An often overlooked entry from the first season, “Dramatis Personae” was always one of my favourite episodes to think about, even if this time around I found it a little difficult to actually watch. As is increasingly the case, the reason for this is not so much due to the quality of the piece itself as much as the fact it’s dealing with televisual storytelling norms that I find myself less and less inclined to watch as I get older.
The title says it all: “Dramatis Personae” is an exploration of performative themes, which on the one hand is nothing new, but on the other this episode is more textually overt about it than most. Writer Joe Menosky’s original idea was inspired by his observation that people tend to follow a kind of socially approved (and very, very stock) script whenever major life events happen, and there seem to be a very slight number of scripts generally available. This means that, no matter how different and unique the individual circumstances are, absolutely everyone’s story about, for example, falling in love is going to sound exactly the fucking same. Menosky saw this as a kind of voluntary self-imprisonment within a very bad pulp fiction play, and he was interested in exploring what that was like and why it happened. In a Star Trek context, this theme took the form of a telepathic matrix that was transmitted like a a virus.
For my money, this is a genius concept and a perfect fit for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. As a kind of science fiction urban community, the show offers a great setting to explore how this manifests on the level of populations and, even though this episode doesn’t end up taking the approach that “Babel” did, dealing with a disease outbreak is a solid plot to throw at a team of scientists and administrators working in a metropolitan environment. The handling of performativity itself “Dramatis Personae” does mark an interesting evolution from the way it’s been handled in the past: On Star Trek: The Next Generation, much of the performative facade comes from the cast themselves looking for room to play around with the roles they’ve been given, although at this stage the show is finally beginning to fully plumb the recesses of its sham theatricality, and this will come to a charged head next season. Here though the performativity is a crucial aspecct of the textual narrative, and that’s not actually something we’ve seen a ton of to date, although, like I said, this is starting to change.
With “Dramatis Personae” Menosky has in a sense penned a kind of spiritual follow-up to “Frame of Mind”, where the extradiegetic themes about being imprisoned in a stock set of narrative tropes become diegetic. The form this takes on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a bit more straightforward and traditional than what Brannon Braga pulled on Star Trek: The Next Generation, with the crew literally being taken over by other characters as opposed to the structure of the narrative reality itself breaking down (which is, interestingly enough, a certain kind of theatrical approach). But this is unsurprising given the fact the Deep Space Nine team blew the surrealism in their Prisoner tribute several weeks back, though that’s not to single them in particular out as at this point the key difference between the two creative teams pretty much comes down to “one of them has Brannon Braga and the other one doesn’t”. Although in one sense, the more overt exploration of performativity in “Dramatis Personae” serves as a kind of bridge between the more scattershot and chaotic ruminations we got much earlier on in the series and the masterful baroque theatre like “Masks”, “Phantasms” and “Emergence” we’re getting next year that “Birthright, Part I” and “Frame of Mind” laid the groundwork for.
What’s especially interesting about the approach “Dramatis Personae” takes above and beyond this is the specific type of play the characters are trapped in. Where “Frame of Mind”’s critique was largely metaphorical, this episode’s is curiously and very explicitly barbed-The telepathy virus ends up almost destroying the station and killing off the crew by forcing them into conflict. It’s a deliberately stock paranoid conspiracy thriller with a lovely side of mad Napoleonic ambition courtesy Avery Brooks (while plainly an actor showcase episode for everyone, it’s Brooks who shines the brightest, giving Star Trek fans who weren’t familiar with Spenser for Hire or A Man Called Hawk a taste of his true acting range). It’s really hard for me to not read this as a nasty indictment of the unsettlingly giddy lip service the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine creative team keeps paying to the Almighty Conflict (read unlikeable antiheroes screaming at each other in squalid 90s grimdark settings). It’s a pretty ballsy move that goes a long way towards revealing the show’s true feelings about its alleged audience, made even more remarkable due to its proximity to “Descent”.
This may come back to bite Deep Space Nine in the ass at some point in the future, but for now it’s another solid example of why I adore this season so much.
Aside from Avery Brooks, there’s obviously a lot to love in the performances from the other cast members, although I don’t say that without reservation. First of all, this is another implausible “Odo and Quark Save the Day” plot (one wonders at this point, given the way the team often handles them, whether they should just take over from Doctor Bashir and star in their own wacky medical comedy double act sitcom), so that’s a bit annoying for me. Colm Meaney is probably the second standout, but Colm Meaney is a fucking genius in everything so that’s not really remarkable. And while as good as Nana Visitor and Terry Farrell are, they’re actually my biggest complaint with this story. Well, not them so much as Dax and Kira. Giving Jadzia Dax the role of the giggling imperial concubine-cum-Starscream is…upsetting. This may have actually worked had Jadzia been given a lot of opportunities to demonstrate her cool competence and wisdom over the course of the season such that the contrast here would be pack a dramatic weight…but she really hasn’t. At least not as much as we would have liked: Most of her best scenes have been due to Farrell’s acting, and though she is clever, Jadzia disturbingly tends to be the first one to be affected by plot-based incompetence and incapacitation.
But what’s really problematic here is the relationship Dax’s character has with Kira’s character. The whole interaction between the two of them in Quark’s leading to Jadzia’s character’s defection is just so incredibly icky: Kira *literally* seduces her over to the dark side, and in spite of how astonishingly progressive the show has been on queer issues to date, the heavily implied bisexuality in *this* story is absolutely intended to be of the depraved variety. The only reason Kira’s character displays any bisexual urges is because she’s evil in the narrative of the telepathy play (while clearly unhinged and crazy bananas, Sisko’s character is portrayed as far more of a tragic figure: A great man undone by hubris, madness and betrayal) and Jadzia’s character’s tacit reciprocation of those selfsame bisexual advances is depicted as a weakness and failing on her part; a fatal flaw that leads to her ultimate downfall.
And it actually makes me really angry, because I see this scene gifed and screencapped out of context all the time on Tumblr, always with fawning admiration from Kira/Dax shippers and some glowing endorsement of how wonderfully and cheekily queer, progressive and feminist Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was. Because in reality, this scene, and the subplot that goes along with it, is literally the exact opposite of all those things. First of all, that’s not even Kira and Dax in that scene! So, I mean, if you’re looking for shipping evidence for the two of them (and I don’t object to that-there is a fair bit of it), that’s fucking amateur and weak for starters. If that’s seriously the best the femslash shippers can do, I’m *extremely* disappointed. And second of all, within the barest context of the episode it hails from, that scene is revealed literally in seconds to be utterly ugly and repugnant, straightforwardly sexualizing, othering and villifying lesbians and bisexuals for a stock piece of male gaze narrative. And that’s actually a gigantic problem for “Dramatis Personae”, as it effectively undermines the point the rest of the episode seems like its trying to make.
And that’s a deeply frustarying reality, because the point “Dramatis Personae” is trying to make about conflict is a very important one. It’s something that needs to be said, not just on the cusp of the Long 1990s, but even (and especially) today too. I’m writing this essay in an age when fascism and fundamentalist terrorism is on the rise worldwide again, and the one thing that links such movements together, especially in the west, is an incredibly dangerous runaway id complex fostered by a culture of voyeuristic violence. And this is something grimdark media actively perpetuates: Individuals who feel (justly or unjustly) ostracized and persecuted can, through the ego, start to visualize themselves as the tragic antihero protagonist of a dark action movie. And when people enter into that mindset, they oftentimes turn to terrorism out of a desire to go out in a blaze of glory. And then the copycat effect kicks in, and it all happens again somewhere else.
Grimdark has gone beyond simply being rote and adolescent and has turned into a very real threat to world society. This is everything Star Trek is supposed to be the antidote for, and if it’s not even willing to keep up its own standards, you have to wonder what hope the rest of us have.