Friday, April 27, 2018

Deep Space Nine: An Appreciation

I am not a Trekkie, nor a Trekker.  I don't collect figurines, go to conventions, do cosplay, or speak Klingon.  But I am a big fan of the franchise.  I know who Deanna Troi is.  And Harry Mudd.  And Jake Sisko.  I know King Hussein was an extra on one episode of Voyager, and that Iggy Pop once appeared on Deep Space Nine (DS9) as a Vorta.  I've talked for hours about the show with a lot of people like myself.  Not Trekkers or Trekkies, but fans.

I don't remember ever not knowing about Star Trek.  I was born in 1970 when the original Star Trek (TOS) was fresh off the air, but it quickly entered into syndication and has probably never been off the air since.  I'm sure I caught some episodes of TOS and the animated series as a kid.  My first real memory though, is from the time I was in high school.  We'd finish the school day at 2:45.  I'd hop into my '76 Toyota Corolla and speed home, just in time to plop down onto the couch and catch the daily episode shown at 3 PM on Channel 44 WTOG in Tampa.

When The Next Generation (TNG) was announced, I was stoked and waited with great anticipation for the pilot episode.  I must have watched it religiously at first, but I eventually stopped watching it regularly as it came out, but I would often catch the reruns late at night, bleary-eyed with beer.

I also saw the pilot of DS9 but soon stopped watching it. (Same goes for Voyager and Enterprise). At the time I wasn't particularly smitten, just kind of ho-hum.  I preferred Voyager when it eventually appeared.  Of all the franchises, DS9 was my least favorite.  I kind of even bad-mouthed it for a while and had friendly arguments with a friend with whom I'd seen a lot of TNG; he thought it was the best series in the franchise.

Fast Forward 20 years to 2018.  Recently separated from my wife, living alone with way too much time on my hands, I have access to my wife's Netflix account.  I watch a lot of stand-up and various series, before deciding to watch DS9 again.  Apparently, binge-watching DS9 has become something of a thing, but I hadn't known that.  It makes sense though, because it's the only Trek with a story arc spanning all seven seasons.  At 25 episodes a season, that's a lot of television.  But it's worth it.

Because DS9 is a station and not a ship, it logically stays in one place, which means there's a much larger chance that characters will reappear; DS9 isn't warping off to a new destination every episode, so there's a much greater need to develop that place and the characters who inhabit it.  Indeed, DS9 is the only series in the Trek franchise that has a continuous arc.  There are a number of two or even three-part episodes that must be watched together in order to follow the story.  Even the stand-alone episodes contribute to the arc, and there are many episodes that make no sense if you haven't seen the preceding episodes.  Many of these stand-alones can be watched alone and out of context and still be enjoyed, but they usually nuance, fill-in, or otherwise complete aspects of the overall story arc.

There are some episodes that have nothing to do with the arc, and these are quite often innovative and funny.  Like the episode where Quark and Rom take young Nog to Earth to enter Starfleet Academy.  Some kind of temporal distortion sends them back in time and it turns out they're the Roswell aliens.  Or in another time-travel tale in which the crew must capture a Klingon spy; in this episode they seamlessly integrate the characters into an actual episode from the original series.  They become background characters to the main action of the original episode and the actors in the original episode become background characters to the DS9 story.  It even has Sisko speaking to Kirk at some point.  In addition to being technically clever, there's something wonderful about seeing what happens outside of the frame, and hints at a larger "reality" beyond what it shown onscreen.

Then there's an episode in which Sisko enters another kind of reality and imagines himself to be a science fiction writer for a pulp magazine in the early 60's.  This turns out to be related to the arc, as he is communicating unbeknownst to him with "the Prophets", aliens who live in a wormhole and who in a way, created Sisko.  Turns out one of them "possessed" a woman who had a liaison with his father.

This episode deals with racism in a head-on way, and there's a scene where a young hoodlum (who in "reality" is Sisko's son) says, "Well I got news for you... today or a hundred years from now don't make a bit of difference – as far as they're concerned, we'll always be niggers."  Now, that may not seem so daring today, but remember, this is the 90's and that was a hard-hitting and bold thing to script.

Racism is addressed several times on the show, and deftly.  In later episodes Dr. Bashir creates a holographic version of a Vegas casino lounge and a Sinatra-like crooner.  The characters drink and pass time in this simulated reality in order to relax.  I remember thinking it was a bit louche to have black characters so at ease in a place where in reality they hadn't even been permitted to enter.  There's a famous story about the Sands not allowing Sammy Davis to enter.  Sinatra wouldn't hear of it and forced the issue, and no one messed with the COB.  Well, it turns out in a later episode Sisko is asked to join the team on a caper to help save the crooner Vic Fontaine, but Sisko refuses.  He explains that he doesn't want to play fantasy in a setting where in reality he wouldn't have been permitted.  It offends him to so glibly whitewash history.  But as his girlfriend explains, you don't have to forget history, and you can still play in it, not as things were but as they should have been.  Sisko does eventually join the caper, but Avery Brooks probably originally objected for the same reason as his character.  Once the issue is addressed, and people are made to face an ugly aspect of history, it's somewhat defused and we can watch the episode without a nagging sense of unease.  I certainly felt a bit of an affront to good conscience I'm not an especially PC guy.

DS9 is set on a station orbiting the planet Bajor, a planet which was occupied by a militaristic species, the Cardassians.  The station was built by Cardassia and has been handed over to the Federation after their withdrawal and a peace treaty between the two.  This allows for a goldmine of storytelling opportunities.  To keep from being to static and limited to this one system, a wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant is discovered.  This allows for two things.  First, it makes it possible for the show to incorporate a lot of new species, friendly and not so friendly, from an unknown part of the galaxy.  It makes the inclusion of so many new species believable.  Secondly, because of its strategic importance, it puts DS9 at the epicenter of a lot of action.  As it allows the species of the Alpha Quadrant to explore a vast new frontier, it makes it quite credible that a lot of familiar species would pass by or visit the station before moving on:  Klingons, Romulans, Ferengi, etc.  There are not many appearances by the Vulcans, for some reason.

DS9 doesn't shy away from the dark realities of war:  occupation, war crimes, labor camps, genocide, terrorism, war orphans, lasting wounds both physical and psychic, PTSD, babies born of occupiers and occupied, "comfort girls", loyalty, treason, religious fanaticism, assassination, dirty tricks, sabotage, mind control, death, fear, hatred, guilt.

It's perhaps the darkest of the series (the most recent, Discovery excluded), the most complex and most nuanced.  The characters are the most believable, conflicted and portrayed with faults.  Yes, they're still bright go-getters of intense loyalty who constantly put their lives on the line for others, but they're simply much more complex.

The ensemble cast is probably the one with the most character development.  Characters fall in love, some get married, spouses and loved ones die.  Nog goes from a lazy n'er-do-well to a Starfleet officer.  The supporting cast is diverse and colorful as well, with a special nod to Garak, an exiled spy cum tailor with a gift for the gab.  The Cardassians all seem to enjoy the sound of their own voices, and this is especially true of Gul Dukat, an occupation leader and former commander of Deep Space Nine, then known as Tarak Nor.  His character arc is brilliant, as he goes from arrogant enemy, collaborator with the Dominion, briefly leader of Cardassia, to a megalomaniacal self-styled prophet obsessed with releasing the Pah Wraiths, who are essentially the Fallen Angels of the wormhole aliens, or Prophets.  Dukat goes from thinking of himself as a stern but fair benefactor of the Bajorans to a would-be savior, having his body modified to look like a Bajoran so he may move among them freely.  He becomes the lover of an immoral and self-serving Bajoran spiritual leader, who later exiles him to beg in the streets after being blinded by the Wraiths.  His sight is eventually restored, as is his Cardassian form, before being killed by Sisko.  Other Cardassians go from cold-blooded killers to redeemed freedom fighters working side by side with a former Bajoran terrorist.

DS9 does the most of any of the series to expand upon the galaxy: the politics, the culture, the nature of Starfleet, which is often portrayed as corrupt and beset by inner turmoil, including the nefarious Section 31, a black-ops unit that breaks all the rules of Starfleet and betrays all of its principles in order to save it.  And Starfleet turns a blind eye because they are at war.  Which is an important message.

There are darker, more complex and maybe better portrayals of war and its consequences, or of life in space and alien conflict, but DS9 is enjoyable almost down to an episode.  In the wake of DS9 I've started in on Voyager and I've already just half-watched several episodes.  There's some good stuff there as well and I like Janeway, but it's just doesn't have as compelling an arc and too many episodes are merely the "new planet, new dilemma" kind of discombobulated formula.  Their actions have consequences and past enemies return to haunt them, but every episode is pretty much a stand alone where on one day they've all gone through an incredible trauma and the next episode they're right as rain.

So, I've totally geeked out with a mediocre bit of fanboy enthusiasm, but there it is, unfiltered and still pretty much what I like about the show....

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