Saturday, October 4, 2014
Deep Space Nine
So, for the past few weeks I've been watching "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" on Netflix. A show I swore off almost twenty years ago due to a little controversy with another science fiction TV show set on a space station that aired at the same time. I apologize for starting my review off with this, but I can't properly review and discuss my experience with DS9 and what I took away from this watch without discussing this... it's part of my experience.
J. Michael Straczynski spent five years developing a TV show called "Babylon 5", he pitched it all over town. Paramount nearly bought it before deciding that a series set on a space-station couldn't work. After JMS successfully pitched B5 to Warner Bros and they announced it in Variety, a few weeks later, Paramount announced DS9, and there were a ton of dirty tactics and games played with the independent networks of the time to keep B5 off... but that's the nature of the business. JMS himself was always convinced the Paramount executives were shady, while always defending Rick Berman and Michael Piller as honorable men and genius writers. But after meeting JMS and conversing with him privately, he urged me not to boycott "Deep Space Nine" on his account. Yeah, studio executives suck, we've all known this for years. Did anything shady happen? Who the hell knows. Yes, the two shows sometimes had some very eerie similarities (and this went both ways), but both did things very differently. So, after nearly two decades, I decided that whatever happened or didn't happen, both shows were out there, both told their stories. It was time to judge "Deep Space Nine" on its own merits, because at the end of the day, that's how a work should be judged.
So why did I decide to watch it? Well, I was bored one day. I'm currently between gigs, and I decided I was in the mood for grumpy Picard and began watching some TNG episodes on Netflix. Then I got to "The Chain of Command" two-parter where Picard is tortured by the Cardassians... then I watched the TNG episodes that featured the politics between Cardassia and Bajor and decided I wanted more. Well, there was this entire spin-off being built off of that, so I figured, oh what the hell, and began the pilot.
Shortly before I began this entry, I finished the final episode of "Deep Space Nine" and.... *drum roll* I liked it. I actually liked it a lot. In the eyes of many, this is the best "Star Trek" series ever made. While I'm not sure if I'm in that camp, I think I still prefer the cast of "The Next Generation", "Deep Space Nine" definitely wins story wise. It hits a lot of the same notes "Babylon 5" does, but it does it in it's own way. And, well, both shows were following Campbell's "Hero's Journey" anyway... as sagas like "Star Wars" and "Lord of the Rings" did long before them. "Deep Space Nine" is the Trek franchise doing an epic myth in a long established universe. It's a story that's been told over and over again throughout the history of human civilization, and I think the producers and writers of "Deep Space Nine" did a magnificent job.
Just because I prefer the TNG cast, don't take that as a slight against the DS9 cast. Without a splendid cast, no show can endure no matter how sophisticated and epic the story being told is. Avery Brooks plays Benjamin Sisko, a Starfleet captain that is thrust into a situation where he has to make the hardest calls since "Mr. Worf, fire." After an encounter with the Prophets during the pilot, he becomes a messianic figure to the Bajorans... a people who have only recently cast off the chains of occupation, whom Sisko is trying to bring into the United Federation of Planets.
Nana Visitor plays Kira Nerys, a former resistance fighter (though many of the Cardassians still call her a terrorist), whom much of the drama revolves around. It's her gods... her prophets that touch Sisko. It's her whom the former Cardassian prefect of Bajor, Gul Dukat wants to make his personal conquest. It's her who needs to learn how to trust the Federation, it's her who's the focal point of this broken people trying to rebuild. The story of the Bajorans is one we need only to turn on the news to see play out over and over again.
Rounding out the trifecta is Rene Auberjonis as Odo. A Changeling chief of security on board Deep Space Nine who seeks to learn about himself, and his origins. This mystery isn't dragged out for too long, as come the beginning of the third season, he finds his people... and the Alpha Quadrant quickly comes to regret it. His people are the Founders of the Dominion, a dark mirror of the Federation which represents fascistic order in stark contrast to the Federation's freedom and democracy.
The rest of the cast is terrific and were I to devote a paragraph to each of them, this entry would go on longer than I wish. I'd only be heaping praise on them. Quark is great. Bashir is great. Dax is great. Jake is great. Rom is great. Nog is great. O'Brien is great. Garak is REALLY GREAT. The recurring characters are great. They're all great.
I've been told prior to watching this that Mark Alaimo's Gul Dukat was the greatest villain in the "Star Trek" franchise and, after finishing it, I don't know... I think I still lean towards Khan, but if anyone says it's Dukat, I can't blame them. He's definitely up there. I definitely believe the Dominion is the greatest foil to the Federation that has appeared in the franchise. They're more three dimensional than the Klingons were in their villainous days, more exciting than the Romulans, and they haven't been ruined like the Borg were in every appearance following "The Best of Both Worlds".
Even the show's stand alone episodes were pretty strong. If I ever re-watch it, there isn't one episode I will say "Ugh, do I have to sit through that one?" and I can't think of another multi-season science fiction series I can say that about. But the arc episodes were where the show shined. Especially during the war, and the development of the characters. War is hell, and this series shows that in ways no previous "Star Trek" series did. This show was easily the ballsiest of the Trek shows, and the last time the franchise was any good. "Star Trek: Voyager" was the worst of the Trek shows, "Enterprise" was mediocre, "Insurrection," "Nemesis," "Star Trek (2009)" and "Into Darkness" are all awful movies. I'm perfectly fine with considering "What You Leave Behind" to be the ending of the franchise as a whole. It's a good one.
The best episode of the series, and probably the best single episode in the franchise is "In the Pale Moonlight". And, well, anyone who's seen this episode would know why. I don't want to spoil it for anyone who's not seen it. But, for a franchise who's history often involved the commanding officer always finding another way or a better way, well, what happens when there is no other way? When do you cross the line into doing the necessary thing, even if it's not the right thing. "In the Pale Moonlight" did this, without walking it back, without apologizing, without watering it down. I had to watch the episode a second time because, well, this is "Star Trek", did they just do that? The answer was yes. Yes, they did that.
If there is one flaw, the final arc with the Pah-wraiths could have been better. Don't get me wrong, it made sense. With the entire premise behind Sisko being the emissary of the Prophets, it needed to be there. But it felt a bit rushed, and it was definitely overshadowed by the Dominion War. I liked the idea of Dukat seeking out the Pah-wraiths, in order to become the Bajoran version of the Antichrist. It just needed more time, but I can't think of what I would have cut to devote more time to it.
What is this show's legacy? Within the Trek franchise, the answer seems to sadly be "non-existent." But I think it, alongside "Babylon 5" helped usher in serialized, long form storytelling on television. A format that began with "Hill Street Blues" back in the 80's, but didn't catch on with the network dramas until much later. I still prefer "Babylon 5" as a series, but that isn't a slight. Both shows exist, both are good television... but I'll give DS9 an edge in that it has no bad episodes, even B5 has several stinkers in the first season. The first two seasons of TNG are borderline unwatchable. So what's the lesson? For me? You can enjoy both Coke and Pepsi. Granted it's a lesson I've learned long ago, but it's a lesson that's worth revisiting.
I'm not too proud to admit I was wrong. In this case, I'm more than happy to admit I was wrong. It's a great show, even if it took me twenty years to find out. But like all great TV, it's timeless. I did not need to cast myself back to an earlier era and say "it's the times." Great show.