Monday, January 28, 2008

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

Near the top of the vague and amorphous list of ways in which I'd like to improve as a reviewer is the desire to get better at writing about really good books. It's not just that, as Anton Ego tells us, negative reviews are fun to write; they're also easier. The problems in a book--not just bad books but good-yet-flawed ones as well--are like cracks in a rock face. They're points of access, places from which to start an examination, one which will ultimately comprise both weaknesses and strengths. A genuinely successful novel doesn't lend itself to deconstruction so easily. Its surface is smooth. My least favorite reviews are almost always of books I adored, and not just for a single quality--for beautiful writing or an exciting plot or well-drawn characters--but for a uniform excellence which left me with nothing to grab onto. I end up flailing about, trying to find something more substantial to say than 'this book is really good; read it.' Nevertheless, and in the hope that practice does indeed make perfect, I am going to try again, but before I do let's just get this out of the way: Remainder by Tom McCarthy is an exceptionally fine novel. You should read it (and here's an online copy of the first chapter to whet your appetite).

Remainder is narrated by a nameless man who, not long before the events it describes take place, was the victim of a freak accident. Something--both his damaged memory and a non-disclosure agreement prevent him from revealing what--fell on him from the sky. Though seemingly recovered, the narrator has suffered significant brain damage. He has had to painstakingly retrain his motor system, to learn how to walk and feed himself.
Everything was like this. Everything, each movement: I had to learn them all. I had to understand how they work first, break them down into each constituent part, then execute them. ... By April I was already almost up to speed, up to my ninety [percent]. But I still had to think about each movement I made, had to understand it. No Doing without Understanding: the accident bequeathed me that forever, an eternal detour.
Perhaps because of this constant need for self-awareness, perhaps as a result of trauma or yet more brain damage, the narrator is detached and emotionally numb, equally unmoved by both his friends and the news that he has won 8.5 million pounds in an out of court settlement with the company responsible (or rather, the company refusing to admit responsibility) for his accident. The accident has rendered him somewhat autistic--incapable of differentiating between meaningful and meaningless data, of performing the thoughtless weeding out of extraneous information that we all need in order to function properly. This is not to say that he is diminished as a person--he comprehends his situation perfectly, and, inasmuch as his emotional bareness allows him to, is deeply distressed by it.

A solution seems to present itself when, while visiting the bathroom in a friend's new apartment, the narrator glimpses a crack in the wall which plunges him into a vivid and powerful memory. In those instants of recollection, he is entirely unrehearsed, unaware of his own churning, damaged mind. He can just be. With 8.5 million pounds at his disposal, the narrator sets out to recapture that moment. In his memory (which, it is strongly suggested, is mostly a figment of his imagination) he was a tenant in an apartment building. He could smell the neighbor below him frying liver and hear the neighbor below her playing the piano. He could see a man fixing a motorcycle in the courtyard and cats walking along the roof opposite from his window. With the help of a logistical genius, and bucketsfull of money, the narrator buys a building, converts it to match the details of the one in his memory, and hires people to portray the neighbors and perform the activities within it. In this environment, he can inhabit his memory, reenacting it again and again. More reenactments follow--of a perfectly mundane mishap in a tire shop, of a shooting that takes place near the narrator's apartment, of a bank robbery--each intended to bring him closer to a state of pure, unrehearsed existence.

It is possible to read Remainder as a narrative of brain damage, and one man's bizarre attempt to overcome it. It works equally well as a study of a man's journey towards enlightenment, or, given the disastrous results of the later reenactments and the narrator's nonchalant reaction to them, of his descent into madness. There's even a hint that the narrator's compulsion has an external source, and that something fantastic is at work. At several points, the narrator complains of the smell of cordite, which no one else can smell, but later admits that he doesn't know what cordite smells like. A mysterious man, whom no one else seems to notice, appears and begins narrating the narrator's actions to himself. The novel's ending even has a whiff of Donnie Darko about it. Ultimately, none of these solutions are sufficient. None of them describe Remainder fully, and in the end one is forced to admit that such a decryption is probably impossible. This is just an incredibly weird book.

Which, in general, is not the sort of novel I tend to enjoy. Add to that the first person narration--something for which I have a very low threshold of tolerance--and the flat, affectless voice in which Remainder is told, and you have what should by rights be a recipe for my disdain. I'm reminded of Patrick Thompson's Divided Kingdom, which came highly recommended by many of the same bloggers now touting Remainder, and which shares some of its characteristics: bizarre premise (in Thompson's case, that England and its population have been divided into four nations according to the four humors) described through the eyes of a dispassionate, not particularly pro-active, observer. I bounced off Divided Kingdom hard--not only did I not like it, once I finished it I found I had nothing to say about it, good or bad. I had no reaction to it whatsoever. I couldn't relate to either the narrator or his situation. In the back of my mind, I expected to be similarly alienated by Remainder. Instead, I was overcome.

The difference, I think, is that for all its weirdness, Remainder is rooted in reality. The genius of McCarthy's storytelling is that the bulk of the novel is focused on the minutiae of bringing the narrator's vision to life. The architects, builders, set designers, props masters, technicians, animal wranglers, and actors required for him to experience one moment of unstudied action. (The reenactment process is frequently compared to moviemaking, and the idea for it germinates in the narrator after he sees a movie and remarks that the characters within it possess a natural quality that he has lost, and there's no doubt some commentary here about our tendency to think of movies, and audio-visual media in general, as more real than reality.) By rooting the novel in these practical matters, McCarthy grounds us, and keeps us from the alienation that characterizes novels like Divided Kingdom. The narrator is going slowly insane, but that insanity is expressed through a million mundane, and utterly sane, details. He is still, recognizably, living in our world, though who knows what he is making of it.

More importantly, Remainder echoes a longing that, I think, most of us have felt at one point or another. We've all sunk into a vivid memory and longed to capture it more fully. And I think that we can all appreciate the appeal of simply existing, and the rarity of it. As the narrator is told when he laments that he has lost all access to that state since his accident: "Do you think you could before? ... Do you think that anyone outside of films lights cigarettes or opens fridge doors like that?" We all know what it's like to feel over-rehearsed, whether we're trying to play a part or seem cool or fit in, and we've all felt the certainty that everyone else around us has got the business of life down, while we're busy overthinking it. Remainder speaks to that desire to do without understanding, and expresses it with painful clarity.

As I've said already, Remainder occasionally seems to be telling a fantastic story, and as the novel draws to its end it begins veering more towards horror. Like the best entries in that genre, it takes something ordinary and familiar--in this case, a familiar desire--and builds upon it. Given the opportunity to indulge a desire most of us can only sigh at, and damaged just sufficiently that he can do so without caring about the people in his way, the narrator becomes something monstrous, and commits monstrous acts. Another way of looking at it is that he's become something transcendent--the ending is, unsurprisingly, inconclusive. What is surprising, or perhaps not so much given how excellent everything leading up to that point has been, is how little this ambiguity troubles us. Like the narrator, we'd simply like the moment, and the novel, to go on forever.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Back Through the Wormhole, Part IV: Looking for Ron Moore in All the Wrong Places

It's impossible to come back to Deep Space Nine in 2007 and not be on the lookout for Ronald D. Moore, for his influence on the series and its influence on his later work. Deep Space Nine is where Moore made his bones, rising from staff writer to executive producer. It is also, of all the series he's been involved with, the one closest in topic, tone, and theme to Battlestar Galactica. Just in case there are some of you who have never visited this blog before, I consider Galactica to be one of the most frustrating, because initially so promising, failures in the television landscape of the last decade. Searching for Moore's name in Deep Space Nine's credits is therefore an education--a reminder that he was once capable of extremely good writing, as well as an opportunity to ponder the reasons for Deep Space Nine's success in many of the same arenas in which Galactica would later fail.

Because of the collaborative nature of television writing rooms, as well as the fact that most of Deep Space Nine's episodes had two writing credits, and often more, it's difficult to pinpoint aspects of the series that are purely of Moore's invention. There are, however, exceptions. The more overt militarization of Starfleet--the introduction of Starfleet marines in "Nor the Battle to the Strong," the morale-building ceremony of displaying the Defiant's spent phaser fuel cells in "Behind the Lines," the stream of war-movie clichés in "The Siege of AR-558"--almost certainly originated with him. It's an approach that doesn't sit too well with Deep Space Nine or Star Trek in general. There are thirty years of backstory, all telling us that Starfleet is a peaceful, exploratory and peacekeeping force, to contend with, and it's a little late in the game to posit the existence of jarheads in Starfleet uniforms. Battlestar Galactica, on the other hand, took this approach to its logical conclusion by positing a genuine military in space, all but identical to the real (American) one Moore trained for. By the same token, the total absence of SFnal explanations for even the most important and puzzling of Galactica's technological puzzles, such as the nature of the human-form Cylons, is almost certainly a response to Star Trek's over-reliance on technobabble.

And then there are episodes in Deep Space Nine's run whose themes so closely resemble Battlestar Galactica's that they beg a comparison. At the top of the list is "The Darkness and the Light," in which members of Kira's resistance group are killed off one by one by a Cardassian maimed in one of their attacks. It's not a great episode--it is unfortunately undone the moment the villain makes his appearance and turns out to be a third-rate Buffalo Bill clone--but it does have some great moments. It's a fantastic Kira episode (and we'll be discussing it some more when we talk about her), as well as being the first time in nearly a season that her and Odo's friendship feels like just that, and not unrequited love on his part and obliviousness on hers. Most importantly, "The Darkness and the Light" faces head on the ugly truth of what Kira did during the occupation, and her attitude towards those actions. When she's captured by the killer, and confronted with the fact that the attack that maimed him, a non-combatant, also killed the entire family of the Cardassian official she was aiming for, a furious Kira can only spit out
None of you should've been on Bajor! It wasn't your world. For fifty years you raped our planet and killed our people. You lived on our land and took the food from our mouths, so I don't care if you held a phaser in your hand or ironed shirts for a living. You were all guilty and you were all legitimate targets!
You watch an episode like this and you just have to ask yourself--where did that courage go? How is it that when he got the chance to tell his own story, on a show so much less interested in comforting and reassuring its audience, Moore followed up "The Darkness and the Light" with "Occupation"/"Precipice"? There isn't a single minute of Galactica's third season premiere that comes close to the searing honesty of Kira's tirade. At best, we have Tigh's rant when Roslin questions his methods
You see, little things like that, they don't matter anymore. In fact, not too frakking much really matters anymore. I've got one job here, lady, and one job only. To disrupt the Cylons. Make them worry about the anthill they've stirred up down here so they're distracted and out of position when the old man shows up in orbit. The bombings, they got the Cylons' attention. They really got their attention, and I am not giving that up. ... You know, sometimes I think that you've got ice water in those veins, and other times I think you're just a naive little schoolteacher. I've sent men on suicide missions in two wars now, and let me tell you something. It don't make a Godsdamn bit of difference whether they're riding in a Viper or walking out onto a parade ground, in the end they're just as dead. So take your piety and your moralizing and your high-minded principles and stick 'em someplace safe until you're off this rock and you're sitting in your nice cushy chair on Colonial One again. I've got a war to fight.
But all it does is offer excuses and make Tigh look deranged. In fact, that's all "Occupation"/"Precipice" does, and all it's interested in--that moment when we realize the people we're rooting for are No Better Than the Enemy. It's trying to alienate us from the show's main characters. "The Darkness and the Light" does something much harder and much more subtle. It takes a character we love and admire, not least because of her staunchly moral character, and has her express abhorrent opinions. And it does so in such a way that, at its end, we still love and admire the character, and are still abhorred by her opinions. Instead of alienating us, it draws us in. Instead of searching for that moment of disorientation when the moral high ground is snatched out from under us, it focuses on the hours, days, weeks, months and years we're going to spend trying to reconcile two irreconcilable notions. It's almost impossible to believe that the same person is responsible for both stories. (Of course, it's possible that Bryan Fuller, currently of Pushing Daisies fame and credited for the story on "The Darkness and the Light," has something to do with it.)

All that said, there is one crucial difference between "Occupation"/"Precipice" and "The Darkness and the Light" that may explain the former's failure and latter's qualified success. On Deep Space Nine, unlike Battlestar Galactica, the enemy can be killed, and using terrorist tactics against them actually makes sense. Which brings me, once again, to what I believe is Deep Space Nine's greatest strength--the integrity and complexity of its invented world, and the fidelity that almost all of its stories keep with it. If terrorist tactics hadn't made sense as a tool for Bajorans to use against the Cardassians, I don't believe Deep Space Nine's writers would have used them.

Because the show always prioritized its internal universe over real-world parallels, it's impossible to pin Deep Space Nine down to a single interpretation. "The Darkness and the Light" is almost certainly recalling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but in "Duet," the occupation is likened to the Holocaust, with Kira's interrogation of a suspected war criminal recalling similar interrogations of former Nazis in the 50s and 60s. In "Past Prologue," meanwhile, the strained relationship between extreme and less-extreme resistance groups recalls the situation in Northern Ireland. From the Cardassian point of view, the occupation of Bajor has parallels with the American presence in Vietnam, especially when it comes to Ziyal's difficult situation as a mixed-race child. On the other hand, Cardassian attitudes toward the Bajoran's have the hint of colonialism about them, and most particularly of Apartheid, and I think there's an argument to be made that Dukat's fraught relationship with the Bajorans is reminiscent of the slave-owner, who hates his slaves because he sees hatred in their eyes and knows that he deserves it, and punishes them for his depravity. The Vedek who kills herself in "Rocks and Shoals" to protest the Dominion's occupation of Bajor is probably a reference to the self-immolating monks in Tibet, and the notion of 'comfort women' for the Cardassian occupiers, which is introduced in "Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night," as well as the Bajorans' disdain for them, is probably derived from similar attitudes during Nazi occupation of European countries, and in fact that entire episode has undertones of Vichy France. And then there are episodes, like "Cardassians," which tell stories that could never have occurred have on Earth, but are entirely organic to the show's setting.

The result of Deep Space Nine's broad spectrum of political references is not merely to strengthen the show's fictional setting, but to render it universal and extend its relevance, so that a show written in the early to mid-nineties still has something important to say about the present-day political landscape, in spite of the upheavals it has undergone over the last decade. In fact, in some cases, Deep Space Nine is even prescient. "The issue is not if there are Founders on Cardassia," Worf darkly pronounces when Gowron uses that excuse as a justification for declaring war in "The Way of the Warrior," and then goes on to explain that the Klingon empire is simply eager for conquest. Is it truly possible that this episode was written in 1995? Well, of course it is, because 9/11 isn't the root cause of the current political climate, nor did it erase everything that came before it. The questions that plague us today--how to balance security with a respect for human rights, how to protect ourselves against a virtually unstoppable form of warfare without losing our civil liberties, how to respect other cultures without losing sight of the values central to ours--were just as prevalent, in slightly different forms, ten and fifteen years ago. That's easier to notice on Deep Space Nine, which never ripped its storylines from newspaper headlines.

In a comment to one of the previous posts in this series, it was suggested that the reason Ron Moore did better work on Deep Space Nine than he's been doing on Battlestar Galactica is that in the earlier show he had someone to hold him back, and most especially, that he needed the underlying niceness of Star Trek to counteract his tendency to wallow in darkness and grimness. Looking back on some of my criticisms of Battlestar Galactica over the last few years, it occurs to me that I've frequently taken the show to task not for being too dark but for not being dark enough--for suggesting darkness, such as when Adama almost assassinates Cain or the humans almost unleash a plague on the Cylons, and then backing down from it. One of most shocking realizations during my trip back to Deep Space Nine was that, judging the two shows on the basis of actions taken in the political sphere, not whether the main characters screw around or drink too much, Deep Space Nine is by far the darker series. Sisko actually does countenance the assassination of a foreign head of state. The Federation, or a body acting on its behalf and whose actions it retroactively validates, does infect an alien race (who are not, as far as we know, bent on destroying humanity) with a potentially genocidal virus. The terrorist attacks Kira and other resistance members carry out do kill and maim innocents and non-combatants, none of whom can download into a new body, and including, almost certainly, children. Deep Space Nine isn't as unremittingly grim as Battlestar Galactica, and its greatest flaw was its failure to posit long-term consequence for the events of episodes like "In the Pale Moonlight" or "Hard Time" (not that Galactica has been that great about exploring the consequences of its standalone episodes), but ultimately it is the braver show, perhaps because it had the strong foundations of the Star Trek franchise to stand on.

And there, I think, is the secret of Deep Space Nine's success as political fiction. It borrows and steals elements of political disputes from all over the world and most of the last century, but ultimately the stories it tells are universal. It references the real world, but remains rooted in its own universe. It tells stories in which the main characters do terrible things, but never seeks to undermine the core morality of its setting. Balance. I've said already that Deep Space Nine succeeded because it was conventional and, in some ways, hidebound, because it never sought to burn brightly and transcendently. Nowhere is this truth more evident than in its political writing.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Lives of Others

I'm obviously rather late to this party, and probably everything that could have been said about this stunning, intense, impeccably well-made film has already been said. Nevertheless, here goes: I'm obviously supposed to read The Lives of Others as a story about the redemptive power of art. While surveilling a bohemian couple, the playwright Georg and the actress Christa-Maria, gray, blank Stasi agent Wiesler becomes exposed to art, poetry, and music, and through that exposure is moved to protect the lovers, and conceal evidence of Georg's seditious activities. There's even a scene in which Georg quotes Lenin being moved by Beethoven's Apassionata, and asks whether a man who truly listened and understood a piece of music that beautiful could really be evil--while all the time Wiesler is listening and being moved by the music Georg is playing. According to IMDb and Wikipedia, this scene was the crux and genesis of the film, the first image that came to writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck when he conceived of it. But to my mind The Lives of Others is more persuasive not as a story about redemption through art, but as one about the seductive lure of storytelling.

Though he is intrigued by Georg and Christa-Maria's wider horizons, Wiesler initially views them with cool detachment, and even with something bordering on cruelty. When he discovers that Christa-Maria is being pursued by a prominent party member (who also ordered the surveillance on Georg, probably in an attempt to get rid of his competition), Wiesler arranges for Georg to witness evidence of the 'affair' (in reality, more along the lines of sexual assault, as Christa-Maria justly fears for her career and safety if she doesn't acquiesce). It's not clear to me why he does this, but my best guess is that he wants to shatter Georg's comfortable existence, his ability to live a decent life even under the most indecent of regimes.

If Wiesler expected Georg to shatter, to confront Christa-Maria with accusations and rage, he is disappointed. Instead, when she sets out to meet the party member again a week later, Georg sincerely begs her not to go, no matter the risk to either one of them. We cut away from their heartfelt, if somewhat melodramatic, argument to see Wiesler listening in rapt attention, and then rudely torn away by the arrival of his replacement. His bereft expression when denied the resolution to Georg and Christa-Maria's drama should be familiar to anyone who has ever immersed themselves in a book or a television episode, and been torn away before the crucial scene ends. It's not Brecht or Beethoven that have won Wiesler over to the young couple's side--it's their own, not particularly exciting or unusual, story.

Almost as soon as he becomes a voracious reader, Wiesler injects himself into the story as a writer. As many fans do when a beloved story takes what they believe to be the wrong turn, he starts writing fanfic--in this case, real person fic, overwriting the real story. When Christa-Maria, in spite of Georg's entreaties, leaves the apartment to meet the party member, Wiesler approaches her at a bar and persuades her to go home. It's a trite device--the stranger who just happens to possess the wisdom the hero or heroine need to hear, and the opportunity and presence of mind to deliver it--but then Wiesler is just a beginner at the writing game, and like so many fledgling writers he is drawn to cliches. From this point onwards, Wiesler is the author of Georg and Christa-Maria's life story twice over--in the fiction he pours into the reports he submits to his superiors, in which Georg's plans to write a story for the West German magazine Der Spiegel about the prevalence of suicide in East Germany are transformed into a play commemorating the nation's 40th anniversary, and in the reality he creates by directing their lives towards his notion of a happy ending.

It's hard for me to view Wiesler's actions on Georg and Christa-Maria's behalf as an unadulterated good. I'm a firm believer in the power of fiction to overcome prejudice, apathy, and ignorance, but by the same token I'm wary of fictionalizing real people. The lives of others may be nothing but a story to us, but they are real, and there is never a sense that Wiesler helps Georg and Christa-Maria because he feels compassion for them as real people. Rather, his compassion is the kind we feel towards our favorite characters--mingled and often overpowered by our desire to read their story. It also can't be said that Wiesler's interference has a wholly positive effect. When Georg and his friends suspect that his apartment has been bugged, they plant a trap by loudly discussing a fictitious plot to smuggle a troublesome dissident into West Germany by hiding him under the back seat of a car (it's amusing to note that the artists' attempts at writing espionage fiction are just as ham-fisted and obvious as Wiesler's at writing naturalistic character drama). A by-then sympathetic Wiesler forbears from reporting the escape attempt, which persuades Georg that his apartment is safe, and forces Wiesler to concoct ever more elaborate fabrications in order to conceal his plot.

By the end of the film, Wiesler has lost sight of the fact that his characters are real people. He thinks of them merely as tokens, who can be moved only by the actions of others, and most particularly himself, and without free will or internal thoughts which he can't spy upon. Which is why, when Georg's article is published and he falls under suspicion, Wiesler strong-arms Christa-Maria (who has already been pressured into telling his superiors that Georg wrote the article) into revealing the location of Georg's typewriter, which can then be matched to the original document and used as proof of his seditious activities. By the time Georg's apartment is searched, Wiesler has removed the typewriter, but he hasn't taken into account that for Christa-Maria, already steeped in self-loathing for denouncing Georg, the knowledge that she has damned Georg to torment and possibly death will be too much to bear. She kills herself before Wiesler's deception can be discovered and Georg cleared of suspicion.

(Christa-Maria's weakness is just about the only sour note in what is otherwise a wholly satisfying film. I realize that one of the film's aims is to explore the ways in which people respond to life under a totalitarian regime, and the compromises they make with it, and with their conscience, to survive. In addition, the film shines a light on the fact that such regimes are abhorrent not only because they prey on their citizenry but because they force those citizens to prey on one another. Nevertheless, it smarts that the only character seen informing to the Stasi is the only prominent female character, who is also subjected or subjects herself to an entire host of humiliations--she is raped, she has a drug habit, we are told that she lacks confidence in her talent, when she's picked up by the Stasi she offers to inform on her friends or provide her interrogator with sexual favors in order to save her career, and finally she betrays the man she loves not once but twice--before she's finally allowed to kill herself in order to expiate her crimes. Even more so when one considers that the only other woman in the film is also a collaborator. When Wiesler installs the listening devices in Georg's apartment he is observed by Georg's neighbor Frau Meineke. Realizing this, he knocks on her door and curtly informs her that, should she breathe a word to Georg, he will have her daughter expelled from medical school. She, of course, submits.)

The film's last segment takes place in the early nineties, after Germany's unification. Georg, discovering that he was under surveillance and understandably puzzled as to why his complicity in the Der Spiegel affair was never brought to light, requests his files from the Stasi archives, and becomes aware of Wiesler's actions. The two men's roles are reversed--Georg is now the reader of Wiesler's life story, which is revealed between the lines of his own. He goes to see Wiesler (whose name and address are supplied to him by the government, which requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief) but doesn't approach him. He is unwilling to become an active participant in Wiesler's life, much like Wiesler himself, who only comes close to revealing his interference when he starts to tell the dying Christa-Maria that he has moved the typewriter, but can't quite say the words. Instead, Georg writes a novel, titled Sonata for a Good Man, dedicated to Wiesler's Stasi codename and telling, presumably, the film's story. The film ends with Wiesler buying a copy and proudly declaring "This is for me." There is, clearly, a great deal of triumph to be found in this ending. Fiction has not only been the instrument of Georg and Wiesler's salvation, but it has also allowed them to reach out to one another and express their mutual appreciation. Nevertheless, there is also something a little sad about a man whose greatest achievement is to have been reduced to a character in another person's life story.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Back Through the Wormhole, Part III: The Menagerie

A work of fiction passes Alison Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For test if it features two women having a conversation about something other than a man. Deep Space Nine passes the Bechdel test, but not before it passes, several times over, its SFnal corollary by featuring two aliens having a conversation about something other than a human, the Federation, or Starfleet.

Deep Space Nine
, as I've already said, has a main and recurring cast list in the high thirties (and that's not even counting important but low yield characters such as Dr. Mora or Sloan). Other series have featured cast lists as large and even larger (the potential Slayers alone put Buffy's at close to 50), but unlike Farscape, Buffy, or Angel, Deep Space Nine didn't cluster its characters around a single person or group. Instead, it allowed them to form overlapping hubs. Sisko and Kira, for example, felt great respect and affection for one another, but they were never good friends, and they tended to spend their off-time with different groups of people. And unlike on the Federation starships of the original Star Trek and The Next Generation, on Deep Space Nine humans were not the majority, and the social groups the characters formed were often made up entirely of aliens (though groups comprised entirely of non-Starfleet characters were rarer)--and often of the same kind of alien. Ziyal's closest relationships in her brief time on the station are with the two people who share her biological heritage, Kira and Garak, and in the latter case she deliberately seeks out someone with whom she has a shared culture, which they can discuss. One of Deep Space Nine's greatest strengths was that there was a culture for Ziyal and Garak to discuss, as there were for Klingon, Ferengi, and Bajoran characters. Over the course of the series these races grew from one-word definitions--aggressive Klingons, proud Cardassians, greedy Ferengi, spiritual Bajorans--to complex, multi-faceted cultures, and the show frequently traveled away from the station to places dominated by these cultures--the bridge of a bird of prey, or the rain-soaked cities of Ferenginar.

Of the four dominant races in the series, it's the Klingons who seem best-suited to this kind of in-depth exploration and development. Not only do they originate in the first Star Trek, but The Next Generation was never as Deep Space Nine-ish as when it told stories about their culture--stories which dealt with political maneuvering, courtly intrigue, and king-making on both Picard and Worf's parts. Even before "The Way of the Warrior," Deep Space Nine told a Klingon story in the second season episode "Blood Oath," in which Jadzia has to decide whether to fulfill Curzon's oath to the three legendary Klingon generals, Kang, Koloth, and Kor, to avenge the murder of their sons.

"Blood Oath" has potential--Michael Ansara, William Campbell, and John Colicos ham it up magnificently as the three Klingons--but it is ultimately unsatisfying. Terry Farrell doesn't have what it takes to carry the episode (though she gets better at playing the honorary Klingon in later seasons), and, in an episode whose purpose is to explore the potentially soul-destroying effect of violence, the sanitized, bloodless fight scenes are a fatal flaw. "Blood Oath" does, however, presage some of Deep Space Nine's core issues when engaging with alien cultures. As most Klingon episodes will do, "Blood Oath" immerses us in Klingon culture, with Dax sublimating herself to Curzon's affinity for it, his sense of obligation to the three generals, and mostly, their system of values, which demands and glorifies revenge. Sisko and Kira can only watch from the sidelines, uncomprehending--Sisko even says he never understood why Curzon too the oath in the first place--and hope that the real Dax will return to them.

Then Worf shows up, and it's off to the races. Fourth season and early fifth season Klingon-themed episodes explored Klingon culture through Worf's ambivalent attitude towards it. As Jadzia says in "Let He Who Is Without Sin" (cursed be its name and memory), Worf is one of the least typical Klingons we ever meet. He's reserved, controlled, standoffish in a way that clearly indicates unease in social situations. He has none of the thoughtless boisterousness that characterizes so many Klingons, and though he revels in battle, both hand-to-hand and as a spaceship commander, he doesn't lust for it (or at least, he tries not to show that he does).

Most of Deep Space Nine's early Worf-centered stories showed him reacting to Klingon culture with equal parts fascination and disgust. In "The Sons of Mogh," he initially agrees to kill his brother in order to restore Kurn's honor, but when his first attempt is forestalled he refuses to make another one, having come to view the act as murder. In "The Sword of Kahless," his enchantment with Kor soon sours into disgust as he glimpses the less savory aspects of Kor's quintessential Klingon-ness. His decision to claim the sword for himself is clearly a last-ditch attempt by a rejected outsider to force his society to accept him--if necessary, by remaking it in his image. On the other hand, in "Rules of Engagement" the Klingon advocate argues that Worf's own Klingon-ness runs too deep to be worn away by a life in the Federation, and that it was that Klingon lust for combat that made him fire on an unarmed transport before he knew what it was. The Worf episodes express the show's own ambivalence towards Klingon culture. Are Klingons honorable warriors or bloodthirsty killers? Is their obsession with honor laudable or a fetish? Is their exuberant, larger-than-life existence an expression of joy or mere boorishness?

In the fifth season, this ambivalence fades away. First with the premiere episode "Apocalypse Rising," which sees a rare (for that time) trip so far away from the station and sets us right in the middle of a Klingon bacchanalia. Later on with the introduction of Martok as a prominent character, and finally with "Soldiers of the Empire," which is clearly the point at which the writers threw up their hands and went, screw it, Klingons are cool. Though later episodes poke at the uglier aspects of Klingon society--Martok's wife doesn't want to admit Jadzia, an alien, into her house (and when Worf calls her a bigot, Martok breezily responds that "We're Klingons, Worf. We don't embrace other cultures. We conquer them."); in "Once More Unto the Breach" we learn that Klingon society is rife with class prejudice; and, of course, there's Ezri's stinging conclusion in "Tacking Into the Wind" that the Klingon empire is being destroyed from within by corruption and political games. Ultimately, however, the show is on the Klingons' side, as evidenced by the fact that in its later seasons stories about them are told from within. Worf, who in "The Sons of Mogh" concluded that he would never truly belongs in Klingon society, starts seeing himself as a Klingon warrior again, and Jadzia embraces the culture as well. Other, non-Klingon characters are almost entirely shut out of these stories, so that we're forced to see Klingons as they see themselves: bold, glorious, epic. It's hard not to be swept away by this grandeur, especially with the full force of Deep Space Nine's prodigious worldbuilding abilities brought to bear on us, fabricating for the Klingons customs, rituals, legends, and, of course, songs.

Another race with whom the show takes an immersive approach are the Ferengi. Funnily enough, the Ferengi were originally conceived of by Next Generation writers as an antagonist to replace the now-friendly Klingons, but though in their appearances on that series Ferengi were generally acting against the Enterprise crew's interests, they never developed the aura of dangerous coolness the Klingons wore so effortlessly, and which later attached itself to better antagonists such as the Romulans or the Cardassians. They were portrayed as lascivious, mean, stupid, and above all, obviously, greedy. Deep Space Nine initially toned down the Ferengi's antagonism, but kept their greed and stupidity. They were played for (generally unfunny) laughs. The turning point comes, I think, in the second season finale "The Jem'Hadar," when Quark gives Sisko as much-needed what-for.
You know, Commander, I think I've figured out why humans don't like Ferengis. ... The way I see it, humans used to be a lot like Ferengis. Greedy, acquisitive, interested only in profit. We're a constant reminder of a part of your past you'd like to forget. ... But you're overlooking something. Humans used to be a lot worse than the Ferengi. Slavery. Concentration camps. Interstellar wars. We have nothing in our past that approaches that kind of barbarism. You see, we're nothing like you. We're better.
From this point on, though the show never ceases to mock the Ferengi, it also accords them, and most particularly Quark, a measure of respect. If the Klingons allow the writers to indulge in Tolkien-esque fantasies about the glory of battle, the Ferengi offer a counteracting dose of cynicism in the face of that fantasy. Quark is at times an Al Swearengen-ish figure, combining disdain for the Federation's lofty ideals--which he views as a mask with which they conceal their baser urges--with a deep and abiding respect not just for individual endeavor but for individuality itself. Is it any wonder that he is, at times, the most humanistic of the show's characters? When the war breaks out and the Starfleet characters begin sublimating themselves to the war effort, knowingly and willingly going to their deaths or sending others to theirs, Quark watches in mute, and sometimes not so mute, horror. His disdain for this willingness to both die and kill for an ideal comes to a head in "The Siege of AR-558," in which he parallels his incensed speech to Sisko from "The Jem'Hadar" with another to Nog.
Let me tell you something about humans, Nog. They're a wonderful, friendly people -- as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working. But take away their creature comforts... deprive them of food, sleep, sonic showers... put their lives in jeopardy over an extended period of time... and those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people will become as nasty and violent as the most bloodthirsty Klingon.
This same respect for individuality can also be observed in the different expressions of Ferengi-ness we encounter over the course of the series. There is only one way to be a true Klingon, and one is either an honorable Klingon warrior or not, but there are many different, and sometimes contradictory, ways to be Ferengi. It is rare, in fact, to encounter a Ferengi who adheres wholeheartedly to their culture's edicts--Brunt, I think, is the only one. In "Body Parts," Quark resolves to die rather than break a contract because he feels that to do so would make him no longer a Ferengi. In the end he comes to realize that to break and ignore the rules for the sake of survival, conscience, or just because it suits you is the most Ferengi act of all, because to Ferengis the highest loyalty is to oneself. Though a Klingon, a Cardassian, or a human might see this worldview as unprincipled, in its own way it is more principled than any of theirs, because it refuses to sublimate individual judgment to any kind of value system. There's a reason, after all, that Armin Shimerman got to play a liberal humanist in "Far Beyond the Stars."

Better yet are the Ferengi characters like Ishka, Rom, and Nog who use their Ferengi upbringing to do un-Ferengi things--accumulate profit while female, form a union, become an engineer and marry a clothes-wearing outsider, join Starfleet. Nog doesn't abandon Ferengi culture when he decides to join Starfleet--he uses it. He buys an apprenticeship from Sisko and later auctions off his childhood belongings when he leaves for the academy, as Ferengi customs dictate. In "Treachery, Faith, and the Great River" he uses his business acumen to help O'Brien secure a rare replacement part for the Defiant. (And this might be a good time to note that rediscovering Nog was one of the most pleasurable surprises of this rewatch. He's a fantastic character, and it's a great shame that Aron Eisenberg never made it to the opening credits.) Finally, in "The Magnificent Ferengi," all these disparate and different Ferengi--clever Quark, naive Rom, gung-ho Nog, bloodthirsty Leck, desperate Gaila, craven Brunt--come together to rescue Ishka not through force of arms but by scheming, maneuvering, and making deals--by being, deep down, completely Ferengi.

When it comes to its other two dominant races, Deep Space Nine takes a different approach. Though there are plenty of episodes which observe Bajoran society from within--mostly in the first season, but also later on with episodes like "Shakaar"--it's hard to call the society that emerges from these stories alien. The values and attitudes expressed by Kira and the characters she encounters are not just human, but Western and modern. Stories that discuss the ways in which Bajoran society is foreign, sometimes to the point of being incomprehensible--which usually means episodes discussing Bajoran religion--are told from an outsider's point of view, generally Sisko's. Again and gain, Sisko bumps up against Bajoran faith, and no matter how deeply he immerses himself in it, ultimately he's an outsider trying to reason his way through something impenetrable to reason. In "Accession," he watches in disbelief as all his hard work on Bajor's behalf is undone by a man determined to return Bajor to a way of life centuries out of date, and as Bajorans, including Kira, allow him to do so because their faith dictates that they do. His only recourse is to give himself up to Bajor and the Prophets--which ends up claiming greater and greater sacrifices from him.

Cardassian society is even more of a locked room. Though laid out before us like an open book, the characters making their way through it--usually Bashir, but also Kira in the fabulous "Indiscretion" and O'Brien in the didactic "Tribunal"--can only gaze in incomprehension at a value system that is a complete inversion of ours, and which discounts the individual and rewards sacrifice and self-abnegation while encouraging arrogance and a sense of superiority. One of my favorite illustrations of the disconnect between Federation and Cardassian values comes in "The Wire," when Bashir complains to Garak that a classic of Cardassian literature is boring, its characters all living the same kind of life, selflessly serving their nation, and then dying. Of course, Garak replies, that's the point. Not that Garak is uncritical of his society--one of his many tragedies is that he's sufficiently a product of his upbringing for Cardassian ideals to resonate with him, but too smart, cynical, and observant to accept them wholeheartedly--and in fact one of Deep Space Nine's overarching sub-plots is the painful, costly, and, at the time of the series's end, as-yet incomplete transformation Cardassia undergoes as the consequences of its authoritarianism and unjustified pride come down to bear on it.

(Have you noticed which important, dominant Star Trek race is missing from this list? I'd always assumed that the retooling of Vulcans into an arrogant, secretive, manipulative, and hypocritical culture was an Enterprise innovation, but the rot set in in Deep Space Nine. It's this series that gives us, in "Shakaar," a venal Vulcan who insists on collecting his winnings from O'Brien after the latter dislocates his shoulder in the middle of a game of darts, and a Vulcan serial killer, explicitly though somewhat illogically described as someone who hates emotion, in "Field of Fire." And then, of course, there's "Take Me Out to the Holosuite," in which Sisko's Vulcan rival is not just arrogant and vindictive but downright bigoted--he has inexplicably been allowed to crew his ship exclusively with Vulcans--and which features a scene in which Nog has to tag all members of the opposing, all-Vulcan team because they all look alike, and he can't tell which one of them is the Vulcan he's looking for.)

Of course, there's a reason that my extrapolation of the Bechdel test isn't common currency in SFnal circles, and that is that ultimately every invented alien species is a mirror of or a commentary on humanity. Whether or not it is explicitly mentioned in conversations between Deep Space Nine's aliens, the Federation is always in the room, sometimes as an enemy, sometimes as an ally, but always as something that needs to be contended with. "Emissary" opens with the Borg attack at Wolf 359, and as the series draws on, that image begins to seem ever-more significant, presaging the Federation's own crusade--less violent than the Borg's, but no less powerful--to export its own values (a comparison that is made explicitly by Eddington in "For the Cause").

Again and again over the course of the series we see aliens muttering angrily about Federation values contaminating their cultures, and young people like Nog and Alexander (who, alone among all the Klingons we meet in both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, is repeatedly told that he doesn't have to, and in fact probably shouldn't, become a warrior) who seem to bear these dark predictions out. I've been writing these essays for people like myself, who watched, admired and loved Deep Space Nine in its original run, but who haven't thought about it much in the intervening years. These people, I assumed, would be fuzzy on the details such as episode titles and the exact progression of the series's plot, which is why I've been linking to an episode guide every time I mention an episode title. I have no doubt, however, that every single one of you remembers the exchange I'm about to reference, but I'm going to quote it anyway because it encapsulates everything Deep Space Nine had to say about the Federation's influence on the quadrant.
QUARK: Take a sip of this.
GARAK: What is it?
QUARK: A Human drink. It's called root beer.
GARAK: I don't know.
QUARK: Go ahead. Aren't you just a little bit curious?
(Garak drinks)
QUARK: What do you think?
GARAK: It's vile.
QUARK: I know. It's so bubbly and cloying and happy.
GARAK: Just like the Federation.
QUARK: But you know what's really frightening? If you drink enough of it, you start to like it.
GARAK: It's insidious.
QUARK: Just like the Federation.
Of course, this kind of influence travels in both directions. Starfleet officers also find themselves infected by alien cultures and values. Sisko tries his hardest to balance being a Starfleet officer with being the Emissary, but every time he thinks he's found a comfortable middle ground it's snatched out from under him, and by the end of the series he's become a true believer--at the cost of the respectful detachment that was at the core of his Starfleet identity. Jadzia becomes more and more Klingon as her relationship with Worf deepens. The war, in particular, seems to gnaw at the very foundations of Federation culture. In "The Siege of AR-558," Nog notices that one of the defenders is wearing a necklace of Ketracel White vials. This set of grisly trophies is a direct reference to the necklace of Cardassian neckbones worn by one of the Rotarran's crewmembers in "Soldiers of the Empire," and which, at the time, is used as a indication of that crew's derangement.

Deep Space Nine is a series in constant tension between the original Trek concept of infinite diversity in infinite combinations--the idea that you can drink Klingon coffee with breakfast, snack on a Bajoran jumja stick after lunch, eat Creole food for dinner, and relax with some Saurian brandy over a game of Tongo--and the sneaking suspicion that this kind of multiculturalism is ultimately only skin-deep, and that we are all, deep down, either one thing or the other. One of the factors contributing to Ziyal's death is that she was neither Bajoran nor Cardassian, and could never bring herself to choose just one. Odo tries to be a changeling among humanoids, but ultimately gives up the attempt as futile. Federation values, the show ultimately concludes, can't be adopted except at the cost of another culture's values, and inter-species rapport has its limits--as seen in "What You Leave Behind" when Sisko and Ross refuse to drink to their victory in the ruins of Cardassia, and Martok shakes his head over their squeamishness.

I haven't said anything about the Founders, or their servants, the genetically engineered Jem'Hadar and Vorta, in this piece, though they are prominent in the series's later seasons. At first glance, there doesn't seem to be much to say. The Jem'Hadar are genetically engineered to fight; the Vorta, to administrate and carry out the Founders' orders. Neither species has anything resembling a culture beyond their belief in the Founders' godhood, and if the Founders have one it is hidden in the Great Link. At a second glance, a national character seems to emerge, and certainly when it comes to the Jem'Hadar the writers seem to be trying to appeal to the same part of us that responds to the Klingons, by making them, in their own way, honorable and dispassionate. But this is a fallacy. The Jem'Hadar are honorable only because they aren't really people. When they gain a measure of individuality--like the Jem'Hadar immune to Ketracel White in "Hippocratic Oath" or the alpha quadrant Jem'Hadar in "One Little Ship"--they become just as petty, just as given to arrogance and selfishness, and just as capable of compassion and decency, as regular people. The real Jem'Hadar are the ones who, in "Rocks and Shoals," knowingly go to their deaths for no reason because their Vorta--who is sacrificing them in order to save his own skin--has ordered them to. The Vorta are not much better. Though they make a show of being in charge, ultimately they the Founders' puppets, ruled, at all times, by their unswerving faith and dedication to their gods. It's somewhat disturbing that Deep Space Nine expects us to respect this complete abdication, perhaps even complete absence, of autonomy.

My preferred reading, though I somehow doubt that it is the intended one, is that the Jem'Hadar are the Klingons' dark mirror, and the Vorta are the Bajorans' (with the Cardassians combining qualities of both races). They are an example of what results when these species' core traits are exaggerated, and the individualism that characterizes the Ferengi is done away with--monsters, with almost no free will or moral identity. And if this reading is correct, where does that leave the Founders? As the Federation's dark mirror, of course. Or rather, the anti-Federation. As I've said, if there is a Founder culture it's contained within the Great Link, which isn't something we, or the show's humanoid characters, can ever explore. You can't eat at a Founder restaurant, or listen to Founder opera. In "Chimera," when Ezri tells Laas, a non-Founder changeling whom Odo and O'Brien discover swimming through space, that she's always wondered what that would be like, he simply responds that "it's a shame [she's] incapable of experiencing it." Though Odo tries to live as a humanoid he can't experience that life fully, and eventually concludes that its pleasures pale against those of the Great Link.

Unlike the Federation (or the Borg) the Founders aren't trying to export or impose their way of life on other races--what would be the point? Their attitude towards the rest of the galaxy can best be described as aggressive isolationism. They want to be left alone, and by God they'll conquer every species in two quadrants to make sure that happens. They don't care about the races they conquer or the territory and resources they accumulate, and the adulation of the Jem'Hadar nd Vorta means nothing to them. As the female Founder tells Weyoun in "Favor the Bold," she'd give up the alpha quadrant if it meant bringing Odo back into the fold, because all that matters to the Founders is each other and the Link.

At Deep Space Nine's end, every one of its dominant alien species has been infected, to one degree or another, by Federation values. Martok, who has close ties with the Federation, is now Chancellor of the Klingon high council, and his closest adviser is a Starfleet officer who believes the empire needs to be taken apart and put back together. Ferengi society has been turned completely upside down. Bajor is back on track towards Federation membership, and Cardassian society is in shambles, and will no doubt be relying on Federation aid in its reconstruction efforts and, in the process, imbibing Federation values. Even the Founders have been rejoined by Odo, who will spread his message of tolerance, and his greater understanding of humanoids, throughout the Great Link. It is to the show's credit that it is ambivalent about these changes, portraying them as losses as well as gains, and hinting that in many cases change will be slow and uncertain. Especially nowadays, with the issue of cultural imperialism so prominent in the public discourse, it's interesting to watch Deep Space Nine grapple with that very question. "There is a limit to how far I'll go to accommodate cultural diversity among my officers and you've just reached it," Sisko angrily informs Worf after the latter nearly kills Kurn in "The Sons of Mogh," and this, too, is a question that has become more prominent in the last half-decade, as the dream of a truly multicultural society gives way before irreconcilable differences in values and cherished beliefs. Deep Space Nine can't offer any answers to these questions, but it can explore them, and it does so without ever surrendering the complexity and integrity of its own universe. All alien species are ultimately a commentary on humanity, and in Deep Space Nine's case, on Western society, but because Deep Space Nine was good science fiction and good TV, its aliens are also entirely real, and entirely alien.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Sarah Connor Chronicles: Brief Thoughts

Taking a brief break from Deep Space Nine, but continuing with this month's TV theme, a few observations about the Terminator spin-off series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Two episodes in, I'm cautiously optimistic--not in love yet, but willing to see more. I'm not yet sold on any of the leads, and though I can imagine reasons internal to the story for the slight but noticeable softening of Sarah Connor's personality, I can't help but suspect that the real reason is that a character as scary and uncompromising as Linda Hamilton's Sarah still can't make it onto a TV screen. (Lending credence to this theory is new SF blog io9, which compares Sunday's pilot to the unaired one that made the rounds online several months ago and argues that in the original version Sarah was a great deal more kickass.) There's also no denying that the show is getting an artificial boost both from the absence of other original, scripted television (though next week sees two new Chuck episodes! Hurrah!) and from the requisite comparison to the abysmal failure that was Bionic Woman. Though it hardly blew me away, thus far The Sarah Connor Chronicles has avoided the dreariness, emotional numbness, and backhanded sexism of that series, which is good, but hardly a ringing endorsement. Still and all, there's some promise here, and I'm going to keep watching to see if it's fulfilled. The voiceovers, though, have got to go.

A few more observations:

Right now, the show's greatest impediment seems to be John. This is not a criticism of the actor or even the character as it's been written--John is an impossible character. Make him a hero, and there's no tension. Make him ordinary, and the audience starts to wonder just how this guy becomes a messianic figure. One of Terminator 3's (many) flaws is that it failed to portray John convincingly as either a hero or a person becoming a hero. Terminator 2 got around this problem because, as a child, John's precociousness was allowed to stand as a substitute for any heroic characteristics without making him too perfect (that said, T2 does establish that John isn't an ordinary kid. He bonds with the terminator and helps him discover his humanity, and has a deep respect for human life). Sarah Connor's John falls somewhere in between. By the standards of TV teenagers, he's remarkably non-whiny and well-behaved, but we really ought to be able to say more about the future savior of humanity than that he's a good kid. Clearly, part of the show's mandate is to chart John's growth into his leadership role (and just as clearly, that process is going to involve overcoming Sarah's complete dominance in his life, which is largely responsible for his being such a non-entity), but we've all known kids who were natural leaders and, even at a young age, they possess a certain quality that John doesn't seem to have, and that I, for one, would have found interesting to watch. On the other hand, the show is called The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and its thrust seems to be that Sarah, not John, is going to prevent the apocalypse, so maybe John's blankness is intentional.

Something that screamed out at me in the pilot was that Sarah and John's life in Nebraska was middle-class, and even after running off their clothing and personal grooming indicate a certain level of affluence. The house they settle in in the second episode is empty and clearly abandoned, but it's also spacious and not at all dilapidated, and Sarah stocks the (fully functional) refrigerator with more than just staples and cheap junk food. It's not uncommon for television to depict working class (and even middle class) lifestyles in an unrealistically luxurious and photogenic manner, but it's disappointing to see this attitude from a Terminator spin-off because the films were actually very good about avoiding it. In The Terminator, Sarah was a working class girl. Being forced to flee for her life at the end of that film drove her further downwards into an itinerant lifestyle. In Terminator 2, the people she knows and hangs out with in live in trailer parks, and there's every indication that before her incarceration these were the sorts of places she and John lived in as well. Even John's foster parents were clearly lower-middle class, and almost every item of clothing, possession, home or vehicle we see in that film looks shabby and cheap (with the exception of Miles Dyson's home). I'm disappointed to see that the series has reverted to the television default of unthinking affluence, even if the diamond cache Sarah and John discover in the second episode explains it away.

Back Through the Wormhole, Part II: The Two DS9s

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the first three seasons of Deep Space Nine sucked.

OK, so that's an overstatement. But there is a consensus among the show's fans that its early seasons were missing a certain component, and that Deep Space Nine didn't come into its own and earn the title of best Star Trek series until its fourth season, and until the addition of Worf, the Defiant, the Dominion and their quest for galactic domination, and arc-driven storytelling. I'm here to tell you that this is... well, not wrong, precisely, but certainly a vast oversimplification. Firstly, just in terms of chronology: the Dominion is first introduced in the second season finale "The Jem'Hadar," and the identity of the Founders is revealed in the third season premiere, "The Search." The Defiant is introduced in that same episode, and though Worf does join the show in the fourth season premiere, "The Way of the Warrior," it's a full two seasons before war breaks out with the Dominion--the intervening period is spent mostly on inter-quadrant disputes between the Klingons and the Cardassians or the Klingons and the Federation--and the show only starts telling multi-episode stories in its final two seasons.

More importantly, though there is no denying that Deep Space Nine underwent many changes and transformations over the course of its seven seasons, and that the fourth season premiere was a turning point for the show in many respects, a stark division between pre- and post-"Way of the Warrior" Deep Space Nine, and an insistence that the latter is entirely superior to the former, ignores both the earlier seasons' strengths and the later ones' weaknesses, as well as the shared qualities which are, I believe, at the heart of what made Deep Space Nine good TV.

Deep Space Nine's pilot episode, "Emissary," surprised me by being a great deal stronger than I remembered. Like all pilots, it has a lot of work to do--introduce us to the characters, establish their relationships, create a sense of place and educate us about the balance of power within it--and it manages these tasks with grace and intelligence while telling a damn fine and exciting story in the process. It is also quite obviously attempting to distance Deep Space Nine from its older sibling, Star Trek: The Next Generation, mostly by bucking against that show's signifiers. The station's dishevelment stands in stark contrast to the Enterprise's gleaming orderliness. The distrust and resentment the locals feel towards the Starfleet officers, whom they view as interlopers thrust upon them by a foolish bureaucracy, as opposed to the tightly-knit Enterprise crew and the unwavering faith in Starfleet's goodness and necessity that they encounter wherever they go. Finally, in one memorable scene, "Emissary" actively strives to alienate The Next Generation's fans.

I'm speaking of the first encounter between Sisko and Picard, in which Sisko, still grieving the loss of his wife at Wolf 359, reminds Picard of that battle and of his role in it. Coming back to this scene as a Deep Space Nine fan (and as someone who recognizes how absurd it is to expect all of the veterans of that battle to be perfectly OK with Picard in its aftermath) I wasn't thrown by it, but several days after watching "Emissary" I realized that to the teenage, uninitiated version of myself watching it for the first time, it must have felt like a body blow. I didn't know or care about this Sisko person. I knew and cared about Picard, and I knew how tormented he was by Wolf 359. For Sisko to throw it in his face seemed unspeakably cruel (which, of course, it was) and given that I was already feeling wrong-footed by the unfamiliar setting and tone, is it any wonder that I walked away from "Emissary" somewhat dubious? So, I suspect, did many other Next Generation fans, a reaction which was almost certainly the one sought by the pilot's writers (who probably didn't have to worry about losing those fans, Star Trek loyalty and the SF television landscape being what they were in those days). They wanted to make the point that Deep Space Nine, the place and the series, were outside of our comfort zone.

Unfortunately, like Enterprise, whose pilot also sought to distance that show from the neatness associated with Star Trek in all its incarnations, Deep Space Nine backslid in its first season. Most of that season's episodes are variants on The Next Generation's standalone formats--something weird comes through the wormhole, or the characters travel through the wormhole and find something weird. Trouble and/or hilarity ensue, and the whole thing is resolved by discovering a new particle. Putting aside for a moment the fact that by the time Deep Space Nine premiered even The Next Generation was scraping the bottom of this storytelling barrel, and that most of the offerings in Deep Space Nine's first season are rather tired staples of SFnal TV ("The Passenger" and "Dramatis Personae": alien possession; "If Wishes Were Horses": magical wish fulfillment), Deep Space Nine's premise and setting were simply not suited to this form of storytelling. It's one thing to travel from planet to nebula to space anomaly--that's what the Enterprise was for, after all. Deep Space Nine's mission was different. Its purpose was to protect the wormhole and prepare Bajor for Federation membership. Standalone, self-contained stories were never going to accomplish this goal. Luckily, interspersed with the forgettable Next Generation-style stories were also episodes which dealt with the ongoing political situation on Bajor, and which, taken together, add up to an important arc for their protagonist, Kira Nerys.

A good rule of thumb for Deep Space Nine, and something that its writers were quick to pick up on, is that Kira makes everything better. A line, a scene, an episode--give it to Kira and, at the very least, you'll get something watchable, and quite often fantastic. I'm going to talk some more about this kickass character and the ways in which the show serves her both well and ill later on in this series, but for the time being let's just note that, in the first season, political, Bajoran-centered episodes tended to get handed to her, with Sisko playing a secondary role, and since these episodes were pretty strong pieces to begin with the result was very, very good. More importantly, these episodes charted genuine changes and developments in the character.

Kira starts off almost an antagonist to Sisko. She clearly resents his, and Starfleet's, presence in "Emissary," and though they end up working well together they are by no means fast friends at that episode's end. "Emissary" also shows us a Kira who is frustrated by her government and by her role in Bajor's rehabilitation. "It was so much easier when I knew who the enemy was," she sadly tells Odo soon afterwards, obviously ill at ease with her more difficult and less rewarding role as an administrator. In that same episode, "Past Prologue," she's drawn into the orbit of an extremist resistance fighter, but ultimately turns him in when she realizes that he has prioritized his desire for an enemy over the good of Bajor. Later on, in "Battle Lines," Kai Opaka forces Kira to acknowledge the corrosive effect that violence has had on her soul, and in so doing to begin to heal. Soon afterwards, Kira is once again forced to examine her new role as a representative of authority when she's ordered to forcibly evacuate the last holdout on a moon about to be rendered uninhabitable by a public works project in "Progress." After she befriends the man, Kira refuses to evacuate him, and it falls to Sisko to remind her that she no longer has the luxury of bucking authority for the sake of maintaining a spotless conscience.

Sisko and Kira's mutual respect is further deepened in the magnificent "Duet," in which he acquiesces to her request that he arrest and allow her to interrogate a Cardassian whom she believes to be a notorious war criminal (in a neat bookend to "Past Prologue," in which Kira went over Sisko's head to secure her friend asylum on the station). When Kira realizes that her prey is really a tormented file clerk trying to expiate crimes he wasn't responsible for, she demonstrates the decency and compassion that will continue to be her most distinctive characteristics throughout the series, and tries to help him. Kira's faith in Sisko, and his involvement in Bajoran politics, are cemented in the season finale "In the Hands of the Prophets," which is also the first appearance of then-Vedek Winn. Though initially a supporter of Winn's hard-line, isolationist views, Kira is disillusioned when Winn attempts to gain power by fomenting hatred towards Starfleet, and Sisko in particular, and ultimately chooses to stand with him, in a reversal of her stance in "Emissary." Kira's arc over the course of the season is a transition from a straightforward us-vs-them mentality to a more sophisticated worldview, and through it we glimpse Bajor undergoing a similar process as it adjusts to the realities of self-rule. The first season is therefore a strange mixture of the utterly forgettable and the superb, and though it can hardly be called a success, seven excellent hours of television out of twenty is pretty good for a show that is still figuring itself out.

In the second season, the Bajoran-centered political storylines are downplayed, and Sisko begins taking center stage in those stories that do deal with Bajor and with the legacy of the occupation, perhaps because the show's writers had realized where its strengths lay, and wanted to give their main character a chance to take part in these more successful stories. Though Kira has an important role in the season-opening three-parter, it's Sisko who learns the truth about the famed resistance legend Li Nalas, and Sisko who urges him to continue to embody that legend. Similarly, it's Sisko who, in "Cardassians," has to decide whether to return an abandoned Cardassian child to his father or let him stay with the Bajoran couple who have raised him. (An exception is the extremely fine "The Collaborator," in which Sisko barely makes an appearance as Kira struggles to prove Bareil innocent of collaborating with the Cardassians, and becomes the instrument of Winn's accession to the position of Kai.)

The second season is also when we start seeing the prevalence of a third kind of episode, on top of the SFnal standalones and the political stories--the character piece, which focuses on a single member of the main and supporting cast. Some of these, such as "The Alternate" or "Playing God," are quite good, and others, such as "The Wire," are utterly fantastic (much like Kira, Garak makes everything better), and these episodes will continue to be a cornerstone of the series. On top of which, the second season gives us "Necessary Evil"--still my choice for the best episode in the show's run--and "Crossover," which in spite of the ever-increasing inanity of its sequels is not just fun and well-made but downright scary. Finally, the second season introduces the Maquis--at the time, a rather bold and messy addition to the show's universe (which may explain why they were almost immediately downplayed in favor of more straightforward adversaries such the Klingons and the Dominion). All that said, there is no denying that in its treatment of its wider universe and the station's long-term goals, the show goes into a holding pattern in its second season, and unfortunately, things only get worse.

It's my personal theory that the reason so many fans think Deep Space Nine only got good after "The Way of the Warrior" is not that the show's later seasons were that good but that the season preceding them, season three, was that bad. The closest the season comes to standout episodes are "Second Skin" (lock Kira in a room and attack her sense of self--how could it go wrong?) and the two-parter "Improbable Cause"/"The Die is Cast" (Garak and Odo trying to outsmart one another for 90 minutes--see above). In between there's the sheer popcorn fun of "Civil Defense," but none of these episodes scale the heights achieved in the previous two seasons. Some of the remaining episodes in the season are merely missed opportunities--"Defiant" features an intriguing rapport between Sisko and Dukat, and some smart observations about the difference between soldiers and freedom fighters from Kira, but it implodes due to the complete nothingness that is Tom Riker at its center, and "Life Support" has some fantastic interactions between Kira, Bareil, and Winn, but its choice to squander a political development as important as the signing of a peace treaty between Bajor and Cardassia by using it as a backdrop to a medical ethics story is a crucial failure of priorities, not to mention a waste of a good character.

But for the most part, season three is just bad. It's a season that gives us three Ferengi episodes (alright, the first one, "The House of Quark," is more a Quark story and also not bad) as well as "Fascination," a Lwaxana Troi story in which people are compelled to have sex with one another and the entirely boring time travel two-parter "Past Tense." Worst of all, if the second season downplayed the political stories, in the third season that aspect of the show is all but absent. Between "The Search" and "Improbable Cause" there is almost no mention of the Dominion and the threat they pose. The season ends with the discovery of a changeling spy aboard the Defiant who informs Odo that more of his people have infiltrated the alpha quadrant, but if that's so then where have they been all season, and why haven't they been making their presence felt? As I've already said, the Bajoran-Cardassian conflict is used as a backdrop to personal stories, but the same is also done with the Maquis, who are all but ignored except when they need to catalyze a story. It is probably because of this choice to ignore the show's universe that, by the end of the season, the show feels tired, its storytelling, in every variety, perfunctory and not a little bit boring.

Clearly, a change was needed, and though the thrust of this essay is that the division into two Deep Space Nines is simplistic, there is no denying that the fourth season breathes new life into the show. It is, in my opinion, the best of the show's seven seasons. "The Way of the Warrior" is clearly a second pilot, with Worf taking Sisko's place as an out of sorts Starfleet officer contemplating resignation who finds a new home and purpose on the station. Once again, much of the episode is spent introducing characters--or in this case, introducing Worf to the cast and forging relationships with them--while establishing the Klingons as a major player in the series's universe and completely upending its political landscape. And, once again, the writers ably manage these tasks while telling a damn fine story to boot (and, incidentally, rebooting the show's look--the entire color and lighting scheme is made sharper and crisper). After this promising beginning there follows a sequence of episodes that are Deep Space Nine at its best--high concept episodes like "The Visitor," "Little Green Men," and "Our Man Bashir," character episodes like "Indiscretion" and "Rejoined," action episodes like "Starship Down," and, best of all, episodes that demonstrate how to properly ground a standalone story in a wider political setting.

In "Hippocratic Oath," Bashir and O'Brien crash land in the Gamma quadrant and are captured by rogue Jem'Hadar who want Bashir to break them of their addiction to Ketracel White. Bashir is moved by the Jem'Hadar's plight and argues that freeing them of their addiction will land a crippling blow against the Dominion. O'Brien doesn't trust their captors and worries that un-addicted Jem'Hadar might be just as dangerous, or even more so, than the regular kind. They both have valid points, and the episode, which is clearly meant to recall the many Bashir-and-O'Brien-in-peril stories that have preceded it, treats both of them with respect, and doesn't pretend that the actions each takes to get their own way won't have an effect on their friendship. It's a smart, thought-provoking piece whose emotional weight is derived equally from the thorny dilemma it places before its characters and the strain that dilemma puts on their friendship.

Though a second attempt to acknowledge the effects of the current political climate, the mid-season two-parter "Homefront"/"Paradise Lost," collapses into a hectoring, preachy mess, other political episodes in the season ("Rules of Engagement," "Return to Grace," "For the Cause") follow "Hippocratic Oath"'s lead, and explore the political through the personal while according both equal respect. In terms of the series's overarching storylines, not much happens in season four. The Federation-Klingon peace treaty is nullified in "The Way of the Warrior" after the Klingons invade Cardassia, and over the course of the season not much changes in that respect. What the season does instead is explore the ramifications of this galactic upheaval on the show's characters, allowing them to discover their altered universe before it is altered again. The result is extraordinarily satisfying--a season with almost no bad episodes and hardly any mediocre ones either.

Unfortunately, this is an unsustainable high note, and when season five comes around there's a noticeable drop in both the show's quality and the complexity of its political writing. Season five should be all about the slow but inexorable buildup to open war with the Dominion, but only three episodes--"Apocalypse Rising," in which Sisko exposes the changeling masquerading as Martok and secures a ceasefire with the Klingon Empire, the two-parter "In Purgatory's Shadow"/"By Inferno's Light," in which the Cardassians ally themselves with the Dominion, and the finale "A Call to Arms," in which war breaks out and the Federation is forced to withdraw from Deep Space Nine--advance that story. In all other episodes, the political situation is static--except for the Jake story "Nor the Battle to the Strong" which, in a return to the bad old days of season three, posits an end to the Klingon ceasefire for just as long as it takes Jake to realize that he's a physical coward, and immediately reinstates it as soon as that point is made--and virtually unacknowledged. Only three episodes--"Nor the Battle to the Strong," "The Ship," and "In the Cards"--draw on the political situation for their plot as so many fourth season episodes did, and none of them are very good or have that much to say. In fact, there aren't a lot of good episodes in the season at all--the only standouts are "Rapture," "Soldiers of the Empire," and "Children of Time," with an honorable mention for "Between the Darkness and the Light" for being a great Kira episode, in spite of its unfortunate descent into histrionics in its final act (I feel about "Trials and Tribble-ations" the same way I feel about Angel's puppet episode--it's fun and technically impressive, but there's not much there there)--and though the rest of the season isn't as bad as the third, it's largely mediocre.

Season five is also the point at which it becomes apparent that Deep Space Nine is no longer science fiction in any meaningful sense of the word. The Next Generation-style SFnal stories have all but disappeared from the show's repertoire, and the one exception over the course of the fifth season makes it clear that this is a good thing. In "Doctor Bashir, I Presume" it is revealed that Bashir's parents had him illegally enhanced as a child, and that he lied about this to get into Starfleet. We're told that there's a taboo against genetic engineering in Federation society, but we never get to see it or understand its roots (unless you count dredging up the memory of an overacting Ricardo Montalban, which admittedly is quite a deterrent). In the end, it doesn't matter, because the episode belies this taboo by allowing Bashir to remain in Starfleet after all. There is, in other words, no believable exploration of how a technological innovation is viewed in a future society or how it affects it, which would be the core of an SFnal story that revolved around this premise. In subsequent episodes, we don't get to see what it means for Bashir to live openly as someone who was made intellectually and physically superior to his peers, or any indication that they recoil from him or resent him for this superiority--it's mostly played for laughs.

In the sixth season followup episode "Statistical Probabilities" Bashir works with fellow 'mutants' whose genetic engineering has rendered them emotionally unstable. Finding them starved for information, he exposes them to the current crisis, and they quickly come up with a mathematical model that proves the Federation is going to lose the war. A science fiction story would have taken this premise seriously, and showed us its characters seriously contemplating the mutants' suggestion of surrendering to the Dominion in order to save hundreds of billions of lives. Instead of engaging with this grim choice, "Statistical Probabilities" becomes a story about the triumph and endurance of the human spirit, even in the face overwhelming odds--a warmed-over "Cold Equations"--even if the writers have to undermine their own premise in order to get there, by suddenly revealing that the mutants' calculations are flawed.

Season six is very much of a piece with season five. There are more standout episodes--"Waltz," "Far Beyond the Stars," "Change of Heart," "In the Pale Moonlight," "Reckoning"--but the rest of the season hits the same kind of comfortable mediocrity season five specialized in. The main difference between the two seasons is that the Federation is now at war, which means that instead of episodes that explore the political situation we get ones that deal with the reality of life during wartime--"In the Pale Moonlight," "Valiant," "The Sound of Her Voice" (a trend which will persist in the seventh season with episodes such as "The Siege of AR-558" and even "It's Only a Paper Moon"). These are often good stories, and the season's character work is as good as ever, but politically the show becomes almost black and white. The battle lines have been drawn and, though neither side has a good claim to the title of 'good guys', everyone, including the audience, knows whose side they're on.

Another difference between the fifth and sixth seasons is that in the latter the show's writers begin to explore arc-driven storytelling. As I've said already, the format feels alien to the series. Whereas other series which tell continuous stories will advance overarching storylines in sub-plots of standalone episodes, Deep Space Nine maintained a distinction between arc episodes and standalone episodes, which occasionally resulted in a somewhat artificial quality to the progression of the show's political plotlines. This sensation is heightened in the occupation arc which opens the sixth season. It seems obvious that the arc lasts six episodes not because the writers had a story to tell which, broken down, filled six episodes, but because six episodes were mandated for that story. The storylines focusing on the Starfleet characters are very nearly self-contained, and sometimes the progression of the arc is halted entirely for a character-driven story such as "Sons and Daughters." That said, the six episodes with which the sixth season begins are strong and compelling, with lots of good character work as well as exciting storytelling. The station plotline is continuous, and features one of my favorite character arcs as Odo finally succumbs to the temptation of the Great Link. It's not Babylon 5, but it is good TV.

The seventh season is both better and worse than its two predecessors. The problem with discussing it is that it can be divided into two nearly distinct entities--the arc-driven resolution of the war in the two-part season premiere and ten-part series finale, and the standalone episodes in between. The latter are the usual mix of good--"Covenant," "It's Only a Paper Moon," "Chimera"--and not so good, but they are also dominated by Ezri, who is one of only two Deep Space Nine characters I never cared for (the other is Eddington, though to be honest I never got the point of Morn either). She's a cousin Oliver, and the worst thing about her is that I'm not allowed to complain that she's a cousin Oliver because, clearly, there's a good reason for her to be friends with the entire cast and for them to care about her. Actually, the very worst thing about Ezri is that the writers obviously realized this, because they never worked to earn her prominence. In "Afterimage" Garak cruelly informs Ezri that she is unworthy of being Jadzia's successor, and not only is he right, but that never changes. Jadzia was smart, funny, adventurous, sexy, and cool. Ezri is none of these things, and while it makes sense for the writers to make her the anti-Jadzia, she's not anything else either. She's generic, mediocre, and not even a very good counsellor--in "It's Only a Paper Moon" she's upstaged by an interactive hologram--and we're expected not to notice this because her name is Dax.

You may think it's strange to let a single character determine my feelings towards an entire season, but a quick look at an episode guide will reveal that Ezri is omnipresent. Her introduction is an important part of the season-opening two-parter "Image in the Sand"/"Shadows and Symbols," and she has a major plotline in the series-ending arc (as well as a romantic plotline with Bashir). Of the remaining 14 episodes, four are Ezri episodes (though I'll concede that "The Emperor's New Cloak" is debatable), and they are all as generic as she is: "Afterimage" is an utterly hackneyed and unimaginative portrayal of therapy; "Prodigal Daughter" a by-the-numbers story of familial dysfunction among the rich and powerful; "The Emperor's New Cloak" a veritable cliché-fest, culminating with the scoundrel with a heart of gold; "Field of Fire" a twelfth-rate serial killer story of the kind one tends to find in cheap TV movies. The amount of attention lavished on this character is as unprecedented as it is unearned, and it, and she, taint the entire season.

On the other hand, the ten episodes with which Deep Space Nine draws its story to a close are very strong. For the first time, the show manages to do arc-driven storytelling right. None of the episodes are truly standalones, and the different plotlines advance at similar, yet entirely organic, paces (with the exception of Dukat and Winn in the fire caves, who almost hilariously get put on hold for hours, sometimes days, at a time). There's a lot going on--Ezri and Worf work out their differences and discover the Breen alliance with the Dominion; Odo contracts the changeling virus, leading to Bashir's discovery that it was engineered by Section 31 and his ploy to extract the cure from Sloan; Damar rebels against the Dominion and Kira and Garak travel to Cardassia to help him; Sisko and Kasidy get married in spite of the Prophets' warnings; Worf moves against Gowron and makes Martok Chancellor; Ezri and Julian get together; Rom is made Grand Nagus; and, of course, there's the actual fighting and the end of the war, not to mention Dukat and Winn's attempts to free the Pagh-Wraiths. Not everything here is perfect--introducing the Breen as a major player at the last minute is an unworthy device, and "Extreme Measures" is a bit of a throwback to the show's Next Generation-aping days--but overall the ten episodes are strong, make good use of their air time, and tell their story well without leaving the characters by the wayside. It's a good note on which to end the series.

I started this essay by saying that there aren't two distinct Deep Space Nines. In fact, there are several--the Next Generation clone, the frontier story, the character drama, the political space opera, the war story, and I've left out the fantasy, which is what the Bajor episodes become as they grow more concerned with the Prophets' struggle against the Pagh-Wraiths. Over the course of seven seasons, the show slowly transforms from one to another, occasionally backsliding and leaping ahead, and sometimes combining more than one in the same season or episode. With the exception of the first of these 'sub-shows', none are inherently good or bad, and each, when done well, draws on a different set of the show's strengths. As a result, it is just as accurate to say that the first season is better than the seventh as it is to make the opposite argument--it all depends on which show you were interested in. Regardless of the kind of story it's telling, Deep Space Nine achieved excellence when it committed whole-heartedly to the complexity of its universe. The first season did so when it acknowledged the sheer fucked-up-ness of the situation on Bajor following the Cardassian withdrawal. The seventh season, by realizing that the conflict with the Dominion could only be resolved with the steady and unswerving application of plot. Luckily, the instances in which the writers find it in themselves to do so far outnumber the ones in which they lazily resort to stock plots and clichés, which is the real distinction, I believe, between the two Deep Space Nines.