You Talking Trek to Me? – “Paradise Lost”

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

As I mentioned in my review of “Homefront,” rewatching many Star Trek episodes as an adult can be a different experience than when I first absorbed them as a child. Often times I can point to real life world events that illustrate the lessons in these stories. In the case of “Paradise Lost,” there is a particularly eerie connection to current events on many different levels. It speaks to the power of this episode’s story that was produced 25 years ago(!) and how timeless its themes are.

We can draw all sorts of parallels from plot points here to recent history – the surveillance state and security theater that resulted from 9/11, public screenings and testing, the specter of civil war, and oh yeah, an attempted coup of the democratically elected civilian government. It’s all really unsettling, given 2021.

“Homefront” played its cards to its chest pretty closely as far as the real threat went. It proceeded under the guise of a direct threat from Changelings and the Dominion, ending with the complete shutdown of Earth’s power grid and implying an attack was imminent. One could deduce that Leyton was the real villain by the law of New Character, but the episode didn’t provide any outright clues to his nefarious nature. It’s a commendable bait and switch, and “Paradise Lost” makes a left turn into a much more potentially interesting story than its setup indicated – a Starfleet/military overthrow of the Federation government.

I say “potentially interesting,” because a single episode simply isn’t enough to do the scope of that harrowing story justice. Saving the reveal of Leyton’s coup until after the first part is a good idea, but the breadth of this idea and its implications and consequences is ill-served by a single concluding episode.

“You wanted to discuss the highly illegal stuff we did? All right, let me whip out my illegal activities planner and flip to the particular crime… I mean TIME! Ha ha but yeah, we did a fuckton of crime, didn’t we?”

The second season of Deep Space Nine began with an epic three-parter (a first for Trek); also about a military coup, coincidentally! It was a good choice since three episodes gives adequate breathing room to set up the scale of the story, introduce its players, and have the conflict play out at a comfortable and satisfying pace. I really think this story could have used that approach to its benefit – if a story about the overthrow of the Bajoran government merited three episodes, this one could have used at least that many.

What we do get in “Paradise Lost” is decent, but a lot of the important details get rushed through or not dealt with at all. We do get a lot of scenes of characters talking, pondering, and arguing, which is on brand for Trek, but it feels a little flat. The Federation is facing imminent implosion and civil war, but you know what we need? Several scenes of Sisko and Leyton continually repeating their positions to each other (to no avail) or reminiscing about old times on the ship they served on together. Like, there is a gigantic fireworks show going on outside but we’re in here putting furniture together. We should be outside!

“It’s just as I told you, sir. The test confirms he’s a Star Wars fan infiltrator.”

Case in point – the scale of Leyton’s coup and complicit co-conspirators is never really delved into. Sisko and Odo quickly learn that the not-so-subtly aforementioned elite cadet group Red Squad was actually the ones behind Earth’s sabotage. This leads Sisko to call up some Starfleet admiral about it, who immediately confirms that there’s a big conspiracy going on. Aside from this one blue traitor, we really don’t have any notion of the scale that this coup encompasses. Leyton is the face of it and Benteen is his lieutenant (eh, captain now), but the episode implies that there are many people involved. Sisko gets emotional about how many of the officers involved are his friends and Brooks really sells the anguish and betrayal, but like… literally who are we talking about? We’re told rather than shown, and it’s not optimal storytelling. An entire second act just focusing on the internal Starfleet machinations would have been ideal, with a third part focusing on the action and resolution. Alas.

(To the producers’ credit, they felt that they didn’t do the story justice due to budget constraints. Ira Steven Behr in particular didn’t feel as if they adequately depicted the scale of Starfleet’s occupation of Earth and the story suffered as a result. Agreed!)

“You betrayed your oath to this franchise, sir!”

I don’t want to trash the episode because it is good, albeit lopsided. Sisko and Odo suspect that Leyton was the one behind the shutdown as a means to force the President’s hand and allow Starfleet to tighten its grip on the planet. Leyton strolls into (Joseph) Sisko’s restaurant and straight out admits to it all. It’s kind of anti-climactic.

But we do get a great and chilling scene where Sisko comes face-to-face with a Changeling. The fact that it disguises itself as the cast’s most warm and genial character – O’Brien – adds to the unsettling nature of it. Meaney modulates his performance to a malicious and exaggerated degree, and although it looks like the Chief, he seems like a totally different, evil being. It’s a smart addition, because it keeps the threat of the Dominion at the forefront since the episode is almost entirely concerned with the Federation’s internal threats. Chief Changeling claims that there are only four of them on the entire planet, and is delighted at the chaos they’ve caused. We have only his word to take on it, but it seems consistent with the episode’s themes of paranoia and over-response to threats. That a single attack and only four individuals could precipitate the collapse of the Federation is frightening and realistic.

“What if I told you there was just 10 episodes of Star Trek: Picard? Just ten! And look at the chaos they’ve wrought, bwa ha ha!.”

In the pantheon of Star Trek villains, Leyton is probably in the middle somewhere, but Foxworth gives a subdued and calculatingly cool performance. He does veer into a bit of mustache-twirling territory near the end, but overall he seems sincere in his desire to protect Earth and the Federation from the Changeling threat. That’s part of what’s unsettling about the nature of terrorism – that it can push seemingly reasonable people into frightened and aggressive territory in the name of good intentions. His scenes with Sisko are well-acted and you get the sense that these are two fellow officers with a storied history and lots of mutual respect. But they’re each pretty dead set in their respective positions, so seeing them argue back and forth drag the episode down a bit for me.

We do get some fireworks, though! The grim prospect of a Starfleet civil war is played out when the Lakota (under Leyton’s control and captained by Benteen) attempts to stop the Defiant from reaching Earth. Not since The Wrath of Khan have we seen two Starfleet ships go at it, so it’s pretty notable. Not to mention that a whole bunch of people on both ships die, which is pretty crazy.

Leyton watches in horror as the Picard finale plays out.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevail and Benteen stands down to allow the Defiant by. The episode wraps up pretty quickly as Leyton immediately surrenders and… just walks out. It’s fine, because Leyton isn’t an evil bastard and we do get the sense that he understands that it’s over. It’s just tainted by my having witnessed the absolute shamelessness of so many political figures in recent times who, when caught red-handed doing heinous shit, refuse to take any responsibility or admit wrongdoing. Star Trek has never been about realistic political drama, but there’s still something pat about Leyton just quietly walking out like he lost a big chess match or something. Trek has always been pretty aspirational, and if someone like Leyton is the worst Starfleet has to offer, it’s still leagues better than our current political landscape. And what about all of his co-conspirators? Do they get rounded up and arrested too? Does Cadet Smugface get the punching in his smug face he deserves? I need closure!

Oh, you’re gonna get such a punching, pal.

And speaking of wrapping stuff up super quick, Sisko and Odo (and Jake) leave Earth, acknowledging that the Changeling threat is still totally present. I do appreciate his attitude of “we won’t help the Founders destroy Earth,” but does everyone else on Earth share that? Again, the scale of what’s going on is just above the paygrade of a two-parter on a TV budget. And as ambitious as Deep Space Nine was, I don’t think it was quite equipped to tackle the notion of a tide of rising fascism in Starfleet’s ranks (or in Earth’s culture at large), as tantalizing and horrifying a story as that is.

Which is actually fine by me, since escapism from the current political and social climate is as necessary as ever. Would that we could just dust off our hands and beam away from this nonsense is a rich, optimistic fantasy indeed.

The franchise is safe for now. But what future horrors does the future (season 2 of Picard) bring?

Stray Observations:

  • To this day I don’t understand why Red Squad was involved in Leyton’s plan. Supposedly he has all sorts of experienced officers to choose from, but he enlists a bunch of cadets to commit the sabotage that is the linchpin of his takeover plan? Granted, cadets are young and impressionable, but it still seems odd.
  • In contrast to the first part, Joseph really recedes into the background in this one. However, it’s very interesting how much his tune shifts on the issue of blood screenings compared to before. He admits he feels differently since the power went out, which is both understandable and realistic. Many people might agree that not giving into fear is good, but when you’re personally afraid for your life? Things seem a little different. Benjamin then finds himself on the other side of the debate, uneasy (and perhaps regretful) over the blood screening policy.
  • There’s a nice little scene with Joseph reminiscing about a girl Ben wanted to ask out in his youth. Its point is just to motivate Ben to stop brooding and actually do something about the problem. It’s probably not necessary to the plot, but it gives some nice flavor and color to their relationship, which is really nice.
“Dad, your down-to-earth, homespun wisdom always makes me feel better. Maybe this franchise isn’t totally fucked.”
  • I love when Sisko tough talks Nog. That quick zoom in – “Ha ha, I’m not fuckin’ asking, pal.”