Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Best Father in Star Trek

By Big Mo
One of the best parts of the entire Star Trek franchise is its portrayal of fathers and fatherhood. Whether by accident or design, the mixture of good, strong, weak, so-so, bad, clueless, stupid or tyrannical dads was well done, both among main characters and the “alien of the week” episodes. There are many fathers worthy of discussion in the Star Trek series (Sarek, Rom, Kirk, Mogh (the long-dead father of Worf and Kurn), and even Gul Dukat) and perhaps they can be the subject of another essay. But I want to focus on the man I consider Trek’s best father, DS9’s Benjamin Sisko (the superb Avery Brooks).

Even though I was still in college and years away from marriage and even further away from having kids, I was immediately drawn to the character of Benjamin Sisko when DS9 premiered. In “The Emissary” — the best pilot episode of all Trek shows — he loses his wife, reluctantly takes command of a battered space station, even more reluctantly assumes the unwelcome role of “emissary” for the recently liberated Bajorans, considers resigning from Starfleet, and carries a huge chip on his shoulder against Captain Picard because of Jennifer Sisko’s death.

Yet Sisko never displays any of this to his son, Jake (Cirroc Lofton). Sisko remains Jake’s father. He never uses his son as an easy, convenient target for his frustrations and anger. He does his absolute best to make a new home for his son on a decrepit, cold and foreboding space station at some far-off world that’s a long way from Earth and the rest of the wider Sisko family.

Now, the children on Picard’s Enterprise generally were an irritating bunch, especially Wesley in Seasons 1 and 2 (though he is quite good in the Season 5 “The First Duty”); Worf’s son, Alexander; and the annoying episode where Picard and other officers are turned into children. (Exceptions are the episodes “Family,” with Picard’s nephew Rene, and “Disaster,” in which Picard led three kids to safety up an elevator shaft.) But Jake Sisko was different. It became clear early on that he was his father’s son. Essentially, Sisko raised Jake to show proper respect to adults, elders and other authority figures, and to learn from their experiences instead of being the typical punk-ass kid who acts like he knows far more than his father — or any adult — ever possibly could. (As I did in my early college years; thinking you know far more than your parents must be some sort of unwritten right of transition to adulthood.) The only Trek equivalent I can think of is Spock’s relationship with Sarek.

Sure, Jake is aware of how unhappy his father is, but throughout the rest of DS9’s Season 1 and into Season 2 he does his best (not always successfully) to avoid becoming a burden to Sisko. He often gets into trouble with Quark’s nephew, Nog, but that’s more out of boredom than disobedience or rebelliousness. And even though Jake doesn’t follow Sisko’s Starfleet path and instead becomes a writer/journalist, he continues to learn from his dad, take advantage of the unique opportunities he has and make the absolute best life he can on the station.
Several episodes contain scenes that highlight the fatherhood — the truly manliness — of Ben Sisko that he imparted to his son, including “Explorers” from Season 3 and “The Visitor” from Season 4.

The one that stands out most to me is “Homefront” (part 1) from Season 4. In this episode, we finally meet the man who instilled such strong values in Sisko, especially 1) respect and honor for parents, and 2) respect for civilian and military authority — both in following the law and challenging boneheaded decisions.

The primary story of “Homefront” involves the shape-shifting Founders of the Dominion infiltrating Starfleet Command. Sisko and Odo, with Jake in tow, travel to Earth to help Admiral Layton and his team deal with the situation. At this point, the only way to uncover a shape-shifter in disguise, other than seeing him change, is to do a blood test to see if the blood changes form. I could do a magazine-length essay on how the blood tests relate to TSA, but that’s a whole other issue.

The back story – the best part of an already strong episode – revolves around Sisko and his father, Joseph Sisko (played by Trek veteran Brock Peters (ST IV and VI), otherwise best known as Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird). Joseph is a stubborn man quite set in his ways. He’s the owner/operator of the finest Creole restaurant serving non-replicated food in New Orleans. (It’s a place I’d love to patronize — mmm...) He welcomes his son and grandson for their stay, with Jake helping in the restaurant. But Joseph refuses to slow down, see his doctor or even take his medication, which of course greatly concerns Sisko. But like Sisko does with Jake, Joseph does not lay his problems on his son’s shoulders. However, like Jake, Sisko feels the burden anyway.

Now comes the powerful scene, which provides one of the finest moments in all Trek (and also one of the franchise’s best explorations of the price of freedom, but that’s a whole other story). (CLICK) Joseph refuses to cooperate with the mandatory blood screenings for all Starfleet personnel and their families. “It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” Joseph says. “Do you believe that?” Sisko says he gave the order himself, and the incredulous Joseph rebukes his son: “Now why would you go and do a stupid thing like that?” he says.

He soon turns to Jake, “Do you think I’m a shape-shifter?” Uncomfortable, Jake protests, “Come on, Grandpa ...” And Joseph says sternly, “Answer the question!” Which Jake does immediately—and respectfully.

Sisko unsuccessfully tries to reason with Joseph, and even threatens to get a warrant. The scene climaxes when Joseph cuts a finger while chopping vegetables. He goes to wash the finger, telling Jake to get a medical kit, then turns around to see Sisko looking warily at the discarded knife to see if the blood changes. Truly shocked, Joseph angrily lays into his son: “Benjamin Lafayette Sisko. What the hell has gotten into your head?! You actually thought I was one of them, didn't you!”

Suddenly unsure of himself and unsettled that he could think his father was a shapeshifter, Sisko says weakly, “I don’t know ... I wasn’t sure...” And the strong and powerful man that is Benjamin Sisko crumbles before his father.

The scene ends suddenly when the elder Sisko suffers a mild heart attack. At the beginning of part 2, Joseph is back on his feet and has taken a blood test because of events at the end of part 1. I think Joseph acquiesced too quickly — the only unsatisfying portion of this otherwise stellar episode.

Think about this, though: Could anyone else have told Sisko that something he did was “stupid”? Could anyone in his command or with a lower rank defy him like that? Probably not — at least not without repercussions. You can’t buy the kind of deference and loving respect that Jake and Sisko give to their respective fathers. Sons must be raised in such a way that fosters that respect through childhood, the teen years and into young adulthood. And if you engender that respect in your sons based on your love and authority, they will reflect your values when they’re on their own. Such is the case with the second episode I’m highlighting here.

At the same time, both Jake and Joseph show proper deference to authorities—which includes Joseph’s challenge. It’s clear he’s willing to accept the consequences of his refusal, and has the presence of mind to not just challenge his son, but also something he firmly believes to be wrong in a free and open society.
Another standout episode is “Valiant” from Season 6.

I look on this episode as the ultimate payoff where the son reflects the father’s imparted lessons and wisdom. Sisko barely appears in person in this episode, but we feel his presence through his son.

Jake and Nog stumble across the Valiant, a Defiant-class ship crewed by cadets of the elite Nova Squadron (last seen in Homefront). The ship’s regular officers are all dead, and the highest-ranking cadet, Watters, is acting as captain. Nog is thrilled to be among Nova Squadron and eagerly joins the crew. But Jake is uneasy. He begins to think Watters is unstable and foolish, especially when Watters announces that they will attack a huge and powerful Dominion battleship by themselves. The battleship easily outclasses and outguns their tiny vessel — kind of like an elephant vs. a flea. Jake thinks that the Valiant should take the intelligence about the battleship back to Starfleet, but Watters is full of himself and completely delusional about the abilities of the still wet-behind-the-ears cadet crew.

Watters announces his intentions before the assembled crew. Having had enough of Watters’ rah-rah talk, Jake attempts to appeal to the common sense of the crew and convince them to leave the area with the new information. He draws upon what he has learned from his father and everything that has happened in the previous five years. Trusting in his assessment of his truly heroic and brave-beyond-brave father, Jake goes for broke:

“You probably all know who my father is: Benjamin Sisko. So you know I'm not exaggerating when I say that he's considered to be one of the best combat officers in the fleet,” Jake says. “And I'm telling you right now that even with the entire crew of the Defiant with him... My father would never try to pull off something like this. And if he can't do it... it can't be done.”

Unmoved, Watters claims, “We're Red Squad! We can do anything!” He soon throws Jake in the brig. And the cadets cheer Watters — right up until the moment that the enemy battleship kicks their asses and kills them all except Jake, Nog and one cadet.

Look at that scene this way: My USMC step-dad considers Chesty Puller as the Marine of all Marines, and if Chesty Puller’s son (himself a Marine) had said that his father wouldn’t do something, that’s pretty much gospel.

So, in the first example, we see deference and respect at play — earned respect for familial authority and deference to public authority, which includes standing on principle and being willing to accept the consequences. In the second, we see Jake Sisko assessing how his father would handle a dangerous situation and then being unafraid to stand before a bunch of peers and tell them that their foolishness and bravado will get them all killed.


Kelly said...

Sisko rocks! He's a great commander too.

DUQ said...

Nice article. I agree that he's the best father. He's got the right mix of strict for the right reasons, i.e. to teach valuable lessons, and loving. Too many of the other fathers you see in the Star Trek world are either presented as indifferent and selfish (like Riker's dad) or pushovers who think being a father is about being permissive (like Worf). Sisko is the only who who seems to get that children need both love and guidance.

Anonymous said...

Great article! I'm inclined to agree with you and I know the actors were especially proud of the relationship, too, not only because of how it was written but also because black fathers being portrayed as positive role models weren't exactly in abundance in the media (at least in Brooks' opinion when the show was on the air). I also think bringing in Brock Peters was an excellent idea.

Historically, I've always been a sucker for a good father/son story and "The Visitor" is still the only Trek episode that ever made me shed a tear. I think it was TV Guide that ranked it the best Trek episode ever made.


I never found Worf to be permissive - I just don't think the episodes with his son were well-written.

tryanmax said...

I have nothing to add to the main subject, so I'll just say that one of the few things I liked about DS9 was the interaction between Quark and Nog. It was a very stereotypical uncle/nephew dynamic and very enjoyable.

AndrewPrice said...

Big Mo, Thanks for an interesting article! I tend to think of Sisko as the best father as well. He's not a wimp like so many of the other federation fathers.

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, Riker's dad was a horrible stereotype. I agree though that Worf's parenting was horrible. He was typically shown at the "tough/insensitive" father who wanted to control his son in bad ways, and then always ended up completely caving to his son whether it was good for him or not. No wonder he ends up such a wuss.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That could be, that the episodes with Alexander just weren't well-written. I found them difficult to take because they always made Worf out as this insensitive-overly-strict ass who you knew would cave in by the end of the episode. They felt more like After School specials.

But then, by and large, I think TNG was horrible writing characters in the first place, so it makes sense they would be horrible writing character driven moments too.

BIG MO said...

ScottDS - Glad to hear that about the actors. And he's right, too, but since the early 1990s, there's been a general dearth of positive TV fathers period, regardless of race. Fathers such as Ben Sisko, Hank Hill and Charles Ingalls became grossly outnumbered by the buffoons and pushovers and dolts and man-childs who are always dumber than their wives and kids.

BIG MO said...

DUQ - Agree about Worf. I don't think that was handled too well.

And Kyle Riker could have become an interesting character, if he were brought back a few more times. I thought that episode was a wasted opportunity, especially with a fine character actor like Mitchell Ryan.

Ed said...

Big Mo, Welcome! Nice article. To me, the worst father was Data's one episode with his androgynous son/daughter Lollipop.

The "father" I liked the most was probably Quark, even though he was just a nephew. I don't think there was a good father on TNG and I don't recall a father on the other shows.

Kirk might have been cool as a father, but I think he wasn't precisely because he knew he couldn't devote enough time.

rlaWTX said...

Thanks for the analysis, Big Mo! I never watched DS9 much, but I enjoyed reading your take on it all.

ellenB said...

Spock and his father are kind of funny, especially when they agree on something.

BIG MO said...

Ed - "androgynous son/daughter Lollipop" Thanks, dude, now all I can see/hear is Data singing "Lollipop, lollipop, oh little lollipop. Lollipop!!"

Ed said...

Big Mo, You're welcome! LOL!

Seriously, DS-9 did a much better job of exploring family relationships than the other series.

ScyFyterry said...

Wesley irritated me a lot. And I know we were supposed to see Wesley and Picard as a father-son relationship, but it never worked for me. They're relationship was too narrow. With Sisko you did get a lot more breadth to the relationships. Nice article.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, That's a wonderful image, thanks. But it does fit. Wasn't her name Lol?

AndrewPrice said...

Terry, He irritated me too. I hear Scott liked him though. LOL!

I thought the better Picard father/son relationship was Picard/Data, but it wasn't clear that's what they really intended.

darski said...

I would just like to mention the episode )Doctor Bashir, I presume) where we see Julian and his father interacting... Did "Dad" really do well by his son? My vote would be yea. That episode was one that gave me hope that liberalism would not win the day. There is no utopia and paradise is just a set of die on the table...

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