Discussions of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine tend to focus on the big sweeping events and the epic scope.
It is easy to see why this is the case. Over the course of the show, alliances break and empires fall. Characters are elevated from the lowest rungs of the social ladder to command over entire planets. Whereas Star Trek: The Next Generation worked hard to flesh out alien cultures like the Romulans and the Klingons, it never committed to the kinds of sweeping long-form narratives that unfolded across the run of its younger sibling. The fall (and rise and fall again) of Cardassia, the broken and mended peace with the Klingons, the Dominion War.
Deep Space Nine deserves (and receives) a great deal of credit for telling these stories. Indeed, the franchise would not make another attempt at storytelling on this scale until the final two seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise. However, focusing on the bigger picture tends to gloss over the other strengths of Deep Space Nine. As much as the show crafts epic long-running stories of betrayal and redemption that span seasons of broadcast television, it interspaces these epic beats with lots of smaller character moments.
The Ascent is a wonderful example of this. The fifth season of Deep Space Nine is one of the most sweeping and epic seasons in the history of the franchise, but it still finds time for the smaller beats. The Ascent is essentially a set of low key character studies, playing to the strengths of both the cast and the characters.
In some ways, Deep Space Nine has aged better than the other Star Trek shows. It is the Star Trek series that feels most in tune with the modern television landscape, where even episodic procedurals like CSI have been known to play with long-form storytelling and serialisation. While Deep Space Nine was not quite a pioneer of this form of storytelling when compared to something like Babylon 5, it was still very much ahead of the curve. This commitment to character development and worldbuilding makes Deep Space Nine very binge- or marathon-friendly.
(This is without getting into the fact that many of the franchise’s more prescient commentaries on issues like liberty and security come from Deep Space Nine and have aged quite well for the War on Terror. Homefront and Paradise Lost feel more relevant in the twenty-first century than they did on initial broadcast, while Inquisition feels particularly uncomfortable. Even The Way of the Warrior feels like a metaphor for the Iraq War that landed almost a decade early. Deep Space Nine still feels timely.)
However, Deep Space Nine is very much a product of nineties television in a number of respects. The Ascent is in many ways a reminder of this, feeling very much like an episode of Deep Space Nine that could only have been produced in the context of the nineties. It is a light character-driven story that relies upon a fairly standard premise, and which splits its time bouncing between a relatively high stakes primary plot thread and a much lower stakes secondary plot thread.
This type of storytelling was quite common in the nineties, but is somewhat rarer on modern television. New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum would argue that this sort of storytelling is more common in modern television comedies than on small-screen drama. Laurence Caromba heralded the evolution of a genre as formulaic as television crime dramas away from cases of the week and comedic b plots as “one of the great, underappreciated cultural trends of the past two decades.”
While there are undoubtedly still television dramas that do adhere to that format, they are very much the exception rather than the rule. There are any number of reasons for this shift away from this type of plotting. These sorts of plots were appealing for shows with large casts that felt obligated to feature all (or most) of the cast in a given episode; notably, these plots are less common in series with smaller and more specialised casts or with the freedom to drop several regulars from a given episode.
More than that, this trend away from this style of plotting also reflects format changes in contemporary television. Increased emphasis on serialisation has led to the impression that the standalone episode is outdated. The trimming of the run-time for hour-long dramas (from more than forty-five to about forty-one minutes) to make room for advertising also puts storytelling space at a premium. More than that, short season orders (even on network television) have meant that each and every episode becomes more and more important.
For all that Deep Space Nine played with serialisation, its storytelling mode was still largely built around the episode. Barring the occasional multi-episode arc, its stories tend to have clear beginnings, middles and endings framed within the forty-four minutes afforded to a single installment. In terms of serialisation, Deep Space Nine‘s big innovation was its willingness to treat these episodes as building blocks rather than insisting they stand alone. Hippocratic Oath is vital for characterising the Jem’Hadar going forward, but it also works as its own story.
It is a style that is much closer to modern serialisation than that employed by Star Trek: Voyager, but it is quite far removed from Bryan Fuller’s promises that Star Trek: Discovery will be a “novel over thirteen episodes.” In terms of Star Trek, it seems likely that this highly serialised structure would benefit epic large-scale storytelling. Indeed, Fuller has promised that his new series will be built around “an event in Star Trek history in the history of Starfleet that had been talked about but never fully explored.”
With these sorts of structural concerns and given the realities of modern television production, it seems highly likely that any modern television interpretation of Star Trek will have to move away from much of the lower key episodic storytelling that defined so much of the first five series. It seems highly unlikely that Discovery will be able to make room for a comedy episode like Looking for Par’Mach In All the Wrong Places or even a relatively light character-driven story like The Ascent. In terms of plotting the arc of the fifth season, neither episode is essential.
However, that is a huge part of the appeal of episodes like Looking for Par’Mach In All the Wrong Places or The Ascent. A large part of the appeal of Deep Space Nine came from the fact that not every episode was an epic tale of war and peace like Apocalypse Rising or A Call to Arms. Even when the Dominion War rages across the final two seasons of the show, at least a third of the episodes have no direct connection to the conflict or could easily be changed to remove any reference to events.
As much as Deep Space Nine was a story with big epic beats, it was also a story that focused on the smaller moments that feel between those dramatic events. As much as empires might clash and civilisations might fall, Deep Space Nine was just as interested in watching relationships develop and characters grow. Appropriately enough for a television series that opened with its lead character explaining the concept (and appeal) of linear time to a bunch of aliens, Deep Space Nine was fascinated with the passage of time; the big changes it brings, and the little ones.
The Ascent is a great example. The episode opens with a short scene of Jake Sisko packing his bags as he prepares to move out of the quarters he has shared with his father since Emissary. It is a subtle acknowledgement of how time has passed for the crew, how Jake Sisko has grown up over the past four years. Most of that happened in the background. The relationship between Benjamin and Jake Sisko was rarely the driving force in episodes. When it was in focus, as in Explorers or The Visitor, it tended to be rather low-key and divorced from the series’ big arcs.
Most of the relationship between Benjamin and Jake tended to play out in the background of episodes with larger concerns. Behind all the Ferengi intrigue of The Nagus, Benjamin and Jake argued about the company that Jake was choosing to keep. While Dax and Odo grappled with mysterious disappearances in the Gamma Quadrant in Shadowplay, Jake worked up to tell his father that he did not want to join Starfleet. While Odo tried to raise a Jem’Hadar in The Abandoned, Benjamin met Jake’s first girlfriend.
Indeed, this arguably true of how Deep Space Nine manages many of its relationships and dynamics. It relegates them to cute little secondary plots, rarely allowing them to take the spotlight. Sisko’s first date with Kasidy Yates comes in Family Business, which is primarily a story about Quark’s relationship with his mother. Kasidy moves on to the station in Indiscretion, as a goofy relationship beat in an episode primarily focused on Gul Dukat’s plans to murder his illegitimate daughter. Even Kasidy’s return in Rapture is not the focus of the episode.
To be fair, The Next Generation was quite fond of little characterisation beats like these, devoting subplots and plot points to fleshing out the characters and their interests; Data would become a stand-up comic in The Outrageous Okona, Geordi develops some self-confidence in Transfigurations, Data would learn to dream in Birthright, Part I. However, very rarely did these feel like building blocks indicating forward movement for the characters. They felt more like interludes peering into lives that were mostly static.
Indeed, it should be noted that Deep Space Nine traditionally did a much better job of depicting and developing romantic relationships than The Next Generation or Voyager. While Worf and Troi seemed to materialise out of thin air in the final season of The Next Generation, and while Chakotay and Seven of Nine hooked up “out of the blue” in the final season of Voyager, the romantic pairings on Deep Space Nine tend to feel slightly more organic. They feel like the result of these kinds of small moments and build-up.
Deep Space Nine‘s subplots are relatively self-contained, in that the audience does not need to have seen one to understand the others. Indeed, even if the audience watching The Ascent had never seen Jake Sisko before, the opening scene does an excellent job of laying out the dynamics at play. Jake Sisko is a young man leaving home for the first time, who loves his father. Still, that sort of sequence (and the entire subplot) builds upon a host of other small sequences to suggest the tapestry of a life and a relationship with a real texture to it.
The secondary plot in The Ascent is fairly light. Then again, that is part of the charm. life is made up of “light” moments. Jake Sisko is finally moving out of his father’s place, and is moving in with Nog. Nog is returning to the station following his training at Starfleet Academy, itself the culmination of a number of similar low key subplots tracing back to Jake’s decision to help him to learn in The Nagus, his application to Starfleet so as to avoid his father’s fate in Heart of Stone, and his passing of the entrance exam in Facets.
Naturally, living together proves a challenge for Nog and Jake. The Ascent pitches it very much as a sit-com plot. Jake is the messy artsy type, while Nog is the tightly-wound military man. Jake turns the apartment into a kip, while Nog tries to run his roommate’s life with a military efficiency. The friends practically come to blows, until Sisko decides to intervene and force them to talk to one another. There is no big moment of resolution, no solution to their arguments. They are just going to have to learn to live together.
This loose plotting and sit-com premise are hardly very efficient. The entire subplot might have been dropped with no real loss to the episode or to the season. However, there is a certain charm to the storyline, watching Jake and Nog interact and seeing how each has grown over the past few seasons. These small little character nuggets are a large part of what makes Deep Space Nine‘s characterisation so successful. No character on Voyager can really claim to have had that sort of development.
Indeed, the plot arguably works best as a series of moments, a collection of snapshots of where these characters are now relative to where they have been. Benjamin clearly proud of his son, but also sad to see him gone. Jake bristling to be free of his father. Quark making a peace offering (or delivering a veiled insult) in the form of two trays of root beer. Rom worried that his son has been replaced by a changeling. These are cute little pictures of life on Deep Space Nine, which seems to flow in a manner more organic than other Star Trek shows.
Even the primary plot of the episode is fairly light, although the stakes are nominally higher. Quark finds himself summoned to appear before a Federation Grand Jury, with Odo delighting in the opportunity to finally (and literally) bring Quark to justice. However, things inevitably go wrong, and Quark and Odo find themselves trapped on a barren world fighting for survival. Although Quark and Odo worry about whether they will “freeze to death or starve to death”, the audience is canny enough to know that neither outcome is particularly likely.
Much like Nog and Jake, Quark and Odo find themselves thrown into an impossible situation and forced to get along… to some degree, at least. The Ascent strands Odo and Quark on a freezing planet with little chance of escape, but the stakes never feel particularly high. Again, this is an example of Deep Space Nine as a nineties television show. Two members of the primary cast are highly unlikely to die in a low-key mid-season episode. The audience is aware of this simple fact, and the script is aware of the audience’s awareness.
So The Ascent is never particularly tense, but it doesn’t try to be. Instead, it is simply an excuse to build an episode around the adversarial relationship between Odo and Quark. The duo’s odd antagonism (and perhaps even mutual respect) date back to Emissary and were firmly established in early episodes like Babel or Move Along Home. Odo and Quark are the two members of the cast who have been on Deep Space Nine the longest, both serving in similar capacities during the Cardassian Occupation.
Their repartee is so distinctive that it almost singlehandedly gives away the twist in Things Past, when the Cardassian security chief Thrax intones “Quark!” in a very familiar manner. However, despite the fact that Odo and Quark bounce so well off one another, the pair have spent surprisingly little screentime in one another’s company. They shared a subplot in Civil Defense and Quark dispensed life advice in Crossfire, but they rarely received the same space afforded O’Brien and Bashir in stories like Armageddon Game or Hippocratic Oath.
In a way, this is a testament to how effectively Deep Space Nine manages its characters. Over the seven-season run of the show, The Ascent marks the only time that Quark and Odo get an episode’s primary plot exclusively to themselves. However, audiences would be forgiven for forgetting this, given the way that Deep Space Nine developed and explored this relationship through short vignettes and minor subplots. As with a lot of the characters on the show, Quark and Odo seem to measure their lives in small moments.
Rene Auberjonois argued as much, acknowledging that the Quark and Odo relationship was one of the cornerstones of the show and somehow was only the primary focus of a single episode across the entire length and breadth of the series:
I have a feeling that they knew the Quark-Odo would be one of the things that would be, not necessarily a cornerstone, but something that they could go back to, that was the kind of relationship between characters that Star Trek fans revel in. I don’t mean to be too obscure, but it’s sort of like of In Mice and Men, when Lennie keeps saying, “Tell me about the rabbits.” He wants to hear the story again. So I have a feeling that there’s an element of that in the Quark-Odo relationship, because it meant the writers could refer to that very briefly and have it have meaning. We’d have tiny little encounters most of the time. It wouldn’t even be scenes. I would walk into the bar to do something else completely, and Quark and Odo would have an exchange, maybe only two or three lines between them, but the audience was so in tune with that relationship that they could extrapolate. And, in fact, Armin and I have commented on it over the years. When people talk about how much they loved that relationship, we’d say, “You know, there was really only one show in the seven years in which it was all Odo and Quark.” That was The Ascent. Other than that, it was always just short little scenes. But that relationship was so embedded in the audience’s understanding and psyche that it took on a weight that far surpassed how much time we actually spent with each other. So I think the writers knew that Quark-Odo was likely to be a running theme.
As such, The Ascent stands out as a relatively unique episode in terms of devoting its primary focus to that dynamic, but it also builds very clearly and very organically on what has come before.
A large part of the appeal of The Ascent is the opportunity to build such an episode around Quark and Odo spending time together. The episode is in no way plot-driven. The title of the episode alludes to Quark and Odo climbing a mountain to activate a distress beacon to summon help, but that is not the plot of the episode. It is much more interested in the dynamic between the two characters. Tellingly, a third of the episode elapses before the runabout even crashes on to the surface of the planet, and Quark’s activating of the rescue beacon happens off screen.
It is worth comparing and contrasting Deep Space Nine and Voyager on this point, if only because the shows invite comparison. Much like Warlord serves as a reminder of how much more technically proficient the Deep Space Nine production team were in realising a similar episode with The Assignment, the plot of The Ascent is mirrored in the plot of Rise. Both episodes are built around two members of the ensemble with a contentious relationship, the rational chief of security and the roguish operator of the show’s leisure facilities. Both episodes even feature the theme of ascent.
However, Voyager is much more interested in plotting than in character dynamics, constructing a tense psychological thriller with a clear antagonist rather than simply focusing on the two characters at the heart of the story. Rise is very interested in exposing (and defeating) the alien menace responsible for the life-and-death stakes driving the episode. The Ascent treats the Orion Syndicate as nothing more than a convenient plot device, a way to strand Odo and Quark on the planet so that they can have an extended conversation.
Whereas Rise positions itself as a plot-driven action adventure, The Ascent could almost work as a two-handed stage play. The Star Trek franchise has a fondness for this sort of storytelling, as demonstrated by stories like Darmok or Shuttlepod One. However, Deep Space Nine is more fond of this theatrical style of storytelling than any of the other shows in the franchise; Duet, The Wire, The Ascent, Waltz. Over the run of the show, it seems like Deep Space Nine believes that throwing two characters together and letting them talk is the key to good drama.
Ira Steven Behr had been wanting to do an episode like The Ascent for quite some time. According to The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, Behr was heavily influenced by his affection for the work of Samuel Beckett:
“I’ve read Waiting for Godot at least thirty times since I was fifteen years old,” says Ira Behr. “And I wanted to do Waiting for Godot, with Quark as Estragon and Odo as Vladimir. And just have them… waiting. They’re waiting for Sisko by a runabout and they don’t know why they’re there or how long they’ve waited. I just wanted to do it. But I never had the nerve.”
The Ascent is not quite as adventurous and off-format as that original pitch, but the script is shrewd enough that it is more invested in the dynamic between Quark and Odo than it is in the supposedly life-and-death stakes.
One of the more interesting aspects of Deep Space Nine is the recurring sense that the production team have a fondness for Quark over Odo. On the surface, this claim appears absurd. Quark is a creepy and lecherous criminal who has been involved in all manner of deeply seedy and questionable behaviour, from helping terrorists hijack the station in Invasive Procedures through to trying to produce pornography featuring Kira in Meridian. In contrast, Odo is the station’s chief of security and a representative of law and order.
However, the series repeatedly suggests that both Quark and Odo are quite different from how they originally appear. The show grows increasingly uncomfortable with Odo’s fascistic tendencies, suggesting that Sisko reintroduce Cardassian law in The Maquis, Part I or monitoring outbound communications in The Wire. Indeed, The Ascent was broadcast immediately following Things Past, an episode that quite candidly condemned Odo for his collaboration with the Cardassian authorities during the Occupation.
In contrast, the show has repeatedly suggested that Quark is more compassionate than he might appear. Quark is repeatedly used as a vehicle to criticise humanity and the Federation, delivering key thematic monologues in both The Jem’Hadar and The Siege of AR-558. More than that, the show has repeatedly suggested that Quark is too idealistic to make a good Ferengi. Although he cannot find the courage to run away with Pel in Rules of Acquisition, he still stands up for her to Grand Negus Zek.
The show even hinted at this in the first mirror universe episode Crossover, in which mirror!Odo was revealed to be a slave driving fascist while mirror!Quark was explicitly sympathetic to the suffering humans. While this might at first appear to be a simple inversion of their characters, contrasting Odo’s obsession with justice and Quark’s greed, the mirror universe seldom works like that. The mirror universe is populated by twisted reflections rather than simple opposites; most notably, Smiley still has O’Brien’s fundamental decency.
Indeed this dynamic plays out during the extended arc that opens the sixth season. When the Cardassians retake the station, Quark proves far more sympathetic (and reliable) to the rebels than Odo. Odo betrays his friends and colleagues in Behind the Lines, while it is ultimately Quark who organises the jailbreak in Sacrifice of Angels. The moral universe of Deep Space Nine seems to side more frequently with Quark than it does with Odo, treating Quark’s greed as ultimately a less serious character flaw than Odo’s need to impose order.
Then again, this is very much in keeping with the broader themes of Deep Space Nine. More than any other Star Trek show, Deep Space Nine is wary of authority and power. Episodes like Homefront, Paradise Lost and For the Cause all expressed a deep-seated ambivalence about the Federation and Starfleet. Deep Space Nine is the only Star Trek show that ends with the lead character considering his retirement from the institution. While Deep Space Nine is more humanist than its critics will admit, it puts its faith in people rather than institutions.
This is why the writers will inevitably side with Quark over Odo, as strange as that must seem in the context of a Star Trek show. The insults that Quark and Odo hurl at one another in The Ascent are quite telling. In the world of Deep Space Space Nine, it is infinitely better to be a “failure” than to be a “fascist.” This is perhaps the ultimate tragedy of Gul Dukat as it plays out across the fifth season, his refusal to accept his current status as an outcast and failure, even if it affords him the opportunity to become a better person.
One of The Ascent‘s best punchlines plays upon Odo’s irrelevance in the grand scheme of things. Despite Odo’s posturing about bringing Quark to the Federation Grand Jury, the truth is that Quark is being called as a witness rather than as defendant. Odo might talk a big game, but the plot of The Ascent relegates him to little more than a deep space courier. The Constable is an errand boy. Odo knows even less than Quark, his moment of triumph turned into a wry joke.
The Ascent is quite candid about Quark’s repeated failures as a business man, and as a criminal. Vindictively, Odo mocks Quark for his loss of status and privilege. “I guess you’re not as successful a businessman as you think you are,” Odo taunts. However, The Ascent affords Quark the last laugh. Accepting Odo’s criticism, Quark remarks, “Which means you’ve spent the last ten years of your life trying to catch a nobody. Without little success, I might add. So you tell me, which one of us is the bigger failure?”
Many of the major characters on Deep Space Nine lie about themselves; some lie to other people, some lie to themselves. Some come to accept this over the course of the show, while others are ultimately trapped within their self-deceptions. Odo struggles with these issues in episodes like Necessary Evil or Things Past, as does Quark in Business as Usual. The difference is that Odo always seems forced to own up to his mistakes and his shortcomings by other characters. Quark seems to eventually come to his awakenings on his own terms.
Both Quark and Odo were banished by their own people at the end of the fourth season, Quark in Body Parts and Odo in Broken Link. However, Quark’s exile came with a hint of realisation; he was forced to acknowledge that he was not as devoted to the Ferengi way of life as he had often claimed. In contrast, Odo’s exile is forced upon him by the Founders, without a similar moment of realisation. Quark ultimately breaks from Ferengi culture in The Dogs of War, while Odo returns home in What You Leave Behind…
Indeed, Quark also seems the more compassionate of the pair. Repeatedly over the course of the show, it seems like Quark might genuinely care for Odo. He hides it remarkably well, but there are several major hints. Quark couches his romantic advice from Crossfire in self-serving terms, but he clearly understands Odo more than anybody on the station. In The Ascent, Quark refuses to leave Odo behind with a broken leg, even though he claims to be bringing Odo as “emergency rations.” In What You Leave Behind…, it is Quark who finally extends his hand in friendship.
To be fair, Odo does reciprocate at certain points. He installs soundproofing at the end of Crossfire as a gesture of goodwill to Quark in return for that romantic advice, and he allows Quark a minor victory in The Sound of Her Voice as an acknowledgement of Quark’s repeated kindness towards him. However, Odo is much less willing to accept that he is in anyway equivalent to Quark. In What You Leave Behind…, Odo pointedly refuses Quark the courtesy of embracing him as an equal and a friend, a move that even Kira finds cold.
This dynamic plays out within The Ascent. As Odo lies dying, he records one last log entry for posterity. In that log entry, which Quark will never hear but which undoubtedly inform the way that other characters see him, Odo refuses to grant Quark even the slightest hint of respect beyond acknowledging Ferengi memorial customs. “It looks like Quark didn’t make it. I can’t say I’m surprised. You’ll find his body farther up the slope. No doubt he’d want you to vacuum-desiccate his remains and auction them off. Not that they’re worth much.” Cheap shot.
(There is, of course, some small irony in all this. Contemplating his own mortality, Odo leaves instructions for what the Deep Space Nine crew should do with his own remains. “As for myself, cremate me, stick my ashes in my bucket, and shoot me through the wormhole,” he suggests. “I might as well end up where I began.” Outside of the sadness of that particular image, it hints at the trajectory of Odo’s arc over the remainder of the show. Even exiled and broken, Odo still wants to go home again.)
Ultimately, it is Quark who manages to save the pair. It is Quark who manages to summon the energy to carry the transmitter to the top of the mountain under his own power, while Odo resigns himself to his fate. The Ascent makes a point not to show Quark doing any of this. There is no short sequence of Quark reaching the top of the mountain or activating the transmitter. There is no sequence of the Defiant beaming the beacon aboard, surprised that Quark should be the person to have carried it all the way.
Instead, Quark is very much positioned as the unsung hero of The Ascent, the character who simply does what needs to be done not because he is the designated hero of the piece but because he is the only person who can. In many ways, it affirms the writing staff’s fondness for Quark as a character, as the outsider who is in a position to comment upon and critique the events of the show. Against all odds, and without ever really acknowledging it, Quark wins. There is something faintly reassuring in all of that.
For all that Deep Space Nine is accused of being a deeply cynical show, it is still a series where even an acknowledged failure can do the impossible.
- Apocalypse Rising
- The Ship
- Looking for Par’Mach in All the Wrong Places
- … Nor the Battle to the Strong
- The Assignment
- Trials and Tribble-ations
- Let He Who is Without Sin
- Things Past
- The Ascent
- The Darkness and the Light
- The Begotten
- For the Uniform
- In Purgatory’s Shadow
- By Inferno’s Light
- Doctor Bashir, I Presume
- A Simple Investigation
- Business as Usual
- Ties of Blood and Water
- Ferengi Love Songs
- Soldiers of the Empire
- Children of Time
- Blaze of Glory
- Empok Nor
- In the Cards
- Call to Arms