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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Tribunal (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.

Tribunal is probably the weakest episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in quite some time, hampered by the fact that it never seems too ambitious and the fact that the episode ends because we’re three minutes away from the closing credits rather than because it feels like the story has been told. Tribunal is hardly the deepest or most sophisticated episode of the show’s second season, spending most of its time riffing on Kafka and Orwell, but it’s still solidly entertaining – a rare example of black comedy on Star Trek that works surprisingly well.

I suspect the biggest problem with Tribunal is where it’s placed. The second season of Deep Space Nine has been hitting it out of the park since around Blood Oath, giving us the strongest run of episodes we’d see until the start of the fourth season. Indeed, had the show found its groove a little bit earlier, the second season of Deep Space Nine could have been on par with the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation as “that season the show found its groove.”

However, it remains an impressive run of episodes, a rallying of the show in the last third of the season, showing just what Deep Space Nine was capable of. Most of the episodes in that run felt very different from anything done on The Next Generation and most offered some major insight into how the world of Deep Space Nine works as distinct from the rest of the franchise.

A broad cast of characters...

A broad cast of characters…

In that context, Tribunal feels mildly disappointing. It’s not a bad episode. It’s not unambitious. It’s probably quite a bit better than the rest of the second season’s “middling” episodes like Playing God or Shadowplay. There are clever ideas, and it’s a wonderful excuse for the show to flaunt its beautiful production design, but it winds up feeling fairly rote. It’s entertaining and diverting, but it’s not exceptional.

Part of that is probably down to the general mood of the episode. The contents of Tribunal are very particular to Deep Space Nine. It is, after all, an “O’Brien must suffer” episode. The episode’s distrust of authority is very in keeping with Deep Space Nine‘s general worldview. The references to past continuity provide a nice external context for the episode – both placing it as part of the Maquis conflict and using O’Brien’s relationship with Cardassians as evidence against him.

Give 'im Evek...

Give ‘im Evek…

However, the structure of the episode feels rather like The Next Generation or even the original Star Trek. Miles O’Brien is abducted. He’s “interrogated” and forced to stand trial. We get an absurdist insight into the Cardassian system of justice. Meanwhile the crew works to prove his innocence, which they do by conveniently discovering a Cardassian spy using information conspicuously mentioned earlier in the episode. (Surely it would have been easier to just do a full body scan, like Bashir used to confirm his suspicions?)

It’s the ending that really feels out of place. The episode is book-ended with bits of light comedy about Chief O’Brien going on holiday, laughing about how hilariously concerned the Chief is about the station during his absence. (It’s not like it going anywhere… eh, I’ll get my coat…) At the start, it seems like just some black comedy. After all, the second season established the whole “O’Brien must suffer” subgenre by airing Armageddon Game and Whispers back-to-back.

Food for love...

Food for love…

Even without watching Visionary or The Assignment or Hard Time, we know that the universe cannot abide a version of O’Brien who might be happy. So the fact that O’Brien is so into this trip – his “first vacation in five years” – turns the whole sequence into a wry punchline. “Miles, have a good time,” Dax urges, something that should immediately set our irony senses tingling. When Picard takes a holiday, he get embroiled in a time travel adventure. When Worf goes on holiday, he launches a coup. When O’Brien goes on holiday… he’s probably going to be tortured. Emotionally, physically, who knows?

However, the ending plays the gag a little too straight. Having retrieved O’Brien from Cardassia Prime, Sisko explains that he has pulled a lot of strings to extend O’Brien’s holiday. Which, by the way, makes Starfleet seem like a pretty crummy place to work – get tortured on your own time! Unsurprisingly, it seems to fit with the show’s perspective. Sisko, Keiko and O’Brien share a joke about how O’Brien is a workaholic and the fact that he doesn’t have his technical manuals means he and Keiko can have an actual honest-to-goodness getaway.

This is what happens when O'Brien goes on holiday...

This is what happens when O’Brien goes on holiday…

It feels like the closing scene of a classic Star Trek episode, except that instead of mocking Spock’s stoicism, the other characters are laughing at O’Brien’s workaholism. All the show is missing is the classic font from the original television show and surging end-of-episode sting as the trio share a joke to remind the viewers that absolutely everything is fine and all the week’s problems conveniently wrapped up as they should have.

Except this feels a little bit at odds with what we’ve come to expect from Deep Space Nine. Tribunal is hardly as bleak or brutal as Chain of Command, but the sequence where the Cardassians strip O’Brien and remove his clothing is pretty harrowing. (Even if the supervising officer’s “would you care to make a confession?” offers a hilarious customer-service-orientated approach to abuse of prisoners.) The rest of the episode plays as a grim comedy on a Kafka-esque theme, but it’s comedy built around the suffering of O’Brien.

Lighting up the room...

Lighting up the room…

It’s hilarious, but very darkly so. We’re under no illusions – this is fun to watch, but O’Brien’s probably never going to chuckle about it over synthohol. (Although, it’s probably a barrel of laughs compared to some of his other experiences…) So having the cast essentially shrug it off before the end credits with another of those “O’Brien vacation gags” feels like it undermines that a bit.

Don’t get me wrong. One of the weird things about the whole “O’Brien must suffer” subgenre was the fact that it seemed to only take Miles a week to get over the horrific torture inflicted upon him at any given moment. While I think Deep Space Nine doesn’t get enough credit for embracing serialised storytelling on a major prime-time American television show, it was never entirely serialised. So I can understand why O’Brien’s suicide attempt in Hard Time was never revisited, or why the family trouble in Time’s Orphan never came up again.

Shadow figures...

Shadow figures…

However, at least those episodes ended with the impression that what O’Brien had been through something horrible, something that would leave scars. The fact that he never discussed any of it is probably down to stereotypical Irish stoicism and the demands of nineties science-fiction television, mixed together in generous measure to serve up a cocktail of simply never mentioning it again.

So the closing scene here feels a little odd, a desire to end the story with a smile and a laugh among the cast just to remind us that the universe doesn’t solely exist to torture O’Brien. There are also jokes at O’Brien’s expense and – if Star Trek: Voyager is to be believed – space anomalies. Lots of space anomalies. It stands out quite a bit, if only because it feels like the show forgot that the second season – thus far – has been less about trying to remake the original Star Trek or The Next Generation and more about figuring out how to make Deep Space Nine.

O'Brien's happy. The universe will not abide this.

O’Brien’s happy. The universe will not abide this.

Still, I’m being a bit harsh. Tribunal is a nice little episode, even if it’s not as good as the rest of the episodes in this tail end of the season. It’s notable for being the directorial debut of Avery Brooks. Brooks is a man with quite a few talents, and his extensive experience in theatre shines through. From the Kafka references through to the simple structure of the episode, Tribunal feels like a stage play. (Even the larger-than-life supporting performances from actors like Caroline Lagerfelt and Fritz Weaver, the latter of which seems to be riffing off his Twilight Zone appearance in The Obsolete Man.)

This aspect of the episode plays to Brooks’ strengths, as he clearly relishes the absurdity of it all. Apparently he wasn’t entirely happy with how the episode played out (“nobody ever truly gets the episode they want in the can,” he argued, “television is still done by committee…”), but the actor does a good job with the material. Brooks would become one of the show’s recurring pool of directors. (Indeed, with the arguably exception of the next season’s Fascination, he has quite an impressive track record.)

The tooth of the matter...

The tooth of the matter…

There is quite a lot to like about Tribunal. For one thing, there’s the focus on O’Brien, which relies on the character’s core humanity. There’s never any question that O’Brien has been framed, but the episode manages to create a somewhat justifiable case for casting O’Brien as the target of this conspiracy. O’Brien isn’t the hyper-evolved flawless ideal human that Roddenberry tried to showcase with The Next Generation. He’s a normal guy, and that means he is far from perfect.

“I took an oath to defend the Federation and what it stands for,” he assures Odo. “I don’t steal from them. I don’t lie to them. I’m no angel, but I try to live every day as the best human being I know how to be.” That’s O’Brien in a nutshell. The frame-up is never convincing to the audience, but it’s plausible within the show because O’Brien is a character who has rough edges. We believe that he said “the bloody Cardies can’t be trusted” – the fact that he doesn’t object to the quote hints that it’s accurate.

Trial and error...

Trial and error…

That’s why the “O’Brien must suffer” episodes work so well. O’Brien is just a regular guy doing a job. He’s probably the most relatable character on Deep Space Nine, if not the entire set of 24th century Star Trek spin-offs. He feels more grounded and human, even as he’s surrounded by all these paragons of virtue. Colm Meaney never gets enough credit for his work on the character, and a large part of O’Brien’s appeal is down to Meaney’s wonderful “only sane man in an insane universe” performance.

There’s also the wonderful (if comedic) insight into Cardassian culture. Little elements of the episode tick over from The Maquis, as if to remind us that this problem is not magically going away. Gul Evek makes a small appearance. Although Richard Poe was never a featured guest star, I appreciated his guest appearances on the various spin-offs as a way of building continuity without ever focusing on him too heavily.

She'll be the judge of that...

She’ll be the judge of that…

Evek was a bit player in the scheme of things, rather than a draw of himself, and he helped create the impression that the Star Trek universe did overlap and intersect, but without making it seem like that was the point. Evek’s appearances weren’t as showy as those featuring Lursa and B’Etor or Thomas Riker, for example. You get the sense that he’s the primary antagonist of some unfilmed Maquis spin-off as the other shows intersect.

Similarly, the entire episode draws from an off-hand remark made by Dukat in The Maquis, discussing the efficiency of Cardassian justice. I like that Dukat doesn’t feature here. I’m a huge fan of the character, but his complete absence from the episode helps solidify the impression that Cardassia is a large world with its own large political and judicial circles. The planet isn’t populated by five main characters who keep bumping into one another. I’d like to imagine Dukat was watching with interest from a distance while screening Sisko’s calls on the matter.

In a bit of a fix...

In a bit of a fix…

Those lovely establishing shots of Cardassia are very effective at conveying the mood and aesthetic of the race. Of course, the Orwellian influence on Cardassian culture has been obvious since Chain of Command (there! are! four! lights!), and Hans Beimler’s production design is really extrapolated from the station itself, but it looks absolutely stunning. It gives the impression of an incredibly vast world, one that seems far more alive than the atmospheric matte paintings of the Klingon capital in Sins of the Father or Romulus in Unification.

The trial itself is drawn relatively broadly, with O’Brien’s conviction calculated as a massive PR coup for the government rather than a triumph of justice. “This trial is to demonstrate the futility of behaviour contrary to good order,” Kovat advises O’Brien. “Everyone will find it most uplifting.” Kovat feels more like a pushy agent or stage manager than a lawyer – his function to organise O’Brien’s convention and to help his client play most effectively to public sympathy.

Bearing witness...

Bearing witness…

Although there’s an obvious discussion to be had about the various legal shortcuts introduced since 9/11, the episode’s most obvious parallels seemed to be with high-profile media trials. It’s funny to think that Tribunal actually aired five months before the jury was sworn in on the OJ Simpson trial. The OJ Simpson trial was a multimedia circus, with the murder case reportedly garnering more media attention than the Bosnian War and the Oklahoma City Bombing.

Had Tribunal been pushed back to the third season, it’s exploration of trial-as-spectacle would seem heavy-handed. It’s not too hard to imagine public broadcasts of the OJ Simpson trial being screened in public spaces around Los Angeles, as with the trial depicted here – after all, The Los Angeles Times ran 300 front-page stories on the case. The media scrutiny was so great that it often felt like the real trial was unfolding on television, a show for the cameras.

Live stream!

Live stream!

“Private conferences do not make for good viewing,” Makbar advises Odo at one point, as if the success of the trial will be measured in viewing figures. (By that measure, the Simpson trial was a success, boosting ratings by 30%.) Of course, it might not just be luck that had Tribunal so far ahead of the curve. There is a long history of intrusive media coverage of high-profile cases, stretching back decades. Although by no means on the same scale as the Simpson case, the trial of Bruno Hauptmann in 1935 could be seen as something of a trend-setter.

The high-profile media coverage of trial of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables in 1993 for the murder of toddler Jamie Bolger may have served as something of a prelude to the media frenzy around the OJ Simpson case. Certainly, it was the first time that the British court system had been forced to deal with the intense media scrutiny of the modern media age (the British Courts System had to invent “press kits” for the trial), where  justice became something to be carved up and served as part of a twenty-four hour news cycle.

The harsh light of... whatever time it is...

The harsh light of… whatever time it is…

It’s tempting to try to draw some connection between Tribunal and the legal abuses that have occurred in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, but the truth is that The Next Generation covered the same pre-emptive ground much more effectively in The Drumhead. Tribunal adopts a slightly different tack, a variation on the same theme, offering a glimpse at a system that has conspired so that even its legal system is designed to serve as entertainment to satiate and placate the masses.

“There is an old Cardassian expression,” Kovat assures O’Brien. “Confession is good for the soul. But it’s also good for the populace to see people like you confess. It makes them feel better about themselves. It makes their lives more bearable.” Tribunal isn’t really about torturing O’Brien. That is a bonus. Instead, it’s about a catharsis for Cardassia. It’s about putting a face on an evil and branding it in broad daylight, with the case itself serving as some grand pantomime to feed a baying public.

Shedding some light on the matter...

Shedding some light on the matter…

To be fair to Bill Dial, the script for Tribunal might be the funniest episode of Deep Space Nine to date. It contains any number of bitterly black exchanges as O’Brien and his friends try to navigate the Cardassian legal system. “How can you schedule an execution before the trial even begins?” Kieko demands. “We believe in swift justice,” Makbar responds. The exchange between Evek and O’Brien during his arrest is beautifully Orwellian:

You have the right to refuse to answer questions, but such refusal may be construed as a sign of guilt.

I demand to know what I’m being accused of.

You deny all knowledge of this crime then?

How the hell am I supposed to deny something when I don’t know what you’re talking about?

So you do not deny all knowledge.

It’s a lovely moment, and it makes it seem like a shame that the franchise sort of discarded Richard Poe after his cameo in Caretaker. (Although, to be fair, Evek had really served his purpose.)

Relax, the season's almost over...

Relax, the season’s almost over…

Tribunal is a solid episode, if not an exemplary one. The problem is that it is surrounded by exceptional pieces of television, putting in the strange position of being above the average quality of the season and still feeling like a little bit of disappointment.

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

2 Responses

  1. I really fall for the humor of pushing one workaholic character into vacation. Reminded me a lot of Picard as being forced to go to Risa.

    Interesting again to see Odo’s closeness to the Cardassian jurisprudence. Strange that he appeared in a Bajoran uniform though – seems not the best outfit in a Cardassian court.

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