Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Whole Damn Thing: STAR TREK: DS9 #0

Well, this has been long-promised, long-threatened, and possibly long-dreaded, but I may as well get started. For awhile now, I've been steadily building up to doing longer and longer reviews in total of various things--we did The Prisoner, we did The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, and now comes the longest project yet: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Before I actually get down to the nitty-gritty of thing, let me lay some foundations. One: I am not a great huge Star Trek fan. I watched some Next Generation, I liked the newer movie and I liked some other bits and bobs of the franchise, but I am not liable to ever talk one's ear off about how the Treaty of Algeron left the Federation at a tactical disadvantage or what Klingon sex is like . . .it's a conversation I'm as interested in having as, oh let's say--Batman recruiting a Muslim French Batman being proof that Batman is "Un-American." [NOTE: Batman is NOT REAL GOD. DAMN. IT.] which is to say--not at all.

I'm also not into (and frankly roll my eyes at) the notion that Star Trek is "the blueprint of the future and the way forward for humanity." I find Gene Roddenberry's vision for the future troubling, partly because the human race without conflict strikes me a bit like ice being found on the sun--not likely, and not all that interesting to think about, really. I generally find the human race as portrayed on Star Trek in its purest form as what Bill Hicks used to call "Feel-good ain't humanity great bullshit" and exceedingly pompous and off-putting. Besides which, if a TV show featuring people in pyjamas is the blueprint for humanity's future we are even more fucked than if Scott Pilgrim is really The Story of Our Generation, and no one, not even porno actresses in gangbang videos wants to be that fucked, so you shouldn't either.

And yet, I liked Deep Space Nine. Partly, I think because it chiseled the gravestone for that sort of thing. If Next Generation was a revolution ("Enterprise without Kirk and or Spock? Well, I guess it works anyway") then DS9 is an examination of what that revolution brought: If we are a perfect people in the future, do we struggle with it? How do we resolve our issues with people who may not share human values? And when our notions of enlightened humanity is tested . . .what do we do and where will we allow ourselves to go?

The other part is, of course, my natural inclination to root for the underdog. DS9 is one of the highest regarded yet least-loved shows around. In fact, it hasn't been re-run for a few years, while one can hardly throw a rock without hitting a re-run of one of the other shows (somehow Next Generation is showing on goddamn cable access now?) being re-run in perpetuity.

Part of the reason is practical--DS9 was one of the first shows that committed to serialising itself (not to the extent of their rival, Babylon 5, but close). Actions had consequences that were played out over seasons, years, hell the entire run of the show played plot threads the length and breadth of the whole seven years. Characters started out as enemies, became allies, then went back to being enemies, and the turns only had resonance because we follow these characters over time and invested something in them. In a typical syndication market, they really didn't give a shit about whether one episode flowed into another or not--more than likely they just wanna grab a tape down off the shelf and put it in--as long as the label says "Star Trek," what the hell does it really matter?

The other reason is that Star Trek fans, who really fuel an enormous franchise that covers a ridiculously-sized Expanded Universe covering however many continuity eddies there are (and really, don't enlighten me--I don't care) still do not cotton to the idea that Star Trek can be about something other than "ship goes to planet/fix or fuck shit up/leave/40 goto 10." You could not escape, even as a lay person, the constant refrain of "how can they call it Star Trek, they're not going anywhere?" Which is exactly the kind of over-literal, hidebound, narrow-minded thinking that one expects to find from those who say Trek is a blueprint for a more open-minded future.

My feeling--not that I had a vote in this--was, "I've seen the typical "ship goes to planet/fix or fuck shit up/leave/40 goto 10" thing twice, Now. Is there really any mileage in doing it again?!" (answer: Apparently yes. Twice more, and to the predictable diminishing returns) So I was ready to see something new done with it. Hell, they'd made oodles of money with Next Generation, with the luxury of success why not experiment? Besides, I was looking for something to get on the ground floor of that year.

That's not to say, mind, that this show was in any way, shape, or form perfect. When DS9 is good, it's really good. When it's bad it's nigh-unwatchable (Kevin Murphy says Star Trek's Prime Directive should be "Never do comedy." I wish they'd taken his advice) Even when they were at their best, they still managed to drop the ball spectacularly, something that got carried forward when some of the same people went on to work on the new Battlestar Galactica (curiously enough, the failures were on the same damn things, so . . .yeah. You'd think people would learn, and you would be wrong, I guess)

But on the whole, the level of quality is very high, and it's that quality and my affection for this show has strengthened my resolve to do this entire series, every episode, good, bad, or indifferent in this here blog.

But as a way of introducing you to it, I thought I'd use this introductory post to set the scene: Deep Space Nine takes place on a space station called . . .well, Deep Space Nine, located in orbit of Bajor. Bajor and its people, the Bajorans, have just spent the last 60 years in terrorist actions and outright insurgency against the Cardassians, which--unusually for Star Trek--are accused of from Nazi-level shit, from strip-mining the planet, to ethnic cleansing, to forced rape. . .trust me, every creepy war crime you can think of, the Cardassians did and will be explored over the course of the series.

So, Bajor, having just thrown the Cardassians off their planet, now need help getting their shit together as a nation. This is a fairly realistic touch--in the wake of pushing invading forces out who were so oppressive that they ruined any organized government that factions that unite to push the invaders out will immediately resume their old factional conflicts once that happens, as there's no external force to smooth out the internal difficulties. So Bajor calls in the Federation (finally doing their "blue helmet" U.N. thing that they've always been going on about but we've never really seen) only not all the Bajorans want them there and . . .well, there's a lot of tension.

The stated goal of this is to ultimately get Bajor into the Federation, and ultimately, that was seen as the end point of the series. However . . .it doesn't quite go that way, as the situation continues to evolve, but I can't get into that without spoiling things, and this is supposed to introduce the series to y'all.

And better way to do that than to do a Roll Call of our intrepid main cast (the supporting cast we'll pick up as we go, because there's like 20 recurring cast members and oh shit it'd be the Marvel Handbook all over again) let's meet our people:

CAPTAIN BENJAMIN SISKO--Well, he starts as a Commander, but he's a Captain for all practical intents and purposes. It takes them forever to get a handle on his character--he starts out all pissed off and doesn't want to be there, then recedes into the background for awhile, then becomes apologetic and conflicted about what he wants to do with what his duty restricts him to ("I don't like it any more than you do" is his goddamned mantra at one point) and finally he kinda settles into his role as lead in the show by being . . .well, basically Hawk from Spenser for Hire and not taking any shit from anyone. This has led to some controversy among Star Trek fans, but there's no pleasing them.

Also he gets to do this:

. . .and that's just god damned awesome, and something I emulate every day at breakfast. I am banned from so many International House of Pancakes, lemme tell ya . . .

What, more? Oh, he also becomes a quasi-religious figure as the show goes on, but that's a minefield we'll negotiate that as we go.

KIRA NERYS--Sisko's second is our designated "strong female character" back when "strong female character" equaled "bitch on wheels of hellfire." Ultimately, the people writing this show learn that they need not push that hard because there was plenty of grist for the character--she was a former terrorist/freedom fighter (depending on which side of the equation you fall on) who has now been folded Into The System, which is a great source for conflict--she thinks Bajor's current government and that joining the Federation is swapping one foreign group of despots for another, and that conflict is what drives her character through most of the series.

ODO--For a character who was essentially a walking gimmick at the start (he did that cool t-1000 morphing shit, and since this is 1993, EVERYONE WAS DOING THE SAME GOD DAMNED THING) and little else, he turns into one of the most intriguing characters of the show. He's kind of the Data of the show as he is the outsider looking in at humanity, but not in that tiresome "Is that what is called . . .love?" way and more "You do that? That's . . .really stupid." Over time he develops into something a good deal more interesting as more is revealed about his people and his motivations.

DOCTOR JULIAN BASHIR--I guess the rationale here was that since Dr. McCoy was the exemplar of the old grizzled doctor as elder wise man, the plan was to swing in the other direction and make the station's doctor a callow young man eager to take on the world and. . .well, he's a bit of a twat, really, at first. It's only as time goes on and the writers pair him with O'Brien in what turns out to be DS9's buddy-comic team. It also doesn't hurt that he actually gets some decent material to work with and doesn't come across as quite so much of a jackass then.

JADZIA DAX--The Bright Girl who handles all the science stuff that O'Brien doesn't get to solve, Dax starts out aloof and remote, then she becomes the team smartass. The particular fuel she supplies to our storytelling engine here is that she carries a slug around in her stomach which lives through its hosts and when a host dies, they plug it into a new one. I'm not entirely sure how this ends up being considered cooler than tastee-freeze to do, but then, a lot of things with her character don't make sense when held to closer scrutiny.

MILES O'BRIEN--Apparently if you can run a transporter, you are qualified to build and maintain a space station. O'Brien gets promoted from recurring member of the Enterprise crew to the regular cast of this show--our first, but not last Next Generation transplant. Becomes a jack of all trades, the Murtagh to Dr. Bashir's Riggs, and the recipient of his own annual episode, commonly known among the writers as the "Let's Torture O'Brien" episode. Brings his wife and child with him to the station, and the writers very helpfully portray her quite often as a shrill shrew . . .so, yeah.

JAKE SISKO--Oh dear. The one saving grace about Jake Sisko is that he'll eventually develop into a moderately interesting character, and when he's an annoying snot, he's barely on the show derailing things. Spends the first season being hopelessly whiny, then vanishes, returns a bit taller. Starts dating women embarrassingly older than he. Vanishes, returns taller and older, and becomes slightly more interesting each time after that. Not as annoying as Wesley Crusher, because he's never portrayed as a super-genius wunderkind, and thank God.

QUARK--Man, remember when the Ferengi were gonna be the next big bad guys? Instead, they kinda ended up as Space Jews, which never sat all that well with me, because why the hell are they always running around after gold when you can get it out of the fucking walls? Anyways, Quark runs the local bar and attempts to be the Al Swearengen of DS9, which is doomed to fail because as we soon learn he's not quite that smart and nowhere near ruthless enough. Even though I find the alluded stereotype to be a little rankling, episodes that focus on Quark tend not to be terrible. Episodes that focus on his family will make you want to kill people and then yourself.

So that's our cast as things begin, and begin we shall next time. Join me as we tackle the first few episodes of DS9 (I'm taking this in DVD set sized bites and 1 post will equal one disc, which will hopefully mean we get out of here before 2025 or something.) Head on back here next time when we cover "Emissary," "Past Prologue," and "A Man Alone."


Anonymous said...



Kazekage said...

Awesome! Glad people are excited for this!

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

YES. :)

Roddenberry's vision always struck me as superficial - all he really did was take internal human conflicts and project them outward onto alien species. Sure, everyone on Earth gets along just fine, but all Klingons are dark-skinned barbarians and all Romulans are manipulative bastards and all Ferengi are... well, as you said, Space Jews. I think that's partly why TNG always struck me as being so bland: when every species has a single definitive trait, humans - ostensibly the viewpoint characters - come off as being totally homogenized.

And DS9 managed to break that template, if only because storylines like the Maquis and that Starfleet black ops bit poked holes in the very notion of humanity as a united whole. There's a reason Sisko's greatest character moment is the one where he tricks an entire species into war for his own purposes.

Kira may not have been an especially subtle character, but I think after women like Troi and Crusher and Uhura, who were all just sort of there, Trek really needed a female character who could butt heads with the main protagonist without it looking like she needed to be "put in her place".

Can't wait to see what's next! :)

Kazekage said...

It wasn't even that it was superficial--it was naive, honestly. And it completely ran against the show at its best anyways--the conflict between the principals was what drove the show in a large part. I generally found TNG to be pretty dull for that same reason usually--all my favourite episodes of the show are usually the atypical ones where something seems genuinely to be at stake.

That said, the externalized human traits pasted on to aliens do come somewhat close to being racist, I think. Thankfully, DS9 treads a bit lighter than most in this, but . . .yeah, the Klingons as Space Darkies and Ferengi as Astro-Shylock do not sit well.

Well, in his commentaries for movies 2 and 6, Nicholas Meyer talked about the notion that humanity had evolved past all conflict according to Roddenberry, and Meyer said he was far more interested in how that particular evolution took place, and I don't think he's wrong. I think that's what DS9 was doing--exploring how an allegedly "perfected" human society deals with aliens who don't share their values and aren't interested in any peaceful co-existence. What happens when that kind of push-back challenges your "perfected" construct?

Oh, Kira's one of my favourite characters, or she will be. I was writing this from the perspective of a pre-first season look at her--it's not until about season 3 or 4 that Kira really comes into her own, though, and she's held back early in the first season because the people making the show didn't realise that "dark and edgy" didn't neccessarily have to mean "everyone bickers all the time." Kira got the worst of that in the first season.

That said, I love her introduction: "I suppose you want the office." :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Precisely. The "first contact" ones tended to be more "Oh, let's see what quirky quality all these new aliens have! Do they talk entirely in metaphor? Do they all have a grey stripe in their hair? Are they Space Amish?"

I'm reminded of a bit of dialogue from "Mass Effect", where alien squadmate Urdnot Wrex is told he's not what the others expected. And in the most withering tone possible, he replies: "Sure. Because you humans can have a wide variety of cultures and attitudes, but all Krogan think and act exactly the same."

That's when you get Section 31, I suppose. :)

And just before that, she's screaming at one of the ministers and when he tells her she's overreacting, "then don't ask for my opinion next time!" Yes, Mr. Trekkie, women can use the direct approach too! :)

Kazekage said...

Or, "Do they have stupid things written on their heads and play games a lot?" Shit, I'm still angry about that damned episode.

I know, right? I think the asssumption of a monoculture is a real holdover from the earlier, pulpier days of sci-fi. The Kilngons are kind of the worst offenders . . .it's ages before we even get an inkling of a civilian class which would be necessary for the whole thing to function.

And the two-parter in season 4 when Starfleet nearly seizes control of the government. One gets the impression the further up the chain you go (past the usual corrupt/meddling admirals) Starfleet gets really worryingly scary really fast.

Oh yes. :) I do love that side of Kira, when you get a sense she doesn't take any crap (unfortunately, all too often the writers mistook that for her being The Complainer). And we're getting close to two of my favourite episodes of hers in the season, "Dramatis Personae" (where she camps it up and nearly kills Sisko) and "Duet," which is as awesome as DS9 gets, really. :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

To be fair, aliens with stupid things on their heads who play games a lot is probably a time-honored tradition dating back to the days of Shatner. :)

I think that was also the one major drawback to the Dominion War storyline - seeing thousands of Klingons die in battle doesn't have much weight when they're all based on the exact same template. And since most of the named characters make it through just fine, the stakes just aren't high enough.

In more cynical times, one might have questioned why Starfleet - the military arm of the multispecies Federation - seems to be comprised entirely of Earth-made vessels...

"Duet" is a classic, no question there - one of the few instances where the anvil needed to be dropped.

Kazekage said...

Well, yeah, but trust me, this episode abuses the privilege. It's really awful and you don't know how glad I am that we're on to the much improved second season now, which I should get on here soon. :)

Well, it was inevitable that Our Heroes would make it out OK. Though I must say--on another board someone mentioned that Martok isn't exactly a classic Klingon warrior--of course, we don't learn any of that until the last season, but I did appreciate the effort. And enough of the recurring cast suffered through the war, which is more than most shows would do.

Well, apparently despite all the other hurdles we've cleared as a race, apparently ethnocentrism is still alive and well in the 24th century, eh?

Oh man, that episode kicks so much ass. It's one of the best of the whole show. I remember seeing it after that rather weaksauce season up to that point and feeling like my faith had been rewarded. :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Can't wait to see your take on the larger Myth Arc as it starts to coalesce - particularly because, as far as I can tell, this is one of the few instances where the writers actually had a fair-to-decent grasp of what the Dominion was before they started mentioning it all the time. Foresight? In SF? Who knew? :)

Having Worf in the cast probably didn't help: when your token Klingon is the guy who prides himself on adhering to stereotypes while every other named Klingon visibly falls short of the "ideal"...

I'd like to say it's comforting that some things don't change, but then, sometimes they really should. :)

There was a similar episode late in the fifth or sixth season where Sisko and Dukat are trapped together, and like "Duet", the strength of the episode lies entirely with the dialogue. Of course, Dukat was also thoroughly insane by that point, so the exchanges were a bit more colorful too. :)

Kazekage said...

We're getting there. With the next installment we get the intro of the Maquis and the stuff about the Cardassian dissidents and inch ever closer to the first proper appearance of the Dominion (too bad it's in a crap episode, dammit) And yes, them expending some thought beforehand on what the nature of the Dominion threat was going to be made a HUGE amount of difference. Otherwise we would have had to have like, a Jem'Hadar Queen, and who of us would want's that?

Also, let's be hones, most of the time, Worf is a great big ass. :) But what you pointed out is why it has to be Worf who finally effects some change among the Klingon's--his idealism will not allow himself to tacitly endorse corruption anymore and he has to do something about it. :)

Plus ce change, plus ce la meme chose, Diana. ;)

It's in the sixth season and . . .oooh, I wish it were better and led to a better place. But we have a similar episode coming up (I think) week after next--"The Wire" which is basically Garak going off on Bashir for an entire hour and is just dramatic dynamite. :)