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.