Wednesday 18 August 2021

The Great COVID lockdown DS9 rewatch

I’ve not been really enjoying the new Trek. It’s flashy, fast paced and has lots of explosions, and yet... it doesn’t feel like Trek to me. I like the slower paced and (to my mind) more thoughtful TOS, TNG, VOY and DS9. 

I guess this means I'm getting old. And, hey, you kids, get off my lawn!

TOS has wonderfully campy charms, such as theatrical lighting, vaseline lense soft focus on love interests, doomed Red Shirts, Kirk wrestling with his shirt off, Bones blustering about not being an escalator, and over the top melodrama. Yet it also tackled social issues in ways that straight up dramas at the time often could not. 

TNG is cup of cocoa comforting; it follows a nice bunch of people on progressive adventures in space. Picard was written as a thoughtful, reasonable leader. It’s the one show I’ve seen where they’re on the brink of a massive space battle (Kurtzman and JJ would salivate at the prospect!) and God Damn Picard goes and talks them down from the precipice, ending the episode without the required cathartic explosion adorned climax, and we were all better off for it. Peaceful resolution! Who'da thought?!?

Would Discovery ever veer away from pyrotechnical cataclysms? I think not. 

TNG is a gem among sci-fi chaff. The whole set of old Trek shows really hold together well, and feel consistent. Well. Consistent enough!

I’d lump the original Stargate in with this set as some of the best sci-fi series ever done (I'd also add The Expanse, the first couple seasons of BSG, Firefly, and umm... my brain fails but there are others).

I’ve seen TNG intermittently over the years, but haven’t watched a DS9 episode since it was originally on TV. 

So I thought, why not go back and rewatch the whole thing, right from the start?

It’s the one and only long arc show of the original set. Discovery is doing ongoing stories, of course. I watched the first season, which was all about the Mirror Universe. I like the Mirror Universe, just not THAT much of it. 

So buckle in for a journey into nostalgia!

Episode One:

Sisko arrives on DS9 with his son, reluctantly set to take command of the station. He gets all bristly with Picard, who’s dropped by to give him his marching orders. Sisko isn’t too happy with ex-Locutus of Borg, whom he holds responsible for killing his wife at Wolf-359. 

It's actually unusual in classic Trek to show such hostility between Star Fleet members, and it’s a sign of things to come.

Because the whole station is chock filled with people who absolutely can’t stand each other. 

In other ways, it’s an innocuous start: the first two entire seasons are Planet-of-the-Week, self-contained stories that can be run in any order, just the way syndication likes them. The real changes start seeping in during season 3, and just keep coming. 

Sisko’s set on turning down the assignment, when all of a sudden, a wormhole opens up near Bajor, making the assignment significantly more interesting for Sisko (who also discovers he is The Emissary, a representative of The Prophets, who live in the Wormhole), and he decides to take the assignment after all. 

And we’re off and running.

The character collection here is actually really good and designed for conflict. We have (with tonal rating for how compromised they are, with 5 being a perfect grey):

Brusque and no nonsense, he has a softer side that you see only at first with his son. He blusters, but also has a sly side. He’s a steady straight man who has to manage all the looney characters on the station. 

Tone: 1 (He's been in war, fought the borg, and has likely made difficult compromising decisions in the past, although in the first few seasons he doesn't have to get his hands very dirty).

Miles O’Brian
Transported over from Next Generation, Miles is the Chief of Operations for DS9, which is constantly breaking down. We get to see through him the struggle of the Twenty Fifth (?) Century Everyman in his Sisyphean effort to get through the day. He’s temperamental and rather put upon, but with good reason. He’s another station straight man. Can’t stand Bashir at first, whom he’s often paired with.

Tone: 4 (He's a borderline rageaholic who hates Cardassians and was traumatized fighting them; he's been bringing that under control over the first few DS9 seasons, but man is he grumpy).

Hard nosed, aggressive, ornery and always spoiling for a fight, Kira’s the First Officer of DS9, and a former Bajoran terrorist. Now there’s a character background full of dramatic potential. She can be grating, but the actor imbues Kira with enough of a soft side, and heart, that she grows on us. Her bouts of temper (frequently directed at Quark or any convenient Cardassian) are her defining characteristic. Often paired with religious figures from Bajor, Sisko, and Odo. 

Tone: 8 (She's done terrible things fighting the Cardassian occupation that have seared her soul; the only reason I'm not rating her higher is that her 'freedom fighter' arguments hold water).

An earnest blowhard, Bashir’s the station’s genius doctor. He’s full of himself, yet the actor brings nuance in the performance, and disarms us with vulnerability. He can’t help being a bit of a boor,  as he’s oblivious to his off-putting self-centredness. At root, though, he’ll go to the matt for his friends. The show has a lot of fun with his self-centred side, and easily bruised ego.

Tone: 1 (He's a blowhard but a well meaning one, and he doesn't do anything too reprehensible in the first few seasons).

A chill Trill, Dax has multiple lifetimes under her/his/its(?) belt, and acts as a kind of emotional calm point for the station crew. They try to build a lot of interest in her past lives, and while she’s cool, and the idea of Trill is kinda cool, she’s a little too chill to be really interesting. Or, at least, in comparison to some of the other more over the top characters she tends to fade a bit.

Tone: 4 (She's made blood oaths with Klingons and had a host who was a murderer; even if each Trill is a new being, I'm rating her a four because the show strongly hints she's seen her share of serious shit over the years, and had to make difficult compromises). 

Sisko's son, and an entry point for younger viewers. He's a typical kid, not a prodigy, and he gives an endearing performance. He builds an unlikely friendship with Nog, the son of the Ferengi, Rom.

Tone: 0 (He's not seen shit... yet). 

An unscrupulous capitalist who has no moral he won’t compromise for profit. As a stereotypical Ferengi, he veers between grotesque caricature, cunning, and comic relief. The actor, however, performs Quark with gusto and manages to inject enough nuance that he grows on us. He’s thankfully not one note, in the end. A lot of mileage is gained out of his schemes and ongoing conflict with Odo.

Tone: 9 (He's got no qualms about selling defective merchandise that will kill the user, runs guns to anyone who wants them, and worse; I'm leaving a sliver of light because he only hurts others as a side effect). 

Odo’s a ton of fun: a shape shifter and head of security for the station, he’s Quarks foil and arch-nemesis. Beneath their rivalry, there’s a very buried affection. Very buried. They each make the life of the other more interesting, and if Odo didn’t have Quark’s schemes to foil, he’d be bored out of his mind. Gruff and detached, he warms up over the course of the show. 

Tone: 5 (He was head of station security for the Cardassians, who are well known for atrocities, extrajudicial executions and war crimes. Fun! He remarks that he never killed anyone (late in season 3), yet he was security chief for a station filled with Bajoran slave labourers. He often complains Starfleet doesn't allow him police state levels of freedom in cracking down on the station populace. At the same time, he is genuinely concerned with justice. How that really fits with his time working for the Cardassians is an open question...). 

Like Quark, Garak is part comic relief, part cunning. Ostensibly a Cardassian tailor who’s decided to remain on DS9, he’s actually a ruthless spy (hey, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) and former member of the feared Obsidian Order. There are a lot of tailoring jokes, and his dissembling never ceases. Even when it’s obvious he’s a former spy, he never fully admits to it, which is part of the fun. Of course, under all the surface Machiavellianism, there’s a heart buried... somewhere. The actor is obviously having a grand old time, and it shows. Frequently paired with the endlessly earnest egotist, Bashir.

Tone: 10 pitch black (As the former right hand man of Tain, the head of the Space Gestapo, he likely didn't limit all his interrogations to staring contests. Hard to say how much, or what, is true of his past, but odds are it wasn't pretty). 

There are a lot more sparks flying between this set than you'll ever witness with TNG's pleasant character collection. 

I've already plowed through Season 1 & 2 and I'm deep into Season 3.

So far, they've played a lot with Quark as the avatar of capitalist excess, Kira and Sisko with post-traumatic stress (Kira's freedom fighting years, Sisko surviving Wolf-359), and multiple-bodies one consciousness with Dax. 

Many of the characters are decidedly grey. Unlike the well adjusted crew of the USS Enterprise, these are compromised, wounded people: Odo pushes everyone away with gruffness, but secretly he's quietly suffering in a private sea of loneliness. Garak is in agonizing exile, which he hides behind pretzels of evasiveness, never saying anything directly. Quark hides his feelings behind untrammelled greed, hoping you won't see them. Sisko buries the pain of losing his wife deep inside. Bashir shields himself with ego. Kira doesn't defend her vulnerability at all; instead she attacks, attacks, attacks. 

Pursuit was one of my favourite episodes of Season One. It pairs O'Brian with an alien who's been bred to be hunted and killed for sport (we'll see hunters again with the Hirogen of Voyager). The two put upon, expendable worker bees form a bond, and O'Brian helps the genetically engineered target escape to fulfill his purpose (giving a good chase). It turned out to be one of the most heart felt of Season One episodes. The makeup on the alien was excellent, but the costumes of his pursuers was kind of laughable. 

For a Trek show set in one location, they manage to mix things up a decent amount. 

One recurrent theme in the first few seasons is people not being who they seem, or being replaced by Dopplegangers. Either the whole crew is, or someone has been brainwashed, or reality isn't real, or they wake up Cardassian (A ridiculous yet great episode!), or they're stuck in a children's game playing Space Hopscotch. All done in entertaining ways, but makes me wonder what was going on in the writer's room. 

The Mirror Universe makes two appearances in the first couple of seasons, which is just the right amount. Here the grey take of DS9 really comes to the fore: rather than the Terran Empire reforming and becoming a benevolent, inclusive state after Kirk's intervention, Goatee Spock's reforms backfire and the Empire is overrun by an alliance of enemies. Humans are enslaved and treated like disposable fodder. No good deed goes unpunished! Pure virtue rarely endures in DS9 without being besmirched at some point. Everything and everyone has to compromise and get dirty to get by, eventually. We'll see more of that in later seasons.

There is a progressive on it’s sleeve episode where Sisko and Bashir go back in time to a Sanctuary Zone where they save human civilization by bringing attention to the plight of the homeless. It’s set in 2024… eerily close to the discontent of 2020. 

In some ways, the show is the anti-thesis to TNG. Writers felt constricted by Roddenberry's Rules (no fighting among Star Fleet personnel, etc), so here they find work arounds. They may not break the rules directly, but by filling the cast out with aliens and non-Starfleet personnel, conflict ran run amok.

To be fair to Roddenberry, his rules made TNG one of the most unusual dramas on TV. I rather liked that it didn't always take the easy conflict route, and I especially liked how measured Picard could be.

TNG also often veered away from forcing characters to make real choices, choices that would compromise or tarnish the character's ethical lustre. An easy choice is no choice. Choosing between letting Planet A or Planet B blow up isn't a choice if the characters just save both! In DS9, one of them is gonna blow up.

Difficult choices leave their mark on the characters. That's something The 100 was phenomenal at (for the first few seasons, before it blasted off the rails and into orbit around Pluto). 

Mentions of the Dominion get seeded throughout Season 2, but it's still episodic. Group of alien refugees will mention they were displaced by The Dominion, for example. 

Everything heats up with Sisko's father and son family outing in the Season 2 finale, when they get abducted by the Jem H'dar. Season 3 opens with a combat recon mission beyond the wormhole. They run into a swarm of Jem H'dar ships, get a bloody nose, fall back, and as they retreat, the Galaxy Class starship Odyssey is freakin' blown to bits by a Jem H'dar suicide run. 

Whoa! Nothing says these guys mean business than a suicide run taking out your most powerful starship and thousands of skilled crewmen. They've already wiped out all the colonies established on their side of the wormhole by the Bajorans and Federation. 

Soon after, The USS Defiant is introduced. It's a heavily armed warship, unusual for StarFleet, which prefers multi-function vessels. 

Then... it gets weird. 

Several Planet-of-the-week episodes follow, usually presaged by a scene in which a character will toss off a line about the Dominion ('Good thing there are no Dominion ships in this sector' or 'Golly, business is down... thanks to The Dominion!'), and then the show will promptly forget The Dominion exists for the next 45 minutes. It feels like they still had a bunch of episodic scripts lying around they needed to use, so they shoe horned in a toss off line to keep us from forgetting... whatever it was. Dominoes?

What I don't really understand is why they seemingly get chased to the other side of the wormhole, with the Dominion complaining about Federation incursions into their Quadrant... and then they don't post sentries on their side of the wormhole. I mean, they just did a suicide run on a Federation capital ship, and started a war. 

There is one entry point for the Federation into their Quadrant: the wormhole.

I mean, I'm no expert tactician, but the obvious thing to do is post sentries at the wormhole. Or mine the entrance. 

Once Federation ships get through, they can disperse, and it'll be hard to catch them. But if you put a blockade right at the wormhole, they're all bottled up.

There's also an attempt to blow up the wormhole by the Romulans (in a rather clever short term time travel episode centring on the ever put upon O'Brian, who ends up dying to boot. The writers really love kicking O'Brian). 

They're stopped, but it brings up further questions when a combined fleet of Romulan & Cardassians, built by their respective spy agencies, tries to blow up the home world of the Dominion's Founders (who happen to be shape shifters like Odo). Why don't they leave behind a sentry ship at the wormhole, to blow it up in case their mission fails (which it inevitably does)?

The two parter Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast are wild episodes, and the show does a great job of seeding elements leading up to them earlier in the season. It's not always immediately obvious how all the parts fit together, either, which I like even more. It feels like something big and COHERENT is happening in the background. 

Or mostly makes sense. 

There are occasional (seeming?) logic gaps (some of which I posed above). There may be in universe answers to these issues that I'm simply not aware of. Or maybe I wasn't watching closely enough. 

The conflict with the Dominion is getting quite hot by mid-Season 3, and it's only going to get hotter!

If you've never given DS9 a watch, I recommend giving it a chance!

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