Thursday, 2 October 2014

Tipping Point: When Did Sisko Ramp It Up?

Shaved heads or the growing of beards usually indicate a turning point in quality but for Ben Sisko I think it was later than that.

It's actor Avery Brooks' birthday and while I missed the event last year I couldn't in 2014. But what do you talk about to mark the finest captain in Star Trek?

In Sisko's case there could be nothing better than the discussion of just when he went totally badass. Adding the goatee for Explorers was a start at least in appearance but for the first three years of Deep Space Nine, the commander as he was then, is much more a builder, forging links with his community and restoring not just the station but the relations with Bajor and begrudingly by-proxy the Cardassians. It may not be his first choice to become the Emissary as part of that deal but over these initial years it's something he does come to accept and to some extent like especially when it's taken from him for a short time in Assession from year four.

That fourth year, which I've just re-watched, does have the fabled shaven head of The Sisko but it's more than that - it's his Rubicon. Fans laud praise more than appropriately onto the series' greatest achievement, In the Pale Moonlight for Brooks' performance as the captain takes an unusually darker path than we've ever seen a main character - let alone the commanding officer - take before but the origins of that temperament were born earlier than the pre-title sequence.

In fact while the episodes spanning from Emissary through to The Adversary do have Sisko in his fair share of action and predicament it's the mid-point in the fourth year that it all comes to a head and the change of focus and direction becomes more distinct. It's a well-known point that the writers found Sisko hard to write for and it does show up when he's pushed to the limit. His response to Calvin Hudson in The Maquis is restrained, almost apologetic as he gives his friend every chance to step away from the terrorist group or his pacifistic approach to Alixus by returning to his cage in Paradise says a lot. Had this been Kirk or Picard we might have expected a fire-fight or some serious one on one talks backed up by the Federation flagship but here at the edge of the frontier it's a lot more lonely.

Watching through season four you see how Sisko has built up key relationships not only with the key players in his staff and on Bajor but also within that valuable recurring cast, specifically Kasidy Yates and Michael Eddington. It is these two characters who are key to the change in Sisko's demeanour in an episode I used to think was OK but now see as one of the key 45 minute segments of the whole run; a character game-changer.

Season four has a lot of this going on as we'll be discussing shortly but For the Cause changes the direction of Brooks' station commander forever. Not only does one character close to him emotionally lie and deceive him (Yates) but also a trusted member of his staff, his chief of Starfleet security, Eddington, fools him completely and manages to get away with it. In fact from the audience perspective we feel this too because it's only when Eddington sets his plan in motion that you realise he's been operating for the Maquis all the time he's been on the station. The look on Sisko's face becomes more stern, the rumble in his voice deeper and the need for vengeance is bubbling under from those closing shots alone in the cargo bay.

Yates pays for her crime and Sisko is more than happy to see her when she returns to Deep Space Nine in season five but lying under all that is the fact he didn't see Eddington's real nature and beats himself up about it for the next eight months. When he catches the former Starfleet officer in For the Uniform his temper is more than a little frayed and having that assignment taken out of his control and passed to Captain Saunders (Eric Pierpoint) and the USS Malinche is the final straw. Sisko managed to control his anger back in For the Cause, allowed some of it to be channelled for his mission undercover as a Klingon in Apocalypse Rising but facing off against Eddington who seems to always have the upper hand is too much and we see the fire burning behind his eyes from the first moment the two are face to face in the refugee camp.

Step further forward into the episode and the punch-bag scene really allows the emotional control to be switched off. Never before in a Starfleet captain have we seen such raw pain and anger displayed and it does make me wonder how much of that was acted or just Brooks venting at the bag. It's a rare occasion where Sisko totally opens up, beating himself up over his apparent failure.

The story is, as Eddington signposts, straight out of Les Miserables as Sisko relentlessly pursues the man who hoodwinked him like no other leading to him making one of the most shocking decisions ever - to knowingly poison the atmosphere of a planet and force its Maquis-allied inhabitants to leave places Sisko into a position that sets him up for the dangerous line-crossing we see arise in In the Pale Moonlight.

In the whole of the series though there is no other character who raises as much passion and hatred from Sisko as Eddington and it's one of Brooks' best performances easily standing alongside Far Beyond the Stars and In the Pale Moonlight. There is something in this episode that harks back to The Wrath of Khan and The Best of Both Worlds in its epic nature - but with that twist at the end that there's really no clear hero or villain of the piece - another hint that Sisko has a much darker side for us to explore. For the Uniform is a Deep Space Nine classic - one of the best and an episode that sizzles in every direction from start to finish; you even feel a little sorry for the Defiant getting it's memory banks wiped and by the end of Act One you want Eddington behind bars more than ever. No-body does anger or drive like Ben Sisko.

In fact this unpredictability is one of Sisko's best features - he thinks outside the box more than any other captain, perhaps even verging on territory that Rudy Ransom stepped into in Voyager aboard the USS Equinox and just as he did it for the "right" reasons, Sisko holds no punches (as Q once discovered) to bring about the resolution he desires. He is a captain like no other but only after the events of For the Cause. That is his turning point, his moment of realisation that there can be no perfect world for him; he is their sherriff, upholding justice whatever the cost. While a key feature of his personality it does make him blinkered to dangers and helps waiver his moral compass -  but it is all for good isn't it?

Best wishes to Avery Brooks on his birthday!

Was this Sisko's key turning point? Was there an earlier one? Why not let us know here!

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