Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 4.1.8: “The Law Is Inside Out, The World Is Upside Down”

The Passenger

Star Trek The Passenger

“Reform is a discredited concept.”

Here we run into another episode that seems to be no-one’s favourite, and for reasons which are not difficult to understand. The common complaint against “The Passenger” is that there’s little here that couldn’t have been done on The Next Generation. It’s a fair point, but it doesn’t actually go far enough. The real problem here is that if this had been an episode of TNG, it would have been a rubbish one. And not even just rubbish; in some ways actively unpleasant.

“Another Stink In The Air”

Setting aside the security-clash B-plot – the one element here not easily transportable to the Enterprise-D – “The Passenger” is structured as a traditional sci-fi mystery. Which is fine in theory, obviously. My previous 45 episode summaries notwithstanding, not every episode to be stuffed full of social commentary and political metaphors. If you’re going to go down this route, though, you need to make sure your central mystery can bear the weight of the audience’s full attention. This is something the question of who is housing the mind of Rao Vantika simply doesn’t do. I realise having seen this episode before it’s easy to say this, but I’m convinced that even for first-time watchers it’s obvious from the very start Vantika is hiding inside Bashir. Every clue of any weight leads straight back to to our new doctor. It’s Bashir that Vantika grabs and demands he make him live, and the voice of Quark’s whispering assailant is recognisably Alexander Siddig’s. Meanwhile, the efforts made to throw suspicion onto Kajada are somewhat half-hearted. Let’s list all the circumstantial evidence that points to her. First, Dax points out both Vantika and Kajada are Kobliad, despite having already found Vantika’s brain-map and having given it the more general label “humanoid”.

This concludes my list. It’s not exactly a watertight case, is my point. Especially since there’s two inconvenient facts standing in opposition. First, Kajada was nowhere near her prisoner when he died, which points away from her being Vantika’s ride even before Dax finds the microscopic generator under the dead man’s fingernail. Second, Vantika throwing himself onto Quark’s deck would be far too risky were it a simple attempt at misdirection. You can’t create a new micro-generator to cheat death once more if you’ve been paralysed by a bad fall, or even shot to death by twitchy mercenaries. Frankly, Dax’s theory makes so little sense that it would have felt like cheating had it turned out to be true. The episode makes a last-minute attempt to provide a new suspect in Primmin, but that makes even less sense, since by this point we know how Vantika achieves transferal and Primmin never met the man.

“I’ve Hunted You Across The Years”

In short, this is a plot that leans heavily on a single question with an answer that is both uninteresting and utterly obvious. As a result, “The Passenger” seems not just uninspiring, but actually poorly made. It reads as one of those agonising installments which requires waiting for the characters to catch up to where the audience has been all along.

So what went wrong? The most plausible answer is that “The Passenger” is the victim of its best idea being lost in the chaos of the rewriting process. Originally, as detailed here, it really was going to be about Vantika hitching a ride in Kajada’s head, leading to her having to investigate herself.

Which is, I think, rather a neat idea, for all that it reminds me a bit of Donald Kaufman’s screenplay in Adaptation (“…Trick photography”). It’s not hard to see why it ultimately got spiked, of course. It would require too much focus on a guest star, which would be especially difficult to make work so early in the show’s lifetime (if only they’d realised this when “Q-Less” got pitched). It’s a strong idea that arrived at the wrong time. Give it a year or two to brew, put in the ground work, and it might have worked very well as an Odo episode (I guess “The Alternate” tried something vaguely similar, actually, but that’s literally another story).

In any case, switching Vantika’s passenger lounge from Kajada to Bashir solves the problem of under-serving the main cast, but in doing so the only idea that lifts the story from the level of total cliché is almost entirely excised.

(It’s also worth noting the idea of rejigging the script so that Siddig had more to work with is rather undercut by making him totally re-dub his entire performance as Vantika. Having never heard his original stab at the material I (fittingly) can’t speak as to whether it really was as bad as Rick Berman claims – though clearly the director didn’t think it was an obvious no-go. Certainly what we see on screen doesn’t work, though; the need to overdub a slower performance with his standard intonations just makes Bashir sound profoundly stoned. Whatever the truth (and I’m not thrilled about deciding to overrule an actor of colour’s performance choice like that) the result is that the only remaining possible justification for the episode – that it’s a vehicle for Siddig – evaporates as well.)

The thing is, though, from what we see here even that original strong idea looks as if it was going to have been badly served. It’s hard – especially given this show’s later references to them – to not think about Vantika and Kajada as rough analogues to Valjean and Javert from Les Miserables. Even their names are similar, which as usual is something I take pretty seriously.

At first glance, this appears a simple case of nodding at a literary reference without considering what made the original interesting in the first place. Yes, one of Les Miserables many plot threads is about a law enforcement officer who becomes obsessed with tracking down a single criminal. The obsession itself isn’t the only or even most important part of it, though. What matters (as any literature undergrad can tell you) is that Javert is ignoring vast structural injustices enforced upon the population by the very people he works for, in order to hunt down a man who committed the most trivial of crimes in an attempt to help someone else survive those injustices.

And yes, to lapse into my party-bore mode (as if I have any other), Valjean isn’t technically being chased for stealing a loaf of bread, but for breaking parole after being released from his five-year prison term for grand theft baguette. This is actually an important distinction, though, because Javert knows Valjean already spent half a decade locked up for stealing bread to save his sister’s kids from starvation. But not only does Javert have no problem with so draconian punishment for such an obvious crime of desperation, he insists the mere act of choosing dying children over the law is evidence Valjean cannot be redeemed. Javert is convinced that circumstances don’t make criminals; lawbreaking is invariably a profound failure of moral character. The idea that vast numbers of French citizens are simply not allowed to have enough food to live isn’t something Javert has any interest in exploring.

Bringing all this back to “The Passenger”, it surely seems worth noting that Vantika was on his way to Deep Space Nine to try and hijack a shipment of deuridium, a chemical the Kobliad require to keep themselves from dying. Dax is very clear about how the substance doesn’t exist in sufficient quantities for the whole Kobliad population to be saved, even with the new deposits found in the Gamma Quadrant that the Federation are giving Kajada and Vantika’s people.

(How lovely, by the way, that the Federation’s very first use of Gamma Quadrant resources is to create life-saving medications they then give away for free. This is by far my favourite part of the episode.)

The parallels should be clear enough: a culture that lacks the resources to keep everyone alive is one in which those on the lowest tiers will die absent criminal activity (I’ll skip over the fact that 19th century France didn’t actually lack the resources to keep everyone alive, any more than does 21st century Britain). There are people in Kobliad’s society whose only hope is that someone like Vantika hijacks the deuridium shipment and dishes out the cargo to them.

“A Grave Violation Of The Public Trust”

And now we’re in interesting territory. The degree to which we can support the station working alongside Kajada entirely depends on how the Kobliad authorities chooses who benefits from each deuridium shipment that comes in. Just as with the evacuation procedures on Mantilles, that process is the ballgame. Who gets the medicine and who doesn’t? Is it determined by social class, or general health, or worth to the state, or what? All of those options come attached to various assumptions and prejudices and intersections that make their use extremely problematic. Even a lottery approach raises issues, depending on how it’s run, and more importantly by whom. Take the Vietnam Draft, for example, that didn’t come close to having an equal chance of picking each male of combat age even before you throw in the ease with which the rich could get exemptions for spurious medical reasons.

Which raises the question: does Kajada herself have such an exemption? Is she near the front of the queue as an officer of the law? Has she or have others argued she must be kept healthy so she can track down Vantika and those like him? In other words, is she literally keeping herself alive by preventing others from doing the same? Is she, like Javert, making her bread by forcing it from the mouths of others?

Despite these questions keying directly into the Valjean/Javert model the episode seems to have adopted, however, the script ignores them completely. Instead, “The Passenger” goes all in on the idea that Vantika is a cold-hearted murderous bastard, who casually murders his own men when they won’t immediately commit suicide on his behalf. The result is to not merely misunderstand Les Miserables, but to rewrite it so Javert was right. And worse, to do so whilst actually porting over the wider social justice issues (however implicitly) that Hugo referenced as being precisely why Javert was horribly in the wrong.

The result is an episode that leaves behind mere dullness and incompetence and drifts into the range of hateful. It takes one of the most well-known and expansive critiques of the idea that the justice system must be virtuous and defying it must be immoral, and takes the exact opposite position. It takes this terrible approach to such an extent that we’re supposed to cheer on – or at least tacitly approve – when Kajada shoots Vantika’s memory engrams at the end of the episode. An execution without trial, in other words. That’s an almost perfect summation of the episode as a whole; a complex, nuanced and important set of considerations pushed aside so we can learn that bad criminals are bad and do bad things, so it’s not bad when they’re killed by the police. This problem is so pronounced I find myself even preferring the confused, self-absorbed nonsense of “Miri” to what we have here. At least that episode didn’t conclude thing’s got better after Piggy gets crushed.

What we have here, then, is an episode with an obvious lack of good ideas, that assembles what little it has in a haphazard and unstable structure, and that not only lifts its one interesting concept but corrupts it into something malicious in the process. It’s terrible on almost every level (Odo, at least, remains great value for money). After its first three barmstorming episodes, Deep Space Nine is really looking like it’s in trouble, content to not only model itself on its predecessor, but its predecessor’s very worst episodes. We know already what this show is capable of, but that knowledge can only sustain us through so many episodes like this or “Q-Less”. Deep Space Nine is in desperate need of an episode that reminds us exactly why watching a mixed Federation/Bajoran crew anchor one end of a tunnel across the galaxy is worth our time. It shouldn’t be hard. The setting is intriguing. The new characters are often fascinating. The religious undertones are a welcome change. There is so much potential here it should be all but impossible to completely throw them away for a third time in four episodes.

Except that what we get next is “Move Along Home”…

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

Ordering

1. The Magicks Of Megas-Tu

2. The Battle

3. Miri

4. The Passenger

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