Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Deep Space Nine - The Esssentials (pat 1)

DS9 is by far and away the greatest of the Trek shows and that includes the classic series. The main reasons for this are firstly its brilliant characters and secondly its epic scope. Before looking at the essential episodes of the series itself, some context is important.

The original series was of course seminal and very little needs to be said about it. But fundamentally many of the episodes are dated now, some badly. In addition to this most of the best episodes come from the first season. Indeed the classic series owes as much to the films as the original TV run in terms of public consciousness. It is also fair to say that the classic series was a show about the Kirk/Spock/McCoy triumvirate. I think even the most casual fan of the classic series could talk in depth about each of those characters and the way they relate to each other. The same cannot be said for the likes of Scotty, Sulu, Uhura and Chekov. Indeed I can think of little to say about any of them and equally know very little about who those characters really are. This was not a problem though because everything about the classic series was, at the time, revolutionary for TV Sci-Fi (and TV in general) and the show and the characters are rightfully iconic as a result.

The Next Generation was successful in becoming a variation on a theme of the classic show. But again, aside from Picard, Worf and Data, there is very little to be said about the other characters. As with the classic series there are a good number of excellent, literate, episodes.

The classic series and the Next Generation were about exploration. The drama came from what the characters found and how they reacted to those findings. The Next Generation in particular relied on this; Roddenberry's vision of the future being such that it excluded the notion of internal conflict between the crew in all but exceptional cases. Similarly the exploration based format meant that the characters rarely deal with the consequences of the choices and actions in any given episode. Whilst the style and tones of the episodes are very different, the characters in Encounter at Far Point are hardly any different from those in All Good Things. Riker and Troi started and ended the show as an unresolved question mark, ditto Picard and Crusher. Similarly I am not sure that I could tell you anything more about Geordi after All Good Things that I could not already have told you by the end of Encounter at Far Point.

To some extent this is of course unimportant. The Next Generation characters achieved a status comparable to the classic series characters in the USA. The shows is a successful SF anthology series and there is nothing actually wrong with that but equally there is nothing particularly ambitious about it either.

DS9 was always going to be a different animal. The show was never going to be about exploration, simply because it initially ran in tandem with the last two years of The Next Generation and later in tandem with Voyagers earlier years. Thus the show would either have been about a space station or a colony world. The producers realised a colony show would be too expensive and thus the space station idea was the remaining option. This naturally meant that the show had to be about something other than exploration and thus the characters of the show become the driving force. DS9 had the best range of characters in the entire Star Trek franchise. Indeed very few TV shows at all can lay claim to a better assortment of characters. Aside from the core crew (Captain Sisko, Major Kira, Lt. Dax, Lt. Bashir, Constable Odo, Quark and Chief O Brien in the initial series) the show also had more than 20 recurring characters. Almost all of whom were multi-faceted and constantly growing and evolving. I could say more about some of the shows guest star characters than I could about a Sulu or a Troi. Similarly the core crew were all changed as a result of the experiences through the show.

In some ways the show fell victim to its own publicity. Too much emphasis was placed on the fact that it was set on a station and darker and grittier than TNG. This lead to a perceptions that the show was static and miserable. In reality the show has more humour than any other Trek show and there was plenty of travel too. But there was also the additional factor of seeing the crew build lives for themselves and deal with the consequences of their actions.

The show also fell victim to the misconceptions of the general Sci-Fi fanbase too. Firstly the ongoing Babylon 5 – DS9 feud which I am not even going to bother to address here (being a fan of both) and secondly those in the Trek fanbase who felt the show was a betrayal of Roddenberry's vision for the future.

Lately it seems the tide is turning, at least in the UK, with DS9 recently turning up in a list of the best 50 shows ever and a wholesale re-evaluation of the show in UK genre magazines around the time of seasons 5 and 6.

As with Buffy the show can be neatly split into two eras and coincidentally the split in DS9 is also between seasons 1-3 and seasons 4-7. With Buffy this occurred because of a conceptual change in the show. With DS9 it essentially reflects the Michael Piller era of the show and the Ira Steven Behr era of the show. It also reflects a shift in tone as everything in season 4 onwards is filmed with more energy and flair to it than the more reflective style of seasons 1 to 3.


1) Emissary. The pilot episode of the show introducing the core cast and several important recurring characters (in particular that bastard Dukat). Easily the best Trek pilot show. Each of the characters gets a chance to shine and they are all true to themselves in as much as none of them require a radical reworking by the writers (contrast with Troi, Riker and Spock). The political backdrop for show is established and whilst it lacks the pace of a modern day pilot, it does not drag either. It is also rich in ideas, some of which would go continue to fuel the series to its very end. It also sets the tone for the rest of the season with the Federation crew and the Bajoran nationals beginning the process of learning about each other and working together on the frontier. Quark and Odo begin a glorious seven year double act that is the equal of Bones and Spock. Sisko and Dax re-acquaint themselves with each other (sidebar: Dax totally proves the notion a female Doctor Who being able to work fine), we see the first proper family relationship on Trek (Sisko and Jake) the beginnings of DS9 being the first trek to properly explore faith and religion. The beginning of Sisko v Dukat (Think Kirk v Kahn only over 7 years). DS9 would go onto better this epsiode numerous times, but by the same token all of those episodes were built on the stong and wonderful foundations of this one.

2) The Nagus. OK, so a little backstory is required here. Quark is a Ferengi. The Ferengi were intrroduced on The Next Generation and were intended to be that shows equivalent of the Klingons. To say that they did not work, would be an understatement. They were unintentionally hilarious and almost entirely non-threatening (or in the words of Kira “Greedy, mysoginistic, little trolls”). However, the idea or a race motivated purely by greed/profit was a good one, particularly when played against the communist utopia of the Federation. Thus the Ferengi were rehabilitated into a satirical swipe at modern day humanity. Of all the races in Star Trek they are the ones most like modern day humanity. Consequentially the Ferengi are also the funniest species in star trek and The Nagus is the beginning of a DS9 tradition of using the Ferengi as the basis for comedy episodes.

The Nagus himself (brilliantly played by Wallace Shawn) is the elderly Godfather figure of the Ferengi race, the richest of the rich. This episode deals with his plan to appoint a successor, Quarks appointment as his successor and the ensuing attempts on Quarks life.
The Ferengi episodes tend to divide the fanbase. There are those that adore them and then there are those who are wrong. Either way this episode must be watched, if only to hear Wallace Shawn's laughing, his “And You failed! MISERABLY!” and his “Its like talking to a Klingon!”.

3) Duet. Simply put an astonishingly good episode. Kira deals with a Cardassian who arrives on the station and is revealed to be a suspected war criminal responsible for genocidal acts against Kira's peaple (the Bajorans). Harris Yulin is superb as Aamin Marritza, the suspect, being utterly believable with each twist and turn in the plot until the ultimate truth is revealed. Nana Visitor is only a step behind as Kira. The script sings and the whole thing is so simply you could put it on the stage tomorrow. Not only one of the best episodes of Trek, not merely one of the best episodes of Sci-Fi ever made, but one of the most electrify episodes of television ever made. You owe it to yourself to watch this one.

4) In the Hands of the Prophets. Another great episode and the finale of season 1. Not in the league of Duet, but then very few episodes of any TV show are. This one brings the relationship between the Federation and the Bajorans into the fore and also deals with the always interesting “faith” v “science” argument. More to the point it also introduces Vedek Winn, one of the series main antagonists. Louise Fletcher is brilliant in the part making the character easily and immensely HATEABLE whilst still maintaining a certain sympathy too. Although the episode features a rather large explosion, it is not explosive in the way that TNG finales tended to be. Rather it is a neat little epilogue to the season of stories that preceded it, a point of reflection laying the groundwork for the following season.

Honourable Mentions: Captive Pursuit (A solid O Brien episode), Dax, Vortex (a good Odo episode which hints at the nature of his people), The Foresaken (another good Odo episode).


1) Necessary Evil. DS9 goes first person film noir. A Kira/Odo/Dukat story told by Odo and showing the station under Cardassian rule, Odo's appointment as security officer and Kira and Odo's first meeting. An excellent moody detective story. There are also the first hints of the direction of Rom's character (again compare the development of Rom over 7 years with Troi or Geordi in TBG).

2) Whispers. Another great little O Brien episode laced with paranoia and, as with Necessary Evil, very much a first person story. The twist at the end is fantastic.

3) Profit and Loss. A love story for Quark and a very good one at that. Garak continues to surprise and delight in the one too. In terms of the overall arc the story of the dissident Cardassians would continue to evolve throughout the series with this show being the real starting point of that process.

4) Blood Oath. KLINGONS! Kang! Kor! and Koloth! A great action episode with real heart to it as well. This episode does as much to define the character of Dax as any other with her tom boy, rouge, quality coming to the fore for the first time (beyond her affection for the Ferengi). There always something good about a story of some old legends saddling up for one final time. That the legends in this case are genuine Star Trek legends helps the story even more.

5) and 6) The Maquis Parts 1 and 2. This one just makes the cut. The twist at the end of episode 1 is a little to obvious, but the rest of the story is excellent. Classic DS9 with shades of grey abounding. The Maquis would go on to be relevant to the series until season 6 (not to mention the Voyager show). In many ways its also the first time when Ira Steven Behr's take on trek becomes obvious with Sisko's “saints in paradise” speech about the nature of the utopian Federation. In many ways the entire run of DS9 is about that very issue as DS9 is very much about what the saints do when they are taken out of paradise (and for the most part I think they do themselves proud!). This story also encapsulates much of what DS9 was about in terms of the characters having to make difficult choices and deal with the consequences of those choices. Indeed the characters here are actually dealing with the consequences of the choices made in a TNG episode and its notable that DS9 was much better equipped to deal with following up a TNG episode that TNG would have been.

7) The Wire. A superb Garak/Bashir episode about DS9's “plain, simple tailor”. Again this is a classic example of DS9 doing a character story which in turn opens up a number of ongoing storylines. In this case the Obsidian Order become very relevant to the future of DS9. But as with Duet this is really about the relationship between two characters and the secrets of the past.

8) Tribunal. Another “torture O Brien” episode, this time literally as O Brien is forced to go on holiday with his wife Keiko! Ithangyow! Actually that is the start of the episode. What is is actually about it O Brien and Keiko being captured by the Cardassians and O Brien being put on trial. The Cardassians have a novel legal system with ALL prisoners being found guilty and sentenced prior to trial. Thus the trial is the very definition of a show trial. Colm Meaney is, as ever, superb and Avery Brooks direction is striking.

9) The Jem'Hadar. A really important episode this one and a good one too. This is effectively a prologue for season 3 as the show begins the Dominion Arc. The Dominion would go on to become the series main baddies and can be seen as being the Anti-Federation of the Gamma Quadrant. Rather than being a single race, they are a union of races under the control of The Founders. In general the Founders themselves are not seen and are instead represented by other races created or genetically modified by the Founders. This episodes introduces The Jem'Hadar and The Vorta. The former are The Dominion's army/enforcement species, the latter are the diplomats. Both species consider The Founders to be Gods (compare/contrast the Bajorans and the Prophets) and both species work together in carrot and stick fashion to recruit new species into The Dominion. To put it simply the Jem'Hadar will fuck you up big time as a warm up before destroying some Klingons for the main course. This episode gets most of this backstory across in an entertaining and explosive way as Starfleet has its shit comprehensively fucked up in a way not seen since The Best of Both Worlds.

Honourable Mentions: The Homecoming, The Circle and The Seige (3 part story opening season 2). Cardassians. Sanctuary, Crossover. The Collaborator.


1 & 2) The Search Parts 1 and 2. Ladies and Gentleman I introduce to you: THE DEFIANT! Having had a bunch of fives Starfleet responds by giving Sisko the coolest Starship in the franchise (actually its a battleship). That would be reason enough to watch this one, but there is lots more on offer. The Founders are revealed for one in a very good little twist on a long running storyline set up in the pilot episode. Federation ethics are put under the spotlight as a policy of appeasement is implemented on DS9 (although there is a twist on this as well) and Sisko decides for the first time that the price of peace is too high.

3) Defiant. A terrific action episode with tons of good character interplay too (Kira and Thomas Riker, Sisko and Dukat once again being forced to work as an effective team) a secret is also revealed which would pay off later in the season.

4) Life Support. Another one that just gets onto the list. The B-Plot her about Jake and Nog really doesn't belong in the episode at all. But the A-Plot is great and important with loads of good Kira and Kai Winn stuff and Bariel sacrificing himself for the good of his people.

5 & 6) Improbable Cause and The Die is cast (parts 1 and 2). The high point of season 3 as The Founders score a significant win against two Alpha Quadrant powers. Garak renews his allegiance to the Obsidian Order, Odo reveals a secret to Garak (under torture!). There is a real and perceptible shift occurring here with the series taking its biggest single step from being a “story of the week” franchise to a serial and from DS9 being a modern day western to being a modern day war story.

7) Explorers. A quiet, calming story to recover from the previous double whammy. This is one that gained significance in later years. Essentially this is a standalone about Sisko deciding to try to build his own solar powered space craft to emulate the early Bajorans. However, looking back a lot was set up here. Sisko's relationship with Kassidy Yates, Sisko's growing acceptance of being The Emissary and his growing empathy with the Bajorans, their culture and history. Jake taking another step into adulthood. Also the interior of the ship is really, really cool!

8) Family Business. A Ferengi episode. More specifically and more importantly a Quark and Rom episode. The plot ostensibly concerns the actions of Quark's mother (she wears clothes and earns profit, both forbidden in Ferengi culture) and there is certainly some fun to be had in the satirical swipes at 20th Century western culture. But in reality the story is much more about the family relationships and estrangements. Rom gets his first chance to shine in a major way in standing up to Quark. Similarly Quark is once again shown to be a complex figure and not just comic relief.

Honourable Mentions: The House of Quark. Equilibrium. Second Skin. Fascination. Past Tense (parts 1 and 2). Shakar. Facets. The Adversary (season 3 finale).


I.J. Parnham said...

Nice recap of what for me is by far the best of the Trek series. The only things I'd disagree with is that I never found the main characters to be particularly more complex than the walking cyphers of the other Trek series. O'Brien was the same at the end as the start. Bashir's enforced character change in season 5 invalidated everything. Sisko got bolder and fatter, but not much else. Quark learnt nothing. They gave up on Jake. Kira only ever struggled with her faith when the plot called for it. Dax just got whatever hobby of the week type character changes the stories required...

All the other characters though were the finest set assembled for any series.

I like that you don't take the traditional Ferengi bashing line, although I've never quite clicked with the pilot, but then again I was never a fan of the scenes involving those non-temporal aliens who thought in very temporal ways.

Looking forward to part 2, although how you'll limit yourself to picking the best episodes I don't know. Perhaps you should just list them all (aside from the baseball one).

Ben Willans said...

Yeah I'm slightly concerned about that one myself. The baseball one with the Vulcans is definitely going in the list though!

I think Quark learned a lot. But he also maintained his core world view. I like that about the character. Babylon 5 seemed to lead to SF fans assuming that unless characters changed radically they do not/did not evolve and grow at all. DS9 was more subtle than that and more true to how people usually develop in real life.

I don't think Kira ever struggled with her faith as such. What i liked about DS9 was that it had plots concerning her faith and how it affected her life.

Anyway, nice to get some feedback and please make yourself at home!

I.J. Parnham said...

Yeah, you're right about Kira. I did some lazy shorthand there. She was always clear about her faith, but having Nurse Ratched as a spiritual leader would give anybody concerns!