Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Whole Damn Thing--STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE #37

Good day, eh. So, like, this is our weekly feature that's, ya know, going through every episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and I am NOT Bob McKenzie or his brother Dug (how's it going, eh?) but it was as good a way to start the ball rolling as any. This week, I am pleased to announce that while we're not totally out of the sixth season doldrums (in point of fact, we've hardly begun them) but I have two of the most definitive DS9 episodes in the entire run to talk about, and everything else is at least somewhat interesting. So let's get it on like Donkey Kong, shall we?


"That is pretty funny in a horrible way."

So if you remember from review of "Waltz," I was not the biggest fan of the new ker-AZY Gul Dukat, who exists only as a recurring villain with one dimension and is a big step down from the pre-"Waltz" Dukat, who had many facets to him and wasn't just a villain (usually bad or operating his own agenda, but not twirling his mustache-level bad) Apparently, this was not what the creators of the show wanted any more, and from now on, when Dukat pops up, it will be to much lesser effect.

I bring this up because knowing all that, the episode begins with a rather effective bit: Dukat wakes Kira up and tells her: "I totally banged your mom." Yes, Dukat, who began the season at the head of a Cardassian/Domion alliance that was threatening to bring the Federation and the Klingons to their knees is now trolling people one by one. I don't think even Superboy Prime had a threat-level drop-off this bad.

This is just a means to get us into the story, and it's Kira's story, so we really don't have to grapple with the unpleasant arc of Dukat's character. Because you see, Dukat really did totally bang her Mom, and given who Kira is, that is something utterly impossible for her to live with (and really, who could blame you? "Yes, dear, your mother and I were married for 35 years, but there was that time Space Hitler was her backdoor man" is not the kind of thing anyone is prepared to hear, ever) So she goes to commune with the Orb of Time, which apparently does self-help consequence-free time travel now because the writers were willing to ask these questions in this episode, but they were going to hedge the shit out of them.

So Kira takes a time-trip back and meets her mom--Meru, her younger self, and her father, who are living in yet another godawful Bajoran refugee center, where there's always a fight about to break out over food (we call these places "Denny's" here) Kira helps her family keep their food rations and, even though it has been explicitly stated that nothing she could do will screw up the timeline, she decides that she will be known as Calvin Klein. Her friends call her Marty.

Before we can get much of a picture of her home life, Marty and Meru are spirited away by the Cardassians, because, and there's no easy way to say this, Cardassians on long tours of duty need to get laid, and since you're already raping and pillaging the planet at the macrocosm level, the Cardassians figured why not take it down to the microcosm as well.

I should also mention here that we're introduced to Basso Tromac, and oh my GOD, Basso Tromac. Basso is the Bajoran flack for the Cardassians, and oily, collaborating dickhead whose whole job apparently consist of holla'ing bitches for Gul Dukat. The level of slimeball this man is able to generate is astonishing.

He also looks like the guy from Corner Gas. I don't really think that has anything to do with anything, I just thought I would mention this.

Anyways, they get taken up to Terok Nor (this being the Occupation still and all) and get an extreme makeover. Marty works in this role about as well as you'd expect--being that the idea of a Cardassian pawing her is enough to make her pissed off enough to tear God in half, she vocally tells them how much she'd like to cut their throats as look at them.

Naturally they pair her off with a Cardassian masochist who gets off on hearing such things. What are the odds?

In any event, the point of the episode is thus: Dukat takes a shine to Meru and makes her his #1 girl Friday, giving her her own quarters, all the food and goodies she could possibly want, and well, to say Kira's appalled by this is an understatement: she fought the Cardassians, sacrificed everything (including, as we saw last season, he father) in the name of the fight and to see her mother not only not fighting, but actually happy as the kept woman of Space Hitler, well . . .she's ready to fuck some shit up.

Yes, this story turns on Kira being willing to kill her own mother for selling out like this.

Had the episode been just this, it would have been pretty compelling. It couldn't have gone too far, because we know nothing can muck up the timeline, but it would have made for an interesting philosophical moment, and given us a nice counterparts to "Ties of Blood and Water," when we found out how her father died alone. Kira has, in a real way, sacrificed everything fighting the Cardassians and exists as an island unto herself.

But the episode isn't through yet, as we see why Meru is doing this, and it really throws your assumptions about the episode into sharp relief, and is an example of DS9 at it's best, not willing to make things easy or clearly drawn into neat lines of good and evil.

That will be something a theme this week. This episode is, with reservations, well worth watching, touching on the horrors of the Occupation in a way that hasn't really been done in the series for some time, and also giving us one last look at a nuanced version of Dukat before . . .well, what happens happens. It also sets up the theme for this week: Good and evil are not so clearly drawn, as we'll see in . . .


"You make it sound so ominous"

Hello and welcome to one of the most controversial episodes ever among Trek die-hards. And there's no way to talk about it without spoiling all of it, so, ye be warned.

Bashir is getting ready to go to a medical conference, which, like all medical conferences in Star Trek land is apparently a paper-thin cover for them to hang out in the lap of luxury. But Bashir isn't going to make the conference, because Deputy Director Sloan shows up. He's part of Starfleet Internal Affairs, and he has a fuck-ton of questions for everyone and so, puts the station on lockdown. Everyone is confined to quarters and interviewed separately. However, it soon becomes clear that Sloan's main purpose in coming here is to look into Bashir's record.

And when you look at it a certain way, Bashir's record is pretty checkered. There was his nearly coming to blows with O'Brien about curing the Jem'Hadar of their ketracel white addiction in "Hippocratic Oath," Him being captured by the Dominion and thrown in a gulag, that the Dominion were nevertheless nice enough to leave a runabout with a working transporter in orbit so they could escape in "In Purgatory's Shadow/By Inferno's Light," lying about his genetically enhanced status in "Doctor Bashir, I Presume," and the stuff with the Jack Pack in "Statistical Probabilities" a couple weeks back that featured them suggesting the Federation surrender to the Dominion to prevent an appalling loss of life.

Sloan asserts that Bashir is a sleeper agent for the Dominion--so thoroughly programmed that he doesn't know that he's an agent of the enemy. Bashir scoffs at this and does everything he can to prove his innocence in the face of circumstantial evidence.

But things get worse. Bashir is formally charged and imprisoned, further isolating him from his friends on the station. Then Weyoun spirits him out, trying to convince him of the same lie. Something's up, but no one believes him. The circumstantial evidence seems to have proved out . . .

. . .but it's all a fake. Sloan is much more than an Internal Affairs officer: he's in charge of Section 31, an autonomous secret organisation that finds and neutralises threats to the Federation, quietly, and without a whole lot of scruples (going forward, we'll see how far they're willing to go) Moreover, 31 has existed since the founding of the Federation, quietly going about its business. To his credit, Odo isn't surprised--every other great power has a group like Section 31 (like the Tal Shiar and the Obsidian Order) but Bashir and the rest of the Starfleet guys are a bit gobsmacked, being that this flies in the face of all the feel-good ain't humanity great BS that Star Trek stands upon.

Sloan's goal wasn't to discredit or prosecute Bashir, he wants to recruit him into Section 31. Bashir is repusled that Sloan's believes utterly that the ends justify the means (in a good scene, he asks Bashir is the people he's saved as a Doctor give a damn that he lied to get into Starfleet) and is horrified that an organisation exists, and, that he's now become entangled with them.

Section 31 is really controversial, as Gene Roddenberry had a few rules: no space pirates, the good guys never use cloaking devices, and humanity had apparently evolved past the point of ugly covert operations bureaus like this. That it is not destroyed in this episode and goes on to be woven into the endgame of DS9, is a hard turn against that ideal. It's more realistic, and it may ask some questions that the concept cannot comfortably handle, but I give DS9 all the credit in the world for being willing to ask the question and play out that string.

Speaking of being willing to betray some of the core principles of the show thus far in the name of real drama . . .


"I CAN . . .live with it."

If introducing Section 31 in "Inquisition" was controversial because of the shadow it put over Star Trek, "In The Pale Moonlight" is like a bomb set off inside Star Trek. Because it steps over every line, challenges every assumption, and upends everything you knew about the series and the characters (even given DS9's loosey-goosey irreverent treatment of Trek mores) In this episode, DS9 becomes DS9 first and Star Trek a distant second, and while it will never go this far again, it is perhaps the most gutsy hour of SF television to this date.

It's also the ultimate Sisko episode, though it doesn't feature Sisko as The Sisko owning assholes and stuff. And I am about to spoil the hell out of this episode, because like "Inquisition," we can't really talk about it without spoiling it.

We open with Sisko dictating in his log and slamming back the hooch. Something has happened. Something bad.

Sisko goes back to when it all started--he'd been posting the latest casualty list in the wardroom and he and his crew had a heated debate about one Federation ship that was attacked in Romulan territory. The Romulans signed a nonaggression pact with the Dominion back in "Call To Arms," remember, and are perfectly happy to stand by and let the Dominion attack its enemy.

Sisko knows that's only a temporary thing (not unlike a girl in trouble) and that the Dominion will deal with the Romulans just like they're trying to deal with the Federations and the Klingons. But right now the Romulans consider themselves to be in the catbird seat--they're not in the war at all, the Dominion is beating the crap out of the Federation and the Klingons, and they don;t have to do a thing.

So Sisko decides he will get the Romulans into the war on their side. And so lays the first stone of good intentions on his road to hell.

Sisko goes to Garak, to see if he can find some evidence that the Dominion is planning to attack the Romulans. Garak sends out some feelers, and everyone he talks to is murdered the very next day. Well, so much for that, Sisko thinks, but Garak shrugs it off. With the stakes as high as they are, and no ability to get legitimate intel, why not . . .oh, I dunno . . .make it up?

Sisko sees the logic in it, but soon finds out that it's not as easy as all that. Garak gets him to spring a forger from a Klingon jail, who immediately gets into a brawl at Quark's and thrown in jail, forcing Sisko to bribe Quark to keep him from pressing charges. Sisko has to force Bashir to send a controlled substance to unknown parties, and oh yeah, there's the whole business that he basically trying to con an entire civilisation into a protracted bloody conflict with no end in sight.

But apart from these slight hiccups, things are going well--the forgery looks OK, the forger hasn't tried to kill anyone else, the Romulan senator most in favour of perpetuating the Domion treaty has agreed to drop by and see Sisko, and if you exclude the whole "Sisko is dying by inches because the moral compromises are starting to wear on him," it looks like everything's going well.

I should mention here that Senator Vreenak, the Romulan who negotiated the treaty with the Dominion, is an epic asshole, even compared with other Romulans we've seen. That said, he gets a great opening line when he meets up with Sisko:

"So you're the commander of Deep Space 9. And the Emissary to the Prophets. Decorated combat officer, widower, father, mentor... and oh yes, the man who started the war with the Dominion. Somehow I thought you'd be taller."

So, they banter back and forth a little bit. Vreenak is positively exuding smug: the Federation looks like its on its last legs: there's manpower shortages, their shipyards are wrecked, and they lack the resolve to utterly defeat the Dominion, having already sent out peace feelers. For Sisko's part, he hold true to his course, and presents the forged evidence to Vreenak.

So let me put you out of your misery now. That forgery that Sisko has risked everything and compromised so much for . . .how do you think that worked out. Let's check in with Vreenak, and the stuff Internet memes are made of:

Well, shit.

So things could have gone better, sure. Because now it looks like the Romulans will use this to enter the war, but on the Dominion's side. Sisko has well and truly fucked up, and all he can do now is wait for Vreenak to get back to Romulus and see how bad it's going to be.

Only Vreenak never gets back. His shuttle is destroyed on the way back to Romulus, and given that his last known destination (the meeting with Sisko being uber-secret stuff) was a Dominion conference, it looks . . .well, bad.

Sisko takes this news as you'd expect--he marches right down to Garak's tailor shop and smacks the ever-loving shit out of him.

Garak played him: He knew the forgery wouldn't hold up to Vreenak's scrutiny, but he's made sure that the forgery will be found among the ruins of the shuttle, and the damage from the explosion will cover the imperfections in it. The more the Dominion protests that they didn't kill Vreenak, the more the Romulans will believe they're guilty, because it's exactly what the Romulans would do if the positions were reversed.

Sisko has his wish: The Romulans have joined the battle, on their side. It may be the turning point in the war they've been waiting for. And all that it's cost him is everything that was important to him, personally. He has left nothing within him uncompromised, broken all his rules, and lost a significant amount of self-respect.

All because the stakes were so high, and his intentions were good. And for those high stakes, and those blighted intentions, he must now put it aside and keep going, and try to forget, even though this wound will never heal, and he will never entirely forget.

This episode is Exhibit A for people who claim DS9 "isn't really Star Trek" (whatever that really means) If that means it's not a utopian view of the future, well, that's as may be. It stopped being that the minute the war heated up, maybe even earlier if you want to get down to cases. And seen from 14 years after, where this sort of dark, morally compromised SF is the rule and not the exception, it probably doesn't feel as much of a sea-change as it did back then, but if you're grounded in a typical Star Trek story from this time period, it comes through with an amazing amount of force.

Captains in Star Trek break the rules all the time, but they're stupid rules put there to force out drama like the Prime Directive. But lying someone into a war is interfering with another culture on a grand scale. The episode's pretty up front with the stakes involved--the Federation is losing the war and taking appalling casualties. The Dominion will win if this becomes a war of attrition. A good officer isn't afraid of sacrifice, and a good person knows that doing the right thing is not always easy.

But very rarely does it get taken to this level. Because it's willing to carry it through to its logical conclusion and doesn't chump out on the ending--Sisko's got what he wanted, but the cost was dearer than he could have imagined--this, ladies and gentlemen, is DS9's Best Ever episode. The show will never reach a higher height than this.


"What does fun have to do with Major Kira?"
"I'll pretend I didn't hear that."

Case in point. Nothing says "buzzkill" like going from last episode to this one. You see, this is the advent of Vic Fontaine, and like the previous 2 episodes, few things divide DS9 viewers and Star Trek fans like the reign of terror that is a Vic Fontaine episode.

Vic is a hologram of a 1960's Vegas lounge singer (those DS9 guys were onto the whole Mad Men thing even before Mad Men. Pity this was so bad) Vic is a special kind of hologram, by which I mean he is basically Poochie, as he is brilliant, more perceptive, kinder, and everyone loves him (on the show, I mean) and . . .yeah, you see why I have a problem with this, as most of Vic's wonderfulness is an Informed Attribute as we're told how wonderful he is more than we are shown.

I can't say he's always irritating--there's one good Vic episode, but we're a ways off from that one. For now though, Vic is here in this episode to finally get Kira and Odo together, and what better way to shove two character's we've been following for six years awkwardly than with a 1960s lounge singer manipulating them and making the pair of them act more than a little thick in the name of plot?

Remember during "You Are Cordially Invited" when I blew my stack about the whole Kira and Odo plot from the opening arc being taken care of in an off-screen conversation in a closet. Yeah, the lack of that kind of resolution happening in front of the audience leads to problems here, because Kira and Odo are basically tricked into together in a way that doesn't feel all that organic, and makes both of them look like dolts. Why not draw on their shared history and the character development that has been going on for six years now, and make this feel more natural?

Because this was phase one of Operation Get Vic Fontaine Over. Sadly, there will be more of this to come.

This feels like a missed opportunity, and even moreso because we've just come down off the peak that "In The Pale Moonlight" was. Whatever came after that was bound to suffer in comparison, but something this . . .safe . . .and inoffensive feels too much like pulling back from where the show should be going, a tendency that will manifest itself more and more, I'm sad to say.

And it's not going to be long, either. Join us next week for one of the most lethally awful DS9 episodes of all time as the Prophets and Pah-Wraiths come to the station and do alarmingly stupid shit as another multi-dimensional character gets downgraded to stock eeeeevil in "The Reckoning"; Jake and Nog find out that letting the children lead is not always the best thing in "Valiant"; We have another Ferengi episode that manages to go so far below the bottom of the barrel it ends up in the molten core of the earth itself in the utterly execrable "Profit and Lace" and it's time to make O'Brien suffer some more in "Time's Orphan." Join us next week for spooky voices, Ferengi trannies, and so much withering displeasure. It will not be pretty.


Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

You know, looking back on it now, I wonder if "In The Pale Moonlight" did more than simply break the Trek Formula: SF as a whole seemed to take a darker turn afterwards. Even "Doctor Who" - which is to BSG what cotton candy is to a three-course meal - dabbled in issues of moral ambivalence...

Kazekage said...

I think you might be right, actually--I think there had been a real movement afoot to undermine the "play it safe" mentality of SF on TV for pretty much the entirety of the 90's even while plenty of "play it safe" SF TV stuff and plodded along.

I figure yeah, it was a major sea-change going forward, yes. The homogenized stuff finally breathed its last in the early 00's and I think Dark SF is the rule rather than the exception now.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

I wonder if the turn to Dark SF brought about the more recent decline in genre visibility - after the last wave of TV cancellations, there haven't been many decent replacements and I haven't seen indications that anything particularly noteworthy is coming up either...

Kazekage said...

I think it's just the final gasps of the law of diminishing returns. For the moment, all the ore that can be mined out of Dark SF. When the next big thing comes along, there'll be more until it's plumbed out. I've been talking with people on another board and as we've been doing so, I've kind of gotten a new perspective for how these things cycle around.

Give it time. Someone will do something that's influential and not successful, then everyone else will spend the next 10 years trying to copy it. :)