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  • Ric Crossman

4.1.17 Proof By Counter-Example

Dramatis Personae

Odo convulses as an alien attempts to possess him.
24th century dance-off styles were light years ahead of Archer's time.

Not to go all undergraduate essay here, but let’s start with a definition. “Dramatis Personae” translates as “the masks of drama”. That’s a good name for what we see here – though we might wish the term to stem from Ancient Greek, rather than Latin. Because what are our heroes doing but putting on unwieldy masks expressing the simplest possible versions of their own characters? And what is the process of manoeuvring for political advantage, but a series of decisions about which masks to wear when and with whom?

Onions And Oratory

Aliens influencing/taking over our heroes is familiar ground, naturally. Possessed crew-members were a staple of TNG in particular – I’ve already covered “Lonely Among Us”, but it’s hardly the only example. Voyager, meanwhile, has contributed “Cathexis”, and Deep Space Nine itself has already given us “The Passenger”.

As usual, I find very little useful in simply rattling off similar plots from previous episodes. Even before Discovery aired, there were over 700 episodes of Trek. Finding parallels among them might work as some kind of dizzying and unworkably large game of Pairs, but in itself it’s no way to arrive at good criticism.

What it can do though is help figure out what a story wants most to be about, by what it’s doing different to similar previous instalments. In this case, the examples listed above all feature minds being shunted aside by a distinct other personality taking control. Here though, the original personality remains at the helm, but in a compromised, heavily influenced state.

This is a smart choice for a spin-off airing during the sixth year of the show that birthed it, and the tenth year in total of Trek television. By this point, all but the most casual consumer of the franchise (and science-fiction in general) is primed to observe characters acting strangely and conclude they’re the victim of an extra-terrestrial joyride. It’s almost odd at this point that no-one thought to introduce an official Starfleet flowchart entitled “So You Think Another Officer Is An Alien Now?”.

Switching from control to influence gives you much more to work with. With possession stories, the goal of the possessor is usually to try and act as much like the original as they can. Whatever you learn about the character possessed comes through watching what the possessing force thinks that character would do. This is often fun, for audience and actor both, but ultimately there are limits to how much you can learn about somebody from another person’s impression of them.

This is particularly true when the consciousness in control doesn’t really know the person possessed all that well to begin with. I’m less talking about the aliens themselves here - who after all don’t really exist - than the actors being asked to play someone else playing their characters. That’s a particularly difficult ask so early in a show’s life.

I’m not an actor, but I’d wager at least a few strips of latinum that things are a little different when your actors are being asked to reinterpret their characters, rather than play around with second-order artifice. The goal is no longer to make two separate layers of pretence line up like sheets of polarised plastic. It’s to move a character from their standard orbit, and by doing so learn more about what it was they were turning around, and with what degree of eccentricity.

Idiosyncrasies And Irreducibility

That isn’t to say the influence model is particularly easy for performers. I’ve already talked about how Roxann Dawson struggled to make the two halves of B’Elanna work in Faces, given how new she was to the character even in her standard combination. Ira Steven Behr had this to say about “Dramatis Personae” itself:

It was a third season show that we had the nerve to do in the first season. Anybody else would say ‘You need to know the characters better before you twist them like this.’ (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion)

It’s an entirely fair point. Behr goes on to credit the episode working with the fact Kira spends a little time coming on to Dax. While I’m all for queering a narrative, though – and while clearly that’s what worked for Behr – I’d argue success was secured elsewhere. The episode comes together because the characters and performers are both so strong, shaking things up just shows how solid DS9 is under normal circumstances.

“Dramatis Personae” reduces the majority of the main characters to just one or two aspects of their personalities. By doing so, and letting everything spin out of control as a result, the point is made very effectively that these people/performers are too complex to be reducible to a couple of adjectives. Yes, Sisko is fastidious, and not apt to change his approach when he discovers someone else has a problem with it. Nor does he choose to hide irritation, as a general rule – this is a man who once punched a trickster god, after all.

As well as all that, though, he’s a loving father and devoted diplomat, determined to do his absolute best for a planet he’d likely barely heard of two years earlier. Reducing him to a clock-making absentee ruler, disinterested in anything about the station except his claim to it like some 24th century Boris Johnson, demonstrates just how much more there is to the man than a guy who runs a tight ship and has no time for fools.

What’s more, with the probable exception of Dax, Sisko is actually the least successful example of this approach. Kira is the standout here, insofar as the energy patterns that have frazzled her brain have led to her becoming the front she presents to the world – the most obvious way in which the mask analogy I started this post with has been applied. It would be trite, and inaccurate besides, to say Kira spends so much of her time in full-on attack mode because she’s trying to hide those aspects of herself that aren’t so well-armoured. That’s certainly the effect, though, and a significant part of the Major’s character development over the season is facing up to what lies beneath the mask and, almost as important, under what circumstances she feels comfortable setting that mask aside.

We can say something similar about O’Brien, who here is reduced to “grumpy but loyal” – a character pitch in an unusually fast elevator (if only Trek had a word for that). Bashir we’ll talk about later, so for now I’ll just note how his ambition and sense of superiority are both supercharged here. Dax is the toughest character to apply this theory to, as I say. Even so, if we squint enough, we can perhaps see her being bifurcated here. The symbiote endlessly reminisces about its long history, while Jadzia herself becomes a kind of giggly teenage girl. To the extent that reading is valid, it’s not one that particularly reflects well on the script, though- not that it would’ve be the first time Terry Farrell found herself with the least satisfying material to work with in any given week, alas – so I’m inclined to just suggest Dax just doesn’t fit into the structure of this reading. I guess it was always going to be hard to know what to do with a character that has two intermingled personalities in this kind of episode.

Dax is really the only bum note here, though. The episode is even smart when it comes to which main characters to exclude from the masquerade. We can obviously point to Odo’s unique biology for the fact the energy can’t influence him. Really, though, it makes just as much sense to see this as a comment on Odo’s character. His entire post-laboratory life has been defined by his complete refusal to change for others – it’ll take more than mind-altering free-floating aliens to alter that. Put another way, Odo’s foundational quality is that he cannot be swayed or influenced by anyone or anything. Trying to twist his personality by supercharging that attitude leads to the alien force disappearing in a puff of logic – with genuinely spectacular results.

Odo's face is split in two as alien energy struggles with his Changeling DNA.
Odo’s face is torn away to reveal: his face. Because there is no mask… yet.

Quark, meanwhile, is presumably kept clear of the energy’s sphere of influence because reducing him to his most obvious quality would simply regress him to the level of every Ferengi that had appeared before him. When the whole goal of a character is to complicate a stereotype (and I’ll leave aside here the question as to whether that was a sensible or unproblematic aim, and to what extent the show succeeded in achieving it), returning them to that stereotype raises some clear issues. Or at least, it would here, so soon after the character was introduced. A late-series episode in which Quark starts behaving like a “standard” Ferengi and the other regulars realise something must be up could have made for a solid set-up. Doing it here really would have been too early.

Shouting And Solidarity

It’s all good stuff, is what I’m saying. Still, were the above all the episode was up to, it might still have been a little risky to try it so soon, no matter how clearly strong the show's cast was. It's good news then that “Dramatis Personae” has another string to its bow. What really makes everything click here is how subtly the initial changes in behaviour are, to the point where it's difficult to tell precisely when the alien interference has actually kicked in. That's because the alien energy pushes our protagonists in precisely the direction they were heading anyway. They’ll still end up being pushed out of their regular pattern and out into the void that way. In the early stages, though, it’s hard to tell that anything has changed.

One of the smartest decisions Menosky’s script makes here is to introduce Kira’s disagreement with Sisko over the approaching Valerian freighter before the Toh’Kaht arrives. As usual when the two of them clash, both of them have an entirely fair point from their own perspective, and neither have any intention of backing down from what they see as their duty to their respective organisations/people. The fact Kira only has a certain amount of time to get the evidence she needs before the Valerians conclude their business and leave Bajoran space means the two of them are already approaching a significant clash. The last time they disagreed this much on what was best for Bajor, Kira phoned Starfleet Command to demand she speak to a manager.

Admittedly, over the intervening fourteen episodes, the Major and the Commander have developed a rapport one would hope could limit the brisance of the bombs they’re willing to throw at each other. Even so, the Valerian situation is a sufficiently hot flashpoint that when the two of them clash over Kira trying to delay docking permission, it’s genuinely unclear to whether either of them are under the influence yet.

This, I think, is why Kira apologises to Sisko at the end of the episode. She knows her decision-making was compromised, but she’s uncomfortably unsure about the timings and extent. She’s also not sure about the precise time over the last seventeen episodes at which throwing the Federation off the station in the name of Bajoran interests became unthinkable, absent alien influence. She’s apologising as much for her past attitude as her recent actions.

Thought of this way, “Dramatis Personae” becomes perfectly timed – we’re past the point where Starfleet and the Bajoran Militia shooting at each other would be plausible, but no so far past it that backsliding into worrying territory doesn’t feel like a possibility. Sisko and Kira might have stopped snapping at each other, but the teeth-marks from their earlier bouts have yet to completely fade.

There’s one more reason this episode is well-timed. We’re now only two episodes out from the season finale, which will hinge on the question as to whether the relationships which have built up between the Federation visitors and their Bajoran hosts are strong enough to withstand a political crisis. “Dramatis Personae” reminds us of the situation and stakes, but also hints at what’s going to win out in the end.

In short, what we’ve got here is a savvy comment on the state of play. In itself, that’s not a bad way to spend your third-to-last episode of an opening season. What raises this from the levels of competent to impressive, though, is the underlying message that the big picture only actually matters insofar as how its image is refracted through our characters. The fact the station’s situation already looks so different from its starting point in “Emissary” has almost nothing to do with a changing political situation. It’s because of how the characters have grown – or at least revealed themselves – in each other’s company.

I’ve already highlighted this with Kira and Sisko, but we can include Bashir here as well. Consider his introduction in the pilot as a callow thrill-seeker, who saw a posting to the station as a way to make a name for himself. At that point it wouldn’t have been at all surprising to find he was obsessed with using political manoeuvring to gain whatever advantage he could. A few months down the line, though, and it’s obvious something has happened to the ambitious young doctor.

If the first message here is that the show is already a work of considerable complexity, then, the second is that the personal and the political are inseparable. Not just in the sense of one’s own experiences, either, but in the sense that there can be no good politics that can grow from outside a dedication to cooperation and to community. To talking to each other. Dialogue changes us, and though that process, we in turn change the dialogue.

Kai Winn hasn’t even arrived, and she has already lost.


1. Dramatis Personae

3. (The Infinite Vulcan)

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