#DS91sttime: Season 4, Episode 3, “The Visitor”

August 28, 2013 in #DS91sttime, General Topics

Egad, am I stepping into it this time. I knew after I finished “The Visitor” that I was going to find myself in trouble.

See, I’ve some guidelines I stick to so that each review in this series is truly a virgin experience. One of these is that I make a point not to check out Memory Alpha, or Trek Core, or anywhere else for anyone’s opinions on an episode ahead of my viewing. I don’t want to know about the public’s derision or acclaim, because that small bit of dye dropped into the waters can color my perception.

I failed that guideline with this episode, because of a slip-up that happened well prior to my decision to even make this review series. Sometime back–maybe a few years ago–I googled the most popular Trek episodes of all time, and wound up staring down a list of the best Deep Space Nine episodes. And there was an image of Sisko, holding some old guy’s shoulders–that’s all I knew–and since the episode’s title was simple to remember, it stuck in my head.

Many regard “The Visitor” as the best episode in DS9’s entire run, and–checking Wikipedia after I watched–I saw quite a few viewers believe it is the best episode across the entire Trek universe. Wow. That’s overwhelming.

Overwhelming, too, was the pressure I think I placed on the episode before I watched it. I was ready to slingshot around the sun over this one. How could I not be impressed? So many people loved it, after all.

And yet, I’m left with a somewhat-contrarian review to write. Here comes the shuttle crash. Holofilm at eleven.

An elderly Jake Sisko (Tony Todd), Season 4, Ep 3: "The Visitor"

An elderly Jake Sisko (Tony Todd), Season 4, Ep 3: “The Visitor”

The episode gets started with an elderly Jake Sisko (Tony Todd, who, if you’re like me, you recognized immediately from Candyman) receiving a visitor–one of the episode’s many clever nods to its title. The backdrop for their introduction is a dark and stormy night. I wondered if this was intentionally ironic (since the discussion of fiction features heavily in the script), or an in-joke, or just accidental.

Jake’s company is a young woman named Melanie (Rachel Robinson), and she’s fallen in love with his fiction. She can’t abide with the fact that there isn’t more of it, and wants to know why.

Feeling melancholic, and reflective, Jake tells her of an accident affecting his father, decades earlier. Through the course of the episode we learn how Jake has clung to the slim chance of getting his father back, and what it cost him in his life. As Jake recounts past events, and the things he’s learned about his father’s fate, he gradually drills closer and closer to a desperate act that underpins the story’s bittersweet ending.

This episode hits the right buttons in many ways, but the hardest emotional toil it brought was when I considered how close Jake’s experience must be for the hundreds of thousands of people out there who will never get closure over the absence of their loved ones. Jake’s journey shares much with those that field random midnight calls from runaways, labor for years looking for abducted or missing children, wonder over the fate of soldiers gone MIA, or simply endure a bedside vigil next to a critically-ill family member. The presence of even a small amount of hope in these situations is, in some ways, worse than knowing it’s all over.

Jake’s hope turns into an obsession, and it costs him almost everything he could have had. To match this poignancy, we get an interesting alternate future timeline, with lots of vignettes pointing to the outcomes of different characters. My favorite of these is Nog’s transformation into a respectable Captain.

Still–and this may go back to the pressure I placed on the episode–I never quite felt captivated. It’s not that this isn’t a good episode, it’s just that it never shot me into orbit alongside those that loved it.

I have two main complaints.

Father and Son, continually separated. Season Four, Ep 3: "The Visitor"

Father and Son, continually separated. Season Four, Ep 3: “The Visitor”

The first concerns the burden placed on the shoulders of Tony Todd, and the way Avery Brooks handles his presence. Todd does a fine job, but Brooks didn’t play off him with the chemistry he exibits with Cirroc Lofton. Don’t believe me? Consider that when the younger Jake we all know is on-screen, the emotional toil is felt to a greater degree. There’s an air of genuine connection between father and son, especially in the very last scene. You just don’t see it from Brooks when Todd is in frame.

In past episodes, Brooks has had a rough time sharing the screen with certain guest stars, often slipping in his portrayal of heartrending events that are supposed to involve the characters those actors support. That same issue is seen here.

Plus, if there are weak spots in the writing, they crop up during these touchpoints. Maybe the intent was showing Commander Sisko putting on a brave face for his son, but the dialogue in these scenes feels jilted: “I still want grandchildren” and the like. Where’s the intensity? We see more of it–finally–as the episode draws on, but Sisko is way too laid-back, for too long.

The other issue–and this one is more serious–is that the episode undermines the Dominion. If the station falls into Klingon hands, as is shown in the alternate timeline, then that means the Dominion got held at bay by the Klingon Empire alone, since it’s implied that with Sisko absent, no one ever checked Klingon ambition in the region.

And if there was a mention of the Dominion–who are supposed to be this great threat–then I don’t recall it. They don’t seem to have affected any of the characters at all. There is no recollection of, say, O’Brien dying in the war, or Worf leading a bold maneuver against them, or anything like that.

What the script did was sidestep them completely. You could get away with that sort of thing in Season One, or Two, but by now the show has established that these guys are on the radar and are–for all intents and purposes–at war with the Alpha Quadrant’s powers. To deflect on even a passing mention is a chintzy way to get past the questions you don’t want to answer.

So, is “The Visitor” a great episode? Yes. Is it one of the best in franchise history? I’m still in the bayou about that. Maybe when I’m old and gray, I’ll have made up my mind.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars.

See the rest of the review series here.

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