Friday, February 22, 2013

Essay 2: The Baseball Episode

At the end of the 2-part season premier, there is a camera angle of the principals—minus Sisko and Dax—as they look on from the middle of the Promenade at the returned, restored Sisko and the returned, new Dax. It struck me as I re-watched the scene—for the first time since it premiered over a decade ago—that it was a kind of family portrait. The director was showing us that this group of people was back together, their bonds strengthened by the strife and trauma of the previous year of war. And that the station was the home where this family belonged.

The first regular episode of the season dealt with the new Dax host, but also served to showcase how the principals were like a family—supporting one another, and sometimes fighting with one another, over the new addition. The next one—the baseball episode—was one of the most effective depictions of camaraderie, loyalty and love ever seen on Star Trek. Killing yourself by dipping your hand into a warp core to save your ship and crew from destruction—that’s your duty. You swore an oath to do that. But playing a game you don’t know or care about with a bunch of Vulcans who will surely win and rub your nose in your defeat—that’s what family is for.

I wasn’t an Internet-based Star Trek fan at the time, but I recall people commenting that “Take Me Out to the Holosuite” was a colossal waste of time. It’s the final season. We only get 20-some episodes. There is a war going on. There are so many other stories to tell. I admit, at the time I didn’t love it. But now, it is clear that this is an indispensible episode.
First, it is a war story. The subtext of the initial conversation between Sisko and Solok is dark—wonderfully written and acted as menacing, a great trick before we learn it is the set-up to a whimsical plot. The subtext is that these two captains, despite their personal animosity, know that their crews need a diversion from the stresses of the war.

Sports are ritualized human combat. So the baseball game allows everybody to vent physical and emotional energy in a highly competitive, but low-stakes way. This brief pause from battles—like the Christmas Eve football matches on the Western Front—make the war just as real as will the Siege of AR-558 later in the season.

Second, we see the DS9 family in full bloom in a way that makes the space battles to come more important. None of the characters—except Sisko’s actually family, including Casidy—know anything about baseball. But they all hit the books, studying the byzantine rules, and then practicing together on and off the field. Even Quark practices with his Ferengi servers. They do this because Sisko is their leader, the head of the family. He motivates them with a great speech from the pitchers mound. Like him, they are motivated to beat the Vulcans, but also to play together and have fun. When Sisko kicks Rom off the team (for sucking) all the others threaten to quit. They are willing to abandon Sisko for Rom. Think about that. They would not do that in the trenches of the war, just the opposite. But because they are willing to abandon their captain over a meaningless game, only proves the strength of the bonds that have developed between this family. That Odo even ejected Sisko from the game is a sign of that bond because it shows Odo followed Sisko’s directive to learn and follow the rules of umpire with Odo-esque impartiality.

Furthermore, this is a diverse, modern (Trek) family. There are eight aliens to five humans on this baseball team, between all the Fenrengi (3), Bajorans (2), Shapeshifters (1), Klingons (1) and Trills (1). This is a subtle continuation of DS9’s major strength, which is to give voice to non-Federation perspectives, even though they all end up chewing gum with the best of the Hew-mons. The family bond transcends not just species, which is typical for Trek, but uniforms, which is not what we are used to seeing on Trek. By the end of the game, the Star Fleet Captain cedes the field to the barkeep, the Dabo girl and the former waiter. (Speaking of diversity, it has to also be said that it is touching even today to see a black family—Sisko, Jake and Casidy—portrayed so plainly.)

This is not the first time Sisko has invited his friends into a Holosuit baseball game. He says as much in this episode. It took seven years for Picard to sit down at the poker table with his crew—and what a moment it was. But on DS9, this personalization was done way back in Season three, when it was revealed that Sisko had “niners” over to his quarters and cooked for them regularly. Sisko is a different man than Picard, and this is a different crew.

“Take Me Out to the Holosuit” is one of the few episodes in all of modern Star Trek that has no B-plot. The writer—Ronald D. Moore—wanted to be very clear. This episode was just about a baseball game, but that fact allows it to be about so much more. This was no light-hearted romp. This was about family, making it one of DS9’s most important episodes.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Essay 1: Deep Space Nine Season 7 Reviews

Several years ago I started to re-watch the Trek series of my childhood—TNG and DS9—in episode order. I am now at the end of that process with the 7th season of DS9.

I feel like the question that you ask about a novel—what was that about?—can be asked of DS9, and in a way that may only be possible to ask of one other Trek series, TOS. Unlike TNG, and perhaps moreso that TOS, DS9 seems to have central and recurring messages. These themes were about the stories we saw on screen like religion and genocide and terrorism, but also about the nature of Star Trek itself and how a Trek series should be written.

So what was DS9 about? To answer that I am going to write some essays as I watch the final season. I will refer back to the previous seasons, but I feel that how the writers decided to end the series is the clearest statement about what it all means, at least based on the writers intentions.

(Note: I haven’t seen this season since it aired, and I only watched them on grainy VHS because for some reason my local TV station stopped airing it, and a friend taped them and sent me the cassettes. So I don’t remember the details and nuances of the episodes that I hope to write about here.)

Discussing the 7th season in the DS9 Companion Ira Behr says, “The show wasn’t geared to be what we kept turning it into.” This is true on many levels.

Let’s look at what DS9 was geared to do. First, DS9 began as a mandate from the studio, which realized two Star Trek shows in syndication were better than one. TNG was making X number of dollars per episode in profit for Paramount, so the executives figured two shows would double that amount. According to Erdmann’s account in Companion, it was the head of Paramount, Brandon Tartikoff, who planted the germ of the concept: a man and his son in a remote frontier outpost, a sci-fi version of the western The Rifleman.

Michael Piller and Berman took it from there. And Piller at least was clear about the crucial break from TOS and TNG that this setting would create: “We felt there was an opportunity to really look deeper, more closely at the workings of the Federation and the Star Trek universe by standing still.” He equated the standard stand-alone Star Trek episodes, where the Enterprise swoops into a solar system for an adventure, to one-night stands. DS9 would show what happened after the Enterprise left: the marriage. It was the later show runner—Ira Behr—who showed how fulfilling and challenging that marriage could be (Rapture, Call to Arms, Inquisition, In the Pale Moonlight, etc.).

What Behr meant in the above quote is that no one could have expected of this frontier outpost in Season One for the point-of-view of the natives (Bajorans, Ferengi, Cardassians) to take precedence over the Federation, for the sacrosanct values of the Federation to be challenged by gritty realism, and for the lawman to join the natives’ religion, abandon his family, and finally be transformed into one of the natives’ gods.

This radical departure from convention is refreshing, especially considering the two Trek series that were developed next (and Braga’s recent admission that Enterprise was intended to be an Earth-bound show at least for its first season, and the studio demanded it be space-based ). Imagine it: a team of writers are handed a multi-million dollar science-fiction franchise and actually decides to do something interesting with it. How novel.

That said, the final story arcs of DS9 do not have a promising start with the two-part premier. While the episodes themselves were fine--paced well and with good charcater bits for all involved--the central themes of the show were not started out on the best foot.

When Season 7 opens, the Prophets are in a battle with the Pah-wraiths inside the wormhole. The orbs are dark. Bajorns feel cut off from their gods. Sects of Bajorans are beginning to worship the Pah-waiths instead of the Prophets. We are told this, not shown. Damar has a line of dialogue where he asks Weyounn what he thinks the battle inside the wormhole must be like. But we never go into the wormhole to find out—we aren’t even given a description of the battle to go on. So the dramatic tension over Sisko’s work to restore the wormhole never builds. All he does is stumble upon an orb in the desert of a planet we’ve never heard of before, and has no connection to Bajor, opens the box and sends a ball of light across space into the wormhole, which ejects the Pah-wraiths.

There are a few problems. The Prophets work when they are shown interacting with mortals, whether Sisko trying to teach them about humanity or Quark trying to teach them about profit-making. There is a sense of spooky, foreboding, divine mystery about them. Their collectivism and paternalism gives them an epic, Mount Olumpus-like feel. In this two-parter, we only see a single Prophet, Sarah. It is the first time a Prophet does not embody characters familiar to the mortal who is having the Prophet vision. In the scene between Sisko and Sarah we don’t learn anything that we didn’t already learn earlier in the episode: that she is his mother. There is some abstruse Prophet-like dialogue that means everything and nothing. Apparently the writers are only prepared to give us the fact about Sisko’s lineage and nothing else. Hopefully they will be able to do more with this as the season unfolds.

[The vision scenes of the episode are also undercut by the inexplicable return of Benny Russell, who was never mentioned again. See my previous essay.]

The Pah-Wraiths are another problem. In their first two episodes they possessed Kieko, and then Jake, two of the least essential characters of the series. So the audience always had the feeling that these evil spirits had the minor purpose of creating dramatic tension and danger in a couple stand-alone episodes.

They were never properly folded into the mythology of the Bajoran religion or of the series. They did not appear until Season Five. If there were devils in the Bajoran religion that could destroy the wormhole you’d think we would have heard about it before then. Even still, the writers could have shown us instead of told us. So much dialogue had to be written about Pah-Wraits and ancient texts, but if Sisko was always pulled into Prophet Heaven, why not a visit to Pah-Wraith Hell? So far in Season Seven, even after they killed Jadzia, the Pah-Wraiths aren’t real to the audience, and therefore they don’t feel like a real threat.

The two-parter ends with Sisko, a new Dax, and the rest of the family back on the station. While the set-up is flawed, the board is set for the final season: Sisko’s maternal lineage to the Prophets must be explored; the Pah-Wraiths will stage a counter-attack, aided by Dukat, who is unquestionably a real threat; the Dominion War is still raging, but the leader of the Cardassian Empire appears to have a drinking problem. We will see how things develop.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Star Trek, on the brink of declaring itself a fiction, blinks

Science Fiction has always used thought-experiment stories. These stories allow us to think about society, history, and our own lives in a different way. A common version of this type of story is to present alternate interpretations of reality, and invite us to ask if our reality is real at all? A character is forced to question if what they experience as reality may not actually be true reality. The very first Star Trek episode, The Cage, did this with Pike and the Thalosians. Sometimes it involves psychosis, like Riker in Frame of Mind; or alternate realities, like the Mirror Universe and Worf in Parallels; or time travel like in Yesterdays Enterprise or All Good Things.

The Holodeck allowed for this type of story to be told many times. Star Trek Holograms achieved an archetypal status that rivals robots in the annals of sci-fi. The hologram allows us to imagine a situation where a human’s self-awareness could be called into question. It allows us to question the veracity of our surroundings. It makes us question how free freewill truly is. From the Ricker’s date in 11001001, to the mobsters in The Big Goodbye, to Morarity, to Barcly’s creations, to the pinnacle of this archytype in the Doctor—these themes were hit again and again. The best example is Ship in a Bottle where Moriarty tricks Picard, Data and Barclay into thinking a holographic Enterprise is the real thing. The title captures the concept. Is the crew on the deck of the ship in the bottle any less human than the rest of us? What is our bottle? What is beyond it? Who put us inside of it? The metaphysical frame allows our imaginations to flirt with the fundamentals of existence, limits of understanding, creation, God, etc. Picard sums it up at the end of that episode by saying, “Who knows, we may all exist only inside of a device sitting on someone’s table.”

The truth is that Picard and crew do exist inside of a device sitting on someone’s table—our DVD boxsets and streaming Netflix boxes.

I want to explore the one time when Star Trek experimented with the notion, in an on-screen canonical way, that all of Star Trek was a fictional product created by an actual, “real” science-fiction writer. It was done in Deep Space Nine’s Far Beyond the Stars and Shadows and Symbols. In the end, the serious storytelling implication of those episodes were then quietly forgotten and ignored.

In FBS, Sisko flashes back to the 1950s. He is Benny Russell, a struggling pulp writer in the Golden Age of science fiction. The people in his life are all played by actors who portray characters in Siskos’ life, from Nog to Kira to Dukat. When Russell/Sisko (literally wearing the Starfleet uniform and Russells’ glasses) asks the Prophets who he is, they respond: “You are the dreamer and the dream.”

Later, in the DS9 universe, Sisko says to his father:

“What if it wasn’t a dream? What if this life we’re leading, you and me, everything, what if all of this is the vision?... Maybe just maybe, Benny isn’t the dream, we are. Maybe we are nothing more than figments of his imagination. For all we know, somewhere beyond all those distant stars, Benny Russell is dreaming of us.” Then we actually see Benny Russell reflected in the glass of Sisko’s window into space.

That last line taps into the ancient wonder that a starry night inspires in all of us. Is it like a ceiling that we might punch through one day? What would we find on the other side?

This dialogue coming at the end of the episode might have been similar to Picard’s dialogue to Barclay at the end of Ship in the Bottle, and we the viewer are supposed to enjoy the thought experiment but not take it literally and apply it to all of Deep Space Nine or all of Star Trek.

But this time was different. FBS and its implications could have been another stand-alone episode that was not meant to be interpreted as having ramifications for the series as a whole—but for two reasons. First, Sisko’s vision of Benny Russell came from the Prophets. Whenever the Prophets sent characters visions there was a purpose behind the vision. It was always to set up plot that was coming later in the season or series. It’s why they are called Prophets. They exist with an awareness of all time. They know what is coming while Sisko doesn’t, so they dribble visions like bread crumbs to affect his and others’ choices. Second, Benny Russell returned next season in Shadows and Symbols. He was writing DS9 stories on the walls of his asylum cell. When the doctor, played by the same actor as Damar, gets Russell to stop writing and consider painting over the story, Sisko actually stops doing what he is doing in the DS9 universe. Sisko only commits his next action when Benny Russell chooses to write that action on the wall. What are we to make of this?

Absolutely nothing. Because the writers—the real “real” writers Ira Steven Behr and Hans Beimler—because of a lack of chutzpah, or excess of prudent wisdom, or both—chose not to follow through with what they started.

Here is a thought experiment for you. Imagine if the DS9 writing room had decided to confirm that Benny Russell actually wrote all DS9 stories. You say, wait a minute, Deep Space Nine is not a self contained sci-fi show. It contains Star Trek in its title. Picard was in Emissary I and II. Bashir was in TNGs Birthright. Quark was in a TNG and VOY episode. Spock and Kirk were both mentioned in DS9 episodes, and four TOS Klingons actually reprised their characters in DS9 episodes (Kor, Kang, Koloth and Arnie Darvin). Canon links DS9 to all other Trek series. So Benny Russell must be responsible for all of Star Trek. Imagine if after Russell wrote DS9 in the 1950s—most of it inside of his asylum—he was released and went to Hollywood, where he met an ambitious, idealistic TV writer named Gene Roddenberry. By this point, Russell has given up on the idea of the public accepting a black captain, but he still wants his idealistic future vision to survive. He gives Roddenberry the concept, introduces him to Nichelle Nichols, and the rest is the history we all know.

This could have been done, but it would have been all that DS9 Season 7 could be about. The last episodes of DS9 would have been about the first episodes of TOS. Interesting, maybe, but it would have betrayed the DS9-centric characters, stories and actors that built that series, and the fans that followed it (in the same way ENTERPRISE’s finale became about TNG).

Realizing this quagmire, the writers decided to chalk Benny Russell up to “The ways of the Prophets are strange” and leave it at that. Probably wise. Even in Russell’s second and last episode, his narrative logic was breaking down. Dramatic tension was created when Sisko stopped an action because Russell stopped writing his action, but the B-plot about Kira’s standoff with the Romulans, and the C-plot about Worf attacking a Dominion shipyard both continued even though Russell wasn’t writing. Russell was never mentioned after this episode.

I’ve always felt like the writers saved face by having Sisko say to Kasidy in the finale that since “time doesn’t exist here” he might return “in a year” but that “it could be yesterday,” implying that his work might be in the past. Maybe the Prophets sent him back to Benny Russell’s reality.

For years, Star Trek has provided us with opportunities to imagine that our reality is not special, that it is but one perspective among many. They did this by placing “real” characters in false realities. For a brief moment, Star Trek writers flirted with the idea of going completely through the metaphysical looking glass and declaring that all of Star Trek “reality” in all of its canonical glory was purely fictional. These writers dared to suggest that this purely fictional imaginative playground we beam into through our television sets, which we have to trick our brains into accepting as real as we watch it, is actually a fiction created by a fictional writer that we have to trick our brains into accepting as a real one, who will remain one dimension removed from the actual Hollywood writers that created the whole thing. In this way, Benny Russell is not a meditation on God and creation, but on storytelling and storytellers. Too bad the writers couldn’t figure out how to maintain this concept while also doing justice to DS9 seven season arch.