Thursday, April 27, 2017

Deep Space Nine 7x3 "Afterimage"

rating: ***

the story: Ezri tries to get used to being the new host of the Dax symbiont.

what it's all about: It's tough being the new kid in town.  Especially in Star Trek.  No series has ever had a dramatic shakeup in its cast.  Few have left, few have been added.  Being added in the last season is an especially difficult task, an honor experienced by...Ezri Dax.  And...actually, she's the only one, really.

So three episodes in the seventh and final season, she gets her story told for the first time.  In a lot of ways, it may be her best episode, too.  It's one of the most complete introductions of a Star Trek character ever, actually.  The audience by now is more than familiar with the Trill joint species concept, so it's the host concept that's really explored for the first time, the need to integrate the memories of others, not to mention trying to figure out how you fit in, not just around others but in your own life.  That's "Afterimage" in a nutshell.  Not too shabby!

Ezri is easily the most shaken main cast member of any series until Hoshi in Enterprise, in this episode.  That makes it a tougher sell, in some respects, because Star Trek was always about confident people boldly, you know, going.  But it makes her relatable, in ways that don't always happen in the franchise.  But the episode has an answer to that: Garak.

Because this is a Garak episode, too, his last real spotlight of the series, really.  It's the last time we see the character traits that made him famous in "The Wire," all the way back in the second season.  Not only is he in exile now, but actively working against his fellow Cardassians, which makes a rough existence, well, rougher.  It's a perfect counterpoint to Ezri's arc.  Actually, Garak's arc is a nice nod to the ongoing war that so often since it began tended to fall into the background when not the active focus of a story.  You'd hardly know it was even still happening, sometimes.  Here its inclusion is so casual, it may in fact help "Afterimage" be the best example of life during wartime in the series.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Ezri's regular debut might be a little Deep Space Nine specific.
  • series - Nicely ties in with the war.
  • character - Ezri's fill introduction; also features Garak nicely.
  • essential - An important moment in the season and series, really.
notable guest-stars:
Andrew Robinson (Garak)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Deep Space Nine 7x2 "Shadows and Symbols"

rating: ***

the story: Sisko searches for the Orb of the Prophets, but finds himself plagued by visions from the Pah-wraiths to prevent him from succeeding.

what it's all about: This is probably the biggest creative leap of faith the series ever did.  In "Shadows and Symbols," a direction continuation of the season premiere ("Image in the Sand"), Sisko discovers that his mother was actually a Prophet, which means that Sisko is the Emissary of the Prophets in kind of the same way, well, Jesus was the son of god.  That's right: the main character of a Star Trek series becomes a truly messianic figure.  Kind of smacks in the face of just about every franchise tenet, right?

But that's what Deep Space Nine was all about, challenging every assumption, in the very best Star Trek tradition.  Gene Roddenberry created a platform that allowed any concept to be explored.  The fact that often he and his follow creators in the original series tended to come down on a certain side of cultural conclusions did not make those conclusions the only possible ones; it was the ability to explore the ideas that defined the vision Roddenberry gave birth to, not the conclusions.  Only Deep Space Nine really seemed to get that. 

But I'll probably grant that not every fan will be willing to admit that.  Not every fan is willing to admit a lot of things about the franchise.  Most fans are in fact "protective" of the franchise.  They think rejecting a series or a movie protects the legacy of the franchise.  Right.  If the franchise needs to be protected, it doesn't deserve protecting.  Interesting little conundrum for you.

There's other stuff going on in the episode, by the way: Worf winning a great victory for his late wife Jadzia, spending time with the next Dax host (Ezri), Kira pulling a Kirk against the Romulans...and a kind of sequel to last season's "Far Beyond the Stars."

In "Stars," the Prophets send Sisko a vision about a life where he must choose to rise above his circumstances to reach his full potential, confront doubt and discover certainty.  In "Shadows," the Pah-wraiths try the same trick, except their vision is perverse; the doubt Sisko faces isn't external, as it was in "Stars," but internal.  He's made to believe he's crazy.  In a lot of ways, it's a kind of Wizard of Oz story.  In the controversial 1985 film Return to Oz, Dorothy is made to believe that her experiences in Oz were all a delusion.  In a way, not only Sisko's experiences as a 1950s pulp fiction writer named Benny Russell in "Stars" but all his time at the station and being declared the Emissary, they're all called into question.  It's as big a character moment as Sisko ever had.

I wish the whole episode had dealt with it.  Instead we have other moving parts, which I think is the main weakness of both "Shadows" and "Image" before it.  This was a story that should've focused entirely on Sisko.  To try anything more is to dilute the potential, which is exactly what I think happens.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Casual fans may be confused or even worse, offended by this episode.
  • series - But it's a crucial development for Deep Space Nine.
  • character - A lot of other characters have things going on, but this is Sisko's episode.
  • essential - While I wish it had been done differently, it's still the biggest thing to happen to any Star Trek character...ever, really.
notable guest-stars:
Deborah Casey (Sarah Sisko)
Brock Peters (Joseph Sisko)
Casey Biggs (Damar)
Jeffrey Combs (Weyoun)
J.G. Hertzler (Martok)
Barry Jenner (Admiral Ross)

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Deep Space Nine 7x1 "Image in the Sand"

rating: ***

the story: Sisko receives a puzzling vision of the future while Kira adjusts to temporary command of the station.

what it's all about: I don't know how impactful "Image in the Sand" is as a season premiere, especially since its story continues into the next episode ("Shadows and Symbols") before breaking off into a string of standalone episodes.  It's kind of a place-holder, a slow burn beginning.  On one hand it's kind of a status update.  Kira, for the first time ever, is in charge of the station, and finds that all over again she has to learn how complicated everything really is (kind of her life story over the course of the series). Sisko, meanwhile, is kind of moping at home on Earth, before being thrust into what will turn out to be a kind of radical revision of the character (more on that next episode).  There's also some of how Worf's dealing with the death of his wife, Jadzia Dax.  Plus the soft introduction of the new Dax.

All of it combines for an episode that feels far more like a continuation than anything.  Which at this point is probably just about right for a series that had been creeping toward serialization from the start.  As I said in my thoughts for the sixth season finale ("Tears of the Prophets"), the producers seem to have finally decided to move forward at any cost with their storytelling, which meant they were no longer waiting around for fans to catch up with them.  Which is just as well.  This was going to be the final season anyway; there was literally nothing to lose.

The only thing truly odd about all this is that "Image" and "Shadows" really should have been a two-part episode, like "The Search" at the beginning of the third season and "Way of the Warrior" at the beginning of the fourth.  The fifth began with a complete standalone ("Apocalypse Rising") while the sixth had a six-episode arc to help kick off the Dominion War.  The war, meanwhile, just sort of exists in the background of "Image," even though "Tears" had just made a point of Starfleet looking to ramp up the offensive.  Kind of weird.  But again, "Image" was a lot of character work, the hallmark of the series.  Which seems appropriate.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Casual fans might find the episode somewhat impenetrable.
  • series - Dedicated ones will suffer no such confusion.
  • character - Sisko and Kira find themselves at turning points.
  • essential - Sisko's on the verge of a big reveal, so this material is pivotal.
notable guest-stars:
Deborah Casey (Sarah Sisko)
Brock Peters (Joseph Sisko)
Aron Eisenberg (Nog)
Jeffrey Combs (Weyoun)
J.G. Hertzler (Martok)
Barry Jenner (Admiral Ross)
Casey Biggs (Damar)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Deep Space Nine 6x26 "Tears of the Prophets"

rating: ****

the story: Dukat makes a fateful decision, which affects both the wormhole and the future of the Dax symbiont.

what it's all about: Well, that's how to ramp things back up.  Actually, it might be argued that this is the first episode of the seventh season, and the depiction of the Dominion War as it would be seen throughout the final season.  Season finales are always a little tricky.  Sometimes they're meant to provide a climax for a season.  Sometimes they're meant to provide a cliffhanger.  But "Tears of the Prophets" is different.  If you don't consider it in the context of the next several episodes, from the next season, you might not fully appreciate it.

But it's a big, big moment, too, all on its own, because this is the death of Jadzia Dax.  Jadzia was a regular in the series from the very start.  She was the current host of the Dax symbiont, and everyone knew it thanks to Dax's previous friendship with Sisko, who referred to Jadzia as "Old Man" in tribute to the previous host, Curzon.  Although it's sad saying goodbye to Jadzia, in a way there could have been no more perfect arc for the character in the series, passing the symbiont off to someone else, so we could explore what exactly it's like for the symbiont to move on.  But more on that next season.

Jadzia's death is the third major death in franchise lore, and second to be permanent (Spock came back, after all), a series regular KIA (Next Generation's Tasha Yar in "Skin of Evil"), not just a subtraction from the cast (which is also rare in Star Trek, but temporarily happened to Crusher and then permanently for her replacement Pulaski in Next Generation, and then Kes in Voyager, who like Wesley in Next Generation ended up appearing again). 

The drama surrounding her death can seem a little exaggerated.  She and Worf celebrate the news that they're going to have a baby.  Bashir and Quark lament the news (but they'll still be talking about Dax and Worf next season, so that's some of the strong connective material).  The baby adds extra pathos (melodrama) to the death.  Apparently the producers thought and rethought how Jadzia would die, but I think they probably overthought it, even if they came up with a pretty good version in the end, a random death for a random cast departure (Terry Farrell decided she'd had enough, and walked away from what turned out to be one remaining season). 

The impact of the death ends up meaning a great deal to Sisko.  Finally, the war becomes truly personal for him, and connects to his role as the Emissary of the Prophets.  This is more of how the next season follows this material so strongly.  Dukat briefly becomes Emissary of the Pah-wraiths (the Prophets, or wormhole aliens' opposite number) so he can shut down the wormhole, and in the process kills Jadzia.  It's the closing of the wormhole that's the most impactful event of the episode.  The wormhole was sometimes a matter of convenience in the series, taken for granted as just another way to get around, and yet it was a unique element of the series, and proved to be important in ushering the threat of the Dominion.  Yet it becomes most important not because of the Dominion but for what it always was, a conduit to the bigger concepts of the series, the godlike beings and the decidedly human ones trying to contend with them. 

To have it suddenly taken away rips something important from Sisko.  The Prophets never conformed to the expectations of godlike beings elsewhere in the franchise, and "Tears" reflects how significant they are even in their absence, how Sisko has no power over them, and how he's equally free to make his own decisions. 

Anyway, it's big and important, but it leads to bigger and more important things, which makes "Tears" arguably one of the most successful season finales ever in Star Trek.  In one episode a season's worth of sometimes lethargic developments in the most important arc of the series, the Dominion War, becomes transformed into something that speaks on multiple levels and leads directly to the final episode ("What You Leave Behind").

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Death of a major character, truly epic season finale.
  • series - Transforms the war arc and prepares the way to the end.
  • character - Obviously important to Dax, but to Sisko as well.
  • essential - What could have been obvious storytelling is transformed into something greater in the context of ensuing episodes.
notable guest-stars:
Marc Alaimo (Dukat)
J.G. Hertzler (Martok)
Andrew Robinson (Garak)
Casey Biggs (Damar)
Jeffrey Combs (Weyoun)
Aron Eisenberg (Nog)
Barry Jenner (Admiral Ross)
James Darren (Vic Fontaine)

Friday, April 21, 2017

Deep Space Nine 6x25 "The Sound of Her Voice"

rating: ****

the story: The crew must keep communications open with a Starfleet captain stranded and in desperate need of help.

what it's all about: If the preceding episode ("Time's Orphan") was a nice if safe sci-fi episode in a series that usually geared itself more toward human stories, "The Sound of Her Voice" manages to be both, and by the time you've seen its ending, I think you'll agree that it's a classic, too.

It's an example of a sci-fi twist that deepens rather than cheapens the impact of the storytelling, what M. Night Shyamalan later made a whole film career around.  No, I won't spoil it here, but speaking of spoilers, it's also the rare chance for Star Trek to allude to future events, in this case the very next episode, "Tears of the Prophets," the season finale in which the circumstances of "Voice" are echoed in bittersweet fashion. 

It's a kind of slice-of-life episode, since part of what the plot enables is the crew talking about their problems, so that on one level it's just an episode about people talking, which would seem boring, but again, once you make it to the end, you'll find it poignant beyond belief. 

I don't mean to dance around what happens in "Voice," but seeing it for yourself is kind of vital to the experience.

So in the meantime, Deep Space Nine gets to do what it does best, which is just spend time with its characters, a luxury Next Generation attempted at various points, to mixed results, and what Voyager and Enterprise subsequently wove into their storytelling as well, so that the characters really mattered and weren't just there to serve the plot.  That is Deep Space Nine's greatest legacy, and in a lot of ways, "Voice" is where you might best see it in action.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A great twist casual fans will love.
  • series - Reflective of what Deep Space Nine was all about, and what it passed on to later series.
  • character - Every member of the cast gets a chance to shine.
  • essential - Just too clever to deny.
notable guest-stars:
Debra Wilson (Captain Cusak)
Penny Johnson (Kasidy)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Deep Space Nine 6x24 "Time's Orphan"

rating: **

the story: Molly O'Brien is lost on a planet, but when she's found again it's from ten years in the future, and time hasn't been kind to her...

what it's all about: This is one of those episodes that will probably please casual fans, a time travel plot that's as faithful to the general sci-fi origins of the franchise as you're liable to find in Deep Space Nine.  It's also the only episode of two different series (this one and Next Generation, where she was born) that centers around O'Brien's daughter Molly.

There's not much sense talking about the plot of the episode.  There's Starfleet failing to learn from its past again (shades of Next Generation's "The Offspring," in which Data builds himself a daughter and Starfleet wants to take her from him, where Starfleet apparently has failed to learn from the earlier "The Measure of a Man," which Starfleet still hasn't learned from by the time of Voyager's "Author, Author"), trying to step in where it shouldn't be meddling.

So anyway, it's the Molly O'Brien episode.  Molly was literally born during the course of Next Generation ("Disaster"), and actress Hana Hatae ended up playing the role, aging with the character, straight through the final episode of Deep Space Nine.  Even Naomi Wildman in Voyager was played by a couple young actresses, and artificially aged somewhere along the way, just like Alexander in Next Generation.  Hatae wasn't cast to be an actor, but rather to be adorable, and she kept on being adorable in all her appearances.  But she was too young even by the end to be expected to do much acting, so she was always incidental to any given story (she threw up once, off-camera, on Lwaxana Troi, "Fascination").  Until a gobbledygook plot sci-fi plot, of course.

While the older Molly in "Time's Orphan" isn't asked to do much more acting than Hatae ever did (she's feral, alas), the story is still about her, which is about good enough.  It's kind of the same trick the series played with Morn earlier in the season ("Who Mourns for Morn?"), making the sixth season not just the dawn of the Dominion War, but the season the writers pulled off the impossible.  Twice!

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The standalone nature and sci-fi friendly storytelling here will be ideal for casual fans.
  • series - Has nothing at all to do with the Dominion War.
  • character - The one episode to focus on Molly!
  • essential - It does what it has to, which is about as perfunctory as Deep Space Nine can get.
notable guest-stars:
Hana Hatae (Molly)
Rosalind Chao (Keiko)

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Deep Space Nine 6x23 "Profit and Lace"

rating: ***

the story: Quark is forced to defend everything he stands against as Ferengi society prepares to undergo a massive revolution.

what it's all about: Well, here we are, the "Ferengi episode" of all "Ferengi episodes."  Frequently cited as the worst episode of the series.  What I can never quite decide is how badly it betrays Star Trek fans to fall horribly below their own standards.  No, not on what makes a good, or bad, episode, but the social standards the franchise always represented.  With twenty years hindsight, the extreme hate for this episode actually kind of represents the most extreme bigotry the fans ever expressed.

For one episode, Quark becomes transgender.  That's perhaps the one-sentence summary I should've used above, and every fan would know instantly what I was talking about, and come up with their own summary of its worth: "Profit and Lace" is a farce.  That's exactly what they've been saying since it originally aired.  I've tried to come up with the reasons why the pejorative term "Ferengi episode" came into being, but it's probably because of "Profit and Lace."

The huge, huge irony is that this is not even the first time in Deep Space Nine featured a Ferengi posing as a member of the opposite sex.  Way back in the second season, "Rules of Acquisition" featured a female struggling to be taken seriously.  It was actually the foundation of the arc Ferengi society would take across the series as a whole, ratcheted up considerably when a different female, Quark and Rom's mother Ishka, took up the struggle in "Family Business" in the third season, the more obvious predecessor to "Lace," which follows the effects of Ishka ending up in a relationship with Grand Nagus Zek, the leader of the Ferengi.  In "Rules," the female poses as a male, and much like the ending of "Lace," it's unwanted sexual advances that end the experiment in discomfort.

"Lace" is about a lot of things, but it's kind of the episode where Quark must really decide how much he wants to struggle against the tide of history.  Tellingly, it begins and ends with him interacting with one of his hired girls at the bar, and how he decides to treat her, which in itself has nothing to do with the few scenes where he's a woman (except from his firsthand experience fighting off unwanted advances).  True, by the end of the series Quark is the one character who seems to be in the same place he was at the beginning of the series, but he's also the one character who had settled into his new life well before the end, when massive change had already rocked the foundations of his world.  As in, this episode.  As in everything that preceded and followed it, but mostly this episode.  Quark stops being such a desperate man after this.  That's really the best characterization of the bartender, previously; he was always so desperate to validate his existence, trying to be the ideal Ferengi when everyone around him kept telling him it was a horribly backward mistake.  If he didn't make the outward advances his brother Rom and his nephew Nog did, Quark still managed to make peace with the universe.

What, you were expecting it to look different?

But getting back to the transgender thing, I still find that shocking.  Of course the scenes of Quark as a female will be hard to take seriously, if you're already predisposed to the idea of the "Ferengi episode."  Quark's basic character, again, remains entirely consistent.  Complaints about this concept stem either from problems with Ferengi in general, or a failure to take the concept of changing one's gender seriously.  It could be one or the other, or both, but I'm inclined to believe the hate is really directed at the gender issue.  I'm fully aware of how complicated this concept is, how it's not any closer to being mainstream now than it was in 1998, when "Lace" originally aired.  Today we see transgender people as visible for the first time ever, but they haven't even begun to approach the level of acceptance of the homosexual community, which still faces its own hurdles.  Star Trek did analogies for years, but didn't begin incorporating gay characters themselves until 2016's Star Trek Beyond

But fans consider "Lace" an abysmal episode, for the scenes of Quark as a female, and for those scenes alone.  They don't seem capable of incorporating those scenes into the rest of the episode, or the rest of the series, for that matter.  And maybe that's a good thing.  Maybe that makes them more powerful.  I don't know.  I just know that it makes the episode more important, for being impossible to ignore, one way or another.  And probably not even what the producers remotely had in mind when they conceived it.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A groundbreaking episode still ahead of its time.
  • series - I'm inclined to knock it here, as it does seem to reiterate previous material.
  • character - Unlocks the course of Quark's development.
  • essential - Became the definition of must-see when fans insisted that it was must-miss, for all the wrong reasons.
notable guest-stars:
Cecily Adams (Ishka)
Wallace Shawn (Zek)
Jeffrey Combs (Brunt)
Max Grodenchik (Rom)
Aron Eisenberg (Nog)
Chase Masterson (Leeta)
Tiny Ron (Maihar'du)
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