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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Past Prologue (Review)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is twenty years old this year. To celebrate, I’m taking a look at the first season. Check back daily for the latest review or retrospective.

Past Prologue is a pretty decent second episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It does what it needs to do, serving primarily to build the world of Deep Space Nine just a little bit. After all, a story like this was inevitable with a character like Kira in the main cast, so it’s probably for the best that the show deals with it so early. It’s not a classic episode by any means, feeling as if the show was obligated to tell this particular story. Then again, I suppose that’s what the first season of any television show is for. Set up and development.

Past Prologue continues to hint at the strengths of Deep Space Nine, investing considerable effort in crafting a tangible setting for the series. However, there’s also a hint of the weaknesses of the first season to be found here. Like just about any of the Star Trek spin-offs, Deep Space Nine is going to spend its first year searching for its identity. While Past Prologue indicates the series is looking the right direction, it hasn’t quite found its footing.

Los cannon...

Los cannon…

Bajor itself is one of the major drives of the first season. The development of that alien planet plays a part in all the best episodes of the first season, but also in some of the weaker elements. While the show never really lost sight of that particular strange new world, the show’s horizons would broaden considerably in the years to follow. For now, however, it seems like the largest running plot thread on the show concerns the development of a planet that has just emerged from occupation, and is tentatively embracing freedom.

There is a slight problem with this, though. While the producers apparently considered developing Deep Space Nine as a “land-based” show, the cost of location shooting forced them to relocate the premise to a space station. So we’re already a bit removed. Emissary saw Kira literally pull the eponymous space station out of orbit of her home planet, and drag it across space to the entrance to the Wormhole. As a result, Bajor no longer appears in the establishing shots of the station. Emissary saw Sisko take a trip down to the planet, but he left fairly quickly.

Down the rabbit hole, into the Wormhole...

Down the rabbit hole, into the Wormhole…

While we have met Bajor’s spiritual leader, we have no face to put against its civilian government, no grasp of its culture beyond its spirituality. To be fair, these things come with time. The three best episodes of this year – Progress, Duet and In the Hands of the Prophets – all delve into the realities of post-Occupation Bajor. The cast of Bajoran characters we know broadens beyond Major Kira, Kai Opaka and Odo’s nameless Bajoran deputies. However, as of the second episode of the show, Bajor is very far away. And focusing a show on the politics of a world that is (both literally and figuratively) very far away feels like a risky venture.

Of course, it’s a catch-22 situation. You develop Bajor and foster a connection to it through episodes like Past Prologue. And yet, despite that, Past Prologue can’t be exceptional because we haven’t yet fully invested in Bajor. The episode hinges on Tahna Los scheming to blow up the Wormhole, so that the Federation and Cardassia will lose interest in Bajor and go away – so he can get “Bajor for the Bajorans.”

It's a long Kohn...

It’s a long Kohn…

However, the Wormhole was literally only found in the last episode. More than that, though, he know that it is of massive spiritual importance to Bajor. It is their “celestial temple” and home to their gods. Tahna’s plan hinges on destroying his civilisation’s version of Mecca. It might scare away the aliens haunting his homeland, but it will also sever a recently-discovered hotline to the planet’s gods. That is a fairly massive consequence of Tahna’s plot, and neither Kira nor Tahna even mention it. The word “Prophet” isn’t even uttered, nor is the word “Emissary.”

There is a perfectly reasonably explanation. After all, Kira only becomes aware of Tahna’s plan at the climax of the story. And their disagreement isn’t rooted in Bajor’s religion, but in its political future. However, the result feels a little clumsy, and a little convenient. If Bajor is to seem truly multi-dimensional and more than just a typical Star Trek planet, then the show needs to look at the Bajorans holistically. That’s the beauty of In the Hands of the Prophets. It acknowledges how firmly connected politics and religion are on Bajor. And, to be frank, it wouldn’t be possible without Past Prologue. Unfortunately, that doesn’t quite elevate Past Prologue.

Tinker, tailor...

Tinker, tailor…

It is important to stress, though, that Past Prologue is actually pretty decent. Judged by the standards of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was turning out episodes like The Naked Now or Code of Honour, this is positively brilliant. However, the first season of The Next Generation was airing in a world that hadn’t seen new live action Star Trek television in almost two decades. That it took so long to find its feet is at least easy to understand.

Deep Space Nine doesn’t quite have that luxury. It is airing in a climate where Star Trek is an established part of the television landscape. Two series can air at the same time. At this point, The Next Generation will be ending soon, and there’s no doubt that another show will replace it. The first season of Deep Space Nine is not airing as the bold trailblazer. Instead, it’s airing opposite the sixth season of The Next Generation. That is what the show has to measure itself against.

Major concerns?

Major concerns?

The show has to be able to keep step with episodes like The Chain of Command, Ship in a Bottle, Tapestry and a few others. I think that it does and – to be fair – I think that the first year of Deep Space Nine holds its own. Past Prologue is solid, but it’s not quite where the show needs to be. And, to be entirely honest, I do think that the first season of Deep Space Nine starts to lose a bit of momentum after coming so strong out of Emissary.

Still, as I noted, there’s a lot to like here. Past Prologue is an effective and efficient piece of housekeeping, even if it’s not a fantastic piece of television. If Emissary dealt with the religion of Bajor, pushing the politics to a number of snide remarks about how “provisional” the Provisional Government would end up being, Past Prologue embraces the politics of Bajor. It immediately rejects the notion that the Federation can assume that all Bajorans will think or act in a particular way.

Deep Space Nine isn't in the friendliest neighbourhood...

Deep Space Nine isn’t in the friendliest neighbourhood…

It introduces the Kohn-Ma, a Bajoran extremist group that isn’t as willing to forgive and forget as Starfleet might hope. It’s tempting to hope that Bajor would be one big united family after the Cardassians withdrew, but things don’t work like that. nature abhors a power vacuum and inevitably the people united against the oppressor begin to have their own arguments. It’s no coincidence that civil wars tend to be quite common in former colonies.

Deep Space Nine welcomes Tahna Los on board, only to discover he’s a member of the Kohn-Ma. Sisko asks Kira if she was ever a member. “If I had been,” she states, “I would not be working with the provisional government now.” Sisko responds, “You’d still be out murdering Cardassians or even some Bajorans that the Kohn-Ma hold in contempt. Didn’t they claim responsibility for the assassination of one of your First Ministers last month?” It’s a nice moment, because Sisko seems to lull Kira into thinking that he doesn’t know that much about Bajoran politics, asking a question he likely already knew the answer to.

"Well, this massage just got awkward..."

“Well, this massage just got awkward…”

Tahna Los is a terrorist. He’s an extremist who refuses to compromise. That makes him very dangerous. It also makes him very problematic. After all, he can’t just be ignored or locked up. It’s a bit tougher than that. “If Bajor is ever to rebuild a strong and independent society, it will require the repatriation of splinter groups like the Kohn-Ma,” Kira explains. It is one of the great ironies, that Tahna should be such a simple man, only to make things infinitely more complicated.

He makes things quite difficult for Sisko. Sisko is put in a position where he can’t hand over a known terrorist to the Cardassians. He has to deal with the reality that his decision is constrained by the fact that one of his options would lead to the collapse of relations between Bajor and the Federation. “I appreciate the Cardassian position but I know if a Bajoran freedom-fighter is turned over to the Cardassians by the Federation, that would be a mistake that would undermine everything that I’m trying to accomplish here,” he explains to the Cardassians angrily demanding Tahna should be turned over.

The Shapeshifter of things to come...

The Shapeshifter of things to come…

However, Tahna really works as a foil for Kira. Kira is a former terrorist, and an unrepentant one at that. “I’ve done some things I’m not proud of,” she tells Odo. “I still have nightmares about the raids on the Haru outposts, but at least I was sure of what I was doing then.” She won’t apologise for what she did. This makes Kira a pretty fascinating character, and one who is especially interesting in the wake of 9/11.

Kira is probably the strongest female character in the whole of the Star Trek canon. I’ve argued that The Next Generation had a lot of trouble trying to figure out what to do with its female cast members. You know that something is wrong when two of your three female leads are gone after your first season. The Next Generation did eventually introduce a strong female character in the form of Ro Laren, but the show’s difficulty with gender never quite went away. After all, the show’s final season featured Sub Rosa, the one where Beverly Crusher has phantom sex with a ghost (okay, “entity”) in a candle who screwed her grandmother to death.

The runabouts on a nice little run-around...

The runabouts on a nice little run-around…

Voyager had a number of potentially strong female characters. Kate Mulgrew struggled against inconsistent writing, and was unable to find a strong centre for Kathryn Janeway. Jeri Ryan was also pretty great, despite being treated as a sex object. Roxanne Dawson did a great job when the show could be bothered to give Torres something to do. It’s very tough to argue with the assertion that Kira Nerys was the strongest leading female character in the history of Star Trek.

And a lot of that came from Nana Visitor. If Deep Space Nine was “The Rifleman in space”, Visitor’s slightly Texan accent was a major part of that Western aesthetic. She was also responsible for the decision to chop the character’s hair off after Emissary, eschewing femininity for a military efficiency that felt in-character for Kira. According to The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, she argued, “I just didn’t feel that Major Kira would style her hair every day. She wouldn’t care! I wanted a hairstyle that looked like she just woke up in the morning looking like that.”

It's perfectly Kira...

It’s perfectly Kira…

Kira’s appearance here isn’t overtly sexualised. Even her uniform is decidedly practical. The show would eventually put Visitor in one of those form-fitting catsuits that the franchise loves so dearly, but I respect that Deep Space Nine resisted the urge to put its female leads in anything quite as exploitative as Troi’s weird cleavage-enhancing jumpsuit, the bodysuit that made Jeri Ryan call for oxygen on the set or T’Pol’s ugly body-tight catsuit. Kira was treated as a character in every way, rather than as a potential source of fan-service, and that’s a vital part of why she worked so well.

Past Prologue makes it clear that Kira is struggling. War is not easy, but you know who the enemy is. Peace is more complicated, more fraught with risks and uncertainties and dangers. Kira fought for an independent Bajor only to realise that it’s not possible. She cooperates with the Federation because she realises that Bajor can’t defend its own claim to the Wormhole, as a matter of pragmatic reality. Of course, that will change as Kira evolves, but that’s her position for now.

A constable source of good advice...

A constable source of good advice…

However, even acknowledging that pragmatic reality complicates things. Is Kira suddenly a collaborator? Has she sold out her ideals? Has she been reduced to a welcome-mat for a new bunch of potential oppressors with their own form of cultural imperialism? “Still fighting for Bajor in my own way,” she tells Tahna, but there’s a sense she is trying to assure herself at least as much as her old colleague from “the good old days” when they knew friend from foe.

Of course, Kira’s decision is never in doubt. After all, Star Trek isn’t going to kill or arrest a lead in its second episode, especially when they are the only Bajoran member of the cast and the one with the most interesting back story. And it’s not going to blow up the Wormhole, having (a.) moved the station, (b.) set up the Wormhole as a way to bring the adventure to the station and (c.) gone to the hassle of redesigning those snazzy opening credits. We know she’ll side against Tahna. And, to be fair, Past Prologue seems to implicitly accept that. It’s more about how she reaches that decision and how it troubles her.

Although, let's face it, the Chief of Security is probably not the best person to hear you confession about being involved in a terrorist plot...

Although, let’s face it, the Chief of Security is probably not the best person to hear you confession about being involved in a terrorist plot…

Past Prologue isn’t just about Kira, even if it’s smartly centred on her. Sisko also gets some nice stuff too. The show makes it clear that the cast won’t be getting along like the crew of The Next Generation, but it also establishes Sisko as a bit more intense than even Picard. Picard can be pretty serious, and Patrick Stewart is terrifying when Picard gets justifiably angry. However, Avery Brooks does a wonderful job convincing us that Sisko is a different sort of authority figure. One trying to make the best of what appears to be a bad lot. After all, Picard never had to advise Riker, “Go over my head again and I’ll have yours on a platter.”

We also get a little bit of a sense of Odo, one of the supporting cast in Emissary who felt a bit shoe-horned in. He was established as gruff and cynical, only to spill his back story and motivation because the script couldn’t work it in any other way. Here, however, Odo is again in the background, but the script (and Rene Auberjones) do an excellent job defining him a little bit at a time. While we probably could have guessed it from his few lines in EmissaryPast Prologue pretty explicitly acknowledges Odo’s borderline fascist tendencies.

Hardly a stunning development...

Hardly a stunning development…

“You know,” he advises Sisko at one point, “Cardassian rule may have been oppressive, but at least it was simple.” Odo’s obsession with order is interesting, because it’s not consistently portrayed as cute or endearing like Spock or Data’s logical outlooks. Odo has a way of looking at the universe that is… unnerving, to be frank. He feels genuinely alien, even when he seems strangely human. It’s a character trait that is developed remarkably well over the series and even foreshadows one of the show’s better twists.

We also catch a glimpse of his relationship with Kira. Like the dynamic between Geordi and Data, I can’t help wonder if the relationship that developed between Odo and Kira was more luck than design. After all, Past Prologue requires Kira to voice her doubts to somebody who isn’t in Starfleet. And, let’s face it, it’s not going to be Quark. That leaves Odo by default. While their relationship wouldn’t completely cement itself until Necessary Evil, you can see the seeds sewn here.

I could have thought of a couple of B'Etor guest stars...

I could have thought of a couple of B’Etor guest stars…

Indeed, Odo seems rather sympathetic to Kira, without breaking character. “The only important thing is not to betray yourself,” he assures her, a line that anybody would Rene Auberjones would find hard to reconcile with Odo’s cynicism. In a moment that says a lot about Odo’s way of looking at the world, and the trust between them, it’s Odo who makes the decision for her. Or, at least, who commits to it. He contacts Sisko. “There’s someone down here in security who wants to talk to you, Commander.”

To be fair, he’s ambiguous enough to leave Kira an out, if she wants. But he also forced her hand. One senses that this says more about Odo than Kira. Odo values order above everything else, but he also wants to see his faith in Kira vindicated. Taking the decision out of her hands allows him to retain his faith in her – something that comes up again in Necessary Evil. It’s interesting that Odo seems to already believe that Kira is a better person than she will take credit for.

Plain, simple Garak...

Plain, simple Garak…

There is one other character who makes a major impression here. Garak. Garak is one of the best characters in Deep Space Nine, although that’s a fairly long list of rather wonderful creations. Here we get a sense of the sort of ambiguity that needs to exist on the show. Garak is very clearly a spy, and one who clearly has some ties to his former employers. After all, the arrival of that Cardassian ship was a bit convenient, eh? However, he’s smart enough to play all the sides against one another. He averts a potential terrorist attack on the station, sells a wanted terrorist to his old colleagues, and also endears himself to the station’s crew in one fell swoop.

Andrew Robinson is, quite frankly, superb. Robinson got so deep into character as Garak that he eventually wrote a biography of the character (A Stitch in Time), which remains one of the best Star Trek books ever written. Track it down, if you can. The desire to pair Garak with Bashir is inspired. As I mentioned before, Bashir works as part of the ensemble because he’s such a great contrast with the cynicism of the show. He’s basically a cast member who wandered off the first year of The Next Generation.

Waltz with Bashir...

Waltz with Bashir…

There’s also a none-too-subtle subtext to their relationship, especially here. “What a thoughtful young man,” Garak remarks after Bashir offers him a drink. Garak is the smooth old pro putting the moves of the pretty young inexperienced thing. When Bashir manages to stutter out a polite dismissal of the idea Garak is a spy, Garak responds, “An open mind. The essence of intellect.” He is practically flirting with Bashir. “As you may also know, I have a clothing shop nearby, so if you should require any apparel, or merely wish, as I do, for a bit of enjoyable company now and then, I’m at your disposal, Doctor.”

Later on, he’s even more explicit in his flirtations. “Doctor. Enhance my evening.” I must try that line some time. There’s a legitimate case to be made that Garak is Star Trek‘s first bisexual character, something that would be much more commendable if the show had the courage to explicitly confirm it. And if it had occurred before 1993. That said, Star Trek was always far too conservative in matters of sexual orientation, something that always undermined the way that it valued diversity.

Spy hard...

Spy hard…

Andrew Robinson has confessed that he played Garak as a character with an “inclusive” sexuality, although he had to tone it down when the scripts stopped supporting it:

I started out playing Garak as someone who doesn’t have a defined sexuality. He’s not gay, he’s not straight, it’s a non-issue for him. Basically his sexuality is inclusive. But – it’s Star Trek and there were a couple of things working against that. One is that Americans really are very nervous about sexual ambiguity. Also, this is a family show, they have to keep it on the ‘straight and narrow’, so then I backed off from it. Originally, in that very first episode, I loved the man’s absolute fearlessness about presenting himself to an attractive human being. The fact that the attractive human being is a man (Bashir) doesn’t make any difference to him, but that was a little too sophisticated I think. For the most part, the writers supported the character beautifully, but in that area they just made a choice they didn’t want to go there, and if they don’t want to go there I can’t, because the writing doesn’t support it.

It’s a shame, but at least the subtext is there – and it at least hints at Deep Space Nine being a bit more adventurous with interpersonal dynamics than most Star Trek shows.

Suits you, sir...

Suits you, sir…

Of course, Bashir’s reaction to the whole thing is rather priceless. Particularly at one point where Garak tries to hint strongly, but Bashir is nowhere near savvy enough to realise it:

Doctor, I think it’s time for you to take advantage of my shop. If you’ll be there at exactly twenty fifty five hours tonight, I promise to show you a suit that will make you into a new man.

A suit? We’re talking about terrorists, and you want me to buy a new suit?

Doctor, am I making myself clear? I want you to buy a new suit tonight at twenty fifty five, exactly.

I love how Robinson plays Garak’s frustration with Bashir’s rather awkward inability to read between the lines. Then again, it also takes considerable effort on Garak’s part to start the conversation as Bashir sits there, stuttering.

Has Tahna fallen Prey to a double-cross?

Has Tahna fallen Prey to a double-cross?

Bashir’s reaction to all this is priceless. “You won’t never believe who just sat down next to me at the Replimat!” he boasts as he runs to Ops. I love how O’Brien doesn’t pay any attention, and just goes about with his business – you know, fixing the damn station. The crew are pretty condescending to Bashir, but not undeservedly so. Dax has to point out that Garak probably isn’t making contact out of the goodness of his heart. “What do you think he might want from you, Julian?” It’s a patronising question. When Bashir earnestly assures Sisko that Federation secrets are safe with him, Sisko is pretty patronising. “I’m sure they are, Doctor Bashir.”

Past Prologue also, rather notably, drafts in Lursa and B’Etor. It’s nice to see a bit of continuity between The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, but… let’s be honest. This is the second episode. We just had Captain frickin’ Picard show up and get some righteous anger from our leading man. The station is being held together by that nice Irish man from the Transporter Room. The ties are bound pretty tight at this point, and including Lursa and B’Etor feels a little heavy-handed.

Don't worry, Garak has a tailor-made solution...

Don’t worry, Garak has a tailor-made solution…

They’d be a nice little treat buried in a second-season episode, but continuing to emphasise that this is the same Star Trek as The Next Generation feels a little forced. In the first season, the priority should be assuring us that Deep Space Nine has its own identity, not trying to impress us by featuring two reasonably recognisable guest stars. In fact, the first season of Deep Space Nine does make a much smaller variation of the same mistake that haunted the first season of The Next Generation: it tries to hard to emulate its predecessor.

The Next Generation spent a large portion of its first year trying to tell stories better suited to the original Star Trek. Most obviously, The Naked Now was a blatant rehash of The Naked Time. It only really came together when it figured out what it wanted to be. Deep Space Nine has a less intense version of the same problem. Babel, Captive Pursuit and Dramatis Personae all feel like stories that could have been done on The Next Generation. And then you have Lursa and B’Etor in Past Prologue, Q in Q-Less and Lwaxanna in The Forsaken. Don’t try so hard, Deep Space Nine.

Guest stars from the sister series...

Guest stars from the sister series…

That said, it is a nice touch that the show suggests that Lursa and B’Etor might not be best served by the different aesthetic on Deep Space Nine. On The Next Generation, they were two reasonably effective schemers who were able to plunge the Klingon Empire into Civil War. Here, however, they can’t even keep pace with Garak acting as a middle man. “We have no time for your games,” B’Etor protests. She doesn’t know what she is missing.

Past Prologue is a solid episode. To be fair, it’s probably a more solid episode than we should expect at this point. However, Deep Space Nine is still finding its feet.

You might be interested in our reviews of the first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:

2 Responses

  1. I love this series and your reviews on it, there aren’t many reviews of this show anymore. I also love Firefly have you reviewed seen that before. http://www.21stcenturyblogs.com/forgotten-best-tv-shows-on-netflix/

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