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Retro Review: Paradise

Posted by Michelle - 08/06/12 at 07:06 pm


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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Season: 02 Episode: 15 (s02e15)

Original US airdate: 02/13/1994

Sisko and O’Brien crash on a planet settled by humans who have rejected technology, led by a charismatic woman who will tolerate no dissent.

Plot Summary: While on a survey for Starfleet seeking habitable planets, Sisko and O’Brien discover an M class planet that already appears to have humans living on the surface, but a dampening field blocks communications. Once they beam down, they find that a duonetic field is stopping all their equipment from functioning, even signals to their runabout. A pair of initially hostile men approach but recognize their Starfleet uniforms and explain that they are part of a colony that formed when their ship developed trouble and landed on the planet, then was unable to leave due to the duonetic field. They take Sisko and O’Brien to meet their leader, Alixus, who explains that the colony has thrived without technology and says that even if Starfleet comes to the rescue, she will not leave. Former engineer Joseph tells Sisko that they have rid themselves of worthless technology to focus on survival skills. Though O’Brien is eager to try to adapt their comm badges to use the duonetic field’s energy when he learns that a colonist is dying from an insect bite that the runabout’s medical supplies could cure, Alixus forbids them even to discuss it. Sisko sets O’Brien to work secretly on locating a power source, but when O’Brien is discovered, Alixus orders Sisko incarcerated in a metal box for violating their laws. Meanwhile, Kira and Dax receive a report that Sisko’s runabout has been spotted traveling at warp with no crew aboard. They take another runabout to investigate and find that someone attempted to direct Sisko’s runabout to fly into a nearby star. While they follow its warp trail, O’Brien finds a buried field generator which has been keeping his own equipment and that of the colonists from functioning. Returning to the colony and freeing Sisko with a phaser, O’Brien explains that technology on the planet has been deliberately sabotaged by the hidden device, forcing Alixus to admit that she chose the planet and brought about the crash that trapped the colonists there. When Kira and Dax arrive, Alixus leaves with Sisko to face charges for the deaths of colonists, but the rest choose to stay in the community they helped to build.

Analysis: That “Paradise” can still make me angry is, I think, a testament to its effectiveness. I’m not sure whether the writers intended for it to be primarily a story about the stupidity of rejecting life-saving technology or about the questionable ethics and values of radical environmentalists, but the end result is to make eco-warriors look like misguided fools following leaders with messianic delusions. In a franchise that celebrates technology and rejects most forms of spirituality as Star Trek does, it comes across not just as questioning but strongly bashing people who believe the human race would be better served by being more in tune with our natural environment, challenging the idea that technology can cure everything, and following a creed that puts community and local values on par with globalization. That said, it’s precisely because Alixus is so well-written and performed that she comes across as so despicable; if the characterization had been more wishy-washy, I doubt the episode would have the same power to enrage. Really the only wimp-out aspect is the final decision of every single one of the colonists to remain on a planet where they’re slowly being picked off by insects and incurable disease, without any discussion of what their future contact with the Federation will be (if any) or whether their children will be given an opportunity to learn about the wider universe of which they’ve just been given a glimpse. “Paradise” aired a decade before M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village was released, but it brings up many of the same themes and problems; I find it more emotionally engaging despite its futuristic setting, and the wimp-out factor of The Village‘s conclusion is much greater than that of the Deep Space Nine episode.

We get to know so few of the colonists that it’s very hard to get a sense of which of them joined Alixus out of devotion to her cause and which of them were persuaded by the force of her personality. She’s equal parts Mother Jones and Jim Jones, believing utterly that her actions are necessary for the good of all humans while at the same time behaving ruthlessly to protect her personal power, employing time-honored cult techniques like torturing and starving members to leave them vulnerable and open to suggestions. If anyone ever resisted her, it was so long ago in the colony’s history that it doesn’t seem to occur to the current colonists even to consider it. Sisko is suspicious right from the start about the fact that her group wound up on a planet so perfect for exploring her back-to-nature philosophy, but for the most part he obeys her dictum not to challenge her beliefs – he has O’Brien quietly investigate the duonetic field, he doesn’t try to involve any of Alixus’s people – until she lets him know that she’d rather let him die than accept any challenge. Since she has no reason to believe that Sisko’s challenge has any hope of succeeding, thinking she’s destroyed his runabout and with it all hope of rescue, her behavior reveals the depths of her megalomania. As far as anyone in the colony knows, Sisko couldn’t lead a technological revolution on this planet no matter how hard he tried, and if Joseph didn’t uncover the hidden field generator with ten years of opportunity, I’m not sure why Alixus would think O’Brien might do so before reconciling himself to the situation. That Alixus declares any questioning of her dictums to be tantamount to treason against the entire community proves that it’s her authority and not her philosophy that’s really at stake.

Starfleet and its toys aren’t portrayed as perfect alternatives to a rejection of technology, since Kira and Dax must attempt a treacherous space maneuver that Dax isn’t at all sure they can pull off. It always makes me happy when Kira and Dax solve tough scientific and engineering problems, particularly in a story like this where female power is so strongly connected to rejection of mechanics. Alixus is hardly a feminist role model, yet she’s a very strong woman, so devoted to her ideals that she’s willing to treat her own son as a pawn and even let him die if it’s necessary to maintain the little empire over which she rules. Sisko’s immediate distrust of her has as much to do with her arrogance as her increasing demands that he accept the life she wants to force upon him. It’s fascinating as well as horrifying to see her play good mother/bad mother to the colonists, particularly in caring for the young man she has locked in the prison-box for stealing a candle and in sending a young woman to try to seduce Sisko to ease his assimilation. I find his decision to stay in the box rather than staying visible to challenge her authority to be misguided; if he had died silently in there, it would have been far easier for her to perform the same grief-and-acceptance routine she put on over the woman who died from an insect bite than if Sisko had to be dragged kicking and screaming that she is a tyrant.

But I wish we’d heard more quotes from Alixus’s writings, especially at the end when she insists to Cassandra and Joseph that it’s so much nobler to be a farmer than an engineer or a secretary. How can she rationalize that life under her rules is more self-actualized or natural than life in the Federation? I’m sorry we never get a more balanced look at the positive side of living without industrial science, the way the Ba’ku do in Insurrection. And I’m sorry we never learn what becomes of the colony without its den mother and spiritual leader, because I find it equally plausible that anarchy will reign or that Cassandra or someone else will simply step into Alixus’s shoes to become its next dictator.

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  • AirElephant

    Michelle, I think you misinterpret the writers’ intent if you think that the message was technology above environmentalism. To my mind, the episode was much more about the nature of a cult, especially one led by a charismatic leader who isolates her followers from the outside world in an effort to more tightly control them. To me, the issue of environmentalism was simply Alixus’s way to control her people and the message that she used was not unlike many of the questionable communes led by gurus back in the 1960′s and early ’70s.

    In the end, the story is more about how Sisko and O’Brien unmask Alixus’s deception and in doing so allow the community to see her for what she truly is. The ending is actually quite realistic, in that some still continue to follow Alixus’s ideas, as they still see the rejection of technology in favor of community as preferable to returning to the Federation. At that point, having allowed them the right to self-determination, Sisko no longer sees the remaining colonists as victims, but rather a people who, even knowing of the deception, have chosen a specific way of life.

    I have no feeling one way or another about Sisko and the box. I can see your argument that his death would have actually helped Alixus rather than undermined her. But then i can also see it from the Sisko character’s perspective that thought that disobedience might yield sympathy from some of the colonists, whom he hoped would revolt against Alixus’s heavy-handed behavior. Unfortunately, if they were as brainwashed as they seemed, there was little reason to believe that in the little time Sisko had spent with them that he would have been able to develop enough of a rapport to influence them in the way he’d hoped to.

    As for Alixus herself, I felt she was a fair approximation of a female Jim Jones-style manipulator. The reason I specifically disliked her, apart from the fact that she was written to be unlikable, was that I found the actress’s speech patterns and odd, breathy pronunciation EXTREMELY off-putting. I know it’s petty, but I found it very, very difficult to listen to her while she was talking.

    It’s actually not one of my favorite episodes. Besides the Lwaxana Troi episodes, which I avoid altogether (I can’t STAND Majel Barrett, I’m sorry), this is one of those episodes I tend to skip whenever I re-watch the series.

  • Geiger

    While I certainly feel that Alixus has more than a little ego involved in her fiefdom, I also get the sense that she is a true believer. She meant and believed every word she was saying, short of the trap she had set for the colonists.

    In general, I found her to be an interesting woman, full of her own twisted sense of virtue. I think the ending would have been a lot more honest though if Sisko and O’Brien had to defend her from the sudden lynching the crowd would want to give her.

  • Bobby

    “That “Paradise” can still make me angry is, I think, a testament to its effectiveness.”

    This first sentence sums this episode up nicely for me. I don’t even have to read any more. :-)

    Pretty good review. But, I also agree with just about everything you said here. I don’t skip this one but I also don’t tend to like it very much.

    As for the box, I think it was more about Sisko being stubborn than anything else. I don’t know that he was trying to convince anyone of anything, I always thought it was just a battle of wills with Alexis. It was Sisko’s way of saying: “THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS!”

  • hostile_17

    “I’m not sure whether the writers intended for it to be primarily a story about the stupidity of rejecting life-saving technology or about the questionable ethics and values of radical environmentalists”

    I think the complete opposite. I actually think it’s a bit of rose-colored glasses about going back to nature. It happens all the time… people lamenting for a simpler life, going back to nature etc. Wishing they could turn off their iPhones then immediately picking it up to Tweet about that thought.

    They needed the dramatic element of the dictator for the story – people just settling down wouldn’t be a story. But that aside, what with everyone staying, it’s actually a love letter to simpler times I think.

  • AirElephant

    Hehe. Outstanding observation, Bobby, and a nice tie-in to “Chain of Command.”

  • Zeorangerix

    I disagree as well. The “living off the land” lifestyle obviously has its benefits and provided rich rewards, considering that the colonists chose to stay after the field dampener was discovered and Alixus was shipped off.

    The colonists are not fools for accepting their lack of technology and working towards surviving without it. They’ve clearly not become anti-technology or cultish in believing Alixus’ theories. No one but Alixus is preaching to them about your “core being.” All of the colonists seem to have good heads on their shoulders; some clearly play along with Alixus because it seems to be the best method of survival. The former engineer character, for one, seems to know exactly what’s going on and accepts it as part of the greater good. The colonists’ rejection of O’Brien’s offer to take them off-planet is not a decision made of misguided values but of a desire to keep the home they’ve spent a decade building, which is something looked upon positively in many other episodes of Star Trek (see the Maquis, the Native American colony, the Bak’u, and others). The episode is about how a charismatic leader can set forth a culture of subservience… as well-put above, making the population pawns to the whims of a fanatic by taking advantage of mutual need.

    The inescapable conclusion is that the poison of the group is Alixus. She’s charismatic, narcissistic and overly-impressed with herself. Alixus IS a “strong woman,” and not in a Kira/Lara Croft/Avengers/kicking-ass-makes-me-strong type way. Alixus couldn’t even beat up Nog. She kept the colony alive and maintains power by being smart, cunning, manipulative, and uses a male that she’s very close to as an enforcer. The actress’s performance was brilliant… her voice tones, body language, and dialogue is delivered perfectly to anyone familiar with this type of self-proclaimed Messiah character. It’s not just a stock character type. There are people like Alixus everywhere, even in your average, everyday office or family unit. Alixus is the personification of their most common personality traits, making her immediately recognizable.

    I suspect this is really why the reviewer hates this episode… it takes a well-rounded, “strong” female character and shows how those qualities of strength can be perverted and abused. Would be curious to know if her reaction to the story would have been the same had the female “Alixus” been a male “Alex.”

  • Zeorangerix

    Agreed with all of your points, though I do very much like this episode. I’m about to re-watch it now that it’s on my mind.

    It’s actually a story that is very “Star Trek” and could be told on any other series, but it still has that Deep Space Nine character vibe. Consider if the two Starfleet officers involved were from any other show:

    Kirk/Scotty: Kirk would not allow Scotty or himself to be put in the box. That would be the moment that he would buy time to seduce Alixus and bring her around to his way of thinking. Failing that, he’d slap her into submission and declare himself in command here. If the villagers didn’t play ball, he’d escape in to the woods and hold them off with improvised weapons until Scotty could find the dampening field generator.

    Picard/Geordi: Geordi’s VISOR would be inoperable, rendering him outwardly not useful to Picard or the colonists. Picard would make impassioned speeches to appeal to the colonists’ sympathy for Geordi’s plight, using the death of Meg as a point of reference and letting everyone know that they need not let anyone else suffer. The box would be a nonissue since Geordi wouldn’t be caught “wasting valuable time,” instead, he would talk Picard through the method of finding the dampening field. Picard would then give the colonist’s a choice to leave, but leave replicators and other necessities such that the colonists could choose whether or not to continue and follow their leader’s teachings.

    Janeway/Torres: They would want to box B’Lanna immediately since she wouldn’t have anything to do with playing along with their game. Janeway would try to bond with Alixus over the burden of command, not directly referring to their shared gender but passively using it as a point of commonality, with the implication of “Us girls gotta stick together,” hence avoiding the box for B’Lanna and allowing her to find the solution such that they could escape.

  • AirElephant

    Hehe, Zero, what a fun way to look at the show from three different, yet Trek-clothed, perspectives. I hate to fiddle with such a good thing but I can’t resist adding a small item to your TNG synopsis. Whatever solution Picard and Geordi used to locate the hidden dampening device would involve modifying Geordi’s visor to form some kind of subspace dampening field detector. Call it the “MacGyordi” effect.

  • Zeorangerix

    Nice!

  • Bobby

    Way to think outside the box!

  • Dave Creek

    The important part was that the colonists didn’t have a CHOICE. It’s great if you want to embrace a “back-to-nature” philosophy and be a farmer, but you should be able to choose it for yourself.

    And the final image of children from the colony looking on with awe at empty space where the DS9 folks beamed up tells me what their generation will embrace.

    I saw the episode as pro-GOOD technology, and well-used technology. I want to live in a place where we have all the high-tech healthcare tools and I can do research from my computer and we have instant access to breaking news. The fact that such technology can be abused is our own fault, not that of the tech.

  • Groov99

    To me the episode shows how good an engineer O’Brien is, after all the other engineer wasn’t able to solve the problem, but O’Brien figures out a way to find the field easily. One more reason for me that O’Brien is my favorite character.

  • Gojirob

    This is my least favorite DS9 episode, and possibly my least favorite ST episode period. I mostly agree with Michelle’s ideas about showing anti-techies as reactionary dumbasses–like the woman from TNG S7 who got them to initiate a warp restriction that was disregarded like next episode. The part I couldn’t stand was Sisko’s almost Picardian insistence that Alixius had some good ideas. Perhaps she did, but the idea of this is almost inserted, and it almost seems to validate all she did . While the colonists staying at the end was comprehensible, having at least one of them do something verbal to wipe the serene smile off of Alixius’ face would have been nice, or an aside about how they needed time to adjust to their new options. Even to a viewer capable of inferring this, the ending makes them seem like such sheep. I believe Joseph said to Sisko they had invested too much to just leave. I would counter that they never invested anything – what they meant to invest was robbed from them and invested for them in ways they never intended.

    There are explanations for the things that frustrate me, including the ones I’ve mentioned. I find none of the explanations offered here to be wrong (Far from it!), but this ep still bugs me. One small thing : Sisko at this stage in the series doesn’t seem to connect much with his historical heritage, but I always thought O’Brien was an Irishman very much in touch with this. I would have thought a comment about Irish resistance to methods like Alixius might have been in order.

    Does anyone else here think Alixius might have had some sort of hidden, protected electronic journal or surveillance? I only ask this because she had no way to spread her philosophy beyond that one remote planet, and that seems to have been her goal. Sadly, I also wonder at the fringe figures who will write to her in prison, thinking as she did that the ends justify the means.