Monday, 18 November 2013

Rediscovering Deep Space Nine's First Season (Part 2)

Following on from last time, we look back at the first season of Deep Space Nine...

The feeling that this show had a mixed bag screams out from the start. The pilot is excellent - the best opener of them all - but then the path to season two winds and skews like nothing before. The Next Generation's first year was less than perfect but here the show doesn't know what it is. It tries a lot; ethics, comedy, action, horror (to a degree), religion, politics, family...but there seems to be no direction and the quality overall is average on more occasions than not when it should be spectacular.

What's Recurring?

Reviewing a full season after two decades does give you a totally new perspective on the show. Back in 1993 I found Progress, Move Along Home and The Forsaken to be pretty poor for Star Trek. My opinion has somewhat altered and (cough, cough) I might even admit that the return of Lwaxana Troi is one of the stronger episodes of the year. Majel Barrett is never better than here as Mrs Troi and there's certainly a great level of chemistry between her and Auberjonois especially trapped in the turbolift. Actually that part of the story defines one of the strongest things about Deep Space Nine that is also featured in Progress and the highlight of the year, Duet; one to ones.

If you look across the show's seven year history there are some great stories which rely on two characters going head to head in some way. Immediately I can think of Waltz (Sisko and Dukat) and In the Pale Moonlight (Sisko and Garak) as a further two examples and that was certainly a strength that came out in this season. The differences was Deep Space Nine's trump card. It could be conflicting, it could be a bit edgier and it could, to some degree take a few risks. 

Plumping Move Along Home or If Wishes Were Horses in The Next Generation would not have worked but in these early days of the station it's a case of see what happens and what gets a reaction. Both of these are quite enjoyable episodes but certainly not classics that would end up in a top ten of the series. Move Along Home is saved from obscurity by a great performance from Armin Shimerman as Quark and his role definitely has a major impact on the first year.

Quark becomes a social commentator in Deep Space Nine and once the "stern" character of the pilot is massaged, there is a lot more to the character and the relationship with Odo which plays the "cop" against the "robber". I actually think Quark is very underdeveloped across the year but that might be because the character is so well crafted from the beginning. Whatever happened to that Community Leader role Sisko so grandly offers to him?! By two or three episodes down the line it's all but forgotten. Not something that really affects the overall run of the show but regardless it was significant in Emissary.

Gritty; Unique

Ok, but the big issue with season one is that it just can't make its mind up whether it wants to be totally unique, gritty and the bad boy of the Star Trek universe or of it fancies itself as a stationary version of The Next Generation as if someone had parked up the Enterprise and was refusing to move her. The latter seems to be the choice for the first year with Alien/Incident of the Week, some kids banter between Jake and Nog about the school or self-sealing stem bolts and frankly not a lot else. It was bland to say the least but there was great potential. The shame of it was that the noose of The Next Generation kept looming up in the background. After just the pilot (which in itself featured Captain Picard) we have Lursa and B'Etor turn up in Past Prologue

The Next Generation should have showed that reflecting back on your origins so soon is not a good move as that's where that show chose to meander with The Naked Now. They really didn't need to do it again in Deep Space Nine but they went and did it anyway - and more than just the once that they could have got away with.

On the whole though season one is a lot better than I remember it. Babel is a really neat idea and a twist on the killer virus angle that's been paced many a time in Star Trek. At the core it's nothing new and feels like an average space filler with hindsight. It's the next episode where things start to get a bit more meaty. Tosk's flight in Captive Pursuit is still one of the best moments of the year. The arrival of that first alien from "the other side" was much anticipated and luckily the creators chose to get it over with early on. 

They're certainly an interesting bunch (that we never see again) and I remember the trailers looking great. It's the first sense that things around the station are going to be different to Picard's experiences on the Enterprise.  The tragedy is then we hit a run of very, very average episodes almost to the end of the season. There's nothing exceptional and it's all run of the mill which might be why this batch is such a disappointment in comparison to the rest of the series. 

The characters are great, the location is awesome and there's barrels of potential yet nothing really happens and there are no consequences for any actions; no-one comes back. Bashir certainly develops from the stuttering graduate of Emissary and evolves into a more confident officer by the end of the year. O'Brien is a totally different person with the more evident presence of his family which does change the dynamic of the role. 

Over in security Odo puts on a gruff, no-nonsense front but behind it all there is a heart (or is there...I mean, he is a shapeshifter) and we get to see it a couple of times in Vortex and The Forsaken. Auberjonois' character is the most enigmatic but the true strength of Odo lies in his verbal bouts with Quark. Oddly I also found his encounter with Lwaxana Troi easier to stomach this time round and brougght another angle of vulnerability to the role. At the start the Ferengi was a more serious role but, as the season rolls on, the part softens and acts as the human observer alongside Odo as well as comic relief. 

Fortunately he never descends into the farcical part that would befall Neelix in the later Star Trek: Voyager. Season one is fairly Ferengi-light save for The Nagus which does at least bring us the eponymous financial leader. It's not quite a comedy romp but does start laying the seed for recurring characters and themes (maybe without knowing it). Of course earlier in the year we had also met Garak albeit briefly in Past Prologue and like Zek we would have to wait for season two for a second appearance. This was also true of Vedeks Winn and Bareil. following on from their initial spots in In the Hands of the Prophets.

How Do We Solve a Problem Like Sisko?

The issue from the start in the way of characters though is Sisko. As the main character you want him to have some balls, step up to the plate (add your own cliche here) but for most of the season he's adrift on a sea of tranquility taking it all very easy. Given that he's one of the most important Starfleet officers in the galaxy thanks to the wormhole you would think he'd be a bit more concerned but Sisko comes across here as a very logical, thinking man. He talks in almost a whisper at times but there is the occasional moment where you can see the bald, goatee-ed Sisko of the Future in his actions be it laying out Q or in combat during Battle Lines. However, in this first year his character remains very static, we would have to wait until The Maquis in season two for any real development of the role. The trouble is at times he does look uncomfortable in the role - Move Along Home for instance...

Brooks actually plays Sisko with a lot of emotion be it cold to Picard in the pilot or more strongly when faced with some serious religious conflicts in the season finale. It is a difficult line to walk and perhaps these first episodes really show how narrow that path was for Commander Sisko; not that it got any better, he just grew into the position more as time went by!

One issue that didn't need solving but really needed taking out of those super-shoulder pads was the Bajoran first/liaison officer Major Kira Nerys. Major Kira is the strongest character of the year and of the whole series. Nana Visitor did a masterful job and sets out her stall from the first lines she utters in Emissary as she meets Sisko and he takes the office. 

Now Progress, which is a Kira-focused story is an episode that the mature me appreciates more than back in 1993 but there's one even more impressive later down the line, nay one of the best episodes the show ever produced; stick Kira and a Cardassian in a room and we have Duet. The dialogue here absolutely crackles and even 20 years on it's still a wonder to watch even if you know what revelations occur towards the end of the story. Harris Yulin is awesome here as Marritza, giving the performance of the year. This is where Deep Space Nine excels - the conflict, the turmoil of the characters as wounds are opened. The air crackles everytime these two are together and there seems to have been some real moves forward, only to be pulled away again in the final moments.

The issue of war crimes was close; it's not something that will ever leave the station given its proximity to Bajor and over the course of the show the troubles and occupation would be returned to on many occasions and take many different forms and not just in the present.

Barrel Scraping

We can talk for hours on how good the final pairing of stories were here but there were also some great turkeys lying around. Vortex is woeful at best. The alien character toying with Odo is weak and I didn't care what happened to him by the end. It teases lots of Odo development and then gives precisely nothing by the conclusion. I find Q-Less hard to stomach as well. I've never been one for Q. There have been some good and great Q episodes over the duration of The Next Generation and Voyager but this isn't one for the family album. Adding Vash into the story only emphasises how much Deep Space Nine was tugging at the hearts and memories of The Next Generation's ready-made audience.

Dramatis Personae is another weak link here. I can see that it's an attempt to do what The Naked Now did for The Next Generation and show the characters out of character but it's just dull and unnecessary. I'd probably say even against the two episodes I cite below it's my least favourite due to that. It's one redeeming feature perhaps? Sisko makes the clock that would adorn his office for the remainder of the show.

But the real drop outs of the season? Whether I think they are better than when I first saw them I'd still plump If Wishes Were Horses and Move Along Home at the bottom of the pile. Alright is as much praise as I can lavish on two poorly conceived stories which almost make a farce of the Deep Space Nine concept. There's no character exploration, weak explanations and Avery Brooks performing the most excruciating and uncomfortable dance ever. I know theses are below par but now I would watch one of these two in preference to Dramatis Personae which leaves me stone cold in every department; the level of drama is just below nursery school Christmas Nativity.

With In the Hands of the Prophets however, the season closes with a ton of prospects ready to be tackled in the next year. Cleverly - and something Deep Space Nine did regularly is ending the season on a not-a-cliffhanger-but-is-a-cliffhanger moment. Everything isn't as well as we thought with the Bajorans and that would come true in the opening three-parter of season two. A storming conclusion to the year where we see that Sisko and Kira have actually started seeing eye to eye. The rebellious Bajoran technician adds a great, if obvious twist to the tale but Louise Fletcher's Winn is the star and would only get better and more devious with the passage of time and seven years. However much she makes me squirm, Winn is a marvellous addition to the show...unlike Bareil but I'm not going there. Playing all angles while still managing to have her own agenda I didn't expect her to last the course or play such a big role in the future but then season one didn't give anything away did it?

So that's where we're at.The station is starting to become the Starfleet commander's home even though there are some challenges brewing at home and soon beyond the wormhole. It's been a year of bedding in, treating those settling in niggles and getting used to the environment both in front of and behind the camera. 

Bring on The Homecoming please. I can't get enough.

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