Sunday, 24 August 2014

Deep Space Nine: Season Three: Step Away from the Changeling

For me the third season of Deep Space Nine is the turning point in quality.

I enjoy watching seasons one and two but with the third year the show came into its own whether by chance, design or because it knew it had to with The Next Generation finishing the previous year. Deep Space Nine was now the flag-bearer for Star Trek on the small screen and expectation was high. Very high. After all Sisko had declared at the close of The Jem'Hadar that the station would need to be ready for any attack from the Gamma Quadrant...

The overall quality of the show is much steadier and there is a tighter focus and a clearer sense of direction. While season two had dropped in references to the Dominion with infrequent irregularity that viewers easily blinked and missed, this year stepped the reveals through the 26 episodes. This made for much easier viewing, not having to wait a full season for the payoff that you might or might not have remembered and allowed for a steady buildup to The Adversary. I much prefer the way that the producers phased season three, giving us milestones to reach which acted as pieces to the larger "puzzle" of the year.

The Search started that trend immediately, announcing Odo's people as the Founders of the Dominion and killed two birds with one stone - we knew where he was from and got the brains behind the whole operation in one. Opening the year with another multi-part story as with The Homecoming, The Circle and The Siege was a masterstroke to beef up the series and introduce some key new features. I missed this on it's UK VHS launch day and spotted it randomly in a local shop a week or so after it came out. I'd not seen The Jem'Hadar by that point either so ended up watching them out of sequence - my next purchase was that aforementioned season finale!

Aside from the new briefing room we also gained a new Starfleet security chief and a Romulan. One of those managed to become a decent recurring guest cast member while the other faded into obscurity as a character. It's only when you watch this episode back that you recall they had someone specifically to look after the cloaking device who vanished after only a pair of episodic appearances. Dropping the Defiant off at the station to defend the sector allowed better storytelling that couldn't be achieved on those suped up shuttlecraft, the runabouts and providing her with a new phaser effect truly stuck the mid-digit up at the established laws of Star Trek. Watching those shots of phaser fire slam into the Jem'Hadar ships gave me literal jaw-drop. It's the moment that changed my views on this show and the whole franchise. Hooked for life.

But season three isn't just about that. The characters seem more real, Sisko has become a stronger, determined (and angrier) leader and less of a builder; it's as if everyone woke up on the right side of the bed for the first time in two years, smelt the raktajino and decided it was time to make a difference and do what this show was supposed to have done from Emissary - be unique and challenge the Roddenberry philosophy. There's a different feel here and even Odo seems to have become grumpier for the season kick-off. Luckily that only lasted until the second part of The Search or it would have been one very long, annoying year.

Season two had managed to pull the threat/hint of the Dominion out for a full 26 episodes and there was no chance of repeating that kind of temptation without fans going up the wall so instead it's a season of dangled carrots with sooner payoffs. Defiant is the prime example to hold in case here. The fleet being built in the Orias system and Riker's target would eventually be revealed as a secret armada constructed as part of a Romulan/Cardassian intelligence service alliance to destroy the Founders homeworld in The Die is Cast. That Romulan presence which we have on the Defiant at the season opener is revisited during the intelligence debriefing that happens during Visionary and again leads into the events of the two-parter Improbable Cause opens a few stories later. Those in turn spiral into The Adversary and by circumstance into The Way of the Warrior and then Homefront.

The budget was splashed out for The Die is Cast, making it the most strategic episode of the year although the limited battle scenes in the second half are nothing in comparison to the events in the following fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh seasons. I recall there being a lot made of those sequences as they took six months (reportedly) to film using miniatures. Odo's torture was one of the most uncomfortable moments of the show's whole run but was incredibly watchable since it pushed the dark aspects of Deep Space Nine even further. It would have been beyond any of our thoughts in The Next Generation for one of the recurring cast to be as multi-faceted as Elim Garak, truly one of the greats of the franchise and pairing him with the constable provides an uneasy, distrustful duo.

One thing that The Search, Heart of Stone, The Die is Cast  and The Adversary all have in common which threads the season through is the "No Changeling Has Ever Harmed Another" line. From the start of the year you just know that it won't take long for this one to be broken and with the sporadic mentions akin to the name-dropping of "the Dominion" in season two it hits a crescendo with the season finale. It never got that good a press back in the 90's but I really loved it then and do just as much now. The fallout from that would rear it's head in the fourth season closer, Broken Link illustrating the importance of Odo within the main plotline. It's most definitely the tag of the year but in comparison to the subtlety of the Dominion references in season two this one is made a lot more transparent.

That said, I don't think this year is overpowered with Dominion stories and that's an intelligent move as many would have expected the opposite after the doom-and-gloom foreboding that closed The Jem'Hadar. It also establishes the Dominion up as more calculating, political and devious than the Borg or the Klingons sets them up as a very different kind of foe. But the not-so-Dominion-dominated season allows for some diversions into the cast, gearing them up for the darker upcoming events while also closing off some lose threads.

The average Equilibrium gets a payoff in the same year with the later and better role-changing Facets revisiting the buried Trill host personality of Joran Dax among others. To that point, it's one of Avery Brooks' best and most sinister performances although it's all over and done in a matter of four minutes. Maybe these were hints at the darker tones of the Sisko character he would draw out in seasons five and six.  Facets is a mix of light-heartedness and personal revelation for Dax and is a better shot than the Equilibrium mystery.

For the captain though the beard arrival in Explorers did move the character forward and I couldn't imagine that scene in the holding cell possessed by Joran without it.  Originally Explorers bored me to tears but on my recent run through it does have it's moments - perhaps it's that I'm now in the father role now myself that it struck a chord but not as much as The Visitor. The CGI ship is a wonder and I only sat and watched Explorers shortly after I'd received the model from the Eaglemoss collection. It's a rare, lighter story for the pair and when you look back it's amazing how much more hopeful this year is.

Aside from the The Search, The Abandonedthe two-part obliteration of the Tal-Shiar and Obsidian Order and the brilliant season finale, The Adversary, (recently covered in its own post), this year does allow us to explore the build up to war and the behind the scenes machinations much more than we got to with the expected arrival of the Borg in The Next Generation. While the preparations for that happened off-screen, it seems that here on Deep Space Nine we get to see it warts and all. Beside that we do get some momentous character segments into the pot too.

Maybe the biggest losers this year are the Cardassians and the Bajorans with only three episodes from the season highlighting the former's existence in the franchise; Civil Defence, Second Skin and Destiny and Life Support, Explorers and Shakaar for the latter. Of those six it's Second Skin the easy standout with another superb performance from Nana Visitor and some sublime dialogue between Sisko and Garak as they head to Cardassia to rescue her. This is one of those great moments I mentioned just a paragraph ago and one I had totally forgotten about until recently. In fact I love it so much I'm reprinting it here.

We'll be travelling under false transit documents prepared by Starfleet Intelligence. Mister O'Brien's reconfigured the shield harmonics of the Defiant so that, on long-range sensors, it'll appear to be a Kobheerian freighter. We leave in three hours. 

 Garak weighs his options, then reluctantly takes the dataclip from the desk.

Fine. I'll go along on your little fool's errand. But I want one thing to be perfectly clear... I have no intention of sacrificing my life to save yours. If it looks like we're in danger of being captured... if there are any signs of trouble at all... you're on your own. 

Mister Garak, I believe that's the first completely honest thing you've ever said to me. 

How perceptive of you, Commander. 

It might seem like a knock-off version of Face of the Enemy from The Next Generation but this does make a more compelling story and frankly I never found Troi a convincing officer to kidnap given her position on Enterprise.

On a second watch through Destiny was a little more interesting and I've been finding the Bajoran elements easier to follow and comprehend (the benefit of middle age I guess!) but there are lows to the year. It's still 44 minutes that isn't up to the bar; nor is the slushy political/romance Life Support which does at least see the exit of Phillip Anglium as Bareil. I was never a fan, he was way too mediocre a character and his mirror version killed Resurrection in season six dead. For one of the few times in Star Trek I didn't mind that he was being written out. Anyway, Louise Fletcher's Kai was always going to win and this one does act as a reminder as to why Starfleet is hanging around in the first place. We'd have to wait until Rapture in season five though for Federation admission to be pulled from stasis.

Actually, while I'm droning on about poor episodes, what was the crack with Meridian?!

Giving column inches to that one, directed by Jonathan Frakes and penned for the screen by Mark Gehred-O'Connell (who also wrote Who Mourns for Morn?) is sacrilege in itself. One thing Deep Space Nine seemed to do badly at this stage was romance. Whether they got any better is also a debate for another time, but the drippiness of both Meridian and soon after the kissy-kissy-fest that was Fascination were again low marks for the series. I know for sure that Meridian is an episode I would shelve alongside Voyager's Threshold and The Next Generation's Justice. Shoddy, poor and we know Dax will never leave the crew (at least not at this stage and for this guy...).

Talking of second watchings, there are a ton of great moments and stories here before you think I'm season-bashing. Defiant was class and made up for Frakes having to direct the trashy Meridian (which has more mentions in this post than any other ep oddly).  I do chastise the writers for not showing the USS Defiant taking on the Cardassians onscreen and instead placing us in a command station with Sisko and Dukat but this episode is much more about seeing Tom Riker back, stripping those beard pieces off and going hunting. I must've watched this one more than a dozen times over the years and it still holds it's own. Why Tom Riker never got a third outing is criminal but here the relationship he has with Kira makes you want to see more of Frakes' slightly different transporter twin.

Fascination which followed it was an OK Lwaxana episode (and I'm far from a Troi fan at the best of times) and her last but one if memory serves. Comedy never seemed to fit with this show which is why I never took to the Ferengi shows (see below) and felt Lwaxana was a bit out of place on the station. For note the Bajoran festival of gratitude would also show up in Tears of the Prophets

Moving swiftly along though we have one of the great unexpected classics of the show in Past Tense. Set on Earth rather than the station which in itself is more than a little unusual, it gave Avery Brooks a real chance to spread his wings and channel a little of his inner demon in 21st Century San Francisco. Again, one of my earlier Deep Space Nine VHS purchases (UK volume 3.6 for the record), Past Tense was a revelation and showed just how far the show could go and that Star Trek hadn't lost it's abilities to touch on issues - and closer to home than usual in some respects. The story was helped by a great guest cast especially during the claustrophobic siege in the concluding part and those little aside comedy scenes as Kira and O'Brien try to locate the missing Sisko, Bashir and Dax (who's wardrobe is exceptionally bizarre). Avery Brooks is magnificent here as the replacement Gabriel Bell and commands Past Tense from start to finish. Brilliantly realised, Deep Space Nine could hit where it hurt.

And what of the others? The House of QuarkDistant Voices, Prophet Motive and Family Business? Average again I'm afraid. I recall seeing promos for the Bashir 30th birthday episode which saw him delve into his inner psyche thanks to an attack from a Lethian but the actual story didn't work as well as I hoped. Nice makeup, great chance for Siddig to spread his wings but not a patch on some of his later work in Our Man, Bashir, Dr Bashir, I Presume or Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges. But it's a start and a few levels above his shadowy (read shaky) performance in The Passenger.

Then there's those three Ferengi shows. I could just leave it there but they are worth a couple of lines. Quark-Ferengi stories were my least anticipated. I found the humour forced and weak and the aspects they explored cringeworthy. Have my thoughts changed? No. Grand Nagus Zek is a quirky character once or twice but after that I preferred scraping my nails on a blackboard - and equally as dubious was the introduction of Quark and Rom's Moogie. Total gagh. That's all I can say. I really, really tried but these kind of stories were rock bottom for Deep Space Nine and fortunately they were few and far between, moreso with the oncoming war. Saying that I did enjoy The House of Quark both in the '90's and now. It's an unusual mix of Ferengi and Klingon but seeing Gowron attempting to understand Quark's financial records and just being utterly confused is priceless.

I love Shimerman and Grodenchik as actors and their roles in other episodes are brilliant especially where they act as the audience onscreen, passing judgement and opinion on the events unfolding but the Ferengi dominated stories tend to be the weak links. I would suspect this is because it usually comes down to greed and strained humour , the latter of which Star Trek generally never excelled. Shimerman and his Ferengi co-stars would get some better material in season four with Little Green Men but it would only be a small break from the norm.

Twenty years on, the 1994-1995 season has stood the test of time well and I'm certain it's better than I remember it. Heart of Stone, Destiny and Explorers were definitely stronger than I thought they were but I was really itching for the later part of the year and more than that, season four. The stand out pieces were Past Tense and The Search for me but I would be hard-pushed to pick a standout single-length story. Even writing this I'm debating how high up I would place Visionary with its clever little time travelling twist that rivalled the one in Voyager's Deadlock. Character-wise, Garak was a show stealer on more than one occasion as he would be every year but also kudos go to Nana Visitor particularly for Second Skin and Rene Auberjonois for all the work as Odo coming to terms with the fact that his people are the Dominion's Founders - and when he harms another, boy does he do it well.

Whatever you say, season three is still a mark up in quality and placed all the key players for the advent of war. Just a minor issue of some Klingons to sort out first though I believe....

What are your memories of the third season? Was it a turning point or are we just spouting gagh? Why not drop a line below...

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