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.

7 comments:

Therem said...

This in-depth commentary on DS:9 is getting me interested in watching it again. It's always been my favorite of the Treks, but I didn't have any desire to dig into it again until your series of posts. Thanks.

Re: Ron Moore, I don't think you back up your points about "braveness" very well. There are plenty of moments in BSG that I consider "brave" in that they violate narrative expectations or risk alienating the audience. Obviously, the "Occupation/Precipice" storyline alienated you, and I hope you realize that Moore must have predicted a percentage of his audience would be angry and/or abandon the show after it seemed to defend suicide bombing. Personally, I found the result to be a very thought-provoking, and yes, gutsy, piece of work.

In my view, the follow up episode "Collaborators" was even more so, in that it had some of the show's main cast behaving in an utterly abhorrent manner, killing off a recurring character and almost doing in another one, yet also giving the viewers some understanding of why it all happened that way. This episode alone makes up for all the ones I didn't like in season 3.

I agree about other plotlines crapping out. The genocide-that-wasn't story was ridiculous (not, incidentally, an episode Moore wrote), Roslin's on-again/off-again cancer, the religious themes that still haven't gotten much development, the abortion issue that came up only long enough to outrage pro-choice viewers and was never mentioned again, the economic questions that were briefly delved into in "Black Market" (yuck!) and "Dirty Hands" (better, but still not great) and disappear conveniently into the background otherwise. The show is flawed, sure. But it's still one of the better ones I've seen.

I would certainly rate it higher than what I remember of DS:9, but a large part of that is style. I don't have much patience for slow, clunky dialogue (something that plagues most SF TV I've watched, including the various Treks) and lackluster camera work (ditto), so I treasure BSG for its realistic talk and sharp visuals. Maybe I'm unfairly tarring DS:9 with TNG and Voyager's brush in those departments because it's been so long since I've seen it, but... I don't think so. I'll have to see if/when I rewatch it.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I tried not to spend too much time rehashing my problems with BSG in this piece, because I really have gone over them too many times and I was trying to concentrate on DS9. As a result, I guess I've left some of my assertions about the show unsupported. I wrote about "Occupation"/"Precipice" not long after it aired. As you can see from that piece, my problem with the episode isn't that it defends terrorism but that it downplays it. I consider it to be a cowardly piece of writing.

I do agree that "Collaborators" is a stronger episode. I found its treatment of the various attitudes of both the collaborators and their executioners very interesting and thought-provoking. That said, it suffers from the flaws that plagued much of BSG's third season standalones - the story is neatly wrapped up when the grown-ups interrupts the characters' play, and we never again see resentment towards former collaborators. In contrast, on DS9 the stigma of having collaborated with the Cardassians remains powerful and debilitating all the way to the show's final season.

Visually, I agree that DS9 leaves a great deal to be desired. On the dialogue front, though, I think the shows are fairly evenly matched. I think both shows offer up the same mix of damn fine dialogue and the trite, unconvincing kind.

Una said...

Thanks for another thoughtful analysis. I share your disappointment with BSG, which I abandoned at the end of the second season. It seems to be self-consciously performing "darkness" and "grittiness", while DS9 (for all the stagier production and "niceness") actually delivers.

Therem said...

I did read your post on the season 3 opener back when you wrote it (a devoted reader, here!), and what I understood to be your main objection was that the "evils" of suicide bombing were given short shrift. However, the evils you outline are not inevitable by-products of suicide bombings, which have been employed the world over and throughout history against military as well as civilian targets. If Moore chose not to focus on the particular horrors you have in mind, I don't think that makes him cowardly; I just think he's approaching the material from a different angle than you are.

That being said, I also scoffed at the lack of hamburger after Duck blew himself up.

Re: your point about lack of follow through after "Collaborators", this isn't entirely true, as Baltar himself is the shining example of collaboration and/or treason and goes on trial for it at season's end. I do agree that the actual events of "Collaborators" should have had more repercussions. One thing I liked very much about DS:9 was its continuing investigation of this theme.

ianras said...

That line spoken by Kira in 'The Darkness and the Light' is one of the finest moments of television I've ever seen; I was just so surprised to hear such a beloved character give voice to that sentiment. I watched DS9 in a bubble so it's odd to see others isolate it like. (And the tremble in Nana Visitor's voice when Kira begs "Don't just cut me open"? I love Kira so much)

My disappointment with BSG's sloppy convictions began in 'Bastille Day' when they bait-and-switched the worthiness of Zarek's (I think that's his name) position for an easy, stupid resolution.

I'd also argue that the Cardassian's occupation of Bajor has more than a hint of colonialism about it and that it was, rather, a text-book case of colonial exploitation.

Also, since you made the comparison between it and the Nazi interrogations, 'Duet' bears striking similarities to 'The Man in the Glass Booth', a play written by Robert Shaw about a Jewish man accused of being a war criminal.

Also, also, seeing them in a row like this, I can say that no television program has had titles as uniformly dodgy as DS9.

ad said...

I don't think I have ever read an article offering more enthusiastic support for mediocrity...

It's all true, of course.

I think part of DS9’s advantage stems from the number of distinct powers in its storyline: Federation, Bajor, Cardassia, Dominion, Klingons etc. This creates an environment for a more sophisticated politics: Instead of Black versus White, we get Orange versus Purple, in alliance with Beige, with Green trying to take advantage of the confusion...

BSG has only Cylons and Colonials, and started off with an unprovoked genocidal attack on the Colonials. Where do you go from there?

Which is just another way of agreeing that DS9 gains much realism from the fact that it is not trying to tell an epic story.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy the writing and some of the points but I don't agree that BSG is "cowardly" in how it took on the subject matter. First, 9/11 is (and more so at time) a sore subject and the Iraq war not much better. Going after certain things too aggressively would have been insensitive at best and at worst, might have gotten the show cancelled. Second, DS9 NEVER approached Kira's terrorist past or the topic with anything remotely approaching the level we see in BSG. Trek would never allow a "hero" character to have that level of edge or darkness and comparing the two shows seems disingenuous (never mind the fact that a few years makes a huge difference in what a show can get away with). It's clear you like one show more than the other and that's compromising the comparision. - KeeperOTD

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