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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – A Man Alone (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.

To be fair to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it’s clear that the show’s heart is in the right place. After all, a Star Trek television show isn’t quite the gambit that it was in 1987. The producers expect that the series will be going for quite some time. After all, the regulars signed six-year contracts, one of the reasons that the show managed to make it to its penultimate season without losing a primary cast member.

As such, a lot of the early episodes of Deep Space Nine seem prudent – they effectively amount to good housekeeping. While Star Trek: The Next Generation got its cast together and couldn’t wait to start telling bold Star Trek stories, you can see that Deep Space Nine is laying a lot of groundwork. The ensemble doesn’t gel instantly. Episodes are devoted to little more than set-up for something that will pay off over the coming year. A vast supporting cast is systematically established.

This is world-building, and it’s world-building to a purpose, even if Deep Space Nine doesn’t seem to really know what that purpose is yet. So it’s quite hard to fault these early episodes, even if they feel more like set-up for delayed pay-off.

The writing's on the wall for Odo...

The writing’s on the wall for Odo…

Deep Space Nine is something of the black sheep of the Star Trek family. It’s something I discussed in Emissary and it’s certainly something that I’ll probably keep coming back to. Part of the reason for that is that Deep Space Nine has such a unique and compelling relationship with its sister shows. It’s not as simple as being radically different, but it’s also not quite the same. It distinguishes itself in interesting ways, but it also establishes very strong concrete links to its siblings.

In Emissary, Sisko made a compelling argument that Deep Space Nine was uniquely positioned to explore Gene Roddenberry’s final frontier. Exploration isn’t just about the great “out there”, it’s also about ourselves. He also argued that – as great as utopia is – it’s impossible to live a life without pain or suffering or anger or loss. Those moments are important, because optimism and hope need to be strong enough to endure. Virtues are great when they’re untested, but they’re of limited application. If faith and humanism can survive the darkness, then there’s something truly special there.

The clue is in the title...

The clue is in the title…

However, A Man Alone establishes a less philosophical or moral link to its predecessors. I think you could make a compelling argument that Deep Space Nine is the spin-off that is most closely related to the original Star Trek. That has nothing to do with the show’s use of the original Klingon, Kor, as a recurring character. It also has nothing to do with the fact that Deep Space Nine reintroduced us to the alternate universe established in Mirror, Mirror. Nor does it have anything to do with the fact that show contains the single best affectionate exploration of the original Star Trek this side of Galaxy Quest in Trials and Tribble-ations.

No. Both shows are linked by the fact that they are westerns. Gene Roddenberry apparently convinced the network to engage with Star Trek by referring to it as “Wagon Train to the stars.” Even the use of word “frontier” evokes the Old West. Kirk and his crew were on a more benign and peaceful variation of “manifest destiny”, carving out a place among the wilderness of space. Sure, they had phasers instead of six-shooters, but the aesthetic was very simple. Kirk and McCoy might have wandered right out of a western.

Dagger of the mind... and the, er, hand...

Dagger of the mind… and the, er, hand…

In contrast, none of the starship-based spin-offs could emulate that aesthetic, despite their best efforts. The Next Generation was far too sterile and intellectual to really pull off that sort of gung-ho American fantasy. After all, Justice was their attempt to do a sixties-style “free love” episode in the eighties. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but there was a sense that The Next Generation wasn’t so much expanding the frontier as patrolling the border. The wilderness had been tamed.

The eponymous spaceship in Star Trek: Voyager manages to stay just as pristine, despite being lost in the wilderness. It lacked the courage of its convictions, and was too clean and too easy. Star Trek: Enterprise was a prequel to the original Star Trek, but a product of a later age with a fixation on “realism” and where the idea of Star Trek had become too firmly anchored to allow the show to get as dirty and as messy as a western needs to be.

Another man alone...

Another man alone…

That brings us to Deep Space Nine. Echoing the “Wagon Train to the stars” comment, Deep Space Nine has been described as “The Rifleman in space.” It’s the story of a frontier outpost trying to establish some peace and stability in troubled region. It’s a place where no clear rules seem to exist, and where the crew must learn to defend and hold this little bit of real estate against anybody who might try to claim it.

A Man Alone really cements the idea of Deep Space Nine as a western, and it’s appropriate that it focuses on Odo to do so. Odo is, after all, a small-town sheriff trying to keep order in a very chaotic environment. The station even has its own tavern. Quark’s has a much great claim to the title of “tavern” than Ten Forward ever did. It even seems much louder, much more cluttered than the bar on the Enterprise ever did. Its proprietor, Quark, even expressly observes, “Everybody wants a piece of the new frontier.”

A Quark-y couple...

A Quark-y couple…

Odo makes a decent sheriff. Hell, he even has “deputies.” Compared to Worf, who merely enforced the rule of law on the Enterprise, it’s clear that Odo effectively is the law. An early scene sees Odo effectively decide that he doesn’t want a troublemaker around, and tells him to get out of town. “I don’t want you on this station,” Odo informs Ibudan. Ibudan protests that he has rights. Odo replies, “I decide who has rights and who doesn’t on this Promenade.” When Ibudan makes a crack about Odo needing to check with a higher authority, Odo proceeds to get physical. “I don’t have to check with anyone.”

It’s a scene that could easily have been taken from a western. All Odo is missing is the hat. Indeed, the show makes a big deal of the townspeople turning against Odo, with a lynch mob forming outside his office – an unpleasant image associated with the period of American history, and a nice way for Deep Space Nine to play into these tropes without romanticising them too much. The mob is pretty explicitly a lynch mob. When Sisko tells them they can’t do anything, one observes, “He’s right. How do you get a rope around the neck of a shape-shifter?”

You know, for a shape-shifter, he's not very flexible...

You know, for a shape-shifter, he’s not very flexible…

And the scene resolves itself like something out of a western. While Odo refuses to legitimise the mob, a good man takes a stand. Sisko stares and shouts them down, despite being largely outnumbered. The sequence where Sisko fires a phaser into the air to warn the crowd looks rather silly in the context of Star Trek, but it fits perfectly with the iconography of the western. It helps that Avery Brooks has the presence to pull it off. I don’t want to turn every discussion of Sisko into a racial commentary, but the image of a black man breaking up a racist lynch mob is a very strong image – and it’s a sign that Deep Space Nine won’t pull its punches.

However, if the overt racism of the mob represents a thoughtful subversion of the expected western tropes, a mingling of uncomfortable reality with romantic Americana, then Odo himself is an immediately fascinating character. The small-town sheriff is, after all, an almost mythic archetype in the American popular consciousness. However, A Man Alone sets up Odo as this sort of romantic persecuted man standing against the world… and makes us question him.

"I probably should have checked the bulkheads were reinforced before firing..."

“I probably should have checked the bulkheads were reinforced before firing…”

Part of it is Odo’s stubborn refusal to accept any assistance from anybody. Even when Sisko offers words of support, Odo responds coldly. He has Major Kira ask Bashir for help. When Quark seems genuinely worried about him, Odo is dismissive. The sheriff’s ability to stand alone against the world is meant to be a virtue, but Deep Space Nine questions that notion. It’s fitting of course, Star Trek is built around the notion of cooperation for the greater good.

The lone sheriff might offer a romantic image, but it reflects a contradiction at the heart of American culture. We’re meant to applaud the loner sheriff for his refusal to compromise and his stubborn ability to keep going, mirrored in the idea of “the American Dream” built around the fantasy of individual success. At the same time, there’s the idea that we all must be in this together – “ask not what your country can do for you” – the idea of cooperation assuring a better standard for everybody, as expressed in the democratic ideal.

A growing curiousity...

A growing curiousity…

The man alone is in sharp contrast to that, and Deep Space Nine won’t quite idealise Odo. More than that, though, the series points to a rather fascist undertone to Odo’s conduct. The sheriff imposes his own order on the town, but from where does he derive his moral authority? Odo might not like Ibudan, but what right does he have to kick him off the station? Surely there’s a point where this sort of conduct stops being democracy-in-action and becomes out-and-out fascism?

Sisko has a point when he reprimands Odo, and Odo inability to compromise has some unpleasant undertones – a sense of absolutism that could be worrying if taken too far.

If he hasn’t done anything wrong, you can’t just arbitrarily force him to leave.

Watch me.

Mister Odo, you’re not going to take the law into your own hands.

The law? Commander, laws change depending on who’s making them. Cardassians one day, Federation the next. But justice is justice, and as long as I’m in charge of security.

A Chief of Security dismissing “the law” in favour of his own sense of “justice” is a little unnerving. It’s a much more complicated moral viewpoint than a regular character would voice in The Next Generation, for example.

Odo will definitely hold you without trial...

Odo will definitely hold you without trial…

Of course, you could argue that Odo is still, broadly speaking, a sympathetic character. Indeed, his contempt for Ibudan is anchored in an understandable emotional response, making his violent outburst a bit easier to accept. “He used to run black market goods through here to the surface during the Cardassian occupation, gouging his fellow man who needed medical supplies and so forth,” Odo tells Sisko. “Some Bajorans actually considered him a hero, but I saw him let a child die when the parents couldn’t afford the drug that would’ve saved her life.”

And Odo’s point about the fickleness of legality can also be understood. Ibudan has been released, and forgiven, by the Bajoran authorities. He has been pardoned by the people we are supposed to relate to, and who are hoping to enter the Federation some point soon. However, Odo makes a very salient and unnerving point about Ibudan’s release. “The Provisional Government let him go. Killing a Cardassian isn’t considered much of a crime nowadays.”

Body of evidence...

Body of evidence…

It’s line that makes Odo’s position defensible. After all, the decision to free Ibudan was an example of institutionalised racism. Bajor is emerging from an occupation, but that doesn’t mean that the Cardassian Ibudan murdered doesn’t deserve justice. However, that doesn’t make Odo right. That’s one of the great things about Deep Space Nine, a willingness to embrace and accept differing point of views without conveniently labelling them for the audience.

Fittingly, A Man Alone goes out of its way to stress the importance of moral relativism and respect for other viewpoints. That’s something that Odo very clearly doesn’t have, and the decision to feature the subplot in this episode feels a little pointed – it seems intended to draw our attention to the fact that Odo isn’t entirely right in his blind absolutism. When Keiko sets up a school on the station, Sisko makes it clear that she can’t simply teach from a Federation viewpoint, that she has to respect the cultures and traditions of those around her.

Locked in...

Locked in…

“I can’t force the Bajora, the Ferengi or anyone else to send their children to your school,” he explains. “And even if they do come, every one has a different culture, a different philosophy.” We get a nice scene where Keiko tries to convince Rom to send Nog to the school. Rom is completely different (both in personality and in voice) from the character he would eventually develop into, but the scene is pretty pivotal in the scheme of Deep Space Nine, because it actually tries to respect the Ferengi.

The Ferengi were introduced in The Last Outpost during the first season of The Next Generation. They were presented as rampant capitalists. Given their appearance and their greed, they seemed to exist to be mocked. The show quickly relegated them to comic relief, and the Ferengi never got any respect. They were the butt of a cosmic joke, a cheap laugh that seemed at odds with the philosophy that Star Trek was so fond of preaching, the notion of tolerance.

Sadly, the story does not feature DS9's first CSI montage...

Sadly, the story does not feature DS9’s first CSI montage…

Deep Space Nine does a tremendous job rehabilitating them. Producer and writer Ira Steven Behr has argued that the Ferengi play a very important role in the Star Trek tapestry, and that pitching them as villains or as some galactic joke does them a disservice:

I think I’m not saying anything out of school by telling you that the idea of lethal Ferengi was kind of a bust. The Ferengi are not the Klingons or the Romulans. They were minor villains at best. I don’t really see them as galactic comic relief. To me, they’re the closest thing to 20th century hew-mons.

This is an idea developed throughout Deep Space Nine, but you can see the seeds here, as Keiko tries to convince Rom to send Nog to school. For the first time, there’s a sense that Ferengi ideals are acknowledged as different rather than inherently inferior.

Lobes to love...

Lobes to love…

Rom demands, “What do you know of Ferengi education?” Keiko has done her homework, and not just so she can dismiss Rom’s point. “I understand you employ a work-study approach, Mister Rom, with apprenticeships in a wide range of business and economic fields.” Rom clarifies, “We throw them into the cut-throat competition of Ferengi commerce and anyone who survives, graduates.” It’s a different way of living, but it makes sense for the Ferengi as a species. It’s more than a cheap gag at their expense.

Indeed, it’s a lot like how The Next Generation developed the Klingons from one-dimensional bad guys, and it’s really great to see Deep Space Nine daring to correct a mistake from its elder sibling. I honestly think that redeeming the Ferengi as a race, to the point where the show crafts a culture as sophisticated and nuanced as that of the show’s flagship aliens, is one of Deep Space Nine‘s most impressive accomplishments. Although that’s a very long list.

And here's the rub...

And here’s the rub…

In what turns out to be a nice touch, Deep Space Nine makes it pretty clear that Sisko is a tinsy bit racist against the Feregi, despite his high-minded lecturing of Odo about respect for other points of view. He refers to Nog as “that Ferengi” and refuses to allow Jake to spend time with Nog, something the show acknowledges to be a rush to judgement on Sisko’s part. While The Next Generation never explicitly acknowledged Picard’s android-related racism (even if it did broach the topic), Deep Space Nine does explicitly confront Sisko’s attitudes towards the Ferengi and allows Quark a few moral victories. But that’s in the future.

Deep Space Nine also does something interesting here. Rather than gelling its ensemble together immediately, the show makes it clear that the characters all come with their own interlinked pasts and that there are smaller functional groups in the larger cast. The Next Generation would reference its characters’ pasts, but – with the exception of Riker and Troi and Picard and the Crushers – there was no real sense of context for the group. Their pasts existed in isolation. Worf had parents and a brother, Data had a mysterious past, Riker had a deadbeat dad, but they were all brought up and dropped.

You're gambling with your life...

You’re gambling with your life…

In contrast, the show makes it clear that we are effectively joining most of the ensemble in mid-flow of their own little stories, at the point of intersection. This is most obvious with O’Brien, who comes with a history on the Enterprise, with a wife and child. A Man Alone makes it clear that he moved to the station with baggage, and that everything isn’t going to role smoothly. I’ll talk a bit about O’Brien in the future, but I do like that this isn’t presented as a massive career improvement for him, despite the bump to the main cast.

O’Brien has gone from being under-appreciated in the Enterprise transporter room to being under-appreciated on the whole of a station. Keiko reveals that he got a promotion by virtue of accepting the transfer, but it seems like it was really only a carrot to get him onto the station, and it will be taken away if he leaves. Just because he’s a main character doesn’t mean he’s LaForge. He’s not getting a top-of-the-line ship to do miracles. He’s getting a heap of junk to keep from falling apart.

Miles to go...

Miles to go…

I like that about O’Brien, the fact that he’s very pointedly not a genius or not a hot-shot career officer who will one day captain his own ship. O’Brien seems to realise that will never happen, and he accepts that. And I really appreciate the sense that O’Brien isn’t necessarily the best of anything in Starfleet, save perhaps his ability to endure the annual “O’Brien must suffer” episode that the writing staff introduce. He’s very good, but he would never get to be in charge of the engine room on the Enterprise, and it’s nice to have a main character who comes from so far outside that sort of mindset and structure.

We also have a sense that Kira, Odo and Quark are very much their own clique. Although it is interesting how close Kira and Odo are given he worked under the Cardassians – a point which fuels the superb Necessary Evil the following year. There’s a sense that the characters band together as a reaction against the outsiders. As much as Odo claims to hate Quark, he’s one of the few people Odo can talk to at this point in the show.

Still a few bugs to work out...

Still a few bugs to work out…

They have a nice laugh at the expense of Keiko and O’Brien. “She doesn’t like it here,” Quark muses. Odo responds, “Who does?” They’re practically the station’s Statler and Waldorf. Indeed, it’s Quark who stands up for Odo to the beginnings of the mob. “He’s an ill-tempered, over-bearing crosspatch. But he was no Cardassian collaborator and he’s no killer.” Later on, Quark seems genuinely concerned for Odo. “I can find out who did it for you.”

While Odo declines Quark’s help politely enough, he’s very candid in his disdain for the Federation. He doesn’t ask Bashir to assist, and doesn’t even use the guy’s name when he asks Kira to ask the Doctor. “Do you think that Federation doctor could do a sweep of Ibudan’s quarters for me, see if he can find out if somebody else was using that second bed?” Later on, when Sisko suggests that he doesn’t believe that Odo is a murderer, Odo refuses to even indulge in petty niceties, dismissing Sisko’s statement as a false pleasantry.

Adopting a hands-off approach...

Adopting a hands-off approach…

“Really?” he asks, in that condescending and sarcastic voice that Rene Auberjones does so well. “Now how can that be true? You don’t know me. You have no reason to believe that I wouldn’t kill Ibudan if it suited my fancy. So don’t tell me there isn’t some doubt inside of you, some question about whether or not I murdered the man.” Of course, we have no reason to doubt Sisko’s comment, but it demonstrates just how fractured that ensemble is, especially for a team that’s meant to be working together for the future of Bajor. It’s telling that Star Trek: Voyager couldn’t even manage this level of discord between two crews that were meant to be enemies.

There’s also the weird relationship between Sisko and Dax, which – like Jake – works primarily to establish that Sisko actually had a life before Deep Space Nine and reinforce the idea that continuity exists. Picard could have been anybody when he took to the Bridge in Encounter at Farpoint. Indeed, we only meet his brother once. It’s telling that Sisko comes with so much baggage, and so much personal history.

Send in the clones...

Send in the clones…

There are other nice touches, even if A Man Alone is far from an exceptional hour of Star Trek. I like that it feels like an attempt to do a genuine whodunnit, the kind of story that is markedly different from The Next Generation. Of course, The Next Generation has done mysteries, but none that are as character-centric or as cynical as this. There’s no way the Enterprise would turn on Riker in A Matter of Perspective in the same way that the station turns on Odo here. It’s a nice way to avoid appearing to emulate the older sibling, something that the first season would struggle a bit to do.

The episode suffers because it’s a mystery without a solution that the audience can work out. The ending is a piece of techno-babble cop-out that isn’t really effectively foreshadowed. It just sort of is, through the wonders of science-fiction. I know the mystery isn’t the main point, but the show goes to such pains to set up the locked-room aspect of the story, and makes such a big deal of the flakes that it would be better if there were foreshadowing or hinting, rather than a convenient twist that ties everything up neatly.

The shape of things to come...

The shape of things to come…

That said, there is something interesting about the use of clones. After all, cloning remains one of the taboo subjects in even in Star Trek. With the exception of Roddenberry’s novelisation of The Motion Picture, Star Trek tends to avoid transhumanism, and cloning is a particularly murky subject. Star Trek has touched on it before (in stories like Up the Long Ladder), but to see it used so casually here makes it clear that Deep Space Nine is a bit of a darker take on the Star Trek mythos. It’s not for nothing that the show has the first genetically-enhanced regular cast member.

However, there’s a sense here that Bashir and Dax might be in a bit of trouble. Bashir’s persistence in pursuing Dax comes freakishly close to being stalkerish, and it’s only her clear amusement that keeps their scenes from seeming pervy. However, Bashir is the one member of the ensemble who doesn’t really have a history or a back story yet, and so he already seems at a bit of a disadvantage. His idealism works well as part of the ensemble, but he struggles as a character in his own right.

Keeping her ball in the air...

Keeping her ball in the air…

Dax is also beginning to show signs of difficulty. With A Man Alone firmly establishing Odo as an outsider who like being an outsider, and one more interested in order than in logic, it seems the show is teasing the possibility of making Dax “the logical one”, the smart and rational person on Deep Space Nine. Much like Rom, there are several moments here that appear hilarious in hindsight. “Julian,” she advises Bashir, “Trills do not look for romance the way humans do. In fact, we find it quite a nuisance.”

We’re introduced to Dax trying to balance her zen a bit, and she’s presented as relatively aloof. Discussing romance, she comments, “It’s a weakness of the young, and although a Trill host may have these feelings occasionally, it is our wish to live on a higher plane, to try to rise above these kinds of temptations.” That seems quite different from the version of Dax who appears in the second season, or the one who enjoys playing pranks on Odo in Homefront, or who can’t wait to bump nasties with Worf.

Just Trilled to be here...

Just Trilled to be here…

Dax becomes the most liberated member of the ensemble, which makes her cold detachment out of here feel a bit weird. There’s a sense that the show is trying to fill a particular Star Trek archetype, and it’s hinting that Jadzia could be this show’s version of Spock or Data. Luckily, she evolves into something a bit more complex than that, even if the series does struggle with her quite a bit in the years to come.

A Man Alone isn’t an exceptional episode of Deep Space Nine, but – like many of the early ones – it’s a necessary one. There’s a sense that the producers want to define the world before playing in it, and it’s surprising how much they get right so early. Quark and Odo pretty much maintain this relationship through the finalé. O’Brien and Sisko are well-defined. Kira and Odo have an immediate bond that makes sense even before we know the details. There are a few missteps (Dax, Rom), but they’re small in the grand scheme of things.

A Commander-ing presence...

A Commander-ing presence…

However, A Man Alone feels more like an attempt to define the show and its cast than an effort to tell a compelling story. It’s a smart way of introducing us to these characters and their world, even if it isn’t the most compelling television.

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

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