By now, Deep Space Nine has established its method of genre-switching. Rather than simply using tonal shifts within its science fiction setting to add variety to individual episodes, a method practiced effectively by both prior live-action Star Trek television series (and, in its way, the film series), DS9 also has a “home” genre for each member of its ensemble: Kira and the Bajorans carry a post-colonial narrative; Odo’s two stories have been inspired by the tough sheriff archetype of the western (and later in the series he will inherit the noir genre as well); O’Brien carries elements of the family drama with him, but is of course still heavily identified with The Next Generation; Jake and Nog come from an after-school special of sorts; the other Ferengi operate under sitcom logic, with Quark given more leeway than the others to transcend that paradigm; the only Dax-focused episode seen thus far has emphasized her profound enlightenment. Commander Sisko hasn’t been the star of any episode since the pilot, which would paint him most significantly, at least at the beginning of the series, as a science-fiction character (i.e. a Star Trek character as we’ve known them before, distinct from some of the new types of characters and stories in DS9), and as the star of the series is able to find a home in anyone’s story. “The Storyteller” takes some of these already-established genres and plays with them in interesting ways, beginning by setting up stories for its main characters: Sisko and Kira are preparing for a diplomatic conference, while Miles O’Brien must confront one of the most perilous hazards on Deep Space Nine — a runabout trip with Doctor Bashir.
Their trip to Bajor is the most prominent story in the episode, and it begins by recalling the implied class divide between them. O’Brien, as the every-person figure of Deep Space Nine, as well as a non-commissioned officer, is easy to contrast with Bashir’s posh British accent and academic bearing. In these terms, their characters have as much contrast as any potential pairing on the show, which is the initial inspiration for DS9’s writers to put them together. (The actors take it from there, and instantly make their pairing a fruitful one, finally giving Bashir a less problematic role on the show.) Bashir and O’Brien’s runabout trip is then blocked and framed similarly to Bashir’s trip with Kira at the beginning of “The Passenger,” with the camera focused on O’Brien in the foreground while Bashir is in the background in one of the rear seats, unlike the normal seating arrangement for two passengers. Also like the trip in “The Passenger,” Bashir takes advantage of his captive audience to pontificate about himself, though this time he’s actively asking about people’s impressions of him, which does show some progress. Unlike the assertive Kira, who was about to tell Bashir how annoying he was before the plot of “The Passenger” so unkindly intruded, O’Brien’s temperament sees him half-heartedly laughing off Bashir’s questions, sure that any serious conversation would be more uncomfortable than simply gritting his teeth and getting through an unwelcome assignment until he can get back to the station, his family, and some phase coils. O’Brien’s comfort zone at this point encompasses his family, his technology, and little else.
Because “The Storyteller” has the two being sent to Bajor, defined thus far as a land of post-colonial strife, the pairing also recalls the Troubles between Ireland and England — a conflict that’s been long since resolved by the 24th century, obviously, but also one that makes the concepts of colonialism and terrorism fresher in the viewer’s mind. But this is only the first step in the episode’s path to determining what genre the unfolding story will fall into. Next comes the medical drama, a natural fit for Bashir, when he’s called to examine the frail Sirah; that too proves unsatisfying, though, and is cast aside when the episode starts to turn to a more mythic style: the Sirah isn’t just a respected elder in his community, but must tell and retell the story of the townspeople’s victory over the fearsome Dal’Rok. As the symbol becomes the object, the Dal’Rok manifests out of fear and pessimism, and as symbols are manipulated in stories, the Sirah must manipulate the people into defeating the Dal’Rok again. Stories have real effects — they inflame passions, they provide frameworks for understanding the world, and they can create movements. The story of the Dal’Rok may create a fearsome foe whose only purpose is to be defeated, but so does every story with a villain; the point, as in any such story, is in how it’s defeated. The strength to defeat the Dal’Rok is within the villagers all along, but the Sirah’s story serves as a focal point and an outlet for it. The Sirah’s story is an explicit rallying cry, providing a mythological Other rather than a tribal Other for the townspeople to define themselves against, and allowing them to defeat it to reify their community.
Star Trek is not unfamiliar with mythological forces, legends, and powerful beings, and its standard operating procedure is almost always to identify magic as a sufficiently advanced technology, and mythic figures as technologically-aided individuals whom the intrepid Starfleet crew can now match on their own terms. Apollo is undone by the destruction of his temple; Kirk and Spock use their own magic to confront the Megans; the Edo god can be confronted by moral rectitude; The Devil is revealed to be simply Ardra, a con-woman with a hidden ship. “The Storyteller” is aware of this history, and uses Deep Space Nine‘s genre-plasticity to side-step it; while O’Brien remains in the typical Starfleet paradigm during and after the first Dal’Rok attack, scanning it with his tricorder and trying to figure out which flavor of technobabble he can attack it with, this is just a bit of misdirection. As much as O’Brien has to be dragged against his will out of a science-fiction plot and into a mythic plot, “The Storyteller” is dedicated to eluding a precise scientific explanation. Indeed, the closest the episode comes to a practical explanation is a fragment of an orb — which viewers of “Emissary” will remember as a probe sent from the wormhole — used to channel the crowd’s fears and their strength in some unspecified way, which still leaves more than enough room for the mythic while also tying the episode into the wider Bajoran religion, which the show has provided the skeletal structure of an explanation for without showing any inclination to debunk it. The idea of a stark division between the technological resolution that serves as a red herring and the mythological character-based resolution that occurs is, ultimately, a false dichotomy.
“The Storyteller” was first pitched far before Deep Space Nine was conceived of, during The Next Generation‘s first season. It is difficult to imagine any circumstance under which it could have been produced under the TNG banner without crashing into explicit sci-fi solutions, possibly with some added condescension toward the villagers and their customs, as the show was accused of at times. While “The Storyteller” does paint the townspeople in broad strokes — making them seem rather gullible not only in the way that they wholeheartedly accept the menace of the Dal’Rok and the joy of their victory for five consecutive nights, every year, for “many years,” but also in their instant acceptance and adulation of O’Brien as their new Sirah — such is the nature of mythology. And while the outsider from a more “civilized” culture who enters a native community and is made a revered figure is a long-standing and injurious trope in Western fiction, “The Storyteller” uses O’Brien to actively pull against that trope.
Indeed, while the genre play is worthwhile enough, where the A-plot of “The Storyteller” really shines is in its character work. Viewers have seen O’Brien and Bashir together enough to get a sense of their dynamic, such as at the very beginning of “Q-Less,” but O’Brien’s ascension turns them into a true double act. While O’Brien’s working-class sensibility chafes at the idea of being such a privileged member of the community, Bashir is only happy to accept people’s gifts of fresh fruit on O’Brien’s behalf and otherwise stand to the side and enjoy the new Sirah’s obvious discomfort with people fawning at his every step (including, briefly, three young women the town magistrate brings in to “offer” their “services” to O’Brien) — and of course, it’s Bashir who’s so happy with the story he’s seen unfold that he wants to tell everyone back on the station about it once it’s over. Finally, at the episode’s climax, when O’Brien proves as unsuited to the role of Sirah as he thought he would be, Bashir handles the serious end of the resolution — the realization that the Sirah was only using them as part of another story, a redemption narrative for the apprentice who lost the confidence of the people and must regain it by rescuing O’Brien — while O’Brien’s desperate attempt to fill the role he’s been given fills the scene’s comedy quotient. Colm Meaney and Siddig El Fadil more than carry their roles throughout the episode, but Meaney’s line delivery when O’Brien’s trying to fill the shoes of an inspirational storyteller and a stentorian actor, and all he can bring to the role is “All right now, let’s really focus and send this one out, okay?” is simply tremendous.
If the episode’s A-plot plays with genre distinctions in ways Deep Space Nine has only been building to before, its B-plot hews somewhat closer to the familiar. At long last, after several abortive attempts, Commander Sisko is finally hosting diplomatic talks…but between two rival factions on Bajor, rather than any new species from the Gamma Quadrant. That the two parts of “The Storyteller” focus on Bajor but remain separate from each other only serves to paint Bajor as a large world, one that can sustain many distinct stories featuring distinct subcultures. The diplomatic talks, concerning a land dispute, engage more directly with the Bajoran backstory, emerging as they do from the aftereffects of the Cardassians manipulating Bajor’s environment over the previous decades. Neither side has a Sirah or a Dal’Rok to focus their fears and anxieties on, and the Cardassians are out of the picture, so their grievances are levied against each other.
To keep the proceedings from becoming hopelessly dull, the writers make one of the factions’ leaders, Varis Sul, a young girl. This does lead to some stereotypical moments, including Quark behaving like Quark and patronizing Varis, with a drink in the face as his reward, but this plotline is soon enveloped in Deep Space Nine‘s genre games as well: the episode moves directly from Varis’ first full scene to Jake and Nog on the promenade, signaling a shift toward their brand of children’s television. While other characters treat Varis like a child, which of course she is, Jake & Nog are free to relate to her as equals — to its credit, the episode does not explicitly state that Varis needs to be allowed to be a child before she can fully inherit her father’s role as the leader of her people, but the sequence with the oatmeal in Odo’s bucket, including Varis’ lightest moment as she laughs along with Jake, does a good enough job of implying that. The Very Special Episode aesthetic that Jake & Nog cultivated in “The Nagus” allows Varis to learn a Very Special Lesson. Ben Sisko states it early in the episode when he says he believes in “people working together to find reasonable solutions to their problems,” but Varis isn’t ready to hear it at that point; she first needs Jake’s assurance that his father’s advice can be trusted, as well as some prodding from Nog to look for an opportunity to trade what she and her rivals are fighting over rather than allow diplomacy to collapse into war. It’s not the last time, by far, that DS9 will suggest that a slight touch of Ferengi commercialism can turn a blood feud into a mere transaction.
All Star Trek articles on PTBN, including all episodes of Deep Space Nine covered thus far, can be found here.