“Keep your freaky to yourself”: The Forsaken (DS9) vs. Q & A (Short Treks)

*This post contains spoilers for both episodes, and may contain mild spoilers for season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – “The Forsaken” (season 1, episode 17)

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Teleplay by Don Carlos Dunaway & Michael Piller; story by Jim Trombetta; directed by Les Landau; first aired in 1993

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

Doctor Bashir has been saddled with the responsibility of entertaining several high-maintenance Federation ambassadors, so Commander Sisko doesn’t have to. Among the ambassadors is one who will be familiar to viewers of The Next Generation: Lwaxana Troi, Daughter of the Fifth House, Holder of the Sacred Chalice of Rixx, Heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed. When Lwaxana is pick-pocketed in Quark’s Bar, Constable Odo quickly tracks down the thief and gets her jewelry back for her … catching her attention in the process. Meanwhile, Chief O’Brien is struggling with the station’s Cardassian computers, and a mysterious probe emerges from the Wormhole, seemingly with no one on board. After a scan of the probe’s surprisingly complex computer, the station’s own computer starts behaving a bit … differently. Meanwhile, Odo quickly becomes uncomfortable with Lwaxana’s … attention, and things only get more uncomfortable – for Odo, if not for Lwaxana – when the two are stranded in a broken-down turbolift, with mysterious malfunctions preventing O’Brien from repairing the lift or beaming them out. Lwaxana savors the chance for some quality time in the lift with Odo, and he gradually opens up to her about his past, and the loneliness of growing up and living as a shapeshifter among “solids.” His social discomfort becomes physical, though, as he finds himself up past his bedtime – bedtime, for Odo, being the point at which he can no longer maintain his shape, and must revert to a liquid in order to regenerate. O’Brien realizes that a non-organic life form carried in the probe’s databanks has taken over the station’s computer, and his attempts to remove it only cause more malfunctions, starting a fire that threatens Bashir and the other ambassadors. Dax and O’Brien finally manage to lure the lonely life form into a program where it can be kept busy and happy; Bashir earns the ambassadors’ respect by keeping them safe until they can be rescued; and Odo becomes the first person ever to see Lwaxana without her wig, right before Lwaxana becomes the first person ever to see Odo in his liquid state, and she keeps him safe until they, too, can be rescued.

VS.

Star Trek: Short Treks – “Q & A” (season 2, episode 1)

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Written by Michael Chabon; directed by Mark Pellington; first aired in 2019

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

Spock – an Ensign here, and looking more outwardly enthusiastic than we’re used to – beams aboard Captain Pike’s Enterprise to begin his new assignment as a science officer. He’s greeted by the ship’s First Officer – “just call me Number One” – who orders him to “barrage” her with questions on their way to the bridge. He does, starting with science-y questions they both find “fascinating.” But after a computer error strands them on the turbolift, and they’re left with a lot more time to kill together, Spock’s questions start to get a bit more personal, veering into Number One’s relationship with Pike, and her actual name, which may or may not be Una. After being mildly electrocuted while trying to fix the malfunction herself, Una turns the personal questions around on Spock, observing that he was the first Vulcan she’d ever seen smiling, and advising him, for the sake of his career, to keep his “freaky” to himself. This is something they both have “painful” experience with, as it turns out, and they bond by sharing their respective “freaky” with each other in an openly joyful rendition of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.” Their singing, and their uncharacteristic emoting, is abruptly cut short by their rescue, and Una orders Spock to forget it ever happened. Spock clearly respects and understands the sincerity behind that order, and when asked by Pike, later, if Vulcans ever feel awe, he shares a knowing look with Una as he responds that “they do,” but “they tend to keep it to themselves.”

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Something I’ve always loved about Star Trek is the way its ships and stations aren’t just cold, practical vessels for the exploration of deep space – they’re homes, places where people spend time with other people, bond with them, have meaningful relationships with them. Already in The Original Series, the original Enterprise feels, to me, very comfy – an odd word to apply to something which is, technically, a naval vehicle, its bridge feeling more like some strangely intimate combination of science lab and workplace break room than a military command center. The series of Star Trek that followed it would take that aesthetic and run with it, in more and more explicit ways. The Next Generation’s own Enterprise showcased the cutting edge technology of a later era, its “Galaxy-class” design amounting to almost more of a moving city in space than a space ship. With Deep Space Nine, of course, the metaphor was made literal by setting the series on a space station – an actual, permanent home for many, many people, where the wonders of space could come to them. Voyager, too, would take that original subtext and make it just plain text, stranding its crew so far away from Earth that their ship was the closest thing to home that they could hope for, for light years in any direction.

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Why make the vessels and stations of Star Trek so homey? So that their inhabitants can be, or gradually become, not just coworkers, but family. Some of the clearest memories I have of watching The Next Generation as a child, while it was first airing, are relaxed, comfortable moments shared between its characters: Crusher and LaForge rehearsing Gilbert and Sullivan; Riker playing the trombone, or Data playing the violin, for an audience of their friends and colleagues; Guinan introducing Worf to that “warrior’s drink,” prune juice. Granted, jazz, classical music, and Gilbert and Sullivan are all conspicuously 20th-century-style ways for 24th-century friends to spend time together, but that’s okay, I think, because Star Trek’s vision of a socially and technologically advanced future wouldn’t be worth much if that future, as represented by its starships and space stations, didn’t feel – to us, today – like a nice place to spend time, and if its characters didn’t feel like good people to spend time with. In Futurama’s “Where No Fan Has Gone Before” – equal parts parody of, and tribute to, Trek – time-displaced doofus Fry says, of The Original Series: “When I didn’t have any friends … it made me feel like maybe I did.” It’s an intentionally cheesy line (or “touchingly pathetic,” as Leela calls it), but it rings true anyway, because Star Trek has always been less concerned with showing how a better future might work than with showing us how we could be better today, and how we could be better towards each other especially.

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And one tried-and-true TV trope for helping characters bond in a hurry – for helping them better understand each other, and how to treat each other – is the old strand-two-people-in-a-broken-down-elevator trick. Any TV-based fictional universe as long-running as Trek’s is bound to have employed this trick once or twice, and in fact it has, in the early Deep Space Nine episode “The Forsaken” and in the second-season opener of Short Treks, “Q & A.” Again, elevator troubles feel much more like an artifact of our own time than a fact of 23rd– or 24th-century life; “The Forsaken” comes up with contrived reasons why Constable Odo and Lwaxana Troi can’t simply be beamed out of their malfunctioning turbolift, and “Q & A” more or less ignores the existence of the transporter altogether. And again, I’m okay with that, since the contrivance is kind of the point, a means to the end of watching these characters be forced to hash things out all at once. After all, I don’t think these sorts of intense elevator talks are particularly grounded in realism even when they are set in a contemporary world without transporter technology; if I were stuck in the cramped confines of an elevator for hours, I doubt I’d be in the right state of mind to contribute much to a deep, soul-baring conversation. As contrived as the broken-down elevator trope is, it works, I think, because it’s a fictional solution to an underlying bit of reality: most of us don’t like the idea of baring our souls, and will often go to great lengths to avoid it. Because of this, the notion that two people trapped in a tiny room would have nothing to do but bare their souls to each other is the sort of thing that feels satisfyingly real on TV – when it’s done well, at least – even if it probably wouldn’t pan out very well in real life.

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“The Forsaken” debuted near the end of Deep Space Nine’s first season, a season still very much working out the kinks of its stationary (sorry) setting. It’s worth noting, I think, that while a very uneven first season might seem like a serious sin in the contemporary TV climate – where many shows live or die by their ability to immediately hook viewers on an ongoing, cohesive narrative – it was probably less remarkable a problem in earlier eras of TV. I’m not just talking about the somewhat unique problem new Trek shows would face, as they figured out how to both live up to, and differentiate themselves from, the Trek that came before; watch or re-watch the first season of other long-running genre shows from the 90s, like The X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I think you’ll come across episodes that feel almost like they were written for another show, and were sort of awkwardly grafted onto the new show’s first season by a writers’ room scrambling to world-build on the fly. The most contrived elements of “The Forsaken” are a clear example of this: the non-organic life form infesting the station’s computer, the pompous, unreasonable diplomats getting in the way while the real heroes of Starfleet try to Get Stuff Done, and even the episode’s title just feel like generic, boiler-plate Star Trek, lifted straight from The Next Generation or The Original Series with the serial numbers filed off. I like this episode for its character moments, particularly those involving Odo, as we’ll discuss below. But I wish it would have let the computer problem simply be a computer problem, of the sort that this series was in the unique position to explain through the station’s cobbled-together Cardassian, Bajoran, and Federation technology (or even some sabotage left behind by the Cardassians, as in the later episode “Civil Defense”); “our computer is alive now” was already well-worn Trek territory by this point, and this episode doesn’t have the time to add anything interesting to it. Likewise, I wish Lwaxana had simply been visiting of her own accord, for any number of reasons, since the Trek trope of “ambassadors/admirals are bad news” is well beyond well-worn, and that C-story does little to develop Dr. Bashir as a character. Still, comparing this episode to earlier and less successful “trouble on the station” episodes like “Babel,” DS9 was already making progress on using its setting – one unique, to this day, among Star Trek series – as an interesting source of conflict and character moments.

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And like “Babel,” for all its faults, “The Forsaken” does give us some great early moments for its core characters, Odo especially. Granted, the choice to have Odo share those moments with Lwaxana, a character already well established by her guest appearances on The Next Generation, is perhaps a bit odd, and smacks of the same first-season insecurities mentioned above, not yet trusting the series to stand on its own feet but propping it up, instead, with a fan-pleasing cameo appearance – not just of the character, but of Majel Barrett, legendary among Trek fandom as TNG’s computer voice, Nurse Chapel on The Original Series, and the original Number One in the first episode of Trek ever produced, “The Cage” (a character we’ll come back to, below). Now, I’m never not happy to see Barrett, and some of my favorite Lwaxana moments can be found here: her description of Odo as “the thin beige line between order and chaos” gets an out-loud laugh from me every time I hear it, and her initial response to learning that Odo must regularly turn into a liquid – “I can swim” – is perfectly delivered by Barrett, confident but understated. As a rule, though, Lwaxana is not exactly an understated character, and the biggest issue with her inclusion in this episode (aside from how glaringly obvious it is, in retrospect, that Odo’s intimate moment in the turbolift should have been shared with Major Kira) is her behavior towards Odo before they’re trapped in the turbolift, and how cavalier Sisko is in dismissing Odo’s discomfort with the situation. If the gender roles were reversed in some of those earlier scenes – if they showed, for example, a male ambassador putting his hands all over a female officer who was clearly not okay with it, and that woman’s commanding officer laughingly dismissing her complaints – that would make most of us watching today feel very uncomfortable, and rightly so. I don’t know that we should feel any more comfortable seeing it happen to Odo. As a result, I basically have to head-canon those earlier scenes out of existence in order to enjoy Odo and Lwaxana being stranded on the turbolift.

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Which is worth doing, I think, because there really is some very good stuff in those later scenes. Where “The Forsaken” really succeeds, I think, is in the way it plants some early seeds of the vulnerability underlying Odo’s gruff manner and his need for order. From the very beginning of the series, Deep Space Nine had clearly positioned Odo as the outsider character, in the vein of Spock and Data before him. But where Data is typically the optimistic outsider, intent on better understanding and fitting in with those around him, “The Forsaken” reinforces the impression that Odo will be more reminiscent of Spock: proud of the things that make him different, while harboring pain and trauma rooted in those differences, and in the distance they have created between him and almost everyone around him. “The Forsaken” repeatedly reminds us, and eventually shows us, that in order to regenerate, Odo must become a liquid. This makes him, in one respect at least, the ultimate outsider in all of Star Trek up to that point: its first non-humanoid main character. The fact that Lwaxana is utterly, genuinely unfazed by this is a big part of what makes their turbolift scene maybe my favorite use of the character, and makes her willingness to let Odo see her without her wig, the way she’s about to see him without his assumed shape, such a surprisingly touching moment. It also gives Rene Auberjonois, as Odo, the chance to show us an early glimpse of the depth and pathos he would give this character over the years, making him so much more than either a shapeshifting novelty or the grumpy, hard-boiled security chief. Auberjonois is as impressive as ever, here, for his ability to portray the emotional complexity of Odo’s situation – under even more makeup than usual – as his regeneration time draws near; not embarrassment, as he says, but a need to keep parts of himself private, an intense desire to control the way others see him. This feels impressively real, coming from a shapeshifter living among “solids” who largely define him by that shapeshifting ability, and often treat it as a parlor trick for their own amusement. It also feels uncomfortably relatable … but then, maybe that’s just me.

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Or maybe it’s not, because how we want to be seen, how we need to be seen, and the tension between those wants and needs are major concerns of another stuck-in-an-elevator story, the Short Trek “Q & A.” This episode opens on Star Trek’s most iconic outsider, Spock himself … but places him in a time and headspace which makes him noticeably different from the way I described him above, and from that iconic image of him that most of us have in our heads. The Spock we see here – played with impressive precision by Ethan Peck – is not so different, though, from his portrayal in several episodes across the run of The Original Series, which was much more comfortable showing slips of his emotional control than we might remember. The most glaring example of this, of course, is in the aforementioned first-ever episode of Star Trek, its originally unaired pilot, “The Cage.” Watching that episode, it’s clear, from an out-of-universe perspective, that the show’s creative team simply hadn’t thought up Vulcan emotional control yet, as Leonard Nimoy’s performance is markedly different from what we would see from him later; his Spock, in “The Cage,” is loud, reactive, and unabashedly emotional, famously giving a broad, joyful smile at the sight of some singing alien flowers. I’ve always been content to see that as simply an example of those first-season growing pains I mentioned above, especially given that so much else about The Original Series, including all of its other regular cast members, would change before the series ever actually aired. But “Q & A” continues a tradition established early on by Short Treks’ sister show, Discovery, by using its position as a prequel series to not just ret-con in reasons for Spock’s differing levels of emotional control, but to lend new emotional significance to those moments we’ve already seen on screen. “Q & A” does this by showing us what appears to be Spock’s literal first day on the crew of the Enterprise, and linking his own character development to that of another character we know much less about.

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It’s in this pairing of Spock and Una – the very same Number One played by Majel Barrett in “The Cage,” and by Rebecca Romijn here, giving an impressively precise performance of her own – that “Q & A” makes better use of its trapped-in-the-turbolift story than “The Forsaken” does. Spock is a well-developed character already, of course, but again, this particular portrayal of Spock allows the unique opportunity to put that previous character development in an interesting new light; and Una is a character in the rare position of being a fan favorite about whom almost nothing has ever been revealed, in her TV appearances at least. (Is it fair to say that this makes her Trek’s Boba Fett? I’m not playing with fire by throwing around casual, only-mildly-informed references to Star Wars, am I?) Unlike the odd couple of Odo and Lwaxana, Una and Spock are an inspired, natural pairing which we have, nonetheless, never seen spend much screen time together, in the literal half-century since they both first appeared in “The Cage.” Seeing the first time they met isn’t just an opportunity for fan service, but a chance to add context to Una’s compelling screen presence in those few appearances she has made to this point, and trapping her with Spock in a broken-down elevator isn’t just a sweeps-week-style gimmick, but the perfect way to allow for a meaningful emotional connection between these two famously reserved characters, in the brief span of a single Short Trek. Lwaxana’s tenderness toward Odo in “The Forsaken” is touching, but we don’t really learn anything about her in that turbolift that we didn’t know already, or couldn’t have learned in a less contrived setting. And while that contrivance was needed to create a situation where the intensely private and self-possessed Odo would be forced to let down his defenses, that moment would have been more impactful if shared with someone who wouldn’t be leaving the station shortly after the turbolift were fixed; someone Odo would have to see regularly, going forward. Whereas in “Q & A,” it’s hard to imagine Una and Spock belting out showtunes without being stranded in close quarters away from prying eyes, and the bonding they do in this moment – and maybe more importantly, in the moment where Spock promises not to spread Una’s secrets, and later makes good on that promise – is made more meaningful by our knowledge that they will presumably spend a great deal more time together, for years to come, on the bridge of the Enterprise.

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And this is why the contrivance of the broken-down turbolift in “Q & A,” conveniently un-fixable even with all that impressive 23rd-century tech, doesn’t bother me, the way I’ve seen it bother others. In its contrivance, it manages to capture that very real feeling of the starship as a home, a place where people don’t just work together, but live together as a sort of family … a place where, as in real life, people who live together can’t help but show sides of themselves that they wouldn’t anywhere else, or with anyone else. Seeing this side of Star Trek makes me feel at home; it’s a much bigger piece of what keeps me coming back to these stories than the sci-fi problem of the week, and I’m glad that “Q & A,” with its short running time, left that element out altogether, as I wish “The Forsaken” had. Granted, “Q & A” certainly isn’t without its flaws. While I’m fine with its plotting and love its character work, I am a bit confused by it, thematically. Are we meant to agree with Una’s assertion that you can’t show your “freaky” on the command track in Starfleet? As I mentioned at the start, by the 24th century of The Next Generation, we’d see the first officer of the flagship of the Federation jamming with a jazz band in the ship’s lounge, taking requests from the ship’s counselor. Not that I think jazz is especially “freaky,” mind you, but neither is “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” particularly in a culture as obsessed with 20th– and 21st-century music as 23rd– and 24th-century humanity seems to be. And beyond that questionable assessment of Starfleet’s command structure, there’s something odd about equating her own secret love of showtunes with the lifetime of racist harassment and emotion-shaming Spock has presumably endured up to this point … odd enough that I’m assuming (or at least hoping) that this episode is teasing some wider story yet to come about Una, in the same way that the previous Short Treks “Runaway” and “The Brightest Star” set up some of the events of season 2 of Discovery (and in the same way that “Calypso” may have teased elements of Discovery’s third season, which hasn’t yet begun at the time I’m writing this). But setting these relatively minor concerns aside, my biggest issue with Short Treks’ sister series Discovery so far – a show I do enjoy, for the most part – is the way its breathlessly-paced, mystery-box-style plotting gets in the way of developing that feeling of home aboard its namesake; two seasons in, I still don’t really feel that I know the starship Discovery as a place, let alone as a familial home for its crew. I am holding out some hope that this may change in Discovery’s third season, as it seems to be setting up an ongoing premise similar, in some ways, to Voyager’s. In the meantime, though, I greatly appreciate that Short Treks can pick up some of the slack in that department, even if “Q & A” does cheat, a little, by setting its story on the Enterprise, a place that already feels, to many, like home.

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And if a character can feel like home, Original Series icons Scotty and Sulu certainly fit that bill, as we’ll see next time when we look at their guest appearances in The Next Generation‘s “Relics” and Voyager‘s “Flashback”!

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