Thursday, 12 November 2020

Re-discovering Rejoined

It was the week of the 2020 US Presidential Election, so nothing else really got through, nothing felt important or intense enough to break the cycle of refreshing the count, watching the toppling of the Midwest, of hoping that for once, something big could go right after four years of chaos. I watched Discovery’s third episode of the third season and registered how special it was to have, in 2020, a non-binary actor play a character who has a Trill symbiont – what it means to have writers now who realise the full potential of what was created more than 30 years ago (in TNG’s The Host) and have the creative freedom to make the queerness of the Trill symbiosis a reality. The concept of Trill symbionts – essentially, worms that carry the full memory and experience of the host body with them, amassing knowledge and history with their extended life spans – has always felt like it never got fully realised during Deep Space Nine, which only ever hinted at the societal consequences and the individual trials that would be connected to that. All of those little bits and pieces that amassed during DS9’s seven seasons, and two main characters who hosted the Dax symbiont, now appear like jumping-off points for a much more detailed, darker investigation about the philosophical and psychological implications. 

But let’s start with Discovery, which, in the third season’s fourth episode (Forget Me Not) delved deeply into trill society in the 32nd century, a solid 800 years beyond what any other Trek show has travelled to. After arriving in that future, and struggling with the ambiguous loss of everyone they have ever known having passed centuries ago, along with the Federation as it existed, Discovery is trying to find the traces of society they have left behind. This society is changed fundamentally by a catastrophic event called the Burn, in which dilithium, a core constituent of warp cores, stopped working, destroying all ships travelling at warp speed and ending space travel as it was known for good. Conveniently, Discovery has its own alternative to warp, a spore drive, that does not rely on dilithium. Inconveniently, the grief-struck crew is now tasked with rebuilding something that appears to be lost to history. Desperate to find the location of what remains of the Federation headquarters, Discovery stumble across, or rather, are boarded by the United Earth Defence Force, basically what would have happened if Gene Roddenberry hadn’t been so optimistic about what alien contact would mean back in the 1960s. Part of that boarding party is Adira (Blu del Barrio), a human carrying a trill symbiont but unable to access its memories. 

This is maybe also a good point to mention how amazing it is that Discovery keeps reinventing itself so dramatically with every new season, almost as if it were the opposite of Deep Space Nine, which was the first Star Trek series to pivot to long narrative-arc storytelling. Discovery resets itself again and again, but this jump into the 32nd century is the most dramatic one so far, because it is truly untravelled territory. Star Trek Picard early this year showed the future of what happened beyond the end of Voyager and the last film (obviously discounting J.J. Abram’s version as an alternate timeline that doesn’t count as canon in this case), and painted a Federation and Starfleet that were as problematic as ever, and no longer living up to the high standards of Jean-Luc Picard, the kind of organisation that DS9 at its darkest (especially in its episodes about Section 31, and what happens to the highest ideals in times of terrorism and war) showed to be far removed from the ideals of its creator. It was also an amazing opportunity to see what changes in television and culture over the last 20 years would make of a character like Seven of Nine/Annika Hansen (Jeri Ryan), of the potential of the horror and grief of a child raised by Borg, again something that the original Voyager show maybe didn’t always fully use (plus, the dreadful skin suit, the compulsory heterosexuality, the ridiculous idea that Seven would have ever ended up with Chakotay). With Discovery now travelling into the future, it is fully embracing the idea that the only certain thing is the found family of a crew sharing its experiences and its trauma, that the Federation in any  meaningful way is made up of people, especially now that its institutions have vanished, who may be able to strive for the ideal better than an organisation that has spent centuries making pragmatic decisions about power (a Federation and Starfleet that at the beginning of Discovery are shady as fuck). 

It fits in a whole lot better with all the science fiction that I have been reading again, as I’m finding my way back to my first love, and I’m excited by the idea that Discovery could go over what Trek was in the late and mid-1990s and early 2000ds to re-examine and rethink. In Forget Me Not, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) takes Adira to Trill to see if they can find a way to re-establish the connection between symbiont and host, to recover the lost memories of both. What they find is fairly shocking – a group of people who are desperate and hungry to reconnect with a lost symbiont, but utterly horrified that this symbiont is in a human body. They go so far as to suggest removing the symbiont, even if that would mean Adira’s certain death. It’s a shocking discovery for Burnham, who regards Trills as inherently peaceful and driven by science, since their whole society is built around the idea of maintaining knowledge and experience. But it isn’t entirely at odds with what we have previously learned about Trill society. 

Here is an incomplete list of all the times that I’ve though, to myself, that it would be interesting to see this all re-examined from a more critical and aware perspective. In DS9’s Equilibrium (which showed the same caves of Mak’ala, but with the production values of a 1994 network show – the ones in Discovery are way shinier and beautiful) we found out that this whole society is built on a dangerous lie. For one, there is a deeply set ideal that posits that only a joined trill is living a full and meaningful life. The symbiont is valued above else. But there are only so many symbionts to go around, which means that the majority of Trills will never achieve that ideal. The way that Trill society has worked around this is by telling a lie: that only a few Trills are viable as hosts for symbionts, and that they can only become hosts through an intensely competitive process. Jadzia’s own experience of the process may be specific, but she mentions frequently how harrowing it was, and that what she had to endure under Curzon Dax, the previous Dax host, almost resembled abuse – and if re-examined in 2020, the story of an ancient man putting a young, uncertain woman through the ringer to see if she was deserving of his great gift, with nothing to balance that skewed power dynamic, sounds a whole lot more problematic than mid-1990s TV writers probably realised, especially since Curzon as a whole is such an ambivalent character portrayed as a great adventurer. DS9 always painted over this with its entertaining allusions to how Curzon was like an old friend and mentor to Sisko, and now this young woman is carrying all of his experiences and memories in her (hence why Sisko calls her Old Man – Terry Farrell talks at length about how difficult it was for her to play that dynamic, and how it took her a bit to get there, in the fantastic documentary What We Left Behind). The other fall-out from the idea that the symbiont is valued above all is that later on, after Jadzia’s death, a young, unprepared ensign on board the ship that transports the Dax symbionts is more or less forced into being joined without any prior preparation. Ezri spends a good part of that last season of DS9 struggling with the competing identities, trying to assert herself and not lose herself to her hundred-years-old symbiont. 

Trills are portrayed as a species that values and excels at science especially because of its relationship to the maintenance of memory and knowledge, but the other side of the coin is that the Guardians, tasked with everything relating to symbiosis, have a powerful role in that society, and cross boundaries to maintain what appears to be an inherently instable trade-off. Also in Equilibrium, we found out that they were eager to hide memories of a murderer carrying hosting Dax for a while, a mental block that puts Jadzia into mortal danger (and later leads to a very weird episode in the seventh season). The society also runs on a whole range of cultural taboos that forbid certain behaviours, mainly to balance the conflict between the host and the symbiont identity. 

Which brings us to Rejoined (have I ever written about this episode of television that means so much to me?). In Rejoined, we and the crew of Deep Space Nine learn about a Trill taboo against “rejoining” an old partner after being joined with a new host, because the whole ideal of Trill symbionts is to build new experiences, to add to the wealth of knowledge, which wouldn’t happen if they just continued on with the same life. On the surface, it sounds like that makes some sense at least, but at the same time the fall-out for breaking the taboo appears unreasonably brutal – exile, and the certain death of the symbiont if its current host dies, a pretty dire consequence for a place that values the life of symbionts so very much. I think it’s important to see Rejoined in the context of when and where it was made, and I think considering that context, its main plot (not the rather unimportant plot that makes this main plot possible) live up to scrutiny. Jadzia Dax meets Lenara Kahn (Susanna Thompson). When they were Torias and Nilani, they were married, but now they are both scientists. In the 1995 interpretation of what happens next, their shared memories awaken feelings that have not that much to do with their current hosts, and they contemplate breaking Trill taboos with all of its terrible consequences to once again share a life together. It is often mentioned that the episode is ground-breaking not just because of the kiss between them, but because nobody on Deep Space Nine ever mentions or even thinks about the fact that they are both women – the taboo stems from them having being married quite literally in a former life. It’s like a Trojan horse that allowed the writers to tell this story, the plausible deniability of desire between two women, and with the exception of a few moments throughout the series later, nobody ever thinks about it again once its over, because once Worf enters DS9, that’s where all of Jadzia’s romantic storyline goes. Rejoined in 1995 couldn’t have taken into consideration what it would truly mean for a society to be built on the idea of one person carrying lifetimes of memories from other people within them, and along with that, all of their desires and loves. But in 2020, it’s difficult to think about this concept and not see how utterly impossible it would be to consider Trill symbionts “straight” in any meaningful way. They change sex. They carry memories and experiences of every kind of relationship within them. They are inherently queer. And all of that doesn’t even acknowledge the fact that even the case of Jadzia and Lenara Kahn, I would argue with anyone that their attraction is based just as much on who they are now – with their shared passion for science, their shared humour – as it is in the (strained! He was a pilot! He died horribly!) marriage between Torias and Nilani. I implore anyone to watch their awkward first date at Quarks from which Dr Bashir extracts himself so gracelessly and not read that Lenara is into the very same cynical humour, ability to tell a great story, and occasional uncertainty and vulnerability that have characterised Jadzia throughout her presence on the station. The same goes for Jadzia, who isn’t just reliving her shared life with Nilani, but also falling for this brilliant and beautiful scientist who has a whole lot more in common with her now than she ever did with Torias. I don’t think the amount of grief that Jadzia feels when Lenara chooses to leave instead of risking a shared life with her can only be attributed to Torias, once again grieving for his own lost life, even though none of this will ever be mentioned again or have any effect on who Jadzia is going forward (which is the great drama of Deep Space Nine’s first few much less serialised seasons). It’s Terry Farrell’s greatest performance as Jadzia Dax up to that point, and maybe up to season five and six, when she truly comes into herself, and it’s a performance delivered with so much care and deliberation that I wish we spoke about it more, especially in light of the circumstances of Farrell’s premature departure from the show at the end of season six. 

In conclusion, how glorious is to now see the story of Adira told, who has already broken a great taboo simply by being human, and carrying a host? How beautiful is it to see the conclusion of this story, in which Adira rediscovers all the buried memories of both the symbiont and the hosts, one of which was the person she (while Blu del Barrio goes by they/them pronouns, Discovery has decided for she/her for Adira) loved more than anything else in the world (and how beautiful are those scenes between Adira and Ian Alexander’s Gray Tal and their shared life on a generation ship, the quilt that tells the story of their love and Adira’s worry that Gray may become someone different once joined with a symbiont?) They now share memories, they are now together forever through the symbiont, and Gray appears to Adira, guiding her through her new existence. It's a whole different way of rejoining, but one that this episode unequivocally celebrates. Trill’s Guardians eventual acceptance of Adira as a host for the Tal symbiont, and the realisation that her ability to carry the symbiont means a future for Trill after the catastrophic events of the Burn, are so generously symbolic for Star Trek in 2020 as a whole – a Star Trek that can maybe finally realise all of this potential.

Star Trek: Discovery, Forget Me Not (2020), directed by Hanelle M. Culpepper, starring Sonequa Martin-Green, Blu del Barrio, Ian Alexander, Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman, wilson Cruz, Emily Coutts, Wilson Cruz, Michelle Yeoh. 

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Rejoined (1995), directed by Avery Brooks, starring Terry Farrell, Susanna Thompson, Avery Brooks, Alexander Siddig, Nana Visitor.

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