The wormhole between the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants is ostensibly Deep Space Nine‘s window to the strange new worlds and new life that maintains the sense of wonder that is at the heart of the Star Trek franchise, even while DS9 has deliberately changed many of the other trappings of the franchise in order to differentiate itself. Given the importance laid on the wormhole and the Gamma Quadrant, DS9 had to have its first alien come through the wormhole at some point, and it had to do it soon. Early in “Captive Pursuit,” the characters decide to skip the full diplomatic protocol — and the types of episodes that might spring from that — in favor of a smaller, more personal story featuring Chief O’Brien, the lead character best suited to small, personal stories at this point in the series.
While O’Brien’s had healthy amounts of screentime in most of the episodes thus far — saying goodbye to The Next Generation and introducing us to the condition of the station in “Emissary,” trying to figure out a solution to Keiko’s unhappiness in “A Man Alone,” and serving as patient zero in “Babel” — this is the first episode that really features O’Brien in a starring role. O’Brien’s brand of diplomacy fits perfectly with his character: enter a strange ship from a culture never before encountered, immediately start looking at its engine because it’s damaged, and if you meet anyone, call them “friend” as often as possible to establish a positive tone. The “friend” that O’Brien meets is Tosk, portrayed as a cross between a stoic warrior, a desperate person on the run, and a hunting fox.
Star Trek has always had something of a fascination with the honorable warrior. The Romulans filled that role in the original series, most notably in the excellent “Balance of Terror,” with the Klingons taking over in the TNG era. While recurring villains offer an opportunity to flesh out how different societies operate in ever more complex ways, briefer glimpses into other such aliens in standalone episodes allow for more variations on the theme. (The standalone episode also allows for an expansive style of worldbuilding, using a small window into the larger story of Tosk and the hunters to imply further adventures the show has no intention of depicting. This is of particular importance for the Gamma Quadrant, the entire point of which is that none of the characters we’re following have been there before.) Tosk’s emphasis on dying with honor and his shame at being captured alive are reminiscent of the Klingons, but where the Klingons are continually shown as delighting in personal combat regardless of station, Tosk spends most of the episode trying to evade the hunters, and there’s a stark divide them: each has their defined role, and each seems to derive great honor and pleasure in outwitting the other.
When Tosk is first apprehended for trying to steal weapons, each of the three members of the main cast present has his own reaction: Sisko tries to manage the diplomatic situation, as the first contact with a race from the Gamma Quadrant is important regardless of what form it takes; Odo wonders if Tosk is wanted for crimes committed in the Gamma Quadrant; O’Brien, the most personally connected to Tosk out of the three, is disappointed and just wants to understand what’s going on. When the hunters are set to take Tosk back to their world, nobody is happy: Tosk is ashamed at being captured and failing the sacred role of the Tosk; the hunters are disgusted at such an easy victory; O’Brien is worried for his friend.
The closest “Captive Pursuit” comes to developing the character of O’Brien further is in his realization that he can change the rules of the game by stepping out of his prescribed role as an officer. By using the overly formal language of the sort of diplomatic greeting that was skipped at the beginning of the episode, O’Brien deceives the hunters into thinking that he’s hewing closely to the rules and orders he’s been given, before he dips a toe into Tosk’s culture by tricking them and re-initiating the hunt. The warmth with which O’Brien and Tosk tell each other to die with honor emphasizes just how much O’Brien now understands the sacredness of the hunt. We might not see honor in death, but Tosk does, and perhaps this too is illuminating.
O’Brien’s use of formal diplomacy isn’t just misdirection on his part, but also casts somewhat of a jaundiced eye on such diplomacy in general: at one point Sisko mentions “dozens of top level officials back at Starfleet Command eagerly waiting to hear about our encounter with the first new lifeforms to come through the wormhole,” when this episode clearly shows that of the first two species to come through, no one cares at all about establishing diplomatic relations. All Tosk is interested in is evading the hunters, and all the hunters are interested in is Tosk. Neither side is bent on making enemies — the lead hunter offers to mark the wormhole off-limits for future hunts when he sees that his hunt has disrupted life on the station, and Tosk accidentally forges a friendship with O’Brien — they just don’t care much either way. Their own cultural practices take precedence. There’s something for Sisko to put in his report.
At one point, Sisko cites the Prime Directive as one reason why O’Brien cannot interfere with the hunters. The Prime Directive, originally an order restricting Starfleet from interfering with “less evolved” non-space-faring peoples and disrupting their “natural development,” shifted over many years to become a more general policy of non-interference. The Next Generation managed to make some fine Prime Directive episodes, but it’s to Deep Space Nine‘s credit that it generally avoids the potentially cheap, repetitive drama that it has a tendency to provide. (The sociological problems with the Directive are probably best left to actual sociologists and anthropologists.) Indeed, acting in this episode as the conscience of the show, O’Brien observes that in violating the prime directive and interfering with Tosk’s apprehension, he actually gave both Tosk and the hunters what they wanted.
In the same way that science fiction is always really about the present day, thematically, stories about aliens are always thematically about us in some way (an aspect of sci-fi that enabled the original Star Trek to pull off its parables about racism that have been lauded for decades). What “Captive Pursuit” uses that thematic relationship to investigate is the sense of cultural chauvinism implicit in the assumption that Tosk is a victim. We as viewers might be inclined to see the Tosk as an oppressed underclass, and there are definitely shades of elitism to the hunters, but in doing so we’re making the same mistake O’Brien initially does when he tells Tosk to ask for asylum: in applying our own value system to an alien culture we overwrite a differing value system rather than learning from it. (Forgetting IDIC, as the Vulcans might say.) If Tosk were to accept O’Brien’s offer of asylum, separating him from the life he has known, he might wither without the direction that his prior life offered, or he might thrive in the new environment of DS9 and the Federation, with the physical endurance and mental agility that enabled him to evade the hunters put to other uses. But even that would come at the price of assimilating into a society that sees him, patronizingly, as a passive entity in need of saving. Unless Tosk actually is brainwashed or his mental faculties have otherwise been violated, and the hunters are delivering a severely slanted perspective from their position of privilege, using the supposed honor of the hunt to justify their sadistic whims in an outer-space version of “The Most Dangerous Game.” The episode ultimately rejects this reading, though; we’re clearly meant to feel that O’Brien’s done right by his new friend in crossing the bounds of his duty as a Starfleet officer and allowing the honored hunt to begin anew. Tosk even accepts him as a fellow traveler, telling O’Brien that he too is Tosk when they are both hunted.
The episode goes so far as to provide active contrast to the misreading of Tosk as a victim in its opening moments, featuring a woman who’s come to the station to work one of Quark’s dabo tables, but not to tolerate the sexual abuse Quark snuck into her contract. Unlike Tosk, she goes directly to Commander Sisko seeking redress of a legitimate grievance, and while Quark would no doubt cite the sacredness of absolute contract law in Ferengi culture, Sisko makes it obvious in his brief scene with Sarda that he has no intention of allowing a capricious argument to justify harassment and abuse. The message is tamed a little bit for early-90’s television (the word “sex” is mentioned precisely once, after which Sisko’s and Sarda’s lines are cut off before they can name it again), but it’s heartening to see the show sticking up for the rights of sex workers — Sarda has no problem “wear[ing] the costume and entertain[ing] the gamblers,” but she won’t tolerate Quark’s sexual advances as part of her job. (Considering Quark’s relentless business drive nearly killing the station’s residents in “Babel,” that this tiny bit of characterization paints him as a would-be rapist does him no favors, despite Armin Shimmerman’s charisma. The characters on DS9 aren’t as squeaky-clean as the ones on TNG, as O’Brien learns in the middle of this episode, but there’s still a balance that the show has to find.) And despite the acknowledged reputation of dabo girls, Sisko doesn’t stereotype her, but instead listens to her and promises to stop Quark from sexually abusing his workers. It’s this same clear vision that leads Sisko to aid O’Brien through inaction at the end of the episode: when Odo leaves to cut off O’Brien and Tosk’s escape, Sisko stops him and tells him there’s no hurry. Odo’s reaction is a classic Rene Auberjonois double-take (perhaps even the elusive triple-take), as Odo processes this and slowly walks away.
While “Captive Pursuit” is a standalone episode in that we never see Tosk or the hunters again, it casts an eye forward to the rest of the series in several ways. The personal cloaking effect Tosk uses several times in the episode is explicitly called for in a future script, and the presence of a genetically-engineered species in the Gamma Quadrant (let alone a vaguely reptilian one) invites the question, later on, of whether the hunters created the Tosk or whether there’s a larger trade agreement at work, but the most important look forward is a thematic one: when Tosk says that other people from the Gamma Quadrant will do as he did and follow an Alpha-Quadrant ship back through the wormhole, O’Brien replies cheerfully: “We hope so. Our mission as Starfleet officers is to seek out new life forms so we can learn about each other.” Tosk shoots him a look of disbelief, briefly. O’Brien is not one to be blithe or naïve about aliens — he’s a veteran of a war with the Cardassians from years before this — but he’s bought into the Federation’s ideological stance that we can learn to peacefully coexist with whomever we find, and that meeting new people through exploration enriches us. That’s certainly not a bad belief to have, but Deep Space Nine has already begun to interrogate it to a small degree through the Bajoran-Cardassian conflict, and the series will dedicate itself to putting it to the test in the years to come.
A quick note: in the span of one day last week the Star Trek community lost Leonard Nimoy, whose contributions are obviously immense, and Maurice Hurley, TNG writer/producer and contributor of such elements of that show as Riker’s trombone, Lore, and the Borg. This week we also lost Harve Bennett, producer of the second, third, fourth, and fifth Trek films, and co-writer of The Voyage Home. When it was decided that Star Trek: The Motion Picture had been successful enough to merit a sequel but that Gene Roddenberry would not be allowed to have a creative role on the new film, Bennett was brought in to manage the project and was given a greatly reduced budget. He’d previously been a television producer for The Mod Squad, The Six Million Dollar Man, and The Bionic Woman, among other projects, and for Star Trek II he provided the premise and initial drafts of the script (deciding on a Khan followup after watching “Space Seed,” along with every other episode, as background research), before bringing in Nick Meyer to rewrite and direct the movie. As the producer of The Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home, Bennett shepherded the film series through one of its most popular periods. Despite his role in creating the story for The Final Frontier and subsequent divide with Paramount regarding a creative direction for Star Trek VI, his achievements with the franchise in the 1980’s have stood the test of time, and the smash success of The Voyage Home was a significant factor in the decision to launch The Next Generation, leading to the lengthy second life the franchise had on television running alongside the films throughout the 1990’s. Additionally, as the falling-out with Paramount was due to Bennett’s enthusiasm about a movie featuring younger, recast versions of the original crew in Starfleet Academy, it can be argued that he provided some of the inspiration for the 2009 Star Trek film, which brought the franchise back to life years after the tail end of the 1990’s boom had driven it into the ground.
All Star Trek articles on PTBN, including all episodes of Deep Space Nine covered thus far, can be found here.