“The Visitor” is one of the most highly-regarded episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but you might be surprised at what we think of it! Later, in “Hippocratic Oath”, Bashir and O’Brien are surprised at what they make of each other, and the Jem’Hadar.
I get why The Visitor is such a beloved episode. Sci-fans are commonly misconstrued as people who love passionless, antiseptic fiction about spaceships and robots, which could not be further from the truth generally. No bigger softies out there than sci-fi fans, and I hardly exclude myself from the list. The Visitor is an emotionally powerful hour of television thanks largely to the performances in it. I like the episode alright. I think it works the way it wants to. And yet I would never think of putting it in any conceivable top ten list. The epitome of good but not great, though it is about as well-executed as it could be as it is conceived.
Why is that? Because it is just as weak thematically and intellectually as it is strong emotionally. Anyone who might waffle at this criticism needs to take a hike: a science-fiction show that so often celebrates itself on the basis of social commentary and cerebral themes doesn’t get let off the hook when it decides to make a four-tissue episode with no real theme or takeaway. The performances go so far to sell this as a story of filial love, but to me it just doesn’t add up. This is the story of a young man who gets filled with guilt after witnessing his father’s death (and then, subsequently, not piecing together what actually happened), who then becomes obsessed with finding the power to change that. And this power is unprecedented and enormous–the power to change the past. These are the actual themes of the episode as written. It’s a much darker story than it seems to think it is. And I do think the script backs this interpretation up: old Jake’s final line about how he did it for the boy he used to be points toward an obsession less with spending more time with Sisko and more with changing himself into a different person who didn’t have this tragedy happen to him. If it was about filial love, why does he break the promise he made to Sisko to live his life and not get hung up on getting Sisko back? Why does he spend most of his brief moments with Sisko fretting and worrying, at times all but ignoring his father being there? Worth noting that Sisko himself spends that time trying to reconnect with Jake and setting him straight, usually fruitlessly. Sisko’s part of this truly is a story of paternal love. Jake’s half just isn’t.
The example I’d bring up of the right execution of this story is from a Voyager episode called Timeless. This episode is sometimes called a ripoff of The Visitor. And it definitely doesn’t pack that episode’s emotional punch (this was Voyager, after all). But to me it’s the better episode because of its superior intelligence and honesty. The setup is much the same: the least essential main cast member, normally known for being genial and a bit naive, gets caught into a cycle of events based on guilt and an obsession with changing a past event that killed people close to him. Very similar themes, same flashback structure, etc. But the execution is completely different. Harry is not the same man we knew: a decade of guilt and obsession have rendered him unrecognizable. Now he’s this intense, angry misanthrope. He’s unrelentingly snide and sarcastic to others. He’s done all manner of illegal and unethical things to obtain his goal of changing the past. Seeing this dangerous, nearly sociopathic version of the usual character is genuinely frightening. And Wang’s performance clearly conveys that old Harry doesn’t much like himself, as he deflects his own self-hatred onto every other available target to keep his own vulnerability at bay. This is a strong writing choice. At every moment, without explaining it in dialog, we see the tragic cost of Harry’s obsession. While both episodes sympathize with their protagonist’s goals, only Timeless suggests that even trying to do the right thing might have negative consequences. Plus, the episode doesn’t present the protagonist with the total success/reset button of The Visitor: it’s more a draw than a win for Harry, and they even pry open the inevitable reset button ending a bit with a great coda of young Harry watching a prerecorded clip from old Harry explaining himself. It doesn’t play a part going forward (again: this was Voyager), but as a moment it is chilling: Harry has seen a version of himself that he didn’t want to see. Old Harry doesn’t get to simply evade the costs of his behavior, and even young Harry doesn’t get to either. Young Harry (who did nothing wrong) doesn’t get to continue in his innocence to the extent that Jake does. Admittedly since this is Voyager this means shit-all going forward, but it’s still a ballsy ending.
But then again, young Jake wouldn’t have that much to be upset about even if he knew what his older self did. Jake in The Visitor isn’t forced to make any risky gambles or to compromise his morality to accomplish his main goal. He’s able to work within the system and his own moral limits to accomplish everything. While there are obstacles for him to overcome, the cost to him personally is minimal, and since we know that the episode will end with everybody all right and back in the present (this isn’t Dollhouse after all), what are the stakes here? Jake does have to give up some things (his wife, his writing career) but in the final scene seems to be at peace with all of that, and see it as worth it. For an episode about death, grief and all the rest, the episode feels a little too light. Punches are being pulled. This is why, in every respect other than sheer emotional impact, Timeless is the superior episode: The Visitor is a story in which lifelong obsession has only manageable consequences, in which massive, unprecedented power does not corrupt. Even under the best of intentions, history tells us again and again that this is simply an outright falsehood. Timeless, whatever its flaws (and it has them, namely the typically inert presence of Chakotay and the fan service appearance of Geordi La Forge) does tell a story with some semblance to human truth. The Visitor, sadly, does not.
I love this comment! I think you connection to “Timeless” is spot-on, actually.