There tends to be a tension in popular media franchises between the impulse to take long-standing, well-established properties and do new things with them, and a more conservative impulse, one that becomes fiercely protective of the sacred cash cow. By 1993 the Star Trek franchise had long since been recognized as a lucrative cash cow for Paramount Pictures (a Gulf+Western company), and so as much as Deep Space Nine was set up with the intention of developing a bold new identity for itself, cautious impulses have intruded at times over the course of the first season. “Make the show more TNG-like,” as Ira Steven Behr recalls the corporate directive. “Q-Less” is an instructive example of a possible endpoint for such a view: a vision of DS9 as a dry, limp affair, its own characters mostly reduced to background players supporting guest stars from the more popular, well-established series.
“The Forsaken,” of course, introduces the character of Lwaxana Troi to Deep Space Nine. Lwaxana Troi was introduced in The Next Generation as, essentially, Auntie Mame in Space with a slight hint of The Golden Girls: a flamboyant, exuberant, assertive presence in an environment that could use the occasional splash of color, whose presence would shift the tone of an episode toward the comedic, typically through her overt sexuality. As Counselor Troi’s mother, she became a metaphorical aunt to most of the main cast — except Captain Picard, of course, who would spend whole episodes trying to avoid her romantic advances. The character settled into this routine as a once-yearly guest on the show, which “The Forsaken” fulfills for the 1992-93 season in lieu of a sixth-season TNG episode; Lwaxana would continue her once-yearly appearances for two years after TNG went off the air. TNG found some success in imbuing its later Lwaxana stories with more pathos — retaining some of her comic-relief tendencies while placing her character into stories with a more serious tone gave her a greater range in her fourth- and fifth-season TNG appearances, and it’s with that formula in mind that she makes her first appearance on Deep Space Nine.
Just as important as Lwaxana’s appearance on the station, though, is Majel Barrett-Roddenberry’s first on-screen appearance on Deep Space Nine. The First Lady of Star Trek holds the distinction of having been a part of every single on-screen incarnation of the franchise, from the original series’ first pilot in 1964 to the eleventh film in 2009, premiering six months after her death. As she married Gene Roddenberry shortly after the original series ended, the cast of The Next Generation describe feeling vaguely like unruly children whose mother was coming home when she arrived for her first episode as Lwaxana, and there must have been a similar sense of trepidation among the cast & crew of DS9 as well: following Gene Roddenberry’s death in 1991, Majel Barrett remained as the figurehead of the Trek phenomenon even if she didn’t have a controlling financial or creative role, and while she had been on board with DS9 from its beginning as the voice of the computer (this voice work giving her her ubiquity throughout the franchise), her presence on-set and in character lends a greater sense of legitimacy to the proceedings, and allows her character to pass an implied judgment on the new series. (Her work to carry on her husband’s legacy, actually, is almost but not entirely unlike Enida Tandro’s situation in “Dax,” though of course with a less tragically weighty backstory.)
We have seen a prominent guest star pass judgment on Deep Space Nine before, of course. The aforementioned “Q-Less” has deep contrasts with “The Foresaken,” which point significantly in favor of the latter. Where Q arrived on DS9 and proclaimed it a “dreary little gulag,” Lwaxana’s joie de vivre leads her right into the fray: rather than remaining almost completely aloof like her fellow ambassadors, Lwaxana is introduced in the middle of a game of dabo. Where Q concentrated almost exclusively on another guest star, Lwaxana almost immediately focuses on Odo. Where Q’s main interaction with a DS9 cast member, his scene with Sisko, was notoriously adversarial, Lwaxana is as ever seeking something more positive: fun, thrills, romance, sex, love.
The tropes of a Lwaxana Troi episode are still present, of course: her tendency to knock on walls to alert the computer to her presence and to address it as a person, her contempt for the Ferengi, and of course the assertiveness that borders on aggressiveness, and occasionally storms over that border. That her romantic interest focuses on Odo suggests that her yen for Captain Picard isn’t the only time she’s desired the affections of a stoic and distant man, but “The Forsaken” remains not only focused on character (again, much unlike “Q-Less”), but focused on Deep Space Nine‘s characters. Lwaxana’s interest in Odo could have been treated as a mere fling or a fleeting physical interest (though of course she does indulge in some innuendo, including the obvious reference to what it might be like to have sex with a shapeshifter as well as the lovely scene where Odo confesses that he must revert to his liquid form each day and Lwaxana coquettishly responds: “I can swim”), but instead she shows genuine interest in him as his own person, with his own past and his own stories to tell. For all the self-absorption that is at the heart of her comic-relief tendencies, Lwaxana has by this point shown several times that she can be deeply kind (as she is with Alexander in “Cost of Living”), understanding (as she learns to be with Timicin in “Half a Life”), and curious.
It is Lwaxana’s curiosity that mirrors that of the audience, as she acts as a surrogate to ask one of Deep Space Nine‘s most interesting characters to explain his backstory. It is notable that there is much that is explored here, and much to be explored later, in what is now the third episode of DS9’s shortened first season to focus significantly on Odo, and Rene Auberjonois does an admirable job portraying the sense of isolation in a crowded room that is essential to Odo’s past and present, and which will be a familiar feeling to many viewers. “I was the life of the party… My way of trying to fit in. I found I could be entertaining. Odo, be a chair; I’m a chair. Odo, be a razorcat; I’m a razorcat. Life of the party! I hate parties.” Odo’s early life must have been so rigid, in that he would have been subject to repeated experiments and probes by the scientist studying him, and yet chaotic, in that he was subject to the whims of others, that it’s no wonder he found a place of relative peace in a position of authority that allows him to police the behavior of the local humanoids.
Of course, the heart of the episode lies in its emotional climax, Odo’s release into Lwaxana’s waiting arms (and dress). “Odo gets too tired to retain his shape” is an obvious brief that the Deep Space Nine writing staff had to handle at some point, and “The Forsaken” sets it up thoroughly — Odo mentions his regenerative cycle in conversation, and Sisko asks Kira about it as soon as Odo and Troi fall victim to the stuck-in-an-elevator sitcom trope. But for Odo as a character to reach the point where he would believably give up the tight restraint he holds at all times is a heavy lift, and one that the episode manages admirably. Lwaxana is shown to babble about herself, as she always has, but aside from an anecdote about the events of “Ménage à Troi” that serves to remind the audience that Star Trek remembers previous episodes, neither Odo nor the audience pays any attention to her — especially in the case of the audience, as it’s suggested that she goes on for quite some time off-screen. But when Odo is near his limit, Lwaxana must do something more meaningful to open herself to him as she would have him open himself to her; by removing her wig, one mask that she uses to manage her presentation, she opens a precious window to the base of her identity. And so Odo is able to show himself and his shapeshifting ability to another person in a way he never has before — not as a curiosity, or an experiment, or a tool to be used in the execution of his job, but as a frailty that is fundamental to who he is as a person.
(From a production perspective, the execution of Odo’s cathartic meld leaves something to be desired, but to be fair this is a 1993 production executing humanoid-shaped CGI morphs for television, and as members of the production team have attested, Odo’s morphing is one demand on the visual effects team that never really got easier over the course of the show’s run.)
The pathos inherent in Odo’s backstory and characterization allows Lwaxana to show some more of her own. She babbles about her life for a time, but most of that occurs after she confesses that she cannot simply pass time quietly; her ebullient gushing is part of the presentation she manages so painstakingly, an element of the façade she partially sheds later (more of which she would shed the next season in her final appearance on The Next Generation). “The Forsaken” is also one of the most mature treatments of Lwaxana’s sexuality, if not the most mature; when she first propositions Odo, he asks Commander Sisko to do something about the situation and Sisko simply responds: “What’s wrong with that?” A determinedly jaundiced interpretation would posit this as indifference to sexual harassment (and a further position would see it as implicitly pressuring an aromantic and asexual person into an unwanted relationship), but seen in a more redemptive light Sisko is merely positing romance and sex as things that Odo has been deprived of by the nature of his life to this point; an assertive partner might be best for Odo, whose gruff exterior masks his sensitivities as much as Lwaxana’s festive exterior does.
As “The Forsaken draws to a close, Odo’s interest is still neither romantic nor sexual, but more significantly he has another friend, which for him (and so many of us) are both precious and hard to come by. Deep Space Nine has also found a great friend in Majel Barrett, whose endorsement of the show and its characters on its and their own terms says all that needs to be said about the place DS9 will soon stake out for itself.
All Star Trek articles on PTBN, including all episodes of Deep Space Nine covered thus far, can be found here.