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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Captive Pursuit (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.

Much like Babel, it’s not too difficult to reimagine Captive Pursuit as an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s notable for being one of the few episodes of Deep Space Nine to really feature the famous “Prime Directive”, something of a staple of the original Star Trek, The Next Generation and even Voyager. Like a lot of episodes from the middle of Deep Space Nine‘s first season, this seems almost like an attempt to port on episode concept directly over from The Next Generation. In particular, the notion of the crew dealing with a fugitive while wrestling with the Prime Directive feels like a retread of The Hunted.

That said, Captive Pursuit does work quite well, taking a familiar concept and putting a twist on it unique to the show. Despite the fact the episode’s premise feels like it has been carried over, the execution is careful enough to distinguish Deep Space Nine from its older sibling.

The hunted...

The hunted…

To be fair, Captive Pursuit gets away with a lot because it comes so early in the run. For example, using the wormhole as a convenient plot device to drop a strange alien species into the show is excusable this once. Deep Space Nine is, as the title implies, a show set on a space station. There’s only so much exploration that a space station can do – what with being stationary and all that. If the wormhole exists purely as a vehicle to deposit new and exotic species into the show, then it feels like a bit of a narrative cheat.

Setting the show in one single location represents a departure from the conventional Star Trek formula. Unlike any of the other four shows, Deep Space Nine is not about a ship charting the unknown. This opens up all manner of unique storytelling opportunities. The very premise of the show explains how Deep Space Nine was really the first Star Trek show to dabble in serialisation. However, the premise also has in-built limitations. It can’t do everything The Next Generation can do, but it can do other stuff. It’s a trade-off.

A visitor out of the blue...

A visitor out of the blue…

You can see the temptation that the wormhole might hold, then. It would allow strange alien species to stumble on to Deep Space Nine despite the station’s fixed location. You could bring creatures from all of the universe – some never seen before! – through that portal, while still taking advantage of the storytelling opportunities offered by the show’s basic premise. You can almost see that idea running through the first two seasons of Deep Space Nine, an attempt by the production team to have their cake and eat it too.

Of course, it’s not that simple. If you use the wormhole like that, it cheapens the show. It creates the impression that Deep Space Nine really just wants to be another version of The Next Generation and Voyager. To be fair to writers Ira Steven Behr and Robert Hewlitt Wolfe, they recognised that the show needed to distinguish itself and that’s why – in the second season – the Dominion emerged as a single monolithic threat originating in the Gamma Quadrant, in contrast to the diversity of alien life showcased on The Next Generation and Voyager.

Miles to go...

Miles to go…

As a side note, it is quite interesting that two aliens featured in Captive Pursuit have been retroactively incorporated into the show’s grander mythology, if only implicitly on the show itself. When the Dominion presents itself in The Jem’Hadar, the episode’s script explicitly acknowledges that the Jem’Hadar cloaking technology should be quite familiar:

This is the same kind of invisibility effect used by Tosk in CAPTIVE PURSUIT.  The thought behind this is that the same people who breed the Tosks as gifts to the hunters breed the Jem’Hadar as well.

Reportedly, a Hunter was originally intended to appear in the place of Amat’igan in Broken Link, establishing the Hunters as the navigators and the trackers of the Dominion. That never came to pass, and unfortunately the link between the Hunters and the Dominion is one of those logical pieces of the Star Trek mythos that was never confirmed on screen.

Bam! You just got O'Brien-ed!

Bam! You just got O’Brien-ed!

Still, the Dominion wouldn’t be named until well into the show’s second season, and there’s very little reason to believe that the producers had a firm idea of what life would be like in the Gamma Quadrant this early in the show’s run. It was quite possible that the wormhole could just serve as a convenient way of bringing the wider universe to Deep Space Nine, even if the station could hardly go exploring on its own terms.

So Captive Pursuit is the first time that something weird comes through the wormhole. Much is made of how Tosk is “the first visitor from the other side” and the “first guest from the Gamma Quadrant.” It’s a plot device that could become a little awkward if over-used and something that you don’t want to see the show becoming over-reliant upon, but it’s one of those stories (like Past Prologue) that had to be told early in the show’s run. Even if it does feel a little like the kind of thing that Picard would deal with on the Enterprise.

He is Tosk.

He is Tosk.

That said, Captive Pursuit works quite well because it finds a way of telling a typical Star Trek story in a manner that could only really work on Deep Space Nine. There’s a sense that this isn’t the idealistic world of The Next Generation, and Sisko immediately establishes that the show won’t be governed by strict adherence to protocols and rules. “I think we might want to skip formal first contact procedures for now,” Dax suggests. Sisko concurs, “Why don’t you meet him by yourself at the airlock, Mister O’Brien. He might find that a little less intimidating.”

Indeed, the show’s final scene does an effective job distinguishing Sisko from Picard, dealing with an insubordinate officer. Offering what must be his only speech about the importance of the Prime Directive, Sisko tears into O’Brien with a righteous anger that Patrick Stewart generally kept contained. “You ignored your duty to Starfleet. You took off your comm. badge so you could ignore me. You even ignored the Prime Directive by interfering with their damned hunt. Another stunt like this and your wife won’t have to complain about the conditions here anymore. Do I make myself clear?”

Not so fast!

Not so fast!

While the sheer intensity of Sisko’s passion distinguishes him from Picard, there is another key difference. Captive Pursuit makes it clear that Sisko is less likely to adhere to the rules. When O’Brien breaks Tosk out of captivity, Sisko deliberately delays his response in order to allow O’Brien and the alien to make their escape. In fact, that wonderful gag with Odo moving very slowly to stop the escape attempt might be the funniest of the show’s first season.

When O’Brien points out that Sisko and Odo could easily have prevented Tosk’s escape, Sisko responds, almost playfully, “I guess that one got by us.” It’s very hard to imagine Picard compromising himself in such a way, let alone acknowledging it in such a wry manner with a subordinate. In a way, the climax of Captive Pursuit does a better job distinguishing Sisko from Picard than actually having Sisko state “I’m not Picard.” Just in case we were confused about that.

Having a blast...

Having a blast…

Indeed, this moral ambiguity was already distinguishing Deep Space Nine from The Next Generation. According to The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion:

“In general, the DS9 shows are not as squeaky clean as the TNG scripts were,” observes Corey Allen, a veteran director who has worked frequently on both series. “The characters are allowed to be more flawed and that allows for more latitude in interpretation. In TNG, it always seemed to me that the people were wonderfully and heroically bent on the ‘unbent’ — they were straight arrows. But in ‘Captive Pursuit,’ there’s this wonderful moment of realization — almost without words — when O’Brien is sitting at the bar with Quark, and he discovers the possibility that it’s conceivable to break the rules of the Federation, which hitherto had been inconceivable to him. And suddenly he says, ‘Of course — change the rules.'”

There are several other touches that establish Deep Space Nine as its own show. For one thing, it opens with an accusation of sexual harassment against one of the main characters. Given how sterile The Next Generation could be when it came to matters of sex, Deep Space Nine is very clearly defining itself here, establishing that things are a good deal messier on the station than on the Enterprise. It’s very hard to imagine Picard ever dealing with a similar complaint.

His Chief concern...

His Chief concern…

That said, it does raise the problem the show has with Quark in some of the early episodes. I actually really like Quark as a character. He is a refreshingly unique perspective on the show, and I think one of the great accomplishments of Deep Space Nine is rehabilitating the Ferengi after their disastrous appearances on The Next Generation. It’s refreshing to have a lead character who doesn’t conform to the standards of morality we take for granted on Star Trek, and it is even better that Deep Space Nine generally gives him enough credit to assume he is operating by his own code of honour.

The problem arises when the show pushes Quark too far out. I remarked in Babel that it’s hard to justify keeping Quark around when he does crazy things that cause massive amounts of danger to the station. It’s also very hard to treat Quark as plucky comic relief and “a decent guy by his own standards” when it is revealed that he has been taking advantage of his female staff members. After all, this is unlikely to be the only Dabo Girl with that clause in her contract, and it’s unlikely that this was the first time Quark has done this sort of thing.

Dabo-ling in sexual harassment...

Dabo-ling in sexual harassment…

There is – after all – a pretty clear line between “greedy entrepreneur” and “sex offender, and it’s weird that Sisko will probably just give Quark a light slap on the wrist for that sort of behaviour. It’s never anything that is followed up, and the fact that Quark might be a rapist is never broached with any of the other major cast members. Indeed, Quark’s occasional price-gouging would seem to generate more controversy on the station. It’s nice to see that Deep Space Nine is acknowledging that the situation on the station isn’t as clear-cut as on other Star Trek shows, but this isn’t the sort of thing that should be raised and dropped so fast.

There is also another nice little irony buried early on Captive Pursuit, one that only really becomes obvious in hindsight. Discussing the wormhole with O’Brien, Tosk notes, “Others will detect ships from your quadrant as I did and follow them here.” He seems to mean it more as a warning than as an idle observation, and it’s easy to read a great deal of subtext into the remark. O’Brien smiles and offers a very Star Trek answer, “We hope so. Our mission as Starfleet officers is to seek out new life forms so we can learn about each other.” I bet he regrets that in about five years time.

Talk about getting your wires crossed...

Talk about getting your wires crossed…

In many respects, Captive Pursuit is the first Deep Space Nine episode to focus on O’Brien. O’Brien was the first character affected with the virus in Babel, so he got a bit of attention there, but Captive Pursuit is the first adventure that centres around O’Brien as as a character. To be fair, O’Brien is a character carried over from The Next Generation. He actually managed a reasonable amount of development on that show (with episodes like The Wounded and Data’s Day devoting considerable focus to him), so you could argue that O’Brien was the main character least in need of development during the first year of Deep Space Nine.

Still, Captive Pursuit works quickly to establish O’Brien as the moral centre of Deep Space Nine. He’s the most grounded cast member, the one with the most amount of trust and sympathy for those around him. He isn’t burdened with the pressures of command like Sisko and he isn’t as hopelessly innocent as Bashir. O’Brien is just a fundamentally decent guy, perhaps the most decidedly normal and average protagonist in the history of the franchise – a genuinely pleasant human being who is just doing his job in the farthest reaches of space.

It'll (bar)keep...

It’ll (bar)keep…

Asked what O’Brien brings to the franchise, Colm Meaney has argued:

I don’t know. I think… you know, because of that world that we inhabited, with all of these extraordinary characters who could do extraordinary things, there was a terrific kind of humanity in O’Brien…and that’s due to the writing, of course, but it’s also in every sense, in that he was humanoid! But I think he brought that kind of contemporary sensibility to an extraordinary world, and it’s nice to be able to say that.

There’s also something worth noting about O’Brien. He is Irish. Of course he’s Irish. He’s played by Colm Meaney, one of the great Irish actors, who produced some wonderful Irish films while working on Star Trek. His last name is O’Brien. We discover in Home Front that his family lives in Dublin. According to Ronald D. Moore, the production team on The Next Generation even considered giving him the first name “Aloysius”, one of James Joyce’s middle names.

Ship shape...

Ship shape…

A lot of Deep Space Nine‘s characterisation of O’Brien is filtered through his Irish identity. Of course, he’s not alone in that regard. Avery Brooks has been very vocal in his thoughts about the portrayal of the relationship between Jake and Ben Sisko in the wider context of media portrayals of African-American father-son dynamics. Much as Sisko’s portrayal can be read in the context of cultural perceptions of African-American family life, Miles O’Brien is very clearly and very distinctly defined by his Irish identity.

It reflects throughout his time on Deep Space Nine. It is telling that one of the best friendships ever depicted on Star Trek was the relationship between O’Brien and Bashir – an Irishman and an Englishman, even though the point never really come up. It was refreshing that the series could throw the two characters together so casually, well aware of the long and complicated political history that exists between their two nations.

Admit it, you'd watch this buddy show...

Admit it, you’d watch this buddy show…

Similarly, the idea of O’Brien as a former soldier who became an engineer, as explored in Empok Nor, is a shrewd one. Given that Irish politics are still dominated by two parties rooted in the Irish Civil War, even in modern matters of society and economy, O’Brien feels distinctly Irish – a killer and a fighter who became a builder and a designer. Indeed, placing an Irish character in a story about a society emerging from occupation can’t help but play on O’Brien’s Irishness.

Captive Pursuit even plays on it. It is telling that the episode’s working title was A Matter of Breeding, evoking a rigid class system that would probably be offensive to O’Brien’s cultural identity. Given the historical portrayal in British cultural of the Irish as inherently sub-human, O’Brien’s response to Tosk’s plight feels in some way driven by his own heritage. The notion that an individual is so inherently inferior and beneath a dominant society that he can be treated like an animal would resonate with O’Brien’s history. After all, one of the myths perpetrated by the British Empire was the notion that their subjects were incapable of self-governance.

On the hunt...

On the hunt…

The fact that Tosk is the quarry in what amounts to a hunt would likely also strike a chord with O’Brien. Hunting as a leisure activity is a distinctly upper-class British pastime, and one that remains contentious. It’s telling that the aliens hunting Tosk wear red outfits, recalling the red coats associated with the British army. Captive Pursuit never draws attention to this, but it is there in the background. It’s a very smart way of handling O’Brien, and it is markedly different to how The Next Generation handled Picard’s French heritage or Riker’s Alaskan origins.

It helps that Colm Meaney is all sorts of great in the role. He plays O’Brien as a distinctly human character, one without any airs or graces, one who says what he means and means what he says. The episode spends a considerable amount of time developing O’Brien’s friendship with Tosk, which does affect the pacing a little, but Meaney and MacDonald work well enough together that it works. Indeed, the episode itself needs that strong bond in order to function.

A Quark of the job...

A Quark of the job…

Captive Pursuit is an episode that only really works once. It contains quite a few elements that could easily become problematic if they are used too often. It is nice to see what could be a standard The Next Generation premise used to demonstrate just how different Deep Space Nine actually is, but the show is still struggling with its identity just a little bit. Captive Pursuit would work better if it weren’t in the middle of a bunch of other episodes that feel like attempts to re-work The Next Generation concepts for Deep Space Nine.

Still, for a first-season episode, Captive Pursuit is a nice exploration of the ensemble and of O’Brien in particular.

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

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