Last week, the wormhole opened and Deep Space Nine revealed its first new species from the Gamma Quadrant. This week, the wormhole opens and Deep Space Nine spends an episode dealing with guest stars from The Next Generation. These are somewhat different approaches.
Part of the purpose of placing the wormhole so near the space station is to let DS9 simultaneously explore one clash of cultures at some depth and retain the ability to readily access new people and cultures, escaping the sense that after several years of TNG the Alpha Quadrant has started to seem a little too well-traveled. To return to something so closely identified with TNG so early in DS9’s run smacks of a retreat to the familiar, which is supposed to be what DS9 is stepping away from. Elements of TNG will recur, of course, since it’s now in a shared universe, but there are ways to integrate those shared elements into the new show while enhancing it and broadening its possibilities, as we’ve seen before and will see many times again, and there are ways to integrate shared elements that wind up limiting the scope of the new show and playing into the worry that it will be a mere imitation.
When the Duras sisters showed up in “Past Prologue,” their presence enhanced the premise of DS9 rather than detracting from it. Rather than the impetus for the episode, they were firmly background players in an unfolding plot that had already started before they arrived; they emphasized the station’s diagetic role as a crossroads where anyone might show up, while their role kept the focus squarely on the protagonists of the series. DS9 can bring in guest stars from other series without losing its focus, as we’ll see in the future, but the show hasn’t quite found its balance yet. As it is, between O’Brien’s exposition dumps (to remind the audience of who Vash is and that she left to explore the cosmos with Q in “Qpid”) and the various other times he’s brought up, “Q-Less” almost spends more time talking about Captain Picard than any character who’s actually on the show we’re watching.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Q would dwarf the young series he’s appearing in, given the expansiveness of John de Lancie’s acting style and the fact that by this time he’s had five years to explore his role — indeed, before “Q-Less” there had been more Q episodes on TNG than DS9 had total episodes — while DS9 is just now determining what a typical episode is going to look like following the series’ impressive start. This may be largely attributable to the process of making a TV show’s early episodes: the original premise for “Q-Less” was pitched by Hannah Louise Shearer soon after filming started for “Emissary,” and the final script was written by Robert Hewitt Wolfe (earning him a job on the writing staff for the next five years) too early for anyone to have seen what the actors were bringing to their roles. While everything in the script would’ve been gone over in the show’s writer’s room to make sure nobody was acting out of character, this is nonetheless the first episode that carries no story or script credit for any of the show’s producers, who would have had the best handle on the main characters at this point. Given that, the insertion of Q — who wasn’t accompanying Vash in Shearer’s original story pitch — comes across as even more of a crutch, as a character whom any prospective writer familiar with Star Trek in 1993 would know about.
Part of the allure of a Q episode is the tremendous double-act developed by Patrick Stewart and John de Lancie; while de Lancie had chemistry with other members of the TNG cast, Q and Picard became such a good pairing that eventually Q’s episodes would revolve completely around Picard. He has no such relationship built up with anyone in the DS9 cast, and while something similar may have been possible, “Q-Less” makes no significant effort to build anything of the kind. One almost hopes that this idea had waited until later in the series, when Avery Brooks was more entrenched in his role and able to display some expansive acting of his own, but it’s just as well that by then Q had been “claimed” by Voyager, where he wound up fitting in much better.
And it’s not like Q didn’t push the TNG characters to the periphery of their own series in some of his appearances. By and large, there were two kinds of Q episodes on TNG: either he would appear for some key scenes and otherwise keep to the margins of another story, hectoring the Enterprise crew and Picard in particular about their inadequacy (“Encounter at Farpoint,” “Q Who”), or the main plot of the episode would be more directly about him (“Déjà Q,” “True Q”). “Q-Less” tries to have it both ways: Q acts as a mocking figure toward the crew, Bashir and Sisko in particular, but while he remains a marginal presence for them, the episode spends so much time dealing with Vash’s involvement with Q that he still overshadows everything else.
Having another godlike figure seems tonally off for DS9 as well. The series hasn’t brought them back or developed their role at all as of yet (quite reasonably, considering the disfiguring role they can have), but the Prophets were by now established as an important part of Deep Space Nine, and while viewers in 1993 could not be blamed for expecting them to vanish once Sisko dealt with them and secured passage through the wormhole in “Emissary,” the fact that the series promised to stick around Bajor and the wormhole made it fairly clear that they would have to come back eventually. And frankly, one seemingly-omnipotent god-like presence is enough for DS9, as a show that would later gain a reputation for being more “serious” about the Star Trek universe. Even TNG only tried to get away with a couple of one-off godlike entities after Q, largely inspired by the gaggle of original-series-era gods, was integrated into its birth.
Because Q casts such a heavy shadow over the episode, his usual sarcastic barbs carry more weight than they typically would. When Q indicted the Enterprise crew for the crimes of the human race in “Encounter at Farpoint” and charged them will solving the (ultimately rather dull) mystery of Farpoint Station to earn their right to continue traveling among the stars, Q was acting as a stand-in for an audience that might not have been entirely willing to accept the new series and its intrepid crew. (An interpretation described very well by Josh Marsfelder in his “Encounter at Farpoint” essay.) Ultimately the crew solved the mystery and Q slinked off with a vague threat of returning. It might be reasonable to have Q reprise that role on Deep Space Nine by presenting a metatextual challenge to the series, but instead of striking at the heart of DS9’s mission — calling into question whether so many people with disparate cultures and values can peaceably coexist, for instance, or whether they’re ready for what they might find on the other side of the wormhole, or whether Sisko and his crew can achieve material social progress — Q instead contents himself with juvenile insults directed more specifically at Deep Space Nine. He contrasts the look of the station with the Enterprise by calling it a “dreary little gulag.” (Never mind that it actually was effectively a labor camp under the Cardassians.) He brings up three different common (and tired) knocks against DS9 in a single line: “Picard and his lackeys would have solved all this technobabble hours ago. No wonder you’re not commanding a starship.” When O’Brien reminds Q that he used to be on the Enterprise, the second time in the episode that he stops to remind us all of that fact, Q retorts: “Weren’t you one of the little people?” He’s even the first character to explicitly comment on the new Starfleet uniforms designed for Deep Space Nine, to give the Starfleet characters a more utilitarian look as well as to create a difference between the two concurrent series for the sake of difference. He insults Sisko by bringing Picard up again: “What I was hoping for was a little witty repartee, but I see I’m not going to get any of that either. At least your beloved Jean-Luc knows how to turn a phrase.” (The implications of calling Sisko inarticulate are…uncomfortable, to say the least.) In these respects he could be standing in for altogether less pleasant fans, unwilling to adjust to the differences in design and tone that the production team is going to great lengths to develop while still staying true to Star Trek in a larger sense. And even if he is, rather than being proven wrong in any significant way, after the main threat of the episode is resolved — by allowing something that doesn’t initially look like a lifeform to emerge into space and depart for its further adventures, as in “Encounter at Farpoint” — Q merely resumes harassing Vash before disappearing back to his home turf on TNG, where he will rebound with one of that show’s classics within two weeks of the airing of “Q-Less.”
The most famous part of this episode, of course, is the brief fistfight between Q and Sisko, in which Q taunts Sisko with cheap shots and is genuinely shocked when Sisko retaliates with a gut punch and a right hook. “You hit me! Picard never hit me.” “I’m not Picard!” As far as emphasizing that Sisko is indeed not Picard, it’s a little on the nose, and the reputation the scene gained for that one exchange far overestimates how much it actually says about Sisko and its significance in building his character. While it certainly emphasizes the point that Sisko isn’t as likely to use lofty philosophical discourse as a solution to the average episode’s dilemma, the scene goes a little too far in the opposite direction. We saw enough of a split between the ethos of DS9 and that of TNG in “Emissary,” in Sisko’s excellent first scene with Picard; the divide bears more fleshing out, and O’Brien started providing that in “Captive Pursuit” when he broke out of the by-the-book attitude of TNG (or at least its reputation) and Sisko implicitly supported him, but that’s a far more fruitful thread than Sisko punching his problem in the face, as if there’s a crucial difference between assaulting the physical avatar of an unimaginably powerful god-like force with fists rather than words. The better scene may be the outtake in which de Lancie replaces the line “Or What? You’ll thrash me?” with “You’ll ravish me?” To which Brooks replies, after a tender beat: “I might.”
Vash’s appearance in “Q-Less” is also problematic, though in different ways. Vash’s role was to bring out sides of Picard that weren’t often seen on TNG; broken out of that context, she doesn’t have much of a point. Here she’s a bit of a rogue and a bit of an opportunist, which the station already has in spades. She overshadows the DS9 characters somewhat, integrating them into her plotline somewhat awkwardly — as soon as she gets to the station, Doctor Bashir starts making his trademark ineffectual romantic advances, and Quark shows up soon after to woo her into putting on an auction of her archaeological artifacts from the Gamma Quadrant. In the one scene in which Vash is herself overshadowed by a DS9 character, Quark interrupts her explanation of one of her artifacts because her technical explanation, as an archaeologist, does not fit with Quark’s seedy clientele. (The “base commerce” that is “setting Federation ethics back two hundred years,” according to Q. So even Q thinks those things belong in a museum.)
Bashir’s advances follow directly from his scene at the beginning of the episode, before Vash and Q arrive on the station, when he’s making similar advances on a Bajoran woman using a thrilling and dramatic account of a test he took in medical school; it’s by far the best bit of characterization for Bashir in the episode, highlighting the arrogance that’s typified him so far. (His followup, explaining that he missed out on being valedictorian when he got one question wrong in his oral exam, mistaking a preganglionic fiber for a postganglianic nerve, is straight out of the DS9 writer’s bible.) Soon after Vash agrees to a date with Bashir, though, Q appears and sends him into the kindest of comas, leaving him to sleep through the rest of the episode. Q then proceeds to spend the rest of the episode stalking and harrassing Vash: he appears in her quarters multiple times after she tells him to leave; he insists she leave with him after she says she wants him out of her life; at one point he makes her frail and ill to show her what might have happened on some of the worlds of the Gamma Quadrant had he not been there to preserve her health. “I will decide when this partnership is over,” he intones.
It’s menacing on a more personal level than Q had often been previously. He’s been shown to be petty before, introducing the Enterprise crew to the Borg because of a slight insult to his pride, but to inflict frailness and disease on Vash with an implicit threat that if she doesn’t leave with him he’ll leave her to a similar fate is farther than the character typically goes in terms of deliberate bullying. Despite this, the tone of “Q-Less” remains light enough to indicate that it has no interest in engaging with any of these issues, and has accidentally stumbled into them. Q’s first scene with Vash is structured almost like a 1940’s-style romantic comedy, an association that has more complex implications of its own. John de Lancie is an impressive actor, but Cary Grant he is not, and Vash can only go so far on outdated spunk.
Q’s natural role is as a nuisance with a hint of the metaphysical, or a metaphysical force with a hint of chaotic whimsy; to be reduced to a mere menace, threatening gendered violence, is out of character and a strikingly poor use of his potential. He briefly mentions being able to see the universe with a new sense of wonder from Vash’s limited perspective, echoing similar scenes in Doctor Who, but it’s too little too late. So is the crisis at the end of the episode when the station is being pulled into the wormhole, a half-hearted attempt to twist the the show’s symbol of wondrous exploration and discovery into an active threat, yet another element of “Q-Less” that will be done better later in the series.
Ultimately, “Q-Less” paints a picture of Deep Space Nine as it might have been, as some fans in 1993 worried it might be, and as some fans in 1993 assumed it would be: as a mere imitation of The Next Generation and a place for its guest stars to have side stories with a somewhat different crew — a vision that will prove untenable. This episode, then, is if nothing else a conclusive sign that the series has to find its own voice, and it has to do so through its own characters; if appearances by characters from other Star Trek series are to work, it must be through their adjustment to DS9’s framework rather than that framework bending to accommodate them.
All Star Trek articles on PTBN, including all episodes of Deep Space Nine covered thus far, can be found here.