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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Homecoming (Review)

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

The Homecoming is notable for a number of reasons. It kicks off the franchise’s first three parter. Sure, Family provided a nice epilogue to The Best of the Both Worlds, but The Homecoming, The Circle and The Siege represents the first explicit three-part story in the history of the franchise. Star Trek: Enterprise would develop a fondness for the format in its final season and one of those three-parters (The Forge, The Awakening and Kir’Shara) would owe a conscious debt to this opening trilogy.

It also pretty much sets the tone of season premieres on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager would both display a fondness for bridging their seasons with two-part adventures. The opening episode would air as a season finalé, with the resolution airing as the opening episode of the following season. Deep Space Nine was not so literal minded. While each season premiere was informed by the themes and events of the last season’s closing episode, Deep Space Nine tended to favour opening with multi-part episodes rather than conclusions to narrative hooks.

Rather than wrapping up the threads hinted at in In the Hands of the Prophets, The Homecoming only builds on them. It suggests that the problems and the difficulties facing Bajor won’t magically disappear because ninety minutes of screen time have elapsed.

Dynamic Kira action pose!

Dynamic Kira action pose!

Much is made of the way that Deep Space Nine moved towards serialisation. You can see evidence of it here. This three-parter builds on threads hinted at throughout the first season about the stability of Bajor and the complications arising from the Federation presence. It might not be a direct continuation of In the Hands of the Prophets, but there is a clear link to be made between that episode and this one.

However, there are limits. The Homecoming doesn’t embrace true serialisation. It’s too early for that. When the episode’s cliffhanger hits, it’s a doozy. Major Kira has been reassigned and replaced. It’s a powerful moment, and one which represents a potential shift in the status quo on Deep Space Nine. However, that impact is lost a moment later, when the words “To be continued..” flash across the screen. All of a sudden, everything feels more secure and more certain.

"A little lower, doctor..."

“A little lower, doctor…”

Those three words tell the audience quite a lot. For one thing, they pretty much assure that this is one story. This isn’t the story of how Kira left, this is just the first chapter in a story that will more-than-likely end with Kira coming back. This isn’t the new status quo. It’s a temporary blip. Once this single story runs its course across a number of conveniently identified episodes (each marked by the “to be continued”, rather than the awkward “Part I”, “Part II” and “Part III” suffix), things will get back to normal. We’ll return you to your scheduled programming.

The events of this three-part episode would undoubtedly have greater impact if the show had embraced serialisation at this point. If Kira’s departure had been met with the closing credits, and no promise of resolution. If that were the case, we might seriously wonder if she came back. Even the cynics among us might wonder about when. Would she skirt the edge of the season? Would she return triumphant in the finalé?

Deep Space Nine was already establishing its own brand...

Deep Space Nine was already establishing its own brand…

By treating the ending as a shift in the show’s world rather than an act break in a three-episode story, things would seem a bit more nebulous. The political uncertainty on Bajor might bleed into the fabric of the show itself. The series would learn this lesson quite well. The season finalés from here on out would each end on a major dramatic note, but with no handy “to be continued…” promising a shift and convenient resolution to the problem at hand. The sixth season would enter with a status quo shift spanning six episodes not clearly marked as such. (Only the final two serving as a two-parter.)

Then again, we’re still at the stage where Deep Space Nine is learning how to be its own show, just as The Next Generation had to learn to be its own show. If the show were produced today, there are a lot of things that would be done differently in stories like this, as a means of undermining the confidence of even the most jaded television viewers. The opening credits, for example, might have been altered to relegate Nana Visitor to a “special guest star” status, while adding West Side Story cast member “Richard Beymer as Navarch Li Nalas.”

The hero we deserve, if not the one we need, right now?

The hero we deserve, if not the one we need, right now?

Imagine how much mayhem that might caused among fans of the show. The Next Generation had lost one cast member during its rock first season, but pulling a swap like that – only to swing it around on the audience by killing Li off and bringing Kira back to the station – would have been a hell of a coup. It would have played with the expectations of the show and could have turned what plays out as the most obvious of arcs for both characters into something a little more unpredictable and a little more uncertain.

Still, hindsight is twenty-twenty. Television has changed a lot in twenty years. Tinkering with the opening credits and leaving these sorts of stories open-ended has become something of a common television device in the years since – with even Enterprise pulling a credits gag towards the end of its run. However, Deep Space Nine was airing in a different time when these sorts of things seemed a lot less elastic. That arguably might have made the prank even more effective, but it’s best not to imagine what might have been. Instead, let’s focus on what we have.

It has a nice earring to it...

It has a nice earring to it…

The main problem with The Homecoming is the fact that all of this feels somewhat temporary. Of course, you could never force the Federation to abandon Bajor in a show called Deep Space Nine, unless you did something crazy like flying the station through the wormhole. Which apparently the studio suggested at one point, as you do. Still, this feels especially impermanent. We know it’s only a matter of time before it wraps up. Stretching to a third episode might have subverted expectations a bit, but we know that this mess will get tidied up sooner rather than later.

Compare this, for example, to the Dominion War. There, we knew that the Federation would win. After all, the studio would never allow a bleak ending like a Dominion victory, and Voyager was never going to return to an Alpha Quadrant under enemy occupation. However, the show managed to wring a great deal of suspense out of the length of the conflict. It initially seemed like it might span a couple of episodes, but grew to encompass far more. In hindsight, this seems logical. However, even the producers had no idea how long the status quo shift would last. Rick Berman was apparently expecting “only 3 or 4 episodes.”

Up (Cardassia) IV anything?

Up (Cardassia) IV anything?

In contrast, the uncertainty in The Homecoming feels a lot more contained. Which is a shame, because the episode does a great deal of providing us with vital information which doesn’t necessarily feel vital. Many of the major players in this arc (including Winn, Bareil and Krim) only emerge in the final two episodes. The Homecoming initially seems like it might just be a one-off adventure about rescuing a bunch of prisoners of war.

The episode only really comes into focus in the final ten minutes. It turns out that the Circle and the strife on Bajor aren’t just demonstrations that Bajor needs a hero like Li Nalas. Indeed, the return of Li seems to do little to quell the unrest, despite Kira’s assertions to the contrary. In trying to convince Sisko to let her attempt the rescue, Kira paints a picture of the situation on the planet surface. It initially seems like this is just a way for the episode to justify Sisko’s decision to let Kira commit something which could start a war, albeit peppered with a certain amount of world-building.

Odo's investigation is going in circles...

Odo’s investigation is going in circles…

It builds off the depiction of Bajor in the show’s first season. “Since the loss of the Kai, the situation has only gone from bad to worse,” Kira tells her commanding officer. “There are reports of factional fighting in half a dozen districts, religious riots have spread throughout the southern islands. Bajor needs a leader. Someone the people will listen to. Someone they can trust.” Indeed, it’s this logic which eventually convinces Sisko to grant her request for a runabout.

After a nicely-staged prison break, however, The Homecoming cleverly reveals that there’s more to this story than the return of Li Nalas. In fact, despite the episode’s title, his journey back to Bajor has little to do with anything. The real reason for all that exposition and the suggestion of instability on Bajor is so the episode can set up the pieces necessary for this three-parter. Escalating civil strife, uncertainty about the role of the Federation in Bajor’s, an unstable provisional government. These are established as context for Kira’s mission, but it’s just a very clever way of providing necessary set-up for what follows. It’s quite wonderfully handled.

Giving Sisko something to chew over...

Giving Sisko something to chew over…

The three-parter has some pacing problems which become particularly obvious in the third episode, but it does allow the story room to breath. Elements evolve organically instead of feeling contrived. When we first meet the Circle, for example, it feels like a logical extension of the attitude hinted at In the Hands of the Prophets rather than something necessary for the plot to unfold. “They’re an extremist faction who believe in Bajor for the Bajorans,” Odo explains. “All other species are inferior and should be expelled from the planet.”

Similarly, Sisko contextualises this recent unrest as spill-over from the end of the last season, playing off the sense in Duet and In the Hands of the Prophets that Bajor wasn’t entirely sure what it wanted to do with the freedom it had fought so hard to earn. “I’ve been thinking about our mission here,” he reflects. “I look at the turmoil on Bajor and I see everything we fought for this past year starting to unravel.

Piercing revelations...

Piercing revelations…

What’s just as interesting is the way that Deep Space Nine suggests that this sort of political insecurity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The Cardassians stalk the periphery of this opening trilogy. Gul Dukat is reduced to a talking head on a screen, as he was in Duet. However, they are never too far from the politics of the event playing out on screen. Dramatis Personae and In the Hands of the Prophets both confirmed something that had been implicit since Emissary: the presence of the Federation is the only thing keeping Cardassia from re-claiming Bajor and the wormhole.

It’s the possibility of war with Cardassia which prevents the Provisional Government from authorizing Kira’s mission to Cardassia IV. The wider diplomatic implications weigh on Sisko’s mind when he considers the possibility of providing Kira with the runabout she needs. “Supposing I do help, and she does rescue Li Nalas,” he ponders. “What do we say to the Cardassians?” Nothing occurs in true isolation. Things tie into one another, and a Bajoran problem is not exclusively a Bajoran problem. It has implications beyond that.

Dukat's character is a bit flat so far...

Dukat’s character is a bit flat so far…

The Homecoming also acknowledges that things are rarely straightforward. While the three-parter has its flaws, I do like that everybody involved has their own motivations which happen to align. Jaro is moving Li to Deep Space Nine for a reason. Kai Winn will back the right candidate for her own reasons. Even General Krim is presented as more than just a xenophobic nationalist.

The very existence of the labour camp on Cardassia IV confirms a lot of what Marritza argued back in Duet about Cardassia’s relationship with the Occupation. The Cardassians are in denial, and that denial prevents them from moving forward. Indeed, when Kira and O’Brien liberate the camp, Dukat pretends to be shocked by the discovery of Bajoran prisoners. “We had no idea that Bajoran prisoners were still being held on Cardassia Four. Such detentions are a direct violation of supreme directive twenty six forty five, and I assure you the camp Prefect will be chastised accordingly.”

Labouring under false assumptions...

Labouring under false assumptions…

Indeed, Cardassia seems to be preparing to begin the Occupation again, illustrating that they haven’t learned anything. Things have not truly changed, and the Cardassians have not re-appraised their methods and their past conduct. Kira and Sisko both concede that the Cardassians must have an ulterior motive. “There’s got be a reason why they’re being so accommodating,” Kira remarks. “I’m sure there is,” Sisko responds.

I like that The Homecoming is relatively ambiguous about the Cardassian involvement. We discover in The Circle that they are arming Bajor for a civil war to justify their return, but we never discover quite how much of The Homecoming is part of the Cardassian endgame. Li Nalas’ earring was provided to a smuggler by a Cardassian, rather than by one the Bajoran prisoners directly. Li’s colleague claims to have bribed a guard to sneak the earring off world, but it’s also possible that the Cardassians wanted to encourage feelings of Bajoran nationalism by releasing a war hero.

Prison break for the border?

Prison break for the border?

Indeed, it’s probably even better than that. rather than merely releasing Li themselves, and facing all manner of suspicious questions about why they are suddenly being so nice, leaking Li’s location and allowing the Bajorans to rescue him themselves. (Albeit with a little clandestine Federation aid.) This allows the Bajorans to feel empowered, and avoids the awkwardness of “huh, so now it’s time to hand over this war hero we totally claimed we never had.” This nationalism, along with copious supplies of weaponry, leading to a decision to kick the Federation to the curb, which allows the Cardassians to come back. It’s either brilliantly Machiavellian or convoluted, depending on how generous you feel.

Apparently the writing team on Deep Space Nine had a few of the same criticisms of the show’s first year that I had, acknowledging that the series occasionally tried too hard to emulate The Next Generation. As a result, Michael Piller made a conscious effort to do an opening three-parter that could only be done on Deep Space Nine. Ironically, however, he did so using a modified idea that Jeri Taylor had been considering for The Next Generation, albeit with a very Deep Space Nine slant on it.

You can count on Quark...

You can count on Quark…

As Behr explained to Cinefastique:

“At the beginning of the first season Michael [Piller] came to me with a story that Jeri Taylor had written for Next Generation and said, ‘I just took this away from Jeri and we’re going to do it,'” said executive producer Ira Steven Behr. “It was all about going to rescue a Bajoran POW who was a broken man. It was one of those shows that lingered all year and then I came up with what I thought was a good take on it which was to make it The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which is one of my favourite movies. Since it was the first season and we were rewriting a lot, I never got a chance to do it. It just carried over for the entire year and became the jumping off point for the three parter.”

I’ve remarked a bit that Deep Space Nine has aged surprisingly well in the years since it aired. While there are a lot of complex political reasons for this (indeed, some of the themes and ideas here seem particularly timely in the era of Iraq and Afghanistan), but I imagine that Behr’s own tastes and influences played a major part.

Because, let's face it, sometimes turbolifts aren't "turbo" enough...

Because, let’s face it, sometimes turbolifts aren’t “turbo” enough…

The show was prone to homage and reference classic cinema quite a lot, drawing from sources that were already quite old by the time the show had aired. Behr wrote The Nagus as The Godfatherin space! The show had also drawn from The Naked Spur for Vortex. Badda-Bing Badda-Bang would essentially be an affectionate throwback to the original Ocean’s Eleven. The series generally set its mood a lot more in the style of classic westerns and film noir than contemporary stylings.

This is something of a mixed blessing. Behr has pretty great taste, and Deep Space Nine generally feels like quite a classy production. Well, apart from that time Behr decided to do Brigadoon in space. However, these plot points and beats are also very familiar. In some cases, this gives the stories a sense of tragedy or weight. The fact we can probably guess how Necessary Evil will play out does nothing to diminish its impact.

The maddening crowds...

The maddening crowds…

Here, however, there’s a sense that Li Nalas has a walking target over his head. He’s introduced as a weary rebel leader who had to deal with the weight of mythology weighing him down. He tried to abdicate his responsibility and flee to the Gamma Quadrant. His arc points towards one of redemption. And the only redemption that really makes sense for a man who can’t live with being treated like a hero is to die in a blaze of glory, cementing the reputation they sought to deny in a fit of poetic irony.

This brings us the biggest problem with Li, which isn’t the fact that he has “dead guest star walking” dangling around his neck. Coopting him in to replace Kira is nice, but there’s no sense of permanence to it. We know that he’ll likely die at the end of the adventure. However, The Homecoming and the next two episodes do something which is quite clever with him, but something which renders his whole character arc a bit meaningless.

Hey, kids! It's Frank Langella!

Hey, kids! It’s Frank Langella!

The problem is that Li is a nice guy. He might resent the fact he has been labelled a hero, but he’s not a coward. He was probably a pretty decent rebel in his day, he just happened to get lucky and kill the right Cardassian. And I respect the show for not making Li a quivering coward or a duplicitous double-agent or any other cliché that would make the character easier to write or render him more of a two-dimensional guest star.

Li’s just a regular guy, and Richard Beymer does some nice work in the role. However, this undermines his potential rehabilitation and the whole of his character arc. Instead of redeeming Li Nalas in death, it becomes “he was sorta okay and then he died.” It’s not the most convincing or emotional of character plots, and it makes the whole effort feel a little pointless. But we’ll get to that in time.

A rocky road...

A rocky road…

We also get a sense of the cast and crew dynamics evolving. I like that the Deep Space Nine ensemble actually changed and shifted over time. They didn’t begin as fast friends, and instead grew into that relationship over time. While it’s clear that the working relationship between Kira and Sisko is a lot more honest and trusting than it was back in Emissary or Past Prologue, it’s still pretty far from the conventional chain of command.

In Past Prologue, Sisko threatened Kira for trying to undermine him. “Go over my head again, and I’ll have yours on a platter.” Interestingly, The Homecoming suggests that Kira hasn’t fallen completely in line. She still asks Sisko for aid in a more friendly manner and respectful manner, but she’s not above applying external pressure. A recurring gag reveals that she already solicited Dax and Chief O’Brien for help convincing Sisko, which is hardly the most professional way to get what you want. (She also went to the Provisional Government first as well, but that’s not so much over Sisko’s head as outside his command structure.)

Let's face it, even the way her orders coffee is badass...

Let’s face it, even the way her orders coffee is badass…

The obvious implication is that Kira is counting on Dax (and possibly the Chief) to help reason with Sisko and bring him on board with her plan. This illustrates that although the working environment on Deep Space Nine has grown more stable and more understanding, there’s still some friction. Behr himself was quite proud of that dynamic, seeing it as a more organic form of interaction than the polite “people occasionally debate but nobody argues” culture of the Enterprise:

I know there are people who say there should be no conflict, but I don’t think they mean that. It’s not just to bring out tension. These people all do care about each other and are very close, but I work with people who I’m close to and we spat and argue. No one works closer than Michael Piller and myself and yet there are times when we look at each other like we’re two aliens — that’s life and that’s all we’re doing, trying to mirror that. We don’t have the J.R. [DALLAS] character who people really despise and shows flat-out villainy. Everyone on this show has yin and yang, good and bad. If anything we are getting to the point, as time goes on, where these people bond together and then you’ve got to really find the ways to find the conflict as more episodes accrue.

I like that sense of character evolution, and the fact that the development of the characters into a cohesive ensemble feels like growth. It isn’t as if the ensemble woke up one morning and were perfectly good friends. Many of them have to grow to like one another.

A natural Li-der?

A natural Li-der?

As I mentioned above, one of the strengths of the three-parter is the fact that the writers and actors have a bit of space. To be fair, this adventure feels a bit much to cram into two full episodes, but stretching it across three leaves room for nice character beats. I like the first act of The Siege, even if the final part of the story could do with tighter focus. Here, we get some nice interaction between Jake and Ben Sisko. Jake is a wonderful tool to humanise Ben Sisko as a character, and the show uses him well. Ben is probably the best parent in the history of Star Trek, and Avery Brooks shares a wonderful chemistry with Cirroc Lofton.

There’s just something incredibly endearing about badass Benjamin Sisko as an overly-protective father on a space station like Deep Space Nine. It’s a reassuring to know that parenting hasn’t changed too much in the future, and that fathers will still meddle and be hopelessly uncool in dispensing advice about love. “We’re just going to talk,” Jake insists. Sisko cuts across, protectively, “Talk in public.” There’s something so wonderfully human about their interactions, even when they are arguing about fictional technology and facilities that don’t exist, which really grounds the story in a way that gives it a stronger sense of place.

In (Deep) Space (Nine), noone can hear you scream...

In (Deep) Space (Nine), noone can hear you scream…

Indeed, tying Jake’s romantic adventure back to the main plot might not be the most elegant of manoeuvres the show would ever pull off, but it gets the point across. This isn’t just a gigantic galactic issue involving Bajor and Cardassia. This is a broader issue about how people interact and engage with one another, and how cultural barriers impact more than just intergalactic politics. It’s a nice element, and one only really possible because the story has been extended in this way.

The Homecoming might not be the perfect episode of Deep Space Nine, but it at least commits to starting the show’s second season in a way unique to this particular version of Star Trek, rather than merely emulating The Next Generation. I’ve always been tolerant of the show’s willingness to experiment. It’s that experimentation which would pay off dividends in the show’s later years. Indeed, this three-episode arc provides a handy model for future storytelling on the show, demonstrating that continuity can extend across more than two episodes and that the status quo can be changed in a way it never changed on The Next Generation or Voyager.

Kira's character won't altar too much...

Kira’s character won’t altar too much…

Granted, these shifts are more temporary than some of the later ones, but it’s still a nice lesson for the show to grasp this early.

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

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