[SPOILERS for Star Trek: Deep Space 9]
As I hinted in my past post, I have recently watched through the boxset of Star Trek: Deep Space 9.
This was a very happy experience, because I loved that series when it was originally broadcast. Naturally, I didn’t have a perfect memory of the entire seven seasons’ worth of stories, but there were several favourites it was a joy to watch again, and equally, several stories it was pleasant to see again as if they were new.
But one thing in particular struck me about the series as a whole, a theme or thread running through every story arc and subplot. This may not be the most original observation, but at the same time it was something that came through so strongly for me as someone living in a “reluctantly queer” life.
The theme I noticed was the question of Identity, and in particular, negotiating identities. Identities that may clash from time to time, or fit awkwardly, and that require a person to navigate between them. This resonated strongly with me because of my genderfluid, genderqueer identity (and the difficulties I have in negotiating those “awkward” selves) and my bisexuality, and even my sense of my BDSM role(s) as a Dominant and sadist who is also a masochist and also enjoys playing the sub role.
Let’s start with the regular aliens – the crew members who are explicitly non-human. In the DS9 crew, these are Major (later Colonel) Kira Neris, Constable Odo, and Jadzia (later Ezri) Dax.
We’ll leave Kira to one side for the moment and focus on the other two. These are a “changeling” or shapeshifter who can adopt any physical form they choose (Odo chooses a standard “masculine” form and uses the pronouns he/him/his, so we shall respect that); and a symbiotic alien (a Trill) comprising a “memory store” [my term] symbiont (named “Dax”) that is passed from host to host as each host dies, and the latest host (Jadzia, and later, Ezri) whose personality is a combination of their own, and the parts of the past hosts that come through from the symbiont’s memories.
If that doesn’t already flag up the theme of “identity”, I don’t know what could!
And if that’s not enough, Odo is alone – at the start of the series he doesn’t know where he comes from, or anything about his own species. Eventually, he does find them and then is faced with a conflict between the life, principles, and friends he has made living amongst “solids”, and the ways of his own people. That his people, the changelings, turn out to be the major enemy for the Federation through the series, and infiltrate Federation, Klingon and Romulan societies by impersonating key figures (usually, held captive so that the deception cannot be revealed by the real person showing up inconveniently) almost seems like overdoing it!
Dax, meanwhile, is an old friend of Commander (later Captain) Sisko – who knew Dax when she was a he, and called Curzon Dax. While the change caused by “joining” is not remotely comparable to “transition” for trans people, in that the story shows Sisko accepting Jadzia as a woman and not misgendering her (although by agreement, he still uses the term of endearment he had for Curzon – “Old Man”) it feels to me in many ways like an early positive representation of trans acceptance.
There are several episodes in which people who knew Curzon Dax are surprised by Jadzia Dax, and some are less accepting of the idea that the person they knew before is a woman; it falls to Jadzia to prove herself as Curzon’s successor. There is also an episode in which Jadzia gets to meet Dax’s previous selves as their personalities are transferred temporarily into the bodies of her friends – so that, again, the characters are faced with identity.
These questions are made explicit when late in the series, Jadzia dies and the Dax symbiont is transferred to a new, and unprepared, host: Ezri. Ezri, lacking any preparation for the combined memories of several other lifetimes and personalities, finds herself somewhat overwhelmed and having to navigate her own way through them so she can find her own, distinctive, self to be.
While Odo and Dax are obvious, there is no less a theme of identity involved in Kira’s role.
Kira is a hero of the Bajoran resistance. As her world, Bajor, emerges as an independent nation after a colonial occupation by Cardassia, she becomes a part of the official armed forces under a provisional government. The provisional government calls in one of the Alpha Quadrant’s superpowers, the democratic (and undeniably socialist – they don’t use currency and most needs are met through a system of generously rationed transporter and replicator allowances!) Federation. (The Federation has its problems, of course, and corruption exists in the heart of even this most benign of governments, but that’s another story.) To Kira (and many others) this seems like they will simply be going from one oppressor to another, and losing their independence all over again. But Kira is appointed as the liaison between the Federation’s presence on Deep Space 9, and the Bajoran authorities.
Kira is consequently thrust into a conflict between her self-identity as a resistance fighter (make no mistake – she was a terrorist) and her new status as part of the forces of law and order. In a number of early episodes, this conflict between her self-identity and her new situation is explicitly explored – with her actions falling sometimes on one side, and sometimes on the other. She has to carve out her new identity as the oppression she fought against had been lifted but there were still injustices, but also, decisions that had to be made for the good of Bajor, and it was no longer possible always to stick up for the stubborn little guy.
While most obvious in the first season, this conflict resurfaces occasionally throughout. There is also a more gradual evolution from her original isolationist, anti-Federation stance to an acceptance of Bajor’s need for powerful allies in the face of outside threats, and sometimes the need to moderate her own government’s positions. As an aside, there is an episode in which Cardassian spies kidnap Kira and try to convince her that she was, all along, actually a Cardassian sleeper agent with false memories and facial surgery to make her resemble a Bajoran militant. This was actually a ploy to expose dissidents in Cardassian society, but once again identity, appearance and authenticity of self play a key role.
There are two other regular aliens who are not a part of the crew but still frequently involved in storylines. These are Quark (along with his brother Rom and nephew Nog), the Ferengi barkeeper providing booze, gambling and virtual-reality entertainment (including implied brothels) in his holosuites; and Garak, an exiled Cardassian who has nevertheless made his home amongst his people’s enemies.
The Ferengi are a culture built on a pseudo-religious worship of capitalist accumulation and greed (some have pointed out how this is a repetition of anti-semitic stereotypes, for example: https://twitter.com/willoftzeentch/status/851729439478095872 – I’ve tended to view it as a criticism of right-wing politics based on privilege such as Ayn Rand, Hayek, and such, but once it’s pointed out it’s hard not to see the dogwhistle anti-semitism in the portrayal).
Quark has to navigate several identities here. The first is that he has a conscience when it comes to certain things (such as weapons dealing – he draws the line at indiscriminate murder of civilians using chemical or biological weapons, which induces him to seek a pathway out of the deal) but he also identifies himself as a sort of Delboy-in-space, a slightly dodgy doer of underhand deals and bending the law on the one hand; and on the other, a person with a moral compass. This identity as a wheeler-dealer ties into his central identity as a Ferengi and seeker of profit, but doesn’t always sit in accord with it. He also identifies in some ways not only with his own moral compass (driven in part by a strong wish for self-preservation) but with the ideals of the Federation hosts, though he often pushes against those (see “wheeler-dealer/Delboy-in-space”). He also feels a strong sense of familial loyalty and even though he disagrees with, and is even horrified sometimes, by the choices of his mother, brother and nephew, and the ways in which each challenges Ferengi social norms, he feels compelled to do his best for them (while trying to navigate those identities). Finally, he is a realist and deals with things as they are, not as the laws (of whatever culture he’s in – Ferengi or Federation, or even Klingon on one occasion) would wish them to be. His ability to navigate cultures is curiously adept (like when he used Klingon values of honour to save himself from death in a duel).
Garak, meanwhile, is a former spy and a tailor. He is an outcast and yet still tied to his homeland’s culture; he tells many conflicting stories of his past (some of which have enough truth in them that his old contacts appear useful). A key conflict is between this former life and his new occupation in exile. It is very hard (and deliberately so, as written, one feels!) to tell just how true his protestations of innocence are, but there is at least some element of wanting to put his life in the Obsidian Order behind him and be just what he appears to be – whether he is using tailor as a cover story or not.
But in various ways, the people around him do not let him forget who he was. As the story develops, his connections and past become useful to his current hosts and naturally they seek to exploit them. The problem of never being able to leave behind a life once led is familiar in various ways to people who live, or have lived, outside the sexual norms or who are trans.
So much for the aliens. But the theme resonates through the storylines for many of the human characters too.
Benjamin Sisko finds himself revered on Bajor as “the Emissary of the Prophets” due to the unique connection he has with extratemporal beings who live in a stable wormhole nearby (beings who have interacted with Bajor’s population as deities before). This spiritual status is outside of his duties as a representative of the Federation, and this conflict of two identities is made explicit when his commanding officer tells him that he cannot be both a Starfleet captain and a religious figure (though Sisko manages to navigate between the two throughout the story, though they often come into conflict). A large part of the overall story arc is about Sisko’s role as Emissary, and the many ways in which that challenges his sense of self.
Sisko has a third role – which is really two rolled into one. He is a grieving widower at the start of the series, and with it, a single parent, a father struggling to cope with his job and the demands of bringing up a son on his own. As the story develops, he both has to guide his son Jake and later, be helped by him to move on from his grief and eventually, start dating again.
* * *
Those are the main story arcs that I felt resonated so strongly about negotiating identities, but there are others. Perhaps the strongest of these is Dr Julian Bashir. His conflicting identities are hidden for the most part, but are the central point of at least 3 episodes. He is, for the most part, presenting as a normal, if talented, Starfleet doctor who placed second out of his class and chose to take the Deep Space 9 posting as a result. But he and his family harbour a secret: his parents had him genetically enhanced when he was young. From struggling academically and physically, he went to excelling.
Unfortunately, genetic enhancements are illegal (due to the rather unpleasant consequences outlined in an Original Series episode and in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). So Bashir has to stay under the radar as best he can. Others with genetic enhancements have been institutionalised and are somewhat less stable, which occasionally brings Bashir into a role as intermediary between them, and the unenhanced population. His sense of who he is is challenged in the episodes where his genetic past is brought to the fore, and again he is someone who has to navigate between roles and selfs.
Similarly, Worf has a storyline that navigates his expat status as a Klingon who lives among humans and who has accepted some of their norms while still clinging on (see what I did there) to his own cultural heritage. His “Klingon-ness” is frequently challenged by other Klingons due to his ability to accommodate Federation norms and used as a weapon to dismiss his opinions about Klingon political strategy – while race would seem the obvious focus here, the ways in which gay/lesbian groups tend to erase bisexuality feel like a close parallel here, too.
Chief Miles O’Brien is the only major character who doesn’t seem to have these issues, but his storylines still manage to impose such questions on him, through some quite torturous scenarios (it felt to me as though if there was a need for a character to be made to suffer for the heck of it, the writers would make it an O’Brien storyline!) One story in particular springs to mind: in one, the O’Brien we focus on turns out to be an android replica that merely believes itself to be Chief O’Brien but is actually intended to sabotage an important peace treaty negotiation and assassinate one side’s representatives.
* * *
In conclusion, then, what I really have to say is that on many levels I found Deep Space 9 to be a powerful allegory for queerness in today’s society, from the pseudo-transness of Curzon/Jadzia/Ezri Dax to the difficulty of fitting in as someone different that Odo experiences, to the challenge of balancing societal roles faced by Kira and Sisko, to Quarks complex overlapping of different ethical and cultural demands. I found a lot of my experience with balancing my sexual and gender identities resonated with the conflicts and challenges explored by these character arcs.
As a final word: as an introvert, I found Odo to be a fascinating representation – while many of the extroverted characters (even the slightly socially awkward Bashir) did not relate well to him, he found a way to live well as someone who prefers less company on the whole but was able to participate socially when necessary. He even helps Worf (another more introverted character) with advice on how to maintain the personal space that is needed for introverts to recover.