never have Wesley Crusher doing anything so, well, realistic.