Wednesday, 3 August 2016

The Coffee Nebula: Emissary (Deep Space Nine)

If The Next Generation is the older sibling who loves lording its intellect over people, and Voyager is the younger sibling who is way more immature than it thinks it is, then Deep Space Nine is the middle child with the serious chip on its shoulder; the one who feels it has something to prove and, in its own way, it did. The Next Generation was pretty much guaranteed a few seasons, thanks to the involvement of Gene Roddenberry, and Voyager was the flagship title of the then-new UPN so it was bound to stick around for a while. DS9, on the other hand, didn’t have the luxury of coasting for the first season and had to prove that it had a reason to exist beyond the Star Trek nepotism. Keep in mind how pretty much every Star Trek series started out on some rather bad footing, and this series looks like it will join the long, long list of promising sci-fi series that barely made it to a full season before cancellation. However, in a stroke of luck that would make Dave Gorman weep with envy, this show not only started out especially strong but its first episode (technically two, since it’s a two-parter) may be the single best introduction for any Star Trek media; better than any of the shows, not to mention the three Star Trek film series. Time to take a closer look as to what exactly happened to make this so damn good. This is Emissary.

The plot: Starfleet commander Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) has been stationed at Deep Space Nine, a formerly Cardassian space station that has recently been liberated by the Bajorans. As Sisko tries to get himself and his son accustomed to their new home, he has been called upon by the Bajoran elders to serve as an emissary for the Bajoran people, uniting them together with insight from their spiritual leaders. For a placement that he didn’t even ask for, Sisko has a lot to deal with already.

Last time I talked Star Trek on here, I spent most of it discussing the very authoritarian mindset that the franchise as a whole carried with it. A lot of hypocritical posturing and talking down to supposedly ‘lesser’ species, all under the guise of establishing peaceful contact with new civilizations. By stark contrast, we have this series where such ideals are practically non-existent and for very good reason. While Sisko has been brought onto the station under Starfleet command, he is still just a liaison between the Bajorans and the Federation. Starfleet ideals have no real place in this setting, meaning that the focus is put more on just portraying characters as they are, rather than holding them to any preconceived notions. This is helped by how, even though a few of them still have some smoothing out to do over the next season or two, the character we are presented with as the regulars immediately connect with the audience as something worth seeing every week. Sisko portrays a more war-scarred soldier than the franchise’s standard, making for a nice change of pace as well as a very commanding presence in his own right, Kira’s leading Bajoran officer on the station is a freedom fighter with some learning to do, Odo’s chief of security maintains a different franchise standard in having the most interesting character in each series be the one who is the least human, Jadzia as the science officer, right from her first scene with Sisko, presents a lot of possibilities for further development of their relationship, Miles from TNG makes for a welcomed familiar face and Bashir… okay, Dr. Bashir probably comes off the initial worst, looking like the kind of horndog that should be polluting a modern-day bro-comedy, but like I said, smoothing needed to occur and it did for the most part. There’s one of the bigger difference between this and some of the other ST series: Rather than insisting that it was doing the right thing from the get-go, it acknowledged its faults rather quickly and worked to improve them. What took Voyager and Enterprise a few good years to get right, this series did in just one.

We also get an introduction to Qwark’s bar, a regular locale for the show, and it on its own shows this series’ difference in approach… as well as something that would have never existed under Roddenberry’s tenure. Roddenberry’s Federation universe was one that was unrealistically cleansed of vice and greed, a venerable haven that represented the utter worst stereotypes associated with left-wing politics. Qwark’s, both the bar and its owner, show something vastly different than that: Vice exists, and it may even be necessary. Qwark was probably what the Ferengis were meant to be from their first appearance, only they didn’t quite manage it: A hodge-podge of uber-capitalist tropes combined with a roguish sense of humour and loyalty. Only here, rather than coming across as a being with an attacking agenda attached to it, Qwark is depicted as just another person in this very big universe. And to make things interesting, even though his sexist attitudes can be rather abrasive, there is a legitimate reason why he is on the station at all. As the plot for this two-parter goes on, we get the revelation that there is a stable wormhole, the first found of its kind, close to the station that leads to the previously uncharted Gamma Quadrant. All those prospective merchants and missionaries coming in through the wormhole, looking to trade and establish new relations in the Alpha Quadrant; what better place to first make contact with prospective buyers than on the station right next to the entrance. Ferengis may be sneaky and largely untrustworthy, but they have built a reputation for commerce for a reason: Because they are damn good at it. Yet another reason why, even from the pilot, this series showed promise: It looked at previously failed ideas and improved upon them, both with older species and with the outlook of the franchise itself.

Now for the story, and it’s here where things get really interesting. While every character that gets introduced here gets their own moments to show their worth, this is ultimately all about Sisko this time around. After losing his wife at the battle of Wolf-359, a massacre tied into the classic TNG two parter ‘The Best Of Both Worlds’, Sisko still carries that grief with him some three years after the fact. This isn’t helped by how the officer who gave him the assignment, Captain Picard, was the one who lead the Borg in that confrontation. Don’t worry, I’ll probably get to those episodes before too long for proper context, but for now, just treat it as a temporary side switch coupled with mind control. When Sisko makes contact with the beings that the Bajorans worship, I’m not sure who exactly it was but either writer Michael Piller or director David Carson (or possibly both) came up with an insanely good idea for showing the beings interact with Sisko. The idea of extradimensional entities that are beyond human understanding isn’t anything new, especially for Star Trek, but depicting their conversation as the beings using Sisko’s memories to better understand humans? Pure genius, far as I’m concerned. There’s also how their dialogue is handled, which shows their lack of understanding of relatively limited conceptions such as space, time and memory in a way that is easily digestible. Bonus points for Sisko being able to demonstrate the idea of probability and chance through the outcome of a baseball game, at once the most American and human way of handling such a query. Where the other series were focusing too much on rather minor ideas, and ideas that were poorly realized at that, DS9 started right away with a very sympathetic main character who was going through a very understandable emotional crisis, immediately getting us on level with the show, its approach to storytelling and its characters.

So, when all is said and done, how well did this pilot do for the series? Well, not only did it manage to make itself noteworthy beyond the Star Trek name, it went back to the drawing board on a number of series staples and improved upon them, rather than going with the usual practice of just ignoring it and moving on. The rest of the first season would go through certain dips and climbs, and Emissary definitely shows one of the higher points for the series overall, but it also managed to keep a good median for its first impression beyond the pilot. I may maintain that Voyager is still my favourite series, because even at its worst it’s entertaining in its own way, but DS9 set a precedent as being the most abjectly good and I definitely consider it as such.

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