Episode Review: 'The Visitor' from 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine'
by Brad Harris
‘Deep Space Nine’ is one of those ‘Star Trek’ shows that most people just never gave a proper chance. I should know – I was one of them, at least to start. The show was a slow burn the first couple of seasons that – in a pre-‘Game of Thrones’ world – was very hard to swallow. It languidly dropped hints as to the massive showdown that would come by the series’ end but it took its sweet time in kicking off the main thrust of the show. My first time through, I found this irritating and I actually fell out of watching DS9 regularly as a result. Thankfully I tuned back in later on and though I’d missed many early episodes (I was later able to catch up thanks to a friend who’d been taping the show on VHS) I came to realize that DS9 is perhaps THE best Trek series to date. And season 4 is where the series really hit the deck with all phasers firing so to speak, including a very powerful episode from season’s start that will be with me for the rest of my life: ‘The Visitor.’ Spoilers to follow, you’ve been warned.
The hook of ‘The Visitor’ is pretty straightforward and typical Trek. While observing the wormhole undergo a once-every-half-century subspace inversion, the Defiant is caught in an energy wave that damages the warp core. To prevent an overload, Sisko – with the help of his son Jake -- races to <insert technobabble> and it works! But not before Sisko is hit with a parting energy blast from the core, which causes him to vanish before Jake’s eyes. The crew believes Sisko dead until he later reappears, though only for a few fleeting moments. After some more treknobabble from Dax, O’Brien, and Bashir, we learn that Sisko has been pulled into subspace and is now unstuck in space and time. Because of his connection to Jake -- who was also hit with a slight jolt of that warp core blast but was otherwise fine – Sisko is occasionally being pulled back into normal space but there’s no way to keep him there. Sadness.
Sisko continues to reappear throughout the rest of Jake’s life, though the intervals between visits grow from mere months at a time to multiple decades. Cirroc Lofton’s present-day Jake gives way to Tony Todd’s older version, the latter playing a Jake who’s given up his aspirations of being a writer and having a family in order to obsessively research a way to bring his father home. After losing everything and still not finding a way to bring the old man back, Jake comes to the realize that he is pulling Sisko through time “like an anchor” and that the only way to bring his father home (and I’m misting up while writing this) is to end his life the next time Sisko appears. Apparently this will “cut the cord” connecting them and allow Sisko to reappear at the time of the accident, but it has to be done while they’re together. So as a very old man near the end of life anyway, Jake waits one last time for his father to appear and then explains the plan – including a warning to dodge the energy blast that started this business -- before the injection he took kills him. As promised, Sisko returns to the moment of the accident and successfully evades the energy blast, giving he and Jake another shot at life together. Dawwww.
While the plot might sound eye-roll worthy if you’ve not seen the episode, ‘The Visitor’ is one of those emotional-gut-punch episodes that just slays me every time I watch it. That’s saying something because, at this point, I’ve now seen this episode at least 10 times over the last 20 years (and yeesh, realizing this episode came out in 1995 just made me feel incredibly old). I know what’s coming each time I start it up but ‘The Visitor’ never fails to leave me sobbing by the end. You’d think, at this point, the emotional well this episode goes to would be spent but, for me, it’s only deepened over time. I imagine that’s because I’m getting older and have started losing the people who mean the most to me in life. Or maybe it’s because I wear my heart on my sleeve (ugh, clichés!) and am too sensitive. Or maybe it’s just really amazing writing, directing, and acting by Cirroc Lofton, Tony Todd, and Avery Brooks (Sisko). Whatever the reason, I appreciate what this episode continues to deliver every single time I watch it and I figure a little deeper analysis of why this episode is so good can’t hurt.
To start, the plot is a big side-step away from the main “OMG the Dominion! The Klingons! AHH!!!” storyline. It deals with some of those elements in a roundabout way but, really, this episode ends up being a giant Reset Button so it didn’t need to really work on furthering the overall story arc of the show. Instead, it gets to play in a sandbox all of its own, with consequences and future events not really affecting things too much. While on the surface that probably sounds bad – “Why watch this episode if it’s not vital to the overall plot?” – it’s that very separateness that allows such an emotionally powerful story to unfold. Let’s get real: in the main timeline of the show, we’re not going to get a story told over 60+ years right? It just can’t happen, so I love that the premise of ‘The Visitor’ opens up that possibility for us.
I also appreciate that this story actually starts in the future and is gradually told through a series of flashbacks. The episode kicks off with Tony Todd (his old-guy makeup needs some work but hey, it was the 90s), puttering to his door in obvious pain to find out who’s come calling in the middle of the night. Is it this Visitor we’ve heard so much about in the title? Maybe so! Melanie is a young writing student enamored with Old Jake’s novels and wants to know why he stopped writing 40-some years ago. And in the telling of why, we learn what exactly happened with Sisko becoming unstuck in subspace. The setup is a great way to dole out the story in dramatic dollops but I love that it also gives us some sweet moments between Old Jake and Melanie during pauses in the telling. I love this older version of Jake and good lord, Tony Todd is such an amazing actor. Who knew Candy Man could be such a sweet, sweet Sisko?
Since we’re in the future, we also get to see some fun bits from the tertiary cast as well. Nog as a Starfleet Captain! Dax as a much older woman who can’t function without coffee. Bashir still so smug I want to bash his face in. I just wish (spoilers for season 6 of ‘Deep Space Nine’) Jadzia actually lived to be that old. But hey, at least I know that somewhere out there in this new timeline, Jadzia is still enjoying her raktajinos and rolling her eyes at Bashir. Awesome! Again, the separate sandboxness of this episode’s setup allows us to see great stuff we wouldn’t otherwise get, so I welcome the sidestep story ‘The Visitor’ brings us, despite the big ol’ push of the Reset Button at the end. Speaking of which…
When we see Old Jake sleeping in his chair and Sisko (the real Visitor) just smiling as he watches him sleep? God it kills me. Tears. Every. Time. And that includes now, as I think back on the moment. There’s no dialogue at all, just a bittersweet moment where Avery Brooks’ eyes totally sell that Sisko is very happy to see his son living to such an old age. But then I suddenly think “Oh my god! You’re only going to be there for like 60 seconds, Benjamin! Don’t waste this chance!” Thankfully Sisko lovingly reaches out to gently wake his son and with Double Tears rolling down his face (Tony Todd isn’t one of those Single Tear people), Old Jake explains what must be done – what he’s already done – and that look of horror on Sisko’s face is haunting. “Jake! You could have so many years left!” he cries. “You didn’t have to do this!” But we as an audience know Jake had to, both for the boy he used to be and for us, so we can get back to the main timeline where all the Dominion/Klingon goodness is now brewing in full force. But god, that scene is so heartbreaking.
But it all works out in the end, doesn’t it? Sisko goes back in time, dodges the blast, and we know he and Jake will get another chance together. But what about this timeline? Does it simply vanish because Jake and Ben changed history? I love that this episode doesn’t event attempt to answer that question. They could have – at one point, after Old Jake has revealed his plan to Melanie, she could have asked, “But what will happen to the rest of us? To me? Will we never exist?” Smartly the episode dodges that question as deftly as an energy blast but I’ve always felt that this other timeline is still spinning out there. Jake’s dead, Melanie becomes a writer, Dax punches Bashir in the face for me – it’s all still happening, just in a side universe now. As a viewer, I appreciate having that determination left up to me instead of getting one more dose of technobabble at the end to foul up the poignancy of emotion that’s been building up all episode. Wise decision there, I think.
The Sisko/Jake relationship wasn’t something I cared much for until this episode aired, to be honest. I always found Jake to be annoying in the early seasons, but after seeing the torment he goes through in losing his father in ‘The Visitor,’ I developed a whole new appreciation that changed how I viewed him throughout the rest of the series. And even in re-watching seasons 1-3 now, I feel differently about Jake in his frustratingly juvenile moments. Jake’s whining because he can’t go hang out with Nog? Jake’s upset because Sisko wants him to go solar sailing on a rickety old ship he built? The annoying stuff falls away because I’ve seen Jake as an old man and I know that, Sisko or no, he’s going to grow up to be someone very special. And in a way, that makes the Jake character so, so much more compelling to me in a way he never was before.
If there’s a quasi-down side to this episode, though, I feel like ‘The Visitor’ is sort of like TNG’s ‘The Inner Light.’ On the surface, that’s a good thing but I just wish DS9 had done with Sisko what TNG did with Picard – i.e. having some periodic callbacks to this event. Remember, even though Sisko dodged the energy blast and avoided the accident, he still has the memories of being unstuck and dragged along through time. He still remembers Old Jake killing himself so they could be together again. I would have liked to see Sisko reflect back on these events from time to time, especially in moments where Jake’s life is in danger and Sisko questions if they’ve wasted their second chance. But alas, the story was too standalone in that regard as we never (to my knowledge) got a single follow up comment or nod to ‘The Visitor.’ In my mind, it was a wasted opportunity to show character progression and growth but I can’t blame the series too much.
Overall, ‘The Visitor’ is a total treasure and one not to be missed. If you’ve read this review without seeing it, I still think it’s worthwhile to go back and check it out, even if you haven’t seen any other episode of ‘Deep Space Nine.’ Sure, you might have some questions – “Who is this Dominion? Why are the Klingons so pissed off? What is a ‘wormhole’?” – but who knows, maybe this will be the episode that piques your interest. DS9 is an amazing series that takes some time to get into but is phenomenally rewarding if you are patient with it. The nice thing for you – as opposed to me watching on air back in the 90s – is that you can totally binge watch it on Netflix vs. waiting week to week. Nice! Hope you enjoy. :)
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