The Danger of Fear: Star Trek DS9 & the Need for Villians we can Relate to

This post contains spoilers about Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episodes Homeland and Paradise Lost.

DS9I’m four seasons into a binge watch of Star Trek: DS9, and I’m enjoying it far more than I thought I would.  The characters and stories show a bit more depth and maturity than I am used to from Trek, and the break from episodic story telling is a welcome relief.  But it’s still Trek, with all of the camp, the 2-dimensional non main characters and middle school approach to love, sex and relationships that I have come to expect.

So I’m not sure I can describe how surprised I was to get to the end of Homeland, the first in a two-parter in the middle of season 4 and realize I was watching a complicated, nuanced take on an issue with as much, if not more, relevance today than it had when it first aired. Even more surprisingly, the characters were in conflict and I didn’t know who I wanted to win!

This was something pretty new. And after getting to the end of the two-parter I’m comfortable saying its some of the best story telling Star Trek has even done.

For those who haven’t seen it, or whose memory banks may be temporarily inoperative, let me start with a brief re-cap. Our heroes, the Federation and its Star Fleet, are in the midst of a conflict with the Dominion. The Dominion is ruled by shapeshifting aliens known as Changelings, who can take any form.  After a number of incidents in which Changelings were able to use that shapeshifting ability to act as spies or double agents, tensions among Federation members are high, with our heroes having implemented blood tests and other security measures on Deep Space 9 in order to tell when a Changeling is hiding among them.

The episode opens with a bomb set off on Earth by a Changeling, and Ben Sisko, commander of DS9 being rushed home to take over planetary defenses. He is discouraged by the lack of urgency he sees from the Federation leadership, especially its President, about the Changeling threat and works hard to convince them that they need to be scared of the threat the Dominion poses. He helps convince them to begin blood tests and phasor sweeps, urging everyone of the need to be vigilant and fearful because anyone could be the enemy in disguise. When Earth suffers a planetary wide power failure, Sisko and his allies convince the president that this must be an act of Changeling sabotage, and that martial law is needed to protect the planet from the attack that must be imminent. The episode ends with the President reluctantly signing the order and the sight of armed troops out on the streets.

Bombings and fear of an enemy among us leading to fear and increased powers for the government to use the military to investigate its own citizens- does this seem familiar?

When that episode ended I was both excited, and apprehensive, about the episode to come.  I expect a lot of things from Star Trek, but subtlety is not one of them. Star Trek is good at making moral arguments, but they generally do so by hitting you over the head with them. Repeatedly. More to the point, its normally the alien of the week, or the non-main character who is wrong, and needing our regular character hero to show them the light. On the occasions when our hero has lost their way, like Picard in First Contact, the audience can see it coming long before the character does.

Here though, that hadn’t happened. One character, Sisko’s father, had expressed concern with the blood tests and increased scrutiny of citizens, and his son’s role in it.  But we had earlier seen the father refuse to take his own health seriously, which seemed like the show telling us to not take his other concerns as seriously. Similarly, when the president protested against the idea of militarizing earth in response to the acts of terrorism by the Changelings, he was presented as weak and out of touch, unaware of the real danger.

So I ended that episode genuinely worried that they were telling a story about the need for heightened levels of security and fear in the face of danger.  They presented a compelling case, demonstrated the real threat that they were under, and gave other characters a chance to talk our heroes out of it but with arguments that, in the context of the show, did not logically hold up.  I even checked the airdate, and when I saw this was, in fact, aired a number of years before 9/11, and all the discussions about how a society should and should not respond to terrorism and fear, I thought perhaps this was just a time when Star Trek told a story that I didn’t agree with. A story that might have seemed a bit off at the time, but was now far more troubling, given what had happened in the twenty years since it had aired.

So when I watched Paradise Lost, the 2nd half of the two-parter, I was quite surprised to realize I had been watching a subtle, nuanced story about how easy it is for good people with good intentions to give in to fear in the face of terrorism.

We learn in Paradise Lost that the attack on the planet’s power grid was carried out, not by the Dominion, but by Star Fleet officers, attempting to scare the population and the government into taking drastic action. On it’s surface, that is hardly an original story, but it becomes clear that this isn’t simply a naked power grab. The  leader of the conspiracy, Admiral Leyton, doesn’t want power for himself and his own ambition, as we might normally expect in a story like this, especially when told by a medium like Star Trek which has not always been known for the moral complexity of its antagonists. Instead, Leyton is acting out of genuine fear and patriotism, feelings that Sisko himself shares. It is only when Sisko realizes who was behind the attack on the power grid that he turns on Leyton and the others, eventually exposing the plot and saving the day in true Star Trek fashion. But even when Leyton has moved beyond his original plan of influencing the president and is now taking the desperate action of launching an all out coup d’etat, Sisko remarks “I’m sure the Admiral doesn’t see it as treason. He would probably defend it as a desperate act of patriotism.”

I love a good hero, but in the end it is the villain that will make or break a hero story for me. The stories I love and that stick with me most are the ones where I can see things through the antagonist’s point of view, even if in the end I disagree or think they have to be stopped. Those stories are far harder to create than one about the megalomaniac who simply wants to rub his hands together and laugh his evil laugh about all his evil plans, but in the end they are far more interesting.  They challenge us, by forcing us to see things in ourselves we may not want to admit, and ask if we are really so different than they are.

I can’t comment on how the episodes were viewed when they first aired. But to watch them today, 15 years after 9/11 and after a week of ever more horrible attacks, it is hard not to see the story’s relevance to our own world. As I watched Leyton and Sisko respond with fear to a threat that seemed overwhelming, I remembered the fear I felt this week as I read about Istanbul, Bagdad, and Bangladesh. The fear I felt when I saw the towers that had been such an essential part of my New York childhood, fall. As I saw Sisko, our always levelheaded hero, fall prey to that fear and start advocating for greater and greater restrictions, I thought about how easily I have seen fear stroked and manipulated in our own world.

It’s easy to find the antagonist who isn’t us. To point at the demagogues who want to build walls or ban whole groups of immigrants based on race or religion and say, “they are wrong, and we are right, because they are nothing like us.”  Far harder, but far more important is to find those subtler ways in which we let fear control and define us. Because when we truly look at our fears, and the ways in which they can control us and blind us, we start to see the path that goes from Sisko to Leyton and that can eventually lead to Fox News and Trump.

This is hardly the first time I’ve found a great moral lesson in Star Trek, and I doubt will be the last, but this was easily the one whose telling I was most impressed by. As my own country gears up for our annual celebration of patriotism, I know I’ll be thinking about Admiral Leyton, and what happens when good men and women become blinded by fear for the country they love.




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