Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Best Things Ever #17 Star Trek: Deep Space 9

Another late blog entry, but this one's about four month's late. Sometimes writing something new can be like trying to find the open end on a roll of sellotape, you run your nail over and over the surface, but it just won't catch. Today, finally, I found the edge I'd been missing. Enjoy!

Best Things Ever

#17 Star Trek: Deep Space 9

I recently watched again the entire seven season run of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (DS9). It certainly has some flaws, too many below par episodes, especially in the first couple of series, too much of the kind clunky expositional dialogue that would today be handled by a ‘Previously on…’ montage at the front of each episode.

That said, DS9 can boast of having produced the two greatest episodes of any Star Trek spin off, namely, ‘In the Pale Moonlight’ and ‘Far Beyond the Stars’. It can also boast of the finest ship, captain and crew. For a few minor imperfections, it remains not just my favourite Star Trek franchise, but one of my favourite TV shows of all time.

Like all Star Trek spin offs, DS9 centres on the adventure of Starfleet, the exploratory and  military wing of the Federation of Planets, an alliance of galactic races, with its headquarters on Earth. What differentiates DS9 from all other series is rather than take place on a Federation starship, usually one incarnation or another of the USS Enterprise, DS9 takes place on the eponymous space station from which the series takes its name. Deep Space 9 is a recently abandoned ore processing plant around the planet of Bajor, built and operated by the Cardassians, a brutal race who until recently had occupied the planet for over fifty year, forcing the Bajorans into slavery.

Other Star Trek series take place in a controlled environment on board a starship. In DS9, the Bajoran provisional government has asked for the Federation’s help in rebuilding their society after half a century of brutality and Starfleet sends Commander (later Captain) Benjamin Sisko to assume control of the station, commanding a crew comprising a mixture of Starfleet and Bajoran personnel.

Sisko’s second in command is Major Kera Nerys, a former member of the Bajoran Resistance. Kera believes that the Federation has no place being there, that the Bajorans have replaced one kind of occupation for another, and she and Sisko lock horns at regular intervals.

DS9 not only features characters that are not affiliated to Starfleet, but characters who are not affiliated to anyone. There’s Quark, the Ferengi barkeeper, whose shady dealings see him continual conflict with Odo, the station’s shape-shifting head of security. Odo’s own origins are something of a mystery. The thrust and parry of repartee between Odo and Quark is one of the highlights of the show.

Indeed, it’s the banter between characters that sets DS9 apart from Star Trek’s other incarnations. On board a starship, dominated by the chain of command, conflict between rank and file officers is almost always in absentia. The bashing of heads between Sisko and Kira, Quark’s  scheming under Odo’s nose, the intrigues of the station’s only Cardassian resident, Garak, as he spins a web of half-truths for the entertainment of an impressionable Doctor Bashir, give the programme its strength. There’s even conflict between Starfleet personnel, with Bashir seemingly oblivious to how much he annoys Chief of Operations, Miles O’Brien (a transfer from the Enterprise and Star Trek: The Next Generation). Their emerging bromance played out over seven seasons is as another of the show’s strengths.

The advantage of setting the series on a space station, rather than dicking about in space (the crew of the Next Generation spent seven years ferrying diplomats about, rarely ‘boldly going’ anywhere), is its potential for longer story arcs. In the feature length opening episode, the crew of DS9 discover a stable wormhole in the Bajoran sector, allowing safe passage to the other side of the galaxy.

It is the wormhole that is the real star of DS9. Everything salient which happens during the series is generated by the wormhole. It offers safe, stable passage, because it was constructed by a race of aliens that live inside it and outside of time. To the Bajoran people the wormhole aliens are gods, The Prophets, and Sisko, in discovering the wormhole and making first contact with them, comes to be adopted as their Emissary, The Sisko, revered as a religious leader by the Bajoran people. It’s basically a mediation upon religious life in America, as Star Trek has always been a meditation upon America’s place in the world (compare Klingon tradition with that of Japan for instance).

The wormhole also generates DS9’s great threat (sustained threat, as it is titled in film classifications). The Dominion, a despotic empire governing great expanses of the other side of the wormhole, the Gamma Quadrant, grow tired of ships coming through from the Alpha Quadrant and declare war on the Federation. They invade the Alpha Quadrant, occupy worlds, subsume civilisations. Deep Space 9 stands on the frontline in this war and the Federation’s increasingly futile situation leads its crew into areas darker than Star Trek had hitherto explored, aside from its occasional forays into the so-called Mirror Universe.

In what is for me the greatest episode of any Star Trek series, ‘In the Pale Moonlight’, Captain Sisko recounts how he came to bring the Romulans into war, turning the tide in favour of the Federation. The course of his downward spiral from trying to find evidence of a Dominion attack upon Romulus, to manufacturing that evidence for himself, to becoming embroiled in the terrorist attack which finally brings the Romulans into the war is brilliantly done, especially the ending. The episode shows war stripped of its usual veneer of false dichotomy, good and evil, us and them, and shows how even the best of us can fall so quickly from grace. The road to hell, as Sisko reminds us, is paved with good intentions.

What differentiates DS9 from most other sci-fi shows of recent years, most television of recent years, is its ability to tackle contemporary events. The best science fiction has always been about contemporary issues and fears, removed to another time and space in order to be considered with some degree of objectivity. We see this in the fears about science and technology evinced in ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Brave New World’, the anti-communist paranoia of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’, or the anxieties about thermonuclear annihilation in much of the original ‘Twilight Zone’.

By showing Sisko fabricate reasons to bring the Romulans into the war, ‘In the Pale Moonlight’ recalls the events of Pearl Harbour. I’m far from being a conspiracy theorist, but it does seem to me clear that public opinion in America at the time of World War Two was firmly against entering another costly war (as it had been during  the First World War, hence the promotion of the infamous Zimmerman Telegram) and a plan was concocted to goad the Japanese into an attack, precipitating reasons for America’s entry into the war. Documents released under Freedom of Information show an eight point plan to bring the Japanese into the war through military hazing and out and out attack.

Whether or not you think this was ultimately a necessary evil or not is of course down to personal opinion. It seems to me fairly pointless to speculate on what might have been. Far more important to clarify what did happen, in order to apply the mistakes of the past to the future. Certainly with the Gulf of Tonkin incident in the Vietnam War or Iraq’s phantom weapons of mass destruction, the need even to encourage an attack has been superseded by false reporting and fear mongering. ‘In the Pale Moonlight’ reminds us that war is rarely anything but ugly and messy.

In fact, what strikes one as surprising about DS9 is just when it was first aired. The series was originally broadcast from 1993-1999, ending two years before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Yet so much of what makes DS9 enthralling is its treatment of the kinds of issues that we have had to deal with in the west as a consequence of those attacks. Section 31, the shadowy subsection of Starfleet security, is basically the NSA. The rule of law is suspended for dubious reasons (Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges - At a time of war, the law falls silent). Those who were once considered terrorists are called freedom fighters now that they are resolved to our cause.

One of the chief writers on DS9 was Ronald D. Moore, who would go on to captain the ‘Battlestar Galactica’ reboot. ‘Battlestar Galactica’ in particular reflects the aftermath of 9/11 and the consequences of the so-called War on Terror. What I think makes ‘In the Pale Moonlight’ an especially fine episode is that, retrospectively, you can see in it the entire premise for ‘Battlestar Galactica’ being framed. ‘Battlestar Galactica’ contains all of the same tough questions, the same shades of grey as the DS9 episode, magnified a hundred fold to include suicide bombing, torture and extraordinary rendition. It, more than any other science fiction programme in the last fifty years, is a show about contemporary events. It’s science fiction for people who hate science fiction, stripped of any the usual time travelling, doppelgangers or parallel universes. There are robots though. Lots and lots of robots. It’s also about the only science fiction programme that is actually better than DS9 (though the radio version of ‘The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ is obviously the best thing that has ever been made by anyone, ever).

DS9 is proper science fiction and so there are plenty of time travelling episodes, as well as forays into the Mirror Universe, imposters and doppelgangers, even a nod to ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ in ‘Suspicions’, a personal favourite from the early series. The show was made at a time when model shots were slowly being replaced with cheaper CGI effects and so DS9 can boast of more high energy battle scenes than any of its previous incarnations. These invariably feature DS9’s own heavily armed battleship, the USS Defiant. Tough little ship.

The show even had a real life romance behind the scenes between Doctor Bashir (Alexander Siddig)and Major Kera (Nana Visitor). On occasion, signs of a relationship break the surface, as they do an early scene in the episode, ‘Rejoined’, where the body language between the two is highly suggestive. When Visitor later became pregnant, the show incorporated her pregnancy into the show in a way that only science fiction is capable.

DS9 also has Worf. Once Lieutenant Commander Worf transfers from the Enterprise at the start of season four, the show ascends to a whole new plateau of awesomeness.

Ultimately though, what makes DS9 stand out from all of the other Star Trek franchises is Captain Sisko. This is why I could never live with Sheldon Cooper of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ (apart from all the other reasons): When asked to chose between Captains Kirk and Picard, I would have to Kobayashi Maru his ass and go with Sisko. Sisko has many of the qualities of both of his predecessors, but no other character in the Star Trek universe came to have such depth. Not only is he commander of Deep Space 9, Emissary to the Prophets and imperfect human being who sometimes makes the wrong decisions for the right reasons (or the right decisions for the wrong reasons), but he is also a single father and a strong, leading black character in a genre with a poor record of relegating black actors to bit parts, if including them at all. 

This is why I nominate ‘Far Beyond the Stars’ as second only to ‘In the Pale Moonlight’ for strongest episode in the history of Star Trek. In this episode, Sisko suffers from a hallucination in which he is a writer living in 1950s America. His alter-ego, Benny Russell, writes a short story about his real self, an African-American captain in charge of a space station. The publishers of his magazine though won’t accept the story, even when he makes the whole thing a dream in the final reveal.

The remit of the original Star Trek series was that of a nations working and living together in harmony. It’s a scenario borne in the optimism of the 1960s. With each new incarnation, Star Trek became something different, from the obsession with external threats in the Star Trek movies of the paranoid 70s and 80s, to the touchy-feelyness of The Next Generation with its on-board ship’s counsellor. By the time of DS9, there was very little optimism left in the world. Parts of the United States saw racial segregation at levels little improved since the 1960s and DS9, in the finest tradition of science fiction, dealt with the issue head-on. 

(Someone should, if they haven’t already, write a dissertation on the history of black characters in science fiction. From Uhura as telephone receptionist in the original Star Trek to Uhura as ass kicking love interest in the big screen reboot, taking in Dave Lister, Morpheus and Martha Jones along the way. I would read that.)

I love the symbolism of baseball in the show, a sport which hasn’t been played in two centuries, but which Sisko and his son, Jake, are obsessed with. It’s amazing how many times baseball can be employed in different contexts, from its use by Sisko in the opening episode to explain the concept of linear time to the wormhole aliens, to Jake’s quest in, ‘In the Cards’ to procure for his father a Willie Mays baseball card, to Michael Dorn, usually heavily made-up in the Klingon prosthetics of Worf, playing a barely concealed version of Willie Mays himself in ‘Far Beyond the Stars’. Sisko bonds with his future wife, Cassidy Yates, over baseball, and the presence or absence of a baseball on Sisko’s desk can speak volumes about his future intentions.

Star Trek creator, Gene Rodenberry, died a little more than a year before DS9 first aired in January 1993 (Rodenberry died October 1991). By all accounts, he would not have approved of the dark turn that Star Trek’s newest franchise had taken. A pity, but the world has moved on since 1966. Even since 1987, when The Next Generation first aired. DS9 signposted the way to a darker television dawn, past ‘Battlestar Galactica’ and ‘24’, all the way to ‘The Wire’ and ‘Breaking Bad’.

Truly great science fiction television seems to be on something of a hiatus for the moment. All the money is being ploughed into fantasy drama like ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘The Walking Dead’ (which is fine, they’re both excellent shows). Before New Line made ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, they were going to adapt Isaac Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ series. I hope someone still does, along with Clive Barker’s ‘Weaveworld’, one of the best fantasy novels of the twentieth century (see also, ‘Imajica’). Science fiction will eventually come back with a vengeance. One hopes that Peter Capaldi will inject some much needed darkness into the cloying sentimentality that has infected Doctor Who since its reboot.

In the meantime, there’s always DS9 reruns. Little else pleases me more.

Get it Done.

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