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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Penumbra (Review)

Penumbra represents the beginning of the end, kicking off the epic ten-episode conclusion to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

To be fair, Deep Space Nine had already embraced serialised storytelling, whether in the seeding of gradually-building plotlines or its long-term character development. The show was most serialised in the audacious six-episode arc that opened the sixth season; A Time to Stand, Rocks and Shoals, Sons and Daughters, Behind the Lines, Favour the Bold and Sacrifice of Angels. In some ways, the ten-episode closing arc is ultimately an extension of that basic idea. However, it is also something more complex.

When the moon is in the seventh house in the Kendra Province…

In some ways, this last narrative experiment would be the boldest creative decision of the entire seven year run. The production team had strained a little bit in structuring and pacing those six linked episodes; Sons and Daughters was notably the runt of the litter, telling a relatively standalone story about Worf while essentially repeating Kira’s character arc from Rocks and Shoals in a much less effective manner. As such, trying to tie ten hours of television together into a single cohesive narrative was a bold move. Then again, Deep Space Nine had never been short of ambition.

It is tempting to treat this ten-episode run as a single story, and it kinda is; Netflix labels the forty-five minute episodes as “Part 1”, “Part 2”, “Part 3”, “Part 4”, “Part 5”, “Part 6”, “Part 7” and “Part 8.” However, the run can also be broken down into smaller chunks. ‘Til Death Do Us Part and Strange Bedfellows were originally titled Umbra and Eclipse, suggesting a three-parter. In contrast, TV Guide listed the first four episodes in the run as a four-parter. When It Rains… and Tacking Into the Wind are definitely a two-parter. Extreme Measures is practically standalone.

Build a final arc.

Admittedly, the storytelling falters in places, as the production team’s reach occasionally exceeds their grasp. Some of these issues are outside the control of the production team, such as the budgetary concerns that hinder Extreme Measures. Some of these issues are entirely within the control of the production team, such as the pacing of the subplot with Winn and Dukat that leads to the most transparent stalling tactic in When It Rains…. Individual story choices are occasionally misguided, such as the emphasis on the Breen or the Pah-Wraiths.

Nevertheless, these ten episodes hang together surprisingly well. There is a sense of purpose and momentum running through these episodes that strengthens even the weaker hours. More than that, this ten-part saga includes some of the strongest episodes in the entire franchise, with episodes like When It Rains… and Tacking Into the Wind feeling like the culmination of more than nine years of storytelling across two different series. Though individual elements of this sprawling epic might miss the mark, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Dukat is of Bajor…

Penumbra is hardly subtle about any of this. The episode opens with a scene in which Benjamin Sisko and Kasidy Yates explicitly talk about their plans for the future. In particular, Sisko outlines his plans for the aftermath of the Dominion War, the destructive conflict that has been raging across the Alpha Quadrant since Call to Arms at the end of the fifth season. Sisko announces that he has purchased land on Bajor and plans to make a home on the planet when the dust settles.

“I’m going to start building as soon as the war is over,” Sisko assures Yates. “We’ll have a place that we can visit any time we want.” Yates is understandably drawn to the idea of a peaceful life on an idyllic world. “Sounds good to me.” Sisko responds, “Maybe someday I’ll retire here.” This is the opening scene of the final extended arc of the series. Penumbra is hardly subtle the episode might as well build a giant flashing neon sign around Sisko, warning viewers that the character’s end game has finally been set in motion.

Dammit, Sisko, you’re only nine episodes away from retirement!

To be fair, there is something just a little bit cheesy and clumsy in the set up. The moment that a character on a television show or in a film starts talking about their retirement, they inevitably start a ticking clock counting down to some tragic fate. The Simpsons labelled the term “retirony”, and it is an effective description. The foreshadowing of a character’s happy ending exerts a strange gravity on the narrative that follows, the dramatic irony too compelling for most storytellers to resist. Inevitably, What You Leave Behind makes it clear that Sisko will not be retiring to Bajor.

At the same time, Penumbra gets away with this somewhat heavy-handed foreshadowing for a number of reasons. In purely practical terms, Sacrifice of Angels  explicitly promised that “the Sisko is of Bajor, but he will find no rest there”, making this ironic twist more of a self-aware reminder than a straight-up cliché. More than that, though, the scene is a very clear statement of purpose for the nine hours of television that will follow. It is a scene that very consciously and very obvious sets up a plot point that will pay off in nine episodes, making sure to draw the audience’s attention to the twist.

“C’mon. There’s life after Deep Space Nine. Patrick Stewart won’t shut up about how he gets to drive dune buggies in feature films now.”

After all, no other Star Trek spin-off attempted something this ambitious in its final season. Star Trek: The Next Generation wandered through a surreal final season before wrapping up with a brilliant self-contained finale that left the door open for the ship’s real final adventure in Star Trek: Generations. In contrast, Star Trek: Voyager made a point to bring closure to the crew’s journey home, but only buy using a convenient plot device that had no real impact outside that self-contained finale. The end of Star Trek: Enterprise was a disaster.

As such, Deep Space Nine is the only Star Trek show to have a clean and definitive ending. More than that, it is the only Star Trek show to end by consciously scattering its crew to the four winds. Endgame ends with the implication that the crew will go their own ways once they return to Earth, but the episode is structured explicitly to avoid having to deal with that. These Are the Voyages… nominally takes place during the last mission of the NX-01, but it never spends much time on the finality of that mission. In both cases, finality is an afterthought.

“Bajor’s the limit.”

In contrast, the final ten episodes of Deep Space Nine move inevitably and inexorably towards a climax that is utterly unlike that of any other Star Trek show. Part of that is down to the fact that Deep Space Nine ends in a rather bittersweet manner, most notably with Sisko departing the mortal plane and leaving his wife and son behind. Sure, future!Janeway is assimilated in Endgame and Tucker dies in the holonovel in These Are the Voyages…, but Sisko’s departure both came earlier and feels more profound.

As such, the opening scene of Penumbra is very much a warning to Star Trek fans that this is going to be something very different than The Turnabout Intruder or All Good Things… This story is going to be fundamentally different than any televised Star Trek story to this point in the franchise, by virtue of being something resembling a definitive and distinct ending. There will be no promise that “… the adventure continues…”, no implied two more years of a five-year mission, no reassurance that “the sky is the limit.”

“So… you like Star Trek III: The Search for Spock too, right?”

Of course, while Penumbra kicks off this run of ten interconnected episodes of television building to the end of the series, the truth is that Deep Space Nine has been building to this moment for quite some time. Indeed, Sisko and Yates’ discussion at the start of Penumbra even mirrors Sloan’s motivations in Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges, with both episodes suggesting that the Dominion War cannot continue indefinitely and that the characters need to start planning (personally and politically) for the aftermath.

More than that, Deep Space Nine has been consciously building towards this climax for quite some time. The production team always understood that the seventh season was likely to be their last. The production team have been seeding potential story threads leading to that conclusion since the early sixth season; the prophecy of doom in Sacrifice of Angels, the relationship between Odo and Kira in His Way, the exploration of Sisko’s origin in Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols, the disease sweeping the Great Link in Treachery, Faith and the Great River.

“Don’t forget the Pah-Wraith cult in Covenant!”

As such, Penumbra is not really the beginning of the end, so much as an episode that makes a conscious effort to begin drawing these threads together. As Ronald D. Moore outlined to Cinefantastique, the production team put a reasonable amount of work into plotting the final season of Deep Space Nine:

“That kind of discussion and planning began before season six was even completed, which was complicated by the fact that we didn’t know for sure, whether Terry was actually leaving until right up until the end. When it became official that Terry was leaving, that, of course, influenced everything else. We had to figure out how to get her off the show, and then what the new character was going to be, and how that was going to affect all the multiple storylines that we had going.

“As time went on, we put all the names of all of the characters, all the regulars, and then all the recurring characters, which was a substantial list, on the board, and tried to go through them and say, ‘We want this character to go here, this character to go there, this to happen to this character.‘ With those broad targets in mind, we started talking about the first act of the season, the second act of the season, and the third act of the season. We realized that they were going to be interconnected in ways, more strongly than they ever had before. Then it became a whole routine with the studio, about how closely tied could the episodes be, how far apart could they possibly be. The studio, frankly, doesn’t like us to do continuity like this. The studio doesn’t like being ‘serialized.’ They get flack from the affiliates and so on. I can understand their position. On the other hand, we are in a situation with the show where you are compelled at this point to tie them tighter and tighter together, especially as it is coming to a conclusion. So that struggle between serialization and stand-alone episodes was a battle that was being fought all year long. You can see that we had to choose to do some stand-alone episodes that you could have done theoretically in any other year, just so we could get to a place so that by the end of the season we could do this run of ten shows where they are all tied together.”

Of course, all of this planning had only ever been in broad strokes. Deep Space Nine had never been a clockwork production like other long-form serialised shows like Babylon 5. The production team on Deep Space Nine were prone to improvise, to follow interesting story threads in the heat of the moment.

Bashir needs to us all his grey matter.

After all, any number of key episodes had changed dramatically from the original concept meeting to the finished product. The Adversary had originally been conceived as an episode about Vulcan leaving the Federation, evolving into a deep space riff on The Thing. That original idea carried over to Homefront and Paradise Lost, where it was refined into a military coup of the Federation. In Purgatory’s Shadow began as a prison break story focusing on Michael Eddington before it became the story of how the Dominion allied itself with Cardassia, setting the Dominion War in motion.

The production team made split-second decisions that led to long-term consequences. The writers had planned to kill off Gowron in Apocalypse Rising, but reversed course late in the development process. Ironically, Ronald D. Moore had originally intended for Gowron to survive Tacking Into the Wind, until he got a note from Michael Piller that radically altered the entire tone of the episode. Even in this ten episode march to the finish line, the writing staff would frequently trip over one another, improvising in a way that rippled in both directions.

“I was just enjoying some light necking.”

This was both a strength and a weakness of Deep Space Nine.  Many of the strongest episodes in the run of Deep Space Nine developed entirely by chance, changing dramatically from what they were originally intended to be; In the Pale Moonlight may just be the best example. However, this lack of long-term planning also meant that otherwise important ideas fell by the proverbial wayside. As interesting as the Dominion War might have been, the final arc makes no tangible acknowledgement of Sisko’s mission to bring Bajor into the Federation, as established in Emissary.

In fact, the final ten episodes demonstrate the advantages and disadvantages of improvisation on their own terms. Several of the weaker storytelling choices in this run of episodes are the inevitable result of poor planning, of either failing to start a plot at the right point in the run or of overestimating the production budget that a particular story demands. At the same time, the strongest episodes in this run are those where the writers were willing to follow good ideas that developed relatively later in the process, embracing the show’s flexible approach to plotting.

Worf gets straight to the point.

Penumbra candidly acknowledges this loose and informal approach to plotting, the rather strange and organic journey that many of the characters on Deep Space Nine have taken to their roles in this final arc. “Did you ever think that you would become so attached to Bajor that you’d want to spend the rest of your life there?” Yates asks at one point. Sisko concedes, “It wasn’t part of the master plan, if that’s what you mean. But from the moment I set foot on this station, nothing has turned out the way I imagined it.”

Part of the joy of Deep Space Nine has been in watching these characters evolve. Who could have foreseen that Nog would evolve from a petty thief in Emissary to a valued member of the senior staff in What You Leave Behind? Dukat was introduced as a prominent member of the Cardassian military, but embarked upon a bizarre career trajectory that included “space pirate”, “leader of Cardassia” and “space cultist.” However, sometimes even the subtler developments are the most striking, like Sisko evolving from a man resentful of Bajor to a man planning to retire there.

“So… we’re acknowledging the whole ‘gap year as a space pirate’ thing, then? For their midlife crisis, most people just buy a sports car.”

Still, while these episodes retained this free-spirited and improvisational approach, there was no denying that they also involved a great deal more long-term planning than Star Trek usually permitted. Discussing the arc in The Fifty-Year Mission, René Echevarria conceded that the production team were walking something of a tightrope trying to satisfy their own storytelling requirements while still appeasing the affiliates:

We never explicitly said we were doing a ten-episode arc. The studio didn’t want any “to be continueds” and they didn’t want any recaps, strictly because syndication didn’t like that. But we proceeded to let the stories guide themselves. A few times we were forced to do recaps. And I think there are places where you’ll find that we were forced to do internal recaps where people talk about what happened. You do your best to not make it sound expositional. For us, it was different to do that. We had some ideas about how things were going to be. We decided that Section 31 was going to be behind the Founders’ disease; that Damar was going to rebel against the Dominion; that Ezri and Bashir were going to end up together; that Sisko was in some way going to become a Prophet. But we didn’t know exactly how things were going to come down.

Tellingly, the ten episode arc avoids explicitly ending episodes on “to be continued…”, even for the episodes most closely related. At the same time, the episodes stop still make a point to tee one another up; the ominous warning from the Prophets that closes Penumbra, the reveal of the Breen alliance in ‘Til Death Do Us Part, Winn’s melodramatic evil speech in Strange Bedfellows, Sisko’s emphasis on the importance of Damar at the end of The Changing Face of Evil.

“Okay Worf. I’m sorry I said that your mane wasn’t long and luxurious.”

The show makes a few token gestures to conceal and obfuscate this serialisation. The Changing Face of Evil serves as a punctuation mark on the first four episodes, the destruction of the Defiant serving as the kind of big storytelling “moment” that many audience members have come to expect from modern serialised narratives. With the two strong plot threads of Gowron’s return and Kira’s mission to Cardassia, When It Rains… and Tacking Into the Wind are their own pocket two-parter, mid-arc. Extreme Measures is a Section 31 episode. The Dogs of War is a Ferengi episode.

Still, there is a sense that Deep Space Nine is effectively structuring one gigantic farewell story for its cast and crew, with these individual stories serving as narrative detours for particular characters who are embarking upon the same journey together. After all, Extreme Measures opens with Kira and Garak dropping Odo off on the station before returning to their own subplot and The Dogs of War features a lot of moving pieces around to get ready for the massive race to the finish in What You Leave Behind.

Little house of the Emissary…

Even the notoriously serialisation-adverse Rick Berman acknowledged that this was effectively on gigantic story to The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion:

“We knew there was no way that we were going to be able to tie this up in one two-hour finale,” admits Star Trek Executive Producer Rick Berman. “So rather than try to tie up every loose thread in the few hours, we thought, ‘Why not look at the last third of the season as a continuing, building conclusion to the seven-year story?’ But we also wanted to be certain that it would not feel like you were watching a soap opera, or that people coming into an episode would not feel like, ‘Oh God, I just picked up episode three of a five-part miniseries.’ We tried to give each episode a beginning, middle, and end, and a sense of totality, despite the fact that we were carrying forward certain ideas.”

There is a sense that the production team working on the final chapter of Deep Space Nine are trying to have the best of both worlds, to assure the audience a happy ending without smothering the creativity that made the show such a pleasure in the first place.

Pilot season.

Penumbra incorporates a lot of this into the narrative itself, particularly through the character of Sisko. Sisko spends most of Penumbra planning for the future, albeit a future that he will not live to see. Sisko maps out an entire future for himself and Yates. In the teaser, Sisko has revealed that he has bought land in “the Kendra province, just south of the Yolja river.” He announces his plan to build a house on that land, to retire there. However, Sisko moves quickly to make that future a reality; later, he builds a scale model. Subsequently, he proposes to Yates.

Sisko’s approach mirrors that of the writers working on this final arc. Sisko very clearly has a template for the future that he wants to build, right down to the model that he installs his quarters. He knows which way the house will face, that he wants to grow berries to make spring wine. At the same time, Sisko’s plans are still in flux. “I can’t decide whether I should open up this wall or keep the kitchen separate,” he explains. Yates and Sisko debate the point, but never reach a firm decision on the matter. It seems like the dividing wall will be a matter to be dealt with down the line.

Embracing serialisation.

The dividing wall is not the only potential disruption to Sisko’s rough outline of the future. While discussing the dividing wall, Sisko proposes to Yates. It is a very sweet moment, albeit one that feels earned. Sisko and Yates have been dating since Family Business at the end of the third season, and they’ve grown into a very grounded and realistic romantic couple. Their interactions in episodes like Take Me Out to the Holosuite and Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang feel genuine and well-observed, the behaviour of two mature adults in a loving relationship.

As such, it makes sense that Sisko’s proposal should not come as some grand romantic gesture, but as the logical endpoint of a considered conversation about their shared future. The proposal is improvised without being jarring, unplanned without seeming random. It is unclear whether Sisko had ever considered marrying Kasidy, even though it is clear that he hoped to build a future with her. Marriage is not so much a surprise twist as an organic development, albeit one that Sisko never actually considered as a logical decision until he was having this conversation.

Weyoun outta line!

In many ways, this mirrors the approach that the writers on Deep Space Nine would take to long-forming plotting, having an idea of the direction in which they planned to head, while making a point to remain open to various narrative and storytelling opportunities that might present themselves along the way. Sisko’s proposal to Kasidy perfectly encapsulates this idea; it is so organic that it feels like a logical end point for their conversation, yet so unforeseen that Sisko has to effectively improvise an engagement ring from the props to hand.

Penumbra dutifully commits to process of laying the groundwork for the nine episodes that will follow, neatly setting the scene for the rest of the arc. Of course, there are a number of notable absences in the guest cast, characters who will become more important in later episodes. Penumbra does not feature Kai Winn, General Martok or Elim Garak, for example, all characters who have important roles to play in the adventure ahead. However, the episode does mark out key thematic areas and makes sure that the snowball is rolling downhill.

Never turn your naked backside on a Breen.

The Breen make a surprise appearance towards the end of the episode, the enigmatic species making a return for the first time since By Inferno’s Light in the middle of the fifth season. Even though Penumbra is deliberately vague about what the Breen want, the decision to build a subplot featuring Dax and Worf around these aliens highlights their importance in the grand scheme of things. Although the purpose of the Breen won’t become clear until the end of ‘Til Death Do Us Part, their appearance here marks them as important.

Similarly, Penumbra invests a lot of time and energy on the plot and character mechanics on Cardassia Prime. The Female Changeling is rapidly deteriorating, a reminder of the illness that was revealed in Treachery, Faith and the Great River, and which will become such a crucial plot point as the arc progresses. Similarly, Penumbra makes time for Dukat to physically transform himself into a Bajoran while also making a point to highlight Damar’s growing depression and alcoholism.

“Functional alcoholism, thank you!”

None of these plots are fully explored in Penumbra. In fact, most of them are just seeded. There is very little forward movement in terms of any of these storylines. Most of the characters who will interact towards the climax of the arc have yet to come into contact with one another. Penumbra is an episode that relies very heavily on the audience’s trust and patience. It is an episode about moving pieces across the board, and trusting the audience that those pieces will collide in the right way over the course of the next nine episodes.

Sometimes they don’t impact perfectly. Sometimes they trip up and miss one another, sometimes they spin in circles as they stall for time, sometimes they crowd out other more interesting ideas. However, sometimes all of these plot points line up just right, leading to a strange of of alchemy that would never have been possible without the momentum of the story arc and the maneouvring in the earlier episodes.

Swig.

Penumbra is not a fantastic episode of television of itself, but it lays the groundwork for some fantastic episodes to come.

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