ST:DS9 in 2020 : Season 6 (Part 3)

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has grown into a mature and complex and at the same time entertaining series in its recent seasons. My reviews have grown longer accordingly, and instead of splitting each season into three parts this is the first time with season 6 (1997-1998) that I am splitting it into four. Directly following from part 1 and part 2, here are my capsule reviews:

 


6×14: One Little Ship: “Are you suggesting that we take the Rubicon inside the Defiant?”

DS9 does Honey, I Shrunk the Kids! A runabout with Dax, O’Brien and Bashir gets shrunk in one of those technobabble-y physical phenomena of Star Trek, and has to figure out how to help the Defiant, which meanwhile has been invaded by the Jem’Hadar! It’s a completely ridiculous concept but the episode is aware of it (Kira laughing about the concept in the beginning), and has a lot of fun with it. The tiny roundabout in plasma conduits, pushing buttons, buzzing around like a fly, O’Brien and Bashir trying to figure out electronics components when they are the size of towers, there’s a lot of really funny moments here! The events on the real-size Defiant are more dramatic, with Sisko trying to stall things and prevent the Jem’Hadar from completely stealing the Defiant, choreographing the whole crew in diversion actions, and waiting for Nog to succeed in taking over control. Nog is that small recurring role that has taken such a big significance over the years, make Aron Eisenberg a full member of the cast already! It all ends in a shootout, with the runabout firing tiny little phaser torpedoes!
By the way, this episode had quite a lot of CGI effects, CGI is getting used more and more in these later seasons, and so they can make episodes that would have been impossible in earlier seasons. Well, as comedic episodes go, I really enjoyed this one!

 

6×15: Honor Among Thieves: “I wanted so much to believe that my luck had changed, I didn’t see it.”

Somebody in Starfleet must have watched Bashir’s holosuite spy adventures, because O’Brien has been chosen to go on a risky undercover mission to infiltrate the crime world, in the Orion Syndicate! O’Brien doesn’t strike me as the most appropriate person for this mission, but Colm Meaney seems to be born to portray common men trapped in difficult situations. All in all, this is an episode that is predictable in its plot: O’Brien manages to get into the syndicate, get the sympathies of middle management boss Bilby, starts to see Bilby not as a criminal but as a complex human being, and so he gets in so deep that he finds his sympathies torn between completing his mission and saving Bilby. Perhaps O’Brien sees himself in Bilby, a path he could have taken if circumstances had been different. The whole thing is well written and very well played by the actors, it’s a good production and certainly a better attempt at doing a film noir-style episode than last season’s 5×17: A Simple Investigation (which was also about the Orion Syndicate — nice world-building!); but it’s just not that memorable. And by the way, it’s been a long time we’ve seen Keiko and the kids!

Alumni-spotting:
The new boss Bilby was Nick Tate, who had a short but important role for the mythology of The X-Files, episode Two Fathers, as Dr. Openshaw.

 

6×16: Change of Heart: “Worf, you’re practically easygoing. What’s next? A sense of humor?”

For all my complaints of too much soap opera romance in DS9, this episode is the proof that situations can result into solid and captivating drama! This episode focuses on the Dax-Worf relationship. It starts light-hearted (I was preparing myself at how cringey the episode would be if it had indeed focused on their honeymoon, something like 5×07: Let He Who Is Without Sin…) and progressively becomes more serious, pushing these characters to their limits and exploring the outcome of their actions to their very end.

Dax and Worf attempt to rescue a Cardassian defector: they land on a planet heavily guarded by Jem’Hadar and travel through dense jungle to get to their meeting point (and meet all kinds of very terrestrial animals on the way, like an iguana — was this filmed in a zoo?). Dax is wounded on the way and Worf has to choose between assisting her or completing the mission. I know that this was going to be Terry Farrell‘s last season, so for me the possibility that Dax would die was very real, which heightened the tension! There is some excellent back and forth between Dax and Worf, showing how different characters they are but how much they care for each other despite that: Dax is always keen to take things lightly and tell jokes, while Worf is constantly serious and takes things at face value; as Dax is wounded, her humour can only take her so far and it progressively vanishes as the situation becomes serious. Worf sacrifices the mission (and the defector’s life!) to save Dax’s life, not something to be taken lightly since this is Worf we are talking about!

Another thing that this episode has going for it is that Worf’s decision has consequences — it will still be status quo in the next episode, but still. Sisko grills him that he didn’t follow Starfleet orders and this will follow him in his record from now on; but he also tells him that he would have done the same. The Worf-Sisko dialogue rings very true and it’s scenes like that that enhance the whole. Another Ron Moore episode, one of the season’s best!

There’s also a Meanwhile! story too, a comedic one, involving Quark and his streak of luck winning at the game tongo, and O’Brien and Bashir challenging him. This has been shown occasionally before, a sort of poker/Monopoly fusion, but it’s hilariously very Ferengi with moves like “acquire!”, “confront!”, “evade!”. It’s abandoned mid-way to focus on the main dramatic story.

 

6×17: Wrongs Darker than Death or Night: “Let me get this straight. You want to travel back in time to see if Gul Dukat and your mother were lovers?”

Like a demon bent on destroying the lives of the ones he sworn to take revenge on, Dukat appears! He sows doubt in Kira‘s mind, telling her that he not only knew her mother in the past but that he also had a relationship with her. And…Kira essentially spends the rest of the episode…finding out that this was true. I even thought at some point that Kira’s mother would turn out to be Ziyal‘s mother, bringing things full circle… So, Dukat did Kira’s mother and now he wants to do the daughter? Take that, Kira!

Kira uses the Orb of the Prophets to essentially travel back in time and see her mother’s experience from up close — from the moment her mother was taken away from her family (Kira meets little Kira! and we see her father, same actor as in 5×19: Ties of Blood and Water) to her “training” as a “comfort woman” for the Cardassians on Terok Nor, to her becoming Dukat’s exclusive. Kira lives through all that, “befriending” her own mother, coming to consider her as a collaborator, and becoming involved in the armed resistance on Terok Nor as Kira would. There are debates on collaboration vs resistance, valour and cowardice, sacrifice for saving one’s beloved, etc. However, the whole thing fell rather flat for me because, first, to reveal this about Kira’s mother after six seasons is a big, big thing to swallow and feels more like a writers’ ploy to give even more ammunition for Kira to hate Dukat (as if that was necessary); and second, after 6×11: Waltz Dukat has been unambiguously established as a villain to his core and we know that Kira’s mother is fooling herself when she explains she compromises in order to help he family and that the enemy is not so evil after all. This is like an episode from season two brought forth in the sixth season, and has become redundant by now but with the extra kick in the gut of extreme emotional impact to compensate.

Also, I was not sure here whether it was a true time travel, or some kind of vision of the past, or some projection of Kira made by the Prophets. What I mean by that is that I was confused as to whether Kira was just a spectator of things that had already happened or whether she had any agency to act. It certainly looked like she believed she could change things, and spent months toiling in the occupied station, risking her life with the resistance. Could she pull out of this vision at any point? Did the vision stop whenever the Prophets chose? It seems that Kira episodes either work for me, or don’t; this one didn’t really work.

Aumni-spotting:
Kira’s mother was Leslie Hope, aka Jack Bauer’s wife Teri in the breakthrough first season of 24 — I didn’t recognize her with all that hair!

 

6×18: Inquisition: “I’m not afraid of bending the rules every once in a while if the situation warrants it. And I don’t think you are either. In time you will agree with me.”

Almost from the start, DS9 set out to deconstruct the pristine utopia presented by TOS and TNG. There was the infamous line “it’s easy to be a saint in paradise” in 2×20/21: The Maquis, there were criticisms of the Federation‘s claim to inclusiveness by people who felt their culture was incompatible with the Federation’s values (Quark in 2×26: The Jem’Hadar, Nog in 5×25: In the Cards), there was the Maquis‘ whole reason for existing and the character of Eddington who blasted the Federation for being pretentious and double-tongued.

To be fair, the Federation as a “pristine utopia” frozen in time was itself more of a fan construct than an actual thing inside the world of Star Trek. The world of the 23rd and 24th centuries presented in Star Trek certainly show a society that has evolved past several problems that plague the 20th (and 21st) centuries, like racism and poverty. The crews of the Enterprises in particular jump at the chance to explain to anyone they meet that the Federation is all about striving to become the best ourselves that we can be — emphasis on the word strive. But even then, there were issues: as TNG progressed there were several cases where representatives of Starfleet were out of touch with this “dream of utopia” and Picard had to bring them back to the light, so to speak. This particularly happened with Admirals and other high-ranking members of Starfleet, and DS9 continued that “tradition” with the attempted military coup that would have traded security for democracy and freedom in 4×11/12: Homefront/Paradise Lost.

It is difficult to draw a clear line between in-universe developments and real-world writers’ concerns. It does feel as if Star Trek became synonymous with utopianism, because it contained elements of a positive future as opposed to a dystopian precautionary tale that is more frequent in science fiction. Gene Roddenberry carried and developed this aura after TOS in the 1960s and became much more explicit about it with TNG and its almost superhumanly perfect characters. However, it is one thing to state that this is a utopia, and another to show how the utopia actually works. The latter is much, much more difficult, and talented writers who experiment with that are rare and few and unfortunately confined to SF literature (like Kim Stanley Robinson) than SF film & TV. So, what happened when TV writers started writing more stories in the Star Trek universe? They started adding more detail, thinking how the society is organized, how it deals with potential allies and approaches them, how it faces outside threats and deals with them. DS9 was born as the Far West town at the border of wilderness exactly because it could show the interaction between the non-Federation world with the Federation, in a setting far from the core of Federation power where the Federation itself can be more of an abstract concept than a reality on the ground. And so Ira Stephen Behr in particular started scratching the seams of what the Federation is made of.

Why all this long introduction? Because this episode goes one, big step further in exploring the moral edges of this would-be utopia, with the introduction of Section 31.

The plot is simple and effective. A Starfleet investigation for a Dominion informant arrives on DS9 and quickly it is obvious that the investigation is not on everyone but solely on Bashir. The investigators push Bashir harder and harder, even putting him thrtough a simulated false reality (like the Vorta and Jem’Hadar themselves did on the crew in 3×01/02: The Search to test their limits!), until it is clear for them that he is indeed not guilty, and then — twist! — the investigators reveal themselves to be members of a black ops / black budget / secret service team that answers to no one in the Federation hierarchy, Section 31, and try to recruit Bashir to become a sleeper agent for them.

In the first part of the episode, the accusations brought against Bashir are entirely made up of references to previous episodes, which form a pattern of behaviour that does looks highly suspicious for an outside observer: Bashir saving Jem’Hadar (4×04: Hippocratic Oath), Bashir abducted by the Dominion (5×14: In Purgatory’s Shadow), Bashir’s advice to surrender to the Dominion (6×09: Statistical Probabilities). Each episode might have been conceived independently, so congratulations to the writers for not forgetting the past and stringing this together; they even make use of what could have been plot holes or conveniences at the time to incorporate them in the dialogue (like the presence of the runabout in orbit that allowed Bashir and co to escape in 5×15: By Inferno’s Light). You could say that Bashir’s hobby of James Bond-like holosuite games contributed in the writers (and Section 31) choosing Bashir for this role.

The second part of the episode with the twist of what is Section 31 sort of invalidates the first part, in that the investigation was not for real; or it might have been for real for Section 31 to make sure Bashir was not a spy, but it was certainly not an investigation officially sanctioned by Starfleet. As Odo observes, Section 31 is the Federation’s equivalent of other secret services that the Federation’s foes have, like the Romulan Tal’Shiar or the Cardassian Obsidian Order, and indeed if they have something like that why shouldn’t the Federation? Because transparency is part of the Federation’s values? Because secret ops is not the Federation’s diplomatic modus operandi? The episode mentions such moral questions but does not provide a clear answer on whether it is possible to completely condemn the existence of a Section 31: “I wish I had an answer for you, Doctor“. The heroes disapprove of the secrecy and methods — at least the Starfleet protagonists, for Odo that something like Section 31 would exist is entirely natural. But I’m not sure that if they would be given the opportunity to twist the outcome of the war in the Federation’s favour that they would not be tempted to see the use of covert operations. At least, drawing parallels to the real world and large bureaucratic organizations, it is only realistic that a great power would develop secret groups like that, like an immune system that somehow manages to exist even when it was not the expressed objective of the people officially in power.

Finally, Sisko tells Bashir that next time he is approached by Section 31 he should accept their offer, essentially becoming a double agent. Sisko disapproves of them, which is interesting given what happens in the exact next episode!

I must mention here that William Sadler was born for the role of the Section 31 leader, his rugged face and voice fit the role perfectly, and the character’s name, Sloan, also smells of shady deals.

In summary, does the existence of Section 31 invalidate the utopian dream of Star Trek? Certainly not, no more than The Maquis, Paradise Lost or For the Cause did. The heroes discover that the Federation hides secrets that go against its stated values, and the heroes being heroes they reject them. The corruption is external to the protagonists, not arising from the protagonists. The corruption is there to illustrate that when faced with difficult choices that come at times of war the Federation is also made of human(oid)s and like any human(oid) construct the struggle is always on to make it uphold the values it pretends to promote.

A truly excellent episode that adds a lot of depth to the world of Star Trek, by the writing duo of Weddle & Thompson (future Battlestar Galactica writers, too)!

 

6×19: In the Pale Moonlight: “I need to talk about this. I have to justify what’s happened. What I’ve done. At least to me.”

And thus we reach this episode, an episode whose reputation largely precedes it and which has the highest rating out of all DS9 in IMDB. Earlier in the season the writers were alternating one dramatic with one comedic episode; here it is interesting that they followed the dramatic heavyweight Inquisition with this one, which is equally or more dramatic, but these two hold very well together, a sort of thematic two-parter that explores the darkest extremes of the world of Star Trek. In that sense, my large introduction to the previous episode is also valid here.

This episode is unique in so many ways. From the get go, we know we are in for something different: the story is told in flashbacks in the form of Sisko recording his Captain’s log, and as he looks straight at the camera he is breaking the fourth wall and addressing the viewer directly in a kind of confession — a trick already used in 4×18: Rules of Engagement, even more effective here. The rest of the episode develops at break-neck speed, from one very strong scene to the next, all the way to the end, back to Sisko’s confession. In directorial terms, the episode is one step above what DS9 has done before, and congratulations to director Victor Lobl (who also did the very strong and tense episode for Sisko 5×13: For the Uniform).

In scenario terms, the episode simply takes Star Trek and blows it up. What are you ready to win a war? Do the ends justify the means? Is one man’s life worth sacrificing to save millions of others? Eternal questions that have fuelled many scripts, in Star Trek too. But never, including in the previous episode, has Star Trek has answered to these questions in this way: putting the hero as the one that makes these morally ambiguous choices instead of being the one that prevents others from making them.

Well, almost. It might have been Garak.

The Federation-Klingon alliance is suffering loss after loss, and the announcements with the names of the deceased fill the walls of the station (I am reminded here of images from the news from various terrorist attacks in recent decades, an image that Battlestar Galactica also used). The Dominion and the Romulans have a non-aggression pact (since 5×26: Call to Arms) and Sisko is looking for ways to nudge them in an alliance with the Federation. For this, he recruits the help of Garak; and it’s downhill from there for Sisko. Dealing with and sacrificing spies; begging for the release of a condemned prisoner, dealing with the prisoner, assassinating him; having the prisoner forge holographic images; stealing illegal material; it’s all in a day’s work for a ruthless Starfleet officer, but it’s precisely tragic because this is not what Sisko and a model Starfleet officer is supposed to do. Sisko and Garak call in a Romulan Senator on the station to present the fake evidence of Dominion plans to invade Romulus; the Senator smells the forgery (“It’s a faaake!“), his ship explodes on the way back to Romulus, and the Romulans accuse the Dominion — mission accomplished! (Good thing the Senator did not communicate his findings while en route!)

Sisko had to do some shady deals here but it’s true that the pivotal explosion that assassinated the Senator (and the assassination of the forger) was entirely Garak’s doing. Who knows, perhaps the whole thing was anticipated and planned by Garak in this way, and Garak manipulated Sisko in doing everything else as a cover in order to bring the situation to where he could perform that assassination.

But: mission accomplished. The Romulans side with the Federation. Throughout the episode, the furious pace of events is accompanied by Sisko’s narration, which could have been tiring but the quality of the writing is such that it elevates the episode further. So in the end, we return to Sisko, knowing now what he has done to get what he wanted. He pours himself a drink, relaxes, toasts to the camera. He sounds calm. Is he happy with himself? “So I will learn to live with it. Because I can live with it. I can live with it.” He repeats it to himself, as if he wants to convince himself of what he is saying. Goosebumps!

In summary, to echo the same question I asked of the previous episode, do Sisko’s actions here invalidate the utopian dream of Star Trek? Certainly yes — to some extent. The Federation has not turned into a band of lawless nihilists overnight, but the things done in the Federation’s name to allow its citizens to continue living their way of life peacefully would not make a Federation citizen proud. I am reminded here of the simple but effective tale of Ursula K. Le Guin‘s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.

If this episode’s review feels a bit like the review of the whole series, it’s because it feels like the whole of DS9 has been leading up to this moment. Not only do the choices Sisko makes illustrate the whole thesis about the Federation’s ideals the writers wanted to make, Ira Stephen Behr in particular. But in-universe too, the events this episode puts into motion are presented as if they are the defining events of the war. The winners of the war will be the ones with the largest coalition, so whoever brings the Romulans on their side is to win the war, somewhat like the USA joining World War II after Pearl Harbor, or the Soviet Union turning the tide in Stalingrad.

In some ways, this turn of events in this episode (1998) presages the advent of the wave of darker, grittier shows in the 2000s decade (like Ron Moore‘s own Battlestar Galactica, from 2004), and the rise of the series with an anti-hero, either explicitly with a negative example not to follow (The Sopranos, from 1999), or as somebody for whom any means justify the ends (Jack Bauer in 24, from 2001), or as somebody who justifies the ends then finds he has lost track of them on the way (Breaking Bad, from 2007). As a general trend, even more recent shows have surpassed that anti-hero wave, and have focused on more social inclusivity aspects. Was that going to be the natural evolution of Star Trek, from simili-utopia, to the frontiers of utopia, to the dark underbelly of the utopia? Not necessarily. This episode is so remarkable exactly because of the big emotional and moral toll these decisions have on Sisko, and its dark shadows loom heavy over the rest of the season and the show. If such decisions were to be made as a matter of fact in every episode in a Star Trek show, it would certainly not be the same type of world, the very aspiration of the utopian ideal would be very hard to justify, the show would lack somebody setting the example, something to aspire to. (I should note here that I have not seen Star Trek: Discovery or Picard. But I’ve heard…things…)

In short, after this longest of capsule reviews, In the Pale Moonlight is indeed perhaps DS9‘s best episode. It boldly brings Star Trek where no Star Trek had gone before, but does it in such a style that it does not feel like a treason of the Star Trek values but like a display of the really painful compromises one must make in extraordinary times.

Alumni-spotting:
The Romulan Senator was Stephen McHattie, who was the Red-haired man, an unnamed executioner of the Syndicate, in the memorable two-parter of The X-Files, Nisei/731!

 


These last two episodes are definitely among DS9‘s work that is most worthy of discussion. With the six-part serialized stretch in the beginning of the season, this is the first DS9 season since the first that doesn’t have a mid-season two-parter; so this is an informal two-parter that is much denser than many of the Star Trek movies, thanks to the cumulated world-building allowed by the series format! With these out there, I will pause here and I will be back soon to wrap up the season. See you soon!


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