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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Progress (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.

Progress is the best episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s first season to date. Of course, there are better episodes ahead – two of them clustered at the end of the show’s truncated first year – but Progress still represents a considerable improvement over anything that has come before. It isn’t quite perfect, but it does have a nice character focus and takes advantage of the show’s unique perspective and position. It’s evidence that the writing staff were at least engaging with the show’s status quo and trying to work with it to tell interesting stories, with Progress offering an early pure example of what Deep Space Nine story should probably look like.

While the first season has been quite bumpy (although notably less bumpy than any of the opening seasons of the other three Star Trek spin-offs), Progress offers a demonstration that we are getting somewhere. The title might apply as much to the status of the show itself as to the themes of the episode.

Burning down the house...

Burning down the house…

I’ve discussed them quite a bit already, but I really do like Deep Space Nine‘s ensemble. In the first season, the focus is kept relatively tight, and a lot of the recurring guest stars have yet to be drafted in. Garak appears once in the entire first season. Dukat only appears twice. Vedeks Winn and Bariel only pop up in the very last episode. Notable guest players like Joseph Sisko, Martok, Sloan, Damar, Weyoun, Michael Eddington, Bill Ross and the Female Changeling won’t even debut for a couple of years.

Okay it’s not as if the show is restricted to the primary cast. Rom, Nog and even Morn are already well established by this point in the season. Progress even opens with a charming conversation between Dax and Kira, discussing everyone’s favourite talkative extra. Still, the first season of Deep Space Nine wisely opts to focus on its regular cast and to build outwards from there.

Talk about background characters...

Talk about background characters…

Even the potentially troubled characters – the back-stabbing Quark and the bland Dax – have been reasonably well-developed, with time given to casual conversation and character interaction. We know much more about who these characters are than we did about the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation at this point in the game, and infinitely more than we would about the regular casts of Star Trek: Voyager or Star Trek: Enterprise by this stage in their first seasons. Some of the more generic episodes of the season, like The Storyteller, have been able to coast through on the charm of the leading characters.

Progress, however, is the best possible demonstration of this approach in action. Kira is arguably the most compelling member of the Deep Space Nine cast, right off the bat. All of them are interesting. Odo has a mysterious past. Sisko is still mourning the loss of his wife. However, Kira’s character hook feels more immediate. It seems like she went from being an enemy of the establishment to part of the establishment five minutes before we first met her in Emissary.

Major problems...

Major problems…

There are so many potential character conflicts and so much possible drama to be derived from that set-up that she’s an instantly appealing character. After all, it’s relatively easy to be a terrorist or a freedom fighter, reacting against some perceived wrong or injustice. However, what happens afterwards? Once you find yourself no longer provided with a convenient authority to reject, but instead have to deal with the realities of proactive government?

It’s easy to sit on the outside, as Mullibok does on Bajor’s moon. He’s very clearly disengaged from Bajoran life completely. “You are only three people,” Kira argues. “This project is going to benefit thousands, hundreds of thousands.” He replies, “I made myself unconcerned with that forty years ago when I ran away from a Cardassian labour camp on your precious Bajor.” The possessive determiner at the end there is quite pointed, as Kira notices. “It can be your Bajor, too.”

Rebuilding...

Rebuilding…

However, making a new Bajor is somewhat tougher than attempting to destroy or escape the Cardassian Occupation. Like Kira, Mullibok also rejected the invasion of his homeland, sneaking up to a distant moon to call his own home. That sort of reaction obviously requires a great deal of commitment, skill and luck, but it’s also relatively straight-forward. Trying to rebuild a society in the wake of something like that is more difficult.

Kira has been forced to change with her circumstances. She didn’t simply opt out like Mullibok did. She decided that she wanted to help make a difference to shape the new Bajor risen from the ashes of the old. This puts her in a strange position. As Mullibok notes of his two companions, “they don’t like uniforms.” Kira responds, “Neither do I, but it comes with the job.”

Grumpy old man...

Grumpy old man…

To be fair to the script from Peter Allen Fields, Progress is relatively sympathetic to both sides of the divide here. Fields himself was apparently quite displeased at how sympathetic Mullibok came out of the story. “I wanted a strong guy who did not change at the end. There are too many old guys in television dramas who start out nasty and then get meek and gentle at the end. That’s not what I wanted.” According to Fields, he was “less of an adversary than he ought to have been. He was less of a mountain for Kira to climb.”

I can see a bit of that in Progress, but I don’t mind the characterisation of Mullibok. He’s never any less than shrewdly emotionally manipulative, and it’s quite clear that he is exploiting Kira’s own conflicted feelings in order to help prolong his stay. However, a stronger supporting character might detract from the fact that Progress is essentially Kira’s story. As Sisko arrives to point out, it’s only Kira who has to make a decision. “So, as a friend, I’m here to remind you that his fate is already decided. Yours isn’t.

Fanning the flames...

Fanning the flames…

That’s the beauty of Progress and why it works so well as a Kira episode. It forces her to choose whether or not she’s willing to make the hard choices that have to be made after Bajor’s liberation. The only major weakness in the episode is that the work on the moon is only fleetingly justified, so we don’t really get to see exactly what Mullibok’s stubbornness is doing to Bajor.

Toran, the Bajoran minister responsible for the project, is a paper-thin character who barely manages to stay on the right side of that “obstructive bureaucrat” cliché that Star Trek is so fond of. The closest he comes to getting personality or being displayed as anything more than a means of applying pressure to Kira is with a reluctant concession that he also hoped there might be a better solution. “I wish we had the time to be more delicate, but we don’t.” It’s a shame the episode never really hammers the conflict home, because it’s a pretty compelling moral issue, and it makes Mullibok’s position more complex.

Romantic Bajor's dead and gone...

Romantic Bajor’s dead and gone…

As a franchsie, Star Trek has always had difficulty deciding whether the individual’s needs and rights could be sacrificed for the greater good. The final season episode of The Next Generation, Journey’s End, would favour the rights of the settlers over the diplomatic body nullifying their rights and claims. Progress obvious takes the opposite position, where an individual’s rights can be violated for the benefit of many. It’s just a shame that the script never really delves too deeply into that.

“Forgive my bureaucratic nitpicking, Major,” he explains in the prologue, “but we’re counting on Jeraddo’s energy to heat a few hundred thousand Bajoran homes this winter.” That’s a pretty big deal, especially for an emerging society. Given how many people die in the United Kingdom and Ireland each winter, it creates a very real sense of the scale of this endeavour and the impact that it could have.

Ties of land and water...

Ties of land and water…

Still, this is Kira’s story, and Nana Visitor does a wonderful job playing the conflicted officer. Interestingly, Progress establishes what will become a pattern with Kira as a character. It’s the first episode where Kira is forced to play a nursemaid to a sick elderly man. I suspect it is completely coincidental, but the revelation of her guilt over abandoning her father on his deathbed in Ties of Blood and Water adds an additional layer of retroactive character complexity to the episode.

I think it speaks to the skill with which Deep Space Nine was constructed that later revelations fit reasonably well with earlier episodes. The producers have conceded that they were pretty much making stuff up as they went along (much to the frustration of some performers like Alexander Siddig), but the pieces often fit together quite well retroactively. (The obvious exception being Worf’s revelation in Let He Who Is Without Sin…, which has a lot of other problems.) However, it speaks to how well the writers and producers had a grasp of these characters that the early actions and later revelations often lined up so well.

Kira's bracing for a major dressing down...

Kira’s bracing for a major dressing down…

For example, a lot of Bashir’s early episodes hinted at the young character overcompensating or self-sabotaging. Distant Voices even hints that he has a dark secret somewhere in his head. The revelation in Doctor Bashir, I Presume? isn’t exactly foreshadowed, but the show hints that there is something to that might be revealed. And the revelation explains a great deal about his characterisation in some early stories.

Kira’s behaviour with Mullibok here isn’t quite as neatly with the later exploration of her own personal history. It makes sense on its own terms. Kira lived under the Cardassian Occupation and fought for the same kind of freedom that Mullibok now enjoys. It’s only logical she feels sympathy for him and resents having to infringe on that. However, the later revelations about her personal life make it possible to read a more intimate sort of guilt into her attentiveness and consideration for the old man. She left her own injured father to die, so it makes sense that Mullibok would seem a convenient substitute.

Food for thought...

Food for thought…

And it isn’t that one necessarily plays into the other. I don’t think that Robert Hewitt Wolfe was thinking too heavily of Progress when he wrote Ties of Blood and Water.  It isn’t that her back story was so well-conceived that her father’s death was an integral part of that four years before we saw it on-screen. Rather, I think that both developments stem from Kira as a character. Both events fit within the framework of the character, which was obviously very clearly defined from this early in the show.

That’s something really remarkable about Deep Space Nine, even this early in its run, and it bodes remarkably well. Ira Steven Behr and Ronald D. Moore would concede that a lot of the plotting and developments on the show happened organically, and there’s certainly no way that anybody writing Emissary had planned the show’s seven-year run in any major detail. However, it’s clear that the creative staff on the show at least had some broad idea of what they were doing and what they wanted to do from the start.

Bits and pieces...

Bits and pieces…

Even in the rockier episodes of this first season, you can at least see how the show is trying to move forward, pushing in a direction towards the show that the producers very clearly want Deep Space Nine to be. Kira’s plot here represents a massive step forward. The show’s first Kira-centric episode, Past Prologue, felt like home work – an assignment the show had to complete if it wanted this character as part of the cast. Progress feels a great deal more satisfying and more energetic.

More than that, though Progress seems to see Deep Space Nine embracing its identity as the first truly post-colonial Star Trek show. In both the classic television show and part of The Next Generation, the Federation would frequently invite less advanced worlds to sign up to their interstellar alliance of mutual cooperation. In particular, it seemed like Picard’s mission was as much one of diplomatic expansion as exploration.

Fate never closes a door without offering a patronising old stuck-in-the-mud curmudgeon...

Fate never closes a door without offering a patronising old stuck-in-the-mud curmudgeon…

As Lynette Russell and Nathan Wolski note in Beyond the Final Frontier: Star Trek , the Borg and the Post-colonial, Star Trek and The Next Generation are both essentially rooted in a very nineteenth-century worldview:

This mapping, the process of making the unknown known is a fundamental component of a colonial project. The Federation, with its mission “to seek out new life and new civilisations”, has parallels with the European exploration and colonising missions of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Space, uncharted and unknown, does not exist until the Federation charts, maps, names and ultimately controls it. Once colonised, the unfamiliar becomes familiar and is assimilated into the social structure that is the United Federation of Planets.

There are subversions, of course. The Borg, as Russell and Wolski argue, can be read as a well-observed piece of self-criticism. Gene L. Coon was as fond of subverting that colonialism (in stories like Arena and A Taste of Armageddon) as Roddenberry was of reinforcing it.

Is Kira about to buy the farm?

Is Kira about to buy the farm?

However, Deep Space Nine is really the first show in the franchise to incorporate that post-colonial attitude into the premise of the show. Sure, Sisko is assigned to Deep Space Nine to oversee Bajor’s membership of the Federation, which would seem to be an example of the franchise’s colonial roots. However, one should note that this membership never happens on-screen. Instead, the bulk of the Bajor-related plotlines deal with the aftermath of the Cardassian Occupation, a brutal attempt at colonialisation.

Deep Space Nine is notable for having the most ethnically diverse regular cast in the franchise. It’s also notable for incorporating the most aliens into its regular cast. There are no “tokens” here. Although there are more humans (the Siskos, Bashir, O’Brien) than any other individual species, the alien characters initially match them (Dax, Kira, Odo, Quark) and later outnumber them (once Worf joins). If any of the series rejected the assertion that Star Trek was predominantly a “homo sapiens only club”, Deep Space Nine was that show.

Wrongs darker than death or night?

Wrongs darker than death or night?

Even when the show doesn’t tackle it directly, it still feels postcolonial. The design of the station itself is a constant reminder that this isn’t a comfortable human-centric location, and the promenade scenes are frequently populated with all manner of diverse creatures and characters. As Donncha Kavanagh, Carmen Kuhling and Kieran Keohane argue in Reading Star Trek: Imagining, Theorising, and Reflecting on Organisational Discourse and Practice by

In contrast to the Enterprise, DS9 is maybe best seen as a postcolonial wasteland, akin to multi-ethnic postcolonial London, where the ‘frontier’ talks back and the ‘native’ is ready to resist anything resembling a colonial presence.

It comes to the fore quite a bit during Deep Space Nine, but Progress really hammers it home.  This is a strictly Bajoran issue, dealing with the realities of life following the Occupation, and which causes Kira to evaluate her own priorities and objectives as distinct from those of the Federation. This is about Bajor recovering from colonisation, rather than preparing for a new form of it.

Light 'er up...

Light ‘er up…

Bajor can’t magically produce the heat it needs. It doesn’t exist in the convenient post-scarcity economy we’ve seen developed in The Next Generation. It has to make compromises and hard choices, and those have to involve the Bajoran characters more than our cast of Federation regulars. Deep Space Nine was the first show to really embrace a multitude of opinions and perspectives, rather than relying on one very firm outlook.

There’s also a nice little subplot here involving Jake and Nog. As in The Storyteller, I’m not sure Jake works that well as a character in his own right, but I do like how the show is trying to develop its cast. This is certainly more fun than anything The Next Generation tried to do with Wesley in its first two years. There’s also some nice hints of characterisation to be found here, and Progress actually relies on the fact that the audience is familiar with Quark’s extended family to work. It is all explained, but it does work better if the audience knows Rom (who doesn’t appear here) is an idiot.

It's self-sealing!

It’s self-sealing!

Nog’s attempt to generate profit only really resonates if the audience is familiar with his father’s difficulties at the Ferengi way of life. Early on, Quark chastises his nephew for un-Ferengi-like behaviour. “Last night, that dabo player who dropped his drink? I saw you run and get him another one without charging him. I warned you about picking up your father’s habits.” It makes a great deal of sense to read Nog’s attempts to turn a profit as an attempt to prove that he “has what it takes” to be a Ferengi, a cultural rite of passage.

Like a lot of the Ferengi stuff in the first season, Progress treats the characters with a surprising amount of respect. Quark’s harsh dressing down of his nephew is almost immediately tempered. After his rant, he hesitates and adds, “You’re a good boy.” It makes it seem like Quark is trying not to be too hard on Nog. In his own way, he’s just trying to help the boy. After all, profit is the Ferengi way of life, and it makes sense that one’s place in Ferengi culture hinges on the ability to make a quick buck.

Kira Nerys a decision...

Kira Nerys a decision…

If Nog can’t do that, then he’s destined to end up as a failure or an outcast. There are suggestions later in the series that even Quark is somewhat “softer” than he should be, that he doesn’t live up to the Ferengi ideals as much as he might like. After all, he runs a bar in the middle of nowhere. Trying to instil a sense of commercial opportunism in Nog might be a misguided attempt to “toughen the kid up”, so to speak. And perhaps Nog realises this. His attempt to turn a profit here is an attempt to prove something to his family and to himself.

Jake and Nog don’t only turn to Quark at the episode’s end because they suspect he’s a shrewd negotiator. There’s a suggestion that Nog wants Quark to be proud of what he has accomplished. And Progress demonstrates that it takes a considerable amount of work and ingenuity to generate a profit. Nog and Jake aren’t exploitative or manipulative or excessively dishonest. It’s hard to condemn their entrepreneurial adventures here, suggesting that maybe it is possible for a Ferengi to do business in an honest manner. They aren’t just the cowardly villains that The Next Generation featured so regularly.

Hardly a chief concern...

Hardly a chief concern…

Progress is the best episode of the first season so far, and a demonstration that the producers’ and writers’ approach to the show is working. It’s just a shame that we’re about to be subjected to three more weeks of generic Star Trek plots before this pays off again.

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

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