23 years later why Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Paradise still bugs the fuck out of me

According to the episode synopsis, Paradise (S2E15) of Deep Space Nine is as follows:

While surveying nearby star systems for M-Class planets, Sisko and O’Brien locate a planet that already supports a colony of humans.

I originally started my rewatch of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as part of a bi-weekly blog for Black Girl Nerds. That project has fallen by the wayside but I continued watching old episodes out of nostalgia. DS9 was my first foray into the Star Trek universe. I remember seeing syndicated episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series but they didn’t stick in my mind. They captured my attention for the length of an episode but then I quickly forgot about it afterward.

Deep Space Nine captured my imagination.

The show premiered in 1993 when I was 9 years old. I vaguely remember my mother being excited to see it. It wasn’t until I saw Commander Benjamin Sisko, a black man, on screen that I actually sat down and watched the show. DS9 became a weekly bonding experience with my mother. We would watch it and then during commercial breaks discuss what happened. Then, after the episode was over, we would talk about it at length. I attribute by scifi nerdom and love of Star Trek to my mother. Sometimes when I hear of a new science fiction show or movie, I wonder if my mom would like it and, admittedly, I miss her because I want to talk to her about it. But, I digress.

During my rewatch, one image, one episode kept coming to mind. It was the sight of Sisko crawling into this sweatbox on this planet as punishment. I couldn’t remember the details surrounding it only that the image in my head stirred such strong emotions in me. Emotions that still existed some 23 years later.

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I remember being angry. Angry at the circumstances surrounding the punishment. Proud of Sisko for standing his ground. Lastly, I felt pity because of the physical toll the punishment took on this character I had grown to care about. That is what I remember.

Then, this past Friday, I reached that episode which originally aired on February 14, 1994. It was surreal watching an episode that I first saw at 9 years old versus being a 33 year old woman now. Unlike when I was younger where I waited a week in between, I am binge-watching so I’m easily watching 2-3 episodes in one sitting.

Seeing this episode as a child is a wholly different experience than watching it as an adult, especially now in 2017.

The first themes to grab me was the racial dynamic at play. While the colony was composed of people of different racial backgrounds, the main person in charge, dispensing the rules, was a white person, specifically a white woman. Her name was Alixus. Not only that, her antagonist to this status quo was a black man, Commander Benjamin Sisko.

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What struck me was how dehumanizing the whole experience was for Sisko.

Her treatment of him was an exercise in stripping him of his Starfleet prestige and breaking him down into a contributing member to “her colony.” For example, she initially called him Commander but quickly settled into call him Ben. This may be a trivial, but I strongly believe it was intentional. Her way of saying who you are doesn’t matter to who I want you to become. She often broke the touch barrier. Reaching out to invade Sisko’s personal space without asking. She demanded that he adhere to her rules partly knowing that as a Starfleet officer that aspects of the Prime Directive were at play. Non-interference is ideal but if there is an interaction and potential impact to keep it minimal. She couched her rebuttals in this language.

Her tone of voice was more abrasive with Sisko than O’Brien, especially when Sisko showed his defiance to her rules and rejecting that this way of life should become his. For example, he chose to stay in uniform than to put on the clothes of the other community members in spite of Alixus demands.

It is telling to me that Alixus never takes the time to understand Sisko. To get to know him. She spent more time dominating the conversation and pontificating her ideas. I bring this up because, at this point in the series, Sisko has been established as a strong but fair leader, a widower, and devoted father to his son Jake. Nowhere in this episode is Jake mentioned. It’s all part of the dehumanizing process. Alixus does not take the time to learn about Sisko. I wonder if that would have changed her behavior toward Sisko to know that he has a son. I firmly believed it wouldn’t have impacted her actions toward him.

Much of the above could have been dismissed as a warped sense of leadership until we get to “the box.” A person who committed a crime that negatively impacted the community was punished. That punishment was to be placed in “the box” for however long without food or water. The box was, from what I could tell, situated directly in the noonday sun.

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This is where the racial dynamic, the white supremacy of it all, pushes Alixus and her fixation on Sisko to another level. O’Brien, in his own way, tries to help cure a woman in the community using technology. Alixus deemed this a crime because that was time he could have spent contributing to the community. (So, saving a woman’s life isn’t helping the community? Um, ok.)

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At this point in the story, Sisko has been a little too “uppity” and non-conformist. So, she defers O’Brien’s punishment onto Sisko. The one prominent black person is being placed in a box as punishment by a white person. This 24th century punishment parallels 19th century punishment of enslaved peoples.

Add to this the statements of Alixus to Sisko to work in the fields, I was close to done y’all. That anger I experienced as a child all clicked into place. As much as I loved science as a kid I was also a big fan of history. So even if I didn’t have words for it, I understood on some level what was happening. The underlying racial tension. As a 33 year old black woman in 2017, I seethed with anger. This time I had the words.

All I could see was the trope of Alixus as the slave master and Sisko cast as the obstinate enslaved person. She was trying to break him into submission. Alixus even wielded her power to get another member of the community to seduce Sisko. She thought (incorrectly, of course) that by appealing to Sisko’s sexual desires would help him to conform but he saw through that. I was even more appalled that she sent the only visible woman of color to do it. That power dynamic with heavy racial overtones.

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Ultimately, Sisko didn’t break and I felt vindicated but I left deeply unsatisfied by the ending.

It turns out that Alixus engineered the group being stranded on the planet in order to live out her philosophies. She impacted the lives of a group of people, lied to them, and derived power from it. In the ten years they were stranded, people died y’all so this woman could get what she wanted. The show undermined this idea by saying that they had better lives because of her. The group accepts that premise and decides to stay. The whole thing was wrong and terribly unfair. In that sense, Alixus (and the show) had stripped these people of their own individual humanity.

They had families. They had friends. What of the anguish of their families not knowing that their loved ones were alive?

Alixus goes to face her punishment as the white savior/tragic hero that the show unintentionally (or intentionally) painted her. The people stay.

The last shot is of the two children born on the planet looking sadly, regretfully at the box. I pitied them. Where was their choice? Out of a group of 30 some odd adults they were the only children. What would happen to them when the adults died? Likely, it would be the two of them left stranded on a planet that they didn’t need to be stranded on in the first place.