Editor’s Note: “Space Gayze” is a bi-weekly column taking a deep dive into the staples of sci-fi, analyzing gender, sexuality, and queer subtext across a range of iconic movies and TV shows.
Warning: Minor spoilers ahead.
Not all ‘90s sci-fi television is created equal, and certainly not all of it stands the test of time. From laughably corny visual effects to antiquated moral premises, some pre-turn-of-the-century sci-fi is rightly left behind in the era of brown lipstick and unironic Canadian tuxedos.
“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” is not one of those shows. Arguably the most overlooked series in the Star Trek franchise, the understated brilliance of “DS9” stems from its (relatively) diverse casting and its embrace of darker, grittier, and more morally ambiguous themes than either of the two Star Trek series before it.
In true Trek tradition, “Rejoined,” the sixth episode of the show’s fourth season, embraces tricky social commentary, directly tackling a subject that few other shows in the ‘90s dared to touch: homosexuality.
The episode centers around the space station’s science officer Commander Jadzia Dax, a joined Trill. The Trill, one of Star Trek’s most unique alien species, are a race of humanoids known for their ability to host, or “join,” with wormlike symbionts that can retain the memories, experiences, and romantic attractions of previous hosts. Jadzia, the eighth host of the Dax symbiont, is about as likable a character as any screenwriter could hope to create. A rebellious, spunky, whip-smart mischief-maker tempered by the wisdom of her past seven hosts, she consistently stands out, even among the wonderful lineup of colorful, intriguing characters in “DS9.”
In the beginning of the episode, we learn that a team of Trill scientists is coming to the station in the hopes of creating the galaxy’s first artificial wormhole. It just so happens that the lead researcher is host to the Kahn symbiont, who was left widowed in a past life when its husband, host to the Dax symbiont, died in a shuttle accident. Sound confusing? It is, but don’t worry. All you really need to know is that the Kahn and Dax symbionts were once hosted by a married (straight) couple, but reconnected as Dr. Lenara Kahn and Commander Jadzia Dax years later.
From the get-go, the homoerotic yearning is so palpable it’s almost a third character in itself. The longing glances, soft touches, and mounting tension between Kahn and Dax are instantly recognizable to pretty much anyone even remotely familiar with the norms of queer storytelling. But you may be asking, isn’t this supposed to take place in the 24th century? Is the future really so dim that even three hundred years from now, homosexuality is still frowned upon?
Herein lies the episode’s brilliance. The tricky situation Dax and Kahn suddenly find themselves in isn’t due to their gender, but the norms of Trill society and the complexities of symbiont tradition. It’s taboo for Trill to reassociate, or to continue a relationship from a past life, because, as the station’s doctor explains, “The whole point of joining is for the symbiont to accumulate experiences from the span of many lifetimes. In order to move on from host to host, the symbiont has to learn to let go of the past, let go of parents, siblings, children, even spouses.” The punishment for Trill who reassociate? “They [are] exiled from the Trill homeworld,” Dr. Bashir said. “When the hosts die, the symbionts die with them.”
This is quite an obvious parallel to 20th-century Earth attitudes about homosexuality, though Star Trek is not known for its subtlety. The episode is powerful because it focuses unabashedly on the complexities of taboo relationships, and it’s quite refreshing to see the trials and tribble-ations (see what I did there) of gay romance fleshed out from an entirely new angle. The other characters seem to imply that Kahn’s and Dax’s queerness is perhaps the least offensive aspect of the whole affair, as the same-sex nature of their relationship is never even mentioned.
This brings up the crux of the story and the true source of its strength: For an episode about homosexuality, it’s actually not about that at all; it’s about Trill culture, the consequences of one’s choices, and, ultimately, love. “Rejoined” delicately and poignantly refutes homophobes’ stale, time-worn arguments by simply transplanting the heartfelt connection between a man and a woman into the bodies of a queer couple, thereby asking, “How much of a difference does their gender truly make?”
“I thought it was really good. I liked it a lot,” recent UW alum Katie Savage said. “I cried because I was just like, ‘Oh my god.’”
Savage, who identifies as queer, related to many aspects of the episode, both humorous and heartwarming.
“I liked the moment when they were sitting at dinner and they were just chatting, and [Dax] was like ‘Oh my god, I love your earrings,’ and [Kahn] was like ‘Oh, you can just have them!’ I thought that was so funny,” Savage said. “Like, that’s very gay of you to do.”
While the episode’s storyline and screenwriting are to be applauded, there are several scenes that are unexpectedly poignant, likely due to the fantastic acting chops of Terry Farrell (Dax) and Susanna Thompson (Kahn). Dax, usually oh-so suave and charming, becomes a bundle of nerves before her first run-in with Kahn, and her uncharacteristic anxiety foreshadows the episode’s conclusion and prompts her close friend and the station’s captain, Sisko, to check up on her mental state.
“I thought the scene with [Sisko] was really cute,” Savage said. “He was like, ‘Whatever you do, I’m behind you 100%.’ And that felt so nice because it felt realistic in the way of people being like, ‘I want what’s best for you. This is what would make your life easier, but also, whatever you want to do… I’m here for you.’ It was very heartfelt.”
The chemistry between Farrell and Thompson is undeniable (and surprisingly strong for two straight actors, if I may add), and the scene in which they finally confess their feelings — one of the first sapphic kisses to be broadcast on American television — is beautifully sincere.
On a deeper level, the Trill analogy also comments on gender, arguing a point its producers probably didn’t even intend to highlight. If Dax was once a man but is later a woman, what does that say about her gender identity? Is it even possible for a joined Trill to be fully cisgender, what with the lived experiences of multiple people swirling around inside them? And frankly, why would aliens even give a raktajino about antiquated notions of the human gender binary in the year 2372?
It’s worth noting that one of the first Star Trek episodes to pay significant attention to LGBTQIA+ issues chose to focus on queer women, likely a move made to keep from alienating the show’s male fans. However, far from coming across as pandering to or fetishizing lesbians, “Rejoined” celebrates sapphic love in an earnestly genuine way. It’s clear through the screenwriting, acting, and directing that the show’s creators wanted to do well by the queer community, and it’s because of this good-faith effort that the episode still holds up almost 30 years later. Other sci-fi franchises would do well to learn from “Deep Space Nine’s” example.
“It really felt like it was for WLW [women-loving-women] fans,” Savage wrote in a direct message. “Even if a WLW couple may have been more palatable to that audience, it didn’t seem like the call to make it women [was] based around that idea of pleasing their male audience, but for putting underrepresented women on screen.”
“Star Trek” has always been unafraid to push boundaries and show us possible futures. The more queer stories we see on the silver screen, the closer we get to a society where one of the least remarkable things about two people in love are their gender identities.
Reach columnist Sarah Kahle at email@example.com. Twitter: @sarkahle
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