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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Life Support (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Life Support is the first episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to air after Star Trek: Voyager went on the air. It’s amazing how quickly Deep Space Nine settled back into the role of “the other Star Trek show on television.” A lot of attention was focused on launching Voyager, with the show put in the awkward position of launching (and, in the years ahead, supporting) the new television network UPN. As a result, Voyager got a lot of press and a higher profile.

Deep Space Nine fell back into familiar routines. Life Support is far from an exceptional piece of Deep Space Nine. In fact, it’s a deeply flawed piece of television. However, it feels free of the identity crisis that dominated the first half of the third season. This is Deep Space Nine free of the expectations of being “the only Star Trek on television”, and allowed the freedom to just keep doing whatever it wants to do.

It doesn’t do any of the things that it wants to do particularly well, but it does them in its inimitable way.

Dead air...

Dead air…

Indeed, Life Support represents a passing of the torch in a more substantial way. Although Michael Piller was the driving creative force on the franchise, and had created Star Trek: Deep Space Nine with Rick Berman, it was inevitable that he could not work on the show forever. From the way that Behr talks about it, there is a sense that Michael Piller had specifically head-hunted Ira Steven Behr to run Deep Space Nine in his own way:

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.”

The season between 1994 and 1995 seems the logical place for Piller to let go of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and hand it over to his hand-picked successor.

"Nothing important happened today..."

“Nothing important happened today…”

At the end of 1994, Star Trek: The Next Generation had just finished its seventh and final season. It was in the process of transitioning to the big screen, something of a painful process – particularly given the tight turnaround on Star Trek: Generations. Piller was not asked to write the screenplay for Generations. Instead, he was invited to write a screenplay for consideration alongside another screenplay being drafted by Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga. The studio would pick which of the two screenplays to produce.

There is some suggestion that Piller understandably took this as an insult and it contributed to his decision to step back from the franchise. While he was working hard on launching Star Trek: Voyager as the flagship of the new Paramount channel, UPN, Piller created another science-fiction show for the network, Legend. Something had to give, and he began to hand over creative control on the expanding franchise Star Trek franchise.

In denial about Bareil...

In denial about Bareil…

Piller began to drift away from Voyager in its first season, even if he remained loosely involved until the end of its second year in production. However, he immediately began distancing himself from the third season of Deep Space Nine. So Piller handed Deep Space Nine to Behr, explaining in an interview with Starlog magazine:

“Ira has virtually carried the ball all year long at Deep Space Nine,” says Piller. “I dropped down to executive consultant [in the credits] because I was really feeling uncomfortable taking executive producer credit when he was doing so much of the work. Ira is now executive producer and he deserves that title.”

This was the culmination of a process that had been happening since the end of the second season. Despite its function as a launching pad for Voyager, The Maquis had been an episode that firmly asserted Behr’s vision of Deep Space Nine as the show’s driving creative force. Still, Life Support is a landmark episode for a number of reasons. As mentioned above, it was the first to air after Voyager was broadcast. This was Deep Space Nine as a supplemental Star Trek show.

In firm hands...

In firm hands…

However, as Behr explains in the Tribute to Michael Piller blu ray special feature, Life Support was also the point at which Piller himself gracefully hand over the reins to the writers and producers working on the show:

In the third season of Deep Space Nine, Mike was focused on Voyager. And he was still giving notes, but he was really not there a lot of the time. We got to this episode with this recurring character, whose name was Vedek Bareil and who was involved with Kira; and we were doing an episode where we killed him. Mike said, ‘No. Don’t kill Bareil.’

Ron and I went in there and had a meeting with him, and I said, ‘Mike, we’ve given this a lot of thought, but we think we’ve gone as far as we can with this character.’ This was the moment. Let’s face it, we all have egos, we all are who we are. It’s not easy to give your baby to somebody else.

And he said – in only the way that Michael can say, with absolute conviction and a sense of calm – ‘Look, I think it’s a mistake. But I’m not there every day. I have not been in the meetings with you guys, that you guys are talking about; I have not heard the discussions that have gotten you to this point. It would not be fair for me to come in now and say no, you can’t do that. That would be wrong, and I’m not going to do that to you.  This will be the last note that you will get from me on Deep Space Nine.”

From this point forward, Deep Space Nine would steer its own course. Over the next few years, it was remarkable what Deep Space Nine got away with – the kind of stuff that never would have been permitted on Voyager or The Next Generation, with their higher profiles.

"Stick with me, kid."

“Stick with me, kid.”

Piller was a phenomenal influence on Deep Space Nine, as he had been on just about every piece of Star Trek he produced. It’s hard to imagine the show without Piller’s input. It really is a Star Trek show where the characters come baked into the premise, as opposed to suddenly developing during the third season after a creative shift. Behr taking full control of Deep Space Nine does not represent a dramatic shift in the same way that Piller’s work on The Next Generation did, and that’s largely down to the fact that Behr is building off a lot of the support and input that Piller has had on the show.

But enough about all that behind-the-scenes nonsense. Life Support really doesn’t reflect the massive shifts taking place behind the scenes. In fact, it’s very much a middle-of-the-road Deep Space Nine episode that has many of the problems that have dogged the show in the past. There’s no real sense that the show is throttling up as it did with The Maquis or The Search. Instead, it just sort of is. Life Support feels like a bunch of half-decent ideas haphazardly bundled together, with no idea of how to make them gel.

Opening the door on a new era...

Opening the door on a new era…

The episode is tonally all over the place. It tries to balance two radically different plots with two radically different tones. On the one hand, the love of Kira’s life is dying as Bajor and Cardassia stand on the edge of a hard-earned peace. On the other hand, Nog and Jake go on a double-date. The two elements don’t really fit together well, and they suffer because the episode tries to devote equal energy to both plot threads. One is a light-hearted comedy piece, the other is a medical drama with a dash of galactic politics.

Even before we get into the details of the plots themselves, this is a recipe for disaster. Life Support never seems to decide that one plot is more important than the other. So we get the two elements cutting across each other for most of the episode, leading to considerable whiplash. One of the more awkward transitions of the episode cuts from Sisko offering heartwarmingly wholesome family advice to Vedek Bareil screaming in agony as he dies.

"He's alive!"

“He’s alive!”

It might work if the show were trying to make a clever juxtaposition, but it really just seems like Life Support was fashioned from stitching two different half-episodes together. Given how the episode sees Bashir uncomfortably playing the role of Victor Frankenstein, this feels oddly appropriate – but it’s not satisfying. The dramatic beats are undermined by the awkward unfunny comedy and the broad comedy is hard to engage with because it’s sandwiched between tragedy.

It is worth noting that the show would try a similar experiment towards the end of its fifth season. In the Cards tries to balance a comedy subplot featuring Jake and Nog with a more serious plot involving Kai Winn’s negotiations with a foreign power. As if learning from the mistakes of Life Support, In the Cards flows a lot easier. It rectifies the biggest problems with Life Support, as if to prove that the writing staff have learned from the experience.

Winn Winn.

Winn Winn.

In the Cards decides to commit to one of the stories ahead of the other. It is very much a story driven by Jake and Nog’s comedy quest, despite the sombre tone of the negotiations in question. We only see and hear the Winn subplot fleetingly – enough to give us a sense of what is going on, but not enough to sour the comedy going on around it. In the Cards also ties the two plots into one another. It does so in terms of plotting – having Jake and Nog cross paths with both Winn and the other side – and in theme – underscoring it’s nice to have levity and optimism in the darkest hours. Sadly that’s not the case with Life Support.

Let’s start by tackling the subplot. Tolerance is pretty great. Deep Space Nine has stressed this repeatedly in subplots involving Jake and Nog. Sisko essentially distils the point here, in conversation with Jake. “You once said that Humans and Ferengis are too different to ever really be friends,” Jake points out. “I remember saying that,” Sisko concedes. “And you know what? I was wrong.  Sure, you have your cultural differences, but there’s a real bond between you.”

Home cooked advice...

Home cooked advice…

Which is neat. It’s a little “after school special”, but it’s a point worth underscoring given the portrayals of Ferengi over the course of The Next Generation – treating their culture as inherently barbaric just because it happens to be capitalist. The real point of the arc was that our main characters – including Sisko – could be blinded by their sense of arrogance and moral superiority. It was a nice bit of self-reflection from the show.

However, Life Support really pushes that idea into awkward places. Nog forces his way on to a double date with Jake. While on the double date, Nog is incredibly misogynistic. He repeatedly insults the intelligence of his date, before suggesting a trip to the holosuite for “looting and pillaging” to get them in the mood. Inevitably, because they have self-respect, the girls storm off and the date is ended. Nog then insists that Jake apologise to him.

Just desserts...

Just desserts…

This is a tricky subject – tolerance of beliefs that directly challenge our own, cultural relativism for cultures that hold wildly different values than the ones that we take for granted. On the other hand, misogyny is misogyny. Nog forced his way on to that date. He then proceeded to force his views on to both his date, Riska, and Jake. There’s a point were tolerance is distinct from submission, compliance and enabling. Life Support fails to realise this.

More than that, though, the episode really struggles with these scenes. The date scene is treated as if the audience should find it hilarious – “ha! look at those wacky Ferengi!” However, it doesn’t work that way. Nog’s conduct here – belittling his companion and demanding she serve his needs in a humiliating way – feels like a scene from an abusive relationship. This not helped by the fact that Riska is incredibly passive and has four short lines. She politely tells Nog to get lost, but she then gets up and just stands there waiting for Leanne to say her piece.

Short fuse...

Short fuse…

There’s a sense that the Deep Space Nine writers are a little tone-deaf when it comes to humour around sexism. There’s a point where the gag stops being ironic and starts being deeply uncomfortable. This was at play during Quark’s subplot in Meridian, and it will build to critical mass in Profit and Lace during the sixth season. This is the plot that the writers chose to set against the tragic Bareil plot? It’s a comedy that isn’t even funny in its own context.

Which brings us to the Bareil plot. I really wish I could say that Bareil will be missed… but he won’t. He’s a character who has skirted around the edge of the show since In the Hands of the Prophets and he has never really worked. To be fair, a lot of that has to do with Philip Anglim’s wooden approach to the character, but it’s also the fact that “goody two-shoes wise serene New Age mystic” is a cliché that requires a great deal more nuance than Bareil has received.

"On the other hand, I now feel much more comfortable performing bar-mitzvahs!"

“On the other hand, I now feel much more comfortable performing bar-mitzvahs!”

Explaining the decision to kill off Bareil, Ira Steven Behr argued to Cinefantastique that the character simply hadn’t worked as well as the producers intended:

“I just felt that no one was dying to do a Bareil show,” Behr added. “We never got letters from fans saying ‘We love Bareil.’ Now that he’s dead we are getting that kind of mail, but up until then no one was losing sleep over Bareil. It just wasn’t clicking. We were finding these nice levels for so many of our people and this Bareil relationship, which should have been deepening the Kira character, did not seem to be fulfilling that requirement.”

He is entirely correct here. There’s a reason that The Collaborator became a lot more interesting once the writers decided Bareil would lose. The character has no hook or edge or potentially point side that might cause any sort of reaction when he comes into contact with anything. (This is the point in the review where I’m obligated to joke that nobody would have noticed if Bashir turned him into a robot.)

Hn. He doesn't seem any less responsive than usual.

Hn. He doesn’t seem any less responsive than usual.

It is interesting to note that Bareil’s death launched something of a grass roots fan campaign, in the grand tradition of proactive Star Trek fans. Star Trek fandom has never been one to do anything by half-measures. After all Brannon Braga once had a fan mail him his trash to make a point about Star Trek: Enterprise. Anyway, Bareil somehow managed to attract a strong following, “The Friends of Vedek Bareil”, which actually sounds very ominous.

The group organised itself very efficiently and had a habit of popping up where it was least expected. In fact, far from promoting the return of Philip Anglim to the show, it seems like their activity may have alienated the writers somewhat. Asked about the association, Ronald D. Moore stated, “We were aware of the ‘Friends of…’ group, but their influence, if any, was to keep Bareil that much farther away from the things we wanted to do.” When Bareil did return briefly in the fifth season, Moore clarified that it had nothing to do with the campaign from “The Friends of Vedek Bareil.” He offered, “I’m happy that they’re happy now.”

"Yes, the red is to hide the blood stains. Why do you ask?"

“Yes, the red is to hide the blood stains. Why do you ask?”

All that said, even if killing Bareil was the right move, Life Support is a mess. Whose story is this? Is this Bareil’s story, about deciding between life and death with meaning? Is this a story about Kira losing the love of her life? Is this a story about Bashir pushing the edges of medical ethics? Is this about Kai Winn’s cynical politicking? Is this about the future of the relationship between Bajor and Cardassia? There are points where it seems like Life Support could be about any and all of these things, but it never focuses on any of them.

The result is a plot that feels far too fractured. Stripping out the plot involving Jake and Nog might have helped, allowing Ronald D. Moore to split the plot between the two regulars most involved. We could have had a bit more of Bashir’s wrangling over the right course of action, and a bit more of Kira grieving “in [her] own way, in [her] own time.” Unfortunately, Life Support feels like it’s being pulled too many directions at once, and the result is unsatisfying.

"How the hell does Picard put up with so much of this stuff?"

“How the hell does Picard put up with so much of this stuff?”

That’s a shame, because there are nice moments here. This is veteran director Reza Badiyi’s third stint as behind the camera on the show; the man is prolific during the third season. He does the best that he can with the material. In particular, the last shot of Kira and Bareil is very effective – as the camera pulls back to reveal all the emptiness around them. It’s a beautiful shot makes the most of the fact this is being shot for television. It’s fantastically composed, clearly constructed for the 4:3 aspect ratio.

There are a lot of little scenes that don’t add up to anything. Bashir’s righteous indignance clashes well with Kai Winn’s manipulative cynicism. The scene where the two converse over Bareil in the ward room, each trying to manipulate and manoeuvre the other by saying what they think the other wants to hear, is very effective. Winn is trying to manipulate Bashir’s medical training, while Bashir appeals to Winn’s ego – both speaking frankly when that doesn’t work. “I won’t forget what you’ve said here,” Winn vows, which feels like a waste as this is the most extended interaction the two ever have.

Where's his head at?

Where’s his head at?

Winn herself continues to be a fantastic creation, brought to life brilliantly by Louise Fletcher. There’s a sense that Winn is already well and truly accustomed to the power that she has claimed. She seems to extend slightly less effort in concealing her own selfishness, as if now well used to having her word taken as law. There’s no attempt to conceal her exploitation of Bareil, no effort to feign concern about a colleague for his own sake, no gentle half-hearted attempt to convince anybody that she gives a damn about Bareil’s healthy beyond his usefulness to her.

There’s no need for Winn to pretend that she’s at all bothered that Bareil is killing himself to help her. Having taken the position of Kai, Winn no longer has to pretend that she’s remotely interested in the welfare of others. When Bareil seems to struggle, she is quick to issue orders. “His attention has been wandering,” she informs Bashir. “He’s in pain. Give him more of the drug.” When Bashir states that he has had enough, she matter-of-factly replies, “Then you’ll need to give him something else.” When she was a Vedek, she condescended to Kira. As Kai, it’s nice to see that she feels she can condescend to Starfleet.

"This is chess? I thought it was a concept art piece."

“This is chess? I thought it was a concept art piece.”

Still, there is something quite nice about the way Life Support reinforces the differences between Deep Space Nine and its sibling shows. By this point, Voyager had already effectively discarded any long-term serialised plotting. The Maquis were integrated. The ship could recover immediately from any damage sustained in an earlier episode. So it’s nice that Deep Space Nine took the time to clarify that it would continue to do long-term story threads and character arcs.

The idea of a treaty between Cardassia and Bajor provides a nice macguffin, but it also allows the show to do Destiny later on in the season. Winn and Bareil are both long-recurring characters; Deep Space Nine kills one off and demonstrates that the other is still moving on her own arc. Even the opening sequence stresses the uniqueness of Deep Space Nine. Jake has a nice conversation on the promenade, as our lead characters run by to deal with the latest crisis – there’s a sense that Deep Space Nine might be a place that has regular days, where everything goes to plan.

"It's good to be the Kai..."

“It’s good to be the Kai…”

Life Support is a very flawed piece of television, but at least it is still trying to do stuff that makes the show different and unique. It hasn’t decided to try imitation in the way that the first season of Voyager does. It’s easy to understand why imitating The Next Generation would be appealing for Voyager – after all, simple imitation is easy than learning to do something new. We’re in the middle of the third season, and Deep Space Nine still hasn’t figured out how to do what it wants to do perfectly.

However, it’s willing to invest the time and energy to get them right – even at this point in the run. After all, attempts to make something like Life Support work would ultimately pay off with In the Cards. Surely that makes it all worth while?

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

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6 Responses

  1. What happened behind the scenes between Ira Behr and Michael Piller seemed to reflect the thing between Winn and Bareil in Life Support, except Winn was all too willing to take credit for Bareil’s work, while Piller felt much of the credit should have gone to Ira Behr and felt uncomfortable sharing the credit, which is why he accepted a demotion.

    Change of Heart was also an attempt not to repeat the mistakes of Life Support, with the friendly rivalry for Jadzia’s affections between Bashir and Quark being wrapped up in no short order so the much more dramatic plot of Worf and a dying Jadzia could be allowed to come to the fore, as it should. I thought Bareil looked Jewish too with that cap on his head, Darren. Bareil returned in the sixth season episode, Resurrection, not in the fifth season.

  2. So there was a group that held a candle light vigil…for a fictional character. Who happened to be as bland as oatmeal. Who according to Ron Moore at one time was louder than the people angry at Captain Kirks death in Generations. Yes, Trekkies louder for this character than Captain Kirk! And according to Moore, all their campaigns and letters had ZERO impact on him returning to the show for an episode. Riiight.

    This has to be the most bizarre fact on Star Trek, if you ask me…

    • Meant to say: Said group, according to Ron Moore, were even louder than the legions of fans angry at Captain Kirks death in Generations* Yeah, much better sentence

    • Well, each’s own. I can’t see the appeal of Janeway/Chakotay, but lots of people do. More power to them. But it is a bit weird that such a generic character should stoke such passionate support.

      • “appeal of Janeway/Chakotay”

        What do you mean?

      • Well, the appeal of shipping Janeway and Chakotay together. It’s like the fascination with Bareil. I can’t understand it, but more power to them.

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