I know, I know, Picard is airing! So what, there’s plenty of good old 90s Trek to discover! I didn’t manage to make good on my fancy title “DS9 in 2019” given that we are in 2020 already, but it was an ambitious plan to begin with and binge watching is so 2010s anyway!
Here is a look at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine season 5 (1996-1997), following up directly from season 4. By this time DS9 has found its cruise speed, with a mix of character development and big plot development, and actually usually both together, character stories that take place within an evolving universe. At times it’s serious stuff, at times it’s humorous, it’s not as idealistic as its predecessor The Next Generation, it’s not as tightly plotted as its contemporaneous Babylon 5, it’s not very realistic as SF goes, but it’s good entertainment that still holds up well over twenty years later. Stories are more and more about character and much less about science fiction and technology (that’s left for Voyager!) — at times stories even approach a soap opera quality that we follow week after week, both in the good, development-rich sense and in the bad, forgettable pulpy TV sense. It’s not the same Trek as TNG but on the other hand, the exploration of the characters in many of their aspects is much richer than in TNG and I’m glad to find the DS9 cast again after taking a break away from them.
Simultaneously with DS9 season 5 there would be the movie First Contact and Voyager season 3. Here follow the capsule reviews:
5×01: Apocalypse Rising: “Are you questioning the validity of my plan?”
Directly following from the last season’s cliffhanger, Sisko and co react to solid!Odo‘s assertion that Klingon Chancellor Gowron is a Changeling in disguise. Sisko, Odo and O’Brien are surgically disguised to look as Klingons (like Picard and Data as Romulans in TNG: Unification!) and together with Worf and the help of Dukat they infiltrate the Empire. This leads to many jokes, as they try to act all gruff and proud and full of Honour while getting drunk. There’s a twist in that Gowron is not the Changeling but his second in command Martok is (also seen in 4×01: The Way of the Warrior), I don’t know how well this fits with the previous season as Odo directly identified Gowron. Martok is uncovered before being able to take down Gowron and fully head the Empire, and Gowron and Worf have to postpone their fight to the death for another honourable day.
It’s all resolved rather quickly and easily by the episode’s end, the threat is removed and we can kick off with a reset situation next episode. Stargate SG-1 followed that template extensively, the issue here is that DS9 has upped the ante so much with Galaxy-wide important events that a single episode doesn’t do justice to the gravity of the situation. So now the Klingons are not quite Federation allies again but the Changeling infiltration has been somewhat contained; indeed the focus on the Klingons as threat in season 4 was mandated by the studio and the writers were glad to “return” to the Dominion threat arc in season 5. A good enough but not exceptional start to the season.
5×02: The Ship: “It seems we’re approaching an impasse.”
The crew finds a Jem’Hadar ship and has to negotiate with the Jem’Hadar and a Vorta who want it back. A tense situation and another case where Sisko tries to convince them they have a common enemy, the Founders, but an alliance is impossible. The emotional centre of the episode is the relationship between O’Brien and one of his colleagues, a crewman Muniz (whose name is misspelled and mispronounced so many times by these English speakers! I guess the writer’s meant Muñoz?), who ends up being wounded and dying in the line of duty. At the end Worf and O’Brien hold vigil over Muniz’s casket (isn’t that contrary to TNG 2×08: A Matter of Honor where Worf said for Klingons a dead body is an insignificant empty shell?). A nice episode on the tragedy of mistrust and casualties in war, but we hardly had the time to know ye, Muniz.
5×03: Looking for par’Mach in All the Wrong Places: “What happened to you two?” “Well… if you must know….”
This is the soap opera lovefest episode of DS9! Quark‘s lawful Klingon wife Grilka (from 3×03: The House of Quark) is back and Worf is lovestruck, while Dax and Worf get…physical — well they just train and get all intense until they literally get physical — Klingon lovemaking seems to be a savage affair! I actually liked the Russian doll situation where Quark has to fight for and manages to do so thanks to a virtual headset that is commanded by Worf, who is the one who has actual feelings for her. But the rest I found too fluff and soap operatic for my taste. At least the Dax/Worf understated flirt since Worf’s arrival pays off! Meanwhile, the show’s most ill-conceived plotline, Kira‘s pregnancy with the O’Briens‘ baby, gets even more ridiculous with Kira and Miles realising they have something between them that they’d rather keep non-verbalized. A funny episode, but where has all the Star Trek gone?
5×04: Nor the Battle to the Strong: “The Battle of Ajilon Prime will probably be remembered as a pointless skirmish, but I’ll always remember it as something more.”
Star Trek can be a bit didactic and an episode’s message can be summed up in a sentence at the end, à la Stan in South Park. This is another episode about the horrors of war, after the recent 5×02: The Ship. But it is all about the execution, and while you can tell from the very beginning what this episode will be about it is handled very well and gives plenty of opportunity to Cirroc Lifton (Jake Sisko) to show how good an actor he has become!
Jake helps Bashir provide medical assistance in a battlefront against Klingons (does Starfleet still fight them?), as Jake wanted to get that first-hand experience to fuel his writing, à la Hemingway. Things go wrong and Jake experiences a siege, trench warfare, bombardment, getting lost, being trapped, death, treason. More than he asked for! By the way, it’s funny how Star Trek has these huge interstellar conflicts but for some reason there is still hand to hand combat…represented here as best as they could with an episodic television budget. From macro to micro, we get claustrophobic in these recurring studio sets of caves. Jake learns that the line between treason, cowardice and heroism us very fine indeed when you are under such a situation. A soldier self-inflicts a wound in order to get away from the battle. An officer dies in front of Jake. Jake kills enemies because he panics and his self-preservation drive kicks in and because of pure luck, not because he is a heroic survivor. And as Ben tells his son at the end, it takes courage to write about all these things in a very open and transparent manner. The season’s first excellent episode!
Meanwhile! On the “Love Boat” station, Odo has trouble adapting to his solid form, and Miles is worried about Kira‘s health, what with the pregnancy and all…
5×05: The Assignment: “Everyone has enemies. Even the Prophets.”
A Keiko episode, or a “Miles must suffer” episode — Keiko returns to the station from explorations on Bajor, but is not herself. She has been taken over by the Pah-wraith, which until now only existed in Bajoran mythology, a sort of Lucifer group of fallen angels. Rosalind Chao is appropriately creepy as the possessed Keiko here, quickly switching from smiling and caring to keep appearances, to ruthless and determined when she is alone with Miles. I have to wonder though, doesn’t Molly suspect anything at all? At all?! It turns out the Pah-wraiths are the Prophet aliens’ ancient enemies, and “Keiko” blackmails Miles into doing some modifications on emitters that would result in the Prophets’ extermination — but Miles turns the emission towards Keiko and the wraith is killed instead. Does that mean these wraiths and the Prophets are two factions of the same race? Through the process, Miles tests Rom‘s loyalty too, Rom has become a valuable technician that is much more certain of himself now (and has acquired a taste for hew-man food, and has grown closer to Leeta). An entertaining episode.
5×06: Trials and Tribble-ations: “If my people had caused any changes in the timeline, we would have been the first to notice when we got back.” “Why do they all have to say that?”
This episode was essentially made for Star Trek‘s 30th anniversary in 1996 and plays on the original series. This is an instant classic, an episode whose reputation precedes it, and I can understand why! It’s extremely enjoyable even for those who are not familiar with TOS. The Defiant is wrapped up in a revenge plot against Kirk by a Klingon (the same actor from nearly thirty years ago!), and travels back in time in the remote past of the 23rd century. The crew find themselves in the middle of recorded history, trying to prevent Kirk’s murder and in general not to change anything in the timeline.
To make the most of it, immediately before this one I watched the original series episode it revisits, TOS 2×13: The Trouble with Tribbles. It’s one of TOS‘s most beloved episodes, with its quick dialogue and funny story with the multiplying furry Tribbles (I won’t go much into into my lack of excitement regarding anything TOS, I appreciate it for its historical value but I find it has aged a lot a lot in more ways that one. There, I said it.).
With this DS9 episode they form a sort of duet like Back to the Future Parts 1 and 2, with the second revisiting moments of the first from a different point of view and laughs coming from the viewer’s knowledge of how close the time travellers come to be discovered or botch their mission of not changing anything! Seeing the TOS episode really helped: the DS9 crew did an amazing job at recreating the costumes, the colourful sets, the bright lighting, the make-up, the slick hairdos, all the way to using TOS shots with DS9 characters composited in, with the transition from old to new shots being seamless! Producers even tried to use film stock as close as possible to what had been used by TOS. We are in Kirk-era Star Trek all right: hello mini-skirt Dax! hello blackface Klingons! It’s amazing that the show acknowledges the difference in appearance of Klingons between TOS and TNG/DS9 and makes an in-universe joke out of a real-world decision to change the make-up and design of a fictional alien race! Worf just says “we do not discuss it with outsiders“! The writers have Bashir echo McCoy with his hilarious line “I’m a doctor, not an historian“! Bashir starts flirting and hopes he doesn’t become his own great-grandfather! Dax remembers McCoy from one of her/his earlier incarnations, and takes a liking to Spock, even repeating some of his lines!
All of this is wrapped in a frame story of Sisko being visited by agents of Temporal Investigations, with its own set of excellent dialogue-based jokes. Things I find while reading Memory Alpha: the agents’ names, Lucsly and Dulmur, are anagrams of Scully and Mulder (!); and one of them, James W. Jansen, was Mulder’s hypnotist in The X-Files! (I had already noted that when he previously appeared in 1×14: The Storyteller).
In the end, DS9 saves the day and Sisko can’t resist the temptation to shake the hand of Kirk before they return to their present. It’s a gesture of respect for Sisko, and of course it’s a nod and tribute from the DS9 writers and crew to the enormous influence TOS has had on them. DS9 did many TOS sequel episodes (like the three Klingons in 2×19: Blood Oath or the Mirror universe episodes like 2×23: Crossover) but by far this is my favourite. Really, a standout episode for fans of TOS and of DS9 alike!
5×07: Let He Who Is Without Sin…: “Even you Starfleet officers were lulled into a false sense of security.”
I actually quite liked this episode in the beginning, but it ended up not living up to its setup. Dax and Worf take a holiday to the eternal summer beach party planet Risa to have fun and sort out the nature of their relationship, and this is the opportunity to present their very different stances about liberal morals. Risa and what it represents is on trial: this is a conversation that could have taken place in the 1960s with the sexual liberation movement as well. Of course this is mainstream 1990s TV and there’s this weird mix of risqué and caution, the word “sex” is not uttered when it’s implied everywhere, there’s no actual nakedness, the suggestions of polyamory are stepped back from under the pretense of a Bajoran ritual, there are no hints of non-cis/het relations in this planet of 24th century debauchery… Actually, the B-story of Bashir and Leeta breaking up was really nice: instead of ending it screaming at each other, Bajoran custom has them living one laat good moment together before parting ways, a really serene way to approach things. Kira will need to work on her zen!
Dax is outgoing and sexually liberated, perfectly comfortable with the promiscuity that is encouraged on Risa; Worf is more strict and conservative, ill at ease with the very idea of loosening up. Then an ultra-conservative sect shows up and preaches how Risa’s hedonism will be the moral and literal death of the Federation, the Essentialists — their name sounds like a 19th century philosophical movement that would have influenced fascism! When Worf joins them, it is still an interesting episode, with a story to tell. The sect’s propaganda kind of continues themes from the episodes Homefront / Paradise Lost, where Paradise Earth is an easy-going calm society that appears wholly unprepared for an exterior attack.
What I didn’t like were how they tried to explain Worf’s character with a simple childhood trauma, that he hurt a human child and since then he consciously restrains himself, and how quickly Worf changes sides again and turns against the sect, all in the name of Federation good thinking. This easy and simplistic character development diminishes what could have been a more even-balanced view at 24th century morals. The Worf-Dax relationship does seem more likeable here than when it was introduced. At least we got Terry Farrell and Vanessa Williams (Miss America) in swimsuits!
5×08: Things Past: “There is more to life than the rule of law.” “It has been my observation that only the guilty make that kind of statement.”
Odo, Sisko, Dax and Garak (freed from prison from 4×26?) find themselves inexplicably in Terok Nor, the station under the Cardassians, in the past, but…something is not right. They are in the skin of three Bajorans who Odo remembers being executed, but instead of him they find that the Constable is his predecessor, Thrax. And Dax is taken by Dukat in his harem (is she supposed to be in the skin of Ziyal‘s mother from 4×05: Indiscretion?) It turns out…we are inside the mind of Odo! Or rather, they all share Odo’s mindspace via some remnant Changeling ability. Odo is reliving this moment because he feels guilt of executing these Bajorans without proof of their guilt, under pressure by Dukat.
I was paying more attention to try to find out the mystery of why things were happening, instead of focusing on Odo’s story. I guess in retrospect the story becomes more interesting, but I was not entirely grabbed by the episode. The concept of mind meld is a bit too complex and occupies runtime, I would have preferred a straightforward flashback. I preferred the previous episode with Terok Nor, 2×08: Necessary Evil, which was also about past regrets. Interestingly, both episodes echo each other in their last scenes, with Odo and Kira realising that the other was not as “pure” as they thought, or wanted to think, they were!
Kurtwood Smith (Thrax) was the memorable Detective Patterson in The X-Files gargoyles episode, Grotesque! Incidentally, Thrax was the name of a city in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun.
5×09: The Ascent: “Have I ever told you how much I hate…”
This episode is split between two stories of difficult friendship: Odo/Quark and Jake/Nog.
Odo arrests Quark and takes him to trial but their ship is sabotaged and they have to land in an amazingly convenient Earth-like planet that happened to be in interstellar space and happens to look like California’s Sierra Nevada (gorgeous location shooting!). The only hope for rescue is for them to ascend to the mountaintop and emit a distress call, an injured ex-Changeling and a Ferengi who is freezing cold, who hate each other. They say so to each other when recovering in hospital beds in the end, but there’s more between them even if they don’t want to admit it.
Nog is back as Cadet Nog after the Academy (that was short!) and he and Jake move in together. But they both have changed, Nog is a hardcore Starfleet trainee doing exercise early every morning, while Jake is a bohemian aspiring writer who can’t bother tidying up his room. This tests their friendship, it even has their fathers Ben and Rom discussing them, but ultimately they try to work it out.
The first story was quite forgettable, the second was cute.
That’s all for now — I will return soon with more 1990s news of the Gamma Quadrant while the rest of the Trek viewers watch fresh Picard!