January 6, 2016

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "The Visitor"

It's 9 October 1995, and time for more Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Decades after he left Deep Space Nine Jake Sisko (Tony Todd) lives alone in a house on the Louisiana Bayou. Late one night he receives an unexpected visitor: a young fan of the two books he wrote before abandoning his writing career. To explain to her why he stopped writing, he tells her the story of his life: beginning with the day his father, Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), died.

For the most part 1990s Star Trek runs to a broad formula, usually a two-streamed storyline with one half involving some strange space phenomenon or diplomatic issue and the other involving character interaction or somebody's personal crisis. It's a formula that sustained the franchise through four separate TV series, but occasionally an episode comes along that doesn't fit into that mould. Now and then an episode is made that is in effect a self-contained science fiction short story rendered as a Star Trek episode. Since most of the fans of Star Trek are fans of science fiction, these episodes often wind up being among the most popular. "The Visitor" is one of these episodes. It is possibly the single-best episode of Deep Space Nine they ever made.

For one thing the concept is fantastic: an unexplained phenomenon causes an accident, and Ben Sisko is thrown out of time. Everybody thinks he is dead, including Jake - who was right next to him when he vanished. Months pass, and then suddenly Jake sees his father for a few moments before he vanishes again. Ben returns again a year later, this time for a few minutes. Then it is a couple more years before he returns, and then more than a decade. By the end of the episode we have caught up with the framing 'present', and Jake is now an old man waiting for one final meeting with his father. We get to see an entire alternate future for Deep Space Nine and its crew, but particularly Jake - who effectively destroys his own life in a quest to save his father's.

It is heartbreaking stuff. One of the strongest elements of Deep Space Nine is the intensely loving relationship formed between Ben and Jake Sisko. As I have mentioned in earlier reviews, there really isn't a father-son bond quite like it. This close friendship was driven from the outset by Avery Brooks; showcasing a positive relationship between two men of colour was one of the reasons he signed on to make the show. This episode is wrapped around that relationship. Brooks plays Ben with an aggressive positivity: he is immediately resigned to his own fate, but cherishes the brief moments he can share with his son each time he returns. He urges Jake to move on with his own life. Jake, however, cannot let go. He wilfully abandons his own happiness, and sacrifices everything in the attempt to bring his father home. It is a masterful dual performance by Cirroc Lofton (the regular Jake) and Tony Todd (his older version). One moment in particular sees Ben return to Jake (at this point played by Lofton) after more than a year away. Ben asks his son he has been doing, and Jake simply bursts into tears. We don't get this kind of emotional realism in science fiction drama every often, so when we do it really stands out. We also rarely get this kind of refusal to comply with traditional representations of masculinity anywhere on American television - sci-fi or otherwise.

One could nit-pick that, once again, Star Trek hits a reset button at the end and everything turns back to normal - except it kind of doesn't. History may follow a different track from here, but it still all happened to Ben. He still remembers his son getting older, and losing everything in the attempt to reunite them. It still feels like it matters.

It is a pity that the American TV industry has always had such an instinctive bias against genre dramas, because this is exactly the sort of episode that should be scored a bunch of Emmy nominations: for Michael Taylor's script, for David Livingston's direction, and particularly for Tony Todd, Cirroc Lofton and Avery Brooks' performances. It did get a nomination for Best Make-Up, but lost to (of all things) Star Trek: Voyager. At the Hugo Awards it scored a nomination for Best Dramatic Presentation, but lost to Babylon 5's "The Coming of Shadows". "The Visitor" was a much worthier episode.

Two episodes in, and the Deep Space Nine Season 4 quality ratio sits comfortably at 100 per cent.

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