HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
Just a bit of housekeeping: the second season of Lower Decks starts next week, so I will hopefully be putting the DS9 Rewatch on hold to cover the new content.
Moving on to “The Storyteller,” this episode pretends to say things about the stories we tell ourselves and each other in order to function in a greater society. For O’Brien, he gets wrapped up in a long-standing myth designed to create unity where there was division. For Varis Sul, she gets to create a new story, one about a fifteen year old girl learning to navigate, and despite how promising that synopsis sounds, “The Storyteller” is an incredibly weak story with relatively few highlights. Give this one a pass.
“The Storyteller” follows the time-honored 90’s Trek tradition of telling two stories. What I’m going to call the A-Plot features Chief O’Brien and Dr. Bashir traveling to a small Bajoran village because the village is ostensibly in danger of annihilation. O’Brien attempts and fails to get out of piloting Dr. Bashir down to the planet, and during the trip, Dr. Bashir, displaying an almost uncharacteristic awareness of other people, presses him on whether O’Brien likes him or not. O’Brien does his best to avoid giving Bashir an answer, but he is not terribly subtle in his distaste.
Once down on the planet, Bashir and O’Brien meet with the village headman, who brings them to the Sirah and demands that Bashir preserve his life as the Sirah is the only person in the village who can control the Dal’rok. Bashir explains that he cannot stop the Sirah’s death of old age; the Sirah announces that the Prophets have brough O’Brien to him as his replacement. The hour of the Dal’rok’s appearance arrives, and the Sirah dies subduing it, leaving O’Brien to become the next Sirah.
Back in the Sirah’s quarters, the villagers shower O’Brien with gifts, as he tries to think his way out of this situation. After everyone leaves, a villager attempts to stab him. O’Brien thwarts the attempt, and the villager, Hovath, explains that the Dal’rok was created using a sliver of an Orb in order to encourage unity among the villagers. He’d trained under the Sirah for years, but he’d failed to control the Dal’rok, eroding the villagers’ trust in him as the Sirah’s successor. O’Brien and Julian hatch a plan to have O’Brien fail to control the Dal’rok with Hovath stepping in at the last moment to take over, which is exactly what happens. O’Brien and Bashir flee back to DS9.
Aboard the station, Sisko and Kira attempt to negotiate a fragile peace between the Navot and the Paqu. The two sides are fighting over what was the agreed upon boundary between their two people. In the original treaty, the boundary was marked by a river. However, the Cardassians changed the course of the river, meaning that if the treaty remains in effect, the Paqu gain territory that once belonged to the Navot. Woban, leader of the Navot, and Varis Sul, Tetrarch of the Paqu arrive on the station. Shockingly, Varis Sul is a fifteen year old girl, and a pretty enough one that Nog develops a near-instantaneous crush on her.
Nog drags Jake along in his attempt to befriend Varis Sul, and Varis correctly deduces that Jake is Commander Sisko’s son. She goes along with them in order to get to know Jake and through him get to know more about his father. The boys ultimately involve her in a great prank in Odo’s office involving oatmeal, and through Nog’s very Ferengi commentary, they suggest to her a way to reenter the negotiations, which she has stalled, and offer a compromise. The episode ends with Sisko congratulating her and the two of them surmising that Woban will be willing to go along with what is a very rational proposal to allow the Paqu access to the river while ceding the actual territory to the Navot.
“The Storyteller” is one of those episodes that probably made sense in the writers’ room but somewhat failed in its execution. The Dal’rok is ridiculous; the episode presents it as a giant, vaguely threatening cloud. Certainly, some of that imagery stems from the technological capabilities in 1993, but I suspect that part of the point of the Dal’rok is that it is an unspecified vague harm. The Dal’rok exists to terrify the villagers into behaving, and had the image of the Dal’rok been any more specific, the villagers would have been able to debunk its existence as soon as they wandered into the next village to trade.
I dislike this representation of the Bajorans on several levels. Firstly, DS9 has harped on the all-encompassing nature of the Cardassian occupation and its attendant brutality all season. I find it nearly impossible to believe that a Cardassian overseer would have tolerated this Dal’rok nonsense. Secondly, where is the evidence of that occupation? The Cardassians seem to have ignored this village nearly in its entirety, which feels very out of character for them. Lastly, we’ve been told throughout the season that Bajor has a deep, rich culture, and the episode presents the people in Sirah’s village as nothing more than ignorant bumpkins in need of help. Apparently, the only relatively clever person in this village was the Sirah. I certainly understand that the power of mass hysteria cannot be underestimated, but that’s not what this episode wants to explore. Had the story gone in that direction, “The Storyteller” would have been a much more interesting episode.
The B-story does not fare much better. Varis, as a fifteen-year-old girl, worries that no one at the table will take her seriously as a leader, and she almost comically over-corrects and nearly causes a war. In 1993, that kind of story might have worked. However, in the wake of Malala Yousafsai and Greta Thunberg, accepting that premise becomes much more difficult, especially given some of the material with which Gina Philips had to work. Her best scenes occur when she’s given the opportunity to act alongside Cirroc Lofton and Aron Eisenberg. In part, that’s because Varis the character is freer to be herself with Jake and Nog, but Philips gets much better and more natural dialogue in those scenes. Still, despite the clunky storytelling, the Varis story might have been compelling if it didn’t retread some of the same territory we saw in “The Dauphin.” At least the Paqu and the Navot come off better than the Rube Village to which Bashir and O’Brien travel.
If there exists a saving grace for the episode, it falls to the developing relationship between O’Brien and Bashir. We do get to see them taking the first steps toward the friendship that will span the rest of the series. Furthermore, Bashir demonstrates a self-awareness in his initial lines with O’Brien that we have yet to see, hinting at a more complex character underneath the weight of his terrible treatment during season one. I also love the interactions between Jake and Nog here because we also get to see Nog in a very new light. Here, he’s not the kid who can’t read or the awkward teenager. Rather, Nog applies a very unique, very Ferengi perspective to the problem facing Varis. Nog’s greatness as a character evolves from his background as a Ferengi not in spite of it, and “The Storyteller” is really the first time we get to see that.
Overall, I’d say one doesn’t lose much by skipping this episode. Most of what it attempts to do will be done better in later episodes, so yes, give this one a pass.
A single, stolen off a fly ball
Stray Thoughts From the Couch
- Nog’s prank involving oatmeal and Odo’s bucket feels very weird to me. I wonder if it’s one of those moments in which adults try to remember what kids would do. Maybe it works for some people, but it’s just weird.
- O’Brien’s reaction to Hovath’s stabbing attempt also feels off. He’s remarkably blasé about someone trying to stab him, so that entire sequence falls flat. I don’t see Chief O’Brien just letting that sort of nonsense slide, but apparently, I’m wrong.
- Did anyone else find the village headman’s casual offer of two female villagers as a “gift” to O’Brien uncomfortable? I sure did. O’Brien protests on the basis that he has a wife, which good for him, but I also feel like there should be at least a token protest on the basis that no one should assume that O’Brien would be up (or down) for that kind of gift. I get that the moment is probably meant to be a gag, but it’s just gross. Poor form, DS9. Poor form.