Monday, 6 May 2013

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — a response

So, I’ve done it—watched DS9 through for the first time.

I first tried DS9 when the series was new. It was first available in Australia on sell-through VHS tape (even before it had been broadcast on TV). I bought the first two seasons, and watched most of those before I reluctantly abandoned the show. This was really hard for me to do! I had been a devoted fan of Star Trek's original series, as well as The Next Generation, and the movies for many years. I had read dozens of spin-off novels and hundreds of comics. It seemed like high treason to just give up on Star Trek! But I had to face the fact that if the characters hadn't been wearing Starfleet uniforms and talking about familiar technology and locales in the Star Trek universe, there is no way I would have kept watching even that long. So I gave up.

Although I’d heard that people liked the show a whole lot more the further along it got, I’d remained sceptical and never made the time to revisit it and find out for myself.

My decision to finally watch it through came when I inherited some of the DVDs from someone very dear to me, who had loved the show. I just wish I could have had this discussion (and argument!) with them. So, A., this post is for you.

When I abandoned DS9 in the mid-90s, it was for a variety of reasons. Not only did I not warm to most of the main characters: I found most of them actually irritating. I found the storylines—with their emphasis on character development instead of galactic exploration—petty and dull. Having just watched the whole series from start to finish, I stand by those initial assessments almost completely.


Because, here are the things I found to like about DS9, in no particular order:
  • Garak, played with such palpable relish by Andrew Robinson. I always wanted to know more about this character whenever he appeared.
  • Quark and his family. It took a few seasons, but I eventually grew to like the Ferengi characters, maybe when the show stopped playing them exclusively for laughs and took Rom and Nog in some unexpected directions. Leeta too.
  • Kai Winn, right up until the silliness that was season 7. I thought this character was beautifully written and acted. She was the fundamentalist religious leader you just love to hate. Moreover, her complete oppositeness to other, more sympathetic, Bajoran religious leaders was a nice depiction of how a change in leadership can so abruptly change the face of a culture. 
  • The Klingons in general, and Martok in particular. Yeah, there was nothing new or unexpected here, but they were just so much fun as the gloriously untrammelled id. 
  • Tora Ziyal and the storyline around her. I really felt for this character.
  • The first appearance of the prophets in ‘The Emissary’. Their puzzled frustration at the non-linearity of Sisko’s memories, even though he lives in linear time has become a powerful image for me. 
  • The design of the runabouts.
These things aside—and as I write them down, I realise that what I came to like about the show basically boils down to some of the regular supporting characters—I mostly stand by my initial assessment. In 176 episodes, DS9 rarely told a story that interested me, and I actively disliked most of the main characters.

But as DS9 progressed, I found another powerful reason to dislike the show: despite its trappings, the show's ethical centre seemed a long way from Star Trek. I saw this in Sisko's complicity in manufacturing a casus belli to draw the Romulans into the Dominion war (‘In the Pale Moonlight’) and in his casual gunning down of Jem'Hadar soldiers (‘Rocks and Shoals’). I saw it in the actions of Starfleet's intelligence agency, Section 31 (particularly in its decision to commit genocide against the Founders, again, with Sisko's complicity). DS9 is not Roddenberry's utopian, humanist future.

I also thought that the show wasted a wonderful opportunity in the character of Kira. Apart from the superb first season episode ‘Duet’, I never felt the series explored her coming to terms with not being at war with Cardassia any more. I didn't think that Kira was forced to confront and re-examine her prejudices regularly enough or deeply enough. Captain Kirk makes a far more meaningful journey in this regard in two hours of Star Trek VI than Kira did in seven seasons of DS9.

So, I'm glad that I watched it all the way through, but only for what it did for my Star Trek literacy. I still watch the original series and TNG all the way through once every three years, but do not plan ever to sit through the whole of DS9 again.

A, I would have loved to argue all this with you into the small hours of the morning. And then again another weekend. And another. I am very, very sorry that it took me so long to get here. I hope that one day we will discuss all of this beyond the final frontier.

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