Reviews: Star Trek Deepspace Nine

A Bell Curve of Quality

Star Trek: Deep Space 9 is slow to start. The first episode is outright dreadful, with Captain Benjamin Sisko spending a vast percentage teaching the concept of time to pretentious, antagonistic (and later plot-relevant) energy beings. The first two seasons in general are burdened with the show attempting, and often failing, to find its feet. There are a fair number of individually excellent episodes, but the main story arcs are split between the Bajorans, whose troubles and suffering pile up to the point of absurdity, and the Marquis, who are unpleasant, self-righteous terrorists fighting even less sympathetic Space Nazis.

The show really picks up with the Dominion War arc, which is simply superb. I have very little respect for Roger D. Moore's work on the "reimagined" Battlestar Galactica, but here I believe the Trek license constrained his worst impulses in an ultimately beneficial manner. We're treated to an unprecedented panorama of the Star Trek universe, full of Big Decisions, Lasting Consequences, Epic Space Battles and, perhaps rarest of all, genuine character progression. It's wonderful while it lasts.

Regrettably, the writers and/or producers appeared to balk at the change to the typical Trek formula at the 11th hour. The 6th and especially 7th seasons regularly abandon the Dominion War and "prophet" plots in favor of irrelevant crap with Vic Fontaine or last-minute soap opera relationship problems. Dukat, who up until the last couple seasons convincingly served as a prototype for Farscape's Scorpius, essentially becomes the Antichrist. Sisko is burdened with odd Christ parallels, and Ezri revives a will-they-or-won't-they plot that was satisfactorily concluded seasons ago. Everything is finally wrapped up in a giant flurry of activity which comes across as nothing so much as an entire eighth season compressed into a few hours.

Still, through it all DS9 manages to deliver far more excellent episodes than any other incarnation of Trek, overwhelmingly when it remembers to stick with its own story arcs.

Season 2: Foundations and Whispers

It was at this point that DS9's foundation was laid. The politics of Bajor became a larger focal point, the characters took on new depths, and most importantly, there were whispers of a shadowy force at work in the Gamma Quadrant, and it was turning its attention towards the wormhole . . .

The story arcs began to gain prominence this season, and I welcomed this change. It was good to see the writers taking more risks, and while it didn't reach the point that DS9 would become known for, it was far closer than Season 1. There was a noticeable shift in the layout of the season, however, that is best expressed through the episode 'Playing God'. The title refers to the B-plot, but when the original script was written, it was meant to be the A-plot. It was your standard TNG plot about a proto-universe, and whether they should destroy it or not. The A-plot, however, was a character piece for Jadzia. Neither worked very well, but that's beside the point. It showed that DS9 was moving away from the trappings of its predecessor, and focusing more on character development. In fact, most of the episodes this season were character pieces, a welcome change from the last year.

A noticeable change that helped this was the improvement in the actors. Rom, originally a smug jerk, became the lovable doofus we all remember him as, and the lower deck crewmembers improved as well. The alien guests from the wormhole were rarer this season, but made up for their sparsity with stronger performances, helped by the improved writing. The stand-out in the 'guest' cast, however, is of course Andrew Robinson's Garek. The production team wisely noticed how well he stood out in the first season, and let us slowly learn more and more about him. We don't get every question answered (and we never will, but it's better that way), but we start to get an idea of who he is and what he did to get exiled.

The main cast improved all around this season. Siddig El Fadil finally gets better writing for Bashir, and holds his own when sharing the screen with Robinson. The problem is, it's tough to distinguish where the writers are improving, and where the actors are. The improved writing helps to bring out better performances, thus, everyone steps up.

Overall, this season wasn't the strongest, but it was a major improvement, and further seasons continued this trend.

Season 1: Learning to Stand Still

Season 1 of DS9 is often sighted as the weakest, and it's easy to see why. The writers, coming off 5 seasons of TNG, were used to writing for a show about explorers. The problem was that DS9 wasn't a show about explorers, but builders, a recurring theme throughout the series. Because this was unfamiliar territory, a lot of the season feels like they were throwing around ideas and trying to see what stuck. Episodes like 'Q-Less' and 'Move Along Home' proved that the TNG style just wasn't workable for this show, and sadly remain some of its most disappointing efforts. However, episodes like 'Captive Pursuit', 'Duet', and 'In the Hands of the Prophets' proved that when DS9 was willing to move away from its sister show, it was capable of doing interesting, if not always great, stories. Thankfully, these would be the episodes that later seasons would look to for inspiration, and allowed DS9 to form its own unique identity.

The characters this season, for the most part, are alright. The main cast give the strongest performances, as the guest actors, especially the recurring ones (aside from the Cardassians), were fairly poor and inconsistent. A special mention must be made for Siddig El Fadil, for doing his best to make Bashir likable in spite of the poor writing for his character. Armin Shimmerman and René Auberjonois have great chemistry, and play brilliantly off each other. Placing Colm Meany in the head Engineer role was genius, as it not only lead to a great performance, it built on an already strong character. Terry Farrell seems to be the weak link of the season, as she's never given much to chew on, even in episodes that are supposed to be about Jadzia. Contrast this with Nana Visitor, who, while not having much to do in most episodes, delivers one of the show's strongest performances in 'Duet'. The best out of the bunch though, is clearly Avery Brooks, despite the fact that he never really got an episode to himself beyond 'Emissary', which was already packed full with exposition.

Overall, while this was a very rocky season, it had great characters, and it laid an important foundation to DS9's future greatness.

A lot of spinach before cake

I grew up in the nineties, when it seemed a given that Star Trek would be on TV forever. I'm glad I experienced TNG and and Deep Space Nine when I did. The whole Babylon 5 scandal was unknown to me; I thought Deep Space Nine was off the hook, yo. Shadowy sets, darker uniforms, tough amazon babes...

Having rewatched it as an adult, the Odo/Quark catfights proved timeless... and yet Dax made me want to strangle myself with my extension cords. But that's my opinion; a lot of people dig Jadzia and Ezri, and I wouldn't go around besmirching them online if I were you.

The show took forever to find its feet. The irony is that with all the criticism of DS9 being the weakest or least memorable Trek show, the show invariably sucked whenever it was aping TNG. Unfortunately, this is most prevalent in the first two seasons. The writers dragged out the tired Maquis arc, Monsters of the Week, John de Lancie, Borg, the works. This is not to say that DS9's original ideas were all that hot; on the whole, I find anything involving the Bajorans to be a total bore. They're a glorified hat. The immortal life of Dax was a cool concept, but fell flat on its face thanks to Terry Farrell's dreadful acting (though she greatly improved by the last season — just in time to screw over the writers and quit).

That said, I urge everybody to stick with it. It's painful having to watch those wheels turn and grind their way toward their goal. But eventually it pays off. For me, it was the addition of Worf in "The Way of the Warrior." Rather than throw everything into chaos, the actors hardly miss a beat with Worf around. It was also a second pilot of sorts, a way of re-introducing the expanded cast.

Deep Space 9: So past the final frontier, it sometimes hurts.

There's often fights about what makes Trek what it is. Nowhere is that debate more polarising than when it's coupled with this series, often leading to verbal skirmishes (and sometimes even warfare.). The reason the fighting is so fierce is that very few people can argue with the fact that this series is the best critically-rated series of Trek and that for most of the time the characters and writing were superb; yet that doesn't mean that they personally enjoyed it. I'll say where I fall on the issue at the end, but for now we should focus on the show itself.

DS 9 was a show that was based around conflict and consequences. This was a complete departure from the usual Trek model, where the Federation flies in, attempts to fix a problem, pontificates, then shoots off into the distance. For the most part, you did not get consequences, nor conflict between the crew. If you wanted the crew to rebel, you stuck leeches in their ears or let William Shatner direct. (Star Trek V, I'm looking squarely in your direction here). The Next Generation was the show that kept to, but altered the model most, showing that the consequences of big decisions still hang over Picard, Data, Hugh and Wesley. (Even making Wes a better character)

In DS 9, the station where everyone knows your name, everything hangs over the characters. It may not be referenced, but actions and words last long after they're created. Some chatacters don't like each other. Some do, but can't admit it. A former spy and retired murderer lives on the station, but because he's useful, witty and charming he gets away with it. It was almost as if the show was created to bend and shatter the utopia that Gene Roddenbury created,

Personally, I don't think so, but even if it did I wouldn't say it was a bad thing. When Roddenbury's vision became strong enough to become dogmatic, it led to many bad things. The Prime Directive became sacred law instead of a guideline, and we got Star Trek: TMP and the first two series of TNG. DS 9 questioned them to breathe new life into the world, to make us think about it. In many ways, the world of Star Trek feels better when you establish the good points of the utopia, as well as the bad. For me, DS 9 is both a great series, and a great Trek series. And if you disagree, I'm sure many of you will agree with half of that statement.