overthinking the idiot box

October 17, 2005

Past Tense, Future Imperfect

Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Ten Years Too Early
by Katherine Ross

I was raised in a Star Trek-watching family. From 1987 to 1994, Saturday's family dinner featured the black-and-white kitchen TV and the newest adventure of the crew of the Starship Enterprise on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Yet despite having been born directly into the world's best-known (or perhaps, "most notorious") fandom, and loving it since first grade, I completely failed to appreciate Star Trek: Deep Space Nine during its original run.

Spending the summer of 2005 unemployed, half-living in two cities and desperately waiting for the final moving day to come with the turning leaves, a person can go a little crazy. You learn to take your sanity where you can find it. And I found mine in cable television. Thanks to Spike TV, which thankfully reruns syndicated shows in their original order, and my TiVo, which records shows in the order they're aired, I've just seen the entire series run from the fifth season to the end, then back to the first, then all the way through again. Watching two or three episodes at a time, or saving them for my own personal weekend Marathon of Geekitude, I've been drawn in by this show from junior high more than I ever thought I could be. Being able to see what comes next, without waiting all summer long for the cliffhanger to resolve, definitely helps. But more so is the realization to which I came, abruptly, this spring: DS9's failure to captivate me the first time through was not because of any particular flaw in the production or execution of the program itself, but rather because the time and culture it was so deftly allegorizing — intentionally or not — was still ten years in our own future.

Setting a story in a distant future, or on a far away world, is merely an exercise in logic, a "what if?" game carried through to a set of conclusions.
The most basic premise of most science fiction — part of the wonderful, oft-maligned, brilliantly fun genre of speculative fiction — is that it's never really about shiny laser guns or exotic alien planets. In one way or another, it's about our own past and our own future: our cultural fears, our hopes, our dreams. Science fiction is either an allegory of things that have been, or an extrapolation of what may come to be. Setting a story in a distant future, or on a far away world, is merely an exercise in logic, a "what if?" game carried through to a set of conclusions. And DS9, as we are shown straight from the get-go, is really about that most ever-present, unavoidable guiding force in 20th century life: politics.

DS9 begins with our hero, our captain in spirit if not yet in rank, Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks). Still haunted by the death of his wife three years earlier (at the hands of the Picard / Locutus — led Borg, for a juicy bit of interstellar drama and continuity), he takes a new post on a Federation space station. Except that Deep Space Nine was, until very recently, Terok Nor, a Cardassian stronghold and labor camp orbiting above the occupied planet Bajor.

After more than fifty years, the occupation is finally over. Former members of Bajor's (very active and organized) resistance cells are running the military and the provisional government of Bajor, trying to stabilize their homeworld. And so, intentionally evoking post WWII Europe, the series begins... with one big wrench. Soon after arriving at the station, Sisko experiences the first of many visions that will set him apart as the Emissary: marked (by the Prophets, as they're called on Bajor, or by the "wormhole aliens," as they're called by Starfleet) as a holy man interceding between the Bajorans and their gods.

Following the successful model laid out six tears earlier by TNG, DS9's core cast consisted basically of the senior staff: Sisko first, the appointed and natural leader and, by the seventh season, the series' emotional center and source of gravity. For first officer, Major Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor), a former Resistance fighter and now Bajor's liaison to Starfleet on the station. After that, the other five filled out naturally into Starfleet's best archetypes: Miles O'Brien, transferred from the Enterprise 1701-D, is The Engineer, Jadzia Dax is The Science Officer, Julian Bashir is The Doctor, Odo is The Security Officer (as well as The Non-Human one, a position previously held by Mr. Spock and Lt. Cmdr. Data), and last but not least, Quark is The Scheming, Profiteering Bartender.

And there, early on, DS9 marked itself apart from the Trek franchise to date. It was stationary. Players had to come and go weekly, because a space station does not go anywhere at warp nine, and a planet even less so. And so, from the start, DS9 became a political drama, about Bajor and the Federation and all the other players bidding for power and order in a galaxy that never quite seems big enough to let everyone who wants a piece have one. It could have a profiteering, law-breaking bartender instead of a curvaceous Counselor, because the problems with which it was going to deal were not those of every new world's mystery or diplomatic challenge, but rather the problems that come with consistency and recurring players, wreaking havoc on each other's lives.

DS9's story arc, from as early as the second season, settled into a war between the Federation, a mysterious enemy from the Gamma Quadrant called the Dominion, and everyone else. Star Trek's perennial minor players — the Klingons, the Cardassians, and the Romulans, in particular — formed ever shifting alliances, tenuous treaties breaking down in the face of greed, fear, or better offers. Against that backdrop, the show addressed several key concepts, sometimes, admittedly, with more subtlety than others. Episodes within the arc allowed for more probing questions than certain stand-alone episodes, as a general rule. And what an arc it was.

The rebuilding of Bajor constantly brought its past and future into collision, routinely begging the question of when a "freedom fighter" is a "terrorist," and from whose point of view. What happens after the occupation, and after the revolution? How does an interim government survive, become stable, gain legitimacy, and rule competently? And how can the civil authorities work with the religious authorities to fulfill the needs of the people? Bajoran politics are intricate and messy, much like real-world politics. It's a refreshing change from a happily unified Earth or a calmly rational Vulcan, as Star Trek has a habit of positing.

Bajorans are, as a rule, religious and spiritual. (Having been given proof that the superior beings they worship are, in fact, living in the wormhole next to their world, it might be hard not to be.)
The religious and civil conflict of the show — the line where church meets state, and who has to do what about it — really is at the heart of the show, resonating strongly here in 2005. Bajorans are, as a rule, religious and spiritual. (Having been given proof that the superior beings they worship are, in fact, living in the wormhole next to their world, it might be hard not to be.) Their faith plays a strong role in all their personal lives, our own Major Kira most assuredly included. The religious leader of Bajor, Kai Winn — played with a delicious veneer of self-righteousness by the perfectly cast Louise Fletcher — is a major figure throughout the series, from the devil's bargain that put her in power until her ultimate demise in a cloud of hubris. The show, however, pulled off an amazing balance in the end. Although certain corrupt believers were dealt narrative justice, in the end, the story of Benjamin Sisko and his crew came down to a tale of faith. Sisko's struggle to define himself either as Starfleet Captain or as Emissary of the Prophets framed more than one episode, and the climactic season finale resolved the question in perhaps the less expected way. DS9 managed to support science and reason while still accommodating faith and tradition — a compromise we could perhaps use a lot more these days.

And then, of course, there was war. Continuing in the iconic tradition of M*A*S*H (another show my TiVo's been storing up for me all year), Deep Space Nine let slip no chance to assure us that war is bad, its consequences are permanent, and innocent people get hurt. Seasons six and seven show Starfleet officers checking casualty lists every morning, to see who of their comrades has been killed in the night ("In the Pale Moonlight"). Dramatic injuries are shown to have lasting emotional effects on those who sustain them ("It's Only a Paper Moon"). The question of collaboration and rebellion, and the dilemmas it causes, remains unresolved ("Wrongs Darker than Death or Night"). And with chilling connections to the real-life news stores of 2005, Starfleet — our supposed beacon of honor — proves to have its own CIA, not above a little well-placed torture or genocide.

Perhaps the most remarkable facet of Deep Space Nine, however, was that evil was not faceless, unmotivated, or omnipresent. Instead, we were presented arguably one of television's most fascinating characters of all time: Gul Dukat. Over the course of seasons, Dukat, a Cardassian, remained an ambiguous figure. We knew that he had been in charge of Terok Nor during the Occupation, and that he committed atrocities during that time. He ran a slave labor camp, and potentially had a hand in genocide. And yet, over the course of years, we see him allying with the Federation, allying with the Dominion, working with characters we love and, perhaps worst of all, trying to be a genial and charming man. Dukat is a figure pulled straight from every newsreel of the 20th century — he is a Hitler, a Stalin, a Mao — but we don't have that kind of distance from him, that ability to look and say, "this is an evil man, larger than life, who made these things happen," until the last story arc of the show, the sweeping seventh season. Dukat is a doting father, a charismatic leader, and a genocidal madman. Sometimes the crimes of his past — and they are many — come back. But although he is many things, not until the very last episodes of the entire series is he merely a pure, unmitigated force of evil without reason.

The best examination of Dukat, a rare look at how bad things come from people who think they have the best of intentions, comes in what (in this author's humble opinion) may be one of the best hours of television ever shot: Episode 6.11, "Waltz." Although the episode doesn't address all of the philosophical problems it raises, it makes good use of its scant 44 minutes raising those questions in the first place. Dukat brings some of humanity's worst abilities to the forefront: he's ruthless, ambitious, and can justify anything. Like many of the worst, most notorious dictators in Earth's history — most of whom defined the 20th century — Dukat never sees himself as evil. Everyone else causes the problems, you see. And in "Waltz," we see what truly makes Dukat, and everything he stands for, so utterly terrifying: he is not something alien, some fearsome thing that we merely need to keep at bay. He is every dark and sinister human impulse. He is the angry mob, clawing at every person's soul, clamoring to do away with The Other and look out for oneself.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was neither the first nor the last TV show to address the consequences of war, the problems of politics, or the place of religion in a changing world. To be sure, it left problems unaddressed; reviewers and critics have been commenting for years on the problems unintentionally raised and not resolved with gender, sexuality, race, and so on. It was, however, uncannily in tune with the cultural concerns of the early 21st century, even as it portrayed a version of the 24th. The 1990s were such a different time in American and world politics, with such a different economic, cultural, political, and military atmosphere, that it seems uncanny that DS9 would have been able to reach beneath the surface to portray not only the problems that had already been, but the ones that would soon be again. In the end, perhaps it takes a piece of futuristic sci-fi to remind us of the old adage of history repeating. After all, who can tell where we might go, if we forget where we've been?

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