Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine review

At some point you just have to write what you feel.

After finishing The Next Generation, I felt that the logical first step was moving on to the TNG movies. I just couldn't. I've already seen First Contact, which my friends inform me is the pick of a very motley litter, and I was tempted by more quality television.

Firstly, I was surprised to discover how much of DS9 I had actually watched when it first aired. I remembered the season finale in the second season mostly because who wouldn't remember a Galaxy-class starship blow up by a kamikaze space wasp (these things tend to stick in the mind) but figured I had moved on when I got to college. I had completely forgotten had also seen the third and most of the fourth season. Not a big deal, but like I said, it was a surprise.



Much of the seven seasons really clicked for me. I loved almost all of the characters, thought that the villains were uniformly excellent, and really appreciated DS9's luxury of carefully developing a single setting over time. I appreciated the risks this series took, embracing the rewards and pitfalls of semi-serialized stories, exploring the darker side of certain Trek assumptions, and experimenting (successfully) with unique storytelling. The best episodes of DS9 right on par with the best TNG had to offer (Liked "Inner Light?" try "Beyond the Farthest Star" more into timey-wimey sci-fi like Cause and Effect? DS9 had "TheVisitor").

Let's go even farther out on a branch and say the average DS9 episode was a bit better than the average TNG episode. Better how? In just about everything. Character development, consistent characterisation, exciting conflicts, humor, you name it. The average mediocre DS9 story almost always had a bit more going for it simply by virtue of tying into a a running story than the random holodeck malfunction, diplomat with a secret, or spacial anomaly of the week on TNG.

But before you start sending me hate mail, let me just add: I still like TNG better.

Why? How can I say that one series is objectively better and yet still like the other? I guess it boils down to emotional connection. I like Star Trek, I write about Star Trek, but I still consider myself more of an admirer than a full-fledged fan. I appreciate Star Trek because in a particular time and place the characters and weekly adventures of my USS Enterprise spoke to what I was experiencing at age 10 through 17. I grew up with TNG. It's hard to walk away from that.

But back to DS9. There's a way of looking at this show that puts it squarely in between what came before and what was about to happen. As mentioned, DS9 flirted (pretty aggressively by the end) with serialized, big scale stories. But the will to take the show to the next level, with unified, overlapping plots like Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica, wasn't there. I can forgive the occasional one-off reset episode in TNG because the vibe of the show was constantly on the move, pushing farther into the unknown. It's tougher to ignore the reset button on a show where characters refer to certain episodes again and again while conveniently forgetting others.

Favorite aspects of DS9:

  • Taking the utopian aspects of Star Trek seriously enough to challenge them. It seems like many die-hard Trekkies dislike this series on the basis of one episode alone: In the Pale Moonlight. The morally disturbing actions Sisko takes during that episode just rub people the wrong way. And I get that. But I look at things differently. It would be one thing if DS9 had simply chucked the whole 'paradise on Earth' idea and became Star Wars with phasers. It's quite another to pose the question of how would a utopian organization devoted to peaceful exploration deal with an existential threat? It's easy to hold onto ideals when times are good, quite another to do the right thing when you're struggling for your life.
  • Benjamin Sisko and Jake Sisko. I'm not entering new territory here in saying the relationship between a loving but strong father and a son trying to find his own path was one of the best-handled aspects of the show. Particularly relevant to "The Visitors," but this relationship is at the heart of everything else in the show.
  • The Dominion. I appreciated how cleverly this nefarious empire was constructed as the perfect foil. I like how they represent a mirror-image of the Federation; both governments embracing diplomacy and bringing in new members from many diverse worlds. The Founders of the Dominion were once explorers just like the humanoids of the founding members of the Federation. But where Earth, Vulcan, and others gave equal status to all member worlds, the Dominion is fueled by distrust and paranoia. I also enjoyed how thoroughly diabolical control the Founders had over Jem'Hadar and the Vorta. In the case of the powerful warriors, an addiction to drugs and a genetic predisposition for obedience towards the Founders presents an appalling dilemma: how does a free society deal with an opposing civilization full of rational, super-competent and utterly loyal slaves?
Things I wasn't so fond of:
  • Just about every Ferengi episode. Not too surprising, seeing how most of these episodes just weren't very good. I was looking forward to seeing how the Ferengi episodes played a decade later, but other than Armin Shimerman's Quark, these episodes were full of wooden jokes and offensive, obvious plots. It's too bad. Every once in awhile: "Little Green Men,""The House of Quark," and "The Dogs of War" spring to mind, the series would suggest what sort of mixture of broad humor and thin social commentary it was aiming for. These moments were fleeting though. And God I learned to hate the sound of Grand Nagus Zek's voice.
  • Missed opportunities. One of my favorite episodes was "Hard Time," one in a long series of episodes that heaped misery upon Miles O'Brien. Here, Miles is inflicted with the memory of years of incarceration in an alien prison. Once awakened he discovers he had been asleep only a few hours but most somehow deal with the memories of a lifetime of captivity. Great stuff except when it ends, that's it. They never mention O'Brien's entire virtual life again and he seems completely recovered in time for the next episode. As I've said before, it's a lot harder to swallow "now everything's back to normal," when that's not always the case. This is the example that comes most readily to my mind, but there are many, many others.
I'm going to write a few posts picking my favorite episodes but after I catch up on a few other things I've been watching.
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