You Talking Trek to Me? – “Homefront “

“Homefront”
(Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 4, Episode 11)

One of the most incisive and subversive bits of dialogue in Deep Space Nine was spoken by an angry Benjamin Sisko ranting to Kira about the former Federation colonists’ plight in “The Maquis”:

On Earth, there is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window of Starfleet Headquarters and you see paradise. Well, it’s easy to be a Saint in paradise, but the Maquis do not live in paradise. Out there in the Demilitarized Zone, all the problems haven’t been solved yet. Out there, there are no saints — just people. Angry, scared, determined people who are going to do whatever it takes to survive, whether it meets with Federation approval or not!

Star Trek has always represented an idealized future, in which humanity has evolved and overcome all of the problems that plague us today. There’s something very soothing about that notion, though a little far-fetched (depending on your level of cynicism). The genius of this bit of dialogue is that it preserves the reality of Trek’s utopian ideal, while imparting some realism onto that utopia that would provide some new and interesting stories to be told. Earth has achieved paradise, but can it hold onto it? And what happens to people’s humanity when they’re removed from that paradise?

The utopia of Earth, and by extension, the stability and livelihood of the Federation have been threatened by the Dominion since their first appearance. But this two-parter marks the first strike against the Federation – a Changeling is on Earth and has bombed a Federation-Romulan diplomatic conference, killing dozens. One of the most captivating qualities of the Dominion as an adversary is their usage of psychological warfare. Though they possess powerful weapons, technology, and fearsome troops, the real threat of the Dominion is its intelligence and deviousness. They’re crafty foes, and although they have the ability to commit large amounts of force to overwhelm an enemy, they would prefer to let that enemy destroy itself first. We’ll see this calculatingly brutal strategy play itself out again and again throughout the series, and it makes them a fun and terrifying antagonist.

Case in point: the way that we learn about the Changeling(s) on Earth is video footage of the bombing. Thanks to the ol’ Zoom and Enhance, a shapeshifting pot is seen right before the explosion. The Founders didn’t just want to bomb the conference and kill a bunch of people; they wanted the Federation to know it was them. The Changeling is essentially waving to the camera as if to say, “Hey, we’re here, fuckos.” The goal of terrorists isn’t just to kill, but to frighten and weaken an enemy – or to force that enemy to weaken itself.

The smartest aspect of the two-parter is the inclusion of Joseph Sisko (his first, but not last appearance on the show), and how the interpersonal dynamics of his relationship with Ben co-mingle with the plot. A dumber show might have filled the two hours with more action and military Starfleet maneuvers, but what we get is a surprisingly personal and intimate story. There’s a lot of scenes of characters sitting around talking, which ends up being more captivating and effective than it sounds (and very on-brand for Star Trek). Having a civilian like Joseph at the ground level personalizes the stakes of what’s going on in the highest levels of Starfleet and the Federation.

“Homefront” takes a leisurely pace in setting up the situation and players, as well as the emotional dynamics in the Sisko family. It’s nice to see a family of POC, and Brock Peters (who previously played Admiral Cartwright in the TOS movies) has great chemistry with Brooks and Lofton. There’s some tension though, as Benjamin finds himself in the difficult position of having to parent his parent about his health. Joseph is a charming but stubborn man, and their bickering over his wavering condition adds some realism and relevance to the plot at large.

Journeying to Earth, Sisko and Odo meet up with the other key players, Admiral Leyton (Sisko’s old commanding officer) and Commander Benteen. They’re trying to get control of the Changeling situation, and before we know it, Sisko is promoted to Chief of Starfleet Security.

And a suitcase gets promoted to… a member of the family. This fall on ABC – Suddenly Odo! Check your local listings.

From there, everything proceeds in a logical, but escalating manner. After some needling of the Federation President, security protocols get put into place – blood screenings and phaser sweeps in all Starfleet locations. Oh, and all Starfleet personnel have to get routinely screened. Oh, and all their families, too. Everywhere.

What’s clever about the way this escalates, is that we don’t really question the wisdom or legitimacy of any of it initially. The inherent goodness of humanity and the heroic earnestness of Starfleet has always been a core tenet of Star Trek. And the episode introduces a very real and credible threat – that of Changelings on Earth, and by extension, the Dominion itself. Any reasonable inhabitant of Earth would have every right to be scared shitless of that. So of course we have to take measures, right…?

“Ah, I see you’ve played gooey tentacle before!”

Things come to a head when Joseph refuses to submit to said blood screenings, and Benjamin gets involved.

One of the things that has struck me in the re-watching of these episodes is how I approach them now vs. how I did when I first saw them. The main difference is time – I’m a large adult now, but I absorbed the majority of Star Trek when I was a kid. I’ve changed and matured some since, and have borne witness to an eventful sliver of history, and that inevitably colors how I react to many episodes now.

A prime example is in how I felt about Joseph’s refusal to cooperate with the blood screenings. As a kid, I remember being annoyed and sharing Benjamin’s frustration – why can’t he just do what he’s told? (The staging of the scene is great, with Joseph on one side of an ice bed facing off against everyone else) Captain Sisko is unquestionably the Good Guy of this situation, not to mention the whole damn show. WTF, Grandpa?

Cut to now, after having witnessed 9/11 and the United States’ quick lurch into full blown security state. Or law enforcement overreach. Stop and frisk. Show your papers. The irritating and useless security theater we must still endure whenever we board a plane. That churning anxiety I feel in my stomach whenever I drive out of my home county and through a Border Patrol checkpoint. Of course we have to take measures, right…?

In Joseph and Benjamin’s case, the argument over civilians’ rights is muddied by other arguments between them. Benjamin doesn’t visit enough, Joseph doesn’t go to the doctor or take care of himself enough. Typical family stuff. But the core issue is the classic one of civil rights vs. security. Joseph delivers this line:

You can’t go around making people prove they are who they say they are. That’s no way to live.

How you react to this line says a lot about your political philosophy, and it’s not a simple black or white choice, I admit. But it’s a remarkable thing that the show debates this contentious and nuanced issue through the avatars of these family members. There’s an absurdity to the issue of testing this one old guy in a kitchen thousands of miles away from Starfleet headquarters, but as Benjamin tries to patiently explain, that’s just the system they set up and we all have to do it.

And therein lies the rub – once you establish these systems, the people who carry them out rely on them to dictate their actions, rather than their own common sense or feelings. And it quickly snowballs into “I was just following orders” territory, which is a road that can lead to absolute moral mayhem.

When Joseph accidentally cuts himself, Benjamin can’t help but inspect the blood on the knife. He later admits to Odo that for a split second, he actually believed his father could have been a Changeling impersonator. It illustrates how the system that Ben set up has already overridden some of his common sense. As a Starfleet officer, he’s all about commanding and obeying – superior officers, but also the systems and traditions that organization employs. Joseph blows the whole blood screening apart with some basic logic:

If I was a smart shapeshifter, a really good one, the first thing I would do would be to grab some poor soul off the street, absorb every ounce of his blood, and let it out on cue whenever someone like you tried to test me! Don’t you see? There isn’t a test that’s been created a smart man can’t find his way around.

The last line in particular is one of the smartest of the entire show, and a pearl of wisdom I find myself returning to in response to any number of issues. Whether it’s screening against terrorists, means testing for assistance, criminal justice, fraud detection, whatever – there will always be breaches. Always. There will always be dangerous people getting through terminals, there will always be people cheating or gaming a system, there will always be people taking advantage of some loophole to exploit a system for themselves. How you react to that inevitability is another political litmus test – do you accept that and manage as best you can, or do you tighten your grip at the expense of people’s rights?

And spoiler alert – we’ve already seen a character who is definitely a Changeling pass a blood test earlier in the season. It may make Starfleet feel better, but it doesn’t catch anyone who’s very crafty – which the Founders definitely are.

The question is forced when Earth’s entire power grid goes down, leaving the planet defenseless. Sisko, Odo, and Leyton convince the President to declare a state of emergency, and Leyton conveniently already has a plan to mobilize Starfleet security troops all over Earth for everyone’s protection.

Joseph and Jake look on as armed Starfleet personnel start filling the streets. Of course we have to take measures.

Right…?


Stray Observations:

  • Gotta acknowledge what is possibly peak Miles & Julian here as they take a break from The Battle of Britain. The whole scene is great – O’Brien’s cockney accent, Quark stopping them from smashing their glasses, as well as his heartfelt story about the financial collapse of Ferenginar. The two-parter has a lot to deal with, so it’s surprising it takes the time for these characters that don’t really factor into it, but welcome.
  • I like the casting of Peters, but it’s a little strange since he had a notable, villainous role in The Undiscovered Country as a treasonous Starfleet admiral (which in turns, is a strange dovetail with these episodes).
  • Another interesting casting choice is Susan Gibney as Commander Benteen. She of course played Dr. Brahams in a couple of TNG episodes that are really best left forgotten.
  • I didn’t mention Nog’s subplot. It’s fine, but a little… tacked-on? He’s really dead-set on joining this Red Squad group for some reason, and they conveniently factor into the scheme of things in the next episode. There’s like a blinking light about Nog’s head saying “FORESHADOWING.”
  • I really do not like Dax’s prank(s) on Odo. She beams into his quarters when he’s sleeping and moves his furniture around. I like the detail of how exacting and detail-oriented Odo is, but this is just fucked up for so many reasons.