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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Storyteller (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.

The Storyteller should not work half as well as it does. While some episodes this season (notably The Passenger and Battle Lines) feel like they were simply lifted directly from the “reject” pile within the writers’ room on Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Storyteller is actually a rejected pitch from that show’s first season. Written by Kurt Michael Bensmiller, the writer responsible for Time Squared, one of the stronger installments of the show’s first two years, it was also written late in 1992, about a month before Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would actually air.

And yet, despite that, The Storyteller really feels like a show that wouldn’t work on any of the other Star Trek spin-offs. A lot of that seems to be down to the work by Ira Steven Behr to polish up Bensmillers’ draft and to add a lot of character work and development to what is a decidedly high concept. As producer Michael Piller confessed in Captains’ Logs Supplemental – The Unauthorized Guide to the New Trek Voyages, “Ira did a lot of work on that script.”

O'Brien's mind is a bit clouded right now...

O’Brien’s mind is a bit clouded right now…

To be fair to Piller, one of the greatest Star Trek producers of all time, the problem with the initial script for The Storyteller is that it violated his core writing rule, one he laid down during the third season of The Next Generation, and one which really solidified the show into the success it became. Piller used to ask his writers “whose story is this?”, suggesting that the key to a good Star Trek story was character as much as a high-concept hook. This was largely absent from the first draft of The Storyteller:

One of the really big problems with this script, which is why it didn’t appeal to anybody, is because it was not about any of our characters. We were just watching the events occur by putting O’Brien in the middle, saying you have to solve it. What really appealed to me was the great theme that sometimes we create our own monsters so that we can defeat them and feel secure in our power.

The third season blu ray of The Next Generation really is a phenomenal television collection, and I’ve been trawling through the special features to get a glimpse behind that season of Star Trek, one of a handful of Star Trek seasons with a legitimate claim to being “the best season of Star Trek ever produced”, if you’re into those sorts of labels.

O'Brien has a hand in things...

O’Brien has a hand in things…

Part of me is really eager for Deep Space Nine to get the same sort of revisit and the same remastering. At the very least, it would be great to get a glimpse behind the scenes at how the show works. For example, at the risk of going off on a tangent, it’s amazing just how troubled the production of the third season of The Next Generation actually was, and how much of the season’s success can be attributed to Michael Piller and Ira Steven Behr, both of whom went on to be massive influences on the early years of Deep Space Nine.

And the first year of Deep Space Nine has a massive advantage because it starts off with Piller’s dictum in effect. “Whose story is it?” is such an obvious question to ask about a script, and quite a few of the problems with the first couple of years on The Next Generation can be traced to the fact that nobody seemed to be asking it. Even the weakest scripts of this first season do start with a focus on a particular member of the ensemble and build out from there.

And the children shall lead...

And the children shall lead…

It means, generally, that even a less-than-thrilling episode like Battle Lines will still feature a nice moment for Kira, or that something as banal as If Wishes Were Horses… will stem from the characters involved. I won’t pretend that the first year (or even the first two years) of Deep Space Nine pull it off perfectly, but there’s a very clear sense that the show is starting with the advantage of Piller’s focus and direction.

This would give the show a strong start. Equally important, I’d argue, and almost paradoxically, Piller’s eventure departure to really focus on Star Trek: Voyager would allow the show to really grow up in its third year, almost as if it were moving out on its own for the first time. Just as Piller had pushed The Next Generation beyond Roddenberry, Deep Space Nine would push itself beyond Piller. The difference being that Piller’s presence in the first two years of Deep Space Nine was much more positive than any of Roddenberry’s contributions to the early years of The Next Generation.

Something to chew on...

Something to chew on…

The other major advantage that the first season of Deep Space Nine had starting out was the presence of Ira Steven Behr. Watching the third season of The Next Generation, I had no idea just how crucial Behr was to the functioning of that writers’ room. I’ll talk more about that when I discuss that show’s third season, but Behr decided to depart the show after one year. Apparently Piller had to actively court Behr to convince him to return to the fold:

But put it this way, it took a couple of seasons of baseball, of going to games together, of Michael saying to me, “We’re doing a new thing… Would you ever consider…” And then it became, “You said at the other game you might consider… Now we have a bible, but we haven’t written a script yet. Would you read the bible and tell me what you think?” So I read the bible and we were at another game, and he said, “Well, now you’ve read the bible and here we are and tell me…” What he said, if I remember correctly, is that “The show was going to be somewhat grittier or darker, with humor, and will represent your point of view a lot more than TNG had.”

Behr would remain with the show for its full seven seasons, and offered the defining creative vision for Deep Space Nine. Apparently this occasionally led to friction (or as Behr puts it, “horse trading”) with studio executives and Rick Berman, but I think it paid off in the long term.

Cloudy with a chance of armageddon...

Cloudy with a chance of armageddon…

Behr’s philosophy has already been fairly keenly felt, even this early in the season. For one thing, Behr committed to rehabilitating the Ferengi as a race. The aliens had been nothing but awful comic relief since The Last Outpost introduced them as arch-capitalist villains. Behr instead developed them as characters with their own moral and political philosophy. He already wrote The Nagus, one of the best episodes of the season so far, and would go on to develop the culture so thoroughly he’d draft two tie-in books (the Rules of Acquisition and Legends of the Ferengi) expanding on his characterisation of the race.

That bleeds in a little bit here, as Behr continues to develop the recurring theme that maybe the Ferengi way of life isn’t the worst thing in the world. Here, Nog’s suggestion about treating the negotiations between two rival Bajoran factions as a commercial opportunity rather than ideological conflict proves to be a smart decision. “How badly do they want it?” Nog asks. “Is there anything they have that you want?” He suggests, “Maybe this isn’t a problem. Maybe it’s an opportunity.”

Uh-oh, it's Odo!

Uh-oh, it’s Odo!

Indeed, the best part of The Storyteller is completely divorced from the storylines of the two plot threads. It’s just a joy to watch the cast playing together. In particular, The Storyteller lays the seeds of the O’Brien-Bashir bro-mance, which would become one of the better and more organic friendships depicted in the history of the franchise. That was very much Behr’s idea, and one he’d had as early as discussing his decision to come on board the show:

Now, how he knew this or how he even knew my point of view, I could never figure out because our points of view often were very different. Then I said, “Look, if I came on I’d want O’Brien and Amoros (whose name eventually became Bashir) to become best buddies even though they’re totally different characters and don’t get along at first. I’d like to really to explore a friendship on Star Trek that doesn’t have to do with the fact that he’s Number One or he’s a Vulcan and they’re both on the bridge all the time and there’s a chain of command. It’s just a friendship.” Michael looked at me and he said, “Yeah, I don’t see why not.” It was so simple. “I don’t see why not. Sure.”

It’s a very simple thing, but it works very well. Like the general portrayal of Bashir in the early years of the show, it’s something which takes for granted the fact that the show will have a long run and that these threads will develop over time.

And here O'Brien thought he'd lined up a knife job...

And here O’Brien thought he’d lined up a knife job…

Bashir and O’Brien work very well together, and there’s a number of reasons for that. What’s remarkable is the fact that the show never addresses any of the obvious reasons why they probably shouldn’t work as a duo. There are any number of obvious contrasts between the pair, but Deep Space Nine embraces the idea of a future so utopian that these differences (quite obvious to contemporary viewers) wind up making little or not difference to the characters themselves.

For one thing, there’s a huge gap in class and in life experience. Bashir arrived on the station as the second-highest scoring cadet in his class, boasting proudly about how he could have had any job in the fleet. He has no real sense of what life on Bajor must be like, and no real inking of what the Occupation must have been like. He seems hopelessly naive and optimistic, and it seems quite clear that he’s lived a charmed life which allows him to consider this one big adventure.

Time will tell...

Time will tell…

On the other hand, Chief O’Brien is the only enlisted regular character in the history of the franchise. He’s decidedly more working-class than Bashir. As Ronald D. Moore notes, O’Brien is relatively unique:

O’Brien was originally just a day player on TNG and very little, if any, thought went into his rank or background for quite a while.  He officially became a Chief Petty Officer in Family when I wanted he and Worf’s  adoptive father to both be non-coms in contrast to Worf.  Making him an  enlisted man seemed to give us another color in the show and to open up  another window into Starfleet that we hadn’t explored before.

He only took the post because it was implied to be his only chance for advancement, and it’s clear he has no romantic delusions about the frontier. Unlike Bashir, O’Brien has life experience. He has fought in wars against the Cardassians. He knows how the world works.

If the robe fits...

If the robe fits…

That dynamic is obviously at work here. On their trip to Bajor, Bashir seems uncomfortable with the fact O’Brien keeps referring to him as “sir.” He seems completely oblivious to the fact that O’Brien is a military man and that’s just how he relates to people within the chain of command. “What should I call you?” O’Brien asks. “You’re my superior officer.” Bashir simply doesn’t seem to fathom how that could possible be a big deal. He’s an over-achieving Academy graduate with a promising career ahead of him. He hasn’t spent years crawling his way up from the bottom of the ladder with no real future in sight.

The other side of the coin, O’Brien isn’t really used to the casual “touchy-feely” approach that Bashir has to interactions with his fellow officers. Even on The Next Generation, Meaney played O’Brien as a character always conscious that he was not a member of the regular staff. Even when his personal opinion was solicited by a more senior officer, he tended to hesitate – as if it wasn’t his place to really comment one way or the other.

A Major drinker...

A Major drinker…

As Alexander Siddig himself has noted, there’s also a rather strong political subtext to their relationship, particularly on the one Star Trek show to deal with post-colonial themes:

“They classically exploited the British/Irish thing,” says Siddig, of the Bashir/O’Brien friendship. “We were going to be this pair who bickered at every opportunity.

“And it actually continued off-stage – Colm and I had furious fights about England and Ireland, and I had no idea politically about any of the stuff. I suspect now, looking back, that he didn’t have any idea either, but he spoke so passionately and vehemently about it that I believed every word he said! But he would take me to Irish bars, especially to ridicule me in front of the Irish clientele! It was good fun in the end. We loved to hate each other. And we chose to go out with each other, even if it was to argue all night, so there must have been some bond there, beyond the ordinary. I really enjoyed my time with Colm, and I really enjoyed the relationship that developed as a result of that. In a show ostensibly about freedom, rebellion, terrorism, and religious oppression, this was a relationship that came out of dislike, but blossomed into a real love, which was really great.”

It’s rather wonderful in a television show about the aftermath of colonial occupation that the show should use an example from our own history.

(Brace)let it be...

(Brace)let it be…

The historical relationship between England and Ireland is complex, to say the least, but it offers hope at reconciliation and development. Even better is the fact that Deep Space Nine never directly addresses this subtext, and instead trusts the viewer to appreciate how skilfully it plays into the show’s themes. O’Brien and Bashir both belong to cultures that had a relationship not too dissimilar to dynamic shared between the Bajorans and the Cardassians, but that is never anything that hangs over their interactions, it never intrudes on their relationship.

It helps that Siddig and Colm Meaney share a great chemistry, and that Behr has a knack for writing character interaction. Behr’s scripts aren’t always fantastic, but they really come to life when he puts two of the cast together. It’s amazing how quickly the show has defined the subgroups within its already expansive cast: Odo and Quark; Odo and Kira; Bashir and O’Brien; Sisko and Dax. Rather than trying the mesh an ensemble together, the show seems to be clustering the cast so they can grow organically. It’s a nice touch.

A story nears its end...

A story nears its end…

It’s also worth noting that they don’t start as friends. O’Brien resents being assigned to travel with Bashir. It’s hard to imagine that The Next Generation could ever be so mean as to have one regular cast member ask not to be assigned to spend time with another regular cast member. You almost feel a bit sorry for Bashir, because O’Brien doesn’t even try to hide his unease from Sisko. Bashir is arrogant and condescending and smug, but you know that he probably doesn’t even realise he’s doing it.

The fact that nobody seems to like him that much – except for maybe Dax, and even then it’s more fascination than affection at this point – makes Bashir strangely sympathetic. As I’ve noted before, he’s the one character here who could probably fit in quite well on the first season of any other Star Trek show, and that makes him the odd one out in this ensemble. The joy of The Storyteller comes from watching the two of them bond while getting involved in what would really be a pretty generic “threat of the week” on any other Star Trek show.

"Tough day, eh?"

“Tough day, eh?”

And that’s the really beauty of Behr’s re-working of the concept. Originally, it was the story of a village that just happened to involve a member of our regular cast. This is the sort of thing that must happen to the Enterprise every second week, but the story in the village doesn’t really work on its own merits. After all, the resolution hinges on a guest character stepping up to save the day, so it’s a pretty crap story for O’Brien, essentially becoming “boy, O’Brien is a dodgy storyteller, isn’t he?” Which is not what your first season needs. However, thanks to Behr’s tinkering with the script, the emphasis shifts.

Instead, The Storyteller becomes the story of two of our cast bonding while getting tied up in some standard Star Trek hijinks. Bashir and O’Brien bond, they just happen to do it when they get involved in some crazy alien stuff involving knives and thought-monsters. That way it’s less about the guest character who saves the day, and more about two characters out of their depth who actually seem to become a bit closer thanks to the experience.

Story, bud?

Story, bud?

The other plot is less interesting, but sustains its runtime through character work. While Cirroc Lofton was always a much stronger actor than Wil Wheaton, and his character put to much better use, I’m not sure we’re yet at a point where the show could sustain a Jake-centric plot. Lofton is a regular cast member, but doesn’t appear in every episode. It’s a nice little deal which leaves his appearance up to the writer crafting the script – there’s no need to create a niche for him.

It is nice to get a sense of what he and Nog do on the station when they aren’t developing Sisko as a character, but the whole subplot with Jake and Nog as “the unofficial welcome committee” feels just a little bit too cutesy for its own good. Episodes centred around children generally live or die on the strength of the guest star in question, and the truth is that Gina Philips is a fairly weak actress to hang a plot like this on.

Ferengi love songs...

Ferengi love songs…

Still, The Storyteller does a lot to develop Bajor as a place where things happen, and to help give the sense that there’s more to the planet than just one particularly issue or theme. All too often, races on Star Trek are defined to a single easy-to-process facet. The Storyteller offers two small glimpses into life on Bajor, and both are radically different, and neither conforms too readily to what has already been established.

None of the plot points here would be picked up in later episodes. That village never reappeared, and those two clans never popped up again. In a way, I almost like that. It creates a sense that Bajor is a planet so large that you can encounter stuff like this once and never again in the next seven years. It creates a sense that Bajor is a fairly diverse planet, with its own stories unfolding even as we eavesdrop on the lives of the staff of the space station around it. We occasionally get a glimpse inside, but only to reassure us that it has its own stuff going on.

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship...

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship…

The Storyteller isn’t anywhere near the strongest story of the season. However, it’s more entertaining than it really should be. It’s well-constructed fluff, contributing more to the mood of the show than to any of the long-running plot threads. Still, like Battle Lines and even Vortex, it seems like the show is playing with long-term storytelling, setting up ideas that will develop and blossom over time. The fact that the set-up here isn’t too painful to watch is just an added bonus.

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

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2 Responses

  1. In a way Bashir and O’Brien both share this post-colonial background, right? At least it was suggested/seemed that his parents are from Syria or an Arab state later on in the series… Maybe Bashir’s perfect English is just acting. Anyway: In both cases the history of suppression lies hundreds of years in the past. I am not so sure about how “realistic” it is to assume these political and historical dynamics would continue even after a nucelar world war, space travel, Borg, etc. Well, maybe it is.

    • That’s fair.

      But Star Trek isn’t a docu-drama broadcast back in time. It is a show produced in the present, and so can’t escape that context.

      Bashir and O’Brien drunkly singing Jerusalem together in Explorers is one of the most quietly subversive images in the Star Trek canon.

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