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Retro Review: The Visitor

Posted by Michelle - 15/02/13 at 05:02 pm


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Star Trek: The Next Generation

Season: 04 Episode: 03 (s04e03)

Original US airdate: 10/09/1995

An engineering accident throws Benjamin Sisko out of phase with the universe, yet he appears through the years to Jake, who becomes obsessed with retrieving him.

Plot Summary: On a stormy night in New Orleans, the elderly writer Jake Sisko is visited by a young writer named Melanie who wants to know why he gave up his career many years earlier. Jake tells her a story that began when he was a teenager, when an accident on the starship Defiant during a rare inversion of the Bajoran wormhole caused a bolt of energy to discharge from the warp core. The energy dematerialized his father, Captain Benjamin Sisko, whose crew eventually concluded that he must have died. On two later occasions, Sisko appeared to Jake, who was able to summon the scientists of Deep Space Nine. Realizing that Sisko was trapped in subspace, they tried to stabilize his temporal signature but were unable to do so. Though Jake knew that his father might reappear, hostilities with the Klingons forced Starfleet to abandon the station, and Jake went to live on Earth. Though devastated by his father’s loss, he married and became a successful author. When his father appeared once more, making Jake realize that the bond between them kept the father’s life tied to the son’s, Jake gave up writing fiction to study subspace mechanics. Though his wife left him, Jake remained in touch with Dax and Bashir, persuading Captain Nog to take them to the wormhole during another rare inversion to try to retrieve his father. Instead Jake found himself in subspace with Sisko, who told Jake to go live his own life. When Melanie asks whether Jake has returned to writing, Jake gives her a collection of stories he wrote, then explains that he finally knows how to save his father by breaking the connection between the two of them. Melanie realizes that Jake intends to die to accomplish this. At Jake’s request, she leaves before Sisko appears. A devastated Sisko watches as his son commits suicide, though Jake insists that they will share the years they were meant to have together as long as Sisko avoids the energy bolt from the warp core on the Defiant. At the moment the elderly Jake dies, Sisko finds himself in the ship’s engineering section. He pushes himself and the young Jake away from the warp core, saving both himself and his son. Though Jake remembers nothing, Sisko remembers it all.

Analysis: “The Visitor” is a conundrum, a superbly acted, strikingly memorable story that offers emotional character development yet doesn’t hold up very well as science fiction. Apart from the fact that there are too many coincidences – the bond between father and son that’s left as mystical rather than grounded in science, the fact that the girl arrives on the night Jake has planned for years to retrieve his father – it ducks one of the central tenets of Star Trek, which is that no one messes with an established timeline for his or her own benefit. I can excuse the magic that ties Sisko to Jake because it fits in with an ongoing theme of Star Trek, the idea that every life produces reverberations in the lives of others. But that makes it even more troubling that Jake chooses to demolish a universe, to disintegrate a timeline in which he becomes a wonderful writer in part because of the very tragedy he decides to circumvent. The elderly Jake ends up giving advice to a young writer whose life he takes as surely as he takes his own. Perhaps she’ll still be born, but will she become the same person once her mentor has destroyed the version of himself and his writing that she admires? Will Jake’s wife produce the same kind of artwork if she never meets him? The consequences aren’t at the same level as, say, Kirk deciding to save Edith Keeler despite the Nazis in “The City on the Edge of Forever” or Picard deciding to rewrite his youth so he never gets an artificial heart in “Tapestry,” but this is time-tampering nonetheless. There’s no indication that Sisko’s accident wasn’t supposed to happen, that elderly Jake has realized he’s in the “wrong” timeline like Worf in “Parallels.” A few months from now, when I’m expressing my horror that Odo could commit genocide to save the woman he loves in “Children of Time,” I’m going to be thinking about how Jake may have done a similar thing here, for how does he know that his father won’t be the captain who triggers all-out war with the Klingons or the Emissary who keeps Bajor from finding its own path?

These are the sorts of questions that run through my mind now, after having seen the episode many times, when I’m fighting the manipulative tug of the tear-jerking story that’s extremely effective without that broader context. Avery Brooks, Cirroc Lofton, and Tony Todd (who plays adult Jake) all give Emmy-level performances in “The Visitor” though it’s particularly the younger and older Jake who stand out; the scene in sickbay when the boy panics as his father vanishes and there’s nothing he can do, followed by the scene in New Orleans where the man cries in grief and guilt that he didn’t continue to look for his father, both make me end up in tears. Still, the real tragedy of this episode befalls Benjamin Sisko, not Jake, who won’t remember any of what happened. After having lost and learned to let go of his wife, he must watch his son throw his life away, and there’s no way he can help him, no time to offer the sort of advice Jake needs. I wonder whether this glimpse of what happens to someone who can’t let go plays a role in Sisko’s relationship with Kasidy Yates – his willingness to put Jennifer in the past and move on, his acceptance of all that Kasidy is and does even when some of those things horrify him. Jake may be the one who has a way with words, but Benjamin is the Sisko whom I wish would write a book. How does he manage to function as such a steady, predictable presence so much of the time in Starfleet when there’s so much depth of character there – more of an inner life than we ever saw in Kirk or Picard? I’m so sorry that we don’t get to see more of his funeral, particularly that we don’t get to hear Kira’s tribute. Though she’s only in the episode for a few minutes, this is a wonderful outing for Kira, not only because we see her in command – and I say with the same guilt that I feel during “What You Leave Behind” that I just can’t keep myself from loving that idea – but because we get the phenomenal moment in which she agrees to let Jake stay on the station while war is brewing, a scene so dark that we can barely see the actors’ faces, so that all the concern and passion must be conveyed through their voices.

Though Dax is only in the episode for a few minutes as well, this is one of her finest outings. Terry Farrell is often underrated, I think because Dax is so serene and unruffled compared to personalities like Kira’s or Odo’s, yet she’s entirely convincing panicking in sickbay as her old friend vanishes into subspace and she’s quite effective as an aged version of herself, joking with Bashir about his children, offering us a recognizable yet crotchety version of Jadzia. Yet particularly on a rewatch rather than a first viewing of the episode, here’s another example of what troubles me about it. Evidently, in the universe where Sisko disappears, the Dominion War never happens and Dukat never strikes down Jadzia in her prime; she lives to be at least as old as Curzon. I like Ezri and I enjoy the way she shakes up so many characters when she arrives with the symbiont, but it’s impossible for me to think of Jadzia’s survival as a bad thing. When Star Trek creates an alternate timeline, I like to see consequences, not just for a few moments on a personal level, but in terms of the series’ universe. Otherwise, it’s just one more reset button, no matter how moving the storyline. If there had been any moment when Sisko came back to what he discovered here – if it influenced his thinking about disappearing into the Gamma Quadrant in “Children of Time,” if it affected the things he said in “What You Leave Behind” when he spoke to Kasidy knowing that he might never see Jake or the child with whom Kasidy was pregnant – that would make “The Visitor” truly great for me. As it is, despite the excellent performances and the taut, perfectly paced storytelling, it seems like just a little bit of a cheat, an excuse for powerful emotion and empathy for characters who aren’t really there.

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  • SJStar

    Agreed. This is an excellent episode with good storytelling. Tony Dobb’s acting here is great, and he would have made Sisko had had the opportunity. Many of the episodes after this episode improve greatly, and for me you start caring about these fictional characters.

  • Wordsworth

    I bought it, because we can’t assume every person has the fortitude to live without someone they love. Jake isn’t a Starfleet officer, he’s a kid whose dad just up and disappeared. To him, getting his father back is more important than some ethical wrangling about disrupting the timeline. Not everyone is Captain Kirk.

  • Enterprise1981

    Tony Dobb???

    I tend to think of it as a weird dream where Kurn played an elderly Jake Sisko. And, of course, every reset-button episode breaks Trek’s own rule about not tampering with the past.

  • Bobby

    This is one of my all time favorite DS9 episodes. A real classic.

  • Mike

    Agreed… I thought it set up the end with Jake rather interestingly. I mean, something somewhat similar does end up happening to his dad, he’s not dead, he disappeared, but he did talk to Cassidy. So, has Jake spent his life trying to get his father out of the celestial temple? Or did the Dominion War and the intervening time with his dad change him to the extent that he could have his own life? I presume the point, upon seeing the whole, is the latter, but it certainly raises interesting questions about the character.