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.

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