Thursday, December 1, 2011

'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine' Season One (1993)

Starring Avery Brooks, Nana Visitor and Colm Meaney
Created by Rick Berman and Michael Piller
Based on 'Star Trek' created by Gene Roddenberry

"Deep Space Nine" has, without question, the best first season of any of the modern "Star Trek" series.  Starting right out of the gate with the pilot movie 'Emissary,' "Deep Space Nine" presents a corner of the "Star Trek" universe that is unlike anything else in the franchise's history.

Deep Space Nine is a remote outpost in a sector of space that seems to have little of value.  The station orbits the planet Bajor, built by the occupying forces of the Cardassian Empire.  For decades, the Cardassians ruled Bajor with an iron fist.  But a recent peace treaty with the Federation gives control of the sector back to the Bajorans, who are in no condition to govern themselves.  The Bajoran government invites the Federation to aid them in restoring their world.

In charge of this mission is Commander Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), a Starfleet officer still grieving over the death of his wife several years earlier.  His first officer, a Bajoran liason officer Major Kira (Nana Visitor), is a former resistance fighter who resents the Federation's presence.  The station's crew also consists of Chief Miles O'Brien (Colm Meaney), Lt. Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell), Doctor Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig), Security Chief Odo (Rene Auberjonois), and is populated by colorful characters like Ferengi bartender Quark (Armin Shimerman), Cardassian spy-slash-tailor Garak (Andrew Robinson), Sisko's son Jake (Cirroc Lofton) and Jake's best friend Nog (Aron Eisenberg).

In the pilot episode, Sisko visits the Bajoran spiritual leader, Kai Opaka (Camille Saviola), who tells him that his destiny is to the Emissary of the Prophets.  She gives him an Orb, a strange energy device, one of several that have appeared in the skies over Bajor over the course of thousands of years, and tells him that he will find the Celestial Temple of the Prophets.  Soon after, Sisko and Dax, searching for the origin of the orbs, discover a wormhole - a passage through space that leads to the other side of the galaxy.  Within, he meets a species of alien that lives outside of linear time.  That is, all moments of time occur at once to them, rather than in sequence.

With this stable wormhole discovered, Bajor seems poised on the cusp of becoming a major power in the galaxy as their sector will become a hub of commerce, and a strategic position worth holding on to.  But the situation is precarious - Bajor itself is a ravaged world, its people distrustful of outsiders, even the benevolent Federation.  And the Cardassians, now realizing what they may have lost in giving up the sector, are not about to let Bajor become such a power without a fight.  Sisko and his crew will have to maintain the peace both on Bajor and in the space surrounding it, earning the trust of the Bajorans and explore the newly-discovered Gamma Quadrant, some 70,000 light-years from home on the other side of the wormhole.

Right off the bat, "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" sets up the biggest and most diverse cast of "Star Trek" characters.  The first half of the season gives each character a spotlight episode, "Emissary" exploring Sisko's grief, "Past Prologue" looking at Kira's past as a resistance fighter, "A Man Alone" showing Odo's dedication to truth and justice, "Captive Pursuit" a look into O'Brien's morals, "Dax" an episode about the nature of being a dual-being Trill, "The Nagus" expanding the world of the Ferengi, and more.  The cast is also mostly set in their roles, with very little changing over the course of the season.  They start out fully-formed, with nary the usual shakedown time other series seem to go through.

The season tackles heady concepts, some more sci-fi than others.  In "Dax," the show looks at the idea of whether a symbiotic creature can be responsible for acts of its previous host.  If one person has all the memories and feelings of another, are they the same person?  The issue of racism is a theme that runs through the entire season, coming fully to a head in "Duet" and "In the Hands of the Prophets," two of the season's finest episodes, and in the case of "Duet," one of the best episodes of the entire series.

In "Duet," a Cardassian named Marritza (Harris Yulin) comes aboard the station, and Kira believes he may in fact be the vicious war criminal Gul Darheel.  The truth of Marritza's identity forces Kira to face her racist tendencies to hate all Cardassians, and come to grips with the idea that not every Cardassian is a blood-thirsty murderer.  "In the Hands of the Prophets" tackles religion versus science as a conservative Vedek Winn (Louise Fletcher) attempts to drive a wedge between the Bajorans and the Federation, whom she sees as godless blasphemers.  It's a fine, if low-key, way to end the season.  "Star Trek: The Next Generation" typically ended its seasons in a more explosive manner, but DS9 decides to stage a heady drama about teachers versus priests.

All this praise is not to say that the first season of "Deep Space Nine" is perfect.  There are a handful of episodes that I might classify as unnecessary. "Deep Space Nine" works best when it's doing things in its own, more political and grounded style.  When it attempts episodes that seem more typically "Star Trek," it doesn't fare quite as well.  A visit from Q in "Q-Less" is mildly amusing, but ultimately just proves that "Deep Space Nine" isn't where that character belongs.  Additionally, "Move Along Home" is easily the worst episode of the season, and perhaps even the series itself.  While it might have been right at home in the 1960s original series, but here just seems too silly and stupid, with the crew essentially forced to play space hop-scotch in order to escape a dangerous alien game.  Right along with those two is "If Wishes Were Horses," in which the crew's imaginations begin to manifest characters and events physically, including appearances by fairy tale characters like Rumpelstiltskin. 

"Vortex" hints at exploring Odo's mysterious past, but ultimately goes nowhere.  "The Storyteller" is another episode that seems to just be in the wrong place.  Its premise, involving O'Brien and Bashir saving a Bajoran village from some kind of energy creature, is just too bizarre for its own good, even though the episode tries to give a reasonable explanation for everything that's going on.

Still, this handful of misfires can't outweigh the fact that right from the start, "Deep Space Nine" is a more measured and nuanced vision of the "Star Trek" universe.  A bit slower-paced, sure, but deeper, with more complex themes spread across multiple episodes.  There are some stumbles along the way, but with its intriguing production design, large, diverse cast and intriguing storylines, "Deep Space Nine" is a winner.