“The Butterfly Effect”: Rivals

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Chaos theory is the principle of mathematics that states dynamical systems which are subject to any number of individual initial conditions, such as the commonly cited example of a butterfly flapping its wings ultimately leading to a dramatic shift in weather at the opposite end of the planet, behave in such a way that defies prediction in the long-term. These systems are called chaotic, where by this definition chaos is not random, but is so impossible to predict by any meaningful system of measurement that it might as well be random.

This is ostensibly the premise “Rivals” was pitched under. But the neutrino-spinning gambling machine Martus Mazur brings to Deep Space 9 hardly constitutes an example of chaos theory. Instead, it operates by altering the laws of probability, as numerous characters state at various points in the episode. Far from large-scale effects being generated seemingly at random by an otherwise inconsequential initial event, the device arbitrarily dispenses good luck and bad luck across the station, which is a very different sort of phenomenon. Perhaps it's small wonder than that the “chaos theory” pitch languished around in production hell for over a year before Michael Piller got around to it, by which point the finished product could hardly be called something that could be traced back to its source. Actually, that's a better example of chaos theory than anything in the actual episode as aired.

But this isn't a blog about mathematical models of scientific processes. I'm sure you can find oodles of critique of Star Trek's clumsy handling of those issues elsewhere. We all know that Star Trek's scientific concepts are usually the least interesting thing about any given story, and the same is certainly true here. The only trouble is there's not a whole lot else to “Rivals”: It's an aggressively unfunny attempt at a low-stakes story that leaves me without a lot to talk about. I suppose that's the first thing I could mention, because it's not a good sign to see Star Trek: Deep Space Nine trip up on a low-stakes story like this. “Rivals” is precisely the sort of episode that should be absolutely in this show's wheelhouse and it should be able to churn out this kind of material practically on autopilot. This is what the series was built to do, and that it can't seem to wrap its brain around it is concerning. Maybe the show has epiced itself out following the season opening three-parter and big dramatic attempts like “Necessary Evil”, “Invasive Procedures”, “Cardassians” and “Sanctuary”.

Maybe the answer is that troublesome brief. Either chaos theory doesn't make a great Star Trek story, or the creative team doesn't know how to make it a good Star Trek story. The fumble on the chaos theory thing has tripped me up for years, and I've spent longer than any human being should trying to piece together what this story actually has to do with a field of theory I've actually found kind of interesting at varying points in my life, only to finally realise it actually has fuck all to do with it. What the events of this episode are actually closer to, and what's potentially even more interesting, is the concept of synchronicity: Meaningful coincidences that make themselves obviously visible to us in such a way they forces us to facet of reality we were heretofore ignorant of. Even if the truth turns out to be something boring like there's a weird gambling machine that's causing the station's neutrinos to rotate in an unorthodox matter (which, according to particle physicists, isn't even accurate either). Real chaos theory tends to get you the weather forecast. But regardless, there are far better and far more memorable Star Trek stories that examine synchronicity you can partake of than this.

There is something of a real Star Trek story here. Or at least what I'd consider a Star Trek story, or the germ of one. And that's in Martus Mazur himself. He's an El Aurian, a member of a “race of listeners”, whom I am informed Guinan is also one of. Now, I'm not sure why people would want to pin down a mundane origin story for Guinan like that, but whatever, we'll roll with it for now. In fact, the link with Guinan was originally going to be even more overt, with Martus being her “wayward son” and Guinan herself getting called in at the end to deal with him. But with Whoopi Goldberg unavailable, the link to her was dropped, and probably for the best, although I confess I would have enjoyed seeing Guinan on Deep Space 9. Actually, contrasting her with Quark is yet another far better story the series could have done than this.

Either way, with or without a textual connection to Guinan, Martus's status as a “listener” means he's tacitly supposed to be empathic. This means he's another example of a theme the show has looked at a lot this season: The corruption of empathy and how it can be twisted for ill ends. The best example is naturally Lore and the Borg in “Descent”, who use emotions and emotional vulnerability as a weapon and the classic misreading of Friedrich Nietzsche as a means to bring about fascist ends. There's also the ever-present spectre of grimdark on the horizon, which is a temptation Star Trek: Deep Space Nine experiences far more viscerally and profoundly than its sister show Star Trek: The Next Generation (in spite of the best efforts of certain creative figures, who shall remain nameless). Grimdark is the antithesis of empathy, or perhaps it's better described as empathy's warped inverse: It's an attunement to one's own emotions and emotional state above all else, and an exaggeration of them to cosmic proportions. It's a form of solipsism, or at least willfully blinkered insensitivity.

So here we have Martus, a supposed “listener” who uses empathy as a ruse to con and manipulate people for his own material gain. There's a nut of an interesting idea, but again, the episode doesn't really take it anywhere interesting. It's not really an examination of grimdark one way or the other, and Lore is a far, far more terrifying example of empathy corrupted than Martus. Really, Martus just comes across as an ass instead of a serious threat or a symbolic adversarial force to be overcome. Which leaves me in a bind, because I can't read this episode as an oversignified semi-sentient self-critique any more than I can really read it as a piece of harmlessly enjoyable fluff.

Although speaking of fluff, there's one fun aspect to this episode worth looking further into: Miles and Julian's racquetball game. This episode goes a long way towards furthering the odd couple pairing of Chief O'Brien and Doctor Bashir, and is probably the highlight of the week on this side of the lot. The relationship itself is obviously cute and they make a good pair, with their early abrasiveness softening into an intergenerational friendship built around mutual respect and admiration. The racquetball court itself is really fun too: I always liked seeing how Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would translate things like sports to their settings, and seeing how the different characters enjoyed them. Although I will say, as much as I loved Chief O'Brien's court back in the day, while I was researching this essay I have to admit I found Captain Picard's setup in “Suddenly Human” to be a bit more visually striking. But perhaps, like so much else about this show, that was part of the point.


K. Jones 4 years, 11 months ago

Of course we'd already had empath-con-men, back in The Price, with Devinoni Ral. And at least he was meant to be a foil to Troi and Riker's empathy. By juxtaposing him with Quark we don't really get that kind of thematic. There were better choices of DS9 regulars to contrast El-Aurians with that would allow them to delve proper into the spacetime witchcraft thematics of Guinan's species ... and there were better ways to give Quark a con-man foil, too.

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