Inspired in part by a local friend's decision to watch Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — aka DS9 for those "in the in-crowd" — for the first time ever, and inspired in part by several FLister's who are watching Babylon 5 for the first time ever, I've decided to go on my own private DS9 re-watch.
Let me make one thing clear: I love Babylon 5. I've re-watched the series from beginning to end 4 times: 1 time first run, 1 time on TNT reruns, 1 time on SciFi reruns, and 1 time on DVD.
DS9? I've seen only twice. Once first run, although I missed a significant chunk of the first and second seasons. And once on TNT reruns, although I often missed at least one episode a week.
So needless to say, there are quite a few DS9 episodes I've only seen once *waves vaguely* years and years ago. Yet, oddly enough, there are quite a few episodes that have stayed with me over the years, despite the fact that I have seen them only once or twice.
Weirdly enough, I loved both B5 and DS9 when they were running concurrently. Those of you who were online during that time period can attest just how big of an unpopular opinion that was. In fact, there's a whooooooooole history of wank that runs about as long as War and Peace between not just the two fandoms, but between the production teams at the highest levels of both shows in a grudge-wank that has never been matched before or since.
Ahhhh, Usenet. Back in the days when even series creators would cheerfully engage in flamewars with trolls. (Have I ever mentioned that JMS was spectacular at the art of the flamewar? No? Well, he was. Trust this first-hand eyewitness. It was a thing of pure beauty.)
Not to delve into the tip-of-the-tip-of-the-iceberg wanker-y between B5 and DS9, but...Were the shows similar? Well, yeah. And it's more than just the surface issue of both B5 and DS9 taking place on space stations. There are some surprisingly similar thematic issues that crop up in both DS9 and B5 (and even a couple of secondary and tertiary character names look...ahem...similar). This despite the fact that the universes, worlds, races, and political intrigue (yes, there is at least one Star Trek show that actually had political intrigue) were very different between shows.
Here's the dirty little secret of DS9: It's the red-headed step-child of the Star Trek franchise. It was ignored by TPTB at Paramount because it was never "the flagship" show — that title was awarded to Next Generation or Voyager (which Paramount used to launch UPN, remember). As a result, Paramount never really put the marketing muscle behind DS9 that it put behind the other Star Trek franchises over the years.
The upside to this red-headed step-child syndrome meant that DS9 pretty much could do whatever it wanted — even if it meant making the Star Trek universe just a leeeeeeetle bit messier. As a result, DS9's point of view and attitude make it hard to know where it really fits in the great continuum of The Franchise. It simply doesn't have the optimistic, action-adventure, primary colored, and fun-was-had-by-all camaraderie of the original Star Trek. It's not the antiseptic, fun-time sail through space that both The Next Generation and Voyager was. It's not the hopeless retcon mess that Enterprise was through most of its run.
The truth is that DS9 is the kind of place where people get dirty. It's the kind of place where those dirty things have a nasty habit of sticking to people. It's the kind of place where there's an actual run-up to war and, when it finally breaks out, it actually takes several years to fight. It's the kind of place where war has consequences that last a lifetime, where people desperately read the casualty lists to see if someone they know has died, where civilizations actually rise and fall with the tide of battle.
DS9 is the kind of place where some of the main characters don't get along with each other (and never really will). It's the kind of place where everything has consequences and nothing is really solved by the end of the episode — and, in fact, may take all seven years before any resolution can be had.
DS9 is the kind of place where the Prime Directive repeatedly bites the Federation in the ass. It's the kind of place where Starfleet officers actually feel the burden of living with the Prime Directive on occasion, and the kind of place where Starfleet officers aren't above using it to stave off requests they don't want to fulfill.
DS9 is the kind of place where humans can be arrogant, racist, and condescending when dealing with other sentient species — including species that are ostensibly part of the Federation or allied with the Federation. It's the kind of place where the Federation is not necessarily right or good or even the preferable alternative for species that have even a shred of self-interest.
It's the kind of show where you're forcibly reminded over and over and over again that Starfleet, at the end of the day, is a military organization first and foremost, and not an armed adventure safari club for scientists.
It's the kind of place where the point-of-view of the non-human and non-Federaton species — like the Klingons, the Bajorans, the Ferengi, the Cardassians, and the Romulans — are actually given equal weight. So much so that there are actually episodes where you actually sometimes wonder about those crazy Federation people running around in their uniforms and trying to save the universe — whether the universe wants to be saved or not.
Okay, yeah. Definitely singing the praises there, hunh?
Anyway, while I've been undergoing my great DS9 re-watch, I was disconcerted by the fact that the first season of DS9 has aged better than the first season of B5. Part of it is because the budget for DS9 was huge in comparison to B5. So the interiors and exteriors and the special effects shots have a solid, professional look that are sometimes *ahem* lacking in B5. The other part is that the acting from the DS9 cast, while somewhat shaky as the show works out the kinks, is slightly better than the acting we saw out of most of the B5 cast. Certainly the guest stars on DS9 where head-and-shoulders better than the guest stars on B5.
The other thing that helps put first season DS9 slightly ahead of first season B5 is that DS9 came with baggage. That baggage helped DS9 as much as hurt it over the show's run, but when it comes to the traditional first season liftoff, DS9 was definitely helped. The most DS9 had to do that first season was introduce the characters and paint the situational background in broad brushstrokes (and, unlike just about every single Star Trek show that came before and after, plant the seeds for most of the story arcs that came over the next seven years). B5 had to build an entire freaking universe that first season. End result? First season B5 got stuck with lots and lots of awkward exposition to not only introduce the characters and the B5 universe, but to also "move around the furniture" (as JMS calls it) to set up the action for the remaining four years.
Although I admit that DS9 had solid advantages over B5 — especially when it comes to the traditional first-season set-up — I found myself warming almost immediately to the first season DS9 when I started re-watching. This is in contrast to B5 which — much as I love it — takes me until at least until 'The Parliament of Dreams' (7 hours' worth of watching time) before I can fully immerse myself in the B5 universe.
Oh, dear. It may turn out that in the long run, I prefer DS9 over B5 after all.
Quick episode reactions under LJ-Cuts to preserve innocent eyes...
Episodes 01 and 02: Emissary
I remember when DS9 was first unveiled, all my Trekkie friends fluffed off the idea of Star Trek on a space station. Or, to put it another way, "To boldly stay put while everyone else goes where no one has gone before."
Ironically enough, there's a certain amount of truth to that. Sometimes it's pretty damn hard to boldly stay put. Right out of the box, DS9 does signal that it's going to be a leeetle bit different than the Star Treks that take place on ships. The key phrase, one that's repeated not just in the pilot, but throughout the whole of first season is that all actions have consequences, and that some of those consequences reverberate across a lifetime.
The other thing that's different? It's stated right up front that with the exception of one character (Dr. Julian Bashir), no one wants to be in the position they're in. The Starfleet officers and the Starfleet officers' families would rather be anywhere else. The Bajorans hate the fact the Federation is here "to help" (Bajoran Major Kira explicitly compares the Federation's presence to the occupying force the Cardiassians had in place). The Cardiassians are pissed that the occupation is over and that they had to leave. The scattered nonaligned aliens figure it's a matter of time before the whole bubble collapses and are preparing to make a run for it.
In short, Commander Sisko (who really doesn't want to be here either) is walking into a hornet's nest of distrust and discontent with his unhappy, military brat of a son in tow behind him.
As a sidenote, I want to make a pause here about the character of Ben Sisko and his son, Jake. DS9 managed quite the rarity with these two. Sisko is the kind of good parent that's all too rare on television these days. He's not the perfect father, Lord knows, but he's a good father who genuinely loves his son and really is trying to carve out a good life for the two of them. And Jake is a double-rarity, especially when it comes to the Star Trek universe: a real 14-year-old boy. He's not a super genius. He's not a member of the DS9 crew either officially or unofficially. He doesn't get involved with official Starfleet drama. He is exactly what he appears to be: a good-hearted military brat and a nice boy. The relationship between Ben and Jake is one of those great relationships that really make DS9 kind of special. It has its ups-and-downs, it reads fairly true to life, and it changes as Jake grows up in the same way that most child-parent relationships change when the kids get older.
Plus, I would be remiss if I didn't state the obvious glaring rarity that Ben and Jake represent: They're both African-American actors. There's something very sad about the fact that Avery Brooks in particular is a stand out simply because he's the headliner in an ensemble cast on a long-running drama/genre SciFi show. Outside of Diahann Carroll on Julia (which ran in the late 60s through the early 70s), I can't think of any other African-American actor that has even been given the opportunity to do so. Sure, there's always Andre Braugher on Homicide: Life on the Street and Denzel Washington on St. Elsewhere, but they weren't the series leads so much as they were stand-outs in a sprawling ensemble. I'm sure there are more (there really has to be), but these are the only other examples I can bring to mind.
Anyway, back to the pilot, which is so much better than I remembered it was. Sure, it's basically a series of character introductions with only the thinnest excuse of a plot hung on it, but the character introductions are, for the most part, deftly done. There are one or two false notes (such as Odo's expository speech about his background, mostly because it's so OOC for Odo that it stretches belief), but I can understand that the writers felt that they had to get it all out on the floor (so to speak) for the audience.
However, the nice thing about the character introductions is that they're just that: introductions. The writers aren't trying to get you to love them right out of the box (I'm looking at you Voyager and Enterprise). Sisko has a severe hatred for the fan-beloved Jean-Luc Piccard and doesn't bother hiding it when the two go face-to-face. Kira is prickly, abrasive, and makes no secret of the fact that she's a Bajoran nationalist through-and-through and that she holds the Federation and the weak provisional Bajoran government in contempt. Odo spends a lot of time looking like he can't get the smell of poo out of his nose. Quark oozes slime every time he shows up on-screen. And Dr. Bashir is not just arrogant, but he also makes the mistake of bragging to the fuming Kira that he chose to come to DS9 because it's the last bit of wilderness in the galaxy where he can bring his enlightened Federation medical science. ("Doctor," Kira snaps in response, "what you call a wilderness is my home.") Even Jake whines a bit about having to live on a space station and being stuck all alone all day with only the bare-bones living quarters and no Federation equivalent of a Gameboy to keep him entertained.
In fact, the only likeable people we meet is Chief O'Brien, who's transfered from Next Generation duty to Deep Space Nine duty, a promotion for both the character and the actor. It's also probably one of the smartest moves The Franchise ever made (transferring Worf in the same manner comes in at a very close second). Colm Meaney hits the ground running right from his opening scene and doesn't once let up for the entire run of the series — so much so that he becomes the go-to guy for those angsty episodes (aka, the "Let's beat the shit out of O'Brien hour") and for a solid support when things get kind of crazy in the plot.
The other likeable character is science officer Jadzia Dax, who's got a history with Sisko. Not that kind of history (get yer minds outta the gutter). She's a joined Trill (and we learn in the episode that not all Trills get to host a Trill Worm — that's only reserved for potential hosts who prove they're worthy). It just so happens that Kurzon, the previous host for Dax (the worm), was Sisko's mentor and one of his best friends.
And here I do want to throw in a another nice relationship-type thing: This one between Sisko and Dax, although I'm not sure how much to attribute to the writing or the acting. Through the first half of the season, both Sisko and Dax spend some time feeling out the new relationship they've got as a result of a host-change. Nothing angsty, or even really in-your-face. It's more of a case that Jadzia is not Sisko's beloved mentor, and Sisko (rightfully so since it's his issue and not Jadzia's) has to come to grips with the notion that he's dealing with someone who's both an intimate friend and a complete stranger. It's interesting to see their relationship settle into one that's an easy friendship during off-duty times, and where Sisko is the superior officer when they're on duty. And, hell, I love it whenever Sisko affectionately calls the 28-year-old Jadzia (with 300-year-old Dax inside) the "old man."
And, of course, we have to get into the wormhole linking the Alpha and Gamma quadrants and the aliens who live inside it. Without it, there'd be no show. To the Federation and the other big Alpha Quadrant powers, the wormhole presents an opportunity for exploration and trade that's irresistible because it's now too hard to find the same thing in their corner of Star Trek universe. To Bajoran nationalists, it's the key to self-sufficiency and making Bajor a real power in its own right. To the Bajoran religious it's the Celestial Temple and the inhabitants (the wormhole aliens) are The Prophets — in essence, the Bajoran gods.
Gee, you don't think the wormhole is going to cause the kind of problems that's going to make just about everyone in the Alpha Quadrant wish that Sisko never found it, do you? And that's even before Really Bad Things start to happen.
For the real Trekkie people in the house, the other delights that DS9 offers is enough fannish meta to make the over-thinkers among us squeal with delight. Armin Shimerman (Principal Snyder for you Buffy fans) plays the Ferengi Quark with avaricious glee. It just so happens that he played the first Ferengi audiences ever laid eyes on back on Next Generation (a different character, of course). Marc Aliamo, who plays the always fascinating and complex Cardassian Gul Dukat, also happened to play the first Cardassian audiences ever laid eyes on back on Next Generation (also a completely different character).
I'll be the first to admit: While the pilot does its job and sets up the characters and the over-reaching story arc for the series nicely, as someone who knows how DS9 ends there are some niggling issues. The wormhole aliens (aka, The Prophets) profess repeatedly to Sisko when they have him in their clutches that they are unaware of "linear races" (the aliens don't experience time in a linear fashion, you see) and what's more, they really don't care to get to know them. While this is never retconned in an outright way, the details that emerge in later seasons pretty much shows this to be false in the details. There's an even bigger problem, which lies in Sisko himself and their reaction to him. As more of Sisko's background is revealed in the series run, their hostile reaction — not to mention the fact that they treat him like he's an unknown quantity — really doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Other little retcons and problems are fairly minor. The Trills now look very different from their first appearance on Next Generation, mostly because they didn't want to cover Terry Farrell's model good looks under an inch of lumpy make-up. The Bajoran nose ridges are a lot more prominent than the ones we saw on Next Generation as well. But the real big retcon comes in the form of the Ferengi. From barely intelligent scavengers who are more a nuisance than anything else on Next Generation to a highly intelligent, very crafty race with complex rules governing their libertarian, free-market capitalist way of operating.
To be honest, though, the retcons of the Trills, Bajorans, and Ferengi while annoying to see the first time you watch the pilot, are actually forgivable as the series progresses. In large part, they're forgivable because DS9 gives audiences an easily fanwank-able reason: Next Generation is a Federation show, so that means everything is told from the point of view of the Federation characters. Deep Space Nine, for all its relatively minor faults, is not a Federation show. As a result, we are now dealing with the alien races within their own context and taking their view of matters into account. And that makes all the difference.
Some interesting general observations of "Emissary, Part 1 and 2:"
- There's some really great character dialog used to introduce everyone. Some of the lines uttered, especially by the Starfleet characters, are downright funny. It shows the sly sense of humor of the writing staff and the comic timing of some of the actors.
- Sisko immediately shows that he's not exactly your typical Starfleet officer when he blackmails bar-owner Quark into staying on DS9, even though Quark is convinced that it's a bad idea because it puts both his profit and his personal safety at risk.
- The very astute observation by both Kira and Quark that the provisional government is on the brink of collapse, which mens that all the Bajoran factions that pulled together to fight off the Cardassians will then turn on each other. That means the threat of a very bloody civil war is hovering dangerously over Bajor's future.
- Quark's even more astute observation that when governments fall, people like him are usually the first ones to get shot by the locals.
- Terrorist acts carried out against an occupying power is seen as a good thing. Being called a terrorist (or former terrorist) is worn as a badge of pride. Personally, I can't see this same sentiment showing up in a television series being produced in the U.S.'s current political climate, can you?
- The wormhole alien sequence does have its cheesy moments, but all minor cheese is wiped away thanks to the deft visual illustration of what "You have always been here" (the line uttered by Kosh in B5) actually means — at least in the Star Trek universe.
Overall, I think this re-watch started off with a bang. I can't wait to move on to the rest of Season 1.