“It’s life, Jake! You can miss it if you don’t open your eyes.”
~Captain Benjamin Sisko
Choosing a single episode of Star Trek for a list such as this is an inherently impossible task. The strength of the franchise is in its breadth, its innate ability to tackle a multitude of themes and ideas, as over decades, disparate episodes, movies and series combine to form a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.
The main reason for this is that Trek has always relied on the intimacy of television, on the bond between audience and art: much of the franchise would simply not work without prior familiarity and emotional investment in the characters and universe. Many episodes that would rightly be considered the greatest of the franchise are interrogations of the core values within Trek itself, such as “Chain of Command (TNG),” “In The Pale Moonlight (DS9)” and practically every episode of Enterprise. Star Trek’s longevity and consistency is in thanks to the manner in which it is in constant conversation with itself, the writers merely visitors holding the show’s past with the reverence not just to reference it, but to question it, and in doing so, evolve it.
This episode is not one of those. For whilst Star Trek matured and began to use its head more and more, far more important is that when doing so, the show never lost its heart. Really, how could the episode on this list be anything other than a little sci-fi fable?
“The Visitor” tells the story of Jake Sisko, or more specifically, an old Jake Sisko tells his story to a young writer, who arrives at his doorstep in the middle of the night. Jake is a main character in DS9 throughout all seven seasons, despite appearing in less than half the episodes in the show’s run. As the writerly son of Benjamin Sisko, he didn’t often fit into the ensemble plots of the show, which focused on the main Starfleet crew of DS9. Yet episodes such as this make it clear why he doesn’t just earn this status, but plays a crucial part of the show’s dynamic. Jake Sisko is the show’s melancholy heart.
The plot of the episode, described in literal terms, is a mess of sci-fi words and nonsense jargon. When Jake was eighteen, his father, Ben Sisko, was caught in a warp core accident that left him in subspace, causing him to disappear from the known universe except for specific moments in time. Star Trek gets a reputation for being a series bogged down by its own fictional technology, and if you’ve watched more than one episode of Voyager, you’ll know it often can be. But in its best stories, it simply takes sci-fi concepts as narrative devices to explore thematic and emotional content in ways that would be impossible without them. Far from being a story about subspace and warp cores, The Visitor is a heartbreaking tale about the importance of letting go.
For all intents and purposes, Ben Sisko died in that accident. Every time he reappears, he does so for only a moment, enough for he and Jake to chat, but not enough for them to truly connect. When forced to leave the station, Jake assumes there is no way to reach his dad anymore, and lives his life. We see him at his happiest as he meets with Nog, his once childhood friend, and catches up with him about the lives of all those he was close with on the station. Jake himself is a successful author, settled down and married and planning to have children of his own in the future. At this point, Ben reappears, and in the fleeting moment they share, he’s nothing but smiles as Jake tells him of the life he has lived, until he disappears in Jake’s arms.
The unconventional nature of the episode, the narration and flashbacks, are at their most effective in these happier times, it infuses them with a twinge of melancholy, the inevitable fact of life that things are only happy until they are not. But not in a nihilistic way, the bittersweet nature of these scenes plays right into the show’s central thematic thrust.
After seeing his dad again, Jake gives up writing and rededicates his life to studying subspace mechanics in the vain hope of finding a way to save his father. His obsession is so great that he alienates his wife and ends up alone. When he sees his father again, Ben is heartbroken that Jake has sacrificed his own lifetime, his own passions to the futile cause of saving him. Jake takes these words to heart, and in the episode’s final scenes, commits suicide with Ben in his presence, severing the subspace link, and sending Ben back in time to prevent the accident from ever occurring, giving both father and son a second chance.
Jake Sisko sacrifices himself not for his father, not even for his younger self, but the bond that ties the both of them. The Visitor is Star Trek at its most sad and yet most optimistic. Ultimately, it was always a show about people, and the potential of humanity that could be tapped if we were able to truly work together. The Visitor is this idea thematically purified, focusing not on how we as a species could explore the cosmos, but how we as individuals rely on each other emotionally, highlighting the beauty and wonder of simply living a life, and reminding us just how fragile it is.
We could miss it if we don’t open our eyes.