Saturday, January 30, 2010

DS9 Season 1

Star Trek's second, and in my opinion best, spinoff series started as a mid-season replacement in first-run syndication. Originally aired from January through June of 1993, Season One of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ran concurrently with TNG's sixth season and, incidentally, the first season of Babylon Five. Like Star Trek: The Next Generation, it is set in the 24th century, in the sci-fi universe created by Gene Roddenberry; though, as Roddenberry had died in 1991, DS9 was created by TNG producer Rick Berman and head writer Michael Piller. Unlike TNG, but perhaps uncomfortably like B5, the show is set not on a roving starship, but on a stationary base on the outer edge of the Federation's sphere of influence.

Station Deep Space Nine actually belongs to the Bajorans, who have recently broken free of the neighboring Cardassian Empire and are slowly trying to pull a stable government together. Starfleet comes into the picture at the invitation of Bajor's "Provisional Government," ostensibly to administrate the spaceport. Bajor's motive in seeking the Federation's help is to stave off the threat of Cardassian attack. Starfleet's motive is, eventually, to bring Bajor into the Federation -- a mission that becomes even more critical when a stable wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant (70,000 light years away) is discovered in Bajor's backyard. Suddenly, the war-ravaged, resource-poor planet is thrust into galactic prominence as a center of trade, exploration, and first contact with aliens from a distant region of the galaxy. And DS9's importance as the guardian of that passage, and a meeting-place for all kinds of aliens, increases proportionally.

From the beginning, it is clear that DS9 will be the setting off ongoing storylines of breathtaking scope and complexity. And though the vision of mankind's future potential, and their goal of establishing cooperation between vastly different beings, continues to hold true to Roddenberry's basic tenets, DS9 immediately confronts us with a darker, grittier tone and a higher level of tension between even the main characters - and thus, with the potential to tell a wider variety of moving and thrilling stories.

Briefly, let's acquaint ourselves with the principal cast of DS9's first season. Running the station on behalf of Starfleet is Commander Benjamin Sisko, played by "Spenser for Hire" co-star Avery Brooks. Sisko is a widower and single father of 14-year-old Jake (Cirroc Lofton), who is everything Wesley Crusher isn't -- in a word, ordinary. Crossing over from TNG is Chief of Operations Miles O'Brien (Irish character-actor Colm Meaney of Mystery, Alaska; The Commitments; Layer Cake; etc.), who also brings a family aboard - wife Keiko (Rosalind Chao) and their two-year-old daughter Molly, to start with - though they never rise above the level of "recurring characters." The station's whiz-kid doctor, Julian Bashir, is played by Sudanese-born British actor Alexander Siddig (Reign of Fire, Kingdom of Heaven, Syriana, etc.) Rene Auberjonois (who played the original Father Mulcahy in the 1970 film M*A*S*H, starred in TV's "Benson" and "Boston Legal," and held character roles in many other movies) stars as the shape-shifting security chief Odo, who at the beginning of the series is the only known being of his kind. Terry Farrell (who left the series after Season 6 to co-star with Ted Danson in TV's "Becker") plays the Trill science officer Jadzia Dax, the latest in a succession of humanoid hosts to the wormlike "Dax" symbiont. The station's highest ranking Bajoran, somewhere between Sisko's executive officer and a Bajoran government liaison, is Major Kira Nerys, a freedom fighter turned bureaucrat who can never quite shake off her violent past; she is played by Nana Visitor, late of TV's "Wildfire" and Jason's mother in the most recent Friday the 13th flick. Frequent Ferengi Armin Shimerman (who simultaneously played the evil high school principal on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") plays sticky-fingered Ferengi barkeep Quark with a blend of unrepentant avarice and gleeful debauchery. Quark's recurring family members include his brother Rom (Max Grodénchik) and Rom's son Nog (Aron Eisenberg), both appearing in the pilot episode.

"Emissary," not to be confused with TNG's Season 2 episode "The Emissary," is DS9's two-hour pilot movie, later aired as a two-part episode. It brings together all of the characters just described, and a few more - such as the frequently-seen but never-heard barfly Morn, whose name (apropos "Cheers") is "Norm" spelled backwards. This episode shows the arrival of Sisko and his Starfleet staff on DS9, which the departing Cardassians have brutally stripped and vandalized. As Sisko's command gets off to its rocky start, the Cardassian captain (or rather "Gul") Dukat, recurringly played by Marc Alaimo, hovers in the offing, waiting for an invitation to offer his "help." He eventually thrusts his "help" upon Sisko when the wormhole is discovered, reckoned by the deeply religious Bajorans to be the Celestial Temple of their Prophets. If by Prophets they mean wormhole-dwelling aliens who have no concept of linear time, they may not be wrong. The result is a standoff between the Cardassians and the station, which has amazingly moved out of its orbit around Bajor to a strategic position near the wormhole. We see Sisko struggling to move on after his wife's death, his difficulty accepting orders from the Enterprise's Captain Picard given that the latter (as "Locutus of Borg") was responsible for that tragedy, and his reluctance to accept the mantle of "Emissary from the Prophets," even while it gives him credibility with the Bajorans. From this chaotic beginning, so many rich stories flow! And unlike virtually every other Trek pilot episode, this one hits the right tone from the beginning.

"Past Prologue" is the first of many episodes mining the story possibilities of the Bajoran culture; and, as such, it is the first of at least three "Kira episodes" in this season alone. Here Kira is challenged by an old colleague from the Bajoran resistance movement, who seeks asylum on DS9 while being sought for crimes against Cardassia. Tahna Los (played by Jeffrey Nordling, pictured) puts a lot of pressure on Kira, disparaging her turn toward public service while he continues to plan violent acts. Among his co-conspirators are Klingon sisters Lursa and B'Etor (crossing over from TNG) while, in his first appearance, Cardassian tailor-spy Garak - possibly also tinker and soldier - seduces the boyish Bashir into the exciting world of secret agents. I always admired the way Andrew Robinson (late of Dirty Harry) played Garak. It may be interesting to note that he initially played the character with a gay subtext, only to be asked (based on fan feedback) to reign that aspect in. Also on the guest cast is frequent Trek guest Vaughan Armstrong, here playing a Cardassian Gul in only his second Trek appearance.

"A Man Alone" is DS9's first "Odo episode," a sort of hardboiled murder mystery in space. The victim, known to be on violently bad terms with Odo, comes to a sticky end in one of Quark's holosuites, though there is no way the killer could have gotten in or out... unless, like Odo, he could ooze under a locked door. Here we first learn that Odo must revert to a liquid form every 16 hours, sleeping in a bucket. What's never explained is how Odo survives without eating, drinking, or doing any other metabolic functions to speak of. The station's Promenade (commercial district) erupts in a riot over Odo's presumed guilt, but it turns out the victim was actually a clone, and the supposed victim was actually the killer, his intent being to frame Odo for his own murder. Also in this episode, Keiko begins her new role as the station's schoolteacher, and Jake and Nog begin their fateful friendship. It's an interesting episode to look back on because, for example, Rom's personality is decidedly different from how it was played later on.

"Babel" is the episode in which everyone on the station, beginning with O'Brien, comes down with a genetically-engineered virus that robs them of the ability to communicate verbally. At first it seems like another gag-gift left behind by the Cardassians; then it turns out to have been planted by the Bajoran resistance years ago. While Kira races against time to track down the only scientist who can cure the plague before people start to die, things become so desperate that Quark ends up in command at Ops. It must have been fun to write the gibberish sentences heard and seen throughout this episode.

"Captive Pursuit" marks the first appearance of aliens from the Gamma Quadrant side of the wormhole. DS9's first "first contact" situation involves two races: the crocodilian Tosk and the somewhat more humanoid Hunters. The former, played by Scott MacDonald in his first TV appearance (as the first of 5 characters he played in 4 Trek series), befriends O'Brien, who at first doesn't understand the morality by which Tosk lives to be tracked down and killed by the Hunters. While Tosk is being held in Odo's jail, the Hunters arrive and shoot up the station, demanding to be allowed to take Tosk home as a humiliating example of prey that has failed to provide an exciting chase. Eventually O'Brien comes to Tosk's rescue, giving him a chance to show the Hunters some real action and (in the words of the customary Tosk greeting) to "die with honor." Apparently the Tosk and their Hunters were originally meant to be portayed as part of the complex Gamma Quadrant system known as "the Dominion," but in the actual event they were never seen again.

"Q-Less" brings two more crossover characters from TNG: Q (John de Lancie) and Vash (Jennifer Hetrick). Neither of them really clicked with the chemistry of the cast, so unsurprisingly, they did not return to DS9; though Q went on to make three guest appearances on Voyager. In this episode, the relationship between the rascally entity and the archaeological adventuress, established in TNG's "Qpid," seems to be breaking up. Vash wants to move on with her life, but one of the Gamma Quadrant artifacts she is trying to sell turns out to be the embryo of a powerful alien creature which, as it prepares to hatch, sends out increasing amounts of (insert technobabble) which threaten to tear the station apart. It's a wonderful episode for spotting exotic aliens, and there is lots of fun repartee between Q and Vash, but when Q finds Sisko boring, you immediately know it's an experiment not to be repeated.

"Dax" is the first episode to mine the motherlode of potential stories latent in the concept of a "joined race" such as the Trill. Jadzia was already an accomplished, educated, 28-year-old Starfleet officer when she became the sixth or seventh host of the "Dax" symbiont, whose previous host Curzon was an old man when Ben Sisko knew him. Now Dax is charged with treason and murder, based on something Curzon may have done before Jadzia was even born. Sisko is with child to find a way to save her, but Dax seems unwilling to say anything in her own defense. Eventually Odo tracks down the widow of the victim, who provides Curzon with an alibi ("He was in my bed") that could tarnish the memory of a military hero. This episode's guest cast includes Fionnula Flanagan (The Others, TV's "Lost," and 2 other Trek appearances), Gregory Itzin ("Murder One," "The Mentalist," and 4 other Trek appearances), Anne Haney ("Mama's Family," "LA Law," and TNG's Season 3 episode "The Survivors"; pictured), and Richard Lineback (a widely-seen character actor who made 2 other Trek appearances).

"The Passenger" is the episode in which a master criminal, expert at eluding capture, dies in Dr. Bashir's arms... then continues his life of crime. Soon it becomes apparent that the late Rao Vantika isn't as deceased as previously thought. As Bashir helps an alien cop (played by B5's Caitlin Brown) figure out how Vantika managed to survive, a dastardly plan to highjack a shipment of (insert more technobabble) continues to play out. Ultimately it turns out that Vantika has transferred his brain-wave patterns to Bashir's body, enabling actor Siddig to demonstrate his (at that time) very limited acting skills. I don't know how the man kept his job after delivering a performance like that, but all's well that ends well; post-DS9, Siddig has had more success in Hollywood than all his costars combined. It just goes to show... something or other.

"Move Along Home" features another first-contact visit from a Gamma Quadrant race. The Wadi, identifiable by the bold tattoos scrawled across their foreheads, seem more interested in gambling at Quark's than in diplomacy. Nevertheless, when Quark tries to cheat them out of their Dabo winnings, he triggers something akin to a diplomatic incident. The Wadi break out a game of their own, called "Chula." Quark becomes increasingly freaked out when he realizes that his game pieces represent Sisko, Kira, Dax, and Bashir, who are experiencing everything that happens to their figurines with each roll of the dice. Realizing that his friends are in deadly peril, Quark is reduced to a groveling wreck - but it turns out that they weren't really in any danger. "It's only a game!" the Wadi laugh as they pack up to leave. In spite of some charmingly surreal imagery, an unforgettable rhyming game ("Allamaraine!") and a bizarre but memorable tag-line ("Move along home!"), it tends to come across as a lame, visually and dramatically flat episode.

"The Nagus" introduces Zek, the Ferengi CEO, Pope, and Poobah rolled into one, played (under wrinkly Ferengi makeup) by Wallace Shawn of The Princess Bride, Toy Story, and other notable films, mainly either animated ones or Woody Allen projects. In his first appearance on DS9, Zek anoints Quark as his successor - to the shock and fury of every ambitious member of his Board of Directors - and then, promptly, dies. As Quark struggles to take control of the Ferengi economic system, he begins to feel threatened by the people around him. It's not just paranoia, either. Rivals such as Zek's son, and even Quark's own brother Rom, really are out to get him! Luckily it turns out Zek isn't really dead, but was just lying low to see what would happen. Though the story is, thus, essentially pointless, the episode comes across as a highly entertaining first look into the inner workings of Ferengi culture, with their inverted ethical values giving them a curious blend of adorable silliness and sinister depravity. Every time the Ferengi appear, Trek is saying something about capitalism... but it's easy to forget when they're always so much fun!

"Vortex" is another "Odo episode," tantalizing the shape-shifter with his first clue as to where he came from and what kind of people he might represent. An alien named Croden, wanted for serious crimes on his homeworld in the Gamma Quadrant, kills one of two Miradorn twins - who, according to the surviving twin, are essentially two halves of a single self - and thus becomes the target of an unstoppable vendetta. Meanwhile, this Croden tells Odo he has visited a colony of "changelings" like him, and can lead him to it. The opportunity to test Croden's claim comes up while Odo is transporting him to his homeworld, where he will surely be executed. The Miradorn chases them into the nebula where, Croden insists, the other changelings live under the surface of a certain asteroid. Naturally, this turns out to be a ruse, enabling Croden to rescue his daughter from a stasis chamber. After luring the implacable Miradorn to his doom, and realizing that they are on the run from political enemies, Odo helps Croden and his daughter escape. This episode was notably inspired by the 1953 film The Naked Spur, whose screenwriter Sam Rolfe furnished the teleplay. Its guest stars include Gordon Clapp of "NYPD Blue" and Randy Oglesby, who (besides playing both Miradorn twins) appeared as five other characters in four Trek series, including the recurring character of Degra in Enterprise.

"Battle Lines" co-stars Camille Saviola as the Bajoran spiritual leader Kai Opaka, who is somewhat like a female cross between Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama. When Opaka leaves Bajor for the first time to visit DS9, she insists on a trip through the wormhole. Once on the other side, she is killed when the runabout crashes on a penal planet where two warring factions have been confined for all eternity. Then Opaka comes back from the dead, reanimated by mechanical microbes supplied by the planet's defense grid. It seems that anyone who ever dies on this planet is condemned to live there forever, dying and coming back to life endlessly as the two factions continue their pointless war. When the crash survivors (Sisko, Kira, and Bashir) are finally rescued, Opaka declares that she will stay - as if she has any choice! - because she knew, before she left Bajor, that this was to be her calling. Her parting words to Sisko are mysterious: "Our paths will cross again..." The leaders of the warring factions are played by Jonathan Banks (TV's "Wiseguy") and Paul Collins (who, as a child, lent his vocal talents to Disney's Peter Pan).

"The Storyteller" is an important episode because it establishes the friendship between O'Brien and Bashir. At the beginning, O'Brien can hardly stand being cooped up in a shuttlecraft with "Julian," as the doctor wants to be called. And though, even at the end, they aren't yet the bosom buddies they will become, their experience on a mission to a Bajoran village begins the trajectory that will bring the two friends together. At first they think the medical emergency is a village-wide plague. Instead, it's only the local storyteller, or Sirah, who's feeling poorly. When Julian says that the Sirah is dying, the local leader declares that the village will be destroyed. It seems only the Sirah has the power to summon a creature whose annual visits, on five successive nights, embody the fears of all the villagers. Then the Sirah must convince the villagers that their united will can drive the Dal'Rok away. Meanwhile, Sisko attempts to mediate a dispute between two Bajoran clans who both claim the same land. The young leader Varis Sul is played by Gina Phillips of Jeepers Creepers. Jordan Lund (Woban) also played a Klingon on TNG and a Tellarite on Enterprise. James Jansen (the mayor) guest-starred in DS9's "Trials and Tribble-ations." Kay Kuter (the Sirah) was also the adorable Cytherian in TNG's "The Nth Degree." And Lawrence Monoson (the young Bajoran who takes a knife to O'Brien), star of The Last American Virgin and briefly a regular on "ER," also had a guest role on "Enterprise."

"Progress" guest stars Brian Keith of "Hardcastle and McCormick" as a farmer who refuses to be evacuated from a Bajoran moon that is about to be (insert technobabble), a process that will poison the atmosphere. A survivor of Cardassian labor camps, old Mullibok has scratched a life out of the soil of Jeraddo, and claims that he will die if he is forced to leave. Kira is caught in the agonizing position of having to represent governmental power against the rights of individuals like Mullibok. Unwilling to force him to leave, Kira eventually pulls a page out of the Data playbook (TNG's "The Ensigns of Command") and burns down the old man's house. The episode ends with this heartbreaking exchange: Mullibok: "I'll die." Kira: "I won't let you. Two to beam up." On the B-side, Nog and Jake have a misadeventure in the world of profit, trading packets of a Cardassian condiment into "self-sealing stem bolts" (for which there is no known use) into a tract of worthless Bajoran dirt into... It's a rare bird: a really enjoyable B-story, developing the Jake-Nog friendship into the bargain.

"If Wishes Were Horses" presents the crew of DS9 with a test of the power of pure imagination. In studying humanoids, a curious alien race creates a wish-fulfillment crisis. Thus Bashir is visited by an amorous version of Jadzia; a flesh-and-blood Rumpelstiltskin appears in Molly O'Brien's bedroom; and a holographic baseball player from the 22nd century follows Jake Sisko home from holosuite batting practice. Unfortunately, a buildup of bad wishes in the form of a space anomaly threatens to tear the station apart. To tell the truth, this isn't a very memorable episode.

"The Forsaken" brings another crossover character from TNG to DS9. This time it's Lwaxana Troi (Majel Barrett), appearing out of the context of her relationship with Deanna. Nevertheless, she does strike up a good "chemistry" with the DS9 cast, particularly Odo. These two lonely yet very different people form a touching bond while trapped in an elevator, due to the effects of an attention-loving "puppy" program that has gotten into the station's computer system. Among the other guest stars, the Bolian ambassador is played by Jack Shearer, the Vulcan one by Michael Ensign; each of them played 3 other guest roles on Star Trek.

"Dramatis Personae" is the episode in which mutiny breaks out on DS9, spurred on by the living essence of a Gamma Quadrant race whose telepathic archives were plundered by a Klingon ship. As happened with the Klingons, the same tragic pattern that wiped out the Saltah'na now begins to repeat itself among DS9's senior officers. Sisko becomes serenely indifferent, focusing on the design of an elaborate clock and occasionally unleashing explosions of sadistic fury. O'Brien becomes Sisko's paranoid toady. Kira, on fire to bring charges against a crew of Valerians (who had supplied arms to the Cardassians), starts gathering co-conspirators for a coup against Sisko. Young Jadzia begins acting senile. Bashir suddenly develops a morbid interest in political gossip. Only Odo seems unaffected, following a strange seizure in which his changeling brain threw off the influence of the Saltah'na lifeforce. So it's up to Odo to maneuver the factions into a position where he can exorcise the beings that possess them. This is one creepy episode, folks. It's amazing that anybody survived!

"Duet" is, as the title suggests, essentially a two-character story furnishing Nana Visitor (Kira) and guest star Harris Yulin (Marritza) with an opportunity for some virtuoso acting. Marritza comes aboard DS9 for medical treatment, but his condition could only be the result of having been at the infamous Gallitep labor camp, where the Cardassians did unto the Bajorans what the Nazis did unto the Jews. As Kira probes more deeply, she learns that this supposed filing clerk was actually Gul Darhe'el himself, the Butcher of Gallitep. But then it transpires that Darhe'el has already died and been buried, having never contracted the disease that brought Marritza under suspicion. Kira realizes that Marritza has surgically altered himself to look like Darhe'el, and has given himself up to the Bajoran authorities on purpose, so that Cardassia will be forced to face up to its crimes against Bajor. No sooner does Kira insist on releasing the innocent Marritza, than a Bajoran hooligan fatally stabs him. Kainon: "He's Cardassian. That's reason enough." Kira: "No, it's not." This episode also introduces the character of Neela, played by Robin Christopher of Daytime TV fame. When she returns in the next episode, you think she's just an innocently recurring character. This makes her mission as an assassin that much more surprising!

"In the Hands of the Prophets" introduces recurring DS9 villain Vedek (later Kai) Winn, played by Oscar-winning actress Louise Fletcher (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). As the leader of a fundamentalist sect in the Bajoran religion, Fletcher vibrates on a peculiar wavelength of icy saintliness that, at times, can be quite terrifying. Here she begins her holy work by yanking all the Bajoran children out of Keiko O'Brien's school, citing Keiko's refusal to teach a Bajoran religious interpretation of the wormhole (Celestial Temple) and the aliens (Prophets) who live in it. Surprisingly, the Trekfolk don't take the expected "up science, down religion" position on issues that are clearly meant to remind us of the origins debate in public schools. Instead, Sisko urges that room be made for all points of view. He enlists the aid of Winn's main rival in the race to become the next Kai, the also recurring Vedek Bareil (played by Philip Anglim of "The Elephant Man"). But when Bareil visits DS9 to view the bombed-out remains of Keiko's school, he becomes the target of a sleeper assassin. Kira, initially supportive of Winn, switches loyalties when she realizes that Winn planned the whole controversy in order to lure Bareil to DS9. But of course, she can't prove it - leaving the way open for a tragic plot arc spanning literally the entire series.

By the end of DS9's short first season, most of the pieces were on the board. In the six full-length seasons to come, huge stories unfolded out of these promising beginnings. A true ensemble cast, including a huge range of recurring characters, was well in development. We had begun to explore the fascinating mysteries of Bajoran, Cardassian, Trill, and Ferengi culture. We had hints and foreshadowings of Odo's people and the Dominion (which, however, had not yet been mentioned). We sensed that a great destiny was in store for Sisko, a destiny bound up with the wormhole aliens (a.k.a. Bajor's "Prophets"). And though there was no reason to think, as Season One ended, that an overarching story was planned in anything like the detail of Babylon 5, the series showed excellent signs of being a fertile field for stories to grow in. Here's to Deep Space Nine!

Want a refresher course on previous seasons of Star Trek? Click the following links to see my reviews of TOS seasons one, two, and three, and of TNG seasons one, two, three, four, and five. For comparison purposes, see also my review of Babylon 5 season one.

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