My Force Awakens Review

I would be glad to agree with the eyerollers that Star Wars has reached a nausea-inducing threshold. It should be by now, shouldn’t it? But I’m still a sucker for more content. I am a fan of the online game Star Wars: The Old Republic, an MMORPG that takes place in the pre-movie world of Jedi and Sith forces at odds. I find it is immersive and fun, and the game squeezes in some good storytelling content. So Star Wars is still fresh in my mind with stories to tell in that world.

The less personal and more universal reason that Star Wars still sells a tsunami of output has to do with it being a perfect pastiche of other genres. It has a clever resonance that vibrates as universally as any fictional world ever has. Star Wars, from its conception in 1975, must have been a very weird film when they were putting it together. The effort is as much a collage as anything Tarantino does today. This long article is so wonderful about the pastiche of styles that Lucas incorporated, that I won’t add anything more to it.

The original movie also worked splendiferously because of the right kind of collaboration Lucas had when he made it: from the model makers to the costumers, creature molders, sound design, and a legendary musical score. It also succeeded by being made in England, with a superb supporting cast of Hammer studio veterans who knew how to deliver lines. It spawned a million imitators, and while great sci-fi and great fantasy films have been made since then, I don’t think any have ever happened hit the right note at the right time to become as iconic as the first Star Wars has.

Episode VII, The Force Awakens (TFA) gets certain things right that satisfy my nostalgia for the originals. It also hits the right beats for telling a new story. With those basic things going for it, I say the bottom line is that, yes, it’s worth seeing. It will be compared favorably, inevitably, to the prequels – the poor prequels – I say with regret and pity. (I’ll have more to say on that, later.) The best Star Wars movies to me are still the first two that were made: Episode IV, A New Hope (ANH), and Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back (ESB).

I put TFA on par with Episode VI, Return of the Jedi (RoTJ), which I’ll call the weakest of the first three movies. In RoTJ, I really like the Jabba’s palace sequence in the beginning, and the coda of  Luke vs. Vader vs. Palpatine. But the Ewoks and the second death star sequence are parts of the movie where Star Wars starts to flatline for me. The reason for this is because both sequences could be excised from the film, replaced with almost any other side stories, without losing any of the impact of the denouement involving Luke. The two first films have story beats that all move the story forward to the final act, and each part feeds into the rest of the story, moving it forward. RoTJ and TFA are on par, then, for me, as the good parts are iconic and as good as it gets, and then there are parts I felt were there to fill time and justify a lot of effects being used.

I’m keeping this review opaque to avoid spoilers, so I’m going to talk about broad plot points, but I’m avoiding specifics on which character in context something happening might refer to.

What the movie gets right: the idea of the Force. There are no midichlorians in this one, thank the maker. The Force is mysterious, but it is a relatable fable of faith. Relatable, I mean, because whether you are Christian, Muslim, or believe in ineffable existentialism, etc., the Force is a metaphor for a deeper meaning to existence than merely existing. There is a power fantasy to the protagonists and antagonists being able to use the Force to do amazing, even supernatural things, and to continuously overcome unrealistic odds. The Force being mystical is what raises this story approach above just a matter of characters randomly having super powers with no context. The Jedis are not super heroes, but remain grounded in an older, chivalric idea of heroism.

The new characters are defined and contrasted well, distinctly drawn with personalities, and I think they all have staying power for future films, if they return. (No spoilers!) I find I can care about what happens to the new characters: Poe, Rey, and Finn. Rey is the seemingly orphaned girl was left behind on a desert planet, who exhibits a terror of being abandoned, which makes her plight heartening, and one with which the audience can clearly sympathize. This is a heroine with an arc. Similarly for Finn, who makes a momentous decision to leave behind the life he knew as a stormtrooper to on a journey of discovery as well.

The pacing is very fast, but that is how it was in the original films, too. We barely get to know Poe, Finn, and Rey before they are out having adventures. I liked that. I liked the way the ships looked. I liked how the world felt a little worn and lived-in. These are characters that are relatable. It’s the simplest concept to understand, but it’s no small feat to pull off on a scale like this.

Han Solo was used well. Harrison Ford got to play the character as an old grizzled cowboy, and it was tonally perfect. This is Han with the right motivation to be doing what he is doing, for getting in the trouble he does, and perfectly understandable for why he heads into a fight and adventure without looking back. I was surprised at how much Han and Chewie there were in the film, but it’s what the fans wanted to see, and I found every bit of it worked.

As far as Kylo Ren, I thought the new villain was handled perfectly. Going back and watching ANH, Vader is kind of an enigma in the film. He is a mostly quiet, armored badass who spends much of the time sulking in the corner. He is clearly intimidating, but also someone that the Imperial military commanders feel comfortable in talking back to, or arguing with – even if Vader gets a little force-chokey. Ren is a very well-conceived villain that calls back to this early relationship that Vader had with Tarkin. He is not a single dictator, nor is he just a cool-looking character with no personality like Darth Maul. He’s a powerful villain: scary, but also unstable; he’s young, angry, troubled, and unsure whether he can measure up to Vader’s legacy. This was the best approach I think could be taken for this character.

Okay, being spoiler free: there are deaths. I thought they were handled as well as they could be. We want to see deaths have meaning, and when heroes die heroically, then it is all the better.

A good review which I pretty much entirely agree with by the panel at RedLetterMedia points out that this movie could be considered what Hollywood is calling a “soft reboot” much in the way the Jurassic Park movie this year similarly was not a full reboot, but a fourth sequel to an original trilogy, leading to a new trilogy. In that sense, TFA left me a little deflated. For one, in order to propel the story forward, and to even have an existential threat of an evil empire, there is the implication that what was so hard fought and won in the first trilogy didn’t work out, which is a downer. This reviewer at io9 pointed it out, and I agree, that it does leave one a little disappointed that it is implied that the main characters had an unhappy resolution at the end of RoTJ. Nevertheless, it works. Forward, we go.

::|:: Nerdy Nit-Picking ::|::

So, on disappointments, I have some. For one, the whole obvious call-outs to previous movies just was a little dull. Another super weapon, semi death-star kind of thing? I couldn’t help but think of J.J. Abram’s 2009 Star Trek – another soft-reboot – and Nero and his planet-crunching mining vessel. Beat-for-beat, they are so similar, that I believe that if you were to see this movie without knowing that it was directed by J.J. Abrams, you might guess it from the shockingly repetitive motif here compared to Star Trek.

The biggest gripe I have with the super-weapon is that when you keep upping the ante of super-weapons being more powerful and more intimidating, the less tension you have to play with for the next one. It’s the old “turn it up to 11” conundrum when you want to get louder than loudest.

None of these super-weapons will ever pack the emotional impact of the Death Star in ANH. When Tarkin started blowing up planets, it was a direct reference to fears in the real world. It was a specific callback to the massacres of World War 2, and a very clear analogy to threats of nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads in the 1970s. In ANH, we got not only the cries of Leia when Alderaan is destroyed, but we also see Obi-Wan become instantly upset from feeling the genocide of Alderaan through the Force. All this happens while Tarkin chews the scenery just right – he is practical, rational, so seemingly civilized – and he practically twists his mustache with delight.

In TFA, I don’t get exactly why the First Order wants to destroy planets, and I don’t feel invested in deaths here at all, even though one has to assume they are way up into the millions. If we see the same plot device hit over and over in each movie, each time supposedly raising the stakes, the amount of destruction in this fake world gets depressing, and rather than get invested in it, I just start feeling numb and realize “it’s just a movie.”

It’s ironic that it takes this turn, because otherwise the movie starts out treating deaths very well. The movie establishes in the first scene that deaths are individually a tragic thing, and we see how a single death in the context of a battle is still devastating, even while hundreds of deaths occur around it. I found the cruel, personal deaths, such as the stormtroopers killing innocents in a village as a matter of policy, all made it very clear that the First Order were the bad guys. I was more moved by this than the super-weapon sub-plot.

On a more cynical note, as I watched yet another X-Wing going into trenches to blow up a MacGuffin, I sensed that this was showing me exactly what the video game that comes out eventually will involve. I won’t quibble that it looked very good. In another way that it stands out as superior to the prequels, it didn’t try to go over the top by shoving hundreds and hundreds of ships on screen. Special effects and CGI-wise, it was very well done, because it the right amount of minimalism to be enjoyable. No complaints, technically. Full cheers. However, this part of the storyline just didn’t introduce anything new to me. So I was fine in watching a repeat, but that toe-hold to realistic danger just wasn’t there for me.

The cold war and WW2 analogies from the first movie are a little stale now. The unhinged, unpredictable, violence of a group of fanatics is the kind of thing which is truly scary nowadays; ISIS is a more unnerving threat than a fascist empire. And the storyline filled that role perfectly with an unhinged Kylo Ren. That was already accomplished. A super-weapon sub-plot in the movie added nothing to the tension for me.

A note here on Rey, and I say this isn’t a spoiler beyond what anyone has seen from the trailer. As others have pointed out, I found that there wasn’t much tension with her scenes given that she was just very good at everything that she did. Look, I’m all for “grrrl power” in sci-fi, and enjoyed Rey just for the character that she was. I could accept, for instance, that she was very good at tinkering with gizmos, given that she was a scavenger and mechanic. I bought that she was a skilled fighter and survivor, and she could defend herself from attackers with a melee staff. Still, it was a bit too much that she was also an expert pilot right away. I could have used a throw-away line that she had worked as a freighter pilot on weekends or something, just to make it a little more believable that she could jump into a pilot seat and do barrel rolls in a spaceship.

Much has been made of Luke being a whiney kid in ANH, but that was part of the journey: Luke had to earn Han Solo’s respect. Having Rey show up and instantly earn the respect from other characters because she is so very good at her job was a little weak, story-wise.

::|:: Post-Credit Thoughts ::|::

A last word on the prequels. Walking out of the theater last night, I reflected that I was glad they got the Force right in this one, and then I felt an immense sadness. What a waste of an opportunity the prequels were. I will just note that after seeing TFA, the prequels really come through as just not actually proper movies, but at best could be called experimental films.

I keep thinking, again, how this movie will be constantly compared to the prequels. I kind of wince at that. George Lucas probably feels very hurt and defensive how much more this film will be adored, compared to Episodes I-III.

Quibbles with the prequels are an art unto themselves. Yes, Lucas should have invited more draft revisions to his script, and yes, should have asked someone else to direct, and yes, should have used practical sets and locations to add a sense of reality. Those drawbacks are all on him and maybe his handlers. I feel bad, because, after seeing TFA, I reminded again at how much the original movie was a triumph of using pastiche so successfully, so George Lucas still gets more credit for creating Star Wars than I would give J.J. Abrams for refining it.

There is no character design as “cool” looking in TFA as Darth Maul or General Grievous. But the new characters, Finn, Rey, Poe, and Kylo Ren, all have arcs in which we feel invested, which was completely missing from the prequels. I can easily imagine the prequels being cut up an interspersed as cut scenes for a first-person shooter game wherein you play the part of Obi-Wan Kenobi. I grieve for what a waste it was with Ewan MacGregor playing Obi-Wan, that he wasn’t given a proper journey with which we in the audience could relate to.

The prequels contained beautifully rendered worlds, spaceships, and underwater cities. As digital art, they were magnificent. As settings for a drama performed in front of green screen, they were just flat. This isn’t for lack of any talent Lucas’ team had in creating worlds, but a lack of foresight that the movies weren’t going to work being done the way they were being attempted with purely digital settings. The prequels would have worked better just as cartoons, or produced as video games.

::|:: Bottom Line ::|::

The Force Awakens is easily the fourth best movie in the franchise, and it could be argued it is above Return of the Jedi. I happen to think not, though. RoTJ is crucial to paying off the storyline of ESB. And any Star Wars movie is going to exist in a tough creative space to judge, seeing as it will exist somewhere between The Empire Strikes Back, which is simply one of the best movies of all time, and above the unfortunate prequels.


I’ll Probably Never Like Games As Much As This Guy

Just wrapping a few year-end posts. I love things made with metal and gears and springs. I never have been a competent wrencher on my car. (Pulling out Distributor caps that look as ragged as Caine’s brain when Murphy yanked it out has happened to me twice.)  I love the idea of this this thing.

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.