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Retro Review: Playing God

Posted by Michelle - 22/06/12 at 03:06 pm


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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Season: 02 Episode: 17 (s02e17)

Original US airdate: 02/27/1994

While Dax is evaluating a Trill seeking to be joined, she discovers an embryonic universe developing and threatening the station.

Plot Summary: While Kira and O’Brien try to get rid of the Cardassian voles infesting the station, Trill initiate Arjin arrives to be evaluated as a candidate for joining by Dax. He is nervous because of Curzon’s tough reputation, but even more confused by Jadzia’s tongo playing and flirting with Ferengi. When Dax asks Arjin to come on a mission to the Gamma Quadrant, she is impressed by his flying skills but comes to believe he doesn’t have enough goals set for himself. The runabout encounters a subspace pocket and experiences partial engine failure, and Dax finds that a mass of protoplasm has attached itself to one of the nacelles. O’Brien sets up a containment field in a lab where Dax discovers that the protoplasm is a proto-universe whose expansion could displace their own. Arjin becomes furious when Dax tells him she has concerns about him as a candidate for joining, and Dax explains to Sisko that being evaluated by Curzon was such a horrible experience that she would rather spare Arjin her full criticisms. While Sisko tries to decide whether to protect the Alpha Quadrant by destroying the growing universe and the potential life within, Jadzia urges Arjin to use her doubts to expand his horizons the way she did with Curzon’s doubts about her. Sisko decides to try to take the proto-universe back through the wormhole and Dax asks Arjin to pilot the runabout. O’Brien’s containment field begins to collapse from the vertiron particles in the wormhole, but Arjin succeeds in returning the proto-universe to its subspace pocket. He promises to take Dax’s advice to heart to make himself a stronger candidate for joining.

Analysis: “Playing God” sets up two potentially interesting ethical dilemmas for Dax, but winds up being wishy-washy about both of them and leaves her looking rather dull as a result, not to mention muddying our understanding of how Trill joining works for symbiont and host. She’s involved in life-changing decisions both for one individual and potentially for an entire universe of beings, but other people get to do most of the talking, which I suppose is a way for the writers to give other characters something to do, but really undercuts our sense of Dax as a strong individual. Who cares what Leela liked for breakfast or what Tobin’s favorite drink was if Jadzia isn’t going to access their memories and values while the annihilation of a developing universe is at stake – a universe that may threaten the lives of all her friends and loved ones? Surely there’s more to Dax than intimidating Trill initiates and showing off the things she knows about Klingon and Ferengi culture. As outrageous as Arjin’s behavior seems when he explodes and tells her she’s the most incompetent joined Trill he’s ever met, he also has a point when he demands to know why he should listen to anything coming out of the mouth of someone who seems at that point so shallow. We know Dax better, but he doesn’t, and she makes no real attempt to teach him what’s so profound and powerful about being joined to a completely different sentient being.

The plot about the proto-universe gets muddied because of the ludicrous physics, which makes it harder to care about its fate. Dax says that the proto-mass doesn’t obey known physical laws, yet that doesn’t stop O’Brien from being able to set up a containment field that will hold it as long as no vertiron nodes get in the way. If this mass is really going to expand exponentially, it’s not clear to me why Sisko believes taking it through the wormhole and dropping it into a subspace pocket will prevent it from exploding into his own universe, first in the Gamma Quadrant and eventually in his own part of space. Kira gets the task of giving the losing argument (in terms that make her sound brutal and insensitive) about the right to terminate baby universes, particularly when they threaten the life of the mother. Odo’s huffy rebuttal to Kira that he doesn’t step on bugs sounds both sanctimonious and hypocritical, whether he’s meant to be making a blanket declaration of values or reacting personally to someone he now knows to be a murderer (which would be nice continuity from “Necessary Evil” if the conversation went anywhere). In either case, it’s not like Odo bothers to defend the rights of the Cardassian voles that O’Brien wants to exterminate as badly as Kira does! Since there are parallels with human reproductive rights – the question of when an embryonic universe can be said to have independent life, the debate over who should get to decide its fate when its growth threatens pre-existing life – the superficiality of the conversation is just as infuriating as Data’s anti-abortion rant within a discussion of sentient machines from Next Gen‘s “The Quality of Life.”

In general the vole plot seems an odd choice to pair with the save-the-baby-universes debate, given that it’s used for comic relief and both Dax and Quark are proud of their skills in whomping them. The Cardassians (who laugh at Starfleet’s problems with the voles and suggest the officers leave the station) make clear that the voles were there before the Federation arrived, which, under a philosophy where all life has equal rights, suggests that the voles have just as much business being aboard as the Federation does. And when it comes to both the voles and the growing anomaly, shouldn’t Kira be informing Bajoran ministers or making final decisions, since the station is subject to Bajoran law and both the vermin and the proto-universe threaten Bajorans? I expected a deus ex machina solution in which the life in the baby-verse simultaneously revealed and saved itself by somehow whisking its universe far from our own, but instead it’s the Trill who are the saviors, dumping it into a subspace pocket where everyone hopes it will develop without interfering with any grownup universes. It’s not a very satisfactory solution, no more than Dax whimpering to Sisko about how mean Curzon was – even with Curzon’s memories inside her, it takes Sisko’s insight for her to figure out why – and sending Arjin home to grow up before she’ll think about recommending him for joining. I agree that Arjin doesn’t seem mature enough to have another personality overwhelming his own, but in this episode, neither does Jadzia.

Too bad Arjin can’t have Sisko as a mentor, since Sisko’s guidance of both Jadzia and Jake in this storyline is really terrific, particularly while he’s also dealing with the annoying voles and the stress of deciding the fate of a universe. Even as he worries that destroying the universe to preserve his own would make him as indifferent to alien life as the Borg who murdered his wife, Sisko drops in on his son and learns that the teenager is in love with a Dabo girl who is several years older and being tutored by Jake. The elder Sisko not only manages to suppress his initial outraged reaction to this news (in a delightful, funny scene where we see his face but Jake doesn’t), but forces himself to open his mind to the realization that his son is growing up and making his own choices. Then, without even making clear to Jake the displeasure that’s quite obvious to the audience, he goes back to contemplating the huge philosophical problem facing him. It’s a lovely character moment in an episode that too often gets muddled in scientific technobabble and pop philosophy.

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  • Guest

    “The Cardassians (who laugh at Starfleet’s problems with the voles and suggest the officers leave the station) make clear that the voles were there before the Federation arrived, which, under a philosophy where all life has equal rights, suggests that the voles have just as much business being aboard as the Federation does.”

    All *intelligent* life has equal rights. Pests or bacteria or anything like that, especially examples of such that actually cause problems for intelligent life-forms, are not considered to have equal rights. That would be silly.

  • hostile_17

    I find this episode really bad… one of my least favourites. The vole stuff is okay – but I hated Arjin, I hated how he drew so much focus, how Dax just didn’t feel ‘right’ around him and the awful, awful, awful universe plot which makes no sense at all – technobabble aside, it just falls apart immediately. So they have a universe… and some how dumping it through the wormhole will solve the issue. Eugh.

  • Groov99

    One of the parts that I like best about Deep Space Nine is when Sisko has to deal with huge issues that might destroy the station, but he is also dealing with a teenage son. I also love the parts in this episode with Sisko and Jake.