In the real world, pure empathy may be impossible. But the finale of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine shows the potential, and the limits, of a perfect connection between warring minds.
I’ve been hearing a lot about empathy lately. Thanks to our endless political season, our increasingly connected world, and our growing collective awareness of systemic injustices, there is a greater need to step out of our own limited experiences and see the world from a different perspective. I sometimes come across this impulse in well-intentioned op-eds that try to frame our fiercest political debates in the most personal way possible, albeit with mixed results.
There has also been a robust discussion of empathy, what it means, and how to apply it in many of the most influential movies, TV shows, and fiction of the last few years—in particular the major works of science fiction and fantasy. Sometimes, that trend comes across in overt form, like the progressive utopia depicted in Star Trek: Discovery, the fourth-wall-breaking She-Hulk, and the meta-ness of Wandavision. But even something as cynical as Game of Thrones can be seen as promoting empathy, with its humanization of flawed people in utterly hopeless situations.
Storytelling, after all, is an exercise in empathy, and I’m never surprised by the occasional study suggesting that reading fiction, or even mindfully watching a film, can help to promote a better understanding of other people. I also agree with film critic Roger Ebert’s description of movies as “empathy machines” that help us to “to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” Speculative fiction—that umbrella term for science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other fantastical genres—is in a unique position to imagine radical, unorthodox, and otherworldly versions of empathy.
One example sticks with me over two decades after first seeing it. To this day, it still fills me with wonder and leaves me brimming with questions. I’m referring to “What You Leave Behind,” the last episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (hereafter DS9), which ended the show’s seven-season run in May 1999.
For those who love the show: Welcome! You made it to the part of the article that probably drew you here. For those who are new, here’s the context.
The universe of Deep Space Nine
Deep Space Nine is a space station controlled by the Federation, a mostly peaceful and democratic group of allied planets that includes Earth. It also happens to be located in disputed territory, and is positioned next to a wormhole that leads to the other side of the galaxy. The wormhole, it turns out, becomes the conduit for a major invasion of the Federation, led by the Dominion: an empire bent on conquest, and ruled by a shapeshifting species known as the Founders.
The last few seasons of DS9 cover the war between the Federation and the Dominion. But instead of focusing on battles and tactics, the storytellers spend a lot of time showing how the war affects the individuals on board the station. Thus, the noble Captain Sisko must become a hardened warrior, willing to compromise his values to secure victory. Major Kira Nerys must dig up the trauma of her past as a resistance fighter. And Odo, the station’s constable, finds his loyalties tested, for he is a shapeshifter as well, with a deep personal relationship with the nameless Female Changeling who has overseen the Dominion’s war effort.
In the final episode, after millions have died, the Federation finally turns the tide and manages to surround the remaining Dominion forces on a single planet. Their success is due in no small part to a virus that has infected the Female Changeling, weakening her while also turning her crueler than before. When Federation forces arrive at her headquarters, the Changeling refuses to surrender. Instead, she promises to wipe out the inhabitants of the planet and order her troops to fight to the last soldier. “You may win this war,” she says, “but I promise you, when it is over, you will have lost so many ships, so many lives, that your victory will taste as bitter as defeat.”
Despite her formless face, the hate in her eyes seems intractable. But Odo has a solution. He arrives at the headquarters to convince the Changeling to stand down. When she refuses, Odo asks that she “link” with him. The shapeshifters’ true form, after all, is gelatinous, and on their homeworld they form a giant sea where they exist as many and as one at the same time. The Changeling agrees. The two hold hands and briefly return to their true shapes. When they become solid again, the Changeling is cured. She calmly rises from her chair and makes contact with her fleet, ordering them to surrender. As the others in the room stare in wonder, Odo explains that the Changeling has agreed to stand trial for her war crimes.
Becoming the other
Watching this for the first time, I was stunned at how anticlimactic it was. Yet it made perfect sense. The writers seem to be saying: if only we could get our enemies to see things as we do, then they would understand, and even the bloodiest conflicts could end. Indeed, Odo believes that understanding is all that is needed. When the Changeling asks, “If you cure me, what will you ask in return?” he replies, “All I ask is that you link with me.” For him, connection is the end in itself. Good things will come from it.
The show never makes it clear if the Changeling’s surrender is merely transactional. In other words, does she agree to Odo’s terms because he has cured her, or because she now sees the situation from his perspective? I believe it’s the latter. Though their link lasts only a few seconds, they act as if they have spent a lifetime getting to know each other. In particular, I noticed how the Changeling responds to Odo only with her body language, suggesting that their connection has now moved beyond mere words.
The link is not the only kind of empathy device in the Star Trek universe. Much more famous is the Vulcan mind meld, through which people can share thoughts and memories in an intimate, trancelike ritual. There are downsides, starting with the fact that different species react to the mind meld in different ways. Moreover, this connection still distinguishes the participants, whereas the link combines the individuals into a collective consciousness in which identity no longer applies. In my own fiction, I have dabbled with mindreading technology, in part because I needed the characters to learn something quickly to advance the plot. In the world I created, the “translator” exacts a heavy toll on the user, degrading their mind after repeated use, until they can hardly tell their dreams and their distant memories from reality.
As much as I love the ending of DS9, there is a way in which Odo’s peaceful solution has not aged well for me. Much like those well-intentioned op-eds, there is a naivete to Odo’s diplomacy. In the 2020s, that kind of innocence has not served us well. Dialogue is a good starting point for resolving a conflict, but it is not an end in itself. Sometimes I worry that an overemphasis on kindness and empathy has allowed certain people to feel better about doing the bare minimum when more drastic action might be required. In that context, bad-faith actors will thrive and multiply.
Productive dialogue sometimes requires us to tell dishonest people that we will not be having a conversation with them, no matter how much they whine about it and play the victim. You cannot have a debate about how to deal with climate change, for example, with a person who doesn’t believe it’s real. No amount of empathy can magically make that conversation useful. And consider this: couldn’t the link have gone the other way, with the Changeling manipulating Odo into taking her side? Couldn’t she have played on his fears and resentments, like any other dictator?
Perhaps “What You Leave Behind” is suggesting that only a true “link”—in which the participants not only understand each other, but actually become one another—can heal such a bitter dispute. In the real world, we are stuck with words, with no access to each other’s thoughts, perceptions, desires, and phobias. Storytelling can further bridge that gap, but it, too, has its limits.
Thus, a pure empathy—even when compared to aliens and wormholes—may be the most fantastical idea in all of fiction.