“You live without a soul, Commander. You and your Federation exist in a universe of darkness, and you would drag us in there with you, but we will not go.”
-- Vedek Winn
Star Trek can feel pretty homogenous at times. It’s just that every Klingon you meet is a proud warrior, every Ferengi a greedy criminal, every Borg a . . . well, a Borg. It’s understandable, as the writers only have a fraction of your typical 44-minute episode to devote to designing a new race, and variation in a single species can actually be detrimental to the show’s point. When it annoys me is when it persists beyond a one-off appearance into the signature races of a television show. No part of the franchise was better at developing its core species than DS9.
“What you call genocide, I call a day’s work.”
-- Aamin Marritza
DS9 is often dismissed as the red-headed stepchild of the Star Trek franchise. They are in a space station, after all. It’s nigh impossible to trek anywhere in a stationary environment. Yet, there is one episode that consistently makes the lists of best hours across all of the shows, even in the most virulently anti-DS9 corners of Trek fandom, and it is this one, “Duet,” the penultimate episode of the first season. I still remember watching it when it aired and getting the distinct impression that I was watching something truly special, and no matter how many times I have revisited it since, that opinion has not wavered in the slightest. It is an hour that crystallizes what makes DS9 both distinct and great, telling a baroque tale of cowardice, regret, and ultimate redemption.
“Just don’t be surprised if the uneasy alliance on this station starts to show a few cracks.”
-- Dr. Julian Bashir
Ira Steven Behr, the eventual showrunner for DS9, had something to say about this episode that shines a bit of light on the process of creating longform serialized fiction. “It was a third season show we had the nerve to do in the first season,” he said in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion. What he’s saying here is that before you do an episode in which you mess with your characters’ personalities, you need to have done the grunt work of establishing those personalities, something that generally takes a couple seasons. For a network ensemble show, this is usually done by the third season. Think of when other genre shows showed alternate versions of characters or played with the personalities at their core: Buffy did “The Wish” in the third season, Supernatural had “It’s a Terrible Life” in the fourth, and Deadwood did “Merry Christmas, You Hooplehead C--ksuckers” in the third. Okay, I made one of those up. Not to mix a metaphor or anything, but before you go messing around in the kitchen, it’s a good idea to put on some pants first.
“On this station, you are the thin, beige line between order and chaos.”
-- Lwaxana Troi to Odo
Majel Barrett was the first lady of Star Trek. Though her name or her face might not be instantly recognizable, she appears in TNG, DS9, and Voyager as the voice of the Federation computer. She’s also integral to the mythology of the franchise, playing both Spock’s non-Kirk love, Nurse Chapel, and Counselor Deanna Troi’s mom, Lwaxana. It’s the latter role that has probably made the bigger impact on modern fans, and this week, she’s bringing the act to Deep Space Nine.
“Too many people dream of places they’ll never go, wish for things they’ll never have, instead of paying adequate attention to their real lives.”
-- Constable Odo
I’m going to level with you guys here. This is a tough one to write about. Not just because it’s bad, but because it’s bad in precisely the ways I’ve previously complained about in Season One’s other lowlights. It feels like a terrible episode of TNG. The characters have yet to come to life. It’s so very, very silly in that way only bad Star Trek can be. But, when picked apart, the episode actually does have some fascinating territory to cover.
“You know what the Cardassians were like. What weapons they had. We didn’t stand a chance against them!”
“How’d you beat ‘em then?”
--Kira and Mullibok
When people say they hate DS9, I’m pretty sure they’re talking about this episode. That’s not to say it’s bad; on the contrary, it has some nice character work for Nana Visitor’s Major Kira and a great guest turn by Brian Keith as cranky Bajoran farmer Mullibok. It just exemplifies everything that people complain about whenever DS9 comes up in conversation. It’s slow. They don’t go anywhere. Bajorans are annoying. Sometimes, I think that the people who dislike DS9 (also known as “The Factually Incorrect”) have only ever seen this episode. That would be like judging the entirety of TNG on “The Royale.”
“For all we know, you really were sent by the Prophets.”
“I was sent by Commander Sisko!”
- Dr. Bashir and Chief O’Brien
Roddenberry’s vision was of a future where all men are brothers. (Sorry, gay guys.) There would be no interpersonal conflict in the utopian Federation, which makes writing for Star Trek a unique challenge. Fortunately, the show happened to be about a bunch of maniacs piled into a starship zooming around space, looking for trouble. Yes, I realize I just made Captain Kirk sound like some kind of space greaser, but, in my defense, that’s exactly what he was. Kirk existed to punch half the things and have sex with the other half. If he had just been a fist attached to a penis, his job performance would not have suffered in the least.
“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.