Thursday, April 19, 2012

A DS9 Retrospective: Successes & Failures

DS9 will always have a special place in my heart. It arrived on the scene at just the right moment - i.e., at the start of adolescence, when a girl is especially prone to developing obsessions of one type or another - and, at its best, featured quality, character-driven storytelling. But although I consider DS9 to be "my Trek" and love it with every fiber of my being, that doesn't mean I'm not conscious of its weaknesses.

The chief problem I perceive with the series as a whole comes down to the pacing. Unlike, say, Joe Straczynski, DS9's writers didn't sit down and outline their whole plot long in advance. Indeed, it wasn't until the second season that they realized the necessity of embracing the serial format, and even then, they evidently struggled to reconcile their ideas with the traditional, anthological, Trek way of doing things. Thus, for example, we ended up with the uneven seventh season, in which the time used on filler episodes at the start forced a rush to the finish at the very end that many fans - including SABR Matt and yours truly - found anti-climactic. (Wait? That's it? Odo links with the female founder and suddenly the war is over? Well, poo!) Okay -- admittedly, we like Take Me Out to the Holosuite, but as cute as that episode was, it did contribute to the finale's disappointments.

There are also several small-picture things the writers got annoyingly wrong. Number one, they kind of sucked at starting romantic relationships. His Way was fifteen minutes of a cliched romantic comedy added to a thirty minute Jimmy Darren concert, and the scenes between Ezri and Bashir in the final ten were eye-rollingly twee. I also wish the writers had taken the Mirror Universe more seriously. Crossover was awesome, but the potential served up by Peter Allan Fields was quickly squandered by a series of follow-up stories that focused too much on the kink and not enough on the legitimate drama of the Terran rebellion. Third, the world-building for the Ferengi was horrendous. Sorry, Ira Steven Behr, but that is not what capitalism is all about. And yes -- as SABR Matt noted a while back, Dukat's arc should've ended with Waltz. Winn should not have been a footnote in Sisko's final battle with the Pah Wraiths; she should've been Sisko's principal adversary. After all, Winn's resentment of Sisko's standing with the Prophets was more firmly established than was Dukat's resentment over the loss of his daughter - and DS9 - in season six.

I could go on with my complaints large and small, but I won't. For one thing, said issues have already been discussed in previous reviews. For another thing, DS9's virtues certainly outshine its vices. For all the clunkers DS9's production team produced, this series is rightfully acknowledged by many to be the greatest of all the Treks. Its characters were stronger, its plots were far more ambitious, and its treatment of controversial themes was, for the most part, admirably balanced.

Because DS9 was a stationary location - a pioneer city in space, essentially - its ensemble cast was quite large -- and amazingly enough, even the semi-regular characters developed multifaceted personalities. That Garak was a universal fan favorite, for example, is certainly no mystery. His thoroughly Cardassian cynicism was used to great effect in a number of episodes -- and he was funny to boot. We also had Dukat, who despite that strange eeeeeeeeeevil phase was still a profoundly fascinating individual whose desperate striving to be admired - even loved - was, from a psychological standpoint, well-written and well-conceived. And while I verbally spanked Behr above for the irritating propaganda that infected every Ferengi-heavy episode, it should be emphasized that Nog and Rom were also stand-out characters whose arcs contained a number of delightful surprises.

And as for the credited regulars? Well, first of all, let me state for the record that DS9 was the only Trek that featured a genuinely strong female character. Forget Captain Janeway; Janeway was a classic example of Trek trying too hard to accede to the demands of political correctness. Kira, on the other hand, was recognizably human (so to speak); in other words, she was permitted to be flawed. She sometimes allowed her prejudices to get in the way of her good judgment. She sometimes lost her temper at inopportune times. But was she still a hero -- someone a teenaged girl could look up to? Yes. And by the way, I can't think of a single episode in which the emergence of Kira's inner freedom fighter was contrived; said kick-assery always blossomed organically from the pressures of the moment. In short, the writers never had to announce that Kira was awesome; she just was, naturally.

Another striking element of the series is the strength of the relationships. True -- the writers whiffed the launch of Odo/Kira. But once that couple made it to their "established" phase, the writing was terrific -- so terrific, in fact, that the following always makes me cry a little bit:

I also very much enjoyed the many mature conversations that took place between the married characters. Overall, the writers seemed to understand that marriage is about compromise -- that it isn't always a bowl full of cherries. And the platonic friendships? I think those were even better than the romantic pair-ups. Why do I grin, for example, when O'Brien finds Colonel Travis at the end of What You Leave Behind? Because the "bromance" between O'Brien and Bashir was and is profoundly endearing. And the same goes for the I-publicly-hate-you-but-secretly-love-you dynamic between Odo and Quark.

By the way, I also feel obligated to point out that Captain Sisko was the only Trek captain who wasn't "unattached" -- and I think that also added to the overall excellence of the show. Let's not forget that DS9 almost won a Hugo thanks to the father-son bond between Ben and Jake.

So, to summarize, the characters on DS9 freakin' rocked -- and thankfully, these characters generally weren't abused by crappy plots. On the contrary, the long-term Dominion War arc - even with the structural faults discussed previously - gave rise to some of the finest hours of Trek ever produced. SABR Matt and I jokingly fight over whether In the Pale Moonlight or The Siege of AR-558 deserves to be crowned the Best Episode EVAH, but really, they're tied. The former, of course, introduced the idea that your hero can be compromised and yet still retain his status as a sympathetic figure. The latter brilliantly portrayed the grinding horror of the front lines. Different focuses, different stories -- but both are absolutely outstanding snapshots of the existential conflict that consumed the Alpha Quadrant over the course of the series. Both represent the writers' gutsiest work.

And you know how we've been discussing our desire for science fiction to tell the truth about who we really are? DS9 does that. It doesn't shrink from portraying our baser instincts, but at the same time, it doesn't argue that all is base and evil. DS9 also, notably, strains against the secular-humanist orthodoxy that dominates the rest of the franchise. I wouldn't say that the writers got religion exactly right, but it matters that they tried. They included characters (like Kira) who were smart, capable, and - oh by the way - also prayed to the gods on a regular basis, and they didn't dismiss the spirituality of the Bajoran people out of hand. As a matter of fact, there were several episodes in which the Bajoran outlook was acknowledged to be wholly reasonable, even if it was different from your typical Starfleet officer's worldview. And this fair-mindedness extended to other topics as well. The debates over the rules of engagement brought about by the Dominion War were always expertly handled. I didn't often feel that the writers were lecturing their audience; while they clearly had their own opinions, they simply asked questions and allowed us to make up our own minds. When the writers had a message, they usually didn't let it interfere with the storytelling.

When we created this blog back in '09, we started with DS9 because it was a show we remembered fondly from our late childhoods. Now, having finally watched the entire series again as an adult, I can state with confidence that it has withstood the test of time. Some episodes slipped in the rankings upon second viewing, but of those that I personally remembered to be great, most remained so in my eyes. I'm almost sad that it's all over -- that we must now move on to something else.

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