ST:DS9 in 2019 : Season 2 (Part 3)

See Part 1 and Part 2. Capsule reviews of the final stretch of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine season 2 follow:

 

2×19: Blood Oath: “It is a good day to die.” “It’s never a good day to lose a friend.”

Not one, not two, but three Klingons from The Original Series return here! They are all from different episodes (Errand of Mercy, The Trouble with Tribbles, Day of the Dove) and I believe I have seen the first two but I really didn’t remember them at all (plus, they no longer look like Dr Fu Manchu stereotypes!). This is a Dax episode, where Jadzia Dax makes the choice to follow on a promise that Curzon Dax had made. The four go on a revenge trip against a common foe that has been escaping them for no less than eight decades. The three Klingons are old men, not the warriors they used to be, but face the prospect of death honourably, as Klingons do. In the process, Dax does things that should have had her expelled from Starfleet, but as often happens in DS9 the episode dwells very little on that… An OK episode, but I didn’t feel any particular emotional connection with the TOS characters; I guess this one is more appreciated by old-time fans.

 

2×20: The Maquis, Part I / 2×21: The Maquis, Part II: “It’s easy to be a Saint in paradise!”

Two very dense episodes! As with the three-part episode opening the season, DS9 writers start using the complex situation of the series’ setting to spin new stories. A large part of the episodes is all about presenting the different elements, as they are quite complex indeed: demilitarized buffer zones, ex-colonies changing jurisdictions, covert arms smuggling, a confusing Vulcan arms dealer, kidnappings, torturing, disgruntled Federation citizens, Federation and Cardassian ships not following their respective commands, Starfleet turning against Starfleet, the introduction of the Maquis. There’s the excellent Gul Dukat exploring the demilitarized zone with Sisko, there’s Dukat threatened by the Central Command then getting even by preventing a strike on a secret Cardassian arms cache by the Maquis, there’s a space fight and stand-off between multiple space ships. There’s a lot to absorb.

Yet… TNG managed to do it in a single episode, and in my opinion still produce a more impactful story. Just two weeks after these episodes aired, in an excellent move taking advantage of having two Trek shows on air simultaneously, the Maquis were reused in a TNG episode! Most of the above was speedily introduced in the penultimate episode of TNG, Preemptive Strike, and that episode also managed to build a very emotional story for Ensign Ro‘s last appearance. (I still hope to see her pop up in DS9 but I know this won’t happen…) In DS9, despite these being two episodes, the overall impression is more muddled and confusing. There is still something in DS9, something in the directing, editing and acting, that does not bring it to the level of TNG, even when the writing is trying to do ambitious things.

That is not to say that these two episodes are not memorable! The emotional core of the story is that of the friendship between Sisko and Calvin Hudson, two Starfleet officers who find themselves at odds when Calvin — in a scene full of fog! — is revealed to be a leader of the Maquis. Calvin’s arguments even make sense: in order to uphold treaties and “peace”, Sisko and Starfleet are willing to sacrifice Federation citizens and openly support Cardassians. It’s not easy living in the border between the Federation and the Cardassian Empire and it’s not easy to preach utopia when your very existence is threatened. As Sisko angrily says:

“On Earth, there is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window of Starfleet Headquarters and you see paradise. Well, it’s easy to be a Saint in paradise, but the Maquis do not live in paradise. Out there in the Demilitarized Zone, all the problems haven’t been solved yet. Out there, there are no saints — just people. Angry, scared, determined people who are going to do whatever it takes to survive, whether it meets with Federation approval or not!”

This could be the quintessential DS9 quote, taking TNG‘s ideal and exploring how it works and where it cannot neatly work and what human(oid)s do when they are presented with impossible situations. The Maquis are two essential episodes in that they explicitly force the door open on themes that up until now had been just peripheral. This was a conscious choice, as these episodes were the result of a collaboration of some of Trek’s most important writers (Piller, Berman, Taylor, Behr), and we can give particular weight to Ira Stephen Behr as he would be the one taking over as executive producer during season 3 until the end of the show. These episodes clearly set DS9‘s worldview as different from TNG without feeling forced as in earlier episodes, and I know they set up the tone for similar darker stories to come. The writers liked the Maquis idea so much that not only they appeared in TNG, they formed part of the main cast of characters in Voyager; so I’m sure we will see them again in DS9.

Alumni-spotting:
We have seen Admiral Nechayev several times in TNG already, but it is not until this episode that I realized that Natalija Nogulich was the one that had first been cast as Mulder’s informant “X” in The X-Files, before being recast by Steven Williams!

 

2×22: The Wire: “Never tell the truth when a lie will do.”

Finally, we get the whole truth about Garak‘s past! And, as teased in every one of his appearances and specifically in Profit and Loss, he is indeed an “outcast spy”! Every single of Garak’s appearances have been a highlight so far, he is undefined but leaves a lot to the imagination, his portrayal by Andrew Robinson is exquisitly witty and full of implications behind that warm smile. Yet in this episode, the surface breaks and we see how much hate and disdain and despair he hides inside him. Cardassians are consistently presented as good-mannered gentlemen yet capable of the most horrible crimes if they want to. Here we discover that Garak’s past included being at the top position in the Obsidian Order, the Cardassian Empire’s intelligence network, and as such we guess that he was responsible for a system of information extraction (torture) and control (repression). But, typical of Garak, we also get something like five different versions of Garak’s life as Garak confesses “the truth” to Bashir in his sickbed; all lies, but all partly revealing how Garak feels about himself and the exile imposed on him when he fell out of favour with the Cardassians. I am not sure how this all gels with the ending of Profit and Loss, but there is still more to discover to Garak. A great episode!

Alumni-spotting:
The leader of the Obsidian Order, Paul Dooley, was the spooky incestuous father in the Millennium episode The Well-Worn Lock.

 

2×23: Crossover: “My Bajor is not so fortunate.”

Kira and Bashir unexpectedly find themselves in a parallel universe where everything is twisted, a darker version of our universe. It is the Mirror Universe, which since it has been introduced in the TOS episode Mirror, Mirror has become a staple of Star Trek as a whole, with its Terran Empire and its goatee evil Spock (and a big part of the recent Discovery). Here, there’s plenty of weird stuff going on: the station is run by a very evil and highly sexualized mirror!Kira, mirror!Odo lives his dream of high-repression high-security under the supervision of mirror!Garak, mirror!DS9 is an ore refinery for the Bajoran/Cardassian/Klingon alliance (it looks more like a mine with little wagons on tracks, on a space station, what a weird concept!), and mirror!Sisko is a Han Solo-like enforcer. The station is darkly lit, like it was during its Cardassian period (in Necessary Evil). The ironic twist to the TOS episode is that Kirk himself unintentionally triggered the events that led to Earth being occupied by an alliance of their enemies, which is interesting!

I guess if I were a fan of TOS and the mirror universe concept I would have enjoyed this more (again, like with Blood Oath) but I found it rather dull. Perhaps because DS9 as a whole tries to make its characters less heroic and clean-cut than in TNG and already morally ambiguous, the mirror!weirdness did not shock me as it should have; to the point that I can imagine our universe’s characters being able to behave like their “evil” mirror counterparts to begin with. Things are grey already, it’s not clear what the “message” is if they are even greyer. Perhaps I’m expecting a lesson in moral values because that’s what TNG made me to expect, while this episode was just supposed to be pure entertainment. I found other related episodes more successful, like Necessary Evil (flashbacks) or TNG‘s Yesterday’s Enterprise (alternate timeline).

 

2×24: The Collaborator: “It is the will of the Prophets.”

Finally, the Bajoran Vedeks choose their new Kai — it’s been a storyline developing since the first season finale In the Hands of the Prophets. And, surprise twist, it’s not Vedek Bareil who gets the job, it’s the “baddie” Vedek Winn who becomes Kai! This is not just a result of Vedek micro-politics, it’s also due to the worrisome visions Bareil has been getting through these Orbs of the Prophets — of course the will of the Prophets is both really from the Prophets and an excuse for the Vedeks to hide their own decisions. Does that mean that the Prophets have other plans for Bareil? Do the writers have any plan beyond this twist? Nothing is certain. Of course I’m interested to see where this goes but I don’t get a strong sense of planning behind all this.

I was actually very surprised to see Bareil and Kira in an established relationship here, I thought that what we saw earlier in Shadowplay would have been temporary. We do get a subtle hint that Odo has a soft spot for Kira, despite all his criticism of the humanoid concept of “love”! Bareil is denied Kai-dom after it is revealed that he had been a kind of collaborator to the Cardassians, sacrificing some Bajorans to save many; actually he was covering for Kai Opaka, who sacrificed her own son (quite far-fetched and dumped at the end of the episode with little emotional resonance). At this point, who hasn’t been revealed to have been some sort of a collaborator? This has become a recurring motif in DS9, and I preferred some other episodes like Necessary Evil to this one.

 

2×25: Tribunal: “The sentence is death. Let the trial begin.”

The O’Briens are just about to leave for holidays, their first in five years (these are the utopian working conditions of the Federation?!), Miles is abducted by the Cardassians and is put on trial — and as we know from The Maquis II, on Cardassia the result of the trial is pre-decided, the trial is just a show of might to the general public. O’Brien’s registration in the Cardassian system is in itself a torture: he is stripped of clothes, has a tooth removed, nothing is explained to him. The judicial system and the episode as a whole is heavily influenced by totalitarian and bureaucracy-heavy societies of Earth’s 20th century and works like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and especially Kafka’s The Trial. The episode builds on the trial behind closed doors that Picard had to go through in TNG: Chain of Command II, and enriches it by showing us the Cardassian homeworld for the first time (with architecture that looks like claws!), showing us how the trial is broadcast publically to humiliate the accused, detailing how the defense and accusation rehearse their pre-written speeches, showing how the Cardassian society survives by putting the Cardassian Empire first and individual liberty second. The initial suspicion is that the events are manipulated by the Maquis, but the final twist is that…the Maquis have been infiltrated by a Cardassian that has undergone genetic alterations and cosmetic surgery to look like a human! Reverse-make-up. How extreme! Voyager would use this trick reveal on one of its characters a year later.

The pacing of the episode is much faster than previous DS9 installments, and the tone is rougher and fierce, adapted to the Cardassian world. Interestingly, this is the first DS9 episode directed by Avery Brooks, Ben Sisko himself! Excellent.

Alumni-spotting:
O’Brien’s soon-to-retire lawyer, Fritz Weaver, was in another trial in The X-Files as Senator Sorenson in the two-part Tunguska/Terma.

 

2×26: The Jem’Hadar: “You have no idea what’s begun here.”

The season finale pushes DS9 into a whole new era: this is the episode that really introduces the Dominion! Or rather, we actually just meet their foot soldiers, another race called the Jem’Hadar, while the Founders of the Dominion are still a silent force in the background. This gives them a great aura of menace, as if they were some Lovecraftian monster that the Federation awoke by stepping into the Gamma Quadrant. It makes complete sense that by going through the wormhole the Alpha Quadrant inhabitants would enter into a world with its own power balances, and would piss off somebody with a strong sense of territorial belonging.

The episode starts light-heartedly, with Ben Sisko trying to go on a private trip with his son Jake but having to accept Nog and Quark on-board as well; we also get a lecture from Quark on how pretentious the Federation is and how its values of universalism are just words (typical DS9, you could say!). By the end of the episode, nothing is safe anymore. Sisko and Quark first meet Eris, also on the run from the Jem’Hadar, who is later revealed to have been a spy for the Dominion — which means that this was all well-planned and that Sisko and company have been under the surveillance of the Jem’Hadar for a while. Come to think of it, the make-up of the Jem’Hadar does seem familiar and I am quite certain that I have seen some of them walking around in the background in the Promenade in past episodes? (they also look a bit like the Narn from Babylon 5) The Federation rescue party includes a Galaxy-class ship like the Enterprise (is that shot where it is docked on DS9 the same as from TNG: Birthright? very likely). They are very quickly overwhelmed by the Jem’Hadar’s firepower, destroying the big ship entirely and leaving only the small runabouts (which are all named after Earth rivers by the way: Rio Grande, Mekong, Orinoco!). Like with the Borg in their first appearance in TNG: Q Who?, this is very effective for the introduction of this new menace. There is no “to be continued” but there could very well be one.

Of course, this was written by Ira Stephen Behr, who was thinking about the long-term story he wanted DS9 to tell. By comparison, Babylon 5 had at that time not even finished its first season yet. While B5 was already more intricately plotted with several interconnected episodes about the different races and wars and alliances (very broadly like the episodes on Bajor and Cardassia of DS9‘s season 2), the main enemy of B5 had not yet been introduced. In terms of when the episodes aired, DS9 arrived there first — but certainly B5 had planned it beforehand, as the reveal of the main enemy was something carefully dosed and happened very gradually. While DS9 finds new purpose with the introduction of the Dominion, B5 was still one step ahead in structuring its storylines well in advance.

 


If the first two seasons were those of self-discovery, with this string of episodes closing the second season DS9 seems to have found its voice and is headed towards season 3 more confidently. There are things that don’t particularly excite me: at times DS9 is just science fiction by setting, otherwise it’s mostly a thinly disguised soap opera; and you have to accept that the science in DS9 and Star Trek in general is more science fantasy than actual science plausible. But I have to admit that, two seasons in, perhaps I know the DS9 characters just as well as I knew the crew of TNG at the end of the seven seasons run: DS9 spends a lot of time on little character moments, at times at the expense of a tightly narrated memorable story-of-the-week.

Now that I am through with what are universally perceived to be DS9‘s weaker seasons, I am very much looking forward to what happens next! The season highlights for me are the three-part opening The Homecoming/The Circle/The Siege; Necessary Evil; Sanctuary; the two-parter The Maquis; The Wire; Tribunal; and the season finale The Jem’Hadar.

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