In my overview of Enterprise's first season, I observed that it had done everything that the first season of a series needed to do, but not much more than that. Well, Deep Space 9's first season goes well beyond that level. It does everything it needs to do, but it also does quite a lot more, telling some excellent stories and layering a surprising amount of depth into its characters across its 20 episodes.
"I'm Not Picard"
I know that some fans who enjoy the other three Star Trek spinoffs actually dislike Deep Space 9. It's fairly obvious from my reviews that I'm not among this number, but I do somewhat understand why. Deep Space 9 may take Star Trek: The Next Generation as its starting point. The series that emerges, though, is more a cousin to Babylon 5, and that's not even a reference to the controversy surrounding its genesis.
This is a much darker Trek, featuring characters with genuinely unpleasant qualities, not all of whom entirely like or trust each other. Even likable and essentially honorable characters, such as Sisko and Kira, have clashes of personality and differing agendas that mean that they're not always on the same side.
To me, at least, that makes it interesting. There's a feeling of reality to the DS9 universe that is often absent in other Trek shows. Other Treks present us a future utopia, in which people are "better." Even Enterprise, the only post-9/11 Trek series, opens by telling us that we've eliminated crime and warfare in the future. Deep Space 9 has plenty of crime, and is set against a background of war wounds. It's a future of battle scars, misunderstandings, and culture clashes. In short, it's a future that actually seems believable.
In its first season, Deep Space 9 may already be the most successful Trek series in terms actually using the entire cast. There are no Mayweathers here. Everyone gets something to do. Different episodes bring different characters to the fore and leave others in the background. Even there, most episodes manage to give at least 5 or 6 cast members reasonable roles.
Look at the episode Dax. It's a spotlight episode for Dax, which also offers a meaty role for Sisko as the redefinition of the friendship between these two is explored. It offers a solid role for Odo, as he investigates the crime for which Dax is charged. In a lot of Next Generation and Enterprise episodes, that would be about it for the regulars, with everyone else getting a stray line here or there. But Dax also provides a couple of good scenes for Dr. Bashir, while also opening with a sequence that gives almost everyone something to do that shows their expertise and character traits. There's even a scene for Quark, one which shows off his character and his relationship with Odo in such a way that it is an integral part of the whole and not just an "Armin Shimerman gets paid this week" scene.
Admittedly, this is one of the season's strongest episodes. But that sort of balance of the ensemble is visible in more than half of the season's episodes. Each character emerges with unique quirks, and they all get used at some point. Even Jake, who is there largely as a plot device because the story requires Sisko to have a son, gets a couple of amusing subplots with Nog.
Of Setting and Backstory
The major element that sets Deep Space 9 apart from its Trek stablemates is the setting. The space station provides a fixed setting for the series. The space station is located in Bajoran space, just after the brutal Cardassian occupation of Bajor. The Occupation has left deep scars in the Bajoran psyche, something particularly reflected in Major Kira's character (which is probably why she gets the largest number of "spotlight" episodes). There is a provisional government in place, but it is not stable. There are religious factions and, with their common enemy gone, we see those factions starting to tear at each other in a power struggle at the season's end.
Finally, there is the station itself. This is not a Bajoran station. It's not even a Starfleet station. It was built by the Cardassians, the equipment on the station is Cardassian, and the representative of law and order on the station is an alien who held that same position under the Cardassians. The station itself has to be a reminder of the painful Occupation - something alluded to in the hostility directed at Odo in A Man Alone, though I would like to see the series actually do more with that aspect.
Starfleet is there to ease the problems... ostensibly. But it is made clear in the premiere that Sisko's job, as far as the Federation is concerned, is to eventually make the Bajorans part of the Federation. Not all Bajorans want to be part of the Federation. As scary as she is in most respects, Vedek Winn may actually have a valid point when she says that Bajor should not allow itself to be sucked into that role.
But Bajor is stuck. If Starfleet leaves, the Cardassians will come back. If Starfleet stays, many on Bajor - and probably many in Starfleet, as well - expect their world to simply be subsumed by the Federation. This leaves some resentment of Starfleet. For many Bajorans, the Federation is not so much their savior as simply a more benign occupying force.
Season Two Wishlist
The complex setting provides a lot of grist for excellent drama. Season One delivered some of that. The last two episodes of the season were particularly strong, promising lingering issues that will not necessarily improve in every instance.
But Season One also had several generic episodes. The Storyteller could have been an episode of any Trek show. Q-Less and The Forsaken pandered to TNG fans by thrusting TNG characters into major guest roles, in the former case at the expense of most of the regulars. Episodes such as A Man Alone and The Passenger were both generic and forgettable.
In Season Two, I would like to see a lot fewer generic runarounds, and a lot more episodes in which Sisko and his crew actually have to deal with the tenuous situation into which they've been thrust. Sisko has a fine line to walk, between having to please Starfleet and work with Bajor. I would like to see the two agendas, that of Starfleet and that of Bajor, be put into direct conflict. So far, Sisko has largely been able to get out of even complicated situations with no real negative consequences. It would be interesting to see him have to deal with a situation where any choice he makes will result in something bad happening.
I would also like to see some episodes address the status of the provisional government. It's only been mentioned here and there in passing. We know there is a government, we know it's not a permanent one, and we have heard that it is more stable at some points and less stable at others. That's a situation ripe for drama, which has been thus far all but ignored. It wouldn't be a bad area for a few episodes to focus on.
Deep Space 9's first season is a very promising freshman year. The actors are good, the characters are interesting, the setting offers potential for years of good drama. I had vague memories of several Season One episodes as I watched, but I don't think I ever did watch Season Two, save for a few stray episodes in reruns. Really, between here and Worf's arrival (Season Four?), I could probably count on my fingers the episodes I watched... meaning that I have relatively little idea what happens next.
The strength of the first, and reputedly weakest, season has me looking forward to finding out.
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