Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Deep Space Nine 5x25 "In the Cards"

rating: ****

the story: Jake and Nog in their last and greatest business scheme.

what it's all about: A staple of the first couple seasons of the series was the young duo of Jake Sisko and Nog getting into all sorts of juvenile trouble.  The more they, and the series around them, grew and came into their own, the less time they spent together.  "In the Cards" is a big reminder of how much Jake and Nog, as originally conceived, contributed to Deep Space Nine.  Although Nog eventually joined Starfleet, they were both strong elements of the series that reflected life outside of service (even a bar, Quark), the all-important civilian experience that always proved so difficult to regularly depict even in Next Generation with families aboard a starship (Wesley Crusher was an unofficial and then official member of the crew virtually from the start, and never even considered until the very end of that series any other life for himself). 

All that means that this is basically a slice-of-life episode that has a look at the ordinary experiences of the station.  As Jake and Nog navigate circumstances in order to obtain a baseball card for Jake's dad (y'know, Sisko), we get to see how things operate on a routine basis.  Nothing major seems to be at stake, but that's in fact the episode's biggest strength, because that couldn't be further from the truth: the whole story is about a state of grace everyone knows is occurring before war breaks out.  Kai Winn makes perhaps her only sympathetic appearance of the series as she frets about Bajor's future.  Weyoun appears in the last friendly (only?) Dominion appearance at the station.

But really, it's just a fun episode, without anything outright comedic about it.  This was a series known for going dark, but it was also a series capable of plumbing every kind of storytelling, with remarkable aplomb.  "Cards" has such a light touch it might seem easy to dismiss as inconsequential, but it is very deliberate in what it sets out to do, which is give the series once last chance to breathe.  Because a war is about to break loose.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - In the best Star Trek tradition it lightens the mood nicely.
  • series - It's the last episode before the war, and knows it.
  • character - It's Jake and Nog's last caper.
  • essential - Subtle storytelling and a thorough delight.
notable guest-stars:
Aron Eisenberg (Nog)
Louise Fletcher (Kai Winn)
Jeffrey Combs (Weyoun)
Chase Masterson (Leeta)
Brian Markinson

Monday, February 27, 2017

Deep Space Nine 5x24 "Empok Nor"

rating: **

the story: A small crew visits an abandoned Cardassian space station identical to DS9, where things spiral out of control and Garak is turned into the enemy...

what it's all about: This is one of those episodes that have so little to do with the arc of Deep Space Nine itself, and that can be enjoyed almost entirely on a visceral level, that general Star Trek fans will probably find it accessible, while fans of the series itself will probably consider "Empok Nor" ultimately inconsequential.

And don't get me wrong, all of that is as true of the episode as anything else you could say about it, which is why I'll try to make a case for series fans to consider it in a different light, too.

Clearly a "bottle episode," using standing sets to tell a story to save some money, in this case the station minus even most of the extras (somewhat reminiscent of "Distant Voices" from the third season because of that), "Nor" quickly introduces another station that won't factor into the series again until the seventh season, and even then as something Starfleet apparently never considered drafting into the war effort, a failure of storytelling logic that makes its existence kind of pointless...But it becomes the setting for a story that is so completely disconnected from the Dominion arc around it, or anything else for that matter, it's the last time this season, and in the series, where episodic nature of the classic Star Trek tradition exists in Deep Space Nine, and so there's a dubious distinction to celebrate on that score.  It's also a horror story, and in that sense mirrors the later Enterprise episode "Impulse."  Actually, there's a distinct Enterprise flavor to the whole episode (giving further credence to my personal opinion that Enterprise was always envisioned to follow the Deep Space Nine model).

But Cardassians appearing as generic villains, entirely unconnected from the recent revelation that they've joined the Dominion and are literally two episodes away from the start of a war...is a really questionable creative decision, and again reflective of so many such calls throughout the season.  Also unwieldy is the decision to pair up O'Brien and Garak. These are characters who literally had no past or future together.  As much as it made sense to have O'Brien in the story itself, clearly Bashir should've been in there somewhere, too.

It's Garak, however, who redeems the episode.  This is the one episode of the whole series where he has an opportunity to be the villain he always seemed he might turn out to be.  Other than his cartoonish shenanigans in the Mirror Universe episodes (he's one of the best elements in them because of that, actually), Garak had a similar chance in the third season (making this another of the fifth season's callbacks to that season) in "Improbable Cause"/"The Die is Cast," in which he seems to defect back to the Cardassian side, only to realize he simply doesn't have the stomach for it anymore.  In "Nor" he has no such freedom, as he finds himself coopted by a psychotropic element, and thus reverts to his base instincts.  We finally get to see what he's capable of when all the stops are let loose.  Thank goodness he's on our side!

The episode is really a reward for the character, acknowledgment of the fact that he's become so important to the series over the years and especially the last few seasons.  While it doesn't really say anything new about him, "Nor" allows Garak to have a little fun, which is to say, behave like just another member of the cast.  In the Mirror Universe he's just another of the egos running wild.  Here Garak is the center of attention, merely because he's a memorable personality.  I suppose if anyone had to deal with this side of him, it'd be the perennially hard-luck O'Brien... 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A horror story any fan could appreciate.
  • series - Strangely pulls away from everything else that'd been developing.
  • character - A nice spotlight for Garak.
  • essential - Because it lacks any real context it can seem to be pretty throwaway.
notable guest-stars:
Andrew Robinson (Garak)
Aron Eisenberg (Nog)

Friday, February 24, 2017

Deep Space Nine 5x23 "Blaze of Glory"

 rating: ***

the story: Eddington's last stand.

what it's all about: Aside from Voyager's "Extreme Risk" (which came about a year later), this is about the last episode in the Maquis narrative begun in Next Generation mostly as a way to set up Voyager.  Eddington last appeared in "For the Uniform," which to my mind remains one of the signal episodes of the series, but this was immediately preceding "In Purgatory's Shadow"/"By Inferno's Light," where the Dominion War becomes inevitable upon Cardassia joining the evil Gamma Quadrant faction.  Seems the Maquis were targeted for elimination after that. 

So there had to be a follow-up, right?  Between Ro Laren (Next Generation's seminal "Preemptive Strike") and Tom Riker (Deep Space Nine's own "Defiant"), usually once someone has made the fateful decision to join the Maquis and either gone off into the sunset or be captured, it had become customary to never hear from them.  Voyager's contingent, of course, is an exception, for obvious reasons.  "Cause" ended with Sisko putting a stop to Eddington's adventures.  "Blaze of Glory" sees Eddington use some trickery to get his way out.

The Eddington of "Uniform" is more charismatic and thrilling than the Eddington who appeared in any other episode, including "Blaze.  This is my main stumbling block with it.  On the one hand, it confirms the cunning that was needed to engineer the long con necessary for the big reveal in the earlier "For the Cause," as well as the cat-and-mouse game of "Uniform," but it seems a little too clockwork in "Blaze," almost inevitable.  The attempt to make him sympathetic, which is what the episode is ultimately about, kind of foreshadows Damar's fate late in the series, which is far more successful.

It's almost like the season's last bit of bad timing.  Had Eddington returned in the sixth season instead, during the actual war, and actually made a selfless decision to help out the Federation in the war, that would've been a redemptive moment.  Instead...I don't know.  Just one of those moments that doesn't resonate the way it seems it should, even for an admitted fan of the Eddington character from well before there was any reason to care for him...What he ends up with is a valiant death, a sacrifice for family, but it could've been so much more.  Still there's something to be said for living up to one's own principles to the bitter end.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The Maquis story reaches a sad climax.
  • series - A necessary beat in the run-up to the Dominion War.
  • character - Whether or not it feels satisfactory, this is the final appearance of Eddington, who became one of the unsung essential components of the series.
  • essential - Lingering doubt about the creative decisions around it dull the impact.
notable guest-stars:
Ken Marshall (Eddington)
J.G. Hertzler (Martok)
Aron Eisenberg (Nog)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Deep Space Nine 5x22 "Children of Time"

rating: ***

the story: Via sci-fi plotting, the crew meets its own descendants, in the present.

what it's all about: This is one of the Deep Space Nine standalone episodes ("The Visitor" was another) that left a definite impact on the later franchise, later echoed in Voyager's "Endgame" (its final episode) and Enterprise's "E2."  So as a matter of historic significance, "Children of Time" already has a lot going for it.

While the idea of technobabble that sends the ship back in time and creating, in essence, an alternate timeline for the characters and whole generations of successors who meet them in the present, just before the technobabble that made it possible in the first place is itself pretty fascinating, none of it would matter at all if there weren't an emotional hook to it, and there is.  That's my biggest problem, at least with Star Trek, and maybe storytelling in general, in that I'll certainly accept a nifty idea, but if it doesn't have any depth, I see very little reason to care too much about it.  There's at least one episode I've docked as one of the franchise's worst (Voyager's "Twisted") because of that kind of lazy storytelling.

So anyway, the emotional hook is especially good because it basically push forward, at long last, after a series of fits and starts, one of its biggest narrative arcs: the relationship between Odo and Kira.  There were times during this season where I thought the writers had somehow forgotten it ("A Simple Investigation" is the most egregious example), even though it was hugely important so many times in the past.  Perhaps somewhere along the line someone decided Odo had abandoned the idea as impractical, and needed a reason to revisit it, which is what 'Children of Time" is in a nutshell. 

Being a changeling, Odo is one of those fictional characters who either ages very slowly (as Vulcans and Klingons demonstrably do) or not at all (Odo).  As such, he's the only original crew member who's still around in his original form from the technobabble problem.  That essentially makes this an Odo episode, even though most of it really spends times exploring other aspects of the plot.  Like Janeway in "Endgame," he's become obsessed with the one person he most regrets losing, which is of course Kira, and eventually makes a huge decision that not only conveniently provides a giant reset button (the noble crew had opted to go ahead and duplicate the original technobabble problem and in effect sacrificing their own futures so that the people who ended up existing because of it can continue to do so), but makes it clear, beyond any doubt, that this was an Odo/Kira episode all along.

It's refreshing, really, because these are the two characters who were least allowed to explore the true magic of the series otherwise, usually confined to the most miserable, mundane elements. Sure, they weren't Starfleet officers (neither were Jake or Quark), but surely they could experience some fun, too?  So this is their big moment.  I mean, their big moment.

And from this point onward, they were truly on the inevitable path to romance, because they no longer had doubts about what they meant to each other. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Later series borrowed the basic template.
  • series - For a one-off episode, it ends up reflecting the course of Deep Space Nine well.
  • character - It's a Kira/Odo episode by any other name.
  • essential - Unlike any other experience they had together, and that's an extremely good thing.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Deep Space Nine 5x21 "Soldiers of the Empire"

rating: **

the story: Worf helps bring Martok back up to speed.

what it's all about: "Soldiers" is essentially a formality of an episode, confirming the stuff previously suggested by "In Purgatory's Shadow" and "By Inferno's Light" concerning the budding importance of Worf's relationship with Martok, the Klingon he discovers in a Jem'Hadar prison camp, who'd been replaced by a Founder in their previous encounters.  Otherwise, it's Next Generation's "A Matter of Honor" reheated, and a precursor to Deep Space Nine's much better "Once More Unto the Breach" in the final season.

So it's another episode set aboard a Klingon ship.  Worf, who has his soon-to-be blushing bride Dax along to encourage him, is serving aboard it at Martok's request.  But Martok is a broken man, and he has pretty much forgotten how to be a Klingon.  Long and slightly unnecessary story short, Martok is rehabilitated.

The problem with the episode, as with "Ferengi Love Songs" before it, is that it seems like something that should be essential viewing, but lacking the proper context.  With the Dominion War about to break out, all this would've worked much better had Martok found redemption in the war.  It's another instance of the season screwing up context like that.  Imagine if Odo had been featured prominently in "Love Songs," a callback to his and Quark's experiences in "The Ascent" earlier in the season, one of the moments that was absolutely nailed, everything in the right place.  Here it's not so much the growth that's missing, but a reason for why it's happening now as opposed to when it could feel less...random, less a space filler.

The fifth season, at its best (eight strong episodes in a row that all challenged basic Star Trek preconceptions) was among the best material the franchise ever saw.  But there was also other material that betrayed the fact that the producers were still gravely uncertain about what to do with a series the studio had tried to meddle with and as such had been knocked off its track.  Well, in all these fits and starts, something very big was on the horizon, and it was pretty easy to see at this point.  But it hadn't happened yet, and that was equally clear...

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The rare Klingon episode that doesn't feel like compulsory viewing.
  • series - Still, as part of an overall arc it makes sense in its Deep Space Nine context, at least to a certain degree.
  • character - It completes, after all, the foundation of a powerful friendship between Worf and Martok.
  • essential - But you don't necessarily need to see how it happens to understand why.
notable guest-stars:
J.G. Hertzler (Martok)
Aron Eisenberg (Nog)
Rick Worthy

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Deep Space Nine 5x20 "Ferengi Love Songs"

rating: **

the story: Quark discovers that the Grand Nagus and his mother are shacking up!

what it's all about: When fans think of "Ferengi episodes," it's actually probably this one they're thinking of.  Taking every "Ferengi episode" that came before it and playing fast and loose with the logic, and generally making as many convenient, logic-defying leaps as possible, "Ferengi Love Songs" has the dubious distinction of actually becoming the crux for every major "Ferengi episode" that followed it, including the much-loathed "Profit and Lace" a season later...

Grand Nagus Zek was kind of the Q of Deep Space Nine, a wonderfully zany character who'd show up about once a season to cause chaos, mostly for poor Quark.  Quark's mother Ishka debuted in the third season, "Family Business."  As you'll note above, the two end up in a relationship together.  It'd the definition of a farce.

This is extremely unfortunate timing, as with certain other parts of the season, as Quark had just experienced his darkest story, "Business as Usual," and this is basically its antithesis.  I'm not going to dock it as much as I suddenly feel like because it is pretty important to the rest of the series, and the notion that even hilariously backward Ferengi could be redeemed to something resembling respectable with enough radical shoves from the irrepressible Ishka.  I think all this would've worked a lot better if Quark hadn't been in the picture, for a change.  But then again, even Rom, about as opposite a Ferengi as you'll find, acts a lot like a typical Ferengi in the episode, which is equally baffling.  It would've been better, I think, to have some other character discover what Zek and Ishka have been up to.

Well, like I said, "Ferengi episode."  This is one you're either going to like or it'll just drive you nuts, not because of something obvious like Quark parading around in drag ("Profit and Lace"), but because it doesn't seem to respect what came before it.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - One way or another, this one's strictly for fans of Deep Space Nine.
  • series - It's a "Ferengi episode," for better or worse.
  • character - I think the episode best reflects on Zek, all told, shows how far he's come since the first season.
  • essential - Because it kind of savages everyone else.
notable guest-stars:
Wallace Shawn (Zek)
Max Grodenchik (Rom)
Tiny Ron (Maihar'du)
Chase Masterson (Leeta)
Jeffrey Combs (Brunt)
Cecily Adams (Ishka)

Monday, February 20, 2017

Deep Space Nine 5x19 "Ties of Blood and Water"

rating: ***

the story: Kira reunites with her would-be Cardassian father.

what it's all about: A sequel to "Second Skin, "Ties of Blood and Water" is another example of the producers finally coming back to the momentum of the third season as they used the fifth to reclaim ground lost in creative policies instilled by the studio in the fourth...I think maybe this will be the last time I talk about that...

Like "The Darkness and the Light" earlier in the season, Kira finds herself once again confronted with her complicated past, but this time, and actually the first time in the series, events fans have witnessed for themselves.  "Second Skin" was a classic in vein of "Duet," the first episode Star Trek fans in general really took notice of Deep Space Nine, in which Kira was forced to confront the complexities of Bajoran relations with Cardassians, who had for decades oppressed them.  It introduced a man tricked into believing Kira was his daughter, in much the way Next Generation's classic "The Defector" was about how the state sometimes lies to force individuals to expose themselves. 

This Cardassian's return wasn't strictly necessary, but it's welcome all the same.  This time he and Kira are on much more equal footing, although once again they become pawns in Cardassian politics.  (Strange; in the first two seasons it was always Bajoran politics, but this was another shift seen in the all-important third; it was just as well, because as with any politician Cardassians just love to hear themselves talk.)  The timing, for once, is absolutely perfect in the fifth season, because Dukat has just revealed that he's aligned the Cardassians with the Dominion, and thus made them bad guys again.  This has the effect of making Kira's paternal figure, Tekeny Ghemor, all the more sympathetic, as he now seems, aside from Garak, to be the last of the good guy Cardassians.

Really, "Ties" is a throwback to the storytelling of the early seasons all the way around.  Once more Kira is forced to grapple with her conclusions, as Dukat throws conflicting information at her, and like so many times before (notably, "The Collaborator") she's forced to sift through it.  It's good work, and it's the last time this sort of story happens in the series (successfully, anyway; Kira has another such adventure next season in "Wrongs Darker than Death or Night," which clearly tries way too hard to follow the tradition), another nod to the massive shift about to take place with the advent of war...

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - This is one that will make most sense to Deep Space Nine fans.
  • series - See the above.
  • character - Kira says goodbye to a dear friend.
  • essential - We also see the return of Weyoun and thus another major bridge to the future...
notable guest-stars:
Lawrence Pressman (Ghemor)
Marc Alaimo (Dukat)
Jeffrey Combs (Weyoun)
Thomas Kopache
William Lucking

Friday, February 17, 2017

Deep Space Nine 5x18 "Business as Usual"

rating: ****

the story: Quark finds that arms dealing is a heck of thing on the conscience.

what it's all about: This is what the season really comes to, when even the Ferengi aren't immune to the heaviness of the mood that has begun to descend on Deep Space Nine...Quark had certainly found himself in plenty of bad situations in the past, but he was always able to find a clever way out, prevent himself from, y'know, growing, or anything unprofitable like that.  But he finally meets his match.  He finds out that he does have limits, that he's not the shameless Ferengi he always thought he was.

That's the real trick, and perhaps a good way of characterizing the season: being confronted with a situation that challenges every previous assumption.  The situation that provokes this is actually Quark being forced to accept that the weapons he's been selling will eventually end up in the hands of genocidal maniacs, which is to say, people in the business of war.  This is the true irony of the situation, because it's a war-is-bad story on the verge of the biggest war story ever told in Star Trek.

Now, no one has to be told that war is bad.  There's plenty of human history behind us at this point to know exactly what war is like.  But in the past century, we've made a whole cottage industry of trying to explain this.  Actually it's kind of baffling, and it's mostly because there's less of it engulfing whole populations like it used to.  We tell ourselves this in case it ever comes home again (more's the pity for anyone still experiencing it, of course).  And yet, we also tell ourselves war stories because they fascinate us.  A century ago no one was crowing about the American Civil War.  It nearly destroyed the country.  Yet today we fall all over ourselves praising the likes of Robert E. Lee, or the relative merits of a Ulysses S. Grant.  The reality of it, as anyone who has ever actually experienced war, is that it takes a real toll. 

Star Trek has a rich history of participating in this narrative, but until Deep Space Nine it was mostly a problem Starfleet officers came to solve on someone else's world, a backwards culture they could feel free to judge.  Very enlightened.  Not to mention convenient.  Yet with the Dominion War looming, this would no longer be possible.  At this point the producers absolutely knew it was coming.  Viewers probably had an inkling, but there was no guarantee until the end of this season.  Even the Klingon conflict that immediately preceded it was more discussed than experienced.  So "Business as Usual" was a way of testing the waters.  Obviously using someone other than a Starfleet officer (it was Jake, who never joined Starfleet, who experienced Klingon warfare in "Nor the Battle to the Strong" earlier in the season) was the logical way to go, and who better than Quark?  Who better to think there was nothing wrong with what he was doing, until he started to think about it?

So the series that examined war as never before, and its characters as never before, had a moment where this happened.  Of course it did.  If there's anything fun about the proceedings, it's that we finally meet Quark's cousin Gaila (whom he memorably referenced as "the one with the moon" back in the third season), and thus arguably the most successful Ferengi entrepreneur outside of the government in franchise history.  Anyone who ever paid attention to all the Rules of Acquisition dropped every now and again knew that one of them states, "War is good for business."  Well, maybe, but it's not good for the conscience, as Quark finds out.  So after losing his brother (Rom) and his nephew (Nog) to the Federation way of thinking in the past few seasons, and being utterly disgusted with the both of them, Quark finds out how much he's been affected, too, doing business on a space station run by Starfleet.

Which turns out to be good for the conscience. 

Contrasting all this is a B-story in which O'Brien contends with his newborn son, who's demanding the kind of attention O'Brien doesn't think is in him to give.  He nearly drives himself crazy trying to deal with it, but then discovers that it's just a phase.  For those keeping score at home, this is exactly what happens to Quark.  No, not the phase of being a weapons dealer, but believing that he was so different from his family.  He'll certainly question that conclusion the rest of the series (actually, this is the only time we really see him consider such a revolting prospect out loud; he's the only character at the end of the series doing exactly what he was doing at the start of the series, but fans will know that he did change), but it's absolutely true, and "Business" is the episode that proves it.  Deep down, he'll know all his protesting the contrary is just a phase.  I think the first episode of an eighth season will probably find Quark closing his bar to become, I don't know, the Ferengi ambassador to the Federation, brokering the biggest deals of his life.  For no money at all...

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Examines the famous Star Trek line about war.
  • series - Prelude to a war.
  • character - The facts about Quark laid bare.
  • essential - Never before or again will Quark allow himself to be so vulnerable.
notable guest-stars:
Josh Pais (Gaila)
Lawrence Tierney

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Deep Space Nine 5x17 "A Simple Investigation"

rating: *

the story: Odo becomes intrigued with a woman he's investigating.

what it's all about: What an absolute waste of an episode.  I give it one star because it introduces the Orion Syndicate later featured again in "Honor Among Thieves" and "Prodigal Daughter," and so it has some lingering significance, but otherwise "A Simple Investigation" is about as nondescript an episode as you can get. 

What's most shocking about it is the context.  The preceding eight episodes were all exceptional adventures that put a spotlight on everything right with Deep Space Nine at this point in its run.  What's most egregious, however, is that it squanders Odo at a time when he could easily have had incredibly interesting character work done.  Heck, if this had been an episode from earlier in the season, it could have meant something much more without really changing anything at all, from before he regained his shapeshifting abilities.  But here he is, a full-fledged changeling again, and "Investigation"...diddles.  It has nothing to say.

So here's what's a good spin on all that: "Investigation" is a breather.  It removes all the heaviness of what's been going on.  It's a throwback to a simpler time, when you didn't have to worry about what would happen next, when there was no Dominion threat looming.  This could've been a fun experience from the first few seasons, never mind earlier in this season.

But when you watch Deep Space Nine for everything it does really, really right, it's kind of disappointing when an episode delivers something that just feels...safe.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - It could conceivably give fans who are otherwise hesitant to give Deep Space Nine a chance a reason to watch, but would this really be a good way to sample?
  • series - A link to later episodes does exist.
  • character - Odo is in the spotlight, but nothing much of importance is said about him.
  • essential - An all but completely skippable affair.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Deep Space Nine 5x16 "Doctor Bashir, I Presume?"

rating: ****

the story: Dark secrets about Bashir's past are revealed.

what it's all about: A string of eight brilliant episodes concludes with this one, in which another effort of the third season comes to fruition: the redemption of Bashir, who in his original boy wonder incarnation was just this side of Wesley Crusher (Next Generation) in his obnoxiousness.  There was a new world weariness to the character in the third season that finally began to ground him, but otherwise he was the least developed character of a series filled to bursting with well-developed characters.  That it took until the fifth season to finally crack him wide open has the interesting side effect of fans just as easily rejecting as embracing the revelations of "Doctor Bashir, I Presume?" but I think they fit the character perfectly.

It was always Bashir's overeagerness and pride that defined him, in the early seasons, as if he wasn't trying to prove himself to others as much as, well, himself.  Turns out that was exactly the case.  When he was a child his parents took it upon themselves to genetically enhance Bashir, so that he would be the impressive boy they wanted.  He did prove to be impressive, as he would point out every chance he got later, but was it really Bashir boasting so much as him trying to convince himself that these were his achievements and not merely the result of what his parents did to him?

Genetic enhancements had played a part of the franchise previously, of course, and quite famously so, in the guise of Khan, whose defining turn in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was another miraculous turnaround in franchise lore, helping redeem the "it" factor of Star Trek after the less-inspiring Motion Picture (and not to mention cancellation of the original series after an ignominiously brief three season run).  "Presume" references Khan as the reason the Federation outlawed genetic enhancements because of their inherent unreliability (later Bashir meets products of that unreliability who are more quirky than menacing, in "Statistical Probabilities").  It's the first time the franchise addresses Khan's nature, and as a result fleshes out a part of the mythology nicely.

Besides all that, two other elements help the episode stand out.  One is Rom completing his journey to becoming his own man when he professes his love to dabo girl Leeta (completing journeys begun, you guessed it, in the third season).  It's a nice contrast to the doubt Bashir experiences throughout the episode, and a feel-good ending in an episode that needed one.

There's also one of the niftier franchise crossover moments when the creator of Voyager's Emergency Medical Hologram, who happens to look just like him and as such is also played by Robert Picardo, becomes the reason why Bashir's secrets are exposed when he shows up at the station looking to build a new holographic doctor, modeled after Bashir.  (Would you believe he ends up choosing Andy Dick instead?  Look no further than Voyager's hugely delightful "Message in a Bottle" to see for yourself!) 

Eight episodes in which the producers in effect looked back at the fruitful period in the second season where they had hard looks at the franchise at large to see what could be applied to Deep Space Nine, material like "Blood Oath" (which brought back three original series Klingons and actors) and "Crossover" (a follow-up to "Mirror, Mirror"), in which the future of the series finally came into focus, and character work became stronger than ever, starting with "The Ascent" and ending with "Presume."  It may be the single greatest creative stretch in franchise history.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Finally explains what went wrong with Khan.
  • series - A moment general fans can really appreciate Deep Space Nine.
  • character - Bashir's best story to this point in the series.
  • essential - Hard to see anyone arguing you shouldn't watch this one, even if you disagree with my conclusions.
notable guest-stars:
Robert Picardo (Lewis Zimmerman)
Max Grodenchik (Rom)
Chase Masterson (Leeta)
Brian George

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Deep Space Nine 5x15 "By Inferno's Light"

rating: ****

the story: The Federation mends fences with the Klingons as the Dominion threat comes into focus.

what it's all about: Basically, "By Inferno's Light" completes the reclamation of what Deep Space Nine was originally about with what the studio attempted to make it with the insertion of Klingons into the fourth season in an ill-fated effort to ramp up its popularity and/or accessibility.   With Dukat finally assuming full authority over the Cardassians and completing his journey to becoming the definitive Cardassian in the process (it's shocking to think it really did take this long to achieve, with considerable work done during the third and fourth seasons to set it up), the original premise of the series, that Starfleet was coming to Bajor to help it recover from Cardassian oppression, becomes an integral component of the Dominion arc that had at times seemed sidelined by the Klingons.

Yet, at no point in franchise lore had the Klingons truly become such ready allies with the Federation as they do by the end of this episode.  Picard seemed to have special sway in Next Generation, but that translated to one man, a limited scope that kept relations at a distance.  Gowron, the Klingon leader whose debut in Next Generation helped set the tone of the warrior culture moving forward, passes the torch to Martok here, Martok whose earlier appearances couldn't really give an indication of his later significance.

That begins to change in "Inferno."  His relationship with Worf deepens as they grow to depend on each other in a Dominion prison camp.  This is also, primarily, Worf's best Deep Space Nine moment, by the way.  He becomes forced to compete in a series of fights with Jem'Hadar soldiers, persisting even when he begins to break down because of his famous pride.  He's never been pushed like this before, never been forced to demonstrate just how far he's willing to go.  As a Klingon, he'd always represented his people well, but he was more often than not constrained by the oath he took to Starfleet.  Too often, even in Deep Space Nine, his Klingon loyalties ended up seeming like a weakness.  There's no such hesitation here.  His prowess in combat, only hinted at elsewhere, becomes as much a focus of his arc in the episode as his legendary resolve.  While Martok is there to support him, this is totally Worf's show.

There's also Garak finding out that Dukat has singled him out in his efforts to reclaim Cardassian honor, but by making it clear he thinks Garak has no honor, and no place in the new Cardassia.  This is much as Garak had experienced in recent years anyway, but he also went to extreme lengths, in this two-part episode, to prove his loyalty to his people.  Shows what integrity gets you.  Somewhat surprising is that for the first and only time, he and Bashir share an adventure together ("Our Man Bashir" doesn't count), but it's not an experience that's particularly relevant to their bond.  Increasingly, Bashir moves off in his own direction (see the next episode, "Doctor Bashir, I Presume?" as well as "Inquisition," which ironically integrates him into the world of spies, which he'd only previously known about from his suspicions about Garak's past). 

This is a big, big moment in the series, where the war becomes positively inevitable.  It ends somewhat tidily, but by the end of the season, everyone knows such developments won't be possible anymore, which makes this somewhat the last of the happy endings in Deep Space Nine...

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A big moment in Federation/Klingon relations.
  • series - A big moment in Dominion relations.  And Cardassian relations!
  • character - Arguably Worf's finest moment.
  • essential - This is self-explanatory, given the above statements.
notable guest-stars:
Andrew Robinson (Garak)
Marc Alaimo (Dukat)
James Horan
Melanie Smith (Ziyal)
J.G. Hertzler (Martok)
Robert O'Reilly (Gowron)

Monday, February 13, 2017

Deep Space Nine 5x14 "In Purgatory's Shadow"

rating: ****

the story: Garak receives word that his mentor Tain is alive after all, but finding out for sure leads him directly into a Dominion trap...

what it's all about: This is the unofficial start of the Dominion War.  It's also the culmination of all Garak's appearances to this point in the series. 

It's funny, but after the awkwardness introduced into the series by a studio interested in the familiar (bringing in the Klingons for the fourth season), all the scrambling to rediscover the beating heart of Deep Space Nine led to a remarkable turn of events: two dramatic reveals in this episode help drive the significance of not only what has come before, but what will come later.  In a way, the episode is also a preview of Ron Moore's later Battlestar Galactica reboot, where a series of big reveals across the span of that series constantly rewrote the book on what fans did and did not know about the characters they were following, with many of them turning out to be Cylon sleeper agents.  Moore wasn't by any means the sole creative voice behind Deep Space Nine (to my mind a series defined by its remarkable stable of writers, which included Moore but also, among others, the ones responsible for "Purgatory," Robert Hewitt Wolfe and Ira Steven Behr, the latter of whom was arguably the most important and driving voice for the whole thing), but he was clearly inspired by the material most fans don't even realize he had anything to do with.  Ask any fan and they'll tell you Moore's main contribution to Star Trek lore was his expansion of Klingon culture.  But I ask you, do you see Klingons represented in his Battlestar Galactica?  Or changelings?

Anyway, the two characters rediscovered in this episode are Martok, who had made two prior appearances, and Bashir.  Martok was by far the more successful discovery, as he goes on to become a major recurring character and the most important Deep Space Nine element of Next Generation transplant Worf's legacy.  Bashir, meanwhile, is thrown in as more of a curveball.  There's no foreshadowing of this one, and to make it work you have to do a lot of mental gymnastics with his appearances earlier in the season, and still be left guessing as to when the switch was made.  It's another of the clumsy creative decisions that plagued the transition from what the studio had forced upon the series to the Dominion War that would come to define it. 

But putting aside Founder (the aforesaid changelings, and runners of the Dominion) shenanigans, this is a Garak episode.  Going back to his breakthrough appearance in "The Wire" at the tail-end of the second season, this "plain, simple," Cardassian tailor had come to define the intangible qualities of the series.  In the third season, his leading role in the "Improbable Cause"/"The Die is Cast" two-part episode, which was the prequel material for "Purgatory" and its "By Inferno's Light" follow-up, was the material that most advanced the Dominion arc to that point, so it's only fitting that he's also at the center of the discovery that the evil alliance is finally moving forward with its plans at invasion, first hinted at in the third season premiere "The Search," which had been far less conclusive in where things would be headed.

Garak became for Deep Space Nine what Guinan had been in Next Generation, the intriguing character in need of an explanation, and when that explanation finally came (Guinan's, alas, remained somewhat ambiguous, atypical of her series and therefore indicative of its general lack of interest in advancing much beyond episodic material), a clue as to where everything would go. 

It's ironic that it wasn't Moore who wrote this, because the impact of "Purgatory" is very similar to Moore's Klingon work in galvanizing a series.  It's perhaps not a coincidence that the Klingon material previously foisted on Deep Space Nine is roundly perfected as it's put in entirely new context, led by Worf being given material that seems relevant to a bold new direction, not only for him but, again, for the series.  Tellingly, this is material later echoed in the war arc itself, as was the best of the fifth season in general.  Aside from his relationship with Dax, Worf stubbornly remained aloof from the things happening around him, until he's paired with Garak to find out what Garak found out.  In this context he meets the real Martok, rather than the changeling imposter from their previous encounters.  It also feels like the first time, above and beyond Martok, that Worf is presented as a Klingon without needing other Klingons around to help prove it.  But more on that next episode.

Garak's arc across the two episodes is pretty evenly split between the one involving his mentor ("Purgatory") and what amounts to a second exile ("Inferno"), which itself serves as a link to Worf, too, who had been twice-exiled from his people as well (the second time during his Deep Space Nine debut in "Way of the Warrior").  In contrast, Dukat is about to return home, back to a villainous role the series had consciously drifted away from in that all-important third season.  But, more on that next episode...

Making her debut this episode is the last actress to play Tora Ziyal, Dukat's daughter: Melanie Smith.  The character, like Martok, had appeared several times already, but had never really stuck.  It's another way of seeing "Purgatory" as a definitive changing point.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Part of the tradition of game-changing episodes.
  • series - The Dominion War arc all but begins.
  • character - Significant to Garak, to Worf, to Martok, to...
  • essential - A truly defining moment.
notable guest-stars:
Andrew Robinson (Garak)
Paul Dooley (Tain)
J.G. Hertzler (Martok)
Marc Alaimo (Dukat)
Melanie Smith (Ziyal)
James Horan

Friday, February 10, 2017

Deep Space Nine 5x13 "For the Uniform"

rating: ****

the story: Sisko finally nabs the renegade Eddington.

what it's all about: This is some of the boldest storytelling Star Trek ever did, and it follows some pretty basic templates, going all the way back to "The Doomsday Machine."  It's a simple story about revenge, but it also cracks the whole series open, all over again.

If "The Darkness and the Light" a few episodes earlier finally acknowledged that the Bajoran Resistance really was made up of terrorists, then "Uniform" finally admits that the Maquis are terrorists, too.  This is a huge leap, made possible because at this point, the Maquis over in Voyager have happily assimilated into Janeway's orthodox Starfleet crew (a fact that actually astonished fans to no end, fans who apparently had no idea they were watching idealistic storytelling), and thus there was no longer any reason to protect them.  Deep Space Nine's later Maquis episodes were probably the best Maquis episodes (except perhaps for "Preemptive Strike" over in Next Generation, with its shock betrayal of Picard by the lovably combative Ro Laren), and while "Defiant" was already an unlikely touchstone (it happened to feature the later adventures of Riker's transporter duplicate), it was Eddington's trilogy that really drove it home.

"Uniform" is a sequel to the fourth season episode "For the Cause," which was somewhat hampered by the fact that Sisko and the audience are swerved with a focus on Kasidy Yates (his freighter captain love interest) rather than Eddington, who to that point had been a somewhat familiar recurring character who'd been around for about two seasons without having really previously distinguished himself. Yet he became the second best Maquis defector, and arguably the best after the events of "Uniform."

This is the episode where Sisko first considers that the ends do justify the means.  This is the moral ambiguity of the series that seemed to repudiate the idealism of the franchise, which had been borne of a decade (the '60s) when the counterculture violently rejected relativism.  Later, and far more famously, Sisko lies to the Romulans to get them into the war, spending the entirety of "In the Pale Moonlight" trying to figure out how he feels about what he's done.

In "Uniform," he realizes the only way to stop Eddington is to play the same game he is, and see which of them has the guts to stick it out, basically a game of chicken.  Does this make Sisko a villain?  It's a fascinating new Star Trek template, although the same one Kirk always played when he refused to obey the strict guidelines of Starfleet's Prime Directive...

Besides all that, it's a hell of an experience.  At one point Eddington has sabotaged Sisko's ship, the Defiant, forcing everything to be done manually, and it's some of the best storytelling concerning the act of flying a starship I've ever seen, how everyone comes together (brilliant use of Nog, showcasing how valuable he really is in a Starfleet uniform) to pull it off. 

There's a feeling that this is a big deal throughout the episode, and for that reason alone, nailing the tone for an entire episode (Next Generation had this in "Best of Both Worlds," but really for that climactic moment Riker decides to fire on the Borg ship containing the assimilated Picard), which sets up the drama of the later Dominion War..."Uniform" also captures the end of the transition to the extended serialization that later characterizes the series.  It's a belated sequel that itself later has a sequel ("Blaze of Glory") late in the season, which later probably would've been done back-to-back-to-back (if not in Deep Space Nine then Enterprise, where three-part episodes became common in its final season).  In fact, if you can manage it, try and watch "Cause," "Uniform," and "Blaze" like that.  It'll enhance the impact of the trilogy, shake it loose of the fact that it otherwise seems lost in the run-up to the Dominion War.  In its own way, this is every bit reflective of the series at its best.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A classic trope - revenge! - revisited.
  • series - The Eddington adventures reach their climax.
  • character - Sisko at his commanding finest.
  • essential - If the original series had Harry Mudd and Next Generation had Moriarty, then Eddington is Deep Space Nine's unsung best villain, and here's exactly why.
notable guest-stars:
Ken Marshall (Eddington)
Aron Eisenberg (Nog)
Eric Pierpont

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Deep Space Nine 5x12 "The Begotten"

rating: ****

the story: Odo finds himself in possession of an infant Founder.

what it's all about: Every time a character gives birth in a TV show, it's big news, one of the biggest events of the whole series.  And yet, when Kira finally gives birth to O'Brien and Keiko's baby (it's sci-fi, not your traditional surrogate route), the event is completely overshadowed by the summary I just gave above, and this is a very, very good thing.

Tangentially it solves the needless problem of Odo having lost his shapeshifting ability at the end of the previous season as a punishment from his fellow Founders.  Without comment it also reflects a story thread about the Founders, that they sent off hundreds of infants into the galaxy long ago to explore space and find out what the "solids" were like again (Odo himself was one of these infants, and he meets another in the seventh season's "Chimera").

But it's really about Odo finally finding some peace in his life, a sense of closure that finally allows his relationship with Kira to move forward (she herself becomes open to the idea in part because of the aforesaid birth, which presents a void in her life Odo is able to fill, which the end of the episode subtly reflects).

This is achieved by his second reunion with Dr. Mora, the Bajoran scientist we first met in "The Alternate."  Mora was responsible for studying Odo when he, too, was merely a lump of indeterminate matter, which the infant Founder seems to be without having learned anything about its nature on its own.  In fact, Quark is once again the agent of discovery (he was with a Jem'Hadar infant, too, in "The Abandoned"), handing off to Odo what seems to all intents and purposes already a lost cause.  Odo refuses to give up, but he makes very little progress until Mora shows up offering his advice.

Yet Odo remains extremely bitter about his treatment under Mora's care, regardless of the results.  Despite the fact that he retains the general appearance of Mora to this day (notably, the hairstyle), Odo's resentment at being considered a science experiment, with all the implied indignities, has never abated, and their prior reunion certainly did nothing to change his mind.

This is a season of remarkable change, however, perhaps most symbolic in "Begotten" itself.  A war was about to be shown in Star Trek for the first time ever, and this necessitated bold storytelling in order to justify, with all the safety nets frequency imposed in the franchise removed.  For the first time, there would be acknowledgment that even something a character thought was an immutable wrong had in fact been a good thing.  This is the very antithesis of Gene Roddenberry's original vision, and yet it shines boldly on the core of that vision, which is the search for humanity at all costs, the shattering of all illusions.

Anyway, this one always struck me as one of the defining moments of the series, even before I had properly experienced Odo and Mora's previous encounter in "Alternate."  It's hard not to be choked up when the infant Founder mimics Odo's face, or when the poor little dude dies.  It's a true cathartic moment.  You'd never think a face thickly covered in prosthetics could be so expressive, and yet this is one of Rene Auberjonois's best such feats.  For that matter, although James Sloyan (Mora) appears a number of times in the franchise with a variety of faces, this is his best performance.

Shakaar makes one final appearance, but unlike Bareil before him Kira finds it relatively easy to say goodbye, and that's another indication that everything is about to change...

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Come for the birth, stay for the miracle.
  • series - One time everyone loves changelings in this thing!
  • character - One of Odo's defining moments.
  • essential - As I mentioned above, this is a true catharsis.
notable guest-stars:
James Sloyan (Mora)
Rosalind Chao (Keiko)
Duncan Regehr (Shakaar)

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Deep Space Nine 5x11 "The Darkness and the Light"

rating: ****

the story: Kira is targeted by a vengeful Cardassian.

what it's all about: When this originally aired I wasn't terribly impressed with it, thinking someone tried a little too hard to play up the drama of the scenario.  Then I started thinking of it as more of a horror experience, which is rare enough in Star Trek.  I can think of fewer chilling scenes in franchise lore than the Cardassian preparing to carve Kira up to take the baby growing inside out of her. 

The baby, of course, belongs to O'Brien, and his wife! which is an extremely odd creative solution the producers came up with at the end of the previous season to explain why Kira looks pregnant even though she doesn't seem the type, because Nana Visitor was and short of dropping even temporarily one of the show's best characters, this seemed like a good idea.  Except for this episode, it's actually a pretty lousy idea, one of the worst the series ever had, but a pregnant Kira ratchets up the drama of this particular story considerably.  It contrasts nicely with the notion that she finally has to confront an innocent Cardassian who became a monster because of things she did during the Occupation.

"Things she did" means that Kira was a terrorist.  In the '90s being a terrorist was an acceptable thing to be for a character who was supposed to be unambiguously a good guy.  That's why Voyager had all those Maquis terrorists, too.  Post-9/11, this is hugely inconceivable, of course, and as a result these are creative decisions that continue to be the unspoken elephant in the Star Trek room.  In fact, until "Darkness" there had really been no question as to whether or not Kira's prior actions were justified.  The more I thought about this, the more I realized just how important this episode really is.

The Maquis, when they debuted, had a thousand reasons given to them, and all the moral ambiguities spelled out.  The Bajorans were given the relatively simple story of the Occupation, and the need to reclaim their world from the Cardassians, at any cost. As Star Wars has shown, and especially Rogue One, selling terrorism as entertainment isn't as hard as you'd think, even after 9/11.  It's called resistance when it's the good guys, right?  Well, innocent people still die, and that's still tough to deal with. 

The messy Bajoran/Cardassian past was something Deep Space Nine used to great creative success from the very start, including the acknowledged classic "Duet," in which Kira meets a Cardassian who pretends to be a war criminal just so someone among his people will be punished for their crimes.  And yet, as late as the third season, "Shakaar" glorifies the "resistance group" Kira belonged to and never considers for a moment that some evil was done, too, regardless of whether or not it was for the greater good.

This is the moral ambiguity of the series in a nutshell.  Kira's group is targeted by a Cardassian played by Randy Oglesby.  He'd later portray one of the key Xindi in Enterprise's 9/11-themed season, the one who makes the big moral breakthrough in that arc, deciding it's not worth supporting his people unconditionally no matter how evil he's been told humans are.  In "Darkness" he's a Cardassian who was scarred in one of Kira's acts of terror, and wasn't even a soldier but civilian.  Kira still tries to argue that he played a part, that basically because he was Cardassian...he was guilty anyway. 

All this plays beautifully into the rest of the series.  Presenting a Cardassian who seems to be evil with a capital E is in some ways a preparation for the looming entrance of the Cardassians into the Dominion, and thus the start of the Dominion War.  But even the enemy can't be clear-cut in this series, since Odo's people are the Founders, who run the Dominion, and every appearance of the Jem'Hadar to this point had presented them in a sympathetic light (although this changes in a few episodes), despite their debut marking the definitive villainy of the Dominion...

This is a hugely complex episode, and it reflects extremely well on the complexity of Deep Space Nine itself.  It's a classic that reflects the past and future of the series, and you can't ask for much more than that.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The difficult subject of terrorism enacted by main characters examined for the first time.
  • series - Reflects backward and forward.
  • character - One of the truly necessary Kira spotlights.
  • essential - Uncomfortable in all the right ways.
notable guest-stars:
Randy Oglesby
William Lucking
Aron Eisenberg

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Deep Space Nine 5x10 "Rapture"

rating: ****

the story: Sisko begins having visions that lead him to a hidden Bajoran city.

what it's all about: "Rapture" arrives with a thunderclap, and leaves a massive void in its wake, one that isn't really filled again until the seventh (and final) season.  It is at once a culmination of Sisko's journey to date in the series, and a massive hint as to where it goes next.

It's also visually different from every episode before it, for one very important reason: the revised Starfleet uniforms first seen in Star Trek: First Contact are seen in a TV series for the first time.  This would be because it's the first episode to air after the movie had settled comfortably into the collective fan imagination ("The Ascent" actually debuted a few days after the film's release, but it also focused primarily on non-Starfleet personnel and would've made a far less dramatic reveal, plus the timing would've given the movie less of a chance at establishing the new look, which was its right).

It helps the episode look bigger than anything that came before it, and it helps that the story is kind of bigger than anything that came before it.  Sisko had always been reluctant to embrace the trappings of the Bajoran culture he'd been forced to represent as commander of the station tasked with bringing it into the Federation fold.  This was complicated by the fact that the Bajorans immediately declared him a religious figure, which tended to baffle him, even if he became comfortable with it over time.  Yet, he'd never previously exhibited any particular ability to warrant it, until now. 

The visions, and Sisko's obsessive need to follow them, recall to mind two key episodes: "Explorers" (in which he builds an ancient Bajoran solar sail ship) and "The Visitor" (in which his son Jake obsessively pursues Sisko's rescue from a predicament no one else understands).  That both involve Jake is also key to "Rapture," since while Starfleet and Bashir are reluctant to embrace Sisko's new vocation, it's Jake who ultimately must make the call to end it.  This is the last great Sisko/Jake story, and while it leans more heavily on Sisko than previously, it also finally pushes him in his own direction, a culmination, too, of the new drive he'd discovered at the start of the third season, where he and his son had begun to drift apart.  They needed one last moment together, one last big emotion to be shared, before being thrust in opposite directions.

In the seventh season, Sisko discovers that his mother was actually a Prophet, the nonlinear "wormhole aliens" the Bajorans worship as gods, and the source of his designation as Emissary over them.  This comes with visions, too, tellingly.  Left unsaid but certainly implied is the connection back to "Rapture."  This is far more deft storytelling than was managed earlier in the season with "The Assignment," which featured the introduction of the Pah-wraiths, who would also factor prominently in the seventh season.  It's just as if "Rapture" were produced as a reset button, after too many episodes in which the future of the series was left in question despite an earlier drive to make it clear (appropriately enough in that third season).

What general fans will appreciate about "Rapture" is that it revisits a very old trope of the franchise, which is what to do with a character who suddenly "evolves" to a new level and seems to become a problem.  From "Where No Man Has Gone Before" (the second pilot) to "Charlie X" (another of the earliest episodes of the original series) to "The Nth Degree" (Next Generation), Star Trek always seemed to think this was a terrible thing, just as everyone does around Sisko in this episode, even though with the benefit of hindsight and knowing how it's knitted directly into the fabric of the series, we know how important and resonant a moment this really is, not just another in a series of random moments, so therefore once again an opportunity to showcase how it's different from the rest of the rest of the franchise.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Seems to embody a typical trope.
  • series - But portrayed in-line with the material around it.
  • character - Hugely significant to Sisko.
  • essential - Another elevation of the whole series.
notable guest-stars:
Penny Johnson (Yates)
Louise Fletcher (Winn)

Monday, February 6, 2017

Deep Space Nine 5x9 "The Ascent"

rating: ****

the story: Quark and Odo discover that in order to survive an impossible situation, they will have to trust each other...basically for the first time ever...

what it's all about: Unlike its immediate predecessor, "Things Past," "The Ascent" is a successful attempt to remind long-time fans that everything that happened before the third season, really does still matter. 

While the emerging Dominion arc couldn't be discarded, and that was in large part what make the third season so important, there had been a concerted effort in the fourth to totally revamp the series so that a broader audience might be able to enjoy it.  This meant that old standards of the series began to recede into the background.  "Things Past" consciously set out to evoke the simple horrors (this explains why fans might have been hesitant previously to embrace the complexity of Deep Space Nine) of the first few seasons, when the Bajorans were more important.  But it really only duplicated the earlier "Necessary Evil" (while admittedly further increasing the significance of Dukat) rather than really build on anything.

So "Ascent" would have to something a little more obvious, which was to finally feature a showdown between Odo and Quark.  In the best franchise tradition, people who thought of each other as enemies would have to try and work together, which made the prospect not only familiar but more palatable than Odo finally having to decide if his Ferengi nemesis was more than a mere nuisance (the popular term these days is "frenemy"). 

The added benefit is that it actually gives the fifth season the excuse it needed to finally do something worthwhile with the Odo arc introduced at the end of the fourth: his people removing Odo's trademark ability to shapeshift.

In hindsight it was both a worthless gimmick (the removal) since it was undone so quickly (just a few episodes after "Ascent") and also, perhaps, the best thing that could've ever happened to the character.  At this point in the series, after two seasons of mystery surrounding his origins had finally been answered, Odo had become tangled in two fairly limited arcs: whether he would embrace his people (the Founders, who run the Dominion), and when the romance with Kira would begin.

The loss of his shapeshifting ability put Odo in a new context, one that unbalanced him as never before.  This wasn't really evident, or showcased properly, because the third element of the character, which had more or lain dormant for a few seasons, had been left out for eight episodes.  How do you forget how important Quark is to this guy?

That's what makes "Ascent" so compelling.  On the surface it seems pretty formulaic, almost forgettable, on the whole.  Yet its significance has great resonance.  This is the point in which the season finally starts to come into focus, and thus the rest of the series. 

It's a totally different kind of classic, in a very Deep Space Nine kind of way.  There's also a subplot in which Jake and Nog finally reunite (another arc from the third season finally coming full circle), and they find their roles in the friendship totally reversed.  Nog can't stand to be reminded of the life he used to lead, which was one of the defining elements of the early episodes (they're together, really, for the last time, as originally envisioned, in the crucial second season finale, "The Jem'Hadar," fittingly enough).  This is what it means for the characters of this series to mean so much to each other, and for their relationships to evolve over time, as they advance in their lives well past anything possible aboard a starship, where roles are easier to define (and nearly everyone is a member of Starfleet; of the four characters featured in the episode, only one is, and that's Nog, which as a Ferengi had been unthinkable until he did it).

It's an episode that general fans can appreciate (in much the same way general fans who watched the last episode of Lost could appreciate Jack and Locke finally fighting it out, even though they would've had no clue as to why), but for fans of the series means so much more.  Odo's composure (we'd had a preview of this in the earlier "Crossfire") finally totally cracks, and it's easy to see why, because everything he knows about himself has been stripped from him, and he's going to die, and the only person who'll know how it happened is Quark.

This is also the start of Quark breaking away from the way he'd been presented previously, almost totally defined by Ferengi hijinks, which opens up room for the far darker "Business as Usual" later in the season.  It's the beginning of his needing to reconcile all the radical changes happening around him (which is to say, the development of the series) with how desperately he'll need to cling to constants, like his bar. 

In a lot of ways, "Ascent" ends much as "Amok Time" did some thirties year earlier, with one character convinced another one is dead, and he's responsible.  Is that context enough?

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Seems to evoke the tradition of the survival experience.
  • series - But actually speaks to the heart of Deep Space Nine.
  • character - Odo, and Quark, at a crossroads in their lives.
  • essential - Loathe as they are to admit it, they're indispensable to each other.
notable guest-stars:
Aron Eisenberg (Nog)
Max Grodenchik (Rom)

Friday, February 3, 2017

Deep Space Nine 5x8 "Things Past"

rating: **

the story: Odo and several colleagues relive one of his investigations while the station was still under Cardassian control.

what it's all about: This is something of a curious clunker.  One the one hand it was always nice to revisit Terok Nor, the station's name under the Cardassians, because the Cardassians were always ridiculously compelling in this series.  On the other "Things Past" seems like an unnecessary duplication of the second season classic "Necessary Evil."

One gets the sense that the producers were struggling to rediscover the tone of the series, and so they revisited a point at which everything clicked into place so compellingly.  But the timing is extremely curious.  Odo is four episodes away from regaining his shapeshifting abilities, one away from finally receiving a spotlight at all relevant to their absence ("The Ascent").  The big question: why now, for a story like this?  What does it say about him now?  Except as a vivid example of his uncertainty, the newfound doubt introduced by his fellow Founders, it has nothing at all to do with his present circumstances.  Still further along in the season, "A Simple Investigation" reads like a hugely lost opportunity, Odo doing, well, an investigation, which would've been a hugely compelling lead story at a time when he couldn't use his shapeshifting tricks, but instead comes off equally trackless...

In a lot of ways, the Dominion War brought badly needed focus to the series, and you can see it in the ways the fourth and fifth seasons so often didn't know what they should be doing to advance a plot that had been disrupted by the studio, that had built to such a crescendo in the third...The producers were told they needed to broaden their scope.  But it only introduced, well, doubt.  And episodes like "Things Past" happened as a result.

This is not a bad episode.  But it's brought down considerably by the certain knowledge that it could've easily been better.  Even Deep Space Nine wasn't at a point where setting an episode, with no gimmicks, in the past could've been possible. Enterprise later helped lead such storytelling innovation with "In a Mirror, Darkly," a two-part romp set entirely in the Mirror Universe, while Lost would deliver several episodes offering self-contained narratives.  The episodic mindset is a hard thing to shake, the fear of alienating viewers who might have no idea what's going on if they sample a random episode and find something that's not at all what they expected.

The idea would be revisited again in the sixth season ("Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night"), this time with Kira in the lead, and while I don't think that one hits the high notes of "Necessary Evil" either, at least it has a fresh perspective and something to say about a character, directly rather than obliquely.

Still, as I said, Cardassians!  Cardassians everywhere!  Regardless of their moral caliber, always fascinating to watch, especially when they think they're in control of a situation...

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Not a good episode to sample randomly.
  • series - Fits into the general framework of Deep Space Nine.
  • character - A sort of allegorical look at Odo.
  • essential - Still, an unnecessary duplication of previous material, and otherwise ill-placed.
notable guest-stars:
Marc Alaimo (Dukat)
Andrew Robinson (Garak)
Kurtwood Smith

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Deep Space Nine 5x7 "Let He Who Is Without Sin..."

rating: ***

the story: Worf and Dax vacation on Risa, but end up fighting the whole time.

what it's all about: The idea of morality in Star Trek seemed so often to veer toward the '60s counterculture ideals of total freedom (except in the case of Harry Mudd) it's extremely eye-opening for an episode to question how far, if indeed too far, they've gone.  This is one of those controversial episodes for that very reason, an uncomfortable viewing experience that happens to feature Worf coming to peace with his new home. 

Like every other character in Deep Space Nine, Worf was incredibly uncomfortable in his life when he first came to the station.  He'd had a home, famously, with the crew of Next Generation (to the point where he appeared in every movie derived from it, even though two of them, First Contact and Insurrection, overlapped with his tenure at the station), and despite the occasional inconvenience (or outright crisis, which basically explains every time he met another Klingon) he was another happy member of Picard's merry band (though he would protest such a characterization).  His addition to Deep Space Nine at the start of the fourth season was kind of apropos of nothing, just like the Klingons the studio insisted be added to the series to broaden its appeal.  Subsequent appearances only compounded the problem, until someone finally realized the perfect solution in pairing him with the Klingon-loving Dax, which finally happened earlier in the fifth season ("Looking for par'Mach in All the Wrong Places"). 

Yet to attempt to craft a happy ending for Worf so abruptly wouldn't have been true to the series or character.  So this is the episode where all the ugly details are ironed out, and once and for all Worf can either decide to make peace with the universe...or not.  Even in his Next Generation glory days he never quite got to do this, but rather avoid it at every opportunity, finding temporary happiness with Troi, who was the other most likely personal in that crew to understand the desperate need to find acceptance (thanks to her overbearing mother).

So he does a lot of bad things in this episode.  In short, Worf is a jerk.  To Dax, to Federation principles, you name it.  Never before had all those troubled Deep Space Nine characters tried to take it out on each other, even in the early days when Kira wanted to rip Sisko's throat out. 

Of course, Worf serves as a metaphor, contrasting his motivations with those of his "friends" who are out to question what the Federation has become, the comparatively shallow nature of their actions compared to what we eventually learn about Worf's reluctance to truly share himself with anyone (something he got to avoid with the empathic Troi).

That it's set on the pleasure planet Risa (Next Generation's "Captain's Holiday," Enterprise's "Two Days and Two Nights") is a nice little link to franchise lore.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The rare episode that questions the basic tenets of Star Trek's philosophy.
  • series - I think this has less to do with Deep Space Nine as a result.
  • character - But plenty to say about Worf.
  • essential - It's a fascinating case study.
notable guest-stars:
Vanessa Williams
Chase Masterson (Leeta)

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Deep Space Nine 5x6 "Trials and Tribble-ations"

rating: ****

the story: The crew is literally inserted into "The Trouble with Tribbles."

what it's all about: The 30th anniversary of the franchise saw a lot of work put into celebrating it, between the release of Star Trek: First Contact (regarded as the best of the movies featuring the cast of Next Generation), "Flashback" from Voyager (which gave a lot of fans what they wanted, which was bring back George Takei's Sulu), and "Trials and Tribble-ations."  A lot of fans will probably argue that "Trials" was the best of them.

This is arguably the most accessible episode of the whole series, one that any fan of the franchise could really enjoy, and a technical feat (inserting Deep Space Nine characters into and using footage from the original series, two years after Forrest Gump made the idea cool) that goes above and beyond what's normally expected from Star Trek.  This was always a series that let its characters enjoy themselves now and then ("Fascination" similarly features a whole cast romp), far more than its grim reputation would suggest, which makes it all the funnier that this episode happened within it.

What might have seemed like a gimmick instead just dazzles from start to finish, with one particularly hilarious scene in which Dax and Sisko are tossing tribbles from the bin Kirk stands beneath as the little fuzzy creatures, as they did in the original episode, continue to trickle down on him well past the point he'd inadvertently opened it to find them there and dumped the creatures on himself, the most classic moment from one of the most classic episodes of the whole franchise.

Nowadays there's a term for this sort of storytelling: "fan service."  And yet, the episode does everything with a wink and a nod, from the Department of Temporal Investigations (around which a whole series of novels was later based) that goes along with the joke of Starfleet officers having a penchant for causing time travel mischief, to Worf having to account for the smooth foreheads of Klingons from an earlier era (Enterprise would finally give an explanation in "Affliction"/"Divergence").

The actor who played the Klingon double agent Arne Darvin in the original episode even returns!  It's literally impossible not to love this one, just one of the most genuinely fun experiences of the series and franchise.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A legitimate classic inserted into a legitimate classic.
  • series - The episode any fan will love, including Deep Space Nine partisans.
  • character - The whole cast shines.
  • essential - Usually you need Q to pull off something like this.  But, no Q in sight!
notable guest-stars:
Charlie Brill (Darvin)
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