Saturday, January 12, 2008

Back Through the Wormhole, Part I: Introduction

Once again, this is my brother's doing. He's the one who, in the spring, suggested a return to yet another staple of our youthful TV watching, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. And it's partly the fault of the WGA, too. It's because of their still-ongoing strike that I had no new TV to watch, and so the last weeks of 2007 became dedicated to making my way through all seven seasons and 176 episodes of what is largely considered to be the best entry in the Star Trek franchise.

Not that this return to Bajor, to Cardassia, to the Celestial Temple and the Dominion War turned out to be a chore. I was a bit nervous when I first embarked on this journey. Some of you may recall what happened the last time I revisited an SFnal staple of my teenage years, and my memories of Deep Space Nine weren't quite as rosy as the ones I had of Babylon 5. I remembered the plasticity of performance, dialogue, and humor, the over-reliance on technobabble and episode-ending reset buttons, and mostly the overbearing niceness, verging on squarishness, of the show's universe. I was afraid that what had seemed tolerable to a teenager starved for SFnal TV would be unbearable to an adult with a fuller awareness of what the medium and the genre are capable of. To say that I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement--I watched the show's final seasons in what can only be described as a frenzy (to which I must ascribe the recent silence on this blog, as my frenetic viewing left little time for other consumption or writing), and when I was done I discovered to my dismay that the document in which I had intended to jot a few notes was some 21,000 words long. The next couple of weeks, therefore, are going to be dedicated to Deep Space Nine and the various aspects of this surprisingly excellent show.

This is not to say that Deep Space Nine was uniformly superb and without major flaws, and in fact there is no doubt in my mind that my ebullient reaction to the show, especially in contrast to my disappointment with Babylon 5, is directly linked to my more realistic expectations from it. The flaws I had remembered were there to be found again, just as glaring and just as problematic. But the show's strengths were also as I remembered them, and sometimes even stronger. The episodes I remembered as being exceptional--"Necessary Evil", "Crossover", "In the Pale Moonlight", "The Visitor", "Far Beyond the Stars" (the first three, incidentally, were all written by the same person, Peter Allan Fields, who also wrote the Next Generation episode "The Inner Light") are just as excellent as they were when I first watched them, and others which in my memory were decent or even bad turned out to be much better on a second viewing. In general, when Deep Space Nine surprised me or belied my recollection of it, it was by being smarter, better-made, and more sophisticated than I had given it credit for.

Deep Space Nine is a strange artifact in the history of television in general and genre TV in particular. It's a product of tradition and convention that premiered just as our understanding of what television as a medium was capable of was about to be revolutionized. In a retrospective of SFnal television in 2006 for Vector magazine last spring, I called 1993 one of only a few unambiguously good years for SF on TV. It was the year that saw the premiers of Deep Space Nine, The X-Files, and Babylon 5 (that last one is a bit of a stretch, as the first season didn't air until 1994, but the show's TV movie pilot premiered in 1993). The latter two shows' effect on TV storytelling can't be overstated. The X-Files demonstrated that science fiction could appeal to a mainstream audience, that rubber masks and special effects weren't necessary to create a sense of otherworldliness, that SF wasn't incompatible with adult drama or high standards in acting and writing. Babylon 5 demonstrated that Star Trek's hold on the geek crowd wasn't absolute, and that it was possible to tell nakedly political stories in an SFnal setting without alienating fans. Both shows demonstrated the appeal of darker themes, and, more importantly, of long-term, goal-oriented, novelistic storytelling.

It didn't take long for the rest of the television landscape to catch on, but while this was happening Deep Space Nine was content to chug along as the Next Generation clone it was originally conceived of. Oh, there are some excellent, harrowing political episodes in the show's first season, and some indication that its writers were interested in, though not entirely certain how, to tell continuous, messy stories. But the bulk of the season is given over to the standard Star Trek template of coming across a weird thing (or, in Deep Space Nine's case, having a weird thing emerge through the wormhole) and spending 44 minutes getting into, and then out of, trouble because of it. Visually, too, the show was practically a throwback. Even as ER was paving the way for cinematic camerawork on the small screen, Deep Space Nine was delivering completely static direction, and its CGI sequences were uninspired. With Xena and Buffy just around the corner, there was already an awareness of the importance of fight coordination and choreography, but Deep Space Nine's fight scenes remained sluggish, uninvolving, and sanitized all the way to its final season.

Everyone was starting to innovate in 1993, but Deep Space Nine was sticking to the tried and true. In later seasons, the show tried to adopt some of the storytelling tools its nimbler and younger competitors had developed (direction-wise, there was never much change, though some of the later space battle sequences are a little less bound by tradition), but it never used them to their fullest potential. Arc-driven storytelling always felt like something imposed on the show, a restriction its writers militated against and didn't come close to getting right until its very end, and though there are some excellent episodes, particularly in the show's later seasons, which explore darker themes and moral ambiguity even among its main cast, none of these attempts ever manage to overcome the franchise's overwhelming sense of fairness. In the fifth season two parter "In Purgatory's Shadow"/"By Inferno's Light", for example, Bashir, Worf, Martok and Garak are prisoners of the Jem'Hadar. Their only hope for escape is to send a transmission to their orbiting runabout, for which they need Garak to crawl into a close, dimly lit space and fiddle with machinery for hours on end. Garak, however, suffers from crippling claustrophobia and collapses when forced to stay in the crawlspace for too long.

I'm trying to imagine a contemporary version of this story in which the other prisoners wouldn't try to force Garak back into that dark hole, and I just can't do it. Jack Bauer would probably threaten to chop off Garak's hand if he didn't, and not without reason--the chances of surviving their imprisonment for very long are poor. But our heroes simply take it for granted that they'll have to find another way to escape, because clearly they can't force Garak to undergo such a traumatic experience. Like the show's reliance on other old-fashioned storytelling conventions, such episodes comprised of entirely distinct A and B plots (which is annoying) or the almost complete absence of flashbacks and prequels (which is enormously refreshing), there is something almost quaint about the niceness that underlies even Deep Space Nine's grimmest episodes, but as a result of it many of them ring false, and in fact did even when I first watched them.

Deep Space Nine, in other words, is a show that very rarely did great things. Its plotting wasn't as intricate as Farscape's. Its characterization not as fine as Buffy's. It lacked Babylon 5's ambition and Battlestar Galactica's grimness. It had a thirteen year old boy's sense of humor and an eight year old girl's notion of romance. But though it was never spectacular in a single respect it was quite often good, or even very good, in several, and the overall effect of that steady, low-key competence was a wholly satisfying story.

First and foremost, Deep Space Nine's accomplishment is the creation of a completely believable, richly textured world. Over the course of the series Deep Space Nine becomes real. With a main and recurring cast numbering in the high thirties, with some half-dozen recurring alien species, complete with history, myth, religion, tradition, art and culture, with an intricate web of relationships, friendships, enmities and romances that shift and evolve constantly over the course of the series, how could it help but? Amazingly, it's the show's very conventionality that lends Deep Space Nine weight. Life on the station is sometimes painfully ordinary, but therein lies the show's strength. The characters make friends, throw parties and have dinners, play sports and games. They fall in love; sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't. They have children, and those children grow up. Some of them find their place in the station's tapestry; others are lost. It's all very mundane--all that stuff filling the gaps between religious revelation, political maneuvering, and open war--but that's what makes it beautiful.

It is so rare nowadays to come across a series (one that isn't a soap or a relationship drama, at any rate) that discusses the lives of adults as if they didn't inevitably tend towards entropy--all marriages broken, all health destroyed, all children ruined. It's as though we've all been fooled into believing that it's unrealistic for people to make something of their lives. And this is not to say that Deep Space Nine is unrelentingly optimistic. I defy anyone to argue that Garak, or Worf, or even Kira, get a happy ending. In fact, in spite of everything its characters gain over the course of the series, Deep Space Nine is ultimately a show about loss. The loss of possessions, home, and loved ones, obviously, but also the loss of intangibles. The loss of cultural identity--such as when Worf realizes, in "The Sons of Mogh," that he can no longer straddle Klingon and Federation values, and chooses the latter--or the loss of that culture itself, which happens, at varying degrees, to Cardassian, Klingon, and Ferengi characters.

Most of all, Deep Space Nine is a show about the loss of ideals and of the characters' idealized self-image. It happens to Sisko when he realizes that he's willing to sacrifice his most cherished principles in order to win the war (and, of course, as he loses his respectful detachment and becomes subsumed into Bajoran culture) and to Bashir when he realizes that his superiors have made that choice more than once. It happens to Odo, whose moral condemnation of his people's warmongering ultimately crumbles under his desire to rejoin The Great Link. In individual episodes, characters such as Jake ("Nor the Battle to the Strong"), Nog ("Valiant", "It's Only a Paper Moon"), and O'Brien ("Hard Time") come face to face with their limitations, and discover that they fall short of the enlightened, noble, heroic people they imagined themselves to be.

Almost every one of the show's characters walks away from it diminished in one form or another, but unlike other series Deep Space Nine doesn't make a big to-do about this, and doesn't become consumed with angst and melodrama. While it is possible to ascribe this reserve to a failure to properly explore the ramifications of the ordeals the characters go through, yet another symptom of the famed Star Trek plasticity, I prefer to think of it as a sign of maturity. Almost none of Deep Space Nine's characters can be described as unambiguously tragic or triumphant. Most of them experience both, and the sum total of their experiences is, like most lives, an indeterminate mixture of the two. That the characters experience tragedy, that their stories end badly, doesn't diminish the happiness they experienced or the lasting contributions they made to their community. As the title of the series finale says, it's not where you end up that matters so much as what you leave behind you.

I have no other word with which to describe this attitude but 'adult'. Deep Space Nine was, at times, an epic story, but its sensibility was mundane. Its characters experienced moments of great accomplishment and stretches of slow, tedious work, and it both implicitly and explicitly prioritized the latter. This is a series, after all, which ends not with the main character taken bodily into heaven to act as a warrior for good across time and space, but with his friends and family going on with their work and lives, waiting patiently for his return, upon which he can resume his role as administrator, husband, and father. There's something very winning about this adherence, right there at the end, to the show's conventional roots. More than that, though, this conventionality suits the series--ultimately, Deep Space Nine tells a more satisfying story than Babylon 5, and its political storytelling is more sophisticated and nuanced than Battlestar Galactica's. Deep Space Nine started out the old-fashioned behemoth in a field of younger, flashier, more innovative competitors, but looking back fifteen years on it seems more like the seasoned veteran in a field of pipsqueaks. Some of those newcomers made good, but Deep Space Nine's slow and steady was also enough to win the race. Join me, over the next few weeks, to find out how.

8 comments:

Katherine said...

I have no other word with which to describe this attitude but 'adult'... Deep Space Nine started out the old-fashioned behemoth in a field of younger, flashier, more innovative competitors, but looking back fifteen years on it seems more like the seasoned veteran in a field of pipsqueaks.

Well said! I look forward to your further thoughts on the series.

At the time DS9 looked astonishingly dark, in contrast to its parent show; it's amusing that in retrospect it's the show's niceness that you remember. But then, in contrast to contemporary shows like BSG, 24, and the like, it is rather less cynical, less pessimistic, less inclined to lean on the dark side of human nature for the sake of drama. It went to some dark places, but it didn't linger there. There's something refreshing about that.

Iain said...

I look forward to future instalments.

I have a great fondness for DS9. At various points in its run I found it too staid, too superficial and too juvenile -- just like all of Trek -- but at many other times it was the exact opposite of those things. That's what made it unique for Star Trek. Even its early seasons have some standout, mature episodes.

Bold Blue Adventure said...

Thank you for that lovely analysis of the ds9 series. I use to really enjoy it myself. Your review makes me want to watch it all over again!

Anonymous said...

I'll join the others here - it was beautifully written. I can't wait for the next posts on the subject.

-Raz Greenberg

Una said...

Smashing analysis, thank you. I came to DS9 very late in the game, and very unwillingly, only watching because I'd promised a friend I'd watch the videos he had thrust upon me. By the end I was consuming it faster than they could release the tapes.

It's all very mundane--all that stuff filling the gaps between religious revelation, political maneuvering, and open war--but that's what makes it beautiful.

Epitomized for me by In the Cards, where Jake tries to do something small but special for his father, while a galactic war unfolds behind them. A really brave episode to do as the penultimate one of a season.

mary-j-59 said...

I am so glad I found this! DS9 is by far my favorite "Trek", even when it gets silly - because, as you imply here, it's truly character-driven and the characters are not paper cutouts or (worse yet), imitations of characters we've seen in earlier "Treks".

Maybe "adult" is the right word for it, at its best.

Jenners said...

I see you had another comment this month, but we are the first in 3 years -- I came across this because I found your posts about TNG. DS9 was also my favorite of all the series (including TOS -- I am a bit older than you and grew up watching them). I'm looking forward to reading all your posts and can't wait until you take on Voyager (as promised at the end of your TNG series).

Tuxedos said...

So long post but I really like it to read,Thanks dude.

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