Saturday, May 8, 2021

Star Trek Arcs XI: The Dominion War

Now, to this day when Star Trek fans think of extended arcs they really have just one in mind, and that’s Deep Space Nine’s Dominion War arc. 

The war itself doesn’t begin until the end of the fifth season, and I’ve broken it down to thirty-six key episodes (six of them consisting of two-part episodes with the same name, although the series features multiple two-part episodes with separate titles, including in the war arc). Since this one’s so long I won’t waste much time with preamble or dwell much on any one installment, instead a brief note on what it contributes to the arc.

At the end of the second season, “The Jem’Hadar” at last let’s us see the Dominion after many previous references to what dominates the other side of the wormhole introduced in the first episode, the Gamma Quadrant equivalent to the Federation. It ends with a big swerve when we learn that the Jem’Hadar are mere foot soldiers, and that they are controlled in part by the Vorta.

The third season begins with the two-part “The Search,” which serves the dual purpose of exploring the initial ramifications of contact with the Dominion as well as revealing the truth of shapeshifting Odo’s origins: he hails from the Founders. As in, Founders of the Dominion…

In “Improbable Cause”/“The Die Is Cast,” factions within the Romulan Star Empire and Cardassian Empire attempt an invasion of the Gamma Quadrant, and are met with a spectacular and definitive defeat.

The season ends with the further threat of Founder infiltration in “The Adversary.”

The fourth season begins by ramping up the threat in the two-part “Way of the Warrior,” in which the Dominion manipulates the Klingon Empire into war with the Cardassians.

In “Homefront”/“Paradise Lost,” the Founders infiltrate Earth and sow chaos within Starfleet itself.

In the fifth season premiere “Apocalypse Rising,” the true identity of the Founder infiltrator within the Klingon Empire is finally revealed.

Later, we meet the real Martok (the guise of the infiltrator dating back to “Way of the Warrior”) in a Dominion prison camp also hosting the remains of the Romulan/Cardassian fleet, as the Cardassians officially join the Dominion during “In Purgatory’s Shadow”/“By Inferno’s Light.”

Then, in “Call to Arms,” the season finale, the station is evacuated and the war begins.

The sixth season kicks off with the famous six-episode continuous arc, the first real extended serialization in franchise history: “A Time to Stand,” “Rocks and Shoals,” “Sons and Daughters,” “Behind the Lines,” “Favor the Bold,” and “Sacrifice of Angels,” which of course culminates in the retaking of the station.

The season continues to explore the war in a variety of ways from that point. “Statistical Probabilities” is a pessimistic view of its eventual outcome. “Waltz” sees the psychological fallout for Dukat. “In the Pale Moonlight” is probably the single best episode of the whole arc, in which Sisko grapples with his conscience.

Finally, in “Tears of the Prophets,” the biggest casualty of the war occurs: Jadzia Dax.

The seventh and final season continues and concludes the war. “The Siege of AR-558” is a straight-up war story, complete with a post-traumatic stress fallout follow-up, “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”

The final ten episodes of the series are a second grand serialization: “Penumbra,” “’Til Death Do Us Part,” “Strange Bedfellows,” “The Changing Face of Evil,” “When It Rains…,” “Tacking Into the Wind,” “Extreme Measures,” “The Dogs of War,” and the two-part finale, “What You Leave Behind.”

Friday, April 30, 2021

Star Trek Arcs X: Kor

Here’s a fairly loose arc but it’s a pretty interesting one that goes deeper than it might seem, which is why I’m pulling one particular character from the many to appear in Deep Space Nine, and somehow not even one most fans are going to think about.

A somewhat lost element of Star Trek lore is that the first Klingon to ever appear was going to be a recurring character if actor John Colicos hadn’t been so busy. Kor makes his debut in “Errand of Mercy,” and would have also shown up in “The Trouble with Tribbles” and “Day of the Dove” (the other major Klingon appearances of the original series) if Colicos had been available.

So his replacements (Koloth in “Tribbles” and Kang in “Dove”) instead make their debuts, and the three of them then resurface three glorious decades later in the Deep Space Nine second season gem “Blood Oath,” which also finally cements Jadzia Dax’s credentials as a formidable character after a fair bit of waffling and uncertainty.

Long story short, Kor is appropriately the last of these Klingons standing, and he becomes subject to a prolonged arc of deciding what makes an aging Klingon’s life worth living.

First he shows up in “Sword of Kahless,” in which he competes with Worf on a mad quest to discover the legendary warrior’s weapon. Here he gets to nudge Worf into having a working relationship with another Klingon, which would eventually lead to his bond with Martok.

Which...would kind of be bad news for Kor himself, as we learn when we see him for the last time in the seventh season episode “Once More Unto the Breach,” in which we learn Martok’s backstory and Kor’s domineering role in it, and as such more about Kor’s backstory itself.

But the episode resolves Kor’s later dilemma by giving him the belated warrior’s death he had long sought.

The short arc is, all the same, a remarkable opportunity for the franchise to give a full story to a character (and species) that might have seemed one-note initially. But that’s Deep Space Nine in a nutshell, both in its own regard and how it deepens the franchise as a whole, sometimes in quite surprising ways. In no other series to date has an effort been made to flesh out such a seemingly minor character from another series, let alone itself. 

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Star Trek Arcs IX: Bajoran Politics

When it comes to Deep Space Nine, a whole series of articles about its many arcs could be written, but for these purposes I’m only going to cover some of them, the ones in clearest focus. The first (I don’t count Sisko’s role as emissary, because in most instances it was a secondary element that didn’t really carry episodes) kicks off at the end of the first season, “In the Hands of the Prophets,” the episode many fans consider to be the start of the identifiable Deep Space Nine, where the rich tapestry of the series, and the confidence to explore it, kicked in.

Significantly, the recurring characters Kai Winn and Vedek Bareil are introduced. The death of Kai Opaka earlier in the season (introduced in the pilot as such a friendly personality) left a huge void in Bajoran affairs, one Winn, as fans would certainly come to see, was more than willing to fill. Bareil, meanwhile, becomes the touchstone that humanizes Kira as more than just someone struggling to overcome a brutal past.

The second season kicks off with the longest-to-that-point continuous story in franchise history, a three-part episode, “The Homecoming,” “The Circle,” and “The Siege,” that never receives near enough recognition for its significance, or achievement. Kira is tasked with rescuing a lost Bajoran hero from a Cardassian prison camp, but the ramifications end up being far more complicated than anyone could have anticipated. Kira herself is replaced aboard the station by the guy, but more importantly, Winn and her pal, played by Frank Langella (he opted to go uncredited at the time but it’s a huge casting coup that still demands trumpeting), are so obsessed with retaining power they engineer a massive conspiracy and even a hostile takeover of the station! 

Later that season “The Collaborator” marks the deepest exploration of how murky the Occupation really was, implicating saintly Bareil but ultimately challenging even Opaka’s legacy (it’s basically the Bajoran equivalent of “Sins of the Father” from Next Generation).

In the third season, the series featured its last major highlights of Bajoran politics. Fans were never that interested in Bajoran politics, alas, but the season still delivered two big moments: the death of Bareil and the rise of his successor.

Bareil dies in “Life Support,” agonizingly, a small piece at a time, as Winn manipulates Bashir into keeping him alive long enough to settle peace talks with the Cardassians. No single appearance does a better job of establishing how cold a villain Winn really is, the price of politics in any culture.

In “Shakaar,” Kira finds a potential new lover and Bajor a new leader when she’s given a chance to duplicate that bring-the-hero-back-from-the-dead trick, which turns into an old-fashioned western showdown in a canyon, at least ending this particular arc of the series on an appropriately high note.

Kira segues into a sustained slow burn romance with Odo for the duration of the series. Bareil, Mirror Bareil anyway, shows up again in the sixth season, “Resurrection,” though Shakaar quickly becomes lost in the shuffle, eventually never to be seen again, well before the final episode, which is a shame. Even Winn ends up relevant only as an ironic foil, and ally, of Dukat. 

The Bajorans in the series were in a lot of ways the first time fans got to explore what Vulcan society might look like, something Enterprise later accomplished (another link between the two series I always enjoyed). Not Kira and nor Ro before her reached the iconic status of Spock, however, so it was easy to take all this for granted. Is it that Kira wasn’t in Starfleet? Well, just perhaps.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Star Trek Arcs VIII: The Maquis

Arguably the most ambitious arc of the franchise was envisioned to help launch Voyager, and yet it continued down fascinating roads even from that point: the creation of the Federation rebels the Maquis.

The Maquis were Federation citizens who lived on worlds affected by treaty stipulations with the Cardassians, most famous for their Occupation of Bajor, a concept introduced in The Next Generation but played out most dramatically in Deep Space Nine. Eventually it wasn’t just those directly affected, colonists living on those worlds, but Starfleet officers who renounced their commissions to stand up for what they believed in.

The first appearance of the Maquis was in the eponymous two-part episode during the second season of Deep Space Nine. In it, Sisko and an old Starfleet friend confront the problem together until Sisko realizes his friend has actually already defected.

The same basic premise plays out in “Preemptive Strike,” Next Generation, airing about little more than a week later (if you were watching at the time, it was nearly three straight weeks of Maquis intrigue across Star Trek programming, with a few weeks’ gap; if it had happened later no doubt there would have been an actual crossover, which still has yet to happen in the franchise, and probably even the debuts of some of the actual Voyager characters). 

“Preemptive Strike” resonates more with fans than “The Maquis, Parts 1 & 2” thanks to pivoting around a known character rather than someone introduced in the story. That character of course is Ro Laren, the Bajoran who had been a recurring character in Next Generation for years, who was even originally considered to continue on in Deep Space Nine (and subsequently replaced by the new character Major Kira).

By the end of the episode, Ro feels conflicted by her decision to join the Maquis because she feels she’s betraying Picard directly. In that way, we end the initial experiences with the Maquis with the ability to view them in a positive manner.

When Voyager begins, “Caretaker” of course sees Starfleet and Maquis ships stranded in the Delta Quadrant and deciding to function as a single crew to find their way home again. A lot of fans expected the series to be an endless sequence of the competing ideologies in conflict, and never really forgave it for making a different creative choice. Though, to be fair, the Maquis were former Federation and in most cases even former Starfleet; the biggest hurdle was reintegrating into rigid Starfleet procedures (played out in the episode “Learning Curve”).

The Maquis story instead picks back up in Deep Space Nine, third season, “Defiant,” in which Riker’s transporter duplicate Thomas (“Second Chances”) is the third major defector we see play out, although the fourth and final one, in the fourth season’s “For the Cause,” ends up being by far the most dramatic one. 

At first Sisko believes it’s his girlfriend Kasidy Yates, which would certainly be bad enough, but it turns out to be straight arrow security officer Michael Eddington, a reliable recurring presence since the previous season.

We find out how powerfully Sisko feels this betrayal in the fifth season. “For the Uniform” is arguably the pinnacle of the pre-Dominion War period for the series. Sisko swears to bring Eddington in, but this proves incredibly difficult.

However, once accomplished it becomes a definitive turning point for the Maquis. When the Cardassians join the Dominion, they enact a scorched earth policy against the Maquis, and Eddington finds himself imagining a heroic last stand in “Blaze of Glory.”

The fate of the Maquis is transmitted to Janeway’s crew in Voyager, and in “Extreme Risk” we see how powerfully it affects B’Elanna Torres, the hotheaded half Klingon, half human engineer.

Finally, in “Repression,” a sleeper suggestion is awakened among the former Maquis members of the crew, implanted by a zealous Bajoran years earlier, thereby somewhat bringing the whole arc full circle.

Monday, April 5, 2021

First Contact, Picard & the Trojans

On First Contact Day, today forty-two years before humans meet Vulcans, in Star Trek cannon, let’s take a look at an often overlooked aspect of the film from where we gleam this information, First Contact.

I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, but I only recently tracked down the Berlioz piece from the scene where Riker walks in on Picard listening to classical music at full blast. But as it turns out, the piece has significant insight into the film and Picard himself, so it’s worth discussing, regardless of my shame.

First of all, the piece comes from an opera, which for whatever reason I’d never really considered, possibly because I’ve never pursued opera. I was always on the lookout for Berlioz appearances in classical music compilations, hoping I’d randomly come across it, which obviously never happened.

Instead, I finally just googled it, and discovered that the piece came from Les Troyens (The Trojans), specifically the beginning of Act V (the final act of the opera)

The opera is based on Virgil’s The Aeneid, which serves as both a myth for the founding of Rome and a sequel to The Iliad, very similar in structure to the other sequel, The Odyssey, although history sometimes is kinder overall to it, as The Aeneid can be placed firmly in the records, as well as Virgil himself, whereas Homer and his epics can’t.

Anyway, to make a long story short, if you know anything about the Trojan War, you know that the Trojans came out on the losing side of it, and so Berlioz composed his opera about the bad end and the subsequent efforts by Aeneas to bounce back as he flees for his life.

Act V doesn’t begin with him at all, though, but rather a young sailor named Hylas who is equally homesick and hoping for his fortunes to change.

Do you begin to see the parallels?

When Riker enters Picard’s quarters, they’ve recently been sidelined from the response to the latest Borg attack, because Starfleet doesn’t trust Picard’s ability to keep a level head. Naturally he would much prefer to be a part of the action, for any number of reasons (as the film dramatizes in various scenes, including his primary motivation, having once been assimilated into the Collective).

So Picard is listening to the opera, and the scene features this particular song, as a direct parallel.

There’s more! The composition of the opera itself was problematic, which I’m sure the clever writers of the film (Braga & Moore!) were well-aware of, as well as the fact that Berlioz was in fact French, just like Picard. Seldom was Picard’s national origin relevant to his character (at random points in the first season of The Next Generation and again the first season of Picard), but I would wager those clever writers (Braga & Moore!) had exactly that in mind when they chose Berlioz.

The opera itself, again, had complicated origins. A full recital didn’t happen for years. There was a popular revival following WWII. Someone immersed in history, and you would expect Picard to be (given any number of examples), would be aware of all this, adding another layer to his choice of music in the scene.

The Trojan War itself would be a parallel, given the last Borg incursion, and even a preview of developments yet to come in the film. The famous Trojan Horse is featured in the opera, and of course the Borg end up using the Enterprise itself as one.

So there you have it! Sometimes fans complain about First Contact because it also features references to Moby Dick, as had Wrath of Khan (one of the most sacred elements of franchise lore, a movie endlessly defended by fans) before it.

As it turns out, there was a deeply resonant cultural reference all its own there all along.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Star Trek Arcs VII: Worf/Empire

If Gene Roddenberry had had his way, this one would never have happened, and modern Star Trek (and I suppose, Battlestar Galactica) would be a different story.

You see, when The Next Generation was being developed, he didn’t want to use any of the familiar aliens from the original series. That’s why there are so few Vulcans in the series. It’s also why we got the Ferengi, and even the Borg. But then Worf, who of course is Klingon, became a part of the regular cast of characters, although even at first he had a relatively minor role, no clearly defined post (Yar, after all, but the chief security officer).

As the first and second seasons developed, things changed again, and we even met Worf’s former lover, K’Ehleyr, in “The Emissary,” which indirectly started out the arc that would come to define him.

But it wasn’t until a jealous and manipulative rival named Duras attempted to lie his way to power in “Sins of the Father” that the high drama of Klingon politics finally became a thing. Worf ends up losing honor among his people, a rare unhappy ending for a Star Trek episode, but only the beginning of the story. We also meet his brother Kurn in the episode, by the way.

“Reunion” is the episode where everything really changes. We meet Gowron, who goes on to be chancellor of the Klingon Empire (and idol of bug-eyed aliens everywhere), K’Ehleyr returns, Duras attempts one last great plot, and...Alexander. That’s a whole arc, in a manner of speaking, as is how Gowron eventually loses power, which involves Worf’s relationship with another Klingon, Martok, but I’m limiting myself to the strict causality of events, so I won’t get into all of those details.

Anyway, Duras kills K'Ehleyr, Worf kills Duras, Gowron becomes chancellor.

This leads to the two-part “Redemption,” which itself involves another quasi-arc involving Yar and her Romulan daughter Sela (won’t get into that, either), in which the Klingons experience a civil war, exactly what the events of “Sins of the Father” were supposed to avoid. Clearly that didn’t work out so well.

The story picks up in Deep Space Nine, in the two-part “Way of the Warrior,” in which Worf, having sacrificed so much already, finds himself caught once more between the Empire and the Federation, as Gowron, who unbeknownst to him is being manipulated by the Dominion, declares war against the Federation, and asks Worf to stand by his side, which of course he refuses to do, compounding all his previous problems.

Finally, in “Sons of Mogh,” Kurn has had enough and wants his misery, at always being the victim to Worf’s choices, to end. But this is Star Trek, so every time suicide seems to be the answer, another one must be presented, and his memory is completely replaced instead. Worf gets to continue his journey alone. Until Martok. Long story short, they bond, and the increasingly dishonorable Gowron forces Worf to kill him near the end of the Dominion War, in “Tacking into the Wind,” which leads Martok to become the new chancellor.

Without all this, the idea of serialized storytelling, in Star Trek and genre television in general, might have taken longer to standardize. It’s the first time Star Trek made a concerted effort to tell a continuing story, especially one with so gosh darn many unhappy developments. Ronald Moore tends to get a lot of credit for it, which gave him enough of a reputation that he found himself in the position to totally reimagine Battlestar Galactica as a modern, grim, heavily serialized drama, in which the robotic Cylons are basically a lot of Duras fans. 

Friday, March 19, 2021

Star Trek Arcs VI: Picard versus the Borg

Arguably the biggest Star Trek arc ever was conceived in the least likely season of Star Trek ever (just like the last one). I’m talking, of course, about the Borg.

In the first season finale of The Next Generation, “The Neutral Zone,” the Romulans are reacting to the emerging threat of the Borg. That’s the whole point! 

But we don’t actually meet the Borg until the second season, in a Q episode, of all things, “Q Who?,” the unlikeliest thing ever, perhaps. In a lot of ways, that was an episode that redefined Q, took him seriously for the first time, and arguably too seriously! Every subsequent appearance (except maybe “Death Wish” in Voyager) veers far from the darkness of Q literally showing Picard how little he really understands about the dangers of space.

But it at least shows Picard as the one who needs to understand the threat of the Borg, because that becomes the big story.

At the end of the third season, “The Best of Both Worlds” makes franchise history as Picard finds himself assimilated into the Borg Collective, ending the episode on one of the most important (serialized) cliffhangers in television history. The fourth season premiere concludes the story, and of course Picard is rescued. But the fallout lingers for decades.

The first follow-up is the next episode of that season, “Family,” during which Picard deals with the emotional impact of his assimilation. He later encounters the Collective again in “I, Borg,” in which he’s forced to admit that even something seemingly as simple as how he should feel about this is actually quite complicated.

Then of course First Contact, in which he’s run through the ringer again. It remains my personal favorite Picard memory, especially the ready room scene where he admits how obsessed he remains, uncontrollably so.

The arc technically concludes in “The Impossible Box,” from Picard, in which he steps foot aboard a Borg cube again for the first time since his assimilation. 

Enterprise features a tie-in with all this in the episode “Regeneration,” in which we learn the time-traveling Borg from First Contact are in fact responsible for sending the signal that eventually brings the Collective on a collision course with humanity.

Finally, in the pilot of Deep Space Nine, “Emissary,” we meet Sisko, who lost his wife in the big battle from “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 2,” and he still blames Picard, regardless of his assimilated state at the time. It’s the rare moment in franchise lore we see a significant separate story set during a more famous one.

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