Was Plato an executive producer on Deep Space 9?

The Borg are probably the most enduring contribution of Next Generation-era Star Trek to the public consciousness, but after finishing Deep Space 9, I think the Dominion deserves further consideration. While the Borg were a simplistic version of “full communism,” the Dominion is much more philosophically robust — in fact, it’s basically a more extreme vision of Plato’s Republic.

The Dominion is ruled over by the Founders, a race of shape-shifters that is not bound by mere physical forms and is able to commune purely in thought through the “Great Link.” While they regard themselves as superior to the “solids,” they nonetheless feel compelled to rule over them — and here the reason that may be implicit in Plato is explicitly stated: they must control the “solids” or else face persecution and even destruction.

They control the subject populations by making use of two classes of genetically engineered functionaries. Both are engineered to revere the Founders from birth. The Vorta are a more intellectual race that conducts diplomacy and is in charge of day-to-day operations, and the Jem’Hadar are a warrior race. Here the DS9 writers can go further than Plato insofar as they can imagine asexual reproduction based solely on cloning — hence neither race has the Jem’Hadar race has no women (the necessity of including women among the warrior class being a major point of embarrassment for Socrates). The Vorta have more continuity of personhood, insofar as subsequent “copies” of each individual seems to share the knowledge of their predecessor, while the Jem’Hadar are bred in “hatcheries” to be disposable soldiers. As in Plato, there’s a recognition that the Jem’Hadar’s aggressive nature, while necessary, also poses dangers — and the solution they arrive at is making them addicted to a drug that also serves as their only source of nutrition, which is administered by the Vorta.

In many ways, the Jem’Hadar are the most interesting aspect of this scheme. Everything possible is done to limit their personhood — making them live only for war, making their life expectancy extremely short — and yet they stubbornly insist on being actual people. They have ambitions, sensitivities, and a notion of honor that sometimes brings them into conflict with their superiors. It’s hard to imagine what would become of the Jem’Hadar outside the Dominion structure, but it is precisely because their subjugation is so thorough-going that it seems so unjust.

The Vorta seem much more content with their lot, in part because of a belief that the Dominion actually genetically enhanced their ancestors and lifted them to a much higher station in life, but we also see hints of rebellion here and there — most notably when the latest “copy” of the Vorta in charge of the Dominion’s war against the Federation tries to defect because an error in the genetic sequencing gave him too much of a conscience. Similar genetic problems afflict the Jem’Hadar, including rare instances where individuals are genetically immune to addiction to the controlling drug and one case where a new breed of Jem’Hadar leads to rivalry within their ranks. Plato already anticipated in The Republic that the breeding program necessary for his program would inevitably fail due to the quirks of nature, and it’s great that the DS9 writers kept that same element of unpredictability even in the distant future with a technologically superior race.

In the end, the Dominion over-extends itself by relying on “native” troops from the conquered area rather than their custom-bred Jem’Hadar, and meanwhile, a rogue Federation group known as Section 31 creates a virus that quickly infects all the Founders through the Great Link. The subject population switches sides, even as the Founders are all on the verge of death. They surrender in exchange for a cure to the disease, withdrawing to their home territory (on the other side of the wormhole). Odo rejoins the Great Link and presumably introduces more liberal notions due to his greater sympathy for the “solids” (following on a broader pattern where all the major races get nicer and more liberal leadership by the end of the war), but it’s not clear what would happen after that. After a long and costly war, wouldn’t the Founders’ fear of persecution and destruction be even more justified? Is there actually any way to break out of the cycle? I suppose they could all individually go live among the solids like Odo, but interestingly, Odo’s first instinct was to impose order on his local “solids” as chief of security. And in any case, the whole point of the shape-shifters’ existence is their participation in the Great Link — and without their subject races to protect them, they would be extremely vulnerable in that state.

Perhaps the only alternatives are Republic-style control and a strategy of hibernation — keeping the location of their homeworld secret and periodically moving (as they do at least once during the course of the series). If the shape-shifters lived among the “solids” as one race among others, they would have to give up much of what makes them distinctive for the sake of conformity.

And that’s what makes this reading of the Dominion so interesting to me. For us modern people, the notion of a genetically superior breed of philosopher-kings has no credibility, but the Founders are literally a different race that literally has superior abilities — and is vulnerable for that reason. Their freedom from particular forms enables them to assume and understand all forms, and so they literally know better than anyone else. And if you start with those assumptions, something like the structure of the Republic is bound to present itself as the least bad option. The fact that this thought-experiment took place in the context of the Star Trek universe, where all the alien races belong to a kind of “meta-humanity” (a TNG episode reveals that all of them actually share a common ancestor) and so the potential for real racial difference and hierarchy is (laudably!) defused, is all the more remarkable.

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16 Responses to “Was Plato an executive producer on Deep Space 9?”

  1. Travis Says:

    Nice thoughts!

    One correction: the Vorta do have women, though as far as we know they don’t reproduce naturally. I guess the fact that they have (at least) two sexes lends credence to the story of the Founders elevating the Vorta through genetic engineering, versus the Jem’Hadar who are made from scratch, apparently.

    But it’s never clear that the Founders story of persecution is exactly true. It might be ex pos facto justification for their empire.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    You are correct about women Vorta — in fact, I now recall that the first one we see is a woman. But every indication is that they reproduce by cloning.

  3. Nathanael Says:

    DS9 was frequently “deep” philosophically. I love the show. Nobody has written a Star Trek series set after DS9 for TV or movies. I suspect later producers of Star Trek just weren’t able to live up to the high standards which DS9 set and decided to sidestep it. It’s still disappointing.

  4. Christopher Says:

    Interesting thoughts. The successor to DS9, thematically speaking, would then be BSG (quite fittingly since Moore was a producer for both series) because the very question you ask about breaking the cycle is the central focus in BSG’s latter portion. There could even be some strong linking between the Jem’Hadar and the Cylon Centurions (and Raiders) which are both bred as warriors-without-identities.

  5. Hill Says:

    Adam, I’m assuming you’ve seen BSG. Have you written anything about it? I don’t recall reading anything here.

  6. Another Sad Monday | Gerry Canavan Says:

    […] * Was Plato an executive producer on Deep Space 9? […]

  7. Asteele Says:

    I think there is also a Classic Greek connection that in the end the dominion invasion plan fails, because of the intervention of the gods, rather than by being defeated militarily by the federation.

  8. Asteele Says:

    As to the founders protection, in the context of Star Trek, the answer is obvious “join the federation”: even if star fleet is dominated by humans the federation already has member races that are simply superior to humanity (the vulcans). One might notice that expansion is also the answer given to the romulon problem, reunification with Vulcan. (Note not reunification with Romulus.)
    The show seems happy with this solution, the federation is morally superior, but the federation in the dominion war was willing to go straight to genocide, before even switching over to anything like a war economy.

  9. reidkane Says:

    I haven’t seen DS9 so I don’t know about the Dominion, but it sounds like it would be interesting to contrast it with the relationship between the Q and humanity. Q is sort of enlightened despot, but (usually) seems completely independent of his inferiors, and even to concern himself their ascent beyond their current inferior state. He certainly has a strong sociopathic streak, but wields it in an almost beneficent manner… In short, what do you think of Q Adam?

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I think Q is annoying as hell, and his powers seem so arbitrary that none of the stories in which he’s involved make any damn sense. Worst character ever.

  11. arranjames Says:

    Its even worse when Q appears in Voyager in the episode “Death Wish” where a second member of the Q continuum decides that being a God is boring and wants to be human so as to kill himself. In this plot the John de Lancie’s Q has settled down from his Loki like borg-flinging, Picard-baiting days but his past (why would Q have a concept so linear as that?) serves as the model for the unrestrained life that forces Quinn (the suicidal-Q) to realise “life” in the Continuum is staid.

  12. Tristan Says:

    Just sayin, I think the whole Q business was a bridge too far for the Star Trek writers/producers/directors. Trying to write the part of a god separate from a pantheon of competitors is too difficult, even for the greeks (thus the pantheon.)

    I think the whole Q thing is necessarily too simply dealt with, and the Dominion story line, while deep, subtle, and engaging, exceeded the intellectual carrying capacity of network television in the 90s.

  13. Nicholas Joll Says:

    Is there a *Star Trek and Philosophy*? There *is* (see Amazon) – although I’m unsure about its subtitle (‘The Wrath of Kant’!) and I haven’t read it.

  14. Robert Saler Says:

    That might be the worst subtitle ever.

  15. Eilif Verney-Elliott Says:

    Excellent piece! I am a hug lover of ST Voyager (seen every episode), and TNG, and now I MUST indulge in DS9

  16. Eilif Verney-Elliott Says:

    Reblogged this on Eilif Verney-Elliott and commented:
    I a major Star Trek: Voyager fan, and now, inspired by this piece, I will have to let myself indulge in Deep Space 9!


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