Note to on-line readers: This following essay was originally written for a linguistics class--that is, for an academic rather than a fannish audience. Therefore it spends a possibly annoying amount of time and verbiage explaining what DS9 is and who its characters are. But since I think it's a halfway decent academic paper, I really didn't want to revise the piece for a different audience. I think most of the culture studies jargon is kept to a minimum, but if anyone needs some of the weirder terms explained, feel free to email me and ask about them. ~cz

"Idea and Sensation": The Uses of Telepathy in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

by C. Zdroj

Author's note: This paper is more exploratory than anything else, and a good deal remains to be said here, particularly about the changelings -- with whom I am quite obsessed. Comments, insights, and suggestions for further study are all welcome and can be mailed to me at

As Walter E. Meyers points out in his 1980 book, Aliens and Linguists, telepathy is one among many devices used by science fiction writers to get around the storytelling problem of communication between alien species. In much science fiction, telepathy is assumed to be a kind of communications "short cut," alleviating both the characters' need to learn an alien language and the writer's need to detail the processes involved in language acquisition. As Meyers observes, no less a writer than H.G. Wells used alien telepathy as a means of avoiding the "boring stuff" of "grammars, logic, significs, and so forth" (Meyers 132). However, it is my contention that telepathy serves another purpose as well for many science fiction writers: the need to convey a sense of the otherworldly "alien" as fundamentally different from that which we define as "human," thus tapping into one of science-fiction's great meta-narratives, the quest for communication and communion with that which is radically "other" than ourselves. As we shall see, however, notions of what is "human" and what is "alien" often take a particular slant in Western science fiction, one in which the human is often portrayed as an individual and the alien is portrayed as an incomprehensible (and often threatening) collective.

This essay will explore the uses of telepathy in one popular work of science fiction, the television series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9). In particular, I want to examine how telepathy is used to create two radically othered (non-human, or in this case, non-humanoid) fictional life-forms: a race of energy beings who exist outside of time, and who are generally referred to as the "wormhole aliens" or "the Prophets" (due to their status as religious icons among one group of humanoids, the Bajorans) and a race of shapeshifters referred to in the series as "changelings" or "the Founders." These two groups of alien beings serve similar purposes within the narrative of DS9: to demonstrate a particular notion of that which is "alien" and also to provide inner conflict for two of DS9's major protagonists. The Prophets interact primarily with Starfleet captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), while the changelings are of the same race as DS9's security chief, Odo (Rene Auberjonois), and are seen constantly trying to win him to their philosophy and mode of existence. My analysis of these telepathic beings will focus on two areas: the linguistic problems and inconsistencies that crop up in the portrayal of both the changelings and the Prophets, and the extent to which telepathy is not presented as a realistic communications device, but rather as a marker of otherness within the text of DS9.

We meet the Prophets for the first time in DS9's pilot episode, "Emissary." In that show, we are introduced to Commander Benjamin Sisko, an embittered Starfleet officer who is still grieving the loss of his wife years before in an attack by a group of hostile aliens known as the Borg (interestingly, the Borg also manifest a kind of telepathy, which I will refer back to later). Given a new assignment on a space station in orbit of the planet Bajor, Sisko has his first encounter with the Prophets by gazing into a mystical orb, a religious artifact of the Bajoran people. Initially, when Sisko looks into the orb, he enters a trance-like state where he relives the memory of meeting his wife, Jennifer, for the first time. Eventually, however, through several subsequent visions once Sisko enters a spatial anomaly created by these aliens, Jennifer and the other people who populate Sisko's memories are shown to be mere guises for the prophets, who utilize the images in Sisko's mind to try to communicate with him. The aliens display a complete lack of understanding of such human(oid) concepts as procreation, competition, and, most significantly, linear time. The following exchange between Sisko and one of the prophets (in the form of Sisko's son, Jake) is typical:

Prophet: Baseball? What is this?
Sisko: I was afraid you'd to ask that. I throw the ball to you, and this other player stands between us with a stick, a bat, and tries to hit the ball in between these two white lines ... The rules aren't important. What's important is ... it's linear.

In this case, telepathy is much less a communications shortcut for the writers (though it is that) than an attempt to establish, on a visceral level for the viewer, the utterly non-human nature of the Prophets. Not only do they not grasp such basic tenets of human existence as linear time, but they are also able to invade the privacy of Sisko's mind and thus reveal aspects of himself that Sisko has not previously been able to acknowledge, such as his inability to stop dwelling upon the death of his wife. The collective quality of the Prophets' awareness (contrasted with Sisko's individual mind) is emphasized throughout the episode by having several different actors (each portraying someone from Sisko's past or present) speak for the alien consciousness, often finishing each other's sentences (thoughts) spontaneously as they interact with Sisko. The Prophets are eerily able to intrude into the most private areas of Sisko's consciousness and deduce his strongest feelings, even though, strictly speaking, they do not understand exactly what emotions are--or at least, this is what they claim.

From a linguistic perspective all of this is a little mind-boggling. First, it seems to be assumed that, by empathically sensing Sisko's feelings or tapping into the images stored in his memory, the aliens can thereby obtain the power to ask Sisko questions in his own language. Even assuming that it is possible for the aliens to sort through the contents of Sisko's mind and somehow rationally detect the most important events (presumably because these events carry the greatest emotional charge), some logic and linguistics problems remain. For example, while the Prophets have seemingly mastered Sisko's language (which on-screen, at least, seems to be English) through some sort of whole-brain transfusion, they still require that basic concepts like linear time be explained to them (also in language). One is led to wonder whether it is possible to learn a language well enough to speak it fluently while still being ignorant of cultural constructs that undergird that language. Given the aliens' general claim of ignorance concerning all things humanoid, the choice of a culturally specific game like baseball to explain linearity seems a likely exercise in futility--yet this is not so. Sisko's baseball demonstration proves to be the great "a-ha!" moment in which the Prophets are finally able to grasp an existence that is bounded by time.

There is a poetic quality to much of the dialogue between Sisko and the prophets. One scene in particular involves Sisko constantly returning, mentally, to the moment of his wife's death. Furious at having to relive this painful memory, he demands to know why the aliens keep bringing him back to this point in time. The Prophets inform him that he is the one choosing the memories, and in fact he is bringing them to this particular locale. "You exist here," they tell him. Sisko realizes in this scene that he cannot perform his new duties while remaining mired in his grief. In the aesthetic sense, this is a powerfully moving dramatic moment, and a pivotal one for the Sisko character. Hence, as a narrative strategy, telepathy, here deployed by all-knowing aliens (perhaps standing in for the show's writers), becomes a skillfully used means of artistic commentary on human nature. However, as a real means of communicating with real aliens, telepathy in "Emissary" seems rather fuzzily constructed--and there is no guarantee whatsoever that all of Sisko's experiences with the Prophets are not just part of some grand hallucination. Indeed, future episodes of DS9 such as "Rapture" and "The Reckoning" emphasize the fact that other characters in the narrative do see Sisko's communion with the Prophets as purely subjective, perhaps not even real, and even, perhaps, a manifestation of some kind of psychosis.

The other major alien race in DS9 that makes use of telepathy is the changeling species, also known as the "Founders," or rulers, of an intergalactic power called the Dominion. Even though the Founders' telepathic abilities are somewhat limited compared to those of the Prophets--they can read only the thoughts and feelings of other changelings, and then only when physically joined--their society is presented as far less benign than that of the wormhole-dwelling energy beings. The Founders are dedicated to imposing a very particular version of "order" on the galaxy. Their subjects, who are often genetically engineered to be completely dependent on them, worship the Founders as gods, and the shapeshifting changelings are able to infiltrate other societies by making themselves into perfect duplicates of anyone they may choose to impersonate.

Once again, the changelings function in the DS9 narrative mainly in conjunction (and mostly in conflict) with one of the show's major characters: Odo, a changeling who was raised among humanoids and has learned to behave more or less as humanoids behave, to think and function as an individual rather than as part of a collective--collectivity being the preferred mode of existence for the Founders.

Like some intergalactic "wild child" raised by wolves, Odo does not fit particularly well into the humanoid culture that has reared him, and seems to fit no better into the changeling world once he discovers his heritage. The conflict between Odo and the Founders is immediately set up according to the old literary formula of the individual versus society, but with a twist--DS9's writers assume that Odo carries an inborn, biological imperative to "link" with others of his kind. Linking is the physical joining that enables telepathy between changelings. Two or more changelings can link by allowing their bodies to intermingle while in their "natural" or fluid state (fluidity is the form changelings normally assume when not mimicking the appearance of other beings or objects). This joining allows linked changelings to experience "a merging of thought and form, idea and sensation" ("The Search," "Chimera"). In other words, a complete sensory joining in which multiple minds can share their entire contents of emotion, intellect, and sense memory.

Linking is linguistically problematic because its relationship to spoken language is unclear, and riddled with inconsistencies. For example, when Odo first encounters his species in "The Search," another changeling, evidently female (and referred to in the scripts only as "female shapeshifter") gives him a brief history lesson on the word "changeling." She tells him that this word is "a name given to us by the solids. They meant it as an insult. In defiance, we took it and made it our own." Similarly, the changelings have evolved their own derogatory term for non-shapeshifters: solids, "our term for monoforms ... who will never know the joy of the Great Link [a vast collective link involving many thousands of changelings]." Clearly, the female shapeshifter is quite well aware of the political and cultural significance of language. "Changeling" and "solid" seem to be, in this context, terms that are integral to the changelings' effort to create and enforce their own cultural norms and values. The words are obviously carefully selected for their stated political/cultural purposes. However, three seasons later, in the episode "Behind the Lines," the female changeling, in her effort to convince Odo to abandon his humanoid comrades and join the Dominion, seems to scorn the very idea of language itself as unnecessary and needlessly confusing. When Odo asks her if she has a name, for example, she claims she has no use for one, and further, that she does not "differentiate [her]self from others." The female changeling later gives Odo a kind of meta-lesson on changeling communication, insisting that humanoid language is "clumsy" and "imprecise" and that linking is simpler because it will allow her to simply show Odo what she means. "Link with me," she offers, "and everything will be made clear." Presumably this is the case because linking allows for direct experience of others' thoughts and feelings rather than an indirect (and therefore inaccurate) representation of those thoughts and feelings in language.

As with Sisko and the Prophets, in this context it seems to be assumed that telepathy through linking is a simple "total fusion" of minds (as well as bodies) in which the contents of a given awareness are readily available and totally transparent, with no messy symbolism or linguistic context complicating the transmission. In a way, this notion of idealized, wordless communication enacted through the body comes very close to a literary representation of the sort of wordless "proto-language" that some French feminist theorists, Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray among them, propose as a possible way out of the mental constraints and preconceptions of spoken and written language, which these feminists see as inherently patriarchal and oppressive. A wordless pre-language that is rooted in the body (as the connection between pregnant woman and fetus, for example) is here offered as the "feminine" alternative to language with all its limitations and built-in prejudices. However, as other theorists have pointed out, such a non-verbal language is strictly hypothetical and in the end, probably not viable. For in fact, they would argue, all of us, women included, are shaped by language--but the changelings symbolically seem to reflect a yearning for that same kind of simple, wordless, whole-body/whole-self connection, in which all is immediately and unambiguously understood.

While most of the DS9 episodes focused on changelings seem to imply that these shapeshifters both need (biologically) to link and also that they are "hard wired" to receive and understand communications through linking, some episodes indicate that there are occasional glitches in this telepathic system. Opportunities for imperfect (that is, less than transparent) communication would seem to hint that changelings do indeed have some kind of language that is indirect and requires interpretation. In "Broken Link" where Odo is put on trial by his fellows for killing another changeling (in defense of his humanoid friends), we are told that there is "disagreement within the Link" (that is, among the telepathically linked community of changelings) as to what an appropriate punishment would be. Odo is forced to enter a massive link with all these changelings so that they can look into his mind and judge his actions. Yet, after sorting through the contents of his awareness en masse, the Founders still apparently have no better intellectual or emotional grasp of Odo's affinity with humanoids. Odo is seen still trying to help them understand humanoid beings and culture even in the final episode of the series. If we read the changelings' rejection of Odo's perceptions and feelings as simply flat-out disagreement rather than a failure to understand, there are still other examples of the ambiguities that can crop up in communication through linking. In the episode "Chimera," for example, Odo verbally implies that another changeling whom he has linked with, Laas, has misinterpreted some of his emotions. If emotional states conveyed through telepathy can be misread, it is hard to see how telepathic linking is superior to or less messy than human(oid) language in terms of conveying meaning accurately. In many ways, it seems subject to the same pitfalls.

Another fascinating aspect of changeling telepathy is the notion that it can create a kind of "sensory overload" in those not habitually accustomed to it. In both "The Search" and "Behind the Lines" Odo is visibly overwhelmed, mentally and emotionally, by the experience of linking. In "The Search" in fact, one of the elder changelings speculates that Odo is "not ready" to experience a link. This would seem to imply some sort of learning curve associated with proficiency in linking, a skill-building period perhaps akin to the critical language acquisition stage during the first six years of human life. Thus linking seems at least partially a learned means of communication rather than a behavior which is totally "natural" or instinctive (despite Laas' remarks to the contrary in "Chimera"). That which is learned is cultural, and that which is cultural leaves a door open to the symbolic and to socially structured ways of creating meaning. Several DS9 episodes, such as "Broken Link," and "Apocalypse Rising" imply that linking can be used for deceptive purposes. All of this would seem to militate against the idea that linking is simply "plugging in" to a stream of transparent, totally reliable data. Evidently some of the same hazards that come with language (misunderstanding, deceit, inability to process a wealth of information) also apply here.

All of this brings me back to my original assertion about alien "otherness" in science fiction. In the case of DS9, telepathy is used less as a plausible mode of communication between human(oid) and alien than as a device for "marking off" the alien as such. The Prophets are "alien" and strange because they can peer into human minds like Sisko's. They can even re-arrange certain minds, as when they re-order the priorities of the Ferengi Grand Nagus in "Prophet Motive." As we learn, the Prophets can manipulate time, matter, and other sentient beings at their whim, and in that context, telepathy just becomes one more facet of their strangeness, a proof of just how unlike us they are. Most episodes that concentrate on the Prophets emphasize their eeriness and air of mystery, and their communications tend to be cryptic rather than immediately useful. While it makes sense that humanoids would find the Prophets somewhat incomprehensible, the Prophets themselves display little sense of finding humanoids equally baffling. Their telepathy is seen to give them a literally "god-like" advantage in dealing with other species.

As for the changelings, they seem to function as yet another example of the sort of "hive mind" or mental collective which Star Trek and other sf narratives find useful to cast in the role of "otherworldly threat"--like the Borg of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the changelings are dangerous precisely because they have the ability to function as one mind, and are thus an intrinsic threat to individuality. Their goal throughout DS9's narrative is to assimilate Odo back into their ranks, robbing him of his hard-won identity. Both these representations of telepathy seem to parallel almost too neatly western culture's own inclination to view the individual as sacrosanct and the collective as a threat.

Meanwhile, it seems that telepathy itself, far from being a simple solution to the "alien communication problem" actually raises more problems than it resolves, even in the realm of fiction.


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