*This post contains heavy spoilers for the Voyager episode, “State of Flux”, as well as for Deep Space Nine’s third-season finale, “The Adversary”. It also contains moderate spoilers for ongoing storylines through the first three seasons of DS9.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – “The Adversary” (season 3, episode 26)
Written by Ira Stephen Behr & Robert Hewitt Wolfe; directed by Alexander Singer; first aired in 1995
Sisko is promoted from Commander to Captain, but his day goes downhill from there. A Federation Ambassador brings news of political upheaval among a race called the Tzenkethi, and delivers Starfleet’s orders for Sisko to take the Defiant out to the Federation-Tzenkethi border, just in case. It turns out, though, that Starfleet gave no such orders, and that the Ambassador is really a shape-shifting Changeling sent by the Dominion to wreak havoc in the Alpha Quadrant. Now, with a sabotaged Defiant set on autopilot to attack the Tzenkethi, and its crew pointing phasers and wild accusations at each other, Sisko might just have to blow up his own ship to avoid starting a war. Turns out being the Captain kind of sucks, sometimes.
Star Trek: Voyager – “State of Flux” (season 1, episode 11)
Teleplay by Chris Abbot; story by Paul Robert Coyle; directed by Robert Scheerer; first aired in 1995
Ensign Seska, Chakotay’s old Maquis pal (and more, apparently), steals him some mushroom soup, and it’s all downhill from there. After an away team has a close call with some Kazon while foraging for mushrooms and poison apples, Voyager responds to a distress call from a Kazon ship whose crew have been fused into their ship’s walls. It seems this weirdness was caused by some malfunctioning Federation technology … technology the Kazon could only have gotten from someone on Voyager. Chakotay is forced to suspect Seska, since she was unaccounted for on the away mission when the Kazon showed up. Or, it could be … no, it’s pretty obviously Seska. But that doesn’t make it any less shocking when she turns out to be a Cardassian spy, surgically altered to look Bajoran. Seska berates Janeway for letting Federation ideals get in the way of their voyage home, and then beams off Voyager to a Kazon ship, leaving Chakotay to wonder if anyone in his old Maquis crew wasn’t a double agent.
When we looked at the Original Series’ “The Enemy Within” and The Next Generation’s “Second Chances”, I was impressed by the way those episodes start from the same basic sci-fi premise – a transporter malfunction creates 2 Kirks, and 2 Rikers – but take it in such different directions: where “Enemy” asks broad philosophical questions about identity and leadership, “Chances” simply spends some time with Troi and Riker (and Riker) as they’re forced to revisit their past and take stock of their future. In DS9’s “The Adversary” and Voyager’s “State of Flux”, we see almost the opposite: two episodes that each explore the fear that those around us might not be who or what they seem, but do it through two very different sci-fi conceits.
In “The Adversary”, this takes the form of a story of infiltration and paranoia, told through the tried-and-true device of a shape-shifting intruder. The episode’s most obvious inspiration, of course, is John Carpenter’s 1982 film, The Thing, with this inspiration reflected in details ranging from its choice of title to the use of a blood test to identify the shape-shifter by isolating a part of it. But beyond these specific details, “The Adversary” seeks to create a general atmosphere of oppressive tension in much the same way. The threat here is about as ‘alien’ as any threat can be, when the story takes place in a multi-species society; a non-humanoid (the Changeling) from a distant sector of space (the Gamma Quadrant) sent by a mysterious and threatening foreign power (the Dominion). This political element to the plot – the Dominion’s plans to destabilize the Alpha Quadrant, as preparation for an implied, impending invasion – is something that wasn’t explicit in Carpenter’s film, though viewers at the time, before the Cold War had ended, might have picked up on some political subtext related to the threat of infiltration by outsiders. Viewers today, of both the film and the DS9 episode, might pick up on similar subtext, if for different reasons, and DS9 would go on to explore the societal fallout from such fears and paranoia in a fourth-season two-parter – “Homefront” and “Paradise Lost”, which I’ll write about soon – that probably resonates even more so now, post-9/11, than it would have when it first aired, in the mid-90s.
“State of Flux” first aired in the same year as “The Adversary” – 1995 – and its own premise might also resonate more now than it did then. But where “Adversary” creates suspense via claustrophobic crawls through Jeffries tubes while the Defiant ticks ever closer to self-destruct, “Flux” takes a quieter, less heightened approach. “Adversary” begins with a formal (if fun) ceremony marking Sisko’s promotion, during which he’s pulled aside by (what seems to be) a Federation Ambassador with pressing political matters to discuss. In contrast, the first few scenes of “Flux” are mostly more everyday – foraging for food on a (seemingly) uninhabited planet; or more domestic – Seska bringing Chakotay his favorite soup in his quarters. While the Kazon present a potential external threat throughout the episode, its main focus (and by far the most interesting and compelling part of it) is the specter of betrayal by a member of the crew. Like “Adversary”, “Flux” depends on creating a level of suspicion and paranoia among the crew, but here it’s the quieter, more careful (but equally claustrophobic, if in a different way) paranoia of suspecting a betrayal from within, rather than an infiltration from without.
Appropriately, then, the sci-fi conceit of “Flux” is one for which Trek is uniquely suited, with its heavy reliance on practical makeup and prosthetics: radical cosmetic surgery, to the extent of passing not just for another person, but for another species. The idea that, even in the 24th century, cosmetic surgery could be so extensive and convincing, and yet so easily reversible, is famously implausible. But it’s become one of the franchise’s staple tropes anyway, and it’s not hard to understand why. On a meta-level, of course, it’s fun to see familiar actors in unfamiliar makeup (as we will in my very next post!). But more than that, the idea that someone could misrepresent themselves so completely as to appear as a different species allows, at its best, for some interesting exploration of how well we can ever know anyone. In “Flux”, we never actually see Seska’s true, Cardassian face, though the actor Martha Hackett communicates a great deal through Seska’s body language after her cover’s blown; once she drops the act, she very obviously becomes Cardassian in the way she holds herself, even without the makeup and prosthetics. At any rate, the revelation that a member of this crew – this stranded crew, whose survival depends on their ability to cooperate – is, and always was, a Cardassian secret agent, is impressively disorienting.
And it’s made all the more disorienting, I think, by the fact that she honestly believes she’s helping Voyager, not working against it, when she collaborates with the Kazon. “If this had been a Cardassian ship, we would be home now,” she says, and argues against Captain Janeway’s insistence on observing the Prime Directive by making the case that it’s well worth trading “some minor technology” if it makes them some “powerful friends”. The fact that her actions are morally ambiguous, betraying the crew’s ideals rather than causing physical harm (except to those poor Kazon stuck in the walls, of course), makes “Flux” much more effective than it might have been if she were working against Voyager in a more overt, hostile way.
And it was another good choice by the writers, I think, to have Seska’s affection for Chakotay be genuine, and not just an act. Again, this episode could easily – and probably more predictably – have ended with Seska revealing that she was only ever using Chakotay, and have her mock him for trusting her. The fact that she doesn’t, that she seems to truly regret that she must leave him behind, allows the episode to say something more interesting about the unknowable inner complexity of the people we think we know. This point is subtly driven home in Tuvok’s exchange with Chakotay, at the end of the episode:
Chakotay: Can I ask you to be honest with me, Lieutenant?
Tuvok: As a Vulcan, I am at all times honest, Commander.
C: That’s not exactly true. You lied to me when you passed yourself off as a Maquis to get on my crew.
T: I was honest to my own convictions within the defined parameters of my mission.
C: You damned Vulcans and your defined parameters! That’s easy for you.
T: On the contrary. The demands on a Vulcan’s character are extraordinarily difficult. Do not mistake composure for ease. How may I be honest with you today?
Just as Chakotay thought he knew Seska, he thought he knew Tuvok; he read Vulcan composure as coldness, missing the deliberation and self-control behind that composure, as human characters have tended to do with Vulcans throughout the entire Trek franchise. And the unsettling, bittersweet moral to this story is summed up by Tuvok’s dubious attempt to reassure Chakotay about his character judgements of the Maquis crew: “Like all humans, you depend on feelings and instincts to guide you, and they invariably let you down.” As much as we might try to avoid it, it is simply a fact of life that we will trust the wrong people sometimes (just as Tuvok admits that he, too, was fooled by Seska).
One of the few problems I have with “Flux” is the sense I get that Chakotay’s romantic relationship with Seska might have been added somewhat late in the writing process; while their scenes together are good, I’m not sure I believe (especially in that final conversation with Tuvok) that Chakotay has just found out that his lover, and not just a member of his Maquis crew, wasn’t who she seemed to be. Their relationship pulls some of the focus away, I think, from an interesting reflection on Chakotay’s uniquely difficult position as an authority figure to both the Maquis and the Starfleet officers on board Voyager. “Adversary”, too, subtly grounds its suspense story in an exploration of the impossible positions commanding officers can find themselves in. Okay, maybe starting the episode with Sisko’s promotion to Captain isn’t subtle, exactly … but for the rest of the episode, while we focus on guessing who the Changeling might be at any given time, Sisko’s terrible responsibility – stop the Changeling from starting a war, even if it means blowing up the ship he just became Captain of, like, earlier that day – is allowed to simmer in the background, just behind the ticking clock of the self-destruct sequence.
A significant turning point for the entire Trek franchise, I think, came with the introduction of the now-famous Kobayashi Maru training simulation in 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The fact that a commanding officer’s composure in the face of a no-win scenario had now been established both as a part of Starfleet training, and as an expectation for our lead characters in future Trek films and series, slightly tempered some of the franchise’s adventurous optimism, I think. Trek could still be about good people doing good things, but that goodness would sometimes carry a cost. At the time it first aired, DS9 was arguably the darkest, and unquestionably the most serialized, of any Trek TV series up to that point, which made it uniquely qualified to explore this aspect of the franchise, and it makes perfect sense that this series would ‘celebrate’ Sisko’s promotion from Commander to Captain by turning his ship into a deadly weapon that he can’t control, and making him unable to fully trust any member of his crew. The fact that he would rather destroy the ship (and his crew, and himself) than let it be used to take innocent lives says a lot about Sisko, of course. But it also says a lot about what it means to be a leader on DS9, a series which was arguably more comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity than Trek ever had been before. Faced with so many unknowns – unable to tell the Changeling from anyone else on board, able only to guess what the Changeling was planning to actually do with the Defiant – Sisko’s responsibility as Captain is to act on the only thing he does know for sure: that the Changeling could use the Defiant to hurt a lot of people, and that he can’t allow that to happen.
Of course, the Defiant doesn’t end up going the way of the Kobayashi Maru after all; Sisko’s no-win scenario is averted, if only at great personal cost to Constable Odo, who must now live with the knowledge that he is, apparently, the only Changeling ever to have killed one of his own. But even for Sisko himself, safe as his crew might be for the moment, “The Adversary” doesn’t end with a true victory. Just as Chakotay is told by Tuvok, at the end of “State of Flux”, that he can never know for certain who to trust, Sisko learns at the end of “The Adversary” that he can no longer trust that anyone in Starfleet – anyone in the Alpha Quadrant, even – is who they appear to be. Where the end of “State of Flux” does introduce a new antagonist who (without spoiling any details) will appear again in Voyager, the end of “The Adversary” is a profound change to DS9’s status quo. When Odo tells Sisko the hostile Changeling’s last words – “You’re too late, we’re everywhere” – the uncertainty of this episode is projected forward into the rest of the series; and, again without spoiling any details, both the looming threat of Changeling infiltrators and Odo’s status as the first ‘murderer’ in Changeling history will factor significantly in later episodes.
And not only will the fear of shape-shifting spies be a literal plot point going forward, but it also serves as a metaphor, I think, for DS9’s unique place within the Trek franchise. “Final Frontier” marketing notwithstanding, the Original Series and TNG tended not to deal all that much with the kind of uncertainty and fear of the unknown one might face on an actual frontier; to the contrary, Captains Kirk and Picard often seem at least partly defined by their unwavering faith in their crew, in their ship, and in the ideals of the Federation (as is Captain Janeway in Voyager, where Seska’s anger at Janeway’s faith in the Prime Directive, more than her secret identity as a Cardassian spy, makes Seska a villain). Captain Sisko’s career, on the other hand, will be at least partly defined by the fact that it truly does take place against a backdrop of uncertainty, where a fear of being betrayed by those around you – just like Major Kira’s mutual mistrust of the Bolian crew member she’s buddied up with in “The Adversary” – is both sensible and potentially destructive. Which is, I suspect, at least part of what makes DS9 as a series feel surprisingly fresh and relevant now, even after its 25th anniversary. As much as I might admire and envy the confidence and clearness of vision of a Janeway or a Kirk or a Picard, I think it might be Sisko whose place in the universe I can understand, and relate to, the most.
Next time, the face-swapping espionage continues, as both Captain Kirk and Counselor Troi turn Romulan in the Original Series’ “The Enterprise Incident”, and The Next Generation’s “Face of the Enemy”!