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To Boldly Stay Here

July 8, 2012

I’m an out-and-proud nerd. I get offended by continuity errors, I could write a thesis on why the Harry Potter universe is unbelievably sinister, and I take Batman’s name in vain. I can tell you the exact capabilities of each generation of Power Ring, and the KE of the Death Star turbolaser blast. I try not to discriminate, but when it comes down to it, my first and only love is science fiction. I kidnap and strap down drifters purely to lecture them on the visionary genius of Heinlein and Doc Smith. I will stab you if say the 2001: A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner movies were better than the original books. I calculate my own delta-v ratios, and cannot understand why other writers don’t. But I am deeply sorry. Contradictory as it may seem, insane as it may be, I have fallen short of my contractual obligations as a science fiction nerd, in that I’m not particularly crazy about Star Trek.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the universe, I remain genuinely scared by the Borg, and the fact that I can’t do Spock’s ‘live long and prosper’ gesture is one of my deepest regrets. But when it comes right down to it, Star Trek doesn’t bring a lot to the table. Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, Lexx, Stargate SG-1… even Farscape and the odd Macross episode kick its ass back to the Delta Quadrant. Nonetheless, I add one caveat to the above heresy. No matter what can be said about the other series and movies, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (henceforth DS9) is a damn, damn good show.

Poor ol’ DS9 is the dark horse of the series. EVERYONE’s heard of Kirk and Spock, and most people remember Captain Picard and the red-and-black uniforms of the The Next Generation, but absolutely none of the laity remember Deep Space Nine. And I find that about as fair as Harvey Dent’s judicial reasoning.

The original series (Kirk, Spock et al) was an utterly irreplaceable trailblazer. It changed the face of television and science fiction. But as an actual show? Try and watch a single episode – cardboard sets, stop-motion aliens, William Shatner enunciating, William Shatner flirting, William Shatner trying to throw punches with more energy than an aggressive snail – and tell me it still holds up. The Next Generation fixed up the production values and acting, but suffered from generally average writing and philosophising with all the grace and logic of a rhino in roller skates. As for Voyager, Enterprise, most of the movies… good ideas always let down by average acting and worse writing. But DS9 stands as a beacon of great writing, acting and production values. It’s a great show, not just by Trekkie standards, but by the standards of regular, gamete-possessing human beings as well. Here are some reasons why.

Hello, Unfortunate Implications

Unfortunate implications are when you think about a show too hard, and you realize that some awful thing must have happened in-universe to provide the happy ending you just saw. Like how the Jetsons takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and Neo killed a whole bunch of completely innocent cops. Star Trek has always been absolutely rife with them, mainly because Gene Roddenberry was that dangerous creature: a starry-eyed idealist without any practical intelligence whatsoever. The ‘ideal society’ of the 24th century has more holes than my member after that unfortunate threshing accident. They’d take me forever to go through (if you’re interested, check out these sites, and then marry me), but a few include:

  • Large-scale social brainwashing
  • Military control of government
  • Completely state-owned transport and communications
  • End of religious freedom
  • Institutionalised suicide, cloning, racism and slavery
  • Too much Shakespeare

It really grates on a viewer who thinks hard about the show, and when you’re dealing with people who willingly wear Spock ears in public, you need to prepare for that eventuality.

But DS9 didn’t stick its fingers in its ears and mumble something about the deflector grid; to a large degree, a degree never since repeated, it pulled up its skirt, strapped itself in and took on the Unfortunate Implications head-on.

The Federation seems a lot like a police state? That’s because it kind of is, and that’s a big moral conflict for some of the main characters. The Next Generation‘s unsustainable attitudes to religion, racism and slavery are generally overturned, and the stupid Shakespeare-based monoculture is similarly removed. On DS9, men are still men. They get smashed, go to brothels, carry guns that don’t look like women’s electric shavers and they treat other races and religions slightly more respectfully than the conquistadors. This is best summed up by the scene in the first season where Q – the capricious demigod who’s been messing with the stoic Picard of TNG for seven years – rocks up and tries to play his games with Deep Space Nine’s captain, Sisko. Instead of quoting Hamlet or engaging in philosophical debate, Sisko punches Q in the face. Which neatly brings me to…

Ben Motherfucking Sisko

Captain Kirk was a caricature of a caricature of William Shatner’s personal fanfic. He was awesome, but he also acted by yelling random words, was a walking incubator for several thousand alien STDs, and fought like he was falling asleep in jello. Picard was acted by the treasured Patrick Stewart, but as I alluded to above, he was more of a pussy than my kitten’s vagina.

Sisko was a real, complex, sympathetic character who also happened to be a total badass. His negotiation strategy was to stare unblinkingly at his opponent, speak very softly and deeply for a few minutes, and then yell with all the combined rage of Liam Neeson, the Hulk and people on 4chan. His best friend was a seedy old man in the body of a teenage girl, he considered extortion roughly equivalent to a handshake, and he pulled off a goatee. He made morally grey decisions, was put in no-win situations, and he somehow pulled through. He actually had a character arc, which brings me to…

So That’s What We Pay Actors For

‘Duet’. ‘The Visitor’. ‘Crossfire’. ‘Hard Time’. ‘Shadows and Symbols’. ‘Far Beyond the Stars’. While we have established that I am quite a wimp, DS9 is still the only Trek that has ever made me cry.

Avery Brooks (Ben Motherfucking Sisko, above), and much of the rest of the cast – Nana Visitor, Rene Auberjonois, Andrew Robinson, Marc Alaimo – are good at their trade. They emote. They have complex, well-developed characters that change over time in response to events. It sounds like such an obvious thing, but it’s surprisingly rare, even in the best shows, that so many simple elements come together to form a groundbreaking, heartwrenching whole. I could have watched these people for another seven years. I would marry Major Kira, if she was human, and in the 21st century, and not fictional. DS9 ran 178 40-minute episodes during its run, and over that whole period, characters grew in organic, worryingly relatable ways, like particularly charismatic warts.

War, What Is It Good For

Trek is episodic. Trek almost invented episodic science fiction. TOS, TNG, Voyager and Enterprise all have a new plot every episode, with very few overarching threads. It made sense; spaceship goes to new planet every week (which somehow always looked like southern California). They meet new aliens every week (which somehow always looked like Californians with rubbery facial tumours). Crew fixes problem, flies off. Not so with DS9.

Set on a space station (the titular Deep Space Nine), it was difficult for Sisko and crew to go somewhere new every week. Plots came to them, because the station was positioned on a diplomatically, militarily and economically critical point of space. And that naturally led to overarching plots – the Prophets, and the Dominion War.

For the first and only time, we saw a full-scale war in the Star Trek universe. It justly stomped on Roddenberry’s inconsistent pacifism. It made a decent attempt at showing the horrors of war (not being a HBO show, this basically meant ‘explain the horrors of war to the camera, and then show us one ambiguously dead body’, but oh well). It gave us lots of pretty explosions. It was good, especially considering the other series’ approach to interstellar warfare (Picard preferred Eat, Pray, Love to The Art of War, and nobody told Kirk that he couldn’t punch or seduce his way out of a starship fight). Sure, Star Trek ground combat still consists of bayonet charges and dramatic stares, but it was an improvement.

And the Prophets arc… well, it’s difficult to talk about without spoilers. Suffice to say that in a lot of science fiction television, religion is either quietly slid under the table (Doctor Who) or strapped to the table and eaten for breakfast (The Next Generation, Supernatural). By using a made-up and thus inoffensive faith, DS9 was able to give us a mature science fiction interpretation of the issues involved. It was cleverly done, inoffensive yet piercing, intelligently critical, and left ambiguous enough to get the mental gears turning. Oh, and I guess it was good writing and characterisation and everything, too.

Anyway, that was a bit heavy, and difficult to elaborate on without spoiling some of the best televised science fiction ever (‘In the Pale Moonlight, anyone?). So my final recommendation would be:

Shitballs, That Is Some Inspirational Music.

Listen to the theme (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORp0T6zYByM). Just listen to it. Soak up those swelling notes, the layered chords, the little swoosh of the spaceship at the end. Doesn’t that make you want to get out there and get trapped in a satire of James Bond films, be framed as the Roswell aliens, shapeshift into a marital aid, recreate Das Boot in the atmosphere of a gas giant, be hit on by an omnipotent being, become emperor of your entire race because you assassinated the last emperor, track down and destroy Willie Mays to save the universe, promote a random supporting character to leader of the Revolution, meet your goateed evil counterpart, travel back in time and infiltrate Captain Kirk’s crew, render several planets uninhabitable and have freaky energy-creature-cloud-glowy-mist-thing sex?

Maybe it’s just me.

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