October 17, 2005Feature
Past Tense, Future Imperfect
Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Ten Years Too Early
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.|
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.
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.)|
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.
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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