Non Trekker Thoughts on Deep Space Nine

Like a lot of my fellow nerds, I have my opinions on Star Trek and Star Wars, and I can make my case for why I like one more than the other. (‘Wars, in my case.) Laying my cards completely on the table here, as someone who does not care about Star Trek lore, nor for the characters or the fictional universe it lives in, I want to say that I come to this with a fairly open mind. Or, at least, a bias only toward indifference and low expectations. So I say with honest enthusiasm that one can pick out at least half the episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (ST:DS9) season six as arguably the best sci-fi/fantasy saga that I have seen on television. It has its definite clunkers in a 26-episode season, which I’ll get to, but first let me offer praise where it is due.

I’ve seen Star Trek, at least in passive viewing, in every iteration. I have never been a full-on fan. Only a channel-hopper. I feel as if I’ve always come across Star Trek The Original Series (TOS) in syndication my whole life, but I could never hold an interest in watching it for more than a few minutes at a time. The dialogue of Star Trek, the delivery, and the plots they serviced, always struck me as either embarrassingly pure cheese, or just eye-rolling. But I don’t dismiss the importance of Star Trek TOS for being a catalyst and incubator for good sci-fi.

I owe it to Star Trek TOS to defend it in two ways. First: it was a kid’s show, and there is no accounting for kid taste. I was rolling my eyes at Star Trek at the same age when I watched Transformers cartoons in the afternoon, which are unwatchable to me as an adult. The second defense I’ll give to Star Trek looking back as an adult – especially after the syndicated series that are now digitally remastered with a few better effects – is that, as an adult with some familiarity with stagecraft, Star Trek TOS looks fantastic.

I mean fantastic in the sense of pure imagination informed by the style of the time: the mid-century, bright-colors of the Technicolor, psychedelic era. I advise anybody to watch random scenes of the TOS, with or without the sound on, and see how those colors pop. Of course the sets look a little cardboard if you cannot suspend your disbelief. But I think the creators of the series were given an open space to play in, and a lot of creative collaboration happened there. This was true for the writers, sure, but also the set-builders, designers, lighting crew, and not to forget wardrobe and hair.

I’m sure the female actors were often hired mostly for their appearance, which is nothing unusual in the churn of TV production of the time. Unlike roles of standing still on cowboy or detective shows at the time, the women got to be costumed in ways that were truly creative. When it comes to sexy sci-fi, the Frank Frezetta stylizations have been primarily influential in the genre, (think Leia’s slave outfit), but that late sixties look on women is one that definitely makes me sweat, and Star Trek was definitely all about it.

The latter movies and The Next Generation-era shows had uninspiring looks in my opinion, with the technicolor pop reduced to muddy earth tones and interiors looked like a corporate Holiday Inn Express built in 1978, re-carpeted in the mid-1980s. Which is what kept me disappointed, even as the directing and production of the latter Star Trek was of a much higher quality than TOS, it just didn’t look to be nearly as much fun.

I had heard the best Star Trek series was reputedly Deep Space Nine, and particularly the later seasons. This happened to be on during much of my own period of post-collegiate television non-viewing-and-eschewing, so these were episodes I never saw saw. Now that they are on Netflix, I made a point to begin watching DS9 starting at season six. What follows are my impressions, from someone who was only passably familiar with the show from incidental viewing here and there.

::|:: The episodes. ::|::

The 13 episodes (half the season) I think make it great are:

601 “A Time to Stand”
602 “Rocks and Shoals”
603 “Sons and Daughters”
604 “Behind the Lines”
605 “Favor the Bold”
606 “Sacrifice of Angels”
609 “Statistical Probabilities”
611 “Waltz”
618 “Inquisition”
619 “In the Pale Moonlight”
626 “Tears of the Prophets”

Good bottle episodes as honorable mentions

612 “Who Mourns for Morn?”
613 “Far Beyond the Stars” (There is much to say about this episode.)

Episodes that I didn’t like are below. I’ll go into more detail.

616 “Change of Heart”
625 “The Sound of Her Voice”

::|:: The Good ::|::

The season starts brilliantly, jumping into story where the main characters are in dire circumstances. The premise of the show is that the space station is on the edge of a wormhole that leads to the distant Gamma Quadrant, which is unknown to the Federation. The Gamma Quadrant is controlled by a vast empire known as the Dominion. The Dominion has allied with the Cardassians, a reptilian humanoid alien race who once held a vast and oppressive empire of their own. To regain former glory, the Cardassian leaders have actually willingly submitted themselves to be subjects of the Dominion. Cardassians have taken over Deep Space Nine, and Captain Sisko and his crew are making raids against the Dominion, planning how to take the station back.

The season starts with this setup, has a handful of great episodes all in a row following this storyline in a logical manner. Characters have arcs, and they act as the characters would act with their own agendas in such a scenario: Sisko is a serious leader, fighting heroically for both Starfleet and for the Bajorans. Bajor is the planet just below Deep Space Nine which was formerly part of the Cardassian empire, and is conquered again by the Cardassian/Dominion alliance at the beginning of the season. The Bajorans have a particularly intense religion, and they consider Sisko a prophet. He fights the Dominion in the first episodes, marooned on a planet with a small crew, and he takes risk at self-sacrifice for the greater good.

Odo is still on the station as head of security. As a member of the Dominion race, he is temporarily stymied in his sense of duty to his friends in the Federation, as he is curious about meeting others like himself. His loyalties are conflicted. He remains ostensibly committed to resisting the Dominion, but also begins shrinking from joining active resistance work with the others. Major Keira, the Bajoran commander, also has an arc in being fiercely opposed to the Cardassians re-conquest of her homeworld, while also having to put on a brave face as though she accepts the situation so as not be removed from her command of the subjected Bajorans. Being out of power would reduce her ability to be an effective resistance fighter. All the while, she faces the conflict in feeling betrayed by Odo, to whom she has romantic feelings, while also being indulged with vacillating kindness and cruelty by the Cardassian general, Dukat.

Like any sci-fi show, the beats are very plot-driven to propel the action. And once the plot gets set in motion, the actors get to do some of their best work of the season in these early episodes, exploring these conflicts within themselves and with one another. When Star Trek works like this, it works well. It tells a story over time, focusing equally on the plot as on the characters and their conflicts. At certain times, the overall plot arc takes a backseat to allow character development. This is television, and specifically fantasy television, at its very best.

::|:: The Plot Devices ::|::

The fictional Dominion is a pretty strong sci-fi concept that drives the plot of this season. Part of that starts with the character of Odo, who was an orphaned member of that species of shapeshifters, who did not know where he came from. His character’s arc was to be raised on the station by a Cardassian scientist, eventually growing up and taking a job as a security officer. He is a brusque, humorless character, who is defensive and bitter about being an oddity as the only member of his species he has ever met thus far. His eventually finding out that he is a lost member of a powerful race that rules much of universe beyond the wormhole presents him with challenges, conflicts, and moral choices.

The main antagonists of the Dominion, (referred to, reverently, as the “Founders” by their loyal subjects), are mysterious, mostly in the background of the action. They are rarely seen for what they are, and are fully vague as to their full motivations and capabilities. The Dominion clone the minions who administer their empire. They use the Jem’Hadar, a race of reptilian humanoid warriors they have cloned in batches, as soldiers. The Dominion also clone their civil administrators from another race of creatures, the Vorta, who are the obsequious, but clever officers of their empire.

I find this use of clones as a threat to the main protagonists to be much better conceived from start to finish than anything the Star Wars Prequels did by shoe-horning clones into the storyline just because of a throw-away line from the first movie. How much better would the prequels have been if Attack of the Clones involved the Jedi and Republic forces fighting a Dominion invasion? Which in turn led to the rise of a mechanized, fascistic Galactic Empire after the Jedi were wiped out? I would even settle for Dr. Who’s Sontarans as an improvement on the prequels.

In addition to the character conflicts and shades of darkness, two elements I think the latter DS9 seemed to incorporate from a Star Warsian perspective (is that a thing?): [1] the presence of religion, and [2] a grittiness to the fictional setting in which the series takes place.

The Bajoran religion drives a subplot for much of the B-story in season six, eventually culminating in the cliffhanger. The religion feels a bit like suburban Buddhism-lite to me, with not as much at stake as they insist there is within the dialogue. But it’s a fictional play, and I enjoyed the story that can plainly be seen as an analog for religions in human history. Besides which, they seem to worship the aliens who live in the wormhole as gods, so there is a consistency within this universe that their religion does touch something which is tangible, and is essential to the arc.

DS9 went a fair way in having distinct looks for the space station, the Klingons, the Cardassians, the Jem’Hadar, and the various imaginary species and travelers in the universe. Design differences were subtle, but effective. Of all the shows, it maintains a constant balance of different characters playing different nations. (I’m using “nations” to describe the allegory inherent in ST:DS9, whether you want to call that species, planets, races, religions, etc.) I’m thinking of the complexity there must have been behind the scenes to maintain a flow of characters with distinctive looks. The makeup, the costuming, the set building, the lighting, the acting, all coordinated to make this universe believable. I’d throw the Bajorans in, too, except that it must have been much easier to only need a small prosthetic nose ridge applied for a scene compared to an entire lizard head or Klingon face plate.

The late 90s had some very compelling TV series between ST:DS9 and Babylon 5 (B5). Sci-Fi gets a reputation as derivative distractions for a man-boy fan base who are social misfits. Which, hey, [1] I’ve seen some SyFy shows, and maybe that critique is a little on the nose, and, [2] if those are the worst of my vices, I’ll take the hit. Compared to the cheaply produced game shows, variety shows, and “reality” shows that dominate TV nowadays, DS9 and B5 were a Bayreuth festival compared to a Punch-and-Judy level of storytelling on broadcast TV these days.

::|:: The Performances ::|::

Let me give a lot of credit to the actors in DS9, in major and minor roles, both. Given the cult popularity of shows like these, the actors get all kinds of fame and adoration. But in terms of appreciating the role of stagecraft, there was something very enjoyable about watching the actors deliver their lines under what must have been brutal prosthetics and uncomfortable costumes. All the Cardassian characters, particularly the defector-former-spy Garak, all are played to perfection as characters with obvious conflicts within them. Doing that under lizard makeup is all the more impressive. Even the Klingon characters, which is usually a green light for actors to chew scenery like a pack of meth-addled beavers, are played with some subtlety.

As I confess I already fall on the “Wars” side of the Star Trek/Wars fan loyalty: consider this high-praise coming from me that I believe there is easily much more enjoyable sci-fi content in season six of DS9 than in all the Star Wars prequels. What DS9 got right was to use these actors correctly. The use of actors with props, prosthetics, a little bit of choreography, and good dialogue, is infinitely more enjoyable than relying on CGI creations and digital matte backgrounds, no matter how pretty they may be. The Star Wars prequels had great looking ideas in them, and nothing in Star Trek is as beautiful as, say, the creation of the world of Naboo in the Phantom Menace. But as cool looking as the sleek starfighters, Gungan underworld city, and Coruscant all were, they were pretty creations that lie flat without interesting characters to hold on to.

Ewan MacGregor and Avery Brooks are both Shakesperean actors capable of rattling the walls with their performances. I enjoy nearly every moment of Brooks on screen, even when he is beavering away at that scenery, as he often does in DS9. This is opposed to MacGregor’s often flat, wince-inducing dialogue with (pretty) CGI creations in the prequels. In the contrast between them, I don’t blame the quality of the actors for why one works more than the other.

One of the most famous props in theater is Yorrick’s skull. Hamlet’s speech is Shakespeare poetry at its best, and the stage directions are minimal, leaving the personification of the character to be fullfilled by the actor playing the part. Hamlet picks up the skull of the old jester Yorrick, muses on life and death and the fate of all living things, and ties it back to the central theme of the play. Every good production of Hamlet has actors and directors finding nuances in this scene. They modify their body language and their delivery, cadence, and rhythm of the lines. The excitement here isn’t from CGI or backing music, or even from just the lines themselves, but with how the actor melds the words and actions to transmit emotion from the stage.

A lot of movies nowadays make up for bad scripts, bad acting, and uninspired direction by pounding the audience’s senses until their brains are tenderized. Explosions, CGI, quick cuts, nauseating camera angles, all are the equivalent of dangling keys in front of your audience to keep them distracted. Cheaper productions have the choice to either attempt these gimmicks poorly, or to actually rely on low-key props and acting and dialogue to keep the audience engaged. If the props look ridiculous, or the lines are excessively dull, or the actors as charming as lead, such a setting will expose all the weakest parts of the conception.

Sci-Fi and fantasy, when they take themselves too seriously, can be really bad. When they skillfully use clever props, sets, and prosthetics, they can provide actors a setting in which to raise the level of their performance to something transcendent by giving an open space in a world with only imagination as the limit.

::|:: The Bad ::|::

Okay, it’s not all good. Much of what I find problematic and bad with the season seems to tie in to the fact that there are 26(!) episodes for this single season. A show like this, made today, would probably be half that, at most, and would be better for it. (Although I doubt it could be made on commercial television.)

I am not saying I actively disliked all other episodes, but in my opinion, there were too many, and it stretched the season thin. But commercial television has always had the requirement to crank out product to sell time, and nowadays it’s just easier to fill commercial TV time with space-filling, time-killing, “reality” side-shows. Quality narratives, if they exist, are left to the gated communities of cable, Netflix, Amazon, etc.

There were a lot of self-contained bottle episodes, each of which could have been the basis for an entire series arc by themselves. I’m sure that “Far Beyond the Stars” gets praise for its “alt” world setting, which sort of breaks the fourth wall, indicating that the series is – or just maybe could be – the work of a science fiction writer in the 1950s, played by Avery Brooks, fighting for his right to tell his stories of a distant space station with a black captain against oppression from a racist society. I’m sure a lot of Star Trek fans probably didn’t like it, as it sort of impeached some of the fantasy of the show’s premise. I’m also sure that lots of non Star Trek fans probably can appreciate this for what it is, and I definitely got a kick of watching the ensemble cast get to play characters in another, more realistic setting, and really stretch their legs a bit. I won’t get into it here, but it’s highly recommended viewing, in my opinion, for people who even specifically dislike sci-fi or Star Trek in particular, just to see a really well-done teleplay. It directly addresses some of the roots of sci-fi fantasy, and the roots of that fantasy from writers churning away for pulp publications back in the day, pushing the boundaries of imagination, and pushing against societal injustice, small-mindedness, and human tyranny, simply by imagining that things can be different. This episode is one of the greatest homages to the culture of Science Fiction ever.

Anyway, there were things in this season that I didn’t like. What would Star Trek discussions be without gripes and complaints? I’ll run it from the things that irked me the least to the things that irked me the most.

First, they introduced the character of Vic, a character who exists in the holodeck as a rat-pack style Las Vegas lounge singer. He becomes a regular character by breaking the normal rules of the holodeck in that he knows he is actually an AI hologram. He also is sentient in that he is not just a single program that runs, but remembers things from each instance that the program is run. This allows him to interact with the characters. Creatively, Vic’s lounge gives the characters a chance to have drinks and commiserate with one another in the service of plot and character development in a different setting. This doesn’t irk me by itself. It’s fun and clever for what it is, I guess. But I feel like it’s a tonal shift, and a distraction from the rest of the show. It erodes some of the show’s immersive nature. Ostensibly, Star Trek takes place in the future, but it’s not literally the future; it’s a fantasy setting. Star Trek, from what I’ve seen, unfortunately, does this in every iteration: suddenly bringing our present day smack dab into the narrative, either showing 25th century people with a plot-servicing interest in “retro” 20th century culture, or through time travel or space hibernation or the like. In these episodes, the crew interacts with actual contemporary people. I would prefer the show stay on course to tell the story it is telling without doing this, even when it can be done cleverly.

And, yes, I realize “Beyond the Stars” might be liable to the same critique – and for that reason I do not put it on the list as essential for the season arc – but it does frame the setting of the show, allowing the actors to play different characters. It was not necessary to the plot that Sisko would have visions that he is a character of a 1950s. My assumption is that the show-runners demanded that there be some scenes still “within” the Star Trek universe in a bottle episode that is outside the continuity.

Part of Vic’s character arc involves giving romantic advice to the crew. This felt a little bit too patronizing to the fans. The romance between Odo and Keira is handled through Vic acting as Odo’s Cyrano, and definitely didn’t hold me at all. I consider sci-fi to be bad when I stop seeing the characters and instead see the actors, and I feel sympathy for them having to deliver very lame lines. And Nana Visitor and René Auberjonois are both very good actors who have very good scenes with one another throughout the season, which is all the more impressive as both are using prosthetic makeup.

The part of the romance which I find to be too much fan service is Odo’s setup of being bad with women, and needing Vic’s advice to “just talk to her” to woo Keira. This comes a little too close to bad advice given to men in “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” tropes. “Hey, she may be giving you signals that she is not interested, but the solution is just to stalk her relentlessly.” This is definitely bad advice for awkward males. And, further, it changes the characterization of Odo’s and Keira’s relationship, which up until then seemed to be handled in a little more realistic, adult manner.

There are two episodes that involve time travel in the season. Time travel and alternate universes are where I throw down my gauntlet and say this is where I stay on the Star Warsian side of the divide in fandom. Time Travel is a plot device in every iteration of Star Trek, and it usually dissipates any interest I have developed in the narrative at that point.

Time travel or alternate universes as plot points of a sci-fi show erode my suspension of disbelief unless the show is entirely based around time travel. So, I give a pass to Doctor Who, Sliders, Quantum Leap, etc., as shows which use time travel as their entire framing device from which the fictional universe flows. I find it difficult to follow sci-fi universes which go to lengths to establish certain consistency and believability while tossing in that, oh, they also happen to travel in time or alternate dimensions for some reason. Star Trek is space fantasy – although of a different kind than Star Wars – so while it can’t be held to the requirements of hard sci-fi, it should at least be consistent to the universe in which it lives.

The next thing I have a gripe about is when characters act contrary to either pre-established rules, or contrary to their stated role. Captain Sisko is promoted to being one of the key officers in the military, responsible for leading presumably millions of soldiers. I find it is contrary to belief that he suddenly decides to take charge of a minor side mission that detracts from the command of fleet activities, or one that subjects himself to grave danger. He is supposedly one of the top commanders whose life is too important to risk for mundane tasks. Those mundane tasks become plot points in standalone episodes, though, which need to get made in 26-episode seasons.

I get why this happens in stories. The lead actor is playing a hero character, and we expect to see the actor do interesting, heroic things. However, it comes more at the service of putting out 26 episodes, rather than remaining consistent with 13 tight episodes.

One of the best episodes of the season deals with Sisko making hard ethical choices that invoke a conflict within him and with other characters. (619, “In the Pale Moonlight.”) Will he fake evidence in order to provoke the Romulans to join the war against the Dominion, or will he decide not to do so on ethical grounds? What I liked about this episode is that, for all the very lofty abstractions that Star Trek plots dabble with, this actually approaches the realistic and ugly choices that are made by diplomats in times of war when lives and the fates of nations, (or planets, I guess) are at stake. This is a key episode for the rest of the season, and is low-key drama with the action all offscreen, and it is a masterpiece.

The episode 625, “The Sound of Her Voice” on the other hand, told a story which I thought detracted from the characterization of Sisko thus far. The arc of the story is that he and the crew of the spaceship the Defiant are following a distress signal which takes them away from otherwise important duty at a tremendous risk to themselves. The story itself is interesting, but I thought the setup was a little bit insulting to the intelligence of the fans who are following along thus far. It makes sense when the characters put themselves at risk in service of the story arc, but less so when it’s a side story away from that arc, putting everyone else in Starfleet in danger because this crew of important persons may get themselves killed. My disbelief just was not suspended.

Lastly, the biggest disappointment to me involves a death of a character which wasted an opportunity to tell a better story. This is a spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen it.

Similar to the way the way the other episode I referenced seemed to have characters act contrary to the way they were written, “Change of Heart” did so even in a worse way. The story of the episode is that Worf must make a choice either to save the life of a secret operative defecting from the Cardassians, or save his injured wife, Jadzia. Worf is presented as being absolutely dedicated to duty, as is Jadzia, and that they are completely willing to risk their lives for their joint mission. That is, at least, how the episode’s dialogue is written. However, when it comes down to it, Worf’s love for Jadzia overpowers Worf’s sense of duty to the Federation, and he saves Jadzia, and the Cardassian informant dies.

I hate this episode for any number of reasons. For one, it sort of destroys the suspension of disbelief we are expected to have that the war is very serious matter, and that these characters are expected to put duty above their own lives or the lives of their comrades, as happens in real war. The heart-wrenching reality of martial duty means that a soldier often has to put duty higher than any individual life, whether his own or his very closest companions. That’s part of what makes war a particularly horrible thing, and also something with a sense of glory in the aspect that horrible sacrifices are made that would never be made in the course of normal life. The Klingons are written to live for glory and war, and to embrace death in war as something particularly glorious, and Worf’s character continuously reinforces that view.

Well, yeah, and all that got completely flushed away by a plot device. Now, it could have been a plot device that punched a hole, say, in the glory of war, and exposed instead that something like a Klingon enthusiasm for war is a delusion. They didn’t go that route with the story, either. The characters experienced no real development. Worf had an important mission to complete, and he failed, and someone died. This didn’t, for instance, have a visible effect on Worf’s career. There was discussion that it would, but by the next episode, things are back to normal. This was a story with a major series of events, resulting in a death, explicating on the relationship between Jadzia and Worf, yet it did not have any real consequences for the characters, as they ended up exactly where they were whether the events occurred or not.

The topper for me, though — and this is the spoiler — is Jadzia dies in the last episode of the season, anyway. The drama of that last episode, which I did like, by the way, is that Jadzia is left safe at the station while the rest of the characters join a massive, risky attack on the Dominion. The twist is that the main characters survive the battle, as you would suspect that they would in a show like this, but the one person supposedly out of the action is killed in a set of circumstances involving Cardassian General Dukat getting aboard the station. (It’s an involved plot that wraps up many of the storylines of the season, involving the Bajoran religion, the wormhole, etc., a worthy plot development of its own.)

My first thought was immediate loss of my suspension of disbelief. Already being aware that there were 26 episodes in this season, I assumed that schedule must have been grueling. It didn’t take much googling to find an interview with Terry Farrell to find out that she was tired of the shooting schedule and quit, and the death was shoe-horned into the story.

I cannot help but think of how much better it would have been if the character had actually died in episode 616. She would have died a military death, and Worf would have made a choice to follow his duty which would have cost him everything else in his life. This could have been a death which had reverberating consequences for the character, and yet would have been consistent with the character the way he was portrayed earlier. Again, I have no problem with the way that Jadzia was killed off. It’s really just the episode 616 which I dislike.

Star Trek and Star Wars are fantasy universes that inform one another, especially with fan competition. Like Microsoft and Apple, they have factions who care for one side more than the other, and they freely seem to borrow good ideas from one another in competition for eyeballs on the screen. It’s plain to me that what bored me to indifference about much of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was changed in DS9. Specifically, there was a lack of conflict among the characters initially in several Star Trek iterations, which DS9 eschewed. The characters are very much in conflict, sometimes having motivations at cross purposes. For a show needing to aim toward a relatively kid-friendly timeslot, DS9 dealt with war and issues of genocide, with characters drawn as good and evil, but with shades of grey on each side, with openings for finding sympathy even for the villains.

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