The Best and Worst of Star Trek DS9: Season 1

For previous installments of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

For previous installments of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:

 

The first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is memorable, and shows us how much potential the show had in it, which it will deliver in future seasons. According to the m0vie blog‘s review of Season 1:

Well, that was actually pretty satisfying. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has probably the most satisfying debut season of any of the Star Trek spin-offs. While the show’s first year can’t quite measure up to the very first season of Star Trek ever produced, it can hold its head high among the spin-offs. Although I will concede that the bar isn’t exactly high when it comes to measuring the first year of the tie-in television shows.

When I began a recent re-watch of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was glad to finish the show’s rocky first season. It was a slog, like the work one has to put in before delving into “the good stuff.” I recently picked up the blu ray of the first season of Star Trek: Enterprise. While there are a couple of nice episodes, there are quite  a few I’d forgotten entirely because they were so bland. There are more I would like to forget. Star Trek: Voyager‘s first season is the single largest missed opportunity in the history of the franchise.

So Deep Space Nine‘s first year doesn’t have to do that much beyond “not sucking” in order to earn the coveted title of “best pilot season of a Star Trek spin-off.” However, as I watched the season, I was continually impressed with the quality of work done. There are a few duds (and a few classics), but the first year demonstrates remarkable insight into what is unique about the show’s premise. It doesn’t always have the courage to follow through on that promise, but it at least acknowledges it.

To be fair, Deep Space Nine arrived at a very different time than The Next Generation. It wasn’t reviving a long-dead television brand, transitioning a franchise from the big screen to the small screen. However, by the time that Deep Space Nine entered production, The Next Generation had become a critical and a commercial success.Star Trek had gone from being a piece of cult science-fiction to a certified television phenomenon.

Indeed the final season of The Next Generation, airing concurrently with the second season of Deep Space Nine, earned a coveted Best Drama nomination at the Emmys. It’s a nomination that I imagine serves as a cumulative acknowledgement of the show’s contribution to pop culture. Because I really don’t want to live in a world where the final season of The Next Generation is the most Emmy-worthy Star Trek spin-off season on its own merits.

So it’s unfair to compare the first season of Deep Space Nine to that of The Next Generation. The creative crew weren’t trying to rediscover an art form lost for over a decade, trying to resurrect a franchise. Instead, they were trying to apply what they had learned from over years working on a successful spin-off to another show within the same universe. It was trying to figure out what aspects of the parent show did or didn’t work in this new setting.

In discussing the first year of The Next Generation, I pondered whether any Star Trektelevision show could survive in today’s current competitive television market, even with the success of the 2009 Star Trek reboot and Star Trek: Into Darkness. Based on the evidence before us, it seem that Star Trek shows tend to take a while to find their feet. One wonders if, in today’s ratings-driven reality, The Next Generation could have made it to the third season, the point where the show really came into its own.

This first season is pretty solid. It ends on two of the best episodes of Star Trek ever produced. However, we’re still talking about seventeen weeks of very variable quality before we reach this point. Deep Space Nine was a show that had shed half its audience between the first and last episodes of the season. Audience ratings should never be treated as an arbiter of quality (Deep Space Nine never rated as well as The Next Generation), but they do determine a show’s viability.

It’s interesting to wonder if a modern show could survive two back-to-back misfires like The Passenger and Move Along Home this early in the run. The first season of Deep Space Nine demonstrates remarkable potential – Duet and In the Hands of the Prophets count as two of the best Star Trek episodes ever produced – but it’s also clear that the show isn’t yet fully formed. I’d argue, even as a fan of the show, that Deep Space Nine didn’t really demonstrate what it was consistently capable of until the third (or fourth) season.

There are reasons for that, of course. Even in this first season, you can sense a bit of hesitation from the producers. There are hints that the production staff might be getting some cold feet. Is it possible for a spin-off to be too different? Despite the fact thatDeep Space Nine was created to be something markedly different from The Next Generation, the show tries to hedge its bets. Realising that a space station can’t reallydo the same sort of exploration as a starship, the show introduced the wormhole.

The wormhole eventually become something quite unique, and Emissary tries to cultivate its own identity by casting it as the “Celestial Temple of the Prophets.”However, for a lot of the show’s first two seasons, before the writing staff firmly committed to what was behind it, the wormhole was a convenient way of bringing exploration to Deep Space Nine. Shows like Captive Pursuit, Move Along Home and even The Forsaken use the portal as a means to conveniently generate plots that could easily be set on the Enterprise. Battle Lines and Vortex also use the wormhole as a means of allowing the cat to explore “strange new worlds.”

According to Ira Steven Behr, who would take over the show in its third season, there was a lot of nervousness of the series in the early days:

It wasn’t until the end of the first season, with Duet and [In the Hands of the Prophets], I think … that we really started… and there were some other good episodes at the beginning and throughout, but it was… and then the studio got freaked out and said, “Should we put engines on the space station and fly it through the wormhole? Do we need the character of Bashir?”

So, you know, it really did seem to be on a knife’s edge at one point, but luckily we were able to weather that.

To be fair to Behr, you can see a lot of groundwork laid in the show’s first year with an eye to the future. Despite its reputation, Deep Space Nine wouldn’t truly embrace serialisation until its fifth season. (And, even then, it did not opt for the approach exclusively.) However, there are faint hints of it even here.

While the first year is populated with stand-alone adventures, it’s clear that a lot of these storylines are seeding plot points that would pay-off down the road. (Even if in some cases – like Vortex or Battle Lines – it seems like the writers weren’t quite surehow they were going to pay-off at that point.) Vortex would lead to The Search andBattle Lines set up In the Hands of the Prophets.

More than that, though, there is a sense that the show was taking care to set up what it saw as long-term dynamics. The Storyteller paved the way for the friendship between Bashir and O’Brien. Nog and Jake have recurring subplots in stories like The Storyteller and Progress which are designed to help their relationship grow organically. Unlike The Next Generation, where it takes for granted that these people are all friends because the Enterprise is the perfect workplace, Deep Space Ninegenerally builds these threads from the ground up, which gives a more satisfying experience.

It’s interesting that so many of the show’s recurring and supporting cast appear so early, just as it’s interesting that so few actually recur. The first season seems more concerned with placing the pieces on the board than with beginning to put them in motion. Garak appears only once here, in the second episode. Despite this, he’ll become an essential part of the show’s fabric. Gul Dukat, who would evolve into a major player, only appears twice. His second appearance, in Duet, serves as little more than handy exposition. The season also introduces Winn Adami and Bareil Antos in its final episode.

The second season would put these characters to better use. Bareil and Winn would play significant roles in the opening three-parter. Dukat and Garak would get much to do in Cardassians, and Garak would even get an entire episode dedicated to his back story. However, for now, the first season takes its time, refusing to rush things. Instead, there’s a sense of relatively organic (but planned) growth, rather than a desire to force things along to fit a schedule.

And it works. By the end of the first season, we have a firmer grasp on these leads than we did of the characters in The Next Generation at the same point. We understand where each is coming from and the role that they play in the ensemble. It helps thatDeep Space Nine tends to split the cast off into sub-groups for better developments. Barring his occasional subplots with Nog, Jake primarily exists as an extension of Sisko. Quark has an extended family on the station.

Even the regulars tend to cluster. Bashir interacts with Dax and O’Brien more than Quark or Odo. Odo tends to spend more time with Kira and Quark than O’Brien or Sisko. It creates the impression of an organic dynamic, one where all characters get along, but some get along better than others. It helps that Deep Space Nine is the first show where we have a real sense of history between the characters. The cast of The Next Generation might as well have all met at Encounter at Farpoint. While Kirk’s crew had evidently been together a while by Where No Man Has Gone Before, there’s never too much a sense that any of the regulars have history beyond what the present episode requires.

In contrast, Sisko has known Dax a life-time. (More in her case.) Kira, Odo and Quark all remember the Occupation in a way that the Starfleet officers can only imagine. O’Brien has a bit of character history developed with a completely different ensemble on a completely different show. It’s a fantastic approach to character. Voyager would tease this sort of thing with various Maquis members (Chakotay and Paris, Janeway and Tuvok), but it never really worked to the same extent.

At the same time, some of the characters are problematic. I love the role that Bashir plays within the ensemble, but he’s underdeveloped as a character in his own right. The fact that The Passenger counts as his character-centric story here illustrates just how troubled he is. The show would eventually figure out how to tell a “Bashir story” in its fourth season, but – for the moment at least – the character works much better as part of a larger group. The Storyteller is a far stronger story than The Passenger, and plays to Bashir’s strengths as a supporting cast member rather than making him the centre of the story and trying to figure out what to do with him.

Dax is also troublesome. Part of this is down to the fact that Terry Farrell seems a little uncomfortable in the role. I can see what she’s trying to do – essentially playing Dax as an old man in a young woman’s body – but her stoic performance doesn’t really work. After all, Odo has already cornered the market on whole “Star Trek outsider”within the Deep Space Nine ensemble. Farrell would get a bit more relaxed in the role into the second season, as the character loosened up a bit. You can already see that shift in episodes like If Wishes Were Horses… or Dramatis Personae.

However, the writers also have problems with Dax. She’s a great concept for a supporting character, and a nice image – she is a character with several lifetimes of experience wrapped up in a young body. It’s fun to see Sisko treat this young woman he only recently met as his mentor, and it’s nice to see the stereotypical wisened insights come from the most unlikely source. It also raises a host of interesting questions about how other characters relate to her.

However, this doesn’t make her exceptionally interesting when the plot focuses on Dax herself. Mainly because a lot of Dax-related plots are going to be more interested in the slug in her belly than the character as a whole. It turns Jadzia Dax into a macguffin. We saw that in Dax and we’ll see it next year in Invasive Procedures, both stories where it seems like Jadzia has nothing to contribute to the plot except an attractive place for storing a symbiote.

Unlike Bashir, Jadzia Dax wouldn’t really consistently improve at any point in the show’s near future. The series would produce a number of strong Dax-centric episodes (like Playing God, Facets and Rejoined), but there was never a moment where it seemed like the character just “clicked” and the writers suddenly “got” what to do with her. Although the final season was a little overcrowded and Ezri’s presence hardly helped, I do think that the seventh year of Deep Space Nine finally managed to make good use of the Dax character.

This suggests that Jadzia simply started the show in the wrong place. Ezri’s attempts to come to terms with her joining and to figure out her confusing personal situation was a lot more compelling than any of Jadzia’s personal drama from the show’s first two years. When we meet Jadzia in Emissary, she already knows what’s what. She has no internal problems, no character arc in front of her. She is at peace. That’s obviously great for her, but doesn’t lend itself well to her development as a character when she’s surrounded by dysfunctional characters like Bashir, Odo, Sisko and Kira. Quite frankly, Jadzia had nowhere to go.

The show also has a slight problem with Quark. This is a lot easier to forgive, because Quark tends to work quite well when the writers focus on him. The Nagus is a delight from the show’s troubled first year, and you can see people like Ira Steven Behr making a concerted effort to push the Ferengi away from the “unfunny comic relief” role they’d found themselves in from almost immediately following their introduction.

I’m actually reasonably fond of most of the show’s “Ferengi” episodes, considering them a dysfunctional contrast to the “Klingon” episodes on The Next Generation. It’s nice to see the writing staff making a conscious effort to fix something that is quite obviously broken. It is certainly something the Voyager staff could have learned before abandoning any number of interesting premises after they failed to work perfectly immediately.

However, Quark runs into a bit of bother when he’s used as a cheap plot device. Like the wormhole is lazily used to provide the show with an excuse to go adventuring in the finest Star Trek tradition, Quark is often used as a lazy way of getting something shady to happen. Sometimes this works fairly okay (the botched robbery in Vortex is hardly the character’s finest moment, but it’s not too unbelievable), but it’s often quite frustrating.

Treating Quark as a money-hungry idiot whose greed often endangers the station is storytelling crutch. It ranks with “killing the redshirt” as a means of increasing dramatic tension. Not only does this make Quark seem like an idiot (how did he not see that backfiring?), but it also makes Sisko and Odo seem like idiots (how come he’s still on the station?). More than that, it undermines a lot of Behr’s attempts to develop the Ferengi as absurd hyper-capitalists instead of greedy morons.

Still, despite the sizable flaws, there’s a lot to like here.I’ve always felt that Deep Space Nine adheres closest to the Star Trek philosophy. There are many fans who would disagree with that assessment, arguing the show is too dark or too cynical to be“proper Trek.” There are certainly elements of that darker shade of Star Trek here, the suggestion that perhaps everything won’t always be magically better in the future. Those elements would only grow stronger in the years that followed.

The Maquis would introduce us to people who felt abandoned by the Federation. The Dominion War would put absolutely everything the Federation stood for under threat. On a superficial level, I can see why people might respond to these deviations from the Federation as established in The Next Generation. I’d argue that they are, however, surprisingly in keeping with the Federation of the original Star Trek. Of all the spin-offs, Deep Space Nine is the one most rooted in the spirit of the 1960s television show.

It’s hard to imagine Gene L. Coon writing for The Next Generation or Voyager, but he’d feel right at home on Deep Space Nine. That doesn’t mean that Deep Space Nine is incompatible with Roddenberry’s utopian vision. It just realises that it is – to quote Behr – “easy to be a saint in paradise.” It isn’t that hard for Picard to be a superior human being, as he is in an environment where he could never want for anything that isn’t easily available to him. He doesn’t fear going hungry or cold. He doesn’t have to worry about the collapse of the Federation in any plot extending beyond two consecutive episodes.

More than that, though, The Next Generation could be exceedingly anthropocentric. Human values are the only values perceived to be worth anything. The series would develop a grudging respect for the Klingon way of life, but the Romulans were portrayed as scheming cowards for wanting to live outside Federation interference. The Ferengi were treated as monster because they still had a currency. The show’s resident outsider character desperately sought to become human, which is extremely flattering to us. (As more than one guest character observed.)

Deep Space Nine, on the other hand, dares to suggest that alien values are not inherently hostile, and that different cultures can co-exist without having to assimilate. This is the only Star Trek show where the alien characters in the main cast (let alone the recurring cast) would come to heavily outnumber the human characters. The very design of the station reflects Cardassian philosophy. Several times in the series (Move Along Home and Vortex), aliens from the Gamma Quadrant are more interested in meeting Quark than they are in meeting Sisko.

Keiko’s school becomes a major issue in the series finalé, as Vedek Winn objects to the teaching of a Federation-centric cirriculum. Although Winn is a fanatic, even Sisko concedes she has a point. More than that, though, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Keiko’s school criticised for teaching exclusively human values. In The Nagus, Rom pulled his son out of the school because it would not help Nog’s advancement in Ferengi culture. This decision meant that Nog had to be schooled by Jake, rather than receiving a proper and well-rounded academic education.

Indeed, Sisko is repeatedly shown to be racist against the Ferengi. Not in an overly obvious way. He doesn’t use slurs or anything out-of-character like that. He just doesn’t want his son hanging around with “that Ferengi boy.” In The Nagus, Jake and his dad argue about the way the Federation treats the Ferengi. Sisko insists they never found any common ground. Watching The Next Generation, you might be convinced that it is because humans dismiss the Ferengi. It’s telling Jake forges a deeper bond with Nog in a few episodes than any member of The Next Generation cast did with any Ferengi in the entire show.

Deep Space Nine does challenge the underlying assumptions of Star Trek, but in doing so it actively evolves the franchise. It examines what these abstract values mean in circumstances that aren’t ideal. In a way, despite its stationary setting, Deep Space Nine boldly went where no Star Trek spin-off had gone before or since. It subjected the franchise’s values to a lot of harsh scrutiny, but only so that they could be appraised and applied. There’s no delivering a speech to the natives before warping off and forgetting about the planet of the week. For better or worse, these people and these ideologies have to work together. And Deep Space Nine optimistically insists that they can.

There are other nice touches. Avery Brooks’ performance style can be quite polarising, but I really like his approach to Sisko. Sisko is probably exactly what the third Star Trekcaptain should be, the perfect half-way point between Patrick Stewart’s hyper-evolved Shakespearean commander and Kirk’s no-nonsense act-on-impulse leading man. Brooks keeps the scenery chewing under control in this first season, although I do love when he goes “full Shatner” in Dramatis Personae.

It’s worth noting that even some of the misses in this first season were worthy attempts to try something new. I tend to be quite forgiving when a show is willing to try something that it hasn’t done before, even if the results are unspectacular. It’s very hard to forgive The Passenger, but I do appreciate that Move Along Home was trying to do a campier version of Star Trek than we’ve seen since 1969. The Forsaken might be a hybrid of familiar Star Trek tropes, but it’s one of those rare episodes that treats Lwaxanna Troi as her own character rather than as a mean joke about middle-aged women.

And it’s worth noting that a lot of it worked surprisingly well. Duet and In the Hands of the Prophets deserve to be discussed along with the very best of Star Trek. Even earlier than that, though, Progress offered a hint of what the show was capable of. The season’s subplots were particularly strong, and character dynamics were even strong enough to carry middling fluff like The Storyteller. Even a story like Dramatis Personae(powered by pretty generic Star Trek clichés) was told in a style that would not have been possible on the other spin-offs.

It is clear that the writers knew they weren’t writing for The Next Generation and acknowledged they had a different dynamic. That is – without seeming too harsh – more than can be said for the first seasons of Voyager or Enterprise. That’s the real strength of this first season, the fact that so much time and effort is expanded to give the show its own identity which isn’t just “The Next Generation on different sets.”

It didn’t always work out. There are times in this first year when the show stumbles and falls. It even tries a couple of times to emulate its more successful older sibling, losing its distinctive voice in the process. Trying to out-Next-Generation The Next Generationwas a foolish move, particularly since people could just tune into a show doing the same sorts of plots much better. There are times in the season where you can almost imagine that argument playing out in the writers’ room or among the producers. The hesitation, the nervousness, the insecurity.

I can’t blame the producers for worrying about a show like this, and I understand why there was that very clear temptation to just do “The Next Generation Lite.” However, I respect the show for fighting that impulse, even if it wasn’t always successful during its first two years. The first year of Deep Space Nine isn’t perfect. It has its warts. I suspect, had the show run a full twenty-six episodes, it might have a few more. However, it’s also trying to do something new and exciting.

Although it’s not consistently hitting the ball out of the park at this point, at least we know that it can.

 

The Best:

Emissary, Past Prologue, Q-Less, Vortex, Battle Lines, The Forsaken, Duet, and In the Hands of the Prophets

duet5

Little pieces:

  • Emissary introduces Captain Benjamin Sisko, Major Kira Nerys, the Bajoran Prophets, among others, as well as the station, Deep Space Nine;
  • Past Prologue introduces Garek, and features a Bajoran terrorist, Tahna Los, meanwhile the Klingon sisters Lursa and B’Etor arrive on Deep Space Nine;
  • Q-Less features the entity, Q, as well as the return of TNG‘s Vash, both never to appear again;
  • Vortex is the first episode to begin to delve into Odo’s past;
  • Battle Lines sees the spiritual leader of Bajor, Kai Opaka, request a tour of Deep Space Nine, followed by a trip through the wormhole, where they crash land on a planet where the dead are resuscitated, over and over again;
  • The Forsaken sees Lwaxana Troi visit Deep Space Nine;
  • Duet is a very, very good episode dealing with metaphors of British, American, Japanese, and German imperialism circa World War II, and “What would happen if you had to defend your worst enemy? What would you do if you had to be responsible for his life?” on Kira’s behalf; and,
  • In the Hands of the Prophets introduces then-Vedek Winn, and the Bajoran religio-political system.

According to the A.V. Club review of Emissary:

Benjamin Sisko is an angry man. There are a lot of those on TV these days, so maybe that doesn’t sound so important anymore, but it’s worth repeating: Benjamin Sisko is damn near furious. Jean-Luc Picard wasn’t exactly the friendliest man in the world in the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but he was more uncomfortable and irritable than outright mad. James T. Kirk, from the original Star Trek was an all around chummy dude. Now we have our new commander for our new series, and he’s black, which is a small but significant change of pace. He’s also really, really pissed off.

He has his reasons. He’s the first Trek lead we’ve had with a legitimately Tragic Past: his wife, Jennifer, died three years ago. Worse, she died during the Borg’s devastating attack on the Federation, an attack led by Locutus, a.k.a. the briefly assimilated Captain Picard. “Emissary” tries to make some hay out of this in the two semi-confrontational scenes between Sisko and Picard (included mostly soDeep Space Nine could get some proximity-mojo from the then-airing TNG), and it’s not one of the pilot’s stronger gambits; Sisko does barely restrained resentment well enough, but there’s no real place for that resentment to go, dramatically speaking. Anyone familiar enough with Picard to know the resolution of “Best Of Both Worlds” already knows how he suffered for it, and how little any of what happened was his fault; if you don’t know TNG history, it’s unlikely you’ll be much enthused by a protagonist growling politely at a barely relevant guest star.

Still, while Sisko’s issues with Picard aren’t all that compelling, the obvious discomfort the man feels within the framework of the Federation is important. Sisko isn’t precisely an outsider, but, as he explains to Picard early on, he begins this episode nearly convinced he should leave Starfleet for good and take up the civilian life back on Earth. It’s not exactly surprising when he changes his mind before the end credits, because spending an hour and a half introducing a protagonist, only to have him wave goodbye forever before episode two, isn’t good TV writing. But it’s important that he was thinking about quitting, because it sets a certain tone. Captains Kirk and Picard were defined by their commitment, and their loyalty to the Enterprise. Sisko is not, at least not yet. This indicates a basic shift in intention that runs throughout the entirety of “Emissary.” The people we meet here (most of whom aren’t actually “people” in the traditional sense) aren’t uniformly happy, or satisfied with their jobs, or excited to be working together. Sisko isn’t the only angry member of the cast, and the tension these various frustrations create when they collide against each other shows promise. Up until now, Star Trek has focused on individuals coming together for a purpose greater than themselves. DS9 will most likely still be about this to some extent, but this is a disparate ensemble; each person in it has their own goals, and their own needs. Great drama comes from the opposition of understandable viewpoints, and there’s a lot of potential present in this episode. If only we didn’t spend so much time getting all mystical.

“Emissary” is a pilot episode, and “pilot episodes” tend to bring a certain amount of baggage along with them. This one runs double the size of a regular episode, and much of its length is given over to the usual table-setting one finds in a series première. We meet our ensemble, we establish the primary setting, we introduce potential conflicts, some of which will pay off in later episodes, some of which will most likely be forgotten before the end of the season. There’s a story arc that helps bring everyone together in the face of a common enemy, a temporary cooperation which, while not precluding arguments and contention down the line, at least indicates that our heroes are capable of working together, even if they don’t always want to. “Emissary” debuted in 1993, right around the middle of TNG’s sixth season, and there’s a level of professionalism right off the bat which wasn’t present in TNG’s first episode, “Encounter At Farpoint.” Where “Farpoint” had to both re-introduce Trek to television after a 20 year absence, as well as convince an audience they could enjoy Trek without Kirk or Spock or the rest, DS9 comes to us in a world where all of this is basically a given. By 1993, the Trek-verse was an established commodity, which meant it was time to start bending the line.

That confidence shows, and while it’s clear these actors will get more comfortable with their roles as time goes by, there’s a gratifying lack of the sort of clumsiness that typified early TNG. “Emissary”’s plot, at least the non-Emissary elements, works in a standard nuts-and-bolts, let’s see how these underdogs can kick a bit of ass kind of way. Sisko arrives at the station, and he learns from Chief Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney, a cast-off from TNG, and a smart choice for this show; O’Brien was a welcome presence on Picard’s Enterprise, but he was rarely given much to do) that the Cardassians wrecked up the place before they left. Sisko’s first officer, Major Kira (Nana Visitor) is a Bajoran with an understandable chip on her shoulder, and truth be told, hardly anyone on the station is all that excited to have a new Federation representative to boss them around. On top of that, the Cardassians, who are tricky bastards to say the least, haven’t exactly “left;” they lurk at the edges of the quadrant, just waiting for an excuse to swoop in and start shooting. After the comparative stability of TNG (where bad things happened, but there was always a status quo to return to), DS9 gives us a world that needs more than speeches and idealism to get back on the right track.

I have a few minor complaints with “Emissary,” and one big one. The small stuff is to be expected in a pilot. The dialogue is heavy-handed in spots, and some of the performances aren’t quite there yet. I like Avery Brooks as Sisko, but there’s an occasional awkwardness to his work, like he isn’t quite sure where to put his feet. In his defense, he’s asked to do a lot of heavy lifting over the course of the hour and a half, and Sisko is, at times, supposed to be a bit crazed. I realize Kira is an intense character by nature, but Visitor’s intensity can border on hysteria, and Alexander Siddig’s Bashir is almost a non-entity. It’s difficult to introduce a cast this large without a certain level of “Let’s stop and explain ourselves,” though, and while it’s not perfect, there are no obvious weak links here to give me concerns about the weeks ahead.

For much of its first season, TNG relied heavily on Patrick Stewart’s talent and presence to help carry an inexperienced and unproven cast, but DS9’s ensemble is fairly deep even on first introduction. Brooks is, essentially, good; I already know Siddig gets more to do as the show goes on; and while Visitor is corny in spots, I appreciate her passion. I especially appreciate that the show has two strong female characters right off the bat, which is something Trek has often struggled with in its many incarnations. Terry Farrell’s Dax carries herself with the appropriate self-assurance of a creature who’s been alive (in some form or another) for a very long time; Rene Auberjonois does excellent work under a lot of make-up as the ambiguously speciesed Odo, Deep Space Nine’s law man and resident sour-puss (he even mostly sells the incredibly awkward, “I HAVE A MYSTERIOUS PAST” info dump); and Armin Shimerman is the first Ferengi I’ve seen who isn’t immediately awful. In fact, I found Quark to be fun right off the bat. He may be greedy and treacherous as Ferengi so often are, but he wasn’t sniveling or cowardly, and this is clearly a show that enjoys having as much gray area as it can. And of course Colm Meaney is great. He’s always great. I even liked him in Con Air.

These are fascinating individuals, and while none of them are perfectly drawn, we get enough sense of their various drives and insecurities to make me eager to watch them bounce off one another. My biggest reservation about “Emissary” isn’t the cast, then, or the meat-and-potatoes nature of much of the writing. My problem is with the part of the story that gives the episode its title, the revelation that Commander Sisko is a prophesied connection between the people of Bajor and a group of aliens living inside a nearby wormhole. For the first 20 or so minutes, “Emissary” moves along at a decent clip, a bit rough around the edges, a trifle clumsy, but clearly setting down the necessary tracks to get things rolling. Then Sisko has to go meet up with the Bajoran religious leader Kai Opaka, and she shows him the Tear of the Prophet, and things go a bit pear-shaped.

It’s not that this is awful, exactly. It’s just unnecessary. Sisko already had his hands full dealing with the problems inherent in taking over command of Deep Space Nine. He didn’t need a lot of mystical claptrap, including long-form flashbacks and extensive debates over the nature of time. We don’t need it, either. The best parts of DS9’s first episode take some of TNG’s strongest conceits—the importance of consequences, the difficulties in negotiating strong relationships between different species with different ideals—and expand on them, without shying away from the darker side of politicking and compromise. The greatness isn’t there yet, but there are hints of it throughout, most notably in the fact that this is a show about sticking around after the adventures are over, and after the ambassadors have left. The Federation is considering Bajor for membership, and now it’s up to Sisko to hang out with a few other officers and try to rebuild with some locals who are understandably suspicious of outsiders. There’s a rawness there which speaks to Q’s trial of humanity in “Encounter At Farpoint;” will these individuals learn to rise above their prejudices and fears and become a functioning unit? And even if they do, will that be enough to weather the trials ahead?

That’s exciting stuff, and watching Sisko negotiate the backroom deals necessary to get Deep Space Nine up and running again sold me on the show far more thoroughly than the 20-minute discussion of memory and linear progression the Commander had with the wormhole aliens. Sisko’s efforts to uncover the mystery of the magical orbs, and his interactions with the beings who sent those orbs, are the weakest part of the episode, because it’s all very silly and inert, and because it fits so neatly into our expectations of what television science fiction is “supposed” to be. Character drama is set to one side so an outside force can swoop in and force our leading man to deal with his issues. The sequences with Kira and O’Brien attempting to bluff a superior Cardassian force are thrilling, and help establish that this space station is not the weapons powerhouse that theEnterprise was. The sequences with Sisko using baseball to explain why humans don’t know what happens next are… actually, they’re sort of fun, but they aren’t necessary, and every time the show shifts its focus, it feels like were losing sight of everything that made DS9 such a breath of fresh air in the first place.

Yet hope remains. Of all the Trek pilots I’ve seen (all three of them), DS9 is the one most rife with possibility. The setting is unusual, and cast is strong, and the conflicts are there; everything just needs a little more flesh. I’m not sold on Sisko as a “chosen one,” but I recognize the plot possibilities the wormhole brings to the series. I also appreciate the sense, right from the start, that this is a story which isn’t going to be resolved any time soon. I don’t want to spend the next seven seasons watching Sisko teach memory jumping morons, but I do appreciate the already inherent assumption that events on DS9 will be on-going. No reset buttons here, no convenient forgetting or warp drive. TNG dabbled in serialization, but DS9 is set to embrace it. We get to see what happens next. I, for one, can’t wait.

According to the A.V. Club review of Past Prologue:

I may not know everything about DS9, but I know enough to recognize an important recurring character when I see him. Andrew Robinson (best known as the Scorpio Killer in Dirty Harry, and the most miserable cuckold ever inHellraiser) makes his debut appearance in “Past Prologue” as Garak, a Cardassian tailor who is almost certainly more than he seems. Garak is striking from his first scene, which also happens to be the first scene of the episode; he sits down with Dr. Bashir, introduces himself in a manner which can only be described as “playfully aggressive” (with emphasis on the latter), and sets to making friends. Partly it’s the script, which gives Garak ample opportunities to play up his ambiguity, and partly it’s Robinson. At this point, Garak is more idea than fully-formed character, but the actor manages to hit a note of intensity which is at once weirdly sexual and asexual. The Cardassian isn’t hitting on Bashir, not exactly, but there’s a flirtation, and a sense of an old pro putting the moves on a naive, well, virgin. Their developing “relationship” isn’t the centerpiece of “Past Prologue,” but it’s indicative once again of DS9’s willingness to keep people on their toes. Garak is a Cardassian, and Cardassians are not to be trusted; what’s more, he’s a spy, and spies are dangerous, treacherous folks. Except, he helps connect Bashir (and by extension Sisko and the rest of the main crew) to the relationship between a recently arrived Bajoran terrorist and the Duras sisters, a connection which proves crucial to preventing the terrorist from carrying out his plans. And yet, we don’t know why Garak decided to help. We don’t know anything at all, really.

This sense of uncertainty, and of the necessary effort required to forge safe ground in hostile territory, pervades both of this week’s episodes. After being warned repeatedly that the first season or two (or three) of DS9 is uneven, I was surprised at how consistent “Past Prologue” and “A Man Alone” are. Neither are mind-blowing, of course, and if this was later in the show’s run, if I’d heard higher praise, or if I’d watched these when they originally aired and had my expectations based off of TNG’s success, I might be inclined to judge more harshly. But viewed as a show that’s still finding its legs, DS9 has a lot of confidence, and a clear sense of the kind of stories it wants to tell. Those stories aren’t exactly subtle yet, and they aren’t as complex or effective as they could be, but the details are less important in the early going than the characters and the world they inhabit. What we see in both these episodes, as heavy-handed and clunky as they often are, is the station of Deep Space Nine and the people who inhabit it coming into existence.

Out of the two, “Past Prologue” works the best overall. It’s a plot you can see coming from the moment Kira was introduced in “Emissary.” Kira is passionate, devoted to her people, and she used to be a member of the resistance, fighting back against the Cardassian oppressors. Now she’s taking a role in the burgeoning Bajoran government, and working to help bridge the gap between Bajor and the Federation. She has understandably mixed feelings about this. She and others like her fought long and hard to secure Bajor’s freedom, and the hegemonic nature of the Federation is bound to make anyone with a strong sense of national (planetary?) identity skittish. However, the Cardassians are still lurking in the margins, ready to take advantage of even the slightest show of weakness, which means Bajor needs the Federation—and the massive resources and manpower it can provide—around. This means Kira is going to be a bit suspicious of Sisko from the start, as well as resentful of the fact that she has to take orders from someone who wasn’t around when her friends were dying. It also means, as we see in “Prologue,” that people from Kira’s old life are going to show up occasionally. People with their own agenda, who aren’t on-board with being friendly with outsiders, and who is more than willing to call Kira’s loyalty into question, especially if it serves their aims.

That last bit is the tricky part. Stories of divided loyalty are a delicate balance, and it’s a highwire act that’s even more difficult to maintain when a main character in an ongoing television series is the one in the middle. Back on TNG, Ro Laren (Michelle Forbes) faced a similar sort of crisis as Kira does in “Preemptive Strike,” but there, Ro was a sort of special guest star; she’d appeared in a handful of episodes, which meant that she was recognizable, but her choices on the show weren’t defined by a need to keep her in the same space (so to speak) as the rest of the ensemble. This meant that when Ro was asked to spy on a group of freedom fighters, she found they were good people, and that their goals were much the same as hers. It also meant that when the push came to shove, Ro sided with the freedom fighters, abandoning her position in Starfleet and engendering the rare “disappointment face” from her mentor, Picard. This was possible because, again, Ro wasn’t a regular. (It was also possible because TNG was coming to the end of its seventh and last season, so why the hell not.)

Kira, though, is a regular, and while theoretically the show could pull a fast one and ditch her in the early going, it wouldn’t really work; we’re too close to the start for that kind of sucker punch to have much effect, and Trek, even edgy Trek, isn’t big on rug-pulling-out-from-under-ing. This means that if Kira faces someone from her past, someone who makes her wonder where her real loyalties lie, there has to be a narrative reason for her to end up reaffirming her status quo by the conclusion. There are different ways to do this, but the easiest way is for the person who inspires all this self-doubt—in this case, Tahna Los, a member of the Kohn Ma terrorist organization—to be demonstrably foolish or out and out corrupt. If Tahna, for all his high-minded lectures, turns out to be a greedy bully or an idiot, Kira can go on her merry way of shouting at Sisko, but still, basically, doing what he tells her to do.

The problem is, if Tahna is too corrupt, it makes the whole storyline absurd. And it is so tempting to make him a flat out asshole, because by doing so, not only is Kira let off the hook, the rest of the good guys look even better by comparison. A well-meaning writer could make Tahna a once idealistic warrior who has turned to crime in the wake of the Cardassian departure, frustrated that he’s never been officially recognized as a hero by the current government and determined to get his fair share of what he assumes is the immense wealth the arrival of the Federation has made available. Then we could have a big, grouchy speech about being left out or abandoned or whatever, and Kira could arrest him with a clear conscience (or get Odo to arrest him) and move on. It would neat, clean, and utterly predictable.

Instead, we get something close to that, but not exactly that. Tahna is still fighting the good fight, but Kira isn’t sure it’s quite so good anymore. He arrives at Deep Space Nine on the run from some very unhappy Cardassians; he requests political asylum, which Sisko temporarily grants. (This surprised me. I expected much of the episode to focus on Kira and Sisko arguing about the best way to deal with Tahna’s past crimes, but Sisko is mostly secondary here, and the choices he makes are, basically, the only choices he can make. Before Tahna’s true colors are revealed, it wouldn’t be very smart for a Starfleet officer trying to establish diplomatic relations with a foreign body to hand over one of that body’s citizens to their sworn enemies, whatever sins he’s committed.) Kira is excited to see an old colleague—and one whom she clearly respects, even idolizes—but he’s less than impressed, telling her she’s changed, and that she’s turned into an appeaser, and so on. He tries to guilt her into helping him carry out a plan to rid Bajor of the Federation, but Kira realizes he’s up to something.

There’s a lot to like here. I appreciate that Kira’s decision is made without a lot of hand-wringing on her part. Sure, she’s upset and none too happy about what she has to do, but as soon as she figures out that Tahna knew she’d be on the station, and had been planning on exploiting her all along, she understands she can’t go along with him. What’s also nice is that she doesn’t immediately go to Sisko with this information, instead paying a visit to Odo for moral advice. This helps establish their friendship, and reinforces the idea that Odo is a straight shooter. It’s also great that Tahna turns out to be telling basically the truth when he assures Kira no one will get hurt in his plan: he just wants to use a massively powerful bomb to collapse the wormhole. Admittedly, the wormhole aliens might not enjoy this, and who knows what kind of effect a bomb that big would have on the sector as a whole, but it’s not like he’s a psychopath who intends to murder thousands to prove his point. He’s moral in his way, it’s just that his goals aren’t really in keeping with what’s best for Bajor in the long run. Tahna is a single-minded individual, which means he can accomplish amazing things; it also means he’s worse than useless in a society which needs compromise to survive.

As for failings, well, great as Garak is, Bashir is a bit of a twerp through most of his scenes, repeatedly failing to pick up on the tailor’s obvious clues. I don’t mind if the good doctor isn’t up on his espionage, but there’s no need for him to be an idiot, especially not the kind of overly childish idiot he appears to be here. Using the Duras Sisters as Tahna’s Klingon contacts is a silly way to try and remind us that DS9 is connected to TNG; the characters are appropriate enough for narrative purposes, but a new Klingon would’ve done the job just as well, and not givenTrek fans the weird feeling that the universe only has about 20 people in it.

Even without these issues, “Prologue” still wouldn’t be a great episode. It’s good, by and large, and it serves the purpose of establishing some of Kira’s history, and reaffirming her position on the station, but there’s a certain bloodless formality to it that keeps it from being as consistently powerful as it is in its few best moments. Maybe the biggest problem here is there’s still a sense of too much safety—as much as I appreciate the gray area Tahna represents, and Kira’s struggle against temptation, the Federation is there to pick up all the pieces at the end, with Sisko and Dax standing by in case things get out of hand. Still, Tahna gets the last word here, hissing “Traitor” at Kira before being led away in manacles, and that at least indicates that this is a show that’s willing to put its leads in uncomfortable places. It just needs to get more willing to embrace the discomfort. Both episodes we’re looking at this week are streets ahead of TNG’s early years, but “Prologue” makes you want them to farther. Maybe check what’s down a few of the darker alleys, just to see who’s waiting.

According to the A.V. Club review of Q-Less:

Q, John de Lancie’s omnipotent prankster god, first appeared in “Encounter At Farpoint,” the pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In that episode, he positioned himself as a terrifying, if somewhat impish, judge of human behavior, forcing the freshly introduced Jean-Luc Picard to defend his species’ right to exist, and setting the basic direction for the series as a whole: exploration, with occasional confusion. Q went on to be a semi-regular on the show, appearing in eight episodes total, some of them middling, and some of them good enough to be included in any all-time TNG best list. Q introduced the Borg to the Trek-verse; he also guided the series to a close with “All Good Things… ” Whatever the episode, de Lancie was fun to watch, and he and Patrick Stewart played off each other very well. In his loopy way, Q managed to bridge the gap between the original Trek and the new series. Here was the ultimate god-like being: basically magical, more than a little campy, but capable of shaking up the status quo in potentially interesting ways.

It’s no surprise that Q shows up on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in the show’s first season. He’s an iconic figure, he’s easy to transplant, and he offers an easy opportunity to contrast Sisko and the others against the crew of TNG. But while de Lancie is in fine form, the character doesn’t really fit in here. Sure, he didn’t exactly fit in on the Enterprise, but on that craft, his strangeness was the whole point. Against a crew of consistently well-meaning Boy and Girl Scouts, Q’s cynicism and gags deflated the pomposity, and even reminded us why we liked all these people in the first place. They may be do-gooding nerds, but they’re also smart, resourceful, and sincere, and Q never managed to prove otherwise, no matter how hard he tried. DS9 is a different matter. The leads here are likeable and distinct, no question, but they’re also individuals with their own goals, existing in a world where real evil and pain are an established reality. One of the reasons Q worked on TNG is that he seems one of the few beings capable of posing a threat to the expertise and over-achieving brilliance of the Enterprise. On Deep Space Nine, we’re still supposed to be impressed that the replicators work.

That’s probably why Q seems like something of an afterthought in “Q-Less,” despite the fact that the episode was almost certainly conceived in an attempt to bring him onto the show. He spars with Sisko, he insults O’Brien, he makes Bashir sleep for a day or so, but the majority of Q’s interactions are with the episode’s other guest star: Jennifer Hetrick, returning to her role as Vash, Picard’s former love interest, and Q’s ex-traveling companion. It’s an odd pairing. When last we saw Vash (“Qpid”), she agreed to wander the universe with Q, after a lot of silliness with Sherwood Forest and Picard in tights and so forth. But we’ve seen Q a few times since then on TNG, with no Vash in sight, and, unless I’m misremembering, no one ever asked Q where Vash was. Not even Picard, although I suppose he could be a little resentful at being dumped for a lunatic. Suddenly deciding to remember continuity—for a character with no real reason to need continuity—is odd, and it results in a lot of conversations between Q and Vash which have nothing to do with anyone else on the show. These conversations work okay on their own, and they’re not bad if you have some sense of the history between the two characters, but it’s too early in the run to spend this much time on people we’ll never see again.

Having Q and Vash take up as much screentime as they do means the regular ensemble gets something of a short shrift. In case anyone had any doubts, we learn early in the episode that Dr. Bashir is a bit of a player, spending the cold open putting the moves on an attractive Bajoran woman, and almost immediately hitting on Vash when she arrives at the station. Among other character highlights of the episode, we’re reminded that Quark is greedy, and easily manipulated by a woman who knows just how to finger his ears. (I love how that sounds dirty without actually being dirty.) Sisko is grumpy; Dax is calm; Kira is fiesty; O’Brien is the Everyman. Oh, and Odo is grumpy, too, but not the same kind of grumpy as Sisko—I’d say Sisko has a sort of “Oh what fresh hell is this” pissiness, while Odo maintains an irritable satisfaction at having his cynicism reaffirmed time and time again.

All of this is well and good, and entirely consistent with what we’ve seen so far. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with consistency; getting to know an ensemble doesn’t necessarily require great dramatic shifts or personal revelations. However, so far, DS9 has done a decent job building its world, even in episodes where world-building wouldn’t seem immediately obvious. Even “Captive Pursuit” gave us a chance to see more of Chief O’Brien, as well as get a sense for Sisko and Odo’s willingness to bend the rules when the mood suits them. In “Q-Less,” the writers make an effort to distance DS9 from TNG by throwing Q and Sisko into direct confrontation, and showing straight away that Sisko wasn’t going to put up with Q’s crap in the same way Picard did. (Of course, Picard didn’t exactly “put up” with anything. He just didn’t punch Q in the face, because Picard wasn’t a punching kind of guy.) That’s fine, and as obvious as the scene is (Sisko literally says, “I’m not Picard.”), it does what it’s supposed to.

Only, that scene alone isn’t enough to justify the episode, and considering that Q spends most of the hour doing the same tricks he did on the Enterprise—popping up unexpectedly, being sarcastic, making people disappear—it’s not like Sisko’s punch has all that much effect. The station experiences a crisis, but that crisis doesn’t have anything to do with Q, although he is the only one on board who understands what’s going on. The crew deals with the crisis, much as we’ve seen them deal with crises before, and while that’s fun as far as it goes, it’s a little too familiar and rote. This is the sort of action we’ve seen on every Trek, and multiple times as well. Which isn’t to say that DS9 should entirely forego franchise history, or that there’s no place on the show for your standard “Let’s all be very professional and shout out things we read off of computer screens” sequence. It’s just that this in and of itself isn’t enough to really drive an episode. Predictable, if professional and basically effective suspense scenes should be the climax to a story that’s interesting in and of itself. They can’t serve as a reason for the episode to exist.

It’s too bad, then, that the closest thing “Q-Less” has to a focus—Vash and her decision to break ties with Q for good—is so under-developed. Hetrick is decent in the role, but the script never gives us much of a chance to get inside her head, and for a person whose made the monumental decision to turn her back on (and potentially risk the wrath of) an incredibly powerful and fickle alien, she’s not very well drawn. Even knowing her from her time on TNG doesn’t help that much. There, she was a standard femme-fatale type, somewhat light on the fatale, created to provide a temporary foil for Picard. Arguably the most interesting thing about her was that Hetrick was somewhat more age-appropriate for Patrick Stewart than a more traditional casting choice would’ve been.

On DS9, Vash behaves largely as you’d expect, flirting with Bashir, easily manipulating Quark into doing her bidding (another reason to like Quark: He doesn’t act bitter or cheated when Vash gets the best of him, mainly because he clearly gets off on both the ear fondling and working with a capable, attractive opponent), and telling Q to back off whenever he hovers into view. There’s no depth beyond that, though, and no real sense of their relationship, beyond Q’s lovely goodbye speech, with which he explains how Vash allowed him to see the universe in a new way. You get the impression that Q abandoned her in the Gamma Quadrant, but you get no real sense if this changed her, or what her intentions are now. The way the episode is arranged, Vash should be the central point from which everything else pivots, but she’s vacant, occasionally hinting at depths without ever revealing them. It’s her fault that Deep Space Nine is thrown into turmoil; one of the artifacts she brings aboard and attempts to auction off isn’t an artifact at all, but a baby life form. Once Sisko and the others figure out the source of the disturbance, the creature is beamed off of the ship, but there’s no consequence for Vash, and no sense of whether or not she understood what she was selling, or the danger it represented.

“Q-Less” is lively at times, with some entertainingly snarky work from de Lancie, and a few choice quips, but it’s too often a frustratingly perfunctory episode, as though the various components were assembled together in order to fit a genericTrek template. It’s okay, but mostly serves as a reminder of how important it is forDS9 to keep to its own identity.

According to the A.V. Club review of Vortex:

If “The Nagus” tries and fails to give us an idea of Quark’s social life, “Vortex” makes a similar attempt to get into the head of Odo, to greater success. While “Vortex” hints at deeper mysteries and a more complex mythology than the fairly simplistic greedy bastards set up in the previous episode, it’s just as traditional, both in what it accomplishes for the character, and the basic design of the story. To put it another way, “Vortex” is a “hint” episode, offering clues to backstory, but still too early in the series’ run for there to be any real chance that those clue will lead us someplace solid. As such, it’s more interesting for what it says about Odo than it is for anything it says about where Odo came from.

“Vortex” also continues what’s turning into something of a running gag for the series: the difficulties in establishing positive relationships with new races. It makes sense that the wormhole would lead to multiple instances of first contact, and it’s to the show’s credit that this hasn’t always gone smoothly. In fact, I’d say the only time it has gone smoothly was with the Wadi in “Move Along Home,” and even then, the results were confusing, and ambiguous. Sisko’s brief encounter with the Rakhar goes significantly worse. He has a prisoner from their world who needs to be tried for murder and theft, but the Rakhar government—or at least the only guy willing to talk with Sisko—isn’t having it. He wants the prisoner back, he wants him back yesterday, and he just basically hates having to deal with, well, anything, really. So far as I can tell, this is the first official contact between Rakhar and the Federation, but the way this dude acts, Sisko is a telemarketer who interrupted him in the middle of a good lay.

As far as station politics go, though, “Vortex” isn’t about Sisko trying to negotiate the right way to return the Rakharian “criminal” Croden (Cliff De Young, who will always be the dad in Flight Of The Navigator to me) to his people. It’s about Odo deciding just how far he’s willing to go to find out about his past, and just how much he’ll compromise the law in order to protect a good man. The constable notices Croden early in—the guy is an unfamiliar face at Quark’s, which isn’t that unusual, but his nervousness and unwillingness to meet Odo’s gaze puts the shapeshifter on the defensive. While it would be easy to assume anyone would be a little uncomfortable to find Odo giving them the eye, Croden is, indeed, up to something. When Quark goes to a back room to make a deal on a trinket with a pair of Mirdaron, Croden busts up the meeting and tries to steal the trinket. Things go badly, and they get worse when Odo reveals he’s been watching them the whole time, disguised as a drinking glass. There’s a fight, one of the Miradorn is killed, and Croden winds up in the brig. Life as usual on the DS9, until Croden drops the bomb that Odo’s ability to transmogrify wasn’t new to him. He claims he’s seen shapeshifters before, and has, in fact, been to one of their colonies. He calls them Changelings, and has a nifty locket with a bit of Changeling material inside.

It’s hard to get too excited about any of this. De Young is a decent actor, and if he occasionally relies too much on tics and intensity for my taste, he’s fine here (although he looks weirdly dirty in the make-up). But that doesn’t change the fact that anyone who’s ever watched a genre show already knows where this is going. Croden is lying, and the only question is how much he’s lying, and even that isn’t much of a question. When you’re trying to tease out a backstory, you want to tease the audience by offering them more information than you’re actually planning on giving them, while at the same time providing just enough to make sure nobody feels like they’ve been completely cheated. Usually this means some tidbit that pushes us incrementally closer to the main goal. By the end of “Vortex,” we find out that Croden has never actually been to a Changeling colony, and that he picked up the trinket from a salesman. But people really did tell stories about Changelings once upon a time on Rakhar, and the trinket really does seem to be connected to Odo’s people. It’s something, although whether or not it’s enough to justify our time is open to debate.

I’m not sure it’s a great idea to think of episodes of television in brutally transactional terms—I don’t need a certain amount of information provided to me in order for me to feel like I’ve been fairly dealt with. Still, given how much of the story is spent with Odo wondering if he should trust Croden, and Croden offering him (and, by extension, us) more answers than he could possibly imagine, it’s hard not to be let down by how little we get here. So we look to the rest of the episode for sustenance, and there’s some decent bits to chew on, thankfully. As mentioned, Sisko’s interactions with Rakhar fit in well with what we’ve seen of the tedious reality of interstellar communication so far. The Miradorns make for decent villains. They’re a “twinned” race (so I guess they come from the Territories?), and when Ah-Kel loses his partner, he loses more than just a brother; he loses, as he explains to Sisko, his entire reason for being. So he’s really, really intent on getting revenge, which leads to a Wrath Of Khan-esque fight in the vortex that gives this episode its name. Ah-Kel isn’t the most clearly defined character in the history of the show, but he at least has a reason for what he does that goes beyond “EVIL.”

As with “The Nagus,” it’s the small moments of decency that really carry the episode. Croden is lying about what he knows, but he’s at least lying for a reason. Rakhar is, from what we can tell, an awful place, and Croden lost nearly all of his family when he disobeyed the government. He has one daughter left, but he’s hidden her in stasis on an asteroid in the Chamra Vortex. The reason he lies to Odo is so he can get back to his daughter and free her from the statis box; Most likely, he tried to rob the Miradorn earlier in order to buy a ship, but it doesn’t seem like he’s that good at thievery. (Dude is waaaay too chatty, for one thing.) Once Odo realizes what’s up, he’s understandably let down by not getting the answers he wanted, but he’s forced to make a moral choice: Does he take Croden back to his homeworld, where he will be executed? Or does he allow the man and his child to go free? Curiously, up until the end, Odo doesn’t have a lot of autonomy in “Vortex.” While he’s tempted by Croden’s offer, that temptation would never be enough to inspire him to break the law. That’s not how Odo works, but while it’s great that the episode makes an effort to stay true to the character, it leads to him being grumpily sidelined right up until the final scenes.

In the end, Odo figures out how to escape Ah-Kel (killing the Miradorn in the process, leaving a convenient, although completely necessary, absence of witnesses), and he decides to let both Croden and Yareth (the daughter) go. This decision is made easier by Croden’s willingness to sacrifice himself to save both his child’s and Odo’s lives. (This is particularly effective seeings as Odo was trying to take away Croden’t freedom for good.) That’s pretty high up on the Decency Scorecard, so it’s not a shock when Odo, still grouchy, allows Croden to accompany Yareth onto a Vulcan science ship. “Vortex” is, like a great many of episodes we’ve seen so far this season—staunchly mediocre—but its good moments help elevate it from the completely forgettable, and they also serve as a promise that these characters, and this world, are worth exploring.

According to the A.V. Club review of Battle Lines:

This week Kira gets an episode, and it is, unsurprisingly, a fairly heavy one. Kai Opaka, the spiritual leader of the Bajorans, returns, and just as quickly dies; we learn the evils of constant conflict; and Sisko gets a bit pissy with poor Bashir. “Battle Lines” isn’t entirely centered on Kira, but her character does provide most of the episode’s emotional weight, at least as far as the ensemble is concerned. There are also a group of Road Warrior rejects trapped in what has to be the most hellish interpretation of Lazer Tag I’ve ever seen, and they serve as the episode’s cautionary tale. In many ways, this is a classic sort of Trek story, using a never heard of before, probably never heard of again alien society to serve as a metaphor for very real human problems. The Ennis and the Nol aren’t defined beyond their perpetual struggle (and their fashion sense), and as much as it’s possible to pity them, we’ve no sense of them as existing beyond their situation. Which, of course, may be the point; if you’re trying to show the ways unbending enmity can transform and reduce a culture, you’re not going to give that culture a thriving arts scene. But that still makes for an hour filled with a lot of bland angry people, one that keeps hinting at more interesting directions, but never having the courage to follow them.

What’s both frustrating and promising about “Battle Lines” is that the pieces are here for something legitimately terrific. Kira’s past association with Bajoran terrorists, her life spent waging war on the Cardassians, and the hope and uncertainty which peace brings, are all meaty, legitimately compelling subjects, and all of them are brought up in this episode to varying degrees. In the cold open, O’Brien shows Sisko some Cardassian files he discovered on the station; Kira looks at them, and is furious to learn that the Cardassians considered her a “minor operative.” This is played as a joke, and not a particularly funny one, but it makes sense. Major Kira is still struggling for ways to define herself, and she’s so unsure that she’s willing to turn to her most hated enemies for help. When Kai Opaka arrives on the station, Kira is in awe. When the Kai dies, she’s distraught, with a naked display of grief that borders on the absurd. Kira has an arc in this episode, to an extent; she’s frustrated and angry until the resurrected Kai forces her to express her sorrow. But “Battle Lines” is so invested in making sure we understand just how screwed the Ennis and Nol are that poor Kira doesn’t get her due.

Nor does the Kai. While I wasn’t entirely sold on the role of the Prophets in the pilot episode of the show, Kai Opaka is smartly conceived, a spiritual leader who is at once vaguely mystical and solidly grounded. Camille Saviola is cast somewhat against type in the role; she has the authority and the presence, but there’s nothing remotely ethereal about her, which works to her (and the show’s) advantage. She comes off a bit like the head nun of a liberal convent. She gets more screentime in “Battle Lines” than she does in “Emissary,” and she gets more of a character as well; before, she was just the calm voice helping to guide Sisko toward the next phase of his life, while here, she actually has her own journey to follow. But that journey’s impact is minimized by how little we’re given to understand the Kai, or what motivates her. Her status as wise woman and seer make her innately more mystical and distant that the main cast, but too much of what she does here is motivated by discoveries and revelations made off screen. She arrives on DS9 because of a prophecy she doesn’t really bring up; she dies; she’s resurrected by the moon’s nanobites; and then she decides to stay with the Ennis. Granted, she doesn’t have much choice, as any attempt to leave the moon would result in her death, but it’s still a decision, and a scene, which should carry more weight than it does. As it plays, only Kira’s grief, and a few scenes with Dax, O’Brien, and Odo, give us any impression of how big a deal this is.

Still, if the show is going to go through the now-familiar growing pains of finding itself, it helps that the TOS-style plot that gives “Battle Lines” its spine is as decent as this one is. The episode is, unsurprisingly, fairly heavy handed. It’s not black-and-white racists heavy-handed, but as metaphors go, you don’t need to put a lot of interpretive work into unraveling authorial intent. The Ennis are battling the Nol. Shel-la, the leader of the Ennis, lays it out for Sisko with a world-weariness befitting an actor who would go on to play one of television’s most beloved hitmen. (Jonathan Banks, as always and ever, is the man.) The two groups were exiled from their home world to serve as an example of eternal war. The moon they live on is infested with a kind of nanobite technology which keeps every living being perpetually alive, no matter how much damage they take from fighting and explosions and pointy rocks. They’ve been beating on each other for years now, and there’s no end in sight. War is hell, and so on.

Okay, the idea here is somewhat predictable, but I like how it has a nasty edge to it. Shel-la certainly seems reasonable enough when he’s talking with Sisko, Kira, Bashir, and the Kai, but the more he talks, the clearer it is how much the perpetual struggle has taken over his view of life, and how much he’s invested in two ideas: Life is agony, and the Nols are to blame for that agony. This makes trying to mediate a truce between the two groups somewhere between impossible, and really, really not possible. Sisko, who mistakenly believes he can help the Ennis and the Nol escape their punishment, tries to get Shel-la and his counterpart, Zlangco, to come to terms, if only to stop the fighting long enough to get everyone to safety. While it’s not a huge surprise that the meeting goes sour, there’s something convincing, and more than a little depressing, at just how easily attempts at communication can go awry. Also creepy is She-la’s reaction when Bashir discovers a way to turn the nanobites off; while this would offer the Ennis and the Nol a chance to finally end their suffering, She-la is more interested in using the knowledge as a weapon.

This is all handled well, but it’s an earnest attempt to teach us the same lesson so many shows, movies, and books have taught in the past, which means its hard to get too worked up about the poor Ennis and horrid Nol. (No, wait, strike that, reverse it.) These characters are ciphers by design, stripped of personality to demonstrate how war turns people into ghosts (or something), and while that’s symbolic, and true in its own way, it doesn’t make for great drama. That leaves us with our main ensemble, and, thankfully, they do a decent job picking up the slack. Sisko is angrier than usual, nearly taking off Bashir’s head when the doctor loses perspective in a moment of scientific curiosity, and yelling at Kira when she flirts with taking part in the fight against the Nol. In spite of Sisko’s irritation, Bashir is likeable enough, and the episode even allows him a serious moment near the end, when he shows his disgust at Shel-la’s desire to use medical aid as a weapon.

Kira gets the big moments, however, and even if I wished the episode had done more with those moments, they remain effective in their own right. The only one I’m not sold on (apart from her silly freak-out about the Cardassian records) is her grief over the Kai’s death. Nana Visitor goes all out, and while I respect her commitment, it’s an awkward scene, too brutally vulnerable to fit in with the rest of the hour. It doesn’t help that Kai comes back to life some 10 minutes later. That’s the main problem with Kira, though—her handful of scenes have a clear direction to them, but they don’t connect properly with each other, or with the rest of the episode. I like them on their own, particularly Kira and Opaka’s conversation near the end, when she talks about how confused and upset she is, but they’re the start of something that never has a chance to get going. I don’t mind the occasional sci-fi heavy-handedness—if I did, I wouldn’t have watched this much Star Trek. But I do mind pushing aside interesting and potentially powerful character development in favor of the same old story about how war makes men into monsters. I don’t care if people I haven’t met before have lost their souls. I’m much more interested in how Kira goes about finding hers.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Forsaken:

There’s an elevator in the library where I work, and I use it every day. Part of my job (my non-pop-culture-ingesting-and-scoring-cheap-points job) is pulling books and periodicals from various floors, so every morning, I grab a cart, and hit the stacks. That means, on average, between seven to ten elevator trips per day. It’s not something I think about much, except when I bump into someone else. Then it gets awkward. Other staff, custodians, faculty, and students also use the elevator, and as much as I might try to avoid it, every once in a while, someone’s waiting ahead of me. Or, worse, they show up while I’m waiting, and then it’s all a lot of avoiding eye contact and trying to look like I’m not avoiding eye contact because that would make it weird. Worst of all is when the elevator arrives, and the other person assumes we’re going to share the ride. I’m more than willing to wait, and the cart helps me pretend it’s entirely due to space concerns; really, though, I just don’t like sharing an elevator with people. I like everyone I work with, and I have absolutely nothing against anyone else at the school, but there’s something unavoidably intimate about being in a small space with a stranger, even if its only for a few moments. In my ideal world, I would never have to be that close to anyone unless I chose to be. But life doesn’t work like that. Eventually, someone’s to cram themselves in next to you, ask you how your day is going, and keep on talking whether you answer them or not.

There’s an elevator in “The Forsaken,” although because this is science fiction, everyone goes to great lengths to call it a turbolift. Odo gets trapped on one with the visiting Lwaxana Troi, and, at first, it’s about as awkward as you’d imagine. Awkwardness is the main theme of this week’s first episode, featuring prominently in all three of its plotlines. There’s Odo, fending off Lwaxana’s advances until there’s no place left to hide; Bashir, stuck playing nanny for a trio of impossible to please and insufferably arrogant ambassadors; and O’Brien, whose problems with the Cardassian computer system. Those problems seem to go away when a mysterious probe comes through the wormhole and infects the station, and it’s this infestation which gives the episode its hook. As hooks go, however, this is about as indifferent as you can imagine. O’Brien downloads information off the probe’s hard drive to study it, and strange things start happening; Dax theorizes that the information they downloaded is actually a form of non-biological life; and O’Brien ultimately creates a programmed playground for the “creature” to hang out in.

Probe-wise, that’s really it. The “non-biological life form” is an intriguing idea, but the episode never goes very far with it. The various Treks have used this set-up–stumbling across an unknown device that takes over the ship/station–many, many times before, and the handling of it here is perfunctory to the point of self-parody. The only confirmation that any of Dax and O’Brien’s theories are right is that they’re able to resolve the station’s difficulties by following through on their hypothesis. That’s certainly logical, but it also leaves us with a storyline that never goes beyond the surface. Much the same could be said for the tale of Bashir’s struggles with the ambassadors. They’re pompous prats, and he’s stuck toadying to them and desperately trying to keep them happy while Sisko avoids their requests. This happens a few times, then everything on the station goes to hell, and Bashir is trapped in a corridor with the group after an explosion. His quick thinking gets them all to the safety of a maintenance duct, and the last we see of the ambassadors, they’re praising Bashir to the heavens and calling him “Julian.”

Both of these plots are enjoyable in their way, but there isn’t much to them. We don’t learn much about the ambassadors, beyond the fact that they confirm the usual Trek suspicion of bureaucracy, and Bashir’s “solution” to dealing with them is, essentially, “Just wait until something blows up.” There’s a certain level of competence, be it in television, film, or literature, that’s difficult to effectively criticize, and the tales of O’Brien and the Probe, and the Doctor vs. the Dickheads, fall into that level. I could point out that the ambassadors are stereotypes, or that the probe itself is a cliche, but that would require a specific resentment or disappointment on my part which doesn’t exist. These are small pieces with minimal ambition, and they hit their marks. Dax and O’Brien get to team up for a while, which makes me like them more; and Bashir gets to be routinely humbled and embarrassed, which makes me like him more. The show can do better, but it’s easy to spend too much time criticizing an episode for what it might have been. So let’s just say that this was fine, and move on to what really matters.

In this case, that’s the third plotline, and easily the most meaningful of the bunch: Odo’s relationship with Lwaxana. Truth be told, if “The Forsaken” (whose title is, so far as I can tell, even more meaningless than usual) lacked this final element, I’d probably be harder on its other, less powerful segments; but while trapping two disparate characters together in an enclosed space is about as stock a TV situation as one can imagine, the drama and catharsis these two generate help justify every other aspect of the episode.

Lwaxana Troi has always been a problematic character. She first appeared in the season one Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Haven,” where she served in the capacity of the annoying relative everyone has to put up with because she’s really a good person deep down. As Deanna Troi’s mother, Lwaxana (Majel Barett) was by turns shrill, aggressive, cloying, and, in her best moments, convincingly melancholic, and whether or not she was tolerable depended on what version of the character the writers decided to have show up this week. As conceived, the character could’ve worked, but TNG too often struggled with how to use her, relying too often on the painfully unfunny “comedy” of an older woman being sexually aggressive and rude. At times, we were allowed a more complex view, and Barett was usually able to deliver in this moments; mostly, though, she just shrieked at her daughter and assaulted Jean-Luc Picard with innuendo.

At first, “The Forsaken” seems to be following the same path. Lwaxana is the fourth ambassador, and when someone tries to steal her brooch in Quark’s bar, and Odo catches the thief, the Betazoid woman is immediately taken with him. Odo, unsurprisingly, doesn’t know what to make of her interest. At first, he doesn’t understand that she’s flirting with him, and then he’s uncomfortable and asks Sisko for help. Sisko, in essence, shrugs and tells him to deal with it himself. All of this should be familiar to TNG fans, right down to the way Odo sticks his head out to see if Lwaxana is around before entering a room. It’s a little less painful than Picard’s attempts to dodge the lady, but that’s because Picard was ostensibly the most powerful man on the Enterprise, and his cowardly avoidance of Lwaxana never really made much sense–it was more something that was done because someone thought it would be funny than it was in keeping with his character. Like Picard, Odo is confident in his own world, but not comfortable with socializing, but Odo’s discomfort stems from his own rarefied existence. He’s never quite sure how he should behave around anyone when it’s not a business matter (which is why he gets on with Quark, really; every conversation they have is about business), and Lwaxana’s rudeness just throws his essential oddness into sharper focus. We can laugh at his embarrassment, but sympathize with him as well.

It’s harder to sympathize with Lwaxana, at least at first. If I have a complaint about their story, it’s that Lwaxana’s sudden interest in Odo is a little too sudden, but then, that’s always been the way with her. People who push themselves on other people have always rubbed me the wrong way, and I never found Pepe Le Pew, Ms. Troi’s clearest spiritual ancestor, all that amusing. Thankfully, we’re given reason to like her once she and Odo get trapped in the turbolift. Initially, Lwaxana gets nervous and can’t stop talking, while Odo reacts as one might expect him to react, with a lot of rolled eyes and groans. But in this context, Lwaxana’s chatter goes from pushy and irritating to a little sad. If you’ve ever watched TNG, this revelation won’t come as a surprise, but Lwaxana has always been a little sad, all the more so because she herself recognizes it. She wears colorful clothes and exotic wigs, she insists on getting whatever she wants, and she keeps shoving herself into other people’s lives because she’s rather lonely, and terrified of ever looking into the mirror and seeing something less than extraordinary.

That’s fine for what it is, but “The Forsaken” becomes exceptional when it also takes the time to get inside Odo’s head. Every 16 hours, Odo becomes a liquid, and his time runs out in the lift, forcing him to show a side of himself to Lwaxana that he’s never revealed to anyone before. It comes in stages; first he starts to sweat, then his face melts, and then his entire body loses solidity. For the first time, we learn where Odo became who is he is today, in a Bajoran testing facility, and we find out that he spent much of his “childhood” changing his shape so he could impress the scientists. So for as long as he can remember, he hasn’t belonged, and the only way he could attract attention was by showing just how different he is. He’s established himself on Deep Space Nine, and while he uses his ability in pursuit of criminals, it’s more a super-power than it is a defining trait. His Odo-ness is unquestioned, and maybe the reason he’s so gruff and single-minded is the same reason he moves so stiffly, and his features are nearly, but not exactly, human–being a person, for Odo, requires a conscious and constant act of will.

It’s not surprise, then, that he doesn’t want to show himself in his purest form to anyone. None of us would want that. While Odo’s position is more explicit, being human, and being around other people, already requires an effort. The face we show the world is self-constructed; for some of us, the construction is more laborious than it is for others, but every inch of it is the face we made, feature by feature, choice by choice. Lwaxana understands this better than most, and she’s able to convey her understanding to Odo in way that allows him to finally let himself go. There’s always been something a little contrived about the elder Troi, a little forced and manufactured, and “The Forsaken” finds a way to use what could’ve been a writing flaw to its benefit. “I’ve never cared to be ordinary,” she tells Odo, and while that sadness remains, there’s something beautiful in it as well. In her way, Lwaxana is as much a misfit as Odo, whether by her choosing, or else by some fundamental aspect of her personality that drives her to make her choices. At the end of the episode, Lwaxana flirts one last time before walking off, and for once, the sight didn’t make me flinch. She may not be the easiest person in the world to deal with, but some people are worth the effort.

According to the A.V. Club review of Duet:

There are impossible situations. They happen every day, and we’re all a part of them, and we live with it. You couldn’t exist in this world if you didn’t. As I type this, people are suffering. Some of them are starving, some of them are being assaulted, tortured, mutilated, and, well, this is already getting too grim for a Star Trek review, but you feel me, right? As individuals, we can sign petitions, we can post pleas for sanity on the web, and we can do what we can with whatever we come across in our own lives, but we are largely powerless to change the course of the world. It’s not defeatism or an excuse to say there are limits to the effect of good intentions; it’s simple plain facts. But it’s also impossible, because we’re taught that you can’t be a good person and allow others to suffer. No, it’s more than that: It’s something most of us feel intuitively, without having to be told. Empathy is one of the most valuable tools at our disposal as human beings. It makes solitary existence less lonely, and it allows us to grow societies where immediate reward isn’t the primary motivation. And yet, ultimately, it doesn’t make us superheroes. There’s only so much you can do, and the only way to survive is to find some balance between the impossible and what you need to let you sleep at night. And even that’s too much to ask in some situations. When the harm is so big, and the bodies are all around you, balance is lost. And so you fall, and you keep falling, and the most you can hope for is maybe, someday, you’ll hit bottom.

Once upon a time, the Cardassians controlled Bajor, and they did horrible things. We’ve heard about the occupation before, but in “Duet,” Kira gives a speech about what she saw while liberating a forced-labor camp, and it’s the most direct description of the atrocities committed against her people that the show has given us. She talks about broken bodies, minds destroyed, and of captives humiliated, starved, and beaten, and her voice catches on the words. So when an apparent survivor from the camp arrives on the station, she’s eager to meet him. The visitor requires immediate treatment for an affliction known as Kalla-Nohra, which only affects individuals who were at Gallitepp, the labor camp, during a mining accident. Kira rushes to the infirmary to greet the new guest, but instead of a Bajoran, she finds a Cardassian named Aamin Marritza receiving Bashir’s ministrations. Kira demands Marritza’s immediate arrest, because she knows he had to have been there, and he has to be responsible. Except Marritza denies any direct involvement in the torture of Bajoran citizens; he claims he was just a file clerk. Kira thinks he’s lying, and that’s when things get interesting.

The specter of the Cardassian occupation has hung over Deep Space Nine from the beginning. Ostensibly, Sisko and the rest of the Starfleet personnel are on board DS9 to help usher Bajor into the Federation, but they also serve as a deterrent, should the Cardassians ever get it into their heads to pick up where they left off. The occupation shaped Kira, made her the troubled, impassioned woman she is when we first meet her; it also fractured her culture, leaving the Bajoran people insecure, jumpy, and overeager to prove themselves. (It also made them even more dependent on religion for cultural identity, which is something we’ll get into next week.) The technology on the station was designed by Cardassians, so every day going into work means dealing with a history that’s literally built into the scenery. Capturing someone from Gallittepp is a huge coup, not just for Kira but for the whole Bajoran race, because here is someone they can punish. That’s one of the ways we deal with those impossible situations: We decide who’s responsible, and then we hold them accountable, and we call it justice. It doesn’t bring back the dead, and it can’t ever change the past or clean off the blood, but it at least creates an illusion of continuity. This man did a bad thing, but now he’ll suffer the consequences. Thus a senseless act gains a structure. It is now its own story: victims, suffering, prosecution, catharsis. Once pain has been incorporated into a narrative, we’re on our way to processing it.

The drawback to this is that deep down, we know justice won’t change the past, and the only way to deal with that uncomfortable knowledge is to get angry. When we’re angry at someone, we aren’t sad about someone else, and that’s a relief; but the anger needs to be fed, and it needs a target, which puts us in the uncomfortable position of putting emotion ahead of judgement. To a certain extent, that’s what happens in “Duet.” As soon as Kira sees that Marritza is a Cardassian, she’s determined to see him back on Bajor to be tried for his crimes, but the situation doesn’t add up. Sisko has doubts, and while he’s sympathetic to Kira, he insists she follow due process. The Bajorans aren’t shy about putting the pressure on Sisko, and it’s to his credit that he doesn’t bend or back down. It’s a trait he’s demonstrated convincingly throughout the first season. He’s reasonable, sympathetic, and open to discussion, but he will not be pushed into anything. At the same time, he can change his mind if given cause. Realizing it would be hard for Kira to maintain objectivity, Sisko initially puts Odo in charge of the Marritza investigation. But Kira pleads with him that she can follow procedure and be impartial as necessary, and that it’s important that a Bajoran should be handling what is, in a way, Bajoran business. Sisko agrees, and puts her in command. It’s an important step in their ongoing relationship, because he’s trusting her. He has every reason not to, and it’s not as though Kira has always presented herself as a model of poise and detachment. But for them to work together, he needs to allow her opportunities to prove herself. Trust only really means anything when it comes with a certain level of risk.

The heart of “Duet,” and the scenes which give the episode its name, are the conversations between Kira and the imprisoned Marritza. The Cardassian suspect is played by Harris Yulin (a character actor who has been a lot of TV and film; as someone on Twitter pointed out, he was the “hanging judge” in Ghostbusters 2), and the actor does a tremendous job in conveying a complex, often obscured personality without ever appearing inconsistent or vague. We don’t know the real truth about Marritza until the very end of the hour, but when the final reveal is made, everything building up to it makes sense. That’s partly due to some great writing (the episode has three credited contributors: Peter Allan Fields wrote the teleplay, and Lisa Rich and Jeanne Carrigan-Fauci provided the story), and partly due to Yulin. Guest stars have to create convincing, compelling characters in a very short period of time, and Yulin is immediately fascinating. He and Nana Visitor bounce off each other beautifully, and where other actors might have been too vague—playing Marritza’s obfuscation as opacity—Yulin is specific. There’s a strong sense from the start the character is hiding something, and Yulin uses this to draw in both us and Kira. He can’t be a simple file clerk, obviously. He has to have some secret so dark he can’t bear to let it go.

Marritza lies for most of the episode, and one of the reasons his interactions with Kira are so interesting is that his lies always feed into what she wants to hear. At first, he denies that he’s afflicted with Kalla-Nohra; he’s a simple file clerk, he has Pottrick Syndrome, they have similar symptoms, he’s being persecuted, etc. But Bashir runs a test that confirms the disease, so Marritza shifts to a new tactic. Yes, he was at Gallitepp, but he still was nothing but a file clerk. He had no part in any violence. He might have heard the occasional scream, but what of it? He argues that Gallitepp’s reputation as a Hell on Bajor was entirely fabricated by the camp’s director, Gul Darhe’el, in a brilliant propaganda move to put fear into the hearts of Bajorans everywhere. Given what Kira’s seen, this is obviously untrue, and when taken at their word, Marritza’s argument makes no sense: He claims it was easier to fake a slaughterhouse than it was to kill for real, and that doesn’t parse out. But what he’s saying doesn’t need to be believable, because he’s not saying it to persuade Kira to let him go. He tells these lies to needle her. First the denial of his own involvement, then the denial of the event itself, both falsehoods carefully constructed to drive a wounded idealist out of her mind with rage.

Besides, she wants him to be guilty—any sane person would. Imagine it’s just after the second World War, and you find a Nazi living next door. When you go to turn him in, would it be better if he was Himmler, head of the Gestapo and destroyer of thousands of lives, or Hans, the schmuck who kept his eyes down and made sure the reports were turned in on time? The greater the evil, the more satisfying the punishment; it even makes for a better story, because the former has drama, while the latter complicates the dilemma, forcing you to perform a sort of moral algebra with yourself as the main variable. I would never be a Himmler, or a Hitler, or any other powerful monster, because I lack the desire (and the capacity) for cruelty on such a grand scale. But I am also kind of a coward, and while I’d like to believe I’d stand up if the Nazis (or any other monstrous organization) took power, I don’t know for sure. So how do you punish someone for not being heroic? How can you get that catharsis, that grief-mollifying click, when the situation becomes more complex than “Good” versus “Really, really, really bad”?

Kira is convinced something is going on, so she (with some help from Odo and a few others) keeps digging. She eventually hits what must seem like pay dirt: An old photo of the camp reveals that Marritza is apparently lying about his identity. He’s no file clerk—he’s Gul Darhe’el in the flesh. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect outcome. When Kira confronts Marritza with her discovery, he switches from manipulative deceiver to bombastic demagogue, spouting off about the inferiority of the Bajoran race, how the people needed to be cleansed, and how he has no regrets. He’s spiteful, unashamed, and utterly despicable, providing Kira with the sort of ideal, ends-tied-neatly resolution one rarely finds in real life.

But it isn’t true. That would be too easy. Odo gets a call from Gul Dukat, and when he tells the Cardassian who they have in custody, Dukat is astonished. Darhe’el, he insists, is dead; he died years ago, and was buried with full military honors on Cardassia Prime. This puts Kira in a quandary. She has the evidence of her eyes, she has a prisoner who’s confessed to his crimes, and what’s more, she has that ache she needs to take care of. The want which is really just a need you pretend you can forestall. Because if the prisoner isn’t Darhe’el, not only is she robbed of immediate resolution, she and the Bajorans will never be able to bring the real butcher of Gallitepp into the light. If the real Darhe’el is dead, he died peacefully among his own people, who revere him as a war hero. His victims, the bodies “who moved too slowly and never moved again” won’t ever be at peace. Still, Kira has principles, and she know she has to find the truth. She works with Odo, and finally, they realize that Marritza can’t be Darhe’el. Darhe’el wasn’t at Gallitepp on the day of the accident which caused the Kalla-Nohra disease. So the Cardassian sitting in a cell on DS9 is someone else entirely. But who? And why would he pretend to be the Devil himself?

Going by the details, it’s a ridiculous twist: Marritza really was a file clerk at Gallitepp, and, haunted by the memory of the suffering and atrocities committed there, he decided to take extreme action. Believing a trial was the only way to bring Cardassian guilt to light, he surgically altered his face to look like Gul Darhe’el, and then travelled to DS9, where he knew Kira would recognize the implications of his Kalla-Nohra, and that she’d also persecute him with every means at her disposal. He then gave her a series of false stories, to make the “real” false story all the more convincing. It’s a plan worthy of a Bond villain, even if it was executed with the purest of intentions, and requires a significant suspension of disbelief. It works, though, mainly for two reasons: This is a science fiction show, and it’s okay if the details are a little ridiculous; and even if the plot itself is far-fetched, the core emotions driving it resonate strongly enough that nitpicking becomes irrelevant. “Duet” doesn’t argue that Marritza suffered worse than the Bajorans; it just suggests that the impact of a horrific crime goes beyond the fate of the victims. Marritza is not a bad man, and while it would be easy to judge him for standing by and letting others suffer, that would be forcing an expectation on him that we can’t fulfill ourselves. Kira’s final interrogation, as she gently, mercifully breaks down Marritza’s defenses, is a beautiful scene, and, for a few moments, there seems a possibility that the tragedy the two of them share might have an ending after all. Atrocities can, and will, occur, but it might be possible to find a way beyond them, to a world where such things might not happen again. Kira forgives Marritza for being imperfect. For being weak, and frightened, and alone. If she can do that, if she can feel compassion even under the weight of all she’s seen, maybe…

Oh wait. A Bajoran just murdered Marritza for being a Cardassian. Never mind, then.

According to the A.V. Club review of In the Hands of the Prophets:

Teaching is a political act. It shouldn’t be; conveying knowledge ought to be something so clearly positive and noble that we accept its value without question. But it gets complicated when you have to pinpoint what exactly all this “knowledge” is, and what should be taught in schools and what should be left for parents. Here in the United States, ideological battles are fought over what’s appropriate in the classroom, over who controls what children know—and we’re all nominally the same species. On DS9, Keiko is teaching human and Bajoran kids, among others, and while the school is small, and Keiko has never expressed much in the way of a revolutionary edge, there are bound to be problems sooner or later. Bajor is a planet in crisis, and when people get confused or frightened, they cling to whatever gives them comfort. It’s understandable that religion would fill this role, and in some ways, it’s laudable; instead of wallowing in despair or lashing out, the Bajorans seek to ally themselves with higher powers, and work to revitalize their troubled race with purpose and compassion. Unfortunately, whenever a large group of individuals clings to an idea for support, some of those individuals are going to cling too tightly. There’s no ideology on Earth or elsewhere that can make you a better person simply for embracing it, and those Bajorans with hate in their hearts aren’t suddenly going to let go of hate because of the Prophets. And even those who are peaceful believers will struggle to defend their faith against outsiders. In this case, that means Keiko, and her lessons about the wormhole, which focus on science rather than faith.

“In The Hands Of The Prophets” isn’t the subtlest episode, but it does a good job expanding the show’s world, and playing off of undercurrents and themes which have been built in throughout DS9’s first season. Keiko’s school was first introduced in “A Man Alone,” and while it hasn’t come up in every episode since then, it’s been mentioned every few episodes, to the point where it’s become an accepted part of the station. This is one of the ways serialization works for TV shows; you create a potential plot point or character, you make the sure the audience never entirely forgets it, but you also keep it largely in reserve until you need it. The last major focus on the school came in “The Nagus,” which reminded us once again that, regardless of how easy it is for us to see the value of learning, not every culture agrees with those values. In “The Nagus,” Nog’s father, Rom, pulled him out of school to save face in front of his elders. In “Prophets,” a Bajoran religious leader arrives on the station to object to what Keiko’s teaching Bajoran children. Both objections are presented as philosophical differences—Keiko isn’t teaching the “right” information—but are driven by more complicated motives. Rom pulled Nog out of school to impress his elders; and Vedek Winn Adami (Louise Fletcher) is using the fervor she can create over an easy target to help her strike at a more dangerous foe.

Louise Fletcher has had something of an up-and-down career since winning an Oscar for her career-defining role as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Mostly down; she’s worked steadily, but few other roles have effectively captured her mixture of soft-spoken, unblinking authoritarianism. InCuckoo’s Nest, she humanized a larger-than-life villain without minimizing or soft-pedaling her cruelty, and she does much the same here. Vedek Winn is the most unsettling of enemies, a true believer whose faith doesn’t prevent her from manipulation and deceit. In a way, her faith emboldens her to do more. Winn is one of a handful of Vedeks in line to become the next Kai, and the public support she rallies on the station by targeting Keiko’s school works as both a clear statement of the philosophy she’ll bring to the position of Kai, and a way to use that philosophy to make her ascension appear all but inevitable. She has another motive as well, but it’s all part and parcel of the episode’s largest concern: negotiating the continued challenges of a Bajoran-Federation relationship. As a closing note to the show’s first season, the episode looks to provide a modicum of closure—“Look how far we’ve come”—while still allowing for the difficulties to come. In this respect, the hour largely succeeds. It’s a blunt instrument, but at this point in the series’ run, bluntness still gets the job done.

While Keiko and Vedek Winn are waging their word war, Chief O’Brien has problems of his own. One of his tools, an EJ7, is missing, and while that doesn’t seem like much, an engineer never misplaces his tools. Worse, the EJ7 is specifically designed to access security systems, which means if it was taken, whoever took it might have been up to no good. The situation becomes more complicated when O’Brien and his assistant Neela find a lump of organic material in a duct. The lump contains what’s left of the missing tool, along with the remains of one Ensign Aquino. It could’ve been an accident, but O’Brien isn’t buying that, and neither (presumably) is the audience. The structure is blatant, in that the two plots serve very distinct purposes: Winn and Keiko are there for the heavy stuff, with lots of uncomfortable tension and thematic weight, while O’Brien And The Missing Thingamabob provide a lighter tone. Yes, horrible death is involved, but a murder mystery has an inherent hook that’s easier to grab on to than interracial religious and political strife. With the former, we can expect an answer to question; with the latter, the most we can usually expect is more questions. The two plots complement each other nicely, and O’Brien’s story gains suspense from its adjacency to the vedek’s. It’s not explicitly stated, and the connection between the two doesn’t become obvious until the last act, but it clearly isn’t a coincidence when someone dies right before tensions between the Bajorans and the Federation personnel erupt. Not only are we curious who murdered poor Aquino, we’re curious why, and we know it’ll be important.

This keeps the episode moving, which is a good thing, because the other storyline doesn’t have the same momentum. This isn’t a criticism: The brief war over the school isn’t really a war. Winn interrupts a class, and spreads distrust throughout the station; Keiko objects, there are some conversations; the school blows up; another vedek arrives on the station; and that’s when the two separate stories become one, as we realize the murder is part of a small conspiracy for Winn to take out her biggest opponent for the position of Kai. The arguments and discussions that occur before this are, if sometimes a little too easily split between “good” and “bad,” compelling and effective television, but unlike O’Brien’s quest, none of these scenes really go anywhere. They can’t. The biggest dramatic moment in the episode is Sisko’s speech on the promenade about how much Bajorans and the Federation have come to respect each other, and he isn’t changing anything so much as he’s reminding everyone of the real status quo. Vedeks will come and go, and it’s naïve to expect life will always (or even generally) be easy on the station, but one rabble rouser is never going to undo all the work that’s been done. For all its pyrotechnics, this is a story about people taking stock of how far they’ve come, and how far they still have yet to go.

Winn is a terrific villain, though—maybe a little too terrific. For most of “Prophets,” the vedek’s arrogance and unflappability are both infuriating and utterly on point. People like Winn exist in the real world, which is frustrating; worse, they tend to rise to positions of power, because their determination, patience, and utter faith in their own infallibility give them a distinct advantage over everyone who pauses to think they might not be perfect. But by the end of the episode, we learn Winn has resorted to plotting assassination attempts to get her way, and there’s something unfortunately convenient about it. While it’s not hard to believe that Winn is so convinced of her superiority that she’d assume another vedek’s rise to the Kai position would be disastrous for Bajor, and would thus use any means necessary to remove her rivals from the field, making Winn an outright criminal gives us a pass to dislike her. The issues she raises are troubling, as they should be, but as Sisko explains to Jake, we can’t just dismiss people like Winn as “stupid,” no matter how good that makes us feel. The cost of wanting to do the right thing is realizing you can always be wrong. Giving the audience and characters such an easy out with Winn—it’s not a matter of philosophical differences, she’s a killer—reduces the complexity.

Still, Winn is a great character, and I hope to see her again next season, no matter how unpleasant her visits might be. Besides, even if the murder plot is too broad, the character work is strong. We first met Neela (Robin Christopher) in “Duet,” and while she’s too new for her betrayal to carry a huge amount of weight, Christopher manages in a few short scenes to leave an impression. In particular, her mildly flirtatious chat with O’Brien while the two are (unbeknownst to him) investigating her crime gives us a sense that she isn’t just an unthinking acolyte. She tells O’Brien she likes him because he isn’t like other Federation personnel, and she talks in the awkward, sort of surprised way people tend to have when revealing a truth about themselves. This doesn’t make her any less committed to Winn, and while she argues with the vedek when she realizes her escape route has been cut off, she doesn’t hesitate when it comes time to try and assassinate Vedek Bareil (Philip Anglim). Even when she fails, she remains undaunted. If Winn allowed us to get out of the conflict too easily, Neela pulls us back in. She’s kind, cute, and friendly, and she still fires her phaser. These are complicated emotions, and they can ruin lives.

If “Prophets” is essentially about the conflicts which arise between cultures even when everyone has the best of intentions, Sisko and Kira serve as the representative figures in those conflicts. Both have good scenes in this season finale. Sisko gets a speech, and he also gets to stop Neela from killing Bareil; for my money, his best scenes are the quieter moments, first between him and Jake, and then later with Kira. Avery Brooks has tremendous presence and a terrific voice, but I’m not sure “big speech” sequences really suit him. Or maybe it was just the speech itself. Either way, he remains a strong leader in an ensemble series which, unlike earlier Trek shows, doesn’t have a single dominating presence. Nana Visitor is great as always, although she spends most of the episode in the background. Her initial faith in Vedek Winn is a new wrinkle in her character; Kira’s faith has been established before, but it’s troubling to see her so willingly embrace a fanatic, no matter how much she longs for certainty. But she recognizes her mistake by the end, and while Vedek Winn walks away free of charges, and poor Neela goes off to jail, the episode still finds room for some hope in its final moments, between the two characters who have the most reason to be at odds. Sisko and Kira are back on the same team, and we have a relationship which has developed from barely muted antagonism to mutual respect. Their problems haven’t been solved, but they, along with rest of the cast, are prepared to face what happens next together, which is all you can really hope for.

 

The Worst:

Move Along Home, The Nagus, If Wishes Were Horses, and Dramatis Personae

Ifwisheswerehorses

In bits:

  • Move Along Home and If Wishes Were Horses are both silly plot based episodes, better suited for early TNG or TOS;
  • The Nagus is the first episode to introduce the Ferengi Grand Nagus, Zek; and,
  • Dramatis Personae sees a telepathic infection among the crew, setting them to fight against each other on two warring sides.

According to the A.V. Club review of Move Along Home:

I have a soft spot for goofy Trek. Maybe it’s because I started this project with the original show, where it seemed like every other week I dealt with babe-robots who destruct with a kiss, totalitarian computers, and Abraham Lincoln (who, thank god, was not fighting vampires at the time). Few of these episodes were good in the traditional sense, but most of them were fun, and good-natured, and that goes a long way. So while I don’t think “Move Along Home” in any way qualifies as a quality episode of DS9, and while it once again sacrifices ensemble interaction in favor of an outside force, I didn’t hate it. It was utterly ridiculous, and most of the times I was laughing, I was laughing at the episode rather than with it, but when you’re dealing with mediocre TV, you take whatever laughter you can get.

Things start promisingly enough. Sisko is getting suited up in his fancy dress uniform, when Jake bounds in the room—remember Jake? Sisko’s son? Yeah, it’s been a while. Anyway, Sisko sets things up for Jake: A new race of aliens is coming about the station, and Sisko and his team are in charge of handling first contact. When the aliens arrive, things don’t go quite as expected. For one, Bashir has lost his dress uniform, which is an odd beat that’s neither funny, nor character-illuminating, nor, unless I missed something, at all relevant to the plot. For another, the aliens, who call themselves the Wadi, aren’t much interested in Sisko or any of the others. They want to go to Quark’s bar, because they hear he has games, so that’s where they go.

We’ve dealt with first contact before in the Trek-verse. Hell, there’s even a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called “First Contact” (not to mention the movie, which, admittedly, isn’t really about first contact). “Move Along Home” isn’t really about Sisko trying to negotiate a relationship with the Wadi, mainly because the Wadi are basically nutters who exist only so we can have a 30-minute psuedo-holodeck segment. Most of the time, Trek makes an effort to create coherent societies for their aliens. Those societies aren’t always perfect, but they at least feel like they have a purpose beyond providing temporary narrative conflict. Then you have folks like the Wadi, who have one trait—they love games!—and, after a single episode, disappear forever. While “The Passenger” is dull stuff, at least the Kobliad seem they could exist outside the episode. The Wadi are like cartoon characters briefly granted the gift of flesh. They arrive, they spout some silly crap, they stress everybody out, and then they leave, without really changing much of anything.

The Wadi’s main gift is their love of the game Chula. They force Quark to play after they catch him trying to cheat them into a loss on the Dabo tables. What Quark doesn’t realize is that the four game pieces he’s moving around a giant plastic board represent Sisko, Bashir, Dax, and Kira, who have all been magicked from their rooms in the middle of the night and stuck into a game space with no clear connection to the outside world. As Quark tries to make the most of an unfamiliar challenge, Sisko and the others must make their way through several levels of Chula—called “Shaps”—solving the trap that awaits them on each level.

Sounds ridiculous, right? It’s even more ridiculous in practice, because throughout the game, Falow, the head of the Wadi delegation, keeps popping in to taunt Sisko and the others with the refrain, “Move along home.” It’s sort of spooky, but mostly stupid, which is the whole episode in a nutshell. There’s considerable time spent on worrying whether or not the four station crewmembers trapped in the game will find their way out, or if Quark will somehow manage to beat the system, but the suspense is never particularly suspenseful. For all their weirdness, the Wadi don’t seem evil or cruel enough to actually murder anyone, and they clearly understand the language and customs of other humanoid races enough for us to assume they won’t let Sisko die without realizing the action would have consequences.

Of course, that raises its own questions. Like, if the Wadi know enough about the station to know Quark has the gaming tables, shouldn’t they realize that there’s no real precedent in the area for a game like Chula? Throughout the episode, Sisko stresses over the need to effectively manage first contact, but arguably, the Wadi should be as interested in making sure the talks go well. Maybe even more so, given that they’re obsessed with games (again, this is the only thing we know about them). The Federation spans enough systems to potentially provide access to thousands of new games, and millions of potential participants. Yet the Wadi seem barely interested in anything beyond their immediate pleasure. They “win” in the end, embarrassing Quark and reassuring everyone that there was no real danger in a mild case of kidnapping, but unless they have some resources that Starfleet wants, I can’t imagine anyone picking up the phone and calling them again any time soon.

As for the adventures in Shap-jumping, well, if you ever wanted to see Avery Brooks playing hopscotch, here’s your chance. Like I said, this sort of silliness isn’t all bad, and the basic weirdness of the game in which Sisko and the others are trapped at least keeps the episode from being completely boring. But it’s all very Saturday-morning cartoonish. Given the setup, there’s no real other way for it to be. In one Shap (ugh), Dax and Bashir figure out they need to play a child’s game to continue; in another Shap (gah), Bashir realizes they need to drink from champagne flutes to stop themselves from being gassed. Then Quark rolls a die wrong, and Bashir gets eaten by some green light. About the only time Chula gets even close to legitimate drama is when we learn that one of the remaining players will have to be sacrificed for the other two to survive. Because Sisko refuses to leave Dax behind, everybody ends up “dying.” But since nobody really dies, and since Sisko had no way of knowing that keeping Dax alive would get them all “killed,” it’s essentially pointless.

Beyond the silliness, there are a couple not-terrible scenes. When Jake realizes his father is missing, he immediately goes to Odo, and I like the relationship between the boy and the constable; Odo is gruff, but he treats the boy’s concerns with respect. Quark also gets a nice moment when he realizes the bits of plastic he’s been treating as game pieces represent people with whom he works. When he hears he has to sacrifice one to save the others, he begs and pleads for the choice to be taken out of his hands. This isn’t the height of heroism, but it at least shows that Quark isn’t completely heartless.

That’s about it, really. In retrospect, there’s precious little to defend in this episode. It’s more memorable than “The Passenger,” and I had an easier time staying awake watching it, but that’s mostly because it’s hard to sleep when you keep saying, “The hell?” at your TV screen. Out of everything I’ve seen of DS9 so far, “Move Along Home” would fit the easiest into the first season of TNG. That is in no way a compliment.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Nagus:

The Ferengi are basically awful. There’s no real way to get around this; the entire race is essentially a horrible cultural stereotype repurposed as literally alien, and therefore supposedly rendered inoffensive. I doubt, or at least hope, that this wasn’t done on purpose, unless it’s part of some grand scheme to humanize racial caricatures and thus bring all of us closer together through prosthetics and hammy acting—in which case, bravo. But I don’t think that’s the case, much as I don’t think anyone sat down to create the Ferengi and said to themselves, “Oh man, now I finally have a socially acceptable place to funnel all the horrible things I think about that family who lives down the block, you know the one I mean.” Fiction writing is an act of creation, and in that act of creation, writers use everything they can, especially when inventing fantasy environments. So, every once in a while, you get somebody who maybe isn’t the most imaginative person in the world, and they need to come up with an entirely new creature, and that’s how you wind up with Jar Jar Binks or the frog-like Trade Federation stooges who speak in thick “Oriental” accents. (Sorry, I’ve been re-watching the Star Wars prequels lately.)

Back on point, however the Ferengi were originally conceived, they remain one of the low points of the TNG-era Trek-verse, a lot of bad jokes and sniveling tied up under the guise of culture. Even if you put aside the social issues this raises, this presents concerns from a story perspective. There’s no inherent depth in a stereotype. That’s why it’s a stereotype; It’s an idea created to allow one group to make assumptions about another group, and use those assumptions to dismiss that other group’s autonomy. (This is a huge oversimplification, but bear with me.) So when a writer decides to use a race like the Vulcans or the Klingons, it becomes necessary to try and expand the stereotype into something more complex, while still maintaining a basic consistency with the race as originally presented. With the Vulcans and the Klingons, and most other Trek races, that’s not too hard. Stoicism has enough of a historical precedent to be a believable philosophical foundation, and it’s not like the Earth is hurting for warrior cultures.

The Ferengi, though, are greedy, cowardly cheats. That’s really all they have (that and the ears), and when it comes time to make something more out of it, well, it’s pretty hard to find the dignity in a group whose main goals in life are cheating everyone else out of a good deal and getting their ears rubbed. “The Nagus” does what it can with such a limited platform. The Rules of Acquisition, a series of guidelines which drive the Ferengi’s monetarily fixated culture, aren’t a terrible idea, because they at least attempt to make avarice into a value. Having Wallace Shawn play the apparent leader of the Ferengi, Grand Nagus Zek, is another smart move, because Wallace Shawn is great, and he manages to give the role a certain charm. There’s a clever story here, about the limits of power and how it’s better to be a medium-sized fish in a small pool than a big fish in a big pool. And as always, Armin Shimerman keeps finding ways to ground Quark, and make his morally questionable choices into something more complex than simple self-interest. Without Shimerman, this would’ve been intolerable. With him, it’s surprisingly not bad.

It’s still not good, though. The plot: The Grand Nagus arrives on Deep Space Nine, determined to make the most for his people out of the business opportunities created by the wormhole. He brings together a number of powerful Ferengi for a conference on how best to take advantage of the Gamma Quadrant—a place which has never heard of Ferengi before, and has no idea that they might not always be the most trustworthy. At the end of the meeting, Zek announces that he’s retiring, passes the title onto Quark, and, more or less promptly, dies. Initially overjoyed about the unexpected promotion, Quark soon realizes he’s not cut out for a life of double-dealing and backstabbing, especially not when the backstabbers have actual knives. Zek’s son Krax and Quark’s brother Rom team up to take Quark out, but just when they think they have the drop on him (having trapped poor Quark in an airlock chamber), Odo shows up with Zek, who isn’t dead. The true Nagus was hibernating and testing to see if his son was ready for leadership. Krax failed the test, Zek takes back his staff and robe, and everything goes back to normal.

I’m a sucker for political maneuvering, and the few times “The Nagus” deals in back-room deals and handshake negotiations, it’s a decent amount of fun. The idea that Quark would be in over his head so quickly makes sense, and fits in with what we’ve learned about the character; He’s clever, but clever only goes so far. While the episode doesn’t take the Ferengi’s culture all that seriously, it does put more effort into giving them rituals and goals than most any other Ferengi episode we’ve seen in the past (in those, the Ferengi were almost always the obstacle for the main characters to circumvent), to the point where it’s possible to believe them functioning as a culture, and not just as a group of not-all-that-threatening villains. It’s just that, for an hour that’s supposedly driven by Quark’s attempts first to please the Nagus and then simply to survive, our protagonist is curiously passive. He sucks up to Zek, he lords his power over his brother, and then, when the crisis arrives and he faces really danger, he refuses help from Sisko, Odo, and anyone else. The only reason he survives the episode is Odo’s dogged determination to get to the truth. Which isn’t a bad character moment, and it’s also a nice detail in their friendship, but it leaves Quark on the outside looking in.

That would be fine if Quark wasn’t already a somewhat problematic character. The show has given him a few chances to define himself before, but “The Nagus” should’ve been a chance for us to understand what drives Quark, or least give him something more interesting to do than toady up to his customers, trade barbs with Odo, and yell at his brother. It didn’t need to be great drama, but texture would’ve been nice. Instead, he goes through the basic one-two-three routine of the comic-relief stooge. There’s no arc for him, just a bouncing from place to place. At first, I took this as an interesting characterization; Quark isn’t a genius, and he’s better off just running the bar. But it’s not that he’s not a genius (although he isn’t). It’s that the Ferengi aren’t to be taken seriously. This whole episode is a joke, and even when life or death stakes are involved, there’s no reason to care. When TNG poked holes into Klingon culture, it meant something. With the Ferengi, it’s like the entire concept is so ridiculous, the writers have a hard time even caring enough to poke.

The most successful part of “The Nagus” has little to do with the title character, or Quark. Jake is still hanging out with Nog, but the two boys run into a problem when Nog’s father, Rom, demands Nog quit school at the behest of Zek. This causes some friction in their friendship, but Jake decides the best thing to do would be to keep teaching Nog what he learns in school. It’s a sweet, good-natured twist on a storyline that, at least for a while, seemed to be heading towards a more angst-ridden resolution. Sisko is frustrated that his son doesn’t want to hang out as much as he used to, and he’s also hearing from Chief O’Brien (who has taken over the school in his wife’s absence) that Nog isn’t a great influence on the boy. Instead of lecturing Jake on who he hangs out with, Sisko makes an effort (on Dax’s advice) to, well, spy on his son, and finds out about the lessons Jake has been giving Nog. So he finds out Jake is a good kid, and that Nog isn’t too bad himself. It’s a simple story, and effectively finds the best out of two characters we’ve been given reason to doubt. It’s too bad Quark couldn’t have been allowed the same narrative indulgence.

According to the A.V. Club review of If Wishes Were Horses:

After the newfound heights of “Progress,” “If Wishes Were Horses” gets back to the important business of mistaking molehills for mountains. Where the previous episode did a fine job subverting expectations established by TNG, this entry follows the predictable path laid out all the way back in the original series: namely, that the universe is full of whimsical, hyper-powerful alien beings who like to show up every once in a while and screw around with the norms.

The first sign that something is wrong comes when Chief O’Brien finds a horrible little man in his daughter’s bedroom. O’Brien had been telling his daughter the story of Rumpelstiltskin just a moment before, and now, it seems, the fairy tale dwarf with a knack for spinning straw into gold has come to life, and decided to mess around with Molly and her parents. That’s bad enough, but strange things are happening all over the station. A famous baseball player, Harmon Bokai, followed Jake home from the holosuite because he was hungry, and Bashir, after striking out with Dax for the umpteenth time, is woken mid-nap by a suddenly interested and very frisky Jadzia. On Deep Space Nine, fantasies are coming to life, and, unsurprisingly, it’s not as much fun as it sounds.

In order to create a sense of urgency, the station is also threatened by the development of a space rupture that could, if allowed unchecked, take out half the system. But (SPOILER ALERT), there’s no rupture. It’s just another example of fantasy, coming into existence when Dax started looking for something unusual right after everyone’s dreams are made flesh. She saw one thing, wondered if it might be something else, and ZAP ZOOM ZOWIE, it was. Sisko realizes this just in time, calls the fantasy’s bluff, and life is returned to normal. In the last scene, “Harmon Bokai” stops by Sisko’s office to explain that he, along with all the other fantasies, is part of a different race which is attempting to study the power of imagination. Bokai and Sisko have a nice little chat, Bokai makes the standard, “Maybe we’ll see you around” speech, and that’s that.

I don’t hate this sort of thing—really I don’t—but it’s pointless. For an hour, the show is transformed into a kid’s cartoon, and not a very good kid’s cartoon at that. The explanation as to how all the wishes are coming true is the worst kind of Treklaziness, the sort of thing which worked in the original series only because everything it did was so new and exciting. By now, any time anything weird happens, your first guess is either “space-time anomaly” or “aliens screwing around.” Whenever either of these is right, it makes the whole episode pointless.DS9 doesn’t need to pull off striking character growth every week, but there’s something depressing in seeing the show push itself to expand its horizons, and then immediately backtracking into the same old hoary crap. Genre should never be an excuse for lazy storytelling; just because you can say, “A wizard did it” doesn’t mean you should. While “If Wishes Were Horses” tries to justify it’s foolishness with some sop about how wonderful the imagination is (how is it possible to have a mind interested in and capable of studying other species and not have imaginations? In order to innovate, you need be able to imagine new ideas), but that just makes it worse. It’s not just a story of magical aliens; it’s a story of magical aliens who remind us how wonderful we really are. Bleagh.

It’s not a total wash. While this is all silly, and various castmembers are asked to engage in the silliness, no one embarrasses themselves. O’Brien is once again put in the role of baffled, put-upon Everyman, and while he’s sidelined for most of the hour, he does get some nice material near the end, when Rumpelstiltskin offers to save everyone from the rupture, so long as O’Brien is willing to give up his first born. Meanwhile, Bashir’s fantasy Dax means that Terry Farrell spends half the episode groping Alexander Siddig and being disappointed when he doesn’t return the favor; it’s, again, goofy, but not unpleasantly so, and the show veers away from spending much time on how the fantasy Dax makes the real Dax feel. Sisko and Bokai’s conversations have a certain authenticity, and there’s an unexpected, brief scene in which all three major fantasy characters meet and talk about how their relationships are working out. We rarely see these stories from the meddling aliens’ side.

Still, none of the good points are enough to save this from being a waste of resources, and evidence that, despite signs to the contrary, the show still has a ways to go toward finding itself. Although really, hoping that a Trek series would ever say goodbye to the occasional visit from a nutty Godlike Being is a futile endeavor. Hopefully DS9 will eventually stop engaging in the sort of lazy, trope-ridden writing sessions that lead to tomfoolery like “If Wishes Were Horses.” If not, this is small price to pay for the highlights.

According to the A.V. Club review of Dramatis Personae:

Once again, we’ve got what could’ve easily been the premise of a Star Trek or TNG episode, and once again, the DS9 writers give enough information to justify the main plot without bothering to go any deeper. The set-up here is hilariously sketchy: a Klingon ship, doing a survey in the Gamma Quadrant, stumbles across some energy spheres that contain the history of a long dead race. The spheres infect the Klingons, forcing the ship’s crew to re-enact ancient power struggles, and when the last Klingon survivor arrives on DS9, he dies, but not before infecting most of the crew. Ostensibly, this is another parable about the dangers of obsessive conflict and greed, but we’re never told anything about the race that created the spheres, and we never know if the spheres were intended as their memorial, or simply their way to share the wealth. There’s no time put into explaining how the spheres could have such an effect, and Odo’s method for defeating them is the usual tech-speak silliness. It’s hard to ignore the fact that we’re still in the first season, and we’ve already had seemingly half a dozen of these Wormhole Of The Week storylines.

But it doesn’t matter. Oh sure, it could matter down the line, and the more often the show uses this trope, the more strained it will seem. But if the results are as consistently entertaining and energetic as the theatrics we get in “Dramatis Personae,” it’ll be hard to object to a little predictability. “The Forsaken” used a goofy premise to get in some lovely character development; “Dramatis Personae” uses the same, and while there’s no great revelation here as there was between Odo and Lwaxana, the result is still better than you’d expect. We already know that there’s some stress between Kira and Sisko. This was established in the pilot, and nothing we see in this episode changes what we know, or offers much surprise. It doesn’t need to. This is play, pure and simple. It’s also great proof of how competently the show has managed to establish its ensemble. The great pleasure in this kind of episode is seeing familiar faces behave in unexpected ways. That doesn’t work if the cast is ill-defined, and the boundaries between them unclear.

Kira is upset. A Valerian ship wants to dock at the station, and she believes the Valerians sold weapons to the Cardassians during the war. She wants to hold them on charges of war profiteering, but she doesn’t have proof, and Sisko won’t let her search the ship without good reason. They have a discussion about this, but they manage to reach a decent compromise. Kira will continue her investigations, and Sisko will make sure she doesn’t overreach. Then a Klingon from the science vessel Toh’Kaht is beamed over to DS9 before his ship explodes. He says one word–”Victory”–and then dies, but not before making sure everyone on the station’s bridge is going to have a fun time for the next few days. Kira suddenly gets it into her head that she has enough to search the Valerians’ ship after all, and when Sisko objects, she starts asking questions of the rest of the crew. Questions about loyalty, and about whose side everyone is on, and about what’s going to happen when her current argument with Sisko finally erupts into outright conflict.

While Kira gets her evil on, Sisko becomes fascinated with clock-building; O’Brien decides it’s his job to defend Sisko from Bajoran predations; Dax gets lost in her own memories; and Bashir, well, Bashir becomes slightly devious. The doctor spends most of this episode on the back bench, which is too bad, but thankfully Evil Kira and Evil O’Brien (and Sort Of Evil But Also Crazy Sisko) offer more than enough amusement. After weeks of being racked by self-doubt, guilt, and insecurity, Nana Visitor seems to relish the chance to enjoy herself, and she goes to it with gusto, flirting with Odo, throttling Quark, and basically proving that, if she ever really wanted to, she could make one hell of a villain. O’Brien does his best, but he can’t really match her. She’s got the contacts aboard the station that O’Brien and Sisko lack, and more importantly, she’s got a gusto for her work that the Chief can’t really compete with. Maybe we can take that as character development. O’Brien: decent chap, and smart in his work, but not really suited for the role of tyrannical power behind the throne. Kira: Bad-ass held largely in check by her conscience. Sisko: when allowed to follow his deepest impulses, makes clocks.

That works all right, but it’s certainly not necessary to believe any of it to enjoy the episode. This is where our lack of knowledge about the spheres becomes more problematic. We don’t know how much of what Kira and the rest do is informed by their actual personalities, and how much of it is created by whatever force infects them. Kira apologizes at the end for her behavior, and Sisko accepts her apology, but it doesn’t seem like something she needed to say. While DS9 has yet to fully invest in serialization, it has done well at character continuity, and in that regard, “Dramatis Personae” plays like an exception which proves the rule. Sisko and Kira’s relationship, and by extension the Federation’s relationship with the unsteady Bajor, has been building for a while, and the conflict which plays out here is one possibly outcome of that relationship. But it’s also entirely disconnected to who these characters are.

About the only character who gets to stay himself for any substantial amount of time is Odo, who is having something of a banner week. Apart from a single, terrifyingly convincing seizure in Quark’s bar, Odo is unaffected by the infecting influence, and it’s up to him to stop everyone else from murdering each other. He goes about this with a minimum of fuss, which is another reason to like this episode. In most other shows doing a body-snatching plot (or mind-corruption, or whatever you want to call it), the hero takes a while to catch on, and even when he suspects something is amiss, he can’t help himself from being confused, or trying to appeal to the reason of his friends and co-workers. It does take Odo time to realize what’s happened, long enough for me to wonder, at first, if he hadn’t also been affected, but once he catches on, he doesn’t question it. Better still, he uses his knowledge to his advantage, playing Sisko and Kira off each other as needed, and even convincing Devious Bashir to help him find a solution to the invasion. Odo is immune because he doesn’t have the same sort of insides as the rest of the crew, but it makes sense from a character perspective that he’d be the one to recognize the problem. His whole life has been built around watching others for cues on how to behave; he’d realize quicker than anyone else when that behavior turned sour. I thought last week that Kira was by far my favorite part of the ensemble, and “Dramatis Personae” certainly doesn’t do her any harm. But Odo is also terrific. The first season of DS9 has its faults, but it’s showing, week in and week out, that when you have the ensemble and a world worth building, those faults are fleeting.

 

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