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Retro Review: Sanctuary

Posted by Michelle - 04/05/12 at 02:05 pm


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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Season: 02 Episode: 10 (s02e10)

Original US airdate: 11/28/1993

A matriarchal race fleeing persecution in the Gamma Quadrant claims Bajor as its legendary homeland and requests permission to settle there.

Plot Summary: Kira is already having a bad day dealing with Bajoran ministers when a damaged alien ship arrives. Four aliens are beamed to the station, but the universal translator has trouble with their language. Because they seem to respond to Kira, she takes them to the infirmary, where it becomes obvious that they expect women to take charge. As the translator begins to comprehend their language, Kira learns that the woman Haneek is the head of her household, and that her species, the Skrreeans, are fleeing from oppressors who were recently taken over by the Dominion. They have been looking for the wormhole, which their legends told them they would find. Once Sisko understands that there are three million refugees, he asks Dax to look for a planet for them to settle, and Starfleet personnel begin to help the Skrreeans come through to the Alpha Quadrant. The matriarchal Skrreeans have a prophecy describing their promised homeland should be, and Haneek concludes that Bajor fits the description. But the Bajoran ministers vote against allowing so many people to settle in the deserted northwest peninsula, fearing although the Skrreeans are farmers, Bajor could face an escalating famine if their crops failed. Caught between her own concern for the Skrreeans and the fears of the provisional government, Kira sadly decides that she must side with the Bajorans and suggests that the Skrreeans settle on Draylon II, an uninhabited planet suggested by Sisko. When Haneek’s son dies in an attempt to land on Bajor without permission, Haneek tells Kira that such a fearful, pitiful planet cannot be the prophesied home of her people and leads them to find a promised land elsewhere.

Analysis: Many complicated issues come to the fore in “Sanctuary,” an episode whose uneven writing sadly fails to make them as powerful as they should be – the rushed, predictable ending in particular, in which a space fight takes the place of real drama. I’m not sure whether the germ of the idea came from late 20th century US immigration policy, in which a nation dominated by European immigrants became particularly intolerant of people from different ethnic backgrounds, or whether it came from the plight of Ethiopian Jews, who in the same time period were trying to emigrate to Israel only to have certain factions in the government there reject them as inauthentic residents of the Promised Land and a potential burden. The Skrreean situation has parallels to both, and the Ferengi knee-jerk disgust with the Skrreean flaky skin gives the episode a poignant racial/cultural angle, particularly when Quark is so vocal in his prejudices. Kira’s prejudices are more subtle, but we already know she can be strident in her defense of Bajor from outsiders, even Federation citizens who want to help, and it’s instructive if sad to be reminded that she can be as xenophobic as the ministers with whom she often disagrees. Haneek believes at first that, as a woman and a fellow victim of a violent occupation, Kira will sympathize and side with the Skrreeans; it is deeply upsetting for her to learn that Kira’s empathy doesn’t extend that far. Sisko is willing to use his pull with the Bajorans to ask a general not to shoot down Tumak’s ship, yet he refuses to involve himself any further in the situation; whether that makes him a responsible Starfleet officer who stays out of the affairs of others or a bit of a coward for refusing to think like an Emissary, I can’t decide.

I’m sure the writers thought they were making a feminist statement with an episode about a matriarchy, and I am loath to discourage that, but I can’t help noticing that they reinforce lots of cliches about women in charge from emotional decision-making to perceived promiscuity to shrillness (a charge leveled even by Sisko at Kira for doing her job and debating with the Bajoran ministers). As in The Next Generation‘s “Angel One,” the subordinate men are physically boyish; it’s hard to tell Haneek’s son from her mates. It cracks me up that Starfleet’s universal translator itself has problems understanding when women are doing most of the talking, especially considering that we now know Hoshi Sato invented it – Deborah Tannen, where are you in the 24th century? I like the female bonding and the fact that Haneek so easily develops from a farmer into a leader when she’s called upon to do so, but it’s too bad that her initial sense of betrayal by Kira is so personal rather than political, without any appeal to the common cultural values and prophecies that suggest to me at least some contact between the Prophets and the Skrreeans on the far side of the wormhole. The fact that the Skrreeans know there is an Eye of the Universe and a promised land on the other side is something I would not expect Bajoran religious leaders to dismiss as coincidence. Bajor really seems unready to join the Federation here, so engrossed in its own restoration that it can’t see any bigger picture. The great musician Varani, whom Kira has convinced Quark to hire for entertainment because the Cardassians destroyed Bajor’s great concert hall, is more worried about getting that forum rebuilt to save Bajor’s artistic heritage than he is about saving the Skrreeans and learning whether in return their farming skills might prevent another famine.

I admire the fearlessness of “Sanctuary” in making regular characters look bad – not just Kira and Quark, whose biases aren’t completely a surprise though we’ve seen indications that they might be growing past them, but particularly Nog, who is just plain nasty, and Jake, who doesn’t stand up to him. I can dismiss Jake’s failure to defend his girlfriend and to tell Nog how disgusted he is with Nog’s treatment of the Skrreeans because Jake is a teenager, but Nog comes across as thoroughly unpleasant, playing nasty pranks on the Skrreeans just to provoke them, expressing revulsion at the Skrreean impulse to swipe leftover food and disdain at their unfamiliarity with replicators. Perhaps he feels threatened by the very notion of a species where the females have more power than the males, but there’s no exploration of that bias; Jake doesn’t press Nog about his insistence that Jake’s entomologist girlfriend must be interested in insects so she can cook them any more than about Nog’s assault on the Skrreeans, which only Odo seems to take seriously as such. In general Odo is much more sensitive to the Skrreeans than anyone else, the first to realize that they must have come through the wormhole, the first to recognize that they’re matriarchal, but his experiences as an outsider don’t lead him to ask Kira to question her own position as he sometimes does. I wish the writers had stripped off the inevitable space chase and delved deeper into the sources of conflict for all these characters; it would have made the sad, troubling ending much more powerful.

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  • http://twitter.com/robtclements Robert Clements

    Good summary of an interesting – but flawed – episode. The mature DS9 is straining at the leash here – clearly the writers started with an idea they knew up front wouldn’t resolve easily but struggled to get an ending anyway. Not for the first (or last) time, they came up with a one hour story which would have made a smashing (possibly literally) two parter

    One thing i did like – which you appeared not to – though: the way the re-construction of Bajor was the subtext against which much of this story was told. In reality, this would have been a major issue for the Federation to deal with via DS9, yet it played an oddly minor role in the narrative, perhaps its stories didn’t fit naturally into a stage-bound series. Here was one chance for the backdrop to move into the foreground; & while the integration wasn’t a complete success, it was worth a visit

  • SJStar

    “Each overestimates her own power and underestimates the other’s.”

    Sounds like someone here we know, Michelle? (Quoted by someone familiar?)

  • fainodraino

    “I’m not sure whether the germ of the idea came from late 20th century US immigration policy, in which a nation dominated by European immigrants became particularly intolerant of people from different ethnic backgrounds”

    Examples, please. I think the U.S. is a pretty tolerant place.

  • Guest

    Yeah, I didn’t understand that comment either. I wondered if she meant “late 19th century,” but…that’s when tons of European immigrants were still coming on in, and historically speaking, their integration was relatively smooth.

  • Seventhbeacon

    (First: Good review, thank you. I remember this episode being pretty underwhelming, too. Good theme, less than perfect execution.)

    As many issues as I have with NAFTA, passed during the Clinton administration, one positive thing it did do was make immigration infinitely more accessible, especially for people like doctors and other professionals.

    Is it possible we’re talking about *illegal* immigration? You know, because people don’t like illegal immigrants – not because of ethnicity, but because they’re here illegally, many working and sending money to family out of the country, directly weakening the economy in the process.

    It is a pretty big brush stroke, however. I don’t think we’re going to get examples directly. If they exist, the onus is on the claimant (thank you, Dawkins and Hitchens for my own continuing education).

    Something from history class is itching in the back of my brain about anti-immigration rearing up in the 19th century, though, yeah.

  • Guest Beta

    If it were referring to illegal immigration (sidestepping the whole idea of “tolerance” for breaking laws), I should ask: are there *really* developed countries more tolerant of illegal immigrants than the USA? Not to make a whole sidebar, but I am not knowledgeable on that topic.

  • Seventhbeacon

    Nor am I. Considering the issue of scale, I’d say it makes the US very tolerant ‘per capita’, though I can imagine there are some small countries elsewhere that might handle it well.

  • Nobody

    The situation in this episode is most analogous not to immigration per se, but to refugees (one wonders if it’s inspired by Voyage of the Damned). While the United States accepts more refugees than many other developed nations, refugee-producing crises happen on a regular basis and as you can see from this list (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_refugee_population), it is the developing world that shoulders most of the burden.

  • Bob

    For a country that used to say Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, you’ve certainly come a long way to Fort America http://tinyurl.com/c8pn49l