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The Future Will Be Carpeted: An Analysis of ‘Deep Space Nine (S3E6)’

“I’m not like these other humanoids. I’m a Jem’Hadar. And, that’s what I want to be. You’re not like these other humanoids either. But, they’ve done something to you. They’ve filled your mind with . . . with ideas, with these beliefs. I don’t know what the other Changelings are like, but I know they’re not like you.”
     -- The Boy

The best thing about subtext is that it’s present whether the writer puts it there or not. A single work can have multiple subtextual interpretations, too, and in many cases, these are equally valid. Aliens, for example, is both an indictment of the arrogance and unpreparedness of the Vietnam War, an examination of the nature of motherhood, and carries on the sexual assault imagery from the first movie. On the other hand, one of my favorite things in the world about movies is unintentional subtext. Tony Scott didn’t set out to make a gay fighter pilot movie, it just kind of happened, and now Top Gun (even the name sounds like gay porn) is at the top of any list of the most unintentionally homoerotic movies ever made. This week’s episode, “The Abandoned,” has a very obvious subtext that borders on text, but Avery Brooks interpreted it in a different, equally valid, and far more fascinating way.

The beginning of the episode plays like they’re mining minor female characters from continuity. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, and it reinforces the idea of DS9 as a constant location. Remember Mardah the dabo girl? Probably not. She was mentioned in dialogue of “Playing God,” (the episode where Dax was a field docent, they found a miniature universe, and O’Brien fought voles), but the mention was so minor and that episode such a mess I never even brought her up. 16-year-old Jake is dating a dabo girl, also known as the scantily clad ladies Quark uses to distract gamblers from their winnings. And, here’s the thing: Mardah is supposed to be 20, but she’s a Bajoran refugee-turned-casino distraction 20. Sisko invites her over to dinner, mostly because he’s a sane man and is a bit concerned. Chief O’Brien, on the other hand, is quietly impressed by Jake’s game. Considering what a disaster I was with the ladies -- I still have no idea why my wife settled for me -- I share O’Brien’s awe. Godspeed indeed, Jake.

The other woman returning is the purple-haired Boslic Captain who last appeared in “The Homecoming” (part 1 of the Bajoran Trilogy), bringing Li Nalas’s earring to Quark. This time, she wants to sell him some scrap, which he buys sight unseen (or sound unheard for Ferengi, I guess), after she licks his ear. I wonder how many patrons get free drinks like that. Anyway, Quark finds a baby in an incubator, and he has the same reaction that Dave Chappelle had in his classic bit. “Is that . . . is that a baby?” Fortunately, this one wasn’t dealing drugs.

Nope, it’s worse than that. Somehow. The baby starts out looking relatively human (for the plot twist and because you can’t put a baby in makeup and DS9 apparently has more respect for viewers than American Sniper) with only a little scale on his forehead, but he gets scalier and hornier (No, not like that.) as he grows up. Which is fast. In a couple hours, he looks about nine or ten. Shortly after that, he’s full grown. And, as you might have guessed, he’s Jem’Hadar.

This is when we get to a bit of the episode’s structural weirdness. Based on the first act, Sisko or Bashir should be the main character. Odo doesn’t show up until act 2, when Kira stops by his new quarters with a housewarming plant. Odo used to sleep in a bucket in his office, but he’s no longer consumed with self-loathing now that he knows he has a whole species. A species of genocidal fascists, but you know, still. He has quarters and they’re covered with some very early-‘90s art installations which he uses to practice shapeshifting. In a bit of symbolism, he puts the plant from Kira into his old bucket. Yes, it’s obvious, but it’s also a nice image for their relationship and a reference to his true feelings for her.

Anyway, the Jem’Hadar -- known in the episode as The Boy -- goes on a rampage as soon as he is adult sized. This is mostly just limited to some Star Trek forearm punching, but no one needs that on the Promenade. This stops when he leaps through a gelatinous Odo, and instantly becomes subservient. We learn a lot about the Jem’Hadar in this episode. Their reverence for the Founders is genetically hardwired into them, they grow extremely fast and are incredibly violent, and because Jurassic Park came out the year before, they have a crippling addiction to a specific enzyme that has to be piped into their carotid at all times.

The episode takes the standard Star Trek turn here. While Starfleet wants the Boy as a sample, Odo refuses. He was a sample, and due to the Changeling-Jem’Hadar connection, he feels a certain kinship and responsibility for the Boy. Odo wants him to find a new way, something that doesn’t include rampages and indiscriminate murder. If this were TNG, he would have succeeded, too -- this is almost the exact plot of the excellent “I, Borg” -- but this is DS9. The Boy’s violence is uncontrollable and insurmountable. He ends up fleeing, with Odo’s help, to be returned to the Jem’Hadar.

This is about Odo trying, and ultimately failing, to be a father. He wants his “son” to be able to be free of the sins of the past, but the Boy is a genetically engineered organism designed to kill. Unlike Hugh Borg, the Boy can’t overcome what he was intended to be. It dovetails nicely with Sisko’s own fatherhood. He’s reminded of Jake when he first holds the baby, and later at the dinner with Mardah, he discovers that his son is well on his way to becoming his own man. Jake is a poet (Later, he’ll turn to prose, but Jake will always be a writer from here on out.) and hustles at dom-jot, which is basically space billiards. I talked a bit about theme last week, and this one is about fatherhood, uniting the Trek-franchise’s best father in Sisko, and one of its sweet outsiders playing at the same. While Sisko will always make the right choice -- here, he chooses to let Jake’s relationship continue, treasuring what Mardah was able to tell him about his son -- Odo’s idealism is crushed beneath the hideous sins of his people.

There’s more. As I mentioned earlier, Avery Brooks (who directed) interpreted this episode in a different way, and we run into the unintentional subtext and a few unfortunate implications. He saw “The Abandoned” as an indictment of gang violence. The Jem’Hadar are essentially coded to become killers, in much the same way as the economy of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s did the same for inner city kids. He saw it as “the creation of a generation of young men who are feared, who are addicted, who are potential killers.” Though I doubt the predominantly white writing staff intended the Jem’Hadar as anything but awesome, genetically engineered warriors, Brooks is correct in his analysis. It becomes especially troubling in the casting of the Jem’Hadar, and specifically with the Boy. The bulk of the actors playing named or speaking Jem’Hadar are African American and before the Boy’s skin becomes the gray scales of the Jem’Hadar, he is quite obviously brown. So, while the writers might not think of the super soldiers of the Dominion as young black men, due to the casting, they are.

Subtext is difficult, and one of the most important parts of writing. At a certain point, we writers have to throw up our arms, knowing what we intended, but also knowing that our audience will interpret it in ways we could never have foreseen. It’s frustrating, but it’s also thrilling, as others find new meanings and hidden depths.

Next up: The whole station is on the fritz. Call Gul Repairguy.

Justin Robinson is the author of many novels and can be found in his lair at captainsupermarket.com.  He would like to emphasize that, contrary to rumors, he is, in fact, a mammal, though still has not obtained documentation to prove it.

Favorite Golden Girl:  Rose
Favorite Cheese Form:  Melted
Favorite God: Hanuman

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