Thursday, March 4, 2010

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

If you are among the proud few who have been following me on Twitter, you know I've spent a lot of time recently watching the TV series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, on DVD, and having a hell of a great time doing so. I watched the later seasons of the show when they originally aired and remembered it fondly, but watching it again from the beginning on DVD has significantly raised my opinion of this extraordinary series.

DS9 was created by Rick Berman and Michael Piller as a spin-off of Star Trek: The Next Generation, thus making it the third series in the Star Trek franchise. I think DS9 began during the fifth or sixth season of TNG, and it ended its 7-year run while a fourth show, Star Trek: Voyager was still on the air, meaning that DS9 was never the ONLY Star Trek show on television. On the one hand, I think this caused it to be overshadowed somewhat by the other series. On the other hand, I think it was also good for the show, because it did not bear the weighty responsibility of being the "main" Star Trek series, embodying all of the values and tropes traditionally associated with Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future. I have no idea if this kind of thinking was in the minds of DS9's creators, but as the series progresses it becomes, delightfully, very much its "own thing," with a style all its own, quite different than what you would find on other Star Trek shows or films.

The premise, in brief: Deep Space Nine is a space station built and once occupied by a hostile alien race called the Cardasians. It orbits the planet Bajor, which the Cardasians had conquered and ruled for several years until the Bajoran resistance eventually overthrew them and won back their planet, as well as the space station. While Bajor is NOT a member of the United Federation of Planets, the Federation nevertheless takes an interest in the Bajoran people and Deep Space Nine, placing Commander (later Captain) Benjamin Sisko in charge of the station and it's crew of both Starfleet and Bajoran officers. Things get a bit more complicated when a stable wormhole to the distant Gamma Quadrant is discovered near Deep Space Nine, an event that has great religious significance for the Bajorans and great political significance for everyone else. So, there's a lot going on.

At first, the primary difference between DS9 and the Trek series that preceded and followed it was that DS9 was a "land based" show. All of the other Trek series involve a spaceship exploring the galaxy, whereas DS9 presented the inverse: Hundreds of alien races of diverse origins and agendas would pass through the station. Because the characters on the show were more or less fixed in a central location, the series began to differentiate itself further by building a rich continuity and continuing storylines of the type Star Trek had always shied away from. As the series progressed, episodes became less episodic and standalone. Characters developed and grew together in ways that were unprecedented in the Trek universe, culminating in a marriage between two of the lead characters, Lieutenant Commanders Dax and Worf.

DS9 was also a darker, much more cynical series than any of the other Star Trek shows. It dealt with complex issues like religion. Eventually, a galaxy spanning war broke out between the Federation and their allies and a sinister force from the Gamma Quadrant known as the Dominion. This conflict played out over the last three seasons of the series, and the majority of the episodes were devoted to it in one way or another, taking the show to some very dark and intense places, and there is some controversy among fans that it may have strayed too far from Roddenberry's Utopian vision for Star Trek.

I want to be careful not to suggest that the fact that DS9 was the "darkest" of the Star Trek shows means that it was the best. I think there is a tendency among some to equate darkness or seriousness with quality. I don't believe this is the case. I would not have wanted another Star Trek show like DS9, because I think that would have turned the franchise into something it was not meant to be. However, since DS9 was never the only Star Trek show going, it was allowed to explore some stranger aspects of the vast Trek universe, while shows like TNG and Voyager carried on Roddenberry's vision of peaceful exploration, a vision I find great excitement and pleasure in.

It's difficult to summarize all of the things I enjoy about a show as complex as DS9. The writing is often incredibly strong. The special effects hold up surprisingly well and look terrific on DVD. Mention must be made of Michael Westmore's extraordinary work with the makeup and prosthetics of the various aliens, many of which are so ugly they are almost beautiful. I think, though, the thing that makes DS9 truly outstanding is the wealth of terrific characters, both regular stars and recurring guest stars, and the wonderfully talented actors who bring them to life. Avery Brooks as Captain Sisko brings an energy and intensity to his role that reminds me in some ways of William Shatner's iconic Captain Kirk. Armin Shimerman as the Ferengi bartender, Quark, and Michael Dorn, as Lieutenant Commander Worf(who started on Star Trek: The Next Generation) bring their characters to life despite extensive makeup and prosthetics, creating two of the most well loved characters in all of Star Trek. Nana Visitor's Colonel Kira is a character I didn't fully appreciate the first time I watched the show....she seemed cold and harsh to me then, whereas now I can see the layers of the character's history embodied in the performance.

The best actors among the regular cast are Rene Auberjonois as the shape-shifting security chief Odo, and the great Colm Meany as Chief Miles O'Brien, another Next Generation transplant. Auberjonois is one of the great character actors and is always a delight whenever he appears on the big or small screen, and, like Shimerman and Dorn, creates a fully realized, a fully "human" character despite a heavy make-up job. Meaney's Chief O'Brien is a delightful "everyman," a capable engineer who is good at what he does and strives to do right by his friends and family, played by an actor I'd love to see offered a starring role in a feature film.

This is getting long, and my going on about the actors and how great they are is probably getting kind of boring, so I'll forgo the extensive list I made of some of the wonderful recurring characters and conclude by discussing one in particular, a character whose presence always elevates the episodes in which he appears. I am speaking, of course, of the great villain Gul Dukat, played to perfection by Marc Alaimo. The former Cardasian overseer of Deep Space Nine, Gul Dukat had a fascinating character arc throughout the course of the series. He had been a dictator, a rebel, a grieving father, a madman, and a religious leader, slipping into each role as naturally as the snake he resembles sheds its skin. Dukat's relationship with Sisko was complex and intense, a mixture of loathing and admiration on Dukat's part and basically just loathing on Sisko's part. As Gul Dukat, Marc Alaimo had the richest part on the series, and he took full advantage of it, bringing the full force of his oily charisma to bear in each and every scene. I could never keep a small smile from my face whenever Dukat appeared on screen, regardless of how dire the situation of our heroes was doubtless about to become.

So, Deep Space Nine: Easily the best show I'm watching right now. I don't know if I'd call it the best of the Star Trek shows, but it is certainly the most unique, and more complex and entertaining than those who are dismissive of all things Trek probably realize. Their loss.


Blogger Tiger said...

I was looking for a review of DS9 that reflected on Gul Dukat. I really think that his character brings the greatest difference between the series, having a recurring villian with all the different shades that the writers and actor bring to the character. I've recently started re-watching it too and it is so much better than I remember.

March 17, 2010 at 11:21 PM  

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