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Thursday, 2 February 2017

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Season 1 Review

No episode here today on Sci-Fi Adventures, instead I'm going to write about the whole of Deep Space Nine's difficult first season, all 19 episodes of it, and I really hope I can remember something about them otherwise this is going to be a bit of a struggle.

Uh... Q getting punched, Rumpelstiltskin, allamaraine count to four, Sisko's insanity clock, computer dog, Troi's mother, jumja sticks... if I think hard enough some of it's coming back to me.

As this is a season review it's likely to contain some SPOILERS for everything from Emissary to In the Hands of the Prophets and possibly earlier Trek episodes too, so proceed with caution. I've already spoiled that Q gets punched, imagine what else I could end up ruining for you!



First seasons used to be a bit tricky for sci-fi series. I think we've been getting better at them, but back in the 80s and 90s there were generally three types of series: those that started bad and got better (Star Trek: The Next Generation), those that started bad and got cancelled (Space Precinct), and those that started bad, got worse, and kept shambling on regardless (Sliders). I actually stuck with Sliders for three years just for the characters, hoping it'd eventually get good, but instead I got a lesson on how to run a series straight into the ground.

Anyway there's all kinds of reasons for why first seasons were so bad, but it seems to me that the main one is that figuring out how to make something new and untried work properly is actually really difficult! It's not like making a cop show or a medical drama where there's a clear template to follow, when you're making a sci-fi series the first season is a prototype of a new concept that has to be tested and reworked while the production is in motion. Even the original Star Trek, which had a great first year, needed two pilots to find itself.

But Deep Space Nine is a second spin-off, created by some of the writers who saved Next Gen while they were at the top of their game, with all of Star Trek's mythology and props at its disposal, the Star Trek production machine behind it, and a relatively massive budget, so you'd think that if any sci-fi series could hit the ground running it'd be this one. Especially as it wasn't a complete disaster behind the scenes like Next Gen was when it started. And I think they actually did really well... at getting the foundations in place. The premise, the sets, the costumes, the actors, they got it 95% right from the start. It's just they didn't know what to do with it afterwards.

Star Trek series are basically about a ship on a mission to seek out strange new drama and get involved in it, so their story potential is immense. Deep Space Nine is different though as it's about people stuck in one place, so the creators had to pack a lot into its premise to give them something to write about later. It's about a crew of outsiders trying to run a broken alien space-station out on the frontier, which was recently liberated from the aggressive fascist aliens next door and placed next to the only stable passage to the other side of the galaxy. So that's twice the amount of frontier they're on now. Oh plus the passage is also Mt. Olympus to godlike non-linear aliens worshipped by the neighbouring planet who actually technically own the station and don't much like Starfleet running it. Also there's magic orbs. So they had all that to work with... and then instead the crew gets trapped inside the alien version of Snakes and Ladders, Picard's girlfriend shows up to rub Quark's ears, O'Brien has to defeat a milkshake monster with the power of positive vibes and there's a body swapping serial killer. All the plots that Next Gen didn't want get a second chance on Deep Space Nine!

It seems to me that the trouble they were having with this season is that they were struggling for ideas for stories, instead of coming up with a story and letting the ideas come from that. I know they couldn't have an ongoing story arc, but they could've figured out where they roughly wanted to be at the end of the season and thought of what could've occurred on the road to getting there. For example in the season finale Sisko talks about how the Bajoran and Starfleet crews had their disagreements over the last seven months but they'd worked through them build a community, and that's great except I don't remember that happening! Kira conflicted with Sisko in episode 2 and Keiko set up a school in episode 3 and then they settled into business as usual after that.

There are definitely few threads running through the season though, like Bashir's obsession with Dax, Odo's desire to find his people, Sisko trying to find common ground between the Bajorans and the Federation, Jake's growing friendship with Nog, Keiko's school, and Kira dealing with her transformation from a violent rebel to an administrator for the establishment. And if I was really lucky sometimes these threads showed up in more than two episodes!

Though overall this first year just wants to tell small inconsequential stories about a bunch of administrators running a sleepy airport/wild west town who keep pointing tricorders at things, getting kidnapped, and having trouble with gravitons.

But that's not the only thing that bothered me about season 1...


THE BAD

For one thing it doesn't stay true to Star Trek. Sure being on a space station limits the crew's potential to boldly go where no one has gone before, but the series gives them three runabouts, makes a point of saying that they're out on the frontier, then opens up a wormhole to even more frontier, and yet no one seems all that interested in it. Well aside from that guy who wanted to blow it up, and poor zombie Kai Opaka. This is not an adventurous season and there's very little action.

I suppose it doesn't help that everything we see from the Gamma Quadrant just reinforces the possibility that maybe it would've been better for everyone if they'd never discovered the wormhole. The first time they make first contact with a Gamma Quadrant race they shoot up the promenade. The second time they make first contact they kidnap the crew, undress them in their sleep, and make them play hopscotch. There's little done to demonstrate the benefits they're getting out of this portal to the asshole side of the galaxy.

And everything we see from Bajor reinforces the possibility that they're just faking it. Sure they say that they've endured decades of brutal occupation and strip mining, and they're in a desperate situation, but every time we see the place it looks like a beautiful idyllic world!

Our heroic Starfleet crew aren't really making the right first impression either. I kept waiting for these three in particular to grow into three dimensional people:
  • Bashir was apparently meant to annoy the other characters at first but the writers overshot and made him come across as an unlikeable arrogant creep to viewers as well. It doesn't help that they kept pushing his obsession with Dax while she's giving zero signals she's interested. In fact some from the studio apparently wanted Siddig El Fadil fired, though a producer stood up for him.
  • Dax on the other hand isn't really much of anything, as the writers didn't give her much to do but calmly recite made up nonsense. Someone like LeVar Burton can make technobabble sound like poetry, but it's not Terry Farrell's strong point at all and she was well aware of it. She was so worried about it in fact that she had trouble sleeping; not good when you've got nonsense to memorise. Fortunately she got an acting coach instead of getting fired so she was back the next season as well.
  • Sisko ends up as one of my favourite of the Trek captains, but he has a shakier start than most. He does have his moments, like whenever he's in a scene with his son, but Avery Brooks performance is rarely up to the standard he'd set later and it's downright weird at times.
Another point against this season that it doesn't manage to justify its lack of serialisation. There's an argument to be made for having standalone episodes, the original Star Trek certainly worked just fine as an anthology series, but it's an argument this series ain't making. Take away the recurring characters and these stories on their own generally aren't worth watching. Part of the reason for that is that they spent so much money on the first few episodes that there was barely any cash left over to do anything, but they still managed to produce Duet on the cheap so that's no excuse!

And why isn't there a single commentary on my DVDs huh?

But the season wasn't all bad...


THE GOOD

For one thing it stays true to Star Trek! It sticks to the established rules, it uses the setting to its benefit, and it embraces the optimistic vision of a future where humans aren't dicks to each other. Some might think that the series was shackled by Gene Roddenberry's rules and the years of canon that came before it, but I've always thought of it as being a positive. Plus it was an easy enough fix to get around the law that humans avoid conflict with each other in the happy shiny future: make half the cast aliens with different agendas and force them to co-exist on a valuable piece of real estate between two races that hate each other.

It's also got those amazing Star Trek production values! Well they were amazing in the mid nineties anyway; it's hard to miss that they kept reusing the same few starship models and that they were only allowed out of the studio a few times a year. But the space scenes, phaser blasts and morphing shots feature the best VFX that 1993 television could provide, and those studio sets they're stuck in are huge and put Babylon 5's rushed low-budget sets to shame.

Plus the sets don't just look good, they also look mean and oppressive and alien, and that's a nice change from Next Gen's top of the line space hotel (it's just a shame that the music's still beige and inoffensive). Deep Space 9 is a broken piece of crap with dark hallways, fascist architecture, and a holobrothel and it's interesting to watch a Starfleet crew move into ruins and decide to stay and work to make it their home. No one's performing cello recitals or putting on plays here. In fact we don't even get a holosuite episode.

But it's the non-Starfleet cast members that shone this season for me: Odo, Quark and Kira. Well O'Brien as well, but he cheated by having all those years in a supporting role on Next Gen to set him up. I'm a fan so I was already predisposed to like the other three too but I was surprised by how quickly the actors found their characters. Odo and Quark establish their double act right away and Kira's frustration with bullshit technobabble sci-fi nonsense plots brought me some small joy whenever I had to sit through one. The series really got lucky that Michelle Forbes turned down the offer to come on board and play Ensign Ro Laren as a regular, because having a passionate outspoken ex-freedom fighter from a foreign military serving as the first officer is so much more interesting than yet another Starfleet officer.

Also I didn't hate the Jake and Nog pairing! In fact I found them to be the highlight of episodes like The Nagus, The Storyteller and Progress. It seem to me that the season was at its best when characters were hanging around and acting like actual people and those two came off as more natural together than most. They didn't show up all that often, but when they did I appreciated it.


CONCLUSION

I was actually enthusiastic about rewatching season one as I was curious to see how it matched up to my fuzzy memories and I figured I'd have some fun mocking the really terrible episodes, but man this season wore me down. By the halfway point I just wanted to skip ahead to Duet and In the Hands of the Prophets and get it over with. I mean it's not Next Gen season one level terrible, but for the most part I had no sense that was I was watching mattered in any way, as a standalone story or a piece of an ongoing series.

But some episodes are more crap than others, so I've taken the time to arrange them all ascending order of subjective entertainment value for you:

19.Dramatis Personae - Your enjoyment of this episode is pretty much going to come down to how much you like watching the cast acting out the roles of historical figures we never learn about in a story that means nothing to anyone.
18.Vortex - The recycled Wrath of Khan nebula effects were wasted on me as I was barely watching the screen by the end of this.
17.A Man Alone - This was the first episode filmed after the pilot and it really shows.
16.Q-Less - The Q and Vash show visits DS9! Featuring special guest stars Quark and Sisko.
15.The Passenger - The actress who'd later play Na'Toth on Babylon 5 gets lessons in bad acting from possessed Bashir.
14.Battle Lines - Discussions on the futile cycle of revenge, in a cave. Also Kira cries.
13.Move Along Home - This would be an easy choice for worst episode, if it wasn't for all those other episodes I liked even less. At least this has Klon peags in it.
12.The Nagus - I didn't like the Ferengi plot much, but the Jake and Nog story earns it some points.
11.The Storyteller - More Jake and Nog, plus O'Brien and Bashir too! Shame about the recycled reject Next Gen plot though.
10.Dax - Basically 40 minutes of people explaining who and what Dax is.
 9.If Wishes Were Horses - A little too stupid and not nearly imaginative enough for a story about imagination, but I'd put it in the top half of the season.
 8.Captive Pursuit - It's a solid but unspectacular story about O'Brien befriending a likeable alligator alien of the week. Gets bonus points for Kira wielding two pistols at one point.
 7.Progress - Has a better Nog and Jake B plot than The Storyteller. Also I have to give praise to the acting and writing in Kira's side of the story even though I didn't enjoy it as much.
 6.The Forsaken - Way more watchable than a Lwaxana Troi episode about IT problems has any right to be.
 5.Past Prologue - The Kira plot's fine, but Garak's appearance promotes this to the top five.
 4.Emissary - One of the best of the Trek pilot episodes, though I'm not sure that getting weird in part two does it many favours.
 3.Babel - Drama, action, comedy and a dumbass alien captain making everyone's lives more difficult in a crisis. I know this isn't typically anyone's favourite but I thought this was a highlight of the season.
 2.In the Name of the Prophets - It's a proper follow up to Emissary that deals with actual things set up in the premise. They even call Sisko the Emissary in it! Plus it introduces Vedek Winn and political intrigue to the series and that's much appreciated.
 1.Duet - Kira tries to take down a Cardassian war criminal and ends up confronting her own hatred instead. Sorry for picking such an obvious #1 but it's Duet, what am I going to do?

Right that's it, I've written everything I promised to write about Deep Space Nine and I can stop now. I'm finally free of having to go through these episodes scene by scene making notes and trying to get the plot straight! Though I do have this season 2 DVD box sitting on my shelf....

Okay my plan for this year is to continue watching DS9 season 2, all 26 episodes of it, but my reviews will likely appear less frequently and I won't go crazy giving them all the in-depth treatment any more. A few episodes will get the full recap, but most will get smaller mini reviews where I skip straight to the 'conclusion' bit. It'll be less than ideal for people who've forgotten the episode (or never watched it in the first place), but this should give me more time to write about other things. And right now I'm am very keen to watch other things.



COMING SOON
Deep Space Nine will (eventually) return with its second season premiere The Homecoming. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures it's Babylon 5's first season finale Chrysalis!

If you've got any feedback or opinions you want to share, throw them into that box down there. I always appreciate it and I'm sure others will want to read your comments too.

4 comments:

  1. I've found that it's harder for me to watch the early seasons of these Star Trek shows now than it was back when they first aired. Part of that is because it was a novelty back then; it was new, so it was automatically not as bad. But now I know it's going to get better later on, so it's tempting to skip ahead. We didn't know that back in the day, so watching these seasons didn't feel like such a slog.

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  2. Nineteen episodes is a weird number for a US series. Twenty-four or twenty-five is normal, and if it's something they're not certain about, it's going to be a four or six episode miniseries, or a twelve or thirteen episode half series. Nineteen is just odd.

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, it is a strange number. Maybe there were another 6 episodes filmed that were so bad even for season 1 that everyone involved agreed that they must never been seen. That would explain why they can never make a Blu-Ray release, as someone might discover the old film cans and unleash their evil upon the world.

      Still it's not the only series that started with a weird episode count. Sliders started with a 10 episode first season, Voyager's had 16 and Lexx's first year was either 4 movies or 8 episodes, depending on how you look at it. And no two seasons of Lost have the same episode count.

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    2. Oh crikey, The Lost (Crappier) Episodes of DS9. Shudder.

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