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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Explorers (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.

Explorers is a wonderful piece of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, an episode produced by a show entirely comfortable with itself. Indeed, the entire point of Explorers seems to be stressing just how comfortable Deep Space Nine has become in its own skin. It’s a leisurely and relaxed celebration of what makes the show unique in the Star Trek franchise, wallowing in the things that make Deep Space Nine the show that it is.

With a smart script by René Echevarria adapted from a solid premise by Hilary J. Bader, Explorers is an episode that never feels like it has anything to prove. And that’s the charm of it all.

Open to new cultures...

Open to new cultures…

Of course, it’s easy to pick holes in the episode’s plot and premise. Just how close is Bajor to Cardassian? Surely the science guys know that solar sailing doesn’t work like that? Isn’t Sisko cheating by launching the solar sailing ship from Deep Space Nine, when one imagines getting the ship into orbit (and landing) would probably be the toughest part of the journey? How is it possible that Bashir never met Elisabeth Lense in his time in college, particularly when they both spoke at the same graduation event?

These are all legitimate plot holes and problems, but they also demonstrate that the plot of Explorers really isn’t the point. Explorers may be a lot of things, but it isn’t a tightly-constructed plot-driven adventure. Instead, it’s more of a leisurely stroll through the increasingly well-developed world of Deep Space Nine. It’s an episode that is more interested in how the characters relate to one another than it is about checking off a list of plot developments.

Growing the beard...

Growing the beard…

In many respects, it feels like a companion piece to Family from the fourth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Both are quiet and introspective episodes following bombastic game-changing two-part adventures. Both balance character-driven plots for the show’s lead actor with members of the ensemble. Both are very loosely plotted and more interested in mood and character work, in sketching pictures of the characters’ lives. Neither episode features a scene set on the series’ “bridge” set.

Most importantly, both episodes essentially confirm that the shows have reached a point where they are comfortable letting the cast carry an episode on their own merits. While Explorers does have a vaguely science-fiction concept behind it, it is much more interested in conversations between Benjamin and Jake Sisko, and in exploring Benjamin Sisko’s character as a builder rather than an adventurer.

A bashful Bashir...

A bashful Bashir…

This is perhaps most obvious in the Bashir subplot. Echevarria’s script is – like his script for Improbable Cause – very self-aware, pausing to acknowledge and play with franchise conventions and behind-the-scenes concerns. At one point, Jake wonders about the bathroom facilities on their Bajoran space ship. It seems to mirror the oft-repeated gag about how nobody ever needs to use the bathroom on Star Trek. “How am I suppose to…?” Jake wonders. “How are you supposed to…?” All Sisko offers is a knowing, “You’ll get the hang of it.”

Similarly, the wonderful drunken conversation between O’Brien and Bashir pauses to acknowledge that Bashir was something of a… polarising character on the show. Reportedly, the studio even wanted to fire Siddig El Fadil during the show’s first couple of years. In a moment of candour between the two best friends, O’Brien explains. “Well, you’re not an in-between kind of guy,” he says. “Well, people either love you or hate you.”

Sing when you're winning...

Sing when you’re winning…

(There’s also a nice acknowledgement that Bashir is more self-aware than he may seem in his punchable moments. “I hated you when we first met,” O’Brien confesses. Drunkenly, Bashir concedes, “I remember.” Bashir certainly never acknowledged this in early episodes like The Storyteller or Armageddon Game, completely ignoring O’Brien’s stand-off-ishness. This seems to support the idea suggested in If Wishes Were Horses… that Bashir is acutely aware of how he comes across, and so over-compensates.)

All of this awareness builds towards Bashir’s conversation with Elizabeth Lense. Lense is the Chief Medical Officer of the USS Lexington. She came top of her class and has the pick of assignments. The Lexington is a Nebula-class starship, complete with saucer and nacelle design that evokes the Enterprise from The Next Generation. Lense has “a post virtually everyone in [her] graduating class was hoping for.” She is wearing the Starfleet uniform from The Next Generation, even after Star Trek: Generations made it clear the uniform was outdated.

Fireworks...

Fireworks…

In short, Lense is the perfect stand-in for The Next Generation. She provides a fairly effective way for Explorers to engage with what makes Deep Space Nine so different from its more popular elder sibling. In fact, Bashir is the character most perfectly suited to this sort of plot, because he’s the Deep Space Nine cast member who would have felt most comfortable as part of the main cast on The Next Generation. Bashir’s optimism and utopian outlook would have been perfectly at home on The Next Generation, and they are the aspects of Bashir that stand out most on Deep Space Nine.

So Bashir’s subplot allows Deep Space Nine to have a conversation with a stand-in for its direct predecessor. Serving on the Lexington, Lense travels from world to world – exploring in the traditional sense of the word. It’s the kind of thing that most people think of when they think of Star Trek. It’s what the original show did; it’s what The Next Generation did. It was what Star Trek: Voyager would do for its run, and what Star Trek: Enterprise would continue to do.

Tacking into the light wind...

Tacking into the light wind…

And yet, despite all that, Lense pauses to acknowledge that Bashir really is in a unique position, and that there are reasons to be satisfied staying on Deep Space Nine as opposed to enterprising or voyaging across the cosmos. As Lense concedes, it allows Bashir to focus more on the long-term, to do things that aren’t possible in a planet-of-the-week setting. “I really envy the opportunity you have to work on that kind of long-term project,” Lense tells him. “On the Lexington, it was collect your samples and then on to the next system.”

Indeed, that’s probably the recurring theme of Explorers. It’s worth noting that none of the characters in Explorers adhere to the standard Star Trek model of exploring. There are no strange new worlds here. Sisko leaves Bajor and arrives at Cardassia. Bashir reflects on his situation. Jake tries to decide what to do with his life. These are all forms of exploration, just not in a way that involves new bumpy-headed aliens or weird interstellar phenomenon. This is Deep Space Nine confronting a spectre that has haunted the show since before Emissary aired.

Still re-arranging the furniture...

Still re-arranging the furniture…

Even before the show was broadcast, much debate and attention (and a few bad jokes) were devoted to the station’s mission “to boldly sit.” Before the show aired, journalist Wendy Warren Keebler pondered what this unique situation meant for the franchise in the syndicated article Course is set for Deep Space Nine:

How will this track with Trekkers?

“Some people feel the heart and soul of Star Trek is climbing aboard a Starfleet vessel and boldly going where no one has gone before. In this one, they’re not going to be boldly going, but they’ll be sitting and waiting for others to come to them.”

So says Anthony Lesnick, the president – make that captain – of the USS Intrepid, a Star Trek fan club based in Dearborn, Mich.

Even years after it finished, Deep Space Nine is still frequently criticised for the fact that it doesn’t contribute to the show’s ethos of exploring strange new worlds. Explorers seems to have been constructed specifically as a refutation of that criticism, dealing with that preconception head-on, dealing with it candidly and frankly.

Good Morn-ing all...

Good Morn-ing all…

After all, Deep Space Nine did have strange new worlds. It just had fewer of them than its contemporaries, and some a lot less new. Mostly the same handful of strange worlds that were developed and expanded over the course of the show – Bajor and Cardassia serving as the most obvious examples. Just because there weren’t new aliens every week doesn’t mean that the show wasn’t about exploring. It was just more devoted to a different type of exploring – more about immersion than fleeting encounters.

Sisko may be traveling a well-worn path between Bajor and Cardassia (even if nobody seems entirely convinced), but he is exploring an alien culture. It’s about digging into the culture of another world and embracing their way of looking at the universe. Indeed, Sisko is so dedicated to the idea of an authentic experience that he refuses to use modern conveniences. “I want to use the same types of tools the Bajorans had,” he informs O’Brien, wandering around with rolled-up plans and paper star charts.

A gripping read...

A gripping read…

(His one concession to modern technology is the installation of a gravity net. “Weightlessness makes me queasy,” he offers by way of explanation, but it’s obviously a restriction imposed by the production realities of the show. The show seems to acknowledge this by making it clear that Sisko’s replica is exact in every other detail, save emergency supplies. Even the toilet is designed for weightlessness, which seems like a strange choice.)

In essences, Explorers is very much focused in what makes Sisko unique as compared to the other lead characters in the franchise. Kirk’s hobbies were all adventurous – mountain-climbing and horse-riding and so on. While Picard has an enthusiasm for archaeology, it’s hard to imagine him building a replica from scratch. (Although, if one were unearthed, he’d be fascinated.) Janeway was inconsistently defined, but generally portrayed as more of an introverted scientist. Archer was an astronaut.

Nothing to cough at...

Nothing to cough at…

According to the writing staff, Sisko has always been a builder. This has been represented a number of ways. The concept is broached repeatedly in The Deep Space Nine Companion. Behr mentions it when discussing Second Sight. Wolfe even mentions it while discussing Q-Less:

Picard is an explorer, and in some ways, very much an intellectual. Sisko is a builder, a different kind of guy. He wears his heart a little more on his sleeve, and he acts on emotion, on instinct, more than Picard.

It’s a very clear dramatic throughline for Sisko, in matters both large and small. He is rebuilding Bajor and Deep Space Nine, staying in one place so he can make long-term progress. He builds the alliance that defends the Alpha Quadrant. He builds a family on the station. In Dramatis Personae, Sisko even built an alien clock under the influence of a thought virus.

The man with the plans...

The man with the plans…

This is the idea taken to its logical extreme – Sisko literally building a sailing ship that travels between Bajor and Cardassia, confirming pre-historical contact between the two worlds. Sisko builds a ship that builds the potential for a brighter future. Once again, we get a sense of the cycle of history as viewed by Deep Space Nine. In the wake of Life Support, the Bajorans and Cardassians are at peace, something that could not have been imagined years earlier.

And, despite that, Sisko demonstrates that all of this has happened before – history repeats. As impossible as it might have been to imagine, Bajor and Cardassia peacefully coexisted. History seems to move in grand sweeping arcs – patterns recur, events echo. The weight of history bears down on Deep Space Nine, but only as it relates to the present. It’s a constant reminder that the present is informed and shaped by what came before and will reverberate into what happens later. Perhaps the prophets’ view of time is not so bizarre.

Stargazing...

Stargazing…

There is something incredibly heartwarming about Explorers. There’s an incredible optimism to the episode, suggesting that it’s possible to heal rifts caused by decades of colonial oppression. Bajor and Cardassia might have been friends once; that means they could be again. The fireworks display welcoming a Bajoran ship to Cardassia is a beautiful closing image, a stark contrast to the other types of fireworks on display in The Die is Cast.

In fact, Explorers cleverly underscores this idea of post-colonial reconciliation with Bashir and O’Brien. The fact that O’Brien is Irish and Bashir is British is never mentioned in the context of their friendship – it’s a non-issue, despite the chequered colonial history that exists between those two political entities. In fact, the last-minute rights-issue-necessitated decision to have the due drunkenly singing Jerusalem together beautifully underscores just how far mankind has come.

We are sailing...

We are sailing…

Jerusalem has been described as “almost a British national anthem” or “an alternative national anthem.” The second verse is particularly vivid in its imagery:

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O Clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land!

It is an incredibly jingoistic hymn, to the point that it was sung at the funeral of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. There have even been attempts made to name it the official English national anthem.

Star Trek doesn't do enough drunken singing...

Star Trek doesn’t do enough drunken singing…

In this context, it’s a pretty big deal to have Miles Edward O’Brien drunkenly belting out the tune while drunk with his best friend. It’s a sign of how far people have come. For all that Deep Space Nine can be cynical or jaded, there is an incredible amount of optimism there. The show is clearly one that believes in the potential for peaceful post-colonial existence, arguing that it is entirely possible for the oppressor and the oppressed to come to terms with their shared history and move into a brighter future.

Explorers is very much about connecting past and future. Even the ship itself feels like it was constructed from past visions of the future. A delightful piece of retro-futurism, the script suggests that the Bajoran ship has “an almost Jules Verne feel to it.” It manages to feel both ancient and futuristic at the same time, a reminder of how the future used to look. Production designer Herman Zimmerman, illustrator Jim Martin and set designer Scott Herbertson all outdo themselves in designing the craft.

The son also rises...

The son also rises…

There’s something very classical about the lightship, a sense that Deep Space Nine is indulging in some affectionate nostalgia. It’s not too dissimilar from Ira Steven Behr’s fixation with classic cinema. Indeed, Sisko’s journey seems heavily inspired by the famous trip made by Norweigen Thor Heyerdahl who famously sailed the Pacific in a gigantic raft to demonstrate that contact was possible between the people of South America and the Polynesia.

There’s something very romantic about that image, and Explorers consciously plays it up. Sisko’s ship is very much a raft, complete with sails and winches, sailing on “the light winds.” Although the idea of solar sailing is a real scientific concept, Explorers is very clearly and unapologetically channeling the romantic image of space as gigantic ocean. “It’s almost like being on the deck of an old sailing ship, except the stars are not just up in the sky, they’re all around us,” Sisko remarks at one point.

Sisko's enthusiasm is off the charts...

Sisko’s enthusiasm is off the charts…

Of course, this sort of nostalgia and romance is something of which Explorers needs to be wary. After all, despite the romance of his adventure across the ocean, Thor Heyerdahl’s is loaded with political and colonial subtext. Heyerdahl’s theories about the origins of Polynesian culture are hotly contested even today, with proponents and opponents still arguing over them. Even if Heyerdahl’s theories have some basis in fact, they are underscored a creepy imperialist element; Heyerdahl asserts that Polynesia must have been “settled by a white mariners who sailed from South America.”

Not even in a romantic adventure on the open ocean (or the star-filled void) takes place in a vacuum, despite what physicists may tell us. (This is where I make a cheap joke about how Star Trek space battles always make noise.) There is inevitably a political dimension to a project like that. It’s to René Echevarria’s credit that he recognises this, and cleverly inverts the imperialist subtext to Heyerdahl’s original voyage. Sisko isn’t voyaging to reinforce a colonial fantasy; he’s working to disprove one.

Julian Bashir: master of subtlety...

Julian Bashir: master of subtlety…

The voyage to Cardassia is important because it proves that ancient Bajoran society was more advanced than the Cardassians would allow – and thus undermining any justification for their imperialist attitudes towards the planet. Sisko jokes that Dukat’s warnings are delivered on behalf of “the Cardassian Ministry for the Refutation of Bajoran Fairy Tales”, but there’s very clearly a political agenda to Dukat’s “concern for [Sisko’s] safety” and attempts to dissuade Sisko from making the trip.

Indeed, the episode ends with the “amazing coincidence” of the discovery of an ancient Bajoran ship on Cardassia. The Cardassian government is forced to concede that the ancient Bajorans were capable of making the trip, something they probably knew for quite some time. “It could not be more appropriate that your arrival coincides with the discovery here on Cardassia of an ancient crash site,” Dukat admits in the final scene, “a site that our archaeologists believe contains the remnants of one of the Bajoran vessels whose journey you have just recreated.”

Voyagers...

Voyagers…

One of the nicer touches of Explorers is that it never amps up the melodrama. Dukat makes some rather thinly-veiled threats in conversation with Sisko (“an hour can be a long time, especially if you happen to encounter something unexpected…”), but there’s no attempt to sabotage the mission. There’s never any sense of panic about the expedition, even when things go wrong. Even when Jake wonders how much oxygen Sisko has stored on the ship, we never get a reply – there’s no ticking clock or dramatic act break.

Indeed, everything about Explorers is incredibly comfortable and relaxed. The episode unfolds across approximately three weeks, creating a sense that this is how life unfolds on Deep Space Nine. Unlike the two week jump in Shakaar, Explorers benefits from the sense of space – giving the impression that nothing depicted in Explorers is particularly high-stakes or important. This is just personal stuff unfolding in the background of the station’s regular day-to-day routine.

Quality father-son time...

Quality father-son time…

So we get a chance to relax with Benjamin and Jake. In many respects, the father-son bond between the Siskos is one of the most (if not the most) important relationship on Deep Space Nine. Avery Brooks and Cirroc Lofton work well together, and there’s a sense that both Benjamin and Jake truly love and respect one another. There’s an incredible honesty to their scenes – one that feels almost like a real family relationship.

It would be easy to throw in the sort of angst melodrama that defines so many televisual parent-teenager relationships, but Deep Space Nine avoids the cliché. Benjamin loves Jake; Jake loves Benjamin. Occasionally, Ben has to face the fact that Jake is growing up; sometimes Jake has to face telling his father that he has moved past something. It’s hard to think of a massive row or an over-blown scene between the duo over the course of the show’s seven year run. (Except maybe The Visitor, but that is earned.)

Jake may be brought down to Earth...

Jake may be brought down to Earth…

The little scene where Jake initially declines to join his father on the trip is a beautiful moment – it’s just an example of shifting priorities, the type of thing that happens in father-son relationships, as kids move on. The (girl)friend/parent conflict is part of every teenager’s life, and Explorers doesn’t dwell on it too much. Ben understands, even if he isn’t happy about it; he doesn’t begrudge Jake for making the other choice.

Similarly, the scene where Jake decides to join his father is also quite wonderful. Leanne – the character who appeared in Life Support – is only mentioned once, in a nice bit of continuity for the show. After Jake tells his father she is coming back from Bajor, she is not mentioned again. We’re not told that she cancelled the trip, or that she and Jake have broken up. Instead, Jake just decides to join his father for the trip.

"I really do... not hate you..."

“I really do… not hate you…”

There’s enough space (three weeks) for the viewer to read what they want into the decision, but also no real melodrama about it. It’s entirely possible Jake just decided that he might be moving to New Zealand soon and so wants to spend some time with his father while he can; maybe he figures this is the best place to talk about his writing. Explorers leaves there questions to the audience to decide for themselves.

Also in the “Deep Space Nine being comfortably Deep Space Nine” category, the teaser gives us a wonderful “Bashir being sleazy” sequence. Given Bashir’s reputation as a problematic character, it would be easier to move away from the “aggressive womaniser” part of his personality. Certainly, his pursuit of Dax during the show’s first season was downright creepy at times – remember when he followed her to her quarters in Dax?

In firm hands...

In firm hands…

Explorers, however, finds a way to make Bashir’s romantic urges work – by directing them at a willing target. Explorers introduces Chase Masterson as Leeta, a welcome addition to the show’s expanding ensemble, and the flirty scene between Leeta and Bashir is cheesy fun. It helps that Leeta is very clearly into Bashir, and so his energetic (and awkward) flirtation doesn’t feel as tone-deaf as his “no means try harder” routine with Dax in the show’s early days.

Explorers is a wonderful piece of Deep Space Nine, and a demonstration of how comfortable the show has become in its own skin. It might not be the most tightly-plotted episode of the show ever produced, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s a beautiful embodiment of what Deep Space Nine can be.

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

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4 Responses

  1. Another cool review.

    It never occurred to me before but yes I can see the resemblance with ‘Family’. And of course Sisko is the builder – could you picture Picard help designing the Defiant?

    On a shallow note I always liked Leeta and was rooting for her and Bashir.

    • Yep. At the risk of being shallow, Chase Masterson was (and probably still is) one of my teenage crushes.

    • Didn’t Bashir say in Emissary that he had his pick of any ship in the fleet? But he never mentioned the Lexington. Or it may still have been a sore spot and he lied to himself to make it better. I liked seeing the piece of equipment from Birthright again and Bashir trying to make it look important. But Dr Lense wouldn’t know what it was and it never worked anyway (except to send Data off to the land of dreams and electric sheep). Where did Sisko find the time to build the solar sailing ship, would his duties permit it, and would it have limitless fuel if it’s propelled by tachyons?

      • Bah! Specifics! 🙂

        (I have not problem with Sisko having to work on his hobbies like this. The episode unfolds over an extended period, doesn’t it? Although I think the time gap unfolds once Sisko and Jake are actually on the sailing ship. But I quite like the slow pace of the episode and the sense that time is passing. It’s something that I think DS9 did better than the other Star Trek shows.)

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