In general, I am incredibly wary of writing that addresses the concept of “trauma.” This completely broke through that. Fucking aces.
There’s a lot to love in the extremely weird two-part pilot for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, ‘Emissary’. Airing in January of 1993, DS9 immediately set itself apart from Star Trek: The Next Generation, with which it would air concurrently until May of the following year. Those sixteen months served as a sort of baton-pass: this is what Star Trek was, now here’s what it could be.
Many of the differences are stark, especially between the shows’ respective leading men. Both Patrick Stewart and Avery Brooks are Shakespearean-trained theatre actors, but Stewart’s Picard is calm, dedicated to the guiding principles of reason and anti-theist moral philosophy, likely to argue his way out of most situations, whereas Brooks’ Sisko is ebullient, energetic, teeth-bared; an unapologetic jock destined to serve as a sort of “chosen one” by the deities of another species’ religion.* Picard is uncomfortable around children; Sisko is a single father who loves his son deeply (as others have argued, Sisko is a landmark portrayal of positive Black fatherhood on television). Picard runs his ship like a naval vessel; Sisko commands a space station, not an exploratory starcraft, and must do so in uneasy alliance with the newly-instated revolutionary government of the planet it orbits, which has just successfully overthrown an occupying imperial force and refuses to allow Starfleet—in the person of Sisko—to step into their shoes as colonizer.
The pilot does more than just establish the contrasts between these leading men and their respective shows. It also establishes their in-universe connection, and it’s horrible: Picard, during the arc on Next Gen when he was under the control of the hivemind Borg, attacked the ship Sisko was serving on at the time, killing many of his crewmates, including his wife.† Picard, of course, got better, and Next Gen examined his own trauma around loss of control and the lives he took, in the abstract. DS9 returns us to that harm in the concrete. Here’s your new Star Trek captain; he hates the last one, who you loved, viscerally and for good reason. We as viewers—and Picard himself, in an excruciatingly awkward scene between the two—have to sit in that.
But the sequence in this episode I find myself returning to most is not about what this violence, loss, and discomfort means for Picard, or for us as the viewer, or what the show will be moving forward. Nor is it everything else I think this episode does interestingly, or well—allowing its female lead, Sisko’s Bajoran first officer Kira Nerys, to be unapologetically hostile and angry for the episode’s entirety, for example, or the introduction of the rest of the extended cast, all of whom I (in some cases grudgingly‡) love. It’s the loss itself, and what it means for Sisko.
The plot of the episode brings Sisko in contact with the Prophets, alien gods who experience time all at once, rather than linearly. Sifting through Sisko’s brain, they are fundamentally baffled at the prevalence of the memory of his wife’s death: the attack, the flames, his desperation to get to her body. “You exist here,” they keep saying to him, over and over. “Why do you exist here?”
Everyone always tells me trauma is bodily. That I won’t always be able to rationalize why certain things make me feel threatened, or trapped, or hurt, when there is nothing to threaten or trap or hurt me. But I’ve never been great at communicating with my body. It takes work for me to disambiguate between sensations of sadness and weariness; it’s hard for me to know if the gnawing in my stomach is anxiety or hunger. In therapy, when asked how I feel about something, physically, I struggle not to intellectualize. Adjectives fail me; bodily feelings become impossible to describe other than “weird” or “bad.”
It’s not that I dislike my body; there’s a lot about it I enjoy, when I remember it’s there, but we spend most of our time existing in silent tandem rather than active collaboration. So telling me that trauma lives in my body makes me feel like it’s a parasite, somewhere, and the “me” of my brain just has to dive down into the mysterious unknown of my physical form, track it down, and root it out.§ And that’s an attitude that simply doesn’t serve the process of iterative recovery. (Which, in my opinion, is deeply unfair. Let me pull that sucker out and crush it to death under my shoe, please.)
‘Emissary’ tells me that it’s not that my trauma still exists in my body, an unwelcome passenger alongside my own tenuous welcome, but that I still exist in it: a part of me, the intellectualizing, abstracting self as well as my sullen physical form, is still there. Will always be there, maybe, even if less intensely as time goes on and things stop tripping me headfirst out of my linear experience of time and into some weird looped alternate space. I was poured unwillingly into a mold, and that mold shaped me. I still hold that shape, sometimes, and sometimes I don’t. I exist, there, and I exist, here.
Sisko eventually explains the concept of linear time to the aliens through, delightfully, baseball metaphors—setting up a perfect episode of television seasons later where he teaches his crew of misfits to play baseball against a team of Vulcans—but first he spends a moment reminding us that it is not only our trauma that shapes us, but everything we ever do. Returning with the Prophets to a sunlit park where he first discussed wanting to have children with his wife, he explains that this day was important, that it “shaped every day that followed.” The difference between the day of his wife’s death and the day in the sunlit park is not that he exists more in one than the other, but that he is happy to still hold the form he takes in the park, and resists—painfully, despairingly—the form he takes at the moment of his greatest loss.
I have a matching drunken stick-n-poke tattoo with my abusive ex. I’ve considered getting it covered up with something else, and I still might. But right now, in the way I am currently thinking about all of this, it’s one of the touchstones I feel I do have with my body, one of the ways I can visibly see that I still am who I was. Not that I haven’t changed, or recovered—I have, enormously—but it’s a mark of continuity, of linear non-linearity. Recognizing that continuity of self all of the time, not just when something triggers me, helps the moments I am triggered loom less large, the drop back in time less sharp.
“Why do you keep bringing me here?” Sisko asks of the Prophets, when he is returned again to his burning former starship. When told he is bringing them, not the other way around, he demands, “then give me the power to bring you somewhere else, anywhere else!”
The Prophets respond: We cannot give you what you deny yourself. Look for solutions from within, Commander.
Sisko eventually repeats their insistence (“I exist here,”) breaking down and crying with the acknowledgement that he still bears this loss, present and horrible, rather than moving past it in a linear sense as he has been insisting humans experience time. This admission leads the Prophets to free him and return him to his crew, but there is no sense that it has absolved him of that weight, or somehow “fixed” his trauma. Nor will this be the last time that the show acknowledges the loss of his wife as an integral part of his character.
The episode ends with Sisko retracting his request for someone to replace him on Deep Space Nine, accepting the responsibility of his command and entering the uncertainty of the future as his full self, existing simultaneously within and after his loss. His acknowledgment of the truth of that double existence eases the discomfort of it, as it does for me, and allows us to move forward while recognizing the ways we are, through no fault of our own, also standing still.
*One of my very favorite contrasts between these two is their interactions with the wildly powerful trickster entity known (unfortunately, from a 2021 viewpoint) as ‘Q’. Picard has a series-long argument-turned-homoerotic-flirtation with him about the nature of humanity. Sisko meets him once and punches him in the mouth.
†“But wait,” you say, “are you giving a glowing review of a television show where the main character’s wife gets fridged for his pain in the very first episode?” To which I say: Yeah. :/ Sorry! This is a case of a trope that is handled well, but still ends up contributing to a larger misogynistic trend in media. It happens.
‡Look, you’d be hard pressed to find someone with more of a soft spot for Julian Bashir (excepting of course his lizardman boyfriend) but my god is season 1 Bashir grating.
§For those of you who know DS9: I am aware of the irony of using this kind of metaphor in a piece about Sisko rather than a piece about Dax, who literally has a symbiotic slug in her stomach. That’s a whole other kettle of worms, pun intended.
Penny Weber is a grad student, nonprofit worker, and enthusiast based in either Brooklyn or Mexico City, depending on when you ask. You can follow her twitter, which is almost exclusively wifeguy content.
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