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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Terok Nor #0 (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.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry.

Terok Nor might be the best of Malibu Comics’ Star Trek: Deep Space Nine range, a one-shot written by Mark A. Altman and illustrated by Trevor Goring. It isn’t so much the plot that makes Terok Nor so distinctive – there is a lot of running around, some betrayals, some action sequences – but rather the execution of Altman’s story and the atmosphere provided by Goring’s pencils. The origin story of the space station Terok Nor, Altman very shrewdly frames the story as something of an oral history. It’s almost mythic and grand and epic, drawn in broad strokes rather than finer detail.

It serves quite well as the story of the construction of the central hub of the Star Trek show most concerned with legacy and history.

A monument to the Bajoran people...

A monument to the Bajoran people…

A lot about Terok Nor seems almost operatic. There’s the tragic sense of a foregone conclusion concerning the construction of the grim station overlooking Bajor. Despite the rebel plotting and scheming, we know that the station will become a symbol of the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor, a monument to decades of oppression.

The franchise has been a bit cagey about dating the Occupation, with various estimates and dates given. Emissary suggests that it began sixty years prior to the episode; Ensign Ro suggests a mere four decades of colonial occupation. Similarly, the date of the construction of Terok Nor itself has been a matter of some discussion and disagreement. In Babel, Odo suggests the station is only eighteen years old. In Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night, it is revealed that the station began construction five years earlier.

Naked ambition...

Naked ambition…

Like a lot of the history of Deep Space Nine, it seems the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor is a hazy period in galactic history. There’s a sense that the details are already obscured by the cloudy memories of those involved, coloured by decades of conflict and gossip and speculation. The best part of Terok Nor is the way that Altman seems to play into that loose sense of history by proposing an oral history of Bajor under Cardassian rule.

Many of the finer points of Terok Nor seem absurd. A Cardassian architect recruits Bajor’s greatest designer to aid him in the construction of a station designed to exploit her own people. Despite betrayal-after-betrayal, this Cardassian is able to protect his charge until the last possible moment. Events conspire to over-complicate villainous plots. When the Cardassian overseer plans to eliminate Bajorans who have seen too much, he opts for a somewhat excessive means of execution – offering the flimsy justification that the Federation is watching. (It seems strange that this atrocity would be the straw that broke the camel’s back.)

Grand designs...

Grand designs…

In almost any other script, these logical holes and convoluted twists would undermine the story, seeming a tad convenient or contrived. Instead, Altman’s decision to frame the comic as a story recounted from a teacher to her students makes all this haziness and contrivance seem organic. Of course details get fudged as the story is told and re-told over the years. Events and characters become larger-than-life as the retelling becomes less of an account of something that realistically could have happened and more of a grand myth about one of the darkest days in Bajor’s history.

So it makes sense that the story is more about themes and ideas than characterisation or story logic. The notion of the Cardassian Central Command allowing a Bajoran architect to work on the design of Terok Nor seems absurd, but Altman is able to make a reasonable amount of sense by appealing to grand philosophical ideas. Asked why he wants to recruit her, her Cardassian counterpart explains, “Because we are the same. Fate has made us enemies, but destiny has allowed us to pursue our love together. The creation of shape and form. To make something from nothing, the power to build.”

It's all coming together...

It’s all coming together…

In a way, that’s the elegance of Altman’s Terek Nor. He manages to zoom in on the strange optimism of Deep Space Nine, even when it’s buried between the pain and the suffering endured by the galaxy. There’s something heartwarming in the idea that even Terok Nor, the symbol of Cardassian oppression, could have been subtly constructed as a testament to how similar Bajorans and Cardassians might be. (Just as there’s something beautiful in the way that the tool of Cardassian oppression could become a symbol of Bajor’s future and a guardian at the gate of the Celestial Temple.)

There’s also something poetic in the way that Altman’s origin story turns Deep Space Nine into a fusion of Bajoran and Cardassian design. Of course, this story can’t really fit with the revelation in Empok Nor that there are an entire collection of similarly-designed stations decorating Cardassian space, but that episode was released years after Altman wrote Terok Nor. Given that Deep Space Nine was the first show to really embrace multiculturalism, and how the station itself become a hub for various intergalactic viewpoints and philosophies, it’s fitting that the station’s origins should also be the product of differing ideals.

Flight of fancy...

Flight of fancy…

Discussing the origins of Deep Space Nine on the Art Department reunion issued with the fourth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Herman Zimmerman recalls that the original design of the station originally called for it to be a fusion of different cultures and societies:

On Deep Space Nine we spent three months, two months of which we spent going in the wrong direction completely. We were supposed to have a tower of babel station that was built by fifteen different cultures that didn’t speak each other’s language, and didn’t have the same technology. It was all a jumble of different passage ways and places and mining facilities and we didn’t know what and we didn’t think the writers knew what.

And all of a sudden Rick Berman said “Stop! … I want the most alien thing you can come up with.

In light of that, Altman’s decision to cast the station as the union between two different cultures feels almost like a clever nod to that original concept. (Indeed, the Cardassian architect even alludes to the whole “not speaking each other’s language” thing, explaining, “In addition, I need a liaison with the workers who speaks the many dialects of Bajoran and can oversee construction.”)

The all-seeing eye...

The all-seeing eye…

Altman has always seemed like a writer who has an innate understanding of Deep Space Nine. Indeed, the only real problem with his Soldier of Peace miniseries was that his characterisation of various characters was rooted in the early second season, and felt a little outdated when the comic was released in the mid to late third season.

Indeed, the decision to take the focus off the still-evolving main characters allows Altman to play to his strengths. We only spend two pages with Dax and Bashir, but it’s clear that Altman is writing the version of Bashir who appeared in the show’s first season, and carried over to the early part of the second. Ever the most smug and dismissive of the main characters, Bashir tells Dax, “I’m not a big fan of Divaro Zedlar’s style. His colour palette is somewhat limited and, frankly, I’ve never really enjoyed Bajoran expressionist painting.”

Going around in circles...

Going around in circles…

Altman’s work is stronger when concentrating on the ideas behind the show. In fact, he manages to zone in quite astutely on the notion that the series might be growing less and less interested in the whole “Bajor joins the Federation” story – one of the plot threads that the show allowed to slip away around mid-way through the second season. Leaving the museum, Dax advises Bashir, “Terok Nor won’t save Bajor. Nor will the Federation. It’s the spirit of the Bajoran people that will.”

It’s a succinct summary of the show’s evolving philosophical outlook, as the series seemed to question whether Bajor joining this large interstellar Federation was the best course of action following decades of occupation and subjugation by a colonial space power. From late in the second season, Deep Space Nine was a show that had more faith in people than in institutions, and Altman seems to understand that almost as quickly as the show itself did. Altman deserves a great deal of credit for recognising that, and I suspect his understanding of the big ideas behind Deep Space Nine is one of the reasons that Terok Nor works so well.

Quite fashionable design...

Quite fashionable design…

Of course, Trevor Goring’s atmospheric pencils contribute a great deal to Terok Nor‘s charms. To be frank, quite a lot of Star Trek comics look rather “average” for the era in which they were produced, with many being competent – if not exceptional – demonstrations of the art style that was popular at the time. That said, there have many beautiful Star Trek comics published over the years, and Trevor Goring has produced a rather beautiful and stunning piece of work. The comic emphasises double-page spreads, interplay between light and darkness and has an elegant sketchy quality, all of which make it feel grand and atmospheric. This isn’t any old story, this is legend.

It also helps that there is no shortage of good ideas here. Altman has several rather ingenious ideas about the history of Terok Nor. I am continually surprised that there are so few tie-ins devoted to the station as an entity itself. There’s no shortage of prequel stories around the history of Bajor and the major players of Deep Space Nine, but few really delving into the history of the station itself. There are stories of events involving our characters and how lives have overlapped, how people ended up where they did, but it’s weird how Deep Space Nine itself seldom feels like the true focus of these stories.

Building a relationship...

Building a relationship…

Terok Nor might be the finest of Malibu’s Deep Space Nine comics, cleverly offering a creation myth for the Star Trek spin-off most preoccupied with history and legacy.

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

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