Justin Robinson is the author of many novels and can be found in his lair at captainsupermarket.com. He would like to emphasize that, contrary to rumors, he is, in fact, a mammal, though still has not obtained documentation to prove it.
Favorite Golden Girl: Rose
Favorite Cheese Form: Melted
Favorite God: Hanuman
“It is a good day to die.”
-- Lieutenant Jadzia Dax
Star Trek has always had a complicated relationship with its past. As forward thinking as the show is, it remains stubbornly mired in the time period in which it was made. The cheesy sets and optimism of TOS mark it as a child of the ‘60s, the wall-to-wall carpeting and a therapist on the bridge crew mark TNG as a product of the ‘80s, the jittery camera work and focus on mindless action mark the reboot as modern, and so on. Subsequent entries in the franchise always struggle to differentiate themselves from their predecessors, and sometimes these go far enough to suggest embarrassment. To reach a wider audience, the new entry has to look down, blush, and mutter, “Okay, I guess the Gorn look a little silly now . . . but there’s some other cool things . . . ” As much guff as DS9 gets for being un-Treklike, it is the only one of the modern shows that proudly wears its love for TOS on its sleeve.
“That’s the thing about love. No one really understands it, do they?”
Fanfic is the great engine driving all fictional writing. Stop laughing, I’m serious. Well, sort of. For one thing, fanfic is older than you think it is. Did you think the Holy Grail was originally part of the pagan Celtic myth that became known as the King Arthur stories? Do you think Homer intended that Aeneas be the founder of Rome? Did you think Alan Moore actually invented any of the characters he has written about for the last several decades? And, just to be clear, I’m not exempting myself from this. Would Undead On Arrival exist without the noir classic Dead On Arrival? (Answer: no. No, it would not.) Much of writing is taking a story you love, then bending it to accommodate the characters or ideas you always thought it should have. I’ve said it before, but sometimes Spock has to be a werewolf.
“I’m nothing like I expected. Life after life, with each new personality stampeding around in your head, you get desires that scare you, dreams that used to belong to someone else.”
-- Lieutenant Jadzia Dax
Like any occupation, writers have their own jargon, a combination shorthand that allows them to communicate complex ideas with one another efficiently and a way to exclude the outsiders from the conversation. Different kinds of writers have their own dialects, as well, and though there is some overlap, it’s not complete. This is why you will hear novelists like me fretting about our count, while TV writers will put a certain joke on the roof. And, all of us, regardless of medium, lay pipe. (I assure you, that’s one of those things that only sounds obscene, like “quarter pounder at the Golden Arches,” or “performing oral sex on a woman.”) A piece of slang most often associated with TV writers is the A-, B-, and C-stories (or -plots), a shorthand that refers to the different stories that happen in the same episode. The A-plot is the main one, the B- the secondary, and so on down. It’s possible to have a show with only an A-story (“Necessary Evil” from earlier this season is a good example.), but you couldn’t have one with only a C-plot. This week’s episode, “Playing God,” arguably goes all the way down to a D-story, and it’s a royal mess. Not too shocking, then, that a Dax-centric episode has an identity crisis.
“Who is to say that our definition of life is the only valid one?”
-- Constable Odo
When genre fiction is about ideas, it’s about the big ones. The definition of life as applied to artificial organisms has been an important convention in both science fiction, horror, and fantasy since Mary Shelley wrote her masterpiece. I’ve toyed with the idea myself, somewhat glibly in Get Blank, and with far more depth (and gore) in The Dollmaker. Why? Because it’s fascinating. To me, there is nothing more tantalizing than the idea of a creature made by human hands that has both free will and the intelligence to use it. What would their thought processes be without millions of years of evolution shaping them? What kind of being would deeply flawed humans be capable of creating? What the hell do they want? It’s a well Star Trek would return to over and over, most notably with Data. DS9 dips its toes into it this week, in an uncharacteristically lighthearted, but still very good episode.
“The common conceit that the human species has evolved over the last several centuries is ludicrous. What gains we have made have come at the cost of our own core identities.”
One of the ironclad rules of writing is that no villain thinks of themselves as a villain. It’s also one of the most frequently broken rules out there. Granted, it’s very rare to actually have the bad guy say, “Because I’m evil!” and follow it up with a Haunted Mansion laugh, but murky motivations have led to a phenomenon my larger social group has dubbed Doin’ It for Darkness. This is when a villain’s motives have no larger purpose than pure evil, even if they’re completely idiotic on the face of it. Unsurprisingly, these kinds of motives are most common in paranormal action shows, but they’re present even when the genre doesn’t easily support them. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to see a truly evil person who honestly believes they’re the paragon of virtue, like the baddie in this week’s episode.
“All I could think of, as I looked at her, was that this was not my Keiko.”
-- Chief Miles O’Brien
Genre labels are, by their very natures, reductive. Even in cases that encompass the mood of the piece, they don’t account for moments that break the prevailing atmosphere, such as comic relief in the middle of a stern drama, or a romantic subplot in the midst of a werewolf apocalypse. They remain necessary, because people generally know what they like and don’t like being forced to expand their horizons without ample warning. The key to a useful genre classification is in the distinction it provides. Not long ago on Facebook, I saw an author sneer that hard-boiled and noir weren’t the same thing: hard-boiled means the protagonist is a cop or a detective of some kind, while noir does not. Turns out, he’s correct, or at the very least edited the relevant Wikipedia page. I personally don’t find the distinction to be a useful one, as it’s unnecessarily reductive on a genre I truly love.
“Marriage is the greatest adventure of them all. It’s filled with pitfalls and setbacks and mistakes, but it’s a journey worth taking, ‘cause you take it together.”
-- Chief Miles O’Brien
There’s an unfortunate truism that has become more and more apparent in the current Age of Antiheroes on television: nobody likes the wife. Beyond simple misogyny, there’s a pretty simple and obvious reason for this. If you’re tuning in to watch a serial killer dispatch bad guys, a high school teacher cook meth, or a retired cake maker operate his toddler MMA league (Call me, FX!), anyone who stands in the way of this is going to be roundly loathed by the audience. It doesn’t matter that the wife often has pretty sound, logical reasons for not wanting her husband to hunt dangerous people for money/engage in violent drug wars/watch babies pummel each other. She is standing in the way of entertainment, and so she is a monster on par with a combination of Hitler and Godzilla, vaporizing joy with her atomic fire breath.
“It’s a nickname that I barely tolerate.”
“It’s an expression of affection that you find difficult to accept.”
-- Dr. Mora and Odo
Traditionally, the outsider character in any Star Trek property has difficulty with emotions. Whether or not they actually can’t feel them like Data, actively resist them like Spock, or something in the middle maybe like Seven of Nine (I don’t know, I barely watched Voyager.), emotions are the enemy of the outsider. It speaks to Roddenberry’s vision of the future that the chief defining characteristic of humans -- indeed, much of our power -- comes from emotion. Odo is no exception, but true to DS9’s richer use of backstory and characterization, he comes to emotion from a much different place than the others.
“In the end, it all comes down to luck.”
This is my third time through the entire series of DS9, not counting the innumerable instances I’ve caught full or partial episodes on TV or cued up one of my favorites from the collection. I have a pretty good idea of the contents of an episode before I screen it for review. Sometimes, it’s down to only the basic skeleton of the plot, but there’s always something. Which is what made this week’s episode, “Rivals,” so weird. I couldn’t remember a single thing. Oh, I had a vague image of Chris Sarandon -- that’s Prince Humperdink -- standing at a doorway with lights, but that’s all. It was like the episode had abducted me like a UFO, and I was going to wake up with bits of latinum in my skin.
“I think you’ve made a terrible mistake. All of you. Maybe we could have helped you. Maybe we could have helped each other. The Skrreeans are farmers, Kira. You have famine on your planet. Perhaps we could have made that peninsula bloom again. We’ll never know, will we? Fifty years of Cardassian rule have made you all frightened and suspicious. I feel sorry for you.”
The nature of longform fiction -- by which I mean anything where the first installment is released before the later episodes are even written, such as a TV show or series of books -- guarantees a certain amount of flab. Superfluous characters, plots that never go anywhere, or foreshadowing that never pays off are all inevitable when the writers have only the vaguest idea of where the story is ultimately going. It’s understandable that as fans we want everything to be part of a brilliant creator’s master plan, but that is not a realistic desire. It’s so rare, especially in the early days of intense serialization, that when it happens it feels a bit like magic. That’s the special part of this week’s episode, the innocuously named “Sanctuary.”