And so after my 2018 “best of” watch of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it’s now the turn of the big space saga, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine!
DS9 celebrated its 25 year anniversary last year and its celebratory documentary “What We Left Behind” is getting a wide release later this year. While The Next Generation competes with The Original Series as the most widely known Star Trek in the general public, DS9 enjoys a very good reputation among those who have indeed seen it and a lot of other science fiction television. TOS and TNG are the gateway series through which people get acquainted with Star Trek (I wonder if that’s true of Discovery today?), and would only get to DS9 afterwards; DS9 is more of a niche show however both audience and reputation seem to have grown since it first aired, to the point that many claim it is the best Star Trek out there. It is thus with great interest that I approach DS9 after being greatly impressed by TNG!
I will risk saying “DS9 in 2019“, however I might not quite finish before the end of the year (and the upcoming Picard series!). DS9 is more serialized so I’m not skipping episodes and… 176 episodes is an impressive heap. There’s a lot of material ahead of me — these were the 1990s and 26-episode seasons were the norm, and you can often feel that writers were just throwing stuff on the page just to reach their quota and fill the standard strict 46-minute episode. The beginnings of DS9 were also quite rough and there seems to be general agreement that it doesn’t get really good until season 3, same as TNG; in the age of abundanceTV it would be easy to skip the first seasons completely, but I’m willing to be more patient than with a series from today. When approaching such a monument of television one has to be more lenient than with modern shows, where if it hasn’t hooked you good within 4 episodes it’s off the watchlist. One has to accept that writers were actually figuring out what the series and the characters were about in front of your eyes during the early episodes, instead of planning their vision with precision before even approaching people to finance their show. That’s just how series were structured.
Also, full disclosure: yes, I have watched Babylon 5 and I do consider it to be a crowning achievement of science fiction television and of television narration in general! Comparisons of B5 and DS9 will be inevitable but I will try to be fair and consider DS9 for its own worth while discussing how each series might have influenced each other. B5 (1993-1998) and DS9 (1993-1999) were both about space stations named with a number, based close to a key strategic wormhole, acting as forces of peace while a plethora of alien races meet, until a big war becomes an inevitability, in which ancient alien prophecies make the captain of the station instrumental in the resolution. That much I know about DS9 and it’s impossible to ignore what are most likely influences from B5. The rest, the details and characters and situations and dialogue, is surely original to DS9 and can be attributed to the creativity of its writers, who wanted to do something different compared to TOS and TNG.
So, on to my general impressions at discovering DS9 season 1 (1993):
DS9 was launched by TNG veterans Michael Piller and Rick Berman at what I guess was the height of Star Trek’s popularity in the early 1990s. TNG was at the peak of it audience, the TOS movies were wrapping up, and the franchise was expanding to an unprecedented third show!
DS9 season 1 ran parallel to TNG season 6, with I think directly an engagement to do six seasons (!). So they took their time. This beginning is all about just getting to know the station and the characters, without any bigger ambition to tell a larger story. Frankly there are few episodes that stand out for me in this first season, and already my memory begins to fade on many of them after having watched them over the past month. Instead of individual episodes, what is more memorable and likable are individual scenes and character moments scattered here and there. Excellent little confrontations between two characters with good dialogue and acting can be lost among an episode whose main plot is otherwise forgettable. B-stories can be more interesting in what we learn about the characters and their growth than the A-stories. In particular, I really enjoyed the interactions between Odo and Quark (and their acting, despite all that makeup!), the goofiness of Jake and Nog, and the humour arising from Bashir‘s self-confidence; I find less things to enjoy in the rest of the characters (Sisko, Dax, Kira, O’Brien).
Stories can leave an impression on what the world of DS9 and Star Trek as a whole feels like instead of being strong episodes of television. Thus, early DS9 works with accumulation. At the end of the season we feel we know the station quite well, we understand the complex situation of the Bajoran/Cardassian/Federation politics, we can predict how characters might react to a situation, we feel part of the world. That might not have been the effect the writers and producers might be striving for, as at that point the objective was not to prepare the stage for a larger continuing story. They were trying to do the best television they could, trying to build and keep an audience, but they are still finding their marks. For me, apart from the last two episodes I couldn’t tell you which ones I would recommend for watching. If I didn’t have the promise that the series will become better I wouldn’t be quite sold to continue watching.
DS9 season 1 is also very markedly trying to do things differently compared to TNG. It’s not only that it’s not the same characters but the overall philosophy is different. The setting itself is alien and weird — it is a Cardassian-designed space station — instead of the safe and warm Federation flagship the Enterprise. People argue a lot and raise their voices at each other, no calming influence of Picard here; in some cases this comes out as artificial and just there to make things different to TNG. Several characters are not Federation and don’t have to follow Starfleet‘s moral code, they just act out of self-interest (Quark and the Ferengi are the incarnation of the perfect capitalist) or do questionable things to attain their goal (Odo and his sympathies for fascist-like law and order) or just think different (Kira and her Bajoran sensibilities). Even Commander Sisko, who is a Starfleet officer, might twist the rules quite a bit to get what he wants if he believes that’s what’s best, and gets away with it because he gets those working under him to agree with the overall direction even if that means hiding or lying about the “details” in official reports. All of this is diametrically opposed to the world of TNG! Mind you, there are no anti-heroes here and there are no scenes where characters make extremely reprehensible decisions. DS9 is not a “dark, gritty” show like the ones that became more common in the 2000s decade. However, the seeds of moral relativism compared to TNG‘s absolutism are all here. The DS9 characters are humans with flaws (or, well, humanoid), not super-humans who keep striving for perfection. It is an interesting departure from what has come to define Star Trek, and I wonder how this will be exploited in future seasons.
There are many elements of TNG too: during season 1 we have a cameo from Captain Picard, visits from the Klingon Duras sisters, antics from Q and Picard’s archeologist friend Vash. And of course Chief O’Brien is a main character in the form of a promotion to chief engineer, and Keiko makes frequent appearances. Surely this was to make it easy for viewers to transition from TNG to DS9, and I expect there will be less references to the older show as DS9 starts standing on its own feet.
Compared to the plot-driven TNG, DS9 is much more character-driven. Stories are not that much about moral dilemmas and showcasing what is the choice of the utopian Federation, stories are more about a situation and what that reveals about the characters. This happens to the point where at the end some episodes we are left wondering “what was the point of the story?” or “how was this story Star Trek?”, as if some additional element was missing. Throughout season 1, I felt as if they built stories around a point they wanted to make on a particular character, but sometimes the dialogue, sometimes the execution, did not make the whole episode very good.
A key element that is missing is tight plotting and pacing. Many episodes have a lack of energy and they would gain a lot at being a few minutes shorter with tighter editing. We are of course talking about a show that is over two decades old, but still TNG at the same moment felt livelier and faster. I must say that the acting is uneven (with a special mention to Major Kira, who just…needs to improve…). The big sets are impressive and used well, you can tell that they try to amortize their initial investment! The production design and photography is similar to TNG but quite darker, in line with the central argument that things are not as clear-cut morally as in the bright world of TNG. I have to note that watching this coming off of the very beautiful primary colours of the HD restoration of TNG (and coming off of the very detailed and fast-paced The Expanse!), the VHS image quality of DS9 doesn’t help at all. It is not only the resolution, it is the overall picture quality (blurriness, lights that halo, little colour). This will be a major blocking point for getting newer generations to discover this show (same as with B5), and one can only hope for an HD restoration eventually.
I will conclude with some thoughts on the two-hour pilot.
1×01/02: Emissary: “You know, at first, I didn’t think I was going to like him!”
A very reluctant Commander Sisko arrives on DS9 and finds interest in his job when the first stable wormhole is identified. Star Trek always made a parallel with the conquest of the American West (the exploration, the frontier) and here it is as if we arrive on a frontier town: we have the new envoyé of the federal government (Sisko), the sheriff (Odo), the folkloric natives (Kira/Bajorans), the saloon manager (Quark), the law is not what it is in more “civilized” parts of the world and plenty of diverse characters pass by on their way to other places or to do business. TNG had accustomed us to a post-money society but here trade still takes place and apparently money still exists — I wonder how that all works with replicators existing everywhere, but I think that’s something the writers didn’t want us to spend too much time on. Let’s just say that the Federation is post-money and the replicators only work for authorized items like food and drink.
The setting and the background of the show is indeed interesting. Not only is there a wormhole to a large unexplored part of the galaxy, promising all kinds of adventures, there is also the delicate political situation of Bajor and Cardassia and the Federation stuck in the middle. Putting the Federation in such a position is very interesting. We have seen in TNG that tensions run very high between the Federation and the Cardassians and that peace is fragile. DS9 is based off some of TNG‘s best episodes: see Ensign Ro, where the Bajoran resistance and belief system is introduced; The Wounded, in which Starfleet officers cannot accept peace after all the horrors of war they have witnessed (O’Brien among them!); and the two-parter Chain of Command, which aired shortly before the DS9 pilot, in which Picard is tortured and the Cardassians are presented as formidable opponents. The Federation’s role in DS9 is to ensure a smooth transition after the Cardassians retreat from Bajor and the station, and Bajor starts being independent. But even vis à vis the Bajorans, Sisko’s orders are delicate: they are to be helped but they are not considered ready yet for integration into the Federation! This puts the Federation at times in the role of well-intentioned ally and at times in a position of unwanted nuisance from the point of view of the Bajorans. All of these excellent elements are introduced in the pilot, and promise future developments.
The main plot of the pilot is about the opening of the wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant — and what an impressive special effects shot that wormhole still is! Sisko discovers that the aliens living in the wormhole are the same as the Prophets of the Bajoran faith, in a rationalist twist typical of Star Trek — although the Bajorans still keep their faith unshaken at the end of the episode, which is not what might have happened in TNG. These aliens have a non-linear interpretation of time, which is an interesting and very classic-Trek concept; here this is used as a plot device to travel back and forth among important moments in Sisko’s life and to get us acquainted with who Sisko is. It was a very interesting decision on behalf of the writers to make Sisko a veteran of the war with the Borg that has been traumatized by this event, with the death of his wife. Not only does it link DS9 with one of TNG‘s most memorable moments (The Best of Both Worlds I and II), it also shows the big consequences of that war that we hardly saw in TNG and gives Sisko a reason to dislike and mistrust Picard. From the get go Sisko is a very different officer than Picard. He is reluctant to do his job (something unheard of in TNG!) and he is angry at his superiors. He is much more sentimental, in the sense that he can get really angry or get to smile very quickly, and show these feelings outwardly. He only fully accepts to be DS9‘s commander when the wormhole opens and, selfishly, this position becomes much more interesting. Now, as much as it tries to be diverse by making the lead actor black, DS9 is a product of American TV: what we learn of Sisko is all baseball, Californian beaches, picnics, a soap opera sensibility.
The director is David Carson, who also did some TNG and would soon do the film Star Trek Generations. Overall it’s a good pilot that gets the job done of introducing everyone, but in terms of pace, feeling, “punch”, it didn’t feel yet like the well-oiled machine that TNG got to be after a few seasons.
Well, Patrick Stewart and the Enterprise show up here for the launch of the sister series, same way DeForest Kelley appeared for the launch of TNG! Those shots of the Enterprise docked on DS9 were probably the same ones that were reused in TNG: Birthright I.
I will be back soon with more stories of settling in Deep Space 9!