Thursday, January 3, 2013

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today:
STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE 9 – A Celebration

Twenty years ago today Star Trek: Deep Space Nine premiered for the first time.

Not only is it my favorite Star Trek series, but it’s my favorite television series of all time.

I watched the premiere episode when it aired, and was immediately drawn in. It was unlike any Star Trek before, or since.

I grew up watching reruns of The Original Series (TOS), and was hooked on The Next Generation (TNG) from it’s pilot.

Deep Space Nine was different though.

It was an intimate look into a part of the Star Trek universe that myself, and pretty much every other Trekkie had been clamoring see.

Unlike TOS and TNG, Deep Space Nine (DS9) did not focus on the adventures of explorers. Instead, it was a glimpse into 24th century life on a space station.

It would have been one thing for the creators of Deep Space Nine to center what would turn out to be an “epic” story (in the truest sense of the word “epic”) on a space station closer to Earth, filled with familiar Federation uniforms, bright lights, and hotel lobby carpets.  But instead, they made the brilliant decision to locate the station further into the “wild west” deeper reaches of space.


This setting gave the show a “frontier town” vibe which actually dovetails nicely with Gene Roddenberry’s original “Wagon Train to the stars” vision for Trek.

The setting for DS9 placed the station near Bajor, a non-Federation, Earth-like planet near Cardassian space (Cardassians were the newest Trek baddies on the scene at the time) and a stable wormhole that led to the Gamma Quadrant, on the opposite side of the galaxy. This premise exploded the possibilities of what kind of stories could be told with Trek. The stories lived up to their potential and went far beyond the all-too-familiar “monster-of-the-week” episodes that populated every season of the first two incarnations of Trek. Instead the storylines were elongated into multi-episode arcs.


In a further twist, the station itself was not a Federation station.  It was a Cardassian-built station, ceded to the Bajorans, and run by a joint Federation-Bajoran crew. Bright lights were out. Dark corridors and foreign computer screens were in. If the Enterprise of TNG was Cloud City, DS9 was Mos Eisley.

And, for the first time in such a major way, Star Trek would deal with religion in a serious manner, exploring all of it’s complexities.

The Bajorans are a fiercely religious people, whose polytheistic belief in their gods (“The Prophets”) is at odds with the Federation’s generally atheist world view. Dealing with religion on this level, so
directly, was completely new territory for Star Trek.

The Prophets would turn out to be “wormhole aliens” that reside in the wormhole discovered by Sisko in the first episode.  The discovery would elevate DS9’s main character to that of a religious icon in the eyes of the Bajoran people.

Fletcher as Kai Winn
It was a bold new direction for Trek, and it kick-started an epic storyline, starring an Oscar winner (Louise Fletcher), that spanned the entire series, and would not be fully resolved until the final minutes of the final episode, a full seven seasons, and 176 episodes later.

Wagon Train to the stars? More like Game of Thrones in space. Epic in the truest sense of the word.

(My fantasy? An HBO reboot of DS9 starring Jessica Lange as Kai Winn, Lance Reddick as Sisko, James Cromwell as Odo, and Michael Emerson as Weyoun)

DS9 featured Star Trek’s first black captain, television’s first lesbian kiss (which, incredibly, was accomplished without being sensational), and was a blueprint for the darker, grittier sci-fi shows that followed it.

DS9 even includes the revelation of Section 31, a secret, sinister organization within Starfleet, surely inspired by The X-Files, which was popular at the time.

The series was perfectly cast. Every character was well-written, and well acted.


Avery Brooks as Captain Sisko owns every second of screentime that he is given, and his very presence elevates every other actor that he shares scenes with. If a gravitas scale existed, only Patrick Stewart comes close. In fact, both share a spine-tingling scene in the pilot.

DS9 also had a great run of guest actors and recurring characters that is unmatched by any other Trek series. Including TNG’s Worf, who becomes a regular cast member in Season 4.

It’s great to watch certain characters develop over the seven seasons, as well as the actors who played them.

MORN!
The visual effects of DS9 were something new as well. Epic CGI space battles the likes of which had not been seen in Trek before, or even on television before. And of course Odo’s shape-shifting ability was a catalyst to bring Terminator 2 style 3D morphing effects to television.

Really though, it’s all about the episodes.

It’s all about the great writing, and all about the Trek universe that we Trek fans love to lose ourselves in.

DS9, like any series, wasn’t without it’s clunkers. Many despise the Ferengi-heavy comedic episodes, though I not only tolerate them, but actually enjoy some of the better ones. The Magnificent Ferengi (starring Iggy Pop) and Little Green Men come to mind.

I’m not a fan of the “mirror universe” episodes at all.

Each season of DS9 does have it’s share of a few of those stereotypically poor monster-of-the-week type fails that plague the other Trek series. But they are few and far between. The majority of DS9’s 176 episodes are fantastic. The good far outweighs the bad, more than any other Trek series in my opinion.

So what are the best?

In chronological order:
Emissary (Pilot)
When the troubled Commander Sisko takes command of a surrendered space station, he learns that it borders a unique stable wormhole.

Way of the Warrior 
Sisko becomes uncomfortable when the Klingons station a task force to help defend against the Dominion. Worf is summoned to find out their true intentions.

The Visitor
Melanie, an aspiring writer, wants to know why Jake Sisko stopped writing at 40. Jake tells how his father died in an accident and then suddenly reappeared.

Trials and Tribble-ations
Darvin, a disgraced Klingon spy, travels back in time to alter some events to his likings. The DS9 crew must find what he's trying to change and prevent it without altering the time line. They'll have to blend in with the crew from Star Trek: The Original Series.

Far Beyond The Stars
Captain Sisko has a full sensory vision of himself as an under-appreciated science fiction magazine writer in 1950s America.

In The Pale Moonlight
To save the Federation in a critical scheme, Sisko comes to realize that he must violate its fundamental principles to do so.

Tears of the Prophets
When Sisko is picked to head up an attack on the Cardassian homeworld, the Prophets appear to him in a vision, warning him of impending doom if he leaves the station.

Siege of AR-558
Capt. Sisko and his away team volunteer to stay with a besieged unit at an isolated outpost.

It’s Only A Paper Moon
Severely depressed at his serious war wound, Nog retreats into Vic Fontaine's holosuite program while the singer tries to help him.

Tacking Into The Wind
Odo is affected by the disease threatening to eliminate his race more than he lets on to, while Kira has to deal with the Cardassian's dislike of her. Even though General Martok sees Chancellor Gowron's move as part of a political vendetta, he does nothing about it.  

What You Leave Behind (Series Finale)
Sisko leads, what he hopes will be, a final all-out assault on Cardassia Prime, as Kira and Garak mount a suicide assault on the Cardassian headquarters, occupied by the Dominion, who kill innocent women and children village by village in retaliation for Resistance attacks.
Should you go watch these right now on Netflix?

Not necessarily, especially if you are totally unfamiliar with DS9 lore. What you should do is start from the beginning with Emissary, and give the whole series a chance. Watch it in order. Even the bad episodes.  The series-long story arcs that define DS9 as a true epic are comprised of fits and starts. Multi-episode arcs occur semi-regularly, but sometimes important information is revealed within episodes that don’t seem that important. And not all episode titles are signified as being “Part X” of something bigger. So watch them all.

I feel like DS9 is lost to history.

Every time I hear the reasons about why Battlestar Galactica, or Firefly or Lost are so great, I immediately think about how those are the same reasons that DS9 was so wonderful and so addicting.

Except that unlike those three series, DS9 actually had a perfectly constructed conclusion that ties up loose ends and is immensely satisfying.

The final half of the final season of DS9 is an enormous sci-fi TV achievement. It’s a ten episode arc that astonishes with its maturity, pacing, and momentum. It is the gold standard for how to end a series.

The series finale is absolute perfection on every level, and the final shot (very The Empire Strikes Back inspired) of the series finale is the best single shot in Star Trek history. DS9’s seven year, 176 episode run leads up to that perfect emotional payoff.

That one final shot encapsulates the entire ethos, feel, vibe, meaning, and spirit of not just the series, but of Star Trek itself, and Gene Roddenberry’s vision: the intersecting mysteries of hope, love, space, and the unknown.

If you’ve never seen the series, and are looking for a new sci-fi addiction, give it a chance.

DS9 is a tapestry of beautiful storytelling, and is a remarkable sci-fi achievement.

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