A couple of weeks ago, my friend Jeff loaned me the first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I never watched the show when it was running, or read any of the novels, but people keep telling me it was really good, particularly the Dominion War storyline, so I figured I'd give it a whirl. I've been watching it a disc at a time, and I finally finished it tonight.
So here's what I think.
I was told going in that it had a rought start, and I was well-informed. The pilot episode is strong enough in setting up the concept, but it also shows definite cracks. In particular, several of the performances are off, and will continue to be throughout the season. Avery Brooks reads his lines as Commander Sisko with a relentless severity, which works in a dramatic context but is just bizarre in lighter moments. Nana Visitor also has an odd emotional charge as Major Kira that doesn't really ever let up. Most distressing, though, is Terry Ferrel as Lieutenant Dax. Her readings and carriage are both oddly stiff; she appears to be trying to pull of a performance reminiscent of Spock, but all it succeeds in doing is making her character look, well, dotty. She pulls out of it in a few rare instances (largely when she's playing Dr. Bashir's fantasy version of Dax in the episode “If Wishes Were Horses”), but most of the time (and, particularly unforgivably, in the episode “Dax”), the character is completely impenetrable. It's not even a matter of unlikability; there's not enough there to like or dislike. I can't really judge Siddig al Fadil as Dr. Bashir or Colm Meaney as Chief O'Brien, because they're not really given much to do, but their performances are fine enough with what little they're given. Rene Auberjonois and Armin Shimerman are the clear standouts as Odo and Quark, respectively. It's not at all a mystery why the writers ended up giving them a scene together in almost every episode; they're acting circles around the rest of the cast, and their chemistry together is the clear highlight among the character interactions.
The acting, though, is less important to DS9's shaky start than the writing. DS9, in a first season, was very much a show rebelling against itself. The minds behind the show, at this stage, appeared to be trying to steer it into being “TNG, but on a space station.” The show itself, though, and the concept, is clearly about something else entirely. The previous two Star Trek shows were never very character- or plot-driven. They revolved entirely around the concept: “To explore strange, new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before.” In simpler language, to do something neat with aliens every week. So much about DS9, though, goes against that concept. The station itself is in orbit of a world that's neither strange nor new; Bajor, the Cardassians, and the conflict between them was already introduced in TNG. New life and new civilizations lie beyond the wormhole, in the Gamma Quadrant, but the Bajorans and the Ferengi right here on the station are far more interesting than most of what they have to offer so far. (The introduction of the Dominion was obviously a method of uniting the exploration of the Gamma Quadrant with the show's real concept, which I'm getting to.) And just how boldly are we going if the show almost immediately features a guest spot by one of TNG's most prominent recurring guest stars, John De Lancie?
DS9, it's plain to see, is not a show about the Star Trek concept as envisioned by Gene Roddenberry and portrayed in Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. It's about aspects of the concept that, until now, have gone unexplored. The strange new world the show is about is the Federation itself, and the wider galaxy beyond, and what life is like for people with a more permanenet address than the current position of the Starship Enterprise. DS9 is about people who, like the wormhole, are a little more stable, at least positionally. If the previous two shows were about cultures discovering one another, then this one is about cultures living with one another. It's about cultures coming together and exploring each other in the long-term, through the constant day-to-day interactions of individuals, instead of through brief first contacts and diplomatic missions. It's about what happens after the Enterprise leaves. It is, in short, a show that has to be, demands to be, driven by character and plots.
You're probably wondering how I can tell. Well, it has to do with the fact that the best episodes are about the fallout of the Cardassian occupation and the emerging Bajoran independence. These are long-term themes, as anyone who pays the remotest bit of attention to Middle East politics could tell you. The issues can't be resolved in an hour, no matter how much some of the episodes try; the best of them is “Progress,” which ends on the clear note that nothing has been resolved, and the characters will continue to struggle with the consequences. It's where the best conflict in the show comes from, and when you've found a constant source of conflict that touches all your most important characters and produces your best scripts, you've found what your show is about. And this show is about the fallout from a war and the constant spectre of another one. And as soon as it stops trying to be about something else is when it starts to get really good, or so I am told.
All this is not to say that there's little good in the first season of DS9. There's a lot of good; it's just that they don't use it much. Like I said earlier, Odo and Quark make great scene partners, and are very interesting characters in their own rights. In spite of Visitor's stumbling, Major Kira is a strong and interesting character, caught in the throes of a major life change that challenges everything she thought she knew about herself. Jake Sisko is Wesley Crusher done right, a child character put in a child context and given other child characters to interact with. (Also, he has no magic powers.) Garak is in all of one episode, but it's easy to see why the writers went back to the character so many times in later seasons. And it's really about damn time someone addressed Star Trek's heretofore superficial handling of religion and faith, the biggest blind spot the Great Bird had when he dreamed up his galaxy of the future.
One of the worst episodes of the season, the Q one, nonetheless contains a good metaphor for the show itself at this stage. The MacGuffin of the episode is an artifact brought back from the Gamma Quadrant that is, in fact, an embryonic life form that feeds on feeds on energy from the station's systems and creates gravitic fields. The crew's inability to follow the obvious signs that point to its true nature causes a great deal of consternation, but once they figure it out, things start to go smoothly, and the creature births itself into a thing of wonder and beauty that nicely encapsulates just why Star Trek has captivated imaginations for the past forty years, and why it will continue to do so for many years to come. If only they'd been able to figure it out sooner, all the trouble could have been avoided.