There are so few love stories between fathers and sons in any medium, yet Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s episode "The Visitor" is one of the best, and to this father the very best of Star Trek’s hundreds of episodes. For this Father’s Day, TrekMovie takes an in-depth look at what "The Visitor" can teach us.
"It began many years ago. I was 18. And the worst thing that could happen to a young man happened to me. My father died."
– Jake Sisko, "The Visitor"
Written by Michael Taylor (in his first writing credit) and directed by David Livingston, "The Visitor" should not have worked. The second episode of the fourth season, "The Visitor" was aired the week after the much-anticipated "Way of the Warrior" two hour telemovie which introduced Worf to DS9 in an action-adventure story that turned ally Klingons into dangerous foes. Instead of following up with a Worf or Klingon war episode, Taylor’s episode introduces a much older Jake Sisko who is visited by a young writer asking why he only wrote two books in his entire life. Older Jake tells the story of how his father was mistakenly thought to have been killed because of the inversion of the wormhole. It shows Jake grieve as a young man dealing with the loss of his father, and his later obsession in trying to retrieve his father when it is discovered that Benjamin Sisko is actually alive, yet stuck in temporal bubble. Occasionally, in some very bittersweet moments, Ben is able to talk with Jake who continues to age. Although this kind of story could have resorted to another Trek technology-themed narrative, "The Visitor" is about character and the episode has many of the elements that make Star Trek great.
Jake Sisko receives an unexpected visitor
There is a lot to admire about the visitor. There is the excellent acting of guest stars Tony Todd as "old" Jake Sisko and Rachel Robinson (Garak actor Andrew Robinson’s daughter) as the young visitor. Avery Brooks and Cirroc Lofton, who in real life are as close as their characters, have never been better as Benjamin and Jake Sisko. The set design of older Jake Sisko’s home, complete with rain hitting the windows, is one of the show’s finest. Symbolism is found everywhere, from a model of DS9, to Ben’s baseball, to an appropriate Cardassian "green" colored futuristic wall art. The music by Dennis McCarthy rivals that of Jay Chattaway’s "Inner Light" suite for beauty and pathos. Yet, none of these explain why "The Visitor" means so much to me, a father and teacher.
Maybe the following story can help explain why this episode is a favorite. Many years ago, I taught a class called "The Sociology of Death and Dying" which ended up being populated by mostly hulking male students from the college’s football team, who attended class dressed their football uniforms. One of our topics was to look at how popular culture discusses death and dying. The episode "The Visitor" was aired the week before, and I was moved to tears. I told them we were going to watch the show, with all of them never having watched Star Trek before. I assured them they would still be able to date after being exposed to Trek. I don’t know what happened in those 47 minutes, but it was something magical. By the time that Ben speaks his final line "I am now Jake," everyone of those 200 pound plus football players was crying, some weeping openly. Perhaps it was because all of my students were the same race as Jake and Benjamin Sisko and they connected with the characters. There were so few role models for these students in popular culture like Benjamin Sisko. Maybe it was because "The Visitor" is so amazingly written that you could know nothing about these characters yet feel an immediate bond with them. What I think, though, is that these students loved this episode for the same reasons I do. I loved it as a son. I love it now more as a father.
Lofton and Brooks as son and father
"The Visitor" is so good because it is a love story, pure and simple. It is about a love that is rarely talked about, not in our real life or our reel entertainment, the love between a father and a son. Within the first two seconds of the episode, the themes are there. We notice a picture of young Jake and Ben, followed by the baseball that used to sit on Benjamin’s desk. How many fathers and sons bond with sports? Sports are one of the few experiences by which men are allowed to express their emotions so freely without ridicule. Jake and Ben’s love story is beautiful for so many reasons. One is that they appreciate each other for their differences as much as their mutuality. "The Visitor" shows that for Jake, writing is his passion and he is happiest with proverbial pen to padd. Yet, Ben supports his son despite the fact that he will not follow him in his footsteps to Starfleet Academy and on to be a Starfleet Captain. One of the lessons about fatherhood this episode teaches is that when our sons choose their own paths, a good father supports them. The episode also teaches that good fathers know what is important. Ben doesn’t waste time when he has those brief moments with Jake at different points in his life. He wants to know about what really is important, family, love, friendship, and Jake’s happiness.
This though is the truth for me of this episode. There is are two unspoken realities between fathers and sons. The first is that a son is the only man in a father’s life who you hope bests you in the competition of things. There is no other man at work, at school, at sports, or in relationships that you hope is your better. But your son…now that is different. We don’t really tell our sons this. Yet, that moment when he knows more than you do about something, or when he is better at a sport than you are, that is the moment you know you did your job. Sons become the fathers, fathers become the sons. In this episode, this is beautifully shown by the inversion of the parent-child sacrifice theme when it is older Jake (the son) who sacrifices himself for his father. Visually, the old age makeup makes the scene read like it is a father sacrificing for his son. Yet the audience knows this isn’t what is happening. The older man is the son (only on Star Trek!). It is the son is sacrificing for the father.
Ben ‘visits’ Jake again, and meets his wife
The second unspoken reality is that fear the son has of losing his father. Of being alone in the world. Of having the responsibilities of being "the man" without the help of the father. Every father and son knows this is the order of things, yet we try to put the thought out of our minds until reality makes it impossible to do so. One day, my father will die. I will be alone. One day I will die. My son will be alone. We hope that we have given our sons everything they need to survive in the world. As Ben says to Jake, "I need to know you are going to be okay."
As our sons become men, we hope for different kind of respect than we had when they were younger. Then, their respect was based on our status as being the authority, as being older and wiser, as being the provider, and the father. But when our sons are men themselves, and if we have done our jobs, they are better than we. The respect we hope for is the kind that younger Jake shows his father in this episode. While grieving, Kira asks Jake to leave DS9 which is becoming more and more dangerous with the Klingon war. However, Jake won’t go. Everywhere on DS9, he is reminded of his father. It represents to him what Ben Sisko accomplished in his life, making DS9 a home for so many people. His father did this, and Jake is proud. He recognizes his father’s contributions. When he says that leaving would mean losing a connection to his father, it is the respect that only a son can give.
Jake has to leave DS9 (and his father) behind
I cry every time I watch this episode. I do so for my father and for my son. I do so for and with my wife Mary Jo and her father who passed away when she was a young girl, experiencing in reality what Jake Sisko does here. I think my students might have cried for their fathers and for themselves. For those moments when fathers and sons didn’t appreciate each other. For those dads who are gone forever, unlike Ben, who cannot return. For all those times we didn’t say what Ben and Jake do to each other in this episode My wife’s bond with my son is something special, yet it is different than mine. For my son is me. He is all my hopes. He is me 2.0, a better version of myself. And at the same time, he is not me. He is himself, a unique person. The tears I shed for this episode, though, are mostly tears of happiness because of this love story between Jake and Ben, between fathers and sons. The story of Jake and Ben is the story of all fathers and sons. The ultimate irony is that there has never been so real a Star Trek episode as this alternative-reality episode.
The final scene of "The Visitor"