I was looking for another feature for the Satellite Show, and I happened to glance over at my shelf to see all seven seasons of DS9 lined up, shoulder to shoulder, in their plastic cases. I put the flag up on Twitter to see if anyone other than the voices in my head would want to read a ton of rambling, digressive reviews of a relatively obscure television show that’s been off the air for fifteen years. Fanboy Comics responded. So, here I am, currently wrestling with the (probably) unfounded fear that Bryant, Barbra, and the whole gang at FBC exist solely in my mind, and I’m actually a sci-fi writer from the ‘50s. (Don’t worry, you’ll get that reference in a year or so.)
Now, all that remains is for me to watch all 173 episodes and find something interesting to write about. These will be closer to reviews than play-by-play recaps, and I reserve the right to sink into as many self-indulgent digressions as possible. True to the Fanboy Comics mission statement (well, the version that exists in my mind anyway), I’m coming at this project as a fan. Deep Space Nine is my favorite show of the ‘90s and still in my top five overall. Some of this owes to the sheen of nostalgia, as its most revolutionary element -- serialization -- is de rigueur these days. The future fashions, filtered through the sartorial dyslexia that was the ‘90s, get stranger with every passing year. The clean, indoor aesthetic of TNG butts up uncomfortably against the gritty, outdoor world of DS9. Yet, it remains damn fine science fiction, a show that used darkness in the best possible way: to make the light, when it shined, that much brighter.
I last watched the two-part pilot “Emissary” when the DVDs came out in 2004. My impression then is the same now: it’s a pilot. Unfortunately, you can’t hear the tone of my voice when I say that, but imagine I’m trying to describe a bottle of two-buck chuck with a dubious, “Well, it’ll get you drunk.” Pilots suffer from having to establish every character, the central conceit and conflict that will unfold over seven seasons, and then trying to tell a compelling story on top of that. It’s a degree of difficulty akin to an Olympic diver being told he has to wrestle a condom onto an angry bear on the way down to the pool. For this reason, I tend to judge pilots as charitably as possible. As long as I see some glimmer of potential, I’m probably sticking around for at least another couple of episodes. The germ of what made DS9 such compelling viewing in later seasons is there, but so are the elements that seem to drive many nascent Niners away before they get to the really good stuff.
DS9 wanted, even needed, to distance itself from TNG as much as possible. This was a risky proposition as you’re talking about one of the more universally beloved SF shows of all time. Then again, the other option was to hew to closely to TNG, which calls into question how necessary another show really is. DS9 lays out its Darker ‘n’ Grittier mission statement with an opening crawl establishing the setting the battle of Wolf 359. In arguably the best (and darkest) pair of episodes in TNG’s history, “The Best of Both Worlds,” the Borg plowed through a Federation picket, utterly decimating the fleet. DS9’s hero, Commander Benjamin Sisko, was on one of those ships the Borg casually destroyed. On TNG, all we saw of that battle was the Enterprise showing up late and flying through an eerie floating graveyard of wrecked ships. In DS9, we see the interior of one of these vessels, and the human cost of what happened. The bulk of Sisko’s crew is killed in the first barrage, and Sisko himself is forced to abandon his mortally wounded wife Jennifer in order to save their son Jake. If there’s a better illustration of the essential difference between TNG and DS9, I haven’t seen it.
Three years later, and Commander Sisko has been grieving over his wife’s death while working at some shipyards (a tossed-off bit of backstory that will bear awesome fruit in a few seasons), when he gets a new assignment. He’s to command the space station Deep Space Nine, an installation built by the Cardassians during their brutal sixty-year occupation of Bajor. The withdrawal of the Cardassian Union has left the station in the hands of the extremely unstable Bajoran Provisional Government. Starfleet has stepped in to administrate, as the occupation left Bajor with little in the way of natural resources and a battered, fractious, and suspicious populace. Sisko’s sub rosa assignment is to get Bajor to join the Federation, a task that seems more like a cruel joke than a realistic job. Captain Picard (who younger readers might know as that guy in a bromance with Gandalf) gives Sisko this assignment, and their meeting is understandably tense: Sisko hates Picard for the actions he took as part of the Borg Collective, and Picard is not a fan of people bringing up old s--t. DS9 has the audacity to cast Jean-Luc Picard, space’s Shakespearean grandpa, as a villain. It’s a move liable to rub some the wrong way, but it’s important to remember that heroism is often a matter of perspective, a concept DS9 will return to quite often over seven seasons.
The station itself is the most obvious difference between DS9 and the other shows in the Trek family. It’s not a starship, and, thus, with one exception that occurs in this episode, it never moves so much as an inch. Our heroes aren’t exploring anything; rather they’re dealing with the consequences of all that exploring other people get to do. Picard has the luxury of landing on a planet, doing one thing, and then f--king off into space, but Sisko does not. The design of the station also reinforces its otherness: as an example of Cardassian architecture, it’s oddly spiny and every window is in the shape of an eye, reinforcing the concept the fascist Cardassian Union would like every citizen to remember: you are being watched. The slow, panning shots in the credits emphasize the alien design, as well as its lonely position in the darkness of space. “This is the frontier,” they say, “and s--t out here is most definitely real.”
Which is what makes the carpeting so godd--n bizarre.
The entire station, like the Enterprise, features wall-to-wall carpeting. I would think, what with them being brutal, mass-murdering psychopaths, the Cardassians would want a surface you could just hose down after a massacre. But, what do I know? I’ve imagined the future in many, many ways, but never once have I thought it would be carpeted.
The main cast differs from previous incarnations in that not all of our heroes are Starfleet officers. I’ll be getting more into each of the characters as the show moves along (Character development is one of the things DS9 does better than every other entry in the franchise.), but here’s a quick rundown. Other than Commander Sisko, Federation personnel includes: science officer Jadzia Dax, who is a three-hundred-year-old slug in the belly of a beautiful young woman; Dr. Julian Bashir, an eager doofus with the habit of chowing down on his feet; and Chief Miles O’Brien, who must suffer for the sins of all mankind. The non-Starfleet folks are as follows: Major Kira Nerys, a former terrorist/freedom fighter in the Bajoran Resistance and current first officer of the station; Constable Odo, a mysterious shapeshifter who served as security under both Cardassians and Bajorans; and Quark, a Ferengi bartender. The final regular character, Jake Sisko, straddles the line between these two basic divisions. By splitting the cast up like this, the show specifically denies Roddenberry’s vision of the future as being without conflict, instantly putting several characters at odds: Odo and Quark, Quark and Sisko, Kira and Sisko, O’Brien and Cardassian technology . . .
On the subject of Cardassians, O’Brien makes a point of mentioning that the Cardassians decided to have some fun before they left, stripping the station of arms, wrecking whatever they could, and killing four Bajoran shopkeepers. This calls up O’Brien’s anti-Cardassian racism established in the outstanding TNG episode “The Wounded,” which also introduced the Cardassians themselves (Marc Alaimo, who played Gul Macet returns in DS9 with the much meatier role of Gul Dukat, the former Prefect of Bajor). The Chief’s racism is grounded in the atrocities he witnessed in the Setlik III Massacre, which he references in the climax of the episode when he darkly refuses to surrender, saying, “You know what they [the Cardassians] do their prisoners.” It’s a fascinating flaw at odds in the utopian TNG, so much so that the writers gave it to an ascended extra rather than a member of the main cast. It’s right at home on DS9, and one of the things that will eventually endear O’Brien to his Bajoran hosts.
Sisko does what he can to stabilize the anarchic station, in the process showing that he’s not beholden to Starfleet regulations as others might be. He extorts Quark into staying on as a community leader by leveraging the release of Quark’s criminal nephew Nog from custody. Quark had been in the process of fleeing: he’s convinced the Bajoran Provisional Government will collapse, and, “when governments fall, people like me are lined up and shot.” Kira agrees on the first count (probably the second, though no one asked), telling Sisko the only way to unite the populace is through Opaka, a Bajoran holywoman. She’s basically the pope. Sisko goes to convince her to unite the squabbling factions, but Opaka isn’t having it. She’s more concerned with the Prophets, the gods of her religion, than earthly (Bajorly?) matters. She calls Sisko “the Emissary” and talks about his vague destiny, handing over one of the Orbs of the Prophets, mysterious artifacts that appear spontaneously in the sky. There have been nine total, and the Cardassians stole eight, and believe me, if there was a Bajoran Ark of the Covenant, they’d have that too and would even now be melting. The last remaining one was hidden in a basement concealed by a holographic pool, a nice nod to the lengths the Bajorans had to go to protect their embattled cultural heritage.
Sisko hands off the Orb to Dax for study. Using a combination of ancient lore, subspace scans, and computer magic, Dax determines the source of the Orbs to be a charged plasma field in the Bajoran system called the Denorios Belt. This location, oddly enough, is where Odo was found, as well. Put a pin in that, folks, it’ll become important in two seasons. Sisko and Dax fly out there in search of this Celestial Temple and, instead, find a stable wormhole, the first of its kind, that leads to the Gamma Quadrant some 70,000 light years away. This discovery instantly turns Bajor from an unimportant backwater into one of the most significant posts in the galaxy.
One problem: the wormhole is artificial, and the creators are home. These aliens are way more than mere head-ridges. They’re incorporeal, appearing to visitors as figures from the past. For Sisko, this means he ends up talking to an alien who looks exactly like his dead wife. These aliens are so different they don’t even understand time and can’t wrap their incorporeal heads around a person not knowing the consequences of their actions in advance. (“In advance” is something they don’t get either.) In a very Star Trek moment, Sisko convinces the aliens that his species isn’t the “aggressive, adversarial” race they assume him to be, but are explorers on a mission of peace. He uses the metaphor of baseball -- Sisko’s love of the game is one of his defining features -- to explain that not knowing the outcome is what makes the game worth playing. For their part, the aliens understand the non-linear aspect of Sisko’s relation to time, as he has never been able to really put Jennifer’s death behind him. With peace made, Sisko returns to the station.
Meanwhile, Kira and everyone else have been dealing with several Cardassian warships angry about the disappearance of Gul Dukat, who followed Sisko into the wormhole. Kira earns my everlasting love in this scene by boldly bluffing the Cardassians while holding nothing better than a Jack high. She gets O’Brien to jam their sensors, and then fires six photon torpedoes -- which constitutes every last one on the station -- across the bows of the Cardassian ships. She finishes this off with the threat, “If you want a war, I’ll give you one.” Granted, it doesn’t work until Sisko tows Dukat’s ship from the wormhole, but it’s still awesome.
As pilots go, “Emissary” is not bad. Unfortunately, the biggest impediment toward people embracing the show is the acting of Avery Brooks, which is on major display here. Star Trek has never shied from hammy performances. Hell, Shatner gave us some of the defining moments of great bad acting the world has ever seen. Even Patrick Stewart, arguably the best actor ever to grace the franchise, has his moments of playing to the cheap seats. Star Trek tends to cast stage actors, and the performances are inevitably a bit stagey, filled with odd pauses and theatrical shouting. While Brooks’ performance grows smoother as he gets more comfortable in the role and the writers learn what kinds of scenes he can reliably hit, it’s never naturalistic. Stick with him, and when he turns into Captain Hawk and becomes the bada-- the Federation needs, you will love him.
Next up: “Past Prologue,” in which Dr. Bashir patronizes a local tailor.