Sunday, June 3, 2012

What We Left Behind: A Look Back at “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”

I was upset this morning, as I was wrapping up a “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” rewatch that was several years in the making (I start a real job on Tuesday, I promise!), to discover that I missed the thirteenth anniversary of the series finale, “What You Leave Behind” by one day. So I’m doing a retrospective post anyway! “DS9” was unique among the Trek series in that it focused on a space station, as opposed to a starship. Because it was centered around one fixed point in space, the plots were necessarily deeper and continued over the longer term. The DS9 crew couldn’t escape many of their problems just be taking their ship to the next star system (although the addition of the Defiant in season three did make that a little easier). Oh, and did I mention it started the career of the incomparable TV writer/producer Bryan Fuller? He pitched the stories for two episodes in season 5.

Another thing that made the show rather unique was its diversity. This is really just part of the ethos of “Star Trek” in general taken to the next level. DS9 is located at a sort of crossroads to the Alpha Quadrant, and so species from all sorts of planets visit. In addition, the main cast of the show included several African American characters, an Arab character, and an Irish character. It was nice to see such diversity without it really being a topic of conversation or contention among the characters. It just was what it was. Additionally, the topics discussed in the show seem even more timely today than they did in the 1990s. There are stories that deal with the horrors of battle and compromising one’s morals in the middle of war. In an episode I watched just this morning, I was even reminded of our current national discussion on income inequality when Quark lamented, "What happened to survival of the fittest? What happened to the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer? What happened to pure, unadulterated greed?"

What follows are ten of my favorite episodes of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” There are many others that are worthy of being on this list, but I was trying to pick a mix of all the things that made the show great. Let’s go back to June 2, 1999 and reminisce about the series in the “Star Trek” franchise that had the most ambitious story arcs, the deepest characters, and wasn’t afraid to go a little dark.


“Don’t you see it doesn’t change anything? Kill me, torture me- it doesn’t matter. You can never undo what I’ve accomplished. The dead will still be dead.”

“Duet,” taking place near the end of season one, for me marks the moment when DS9 truly found its own voice. For much of the season, each episode had been a short, simple contained story, much in the same style and tone as “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” There were an abundance of cameos from “TNG” characters such as Q, Vash, and Luxwanna Troi. It felt like the production team was trying to convince viewers to watch the show by making it as close as possible to something that was already a hit. All that changed with “Duet.” “Duet” went dark and complicated, with Kira struggling with how to handle the appearance of a Cardassian who may have been responsible for atrocities against her people, the Bajorans, at a famous labor camp. The episode is very theatrical, with Mauritza, the Cardassian in question, delivering long, dramatic monologues from his prison cell. This isn’t surprising, considering that the Star Trek franchise in general tended to draw actors from the theatre. This episode delved deep into moral ambiguity, with Kira struggling to decide if she should take this Cardassian at his word that he ran the labor camp, or if she should dig deeper and risk not giving her people the catharsis of a war crimes trial. At the end, the truth comes out, but it’s all for naught as another Bajoran kills Mauritza simply for the crime of being Cardassian. See what I mean? Heavy stuff.

Second Skin

“Treason, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.”

My second choice, season three’s “Second Skin,” also deals with Kira’s feelings about Cardassians. Because DS9 orbits Bajor, the long, violent history between the Bajorans and the Cardssians is a focal point of the show, especially in the early seasons before the Dominion of the Gamma Quadrant really became a threat. In “Second Skin,” Kira is kidnapped, surgically altered, and made to believe she might actually be a Cardassian agent of the Obsidian Order, all because the Order wanted to test the loyalty of a member of Central Command who had a daughter in the Order. What stands out about this episode is how even though Kira continues to insist she’s not Cardassian, and she refuses to cooperate with the Obsidian Order, she is able to develop a relationship with the Central Command Cardassian who is the subject of the sting operation. They very much become each other’s surrogate father and daughter, and for a Cardassian and a Bajoran, this is a big deal.

Past Tense (Parts 1 and 2)

“It’s not that they don’t give a damn. They’ve just given up. The social problems they face seem too enormous to deal with.”

When I first watched "Past Tense," probably sometime in 2008 or 2009, what I loved about it was the dystopian world-building. The San Francisco Sanctuary District A (basically the early 21st century version of an almshouse) is appropriately utilitarian and creepy, and a lot of care was taken in developing this version of the near future (the episode takes place in 2024). Anyone who knows me can confirm that I love dystopian future stories, so this was right up my alley. The overall plot is that Sisko, Bashir, and Dax get thrown back to 2024 San Francisco in a transporter accident. Because they’re found with no money or ID card, Sisko and Bashir are sent to the sanctuary district right in time for the Bell Riots, the historical event that would make Americans rethink social policy. Having gotten a master’s degree in social policy since the time I first watched this, my thinking about it has really changed. I still think it’s a spectacular two-part episode, but more for its social message. Bashir just can’t comprehend why people would let their fellow human beings live caged up in squalor rather than help them out, and there are days when I can’t comprehend it either. Normally I like my dystopian fiction completely dark and twisty, but I think the optimistic "Star Trek" perspective (we know, from the 24th century perspective, that people finally start caring and it gets better) is unique and really adds something to the story. We will only lose the battle for social justice if we lose hope that it can be achieved, and optimistic tales of the future like “Star Trek” are all too rare and help keep hope alive.

The Visitor

“It begins many years ago. I was 18, and the worst thing that could happen to a young man happened to me. My father died.”

If this episode doesn’t make you at least a little teary, you seriously have no heart. “The Visitor” is a very moving story centering on Jake and Ben Sisko. The story is told from the perspective of Jake as an old man, who explaining to an aspiring author who came to visit why he stopped writing. We learn that Ben seemingly died in an accident when the Defiant was near the wormhole, but he continued to haunt Jake through the rest of his life. Ben was sort of unstuck in time, and every once in a while, he’d appear in the same place as Jake. This derailed Jake’s life every time it happened, because it fed his obsession with rescuing his father. Eventually, when he’s a very old man, Jake realizes that he has to cut the temporal “cord” between himself and Ben, and when that happens, Ben will go back to the time of the accident and be able to avoid it. This happens by making sure he dies right as Ben is in the same point of time. It’s heartbreaking to see Ben cradle his son as he dies, and it’s just as moving to see Ben’s relief when he’s finally back together with the younger Jake. Tony Todd (who you might also know from season one of “Chuck”) gives a masterful performance as older Jake in this classic episode.

Our Man Bashir

“I only want to point out that your lovely companion is leaving. Odd, she seemed so interested in your advances just a moment ago. I wonder what scared her away?”

“Our Man Bashir” is a great DS9 episode because it let much of the cast have fun as completely different characters. It also gave us some very intriguing insight into the character of Garak. Bashir has recently gotten a pseudo-James Bond holosuite program, and he’s been spending so much time playing it that Garak invites himself to play so he can see what all the fuss is about. A former real-life secret agent, Garak doesn’t take too kindly to Bashir’s idea of play. The situation gets more complicated when terrorist sabotage on a runabout forces Eddington and Odo to save the transporter patterns of Sisko, Kira, Dax, and O’Brien in the station’s computer. The holosuite is the best place to store their physical patterns, so characters in Bashir’s game start taking on the likeness of the DS9 crew. If any of them are allowed to die in-game, their patterns may be erased for good, so Bashir has to use all his smarts and creativity to get everyone through alive. What’s fun about DS9 episodes is that unlike "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the stakes don’t come from a holodeck malfunction. Sure, this is still life-and-death (unlike another holodeck episode I’ll be talking about later), but the set-up is different. I appreciate the creativity. I also like the 1960s mod setting. It fits Bashir’s personality well, or to be more precise, it fits what he would like to be.

Trials and Tribble-ations

“I lied to Captain Kirk! I wish Keiko could've been here to see it.”

When I was a little kid, my very favorite episode of "Star Trek" was “The Trouble With Tribbles.” Whenever my parents and I went to the video store on the corner (gotta love the 1980s!), I would ask to rent it. Well, I’d ask for that or “Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown.” So it’s no surprise that one of my favorite DS9 episodes is an homage to the classic. In this story, a time travel incident involving the Bajoran Orb of Time sends the DS9 crew (while on board the Defiant) back to the 23rd Century just in time for Captain Kirk’s legendary battle against the furballs known as Tribbles. It turns out that Arne Darvin, the Klingon operative uncovered in the original episode, wants to kill Kirk as revenge for decades of humiliation he’s endured since the original incident, and it’s up to the DS9 crew to stop him without messing up the timeline too badly. This works as an homage for several reasons. A lot of care was put into the production values. Original sets and costumes were lovingly recreated for many scenes. Additionally, the whole thing is just a lot of fun. The DS9 crew thinks it’s pretty nifty to be in the 23rd century on Kirk’s Enterprise, and it takes all their willpower not to have too much fun with it for fear of messing up the timeline. It’s clear that everyone involved in this episode loved the original just as much as I do, and I really appreciate that.

You Are Cordially Invited…

“It’s a Klingon bachelor party. You’re a writer. Use your imagination.”

As you can probably tell from the above quote, this episode featured Jadzia and Worf’s wedding. Worf and some of the guys were having a Klingon “bachelor party” (involving fasting and bloodletting, of course), while Jadzia was trying to win the approval of Sirella, the Mistress of the House of Martok. Jadzia can’t take Sirella’s constant criticism, and the wedding is almost entirely called off. The big event does happen by the end of the episode, thanks to a last-minute save by Martok and Sisko, and Bashir and O’Brien are only too happy to get to the ceremonial beating of the happy couple (with padded sticks) at the conclusion of the ceremony. I think it’s the “bachelor party” that earned this episode a spot on my list. O’Brien, Bashir, Sisko, and Alexander suffering while trying to save face with Worf and Martok is rather hilarious. And it’s hilarious in a pathetic way when Bashir and O’Brien have to give up the huge meal they ordered from Quark’s once the wedding is back on and they have to resume fasting. The Klingon ceremony, even though the costuming and the hair (especially the hair...this is the United States…unlike Canada, the 80’s had left by 1993) left something to be desired, with its sentiment of two beating hearts being so strong they could conquer the world, was rather beautiful.

Far Beyond the Stars

“For all we know, at this very moment, somewhere, far beyond all those distant stars, Benny Russell is dreaming of us.”

“Far Beyond the Stars” is a memorable episode because it afforded most of the cast the opportunity to play different characters in a completely different setting for one episode. It was fun to see the actors who usually play aliens out of make-up, such as Rene Auberjonois, Michael Dorn (who can apparently be charismatic when not playing Worf), Armin Shimerman, J.G. Hertzler, Aron Eisenberg, Mark Alaimo, and Jeffrey Coombs. Sisko is having a bit of a crisis of faith, and he’s considering leaving DS9. In response, the Prophets make him experience a vision where he is 1950s sci-fi writer Benny Russell, who desperately wants his stories about Ben Sisko and Deep Space Nine to be published. The problem, however, is that the editor (and later the publisher) of the sci-fi magazine Benny works for doesn’t think the country is ready for stories about an African American captain. Because he’s so invested in this world, Benny doesn’t take setbacks well. Like I said, I personally enjoy this episode because it is a change of pace and the cast was clearly relishing the opportunity to play new characters in such a different setting. The episode does, however, also serve as a very important meditation on race. It’s similar to “Past Tense” in the sense that it tries to paint an optimistic picture by framing the story with a 24th century viewpoint. In the 24th century, Ben Sisko is able to be a Captain. It does, and needs to, get better.

Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang

“Robbing casinos isn't part of any Starfleet job description I've ever read.”

I like this particular episode because it’s the last bit of fun the DS9 crew gets to have before the big, final Dominion War arc kicks in and ends the series. Vic Fontane, the crew’s favorite holographic lounge singer, is in trouble when South Philly mobster Frankie Eyes takes over Vic’s club. The crew has to put together an Ocean’s Eleven-style caper to help Vic and get the club back. It’s clear when you watch the episode that the cast just had so much fun with it. They got to dress up all 1960s glam and strut down the corridors of DS9. It’s pretty boss. I love caper movies and TV shows in general (“Sneakers” is one of my favorite movies, and I’m a devoted watcher of “Leverage,” even if I don’t cover it here on the blog), so this was right up my alley. I love the fun and joy inherent in caper stories. The joy in this particular episode extends beyond the caper. Once the DS9 crew succeeds in restoring Vic’s club to its former state, Vic puts on a celebratory concert, and none other than Captain Sisko himself joins in for a rousing rendition of the old standard “The Best is Yet to Come.”

What You Leave Behind

“Isn’t it obvious? Here we are ready to storm the castle, willing to sacrifice our lives in the noble effort to slay the Dominion beast in its lair, and we can’t even get inside the gates.”

“What You Leave Behind” is arguably the best of the Trek finales. This is most likely because DS9 so embraced arc storytelling. There were ongoing stories to wrap up that we were invested in and an extended cast of colorful characters to whom we needed to say goodbye. The finale saw the Dominion defeated once and for all and the Pah Wraiths contained to the Fire Caves, but at a heavy cost. At the end of the episode, Worf, O’Brien, and Odo are leaving the station for bigger and better things, Worf as Federation Ambassador to the Klingon Empire, O’Brien as a Professor of Engineering at Starfleet Academy, and Odo to the Great Link. And Captain Sisko ascends to the Celestial Temple to become a Prophet. It’s a bittersweet ending, and it is extremely emotionally affecting. It reminds us that no matter how spectacular a certain point in time may be, nothing lasts forever and life keeps moving on. We see in the closing minutes of the episode how the station will keep on keeping on. Kira’s hassling Quark about his latest moneymaking scheme, and Bashir and Ezri are preparing for a new battle on the Holosuite (not the Alamo, because that would be disrespectful to O’Brien). The episode leaves viewers with some closure but also with the sense that there are many more stories left to be told.

No comments:

Post a Comment