Tuesday, 22 October 2013

It Is the Unknown that Defines Our Existence: Why "Emissary" is Star Trek's Greatest Pilot

Twenty years and nine months have passed since Star Trek: Deep Space Nine premiered in January 1993 and for me it remains the definitive series of the franchise.

Deep Space Nine is my favourite of all the Star Trek series even though during those unsteady first season episodes I even considered walking away. I can say now that I'm glad I didn't and this rewatch is something I have been gearing up to for a while. What better way to start (and none less obvious) than with the brilliant pilot episode.

Emissary is one of the reasons I stuck with the show. Watching it again I found it much more enjoyable and made even more sense. It had given me a totally different feeling about the Star Trek universe. Things were unusual, the characters darker, the setting bleak. A lot of the hope and prosperity from The Next Generation had been stripped away. I actually find Picard's appearance a bit of a drag now even though it does help the story along. Sisko getting all grumpy with him isn't a highlight and initially I really didn't like the guy. Who was he to stick two fingers up at Picard and hold that kind of a grudge? It wasn't Picard's fault he got assimilated! In another sense this is only a small indication of just how hardcore the station commander would get later on. For reference see anything after the introduction of the beard and shaved head.

For me, Deep Space Nine's first story is the best example of the Gene Roddenberry vision even though, ironically, it's probably the one that appears as far away from the origins and basis of the Great Bird's concept as possible. It ticks almost every box in the Big List of Star Trek Must Have's and even more so with the opening of so many recurring themes as we'll mention shortly. I think the only thing it doesn't have is a bare knuckle fistfight but hey, who would commission a series based on having one of those in the first episode?!

Star Trek was to be a show about the final frontier, exploration, the human condition, diverse characters, humanity's ability to put aside it's differences and in my opinion Deep Space Nine manages to do this in spades. But is it fair to say that Encounter at Farpoint or Caretaker do not fulfil the Star Trek "mission statement" as such? Probably not, but the space station based series really is right on the edge of the frontier - placing the "perfect world" of Starfleet into conflict with the Bajorans while also dumping the crew on the business end of an artificially created wormhole. 

Couple that with the fact that the crew are manning a Cardassian mining station not a Federation/Starfleet vessel with cutting edge technology and we can see how Roddenberry's vision is both highlighted and tested to the extreme. There is nowhere to hide and that comfortable, cuddly humanity is going to be in for a rough ride. Even Sisko's arrival and first meeting with Kira, his liasion and first officer is far from the warm handshakes of Encounter at Farpoint. 

Uniquely the wormhole and the Bajorans mean that Deep Space Nine has a head-on conflict with religion and the uniform from day one which none of the other shows even come close to attempting. Deep Space Nine was a true pioneer and while this theme was not overly popular it gave the series a heap of backstory, a lot of substance and a unique identity. Notably the first season is almost devoid religious aspects bar one or two episodes. 

Now add into that the way from Emissary to What You Leave Behind we are constantly reminded of Sisko's links to the Bajorans and their beliefs as the eponymous Emissary of the Prophets. Look at the other shows and aside from Picard acting as arbiter of succession to the Klingon Empire he is the only commanding officer who stands astride such a division of culture, acting as a distinct bridge from the comfort of Starfleet to the mystery of the Bajorans. 

As well as that, actions from Week A could affect Week B and Week C. There was continuity and questions that needed to be answered from the start but no doubt would take a long time to uncover - Odo's origins, the non-linear time wormhole aliens, the shadowy Cardassian Dukat, the Cardassian occupation and resource-stripping of Bajor; all elements that are introduced here and would play out across the show's 176 episodes. No other Star Trek series allowed events to echo through into other stories as they did here. Brilliantly this construction of the "world" of Deep Space Nine would not finish here. A lot of the subsequent episodes would run with themes suggested here and build even more story elements that would be loved for the next seven years.

Voyager's Caretaker is also about exploration of the unknown and the beginning of a physical journey for the crew, but the staff here are placed at a crossroads and a place and time that will change the very nature of the Alpha Quadrant and the Star Trek universe that we have known for over 25 years. Voyager's foes are far away in the Delta Quadrant but the new frontier for Sisko is right on his doorstep and will fundamentally alter the future of the galaxy in virtually every way possible, a thought not lost on Major Kira in Emissary. The danger is just a footstep away and boy, would it prove to be more than interesting. Enterprise was equally about the unknown but being a prequel we knew what those elements would turn out to be (perhaps with the exclusion of the Xindi and Suliban). Their unknowns formed the universe that Deep Space Nine would rip apart at the very core.

Roddenberry's vision was, of course, to show that humanity could come together, cast aside its differences and work to better itself through exploration of the stars - perhaps moreso the human condition. It's almost as if you had held a mirror up to The Next Generation and done everything as opposite as possible to amplify the very reason for Deep Space Nine's existence. Even the guy at the top, only a commander here not a captain, doesn't want to stick around. There's not a lot of hope and the start out here is the attempt to rise from the ashes and start afresh.

Look back at Encounter at Farpoint and also to Enterprise where they are at the cutting edge of technology and knowledge. For them in their respective timeframes there is nothing better, they are the explorers heading out on new adventures and to final frontiers tooled up for the job in hamd but here that frontier is initially nothing new and nor is it particularly desirable. The equipment itself is substandard even for the environment we are greeted with in Emissary svae nothing of what would come later. For reference it would take until The Way of the Warrior for there to be any major improvements - and an additional Klingon. Maybe that's actually a strong point about the pilot. It's the unexpected. We don't see Sisko as being someone who will be cold to Picard. We expect everything to be cool, sleek and fully functional, we expect the crew to all get on and be reading from the same hymn sheet. Well, they aren't.

While the Enterprise-D had families on board, here on Deep Space Nine it's families and alien races that could change daily with the coming and going of ships at this vital Federation outpost. You get the feeling that Picard might even be a little jealous when he leaves at the end of the pilot. Nothing is the same from day to day and even more significant  these guys can't just fly off and leave whatever incident they've just managed to contain. It will always be on their doorstep be it a passing Kai or a suspicious Cardassian Gul.

What I really like is that Sisko is placed into a situation where he has to justify humanity and his own existence. Now, yes, if we look back at Where No Man Has Gone Before and certainly to the Q storyline from Encounter at Farpoint, this point is there. The man who is a god in the former becomes "better" than human while Q places Picard's crew on trial as representatives of a "savage child-like race" but with Deep Space Nine it is about choice, the element of the unknown which is what life is about as well as the very nature of exploration; it is the unknown, says Sisko, that defines our existence.

Here there is true exploration and what marks this against the previous two shows is the addition of a foreign power into the mix. It's a first that, to some degree would also appear in Voyager with the inclusion of the Maquis. Deep Space Nine just hits a bigger target as the Bajoran militia and Odo have never had any experience of Starfleet. They are truly stepping into unknown waters. The nature of the mission to bring Bajor into the Federation might underpin the series from this point but it takes a backseat to the wormhole in every respect here. 

In another sense Deep Space Nine really hit the ground running in relation to the cast and their abilities. In Encounter at Farpoint it is very hard not to feel uneasy with Picard's bark and stern nature or the cringeworthy Troi. Mulgrew in Caretaker took some serious getting used to - maybe one or two seasons - and in Enterprise everything felt a little untested and uncertain. Here in Emissary I don't think there's a bad performance across the board. OK, there are some makeup issues in relation to Odo and Quark has the wrong nose but these are resolved in the first year. Nothing requires serious adjustment and it truly develops and flourishes from this point.

Now I'm off to hit the first season. I think it's been a good 10 to 15 years since I've watched most of them and undoubtedly my opinion should/will have changed. It's time to take a trip to the New Frontier.....

No comments:

Post a comment