“When you cease to fear death the rules of war change.”
The narrative of the first season of DS9, and it’s a point I’ve made over and over and will likely continue to make, is the writers trying to understand the kinds of stories they can tell within the format of the show. Eventually, they’ll learn that DS9 is the great paradox of Trek shows: to work within the format, they have to break that same format, and we’ll end up with some of the most bracing, fascinating, and, yes, dark storytelling the franchise has ever seen. With this first season, the writers are stumbling around, flirting with various elements that will grow to define the series, and many that will get mercifully abandoned. To their credit, they recognize when something is working and when something isn’t (Haven’t heard from Primmin lately, have we?), and developing the show in that direction. This week’s episode, “Battle Lines,” is nearly recognizable as the series I love.
“You think the whole galaxy is plotting around you, don’t you? Paranoia must run in your species, Odo. Maybe that’s why no one has ever seen another shapeshifter. They’re all hiding!” -- Quark
It’s pretty easy to see why Odo was the first breakout character of the show. It’s like they took a checklist of all the things guaranteed to connect with an audience and applied it to him. Loner with a mysterious past? Check. Only one of his kind? Check. Cool powers? Check. Gruff exterior masking a deep inner pain only curable with the love of a good woman? You better believe that’s a check. It’s a wonder that more people didn’t grow up nursing an impossible Odo crush or wander around conventions wearing Team Odo shirts. “Vortex,” the eleventh episode of the first season, once again turns the spotlight on our favorite grouchy ball of amber protoplasm, but instead of focusing solely on Odo’s preoccupation with justice, it tests that against the great unanswered question of his origin.
“Never trust anyone who places your prosperity above their own.”
-- Grand Nagus Zek
The Ferengi were originally intended as TNG’s Klingons, the shadowy foil to the shiny, happy Federation. Introduced with some fanfare in “The Last Outpost,” the cannibalistic monsters of that episode, with their energy whips and Worf-beating prowess, are scarcely recognizable as the cheerfully greedy space capitalists that we know and presumably love. The Ferengi never worked as a convincing other (even their name, derived from the Arabic faranji, or “foreigner,” states this purpose for the race), but they do function as a fascinating and often hilarious counterpoint to Starfleet. They’re basically a bunch of hard-charging capitalist hustlers from the go-go ‘80s trying to exist in the middle of a post-scarcity utopian economy. The stories practically write themselves.
“No favorite of mine!”
-- Avery Brooks on this episode
The most bracing thing about the Trek universe is how different the basic pitches for each show are. TOS is about one tiny ship exploring a huge and terrifying galaxy. TNG is about the flagship of a mighty utopia, juggling exploration and diplomacy with aplomb. DS9 was a highly serialized space opera, dealing with the dark side of utopia. Voyager was a lost vessel, a survival adventure against the backdrop of unexplored space. Yet, for the first season, every Star Trek show thinks it’s the one before it. Voyager featured a mutiny, some imported villains from DS9, and the kind of skullduggery that a lost ship really can’t afford. TNG had cheeseball sets, unconvincing bad guys, and scripts that seemed to date from the ‘60s. It’s not just that the first season thinks it’s the show previous, it’s that it thinks it’s only the bad parts of that show. This brings me to “Move Along Home,” this week’s episode of DS9, which really feels like a bad TNG episode.
“Fate has granted me a gift, Major. A gift to be a healer.”
--Dr. Julian Bashir
It’s tough to know what to make of DS9’s resident medical officer on first blush. He’s naïve, arrogant, and oblivious to all but the most blatant social cues. He’s eager for challenges, but doesn’t yet know what those challenges mean. He embodies the can-do, starry-eyed, boyish sense of adventure that the British Empire always imagined it had. He is a pretty bold creation by the writing staff, if they intended him as I believe they did: a character as intentionally obnoxious as possible, that they might eventually redeem somehow. Bashir’s character becomes even more fascinating in retrospect, as a later revelation places his early overweening arrogance in a much darker context.
“I’m telling you, I knew the man!”
“But, did you know the symbiont inside the man?”
-- Commander Sisko and Constable Odo
On my first trip through DS9, I always dreaded Dax episodes. Not because they were bad, but because they meant that this week I wasn’t getting a Kira episode, or an Odo episode, or the black tar heroin of episodes, a Garak episode. On this trip through the show, I’m hoping to analyze exactly why Dax episodes don’t quite work as well as others. Your mileage may vary, of course. It’s possible Dax is your favorite character, and, in that case, don’t let me curb your enjoyment. On the surface, I get the appeal. Dax is a classic, strong woman archetype. She’s tough, she’s smart, and uniquely for that niche, she’s wise. Unlike many later heroines, Dax is refreshingly sex-positive, and the show never wags its finger or clucks its tongue at her for it. And, because I would be remiss if I didn’t point it out, she’s played by the ridiculously gorgeous Terry Farrell.
“You hit me! Picard never hit me.”
“I’m not Picard.”
-- Q and Commander Sisko
Just in case you have no idea who the Star Trek universe’s Q is, I’ll explain. First, though, how’d you end up here? Are you lost? Wait here and I’ll go and get a police officer to take you home, and, for the last time, stop mixing your medication with scotch. Anyway, Q is a godlike alien being who walks the line between mischievous and malevolent and takes special delight in bothering Captain Picard. As played by John de Lancie, Q is one of the more popular and recognizable elements of the twenty-year period of Trek that comprises TNG, DS9, and Voyager. Me, I’ve never cared for Q. Nothing against de Lancie or the writing, I just prefer my godlike aliens to be more strange and less preteen-who-really-could-use-his-Ritalin. It might be because I look at Q as the physical representation of the Trek brass (a.k.a. Rick Berman and Brannon Braga). Wherever their attention is, like the Eye of Sauron, Q will soon appear, bringing his special brand of malicious whimsy.
“Die with honor, O’Brien.” -- Tosk
From the very beginning, the Gamma Quadrant was DS9‘s most tantalizing promise. An entire sector of unexplored space, in which anything could be waiting. In the early going, it was pretty clear that the show wasn’t quite sure how to fulfill that promise. By the second season, the team of writers led by Ira Steven Behr would surpass it, but, for the time being, it was to be used for the kinds of episodes more suited to TNG. Just instead of going to the new life and new civilizations, they would have to come through the wormhole to the cast.
“Who said anything about volunteering? We can haggle over price later.” --Quark
The mysterious plague episode is the baked potato of the Star Trek franchise. It’s the staple, presumably what the writers do when they don’t have anything better on the agenda. “So, what’s the plan this week?” “I dunno, Ira, how about a mysterious plague?” “GOLD! You’re spinning gold right now!” It might seem shocking that DS9 dipped into that well so quickly, but they showed more restraint than TNG whose “Naked Now” was the very second episode ever. Fortunately, this doesn’t feature Denise Crosby with bizarre ‘80s hair either.
“Laws change, depending on who’s making them -- Cardassians one day, Federation the next. But, justice is justice.” -- Constable Odo
The quote above is pretty stunning. It’s not the kind of thing you would see in any other installment in the Star Trek franchise, unless it came out of the mouth of a villain or maybe a guest star whose opinion of Starfleet would change before the credits rolled. Here, it’s coming from a series regular -- the station’s security officer, Odo -- and he’s basically saying that the laws of our heroic utopia and a brutally oppressive regime, who regarded war crimes as an icebreaker, are the same. It’s a pretty important window into Odo, who, for the first two episodes, was something of an enigma. He’s center stage in “A Man Alone,” and we really start seeing the character that would become not only a fan favorite, but arguably the most important person across two quadrants.