Sunday, June 26, 2011

Thoughts on Season Two

Season Two of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 opens as it closes: with a run of extremely strong episodes. The sustained run of quality shows from Season One's Duet through to Cardassians is one of the greatest in all Star Trek, matched only by the run of episodes from Blood Oath to The Jem'Hadar at the season's end. A full half of the season is accounted for within these two sequences, in which every single episode ranges from very good to excellent.

And those sustained runs of quality in Season Two? They don't even account for midseason gems such as Necessary Evil or Whispers, both of which rank among the very best episodes of the series.

So having opened this review by lavishly praising 15 episodes of a 26-episode season, I've probably already tipped my hand that most of my feelings about Season Two are positive.

Midseason Filler

Let me now turn to one of my few major criticisms of this season: The midseason has an awful lot of filler. This is hardly endemic to Season Two of Deep Space 9, and goes back to a point I've raised in my reviews of TNG and Enterprise: 26 episodes per season is simply too much. Shave about ten episodes off that - heck, even six episodes - and you would have far fewer instances of filler centered around guest characters with minimal impact on our regulars; or stories that consist entirely of "B" plots, with one strand centering on a racquetball game between Bashir and O'Brien and another on Quark encountering a business rival. These sorts of episodes fairly cry that there just weren't enough story ideas to fill 26 slots.

This isn't really disastrous, given the wonderful episodes that start and finish the season. But with so much filler in between, the show seems to lose its way during the midseason. Around the time of Rivals, I could feel my interest waning. That interest came back in full force after Blood Oath and The Maquis, of course - but with lapses of weeks in between new episodes on original airing, having so many of the new episodes in the middle be inconsequential fluff likely contributed to declining ratings.

Characters in Full Focus

I praised TNG's second season for finally getting the characters right, even in the midst of continuing uneven quality. That isn't so much an issue for Deep Space 9. Most of the characters worked pretty well by the end of Season One, and the show could probably have continued to be strong just by maintaining what was already established.

Which makes it all the more impressive how much deeper Season Two goes into the characters. Sisko emerges even more as something of an outsider within the Federation hierarchy. He does his duty, he obeys his orders. But it's clear that he often disagrees with those orders, even memorably complaining about the naivete of Earth when stuck in the position of enforcing a frankly rotten treaty. It would be very interesting to see Sisko's frustrations with Earth cause a deeper rift - maybe even putting him in the position of truly disobeying orders? I'd love to see that, though that sort of thing might be too ambitious for a Star Trek show.

Kira, Odo, and Quark all receive additional depth and shading this season. Duet hinted that Kira had done things as a freedom fighter that she probably would rather not think about. Necessary Evil brings some of that into focus, as we learn of at least one murder she committed while on a mission. Her hotblooded pursuit of Cardassian collaborators also comes back to haunt her, when Winn uses it against her in The Collaborator. Odo gets even better character material. Necessary Evil is a bravura character piece, filling in a lot of the blanks of his backstory and demonstrating how he came to be trusted by Kira even while working - honestly and genuinely working - for Gul Dukat. The Odo/Kira relationship is developed, with their friendship both tested and deepened. We also see Odo's authoritarian side, casting him a genuinely unpleasant light when he advocates police state measures in The Maquis, stating that the station was "safer" under Cardassian rule. "Unless you happened to be Bajoran," Kira is quick to add, with evident bitterness.

Quark's backstory receives some attention, as well. We learn that he risked his life to help Bajoran refugees during The Occupation. Presumably for profit, but it does show evidence of a form of personal integrity. He may sell out people for profit  - but he will only go so far in doing so. At any time Quark starts to seem like a joke, the show suddenly gives us scenes of real character depth. With no way to escape an assassin in Necessary Evil, he responds with surprising courage to seemingly certain death. Reunited with a woman he loves, he rises to the status of... well, maybe not hero, but antihero at least. And he gets that showstopping monologue in The Jem'Hadar, standing up to Sisko while proudly declaring that the Ferengi "are nothing like humans. We're better."

Recurring characters are also well-treated. Gul Dukat goes from a one-note villain in Season One to a full, and very interesting, character by the end of this season. The similarities between Dukat and Sisko are nicely explored by The Maquis, which also makes use of the difference between them - Sisko will go further than the average Starfleet officer, but he still won't go as far into amoral territory as Dukat. Andrew Robinson's Garak returns multiple times this season, and is a delight in every appearance. Cardassians and The Wire develop the friendship between Garak and Bashir.  Garak's character is also developed, without ever actually disclosing his true backstory. We don't know much about him... but by the end of the season, we start to feel that we know him. An amusing Season One guest character has become a complex, fascinating figure, someone who we know must have done terrible things in the past. Then again, so did Kira. As the show continually reminds us, it was war.

Actions and Consequences

It was war. That's the really fascinating thing about Deep Space 9's setting, when properly utilized. This is a show set in the aftermath of war, the aftermath of a brutal occupation. The Cardassians aren't melodramatic villains, the Bajorans aren't noble victims. Both are complex creations, represented in the show by multilayered characters. We are encouraged to like Kira and Garak - even though we know both have killed, and almost certainly have killed innocents. We are encouraged to dislike Winn and Dukat - even though both characters stand for order, albeit with themselves at the head of that order. The villains are as complex as the heroes.

Actions have consequences. TNG, Voyager, and most of the first two seasons of Enterprise would largely like to forget that. The characters have the adventure of the week, the problem is solved through technobabble, moral speeches, and handwaving, and then everything is reset for the following week. Deep Space 9 occasionally indulges in this, too... but an advantage of its stationary setting is that it can't do it regularly. It has to deal with consequences.

In the first season, Kai Opaka was removed from Bajor. This creates a steady drumbeat of consequences, with Vedek Winn using every tool she can find to manipulate her way to succeeding her. Despite Winn's manipulations, Opaka's choice - the progressive Vedek Bareil - seems certain to be the next Kai. But Opaka's own past actions have consequences, and Bareil's respect for her memory causes him to withdraw rather than see Opaka's name tarnished. Doing so is a tacit admission of guilt by Bareil to a crime he never committed... something that seems itself likely to have consequences next season.

Starfleet made a treaty with the Cardassians, one which left Federation colonies under Cardassian rule. This action has consequences. Cardassians will not allow Federation settlers to truly govern themselves. They will rule like Cardassians, because that is what they know and even what they consider right. When the settlers rebel against Cardassian abuse, and the Federation refuses to back them, then this also has consequences. The settlers, and some Starfleet officers who see the situation and sympathize, create a rebel movement, one with the potential to spark a new war.

Sisko and Dax discovered the wormhole, and Deep Space 9 and Starfleet have encouraged exploration and settlements within the Gamma Quadrant. But the Gamma Quadrant has forces of its own, forces who don't necessarily appreciate the Federation encroaching on its territory. The Dominion's response is violent, but not unpredictable. From the perspective of the Dominion, it may even have some justification.

In all cases, we see the same thing, rarely seen in Star Trek shows. The actions of the past - even of the first season of the series - have consequences, ones which continue to build as the series moves from its second to its third season.

Season Three Wishlist

It's tough to have much of a wishlist for the next season when this season was so good. I would like to see fewer filler episodes. I don't mind if they run through a stock Trek plot here and there to pad out the episode order - but give those plots a bit of a twist to make them fresh again. This season's Shadowplay stands as an excellent example of how to take a stock plot and turn it into something that feels fresh. That's the kind of filler I don't object to.

Past that, I hope to see real fallout from some of the events of this season. Bajor is in the worst possible hands, with Winn having become Kai. That cries out for consequences, particularly given the weakness of the provisional government (something still not adequately explored, save for the opening 3-parter). The Dominion has announced itself as a formidable enemy, and has issued an edict making the wormhole off limits. I would hate to see everything be "business as usual" next season. Let's see Starfleet test the Dominion, and perhaps find a way to fight back against them or negotiate from a position of strength. Maybe the Maquis could complicate things by obliviously using the wormhole, and inciting a violent reaction from the Dominion in doing so? Just an offhand thought.

Mostly, I just would like to see the show keep up the good work. This is the darkest and most interesting Star Trek show by far. At its best, this is the only Star Trek show that is often better than the original. I hope to see it at its best even more often in the future.

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