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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – ‘Til Death Do Us Part (Review)

Perhaps more than any other Star Trek show, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is an epic.

Sure, Star Trek: Voyager has more than a few characteristics of epic storytelling; it is a mythic journey, much like The Odyssey and The Iliad before it. In fact, several episodes of Voyager borrow quite heavily from those earliest of stories, with Favourite Son feature a planet for of sirens and Bliss finding the crew confronted with the deep space equivalent of lotus eaters. However, the storytelling on Voyager was always too small and too episodic to embrace the potential for a sprawling galactic epic.

Wedded bliss.

In contrast Deep Space Nine is a story with a lot of breadth. Of course, there are any number of isolated and standalone episodes within the seven-year run of Deep Space Nine, but there is also a strong sense that these one-hundred-and-seventy-plus episodes of television can be taken together and fashioned into a single cohesive narrative that runs from Emissary through to What You Leave Behind. There are undoubtedly bumps and inconsistencies along the way, strange shifts in direction and sharp left turns, but the series hangs together relatively well as a single narrative.

This is particularly true when it comes to the final ten episode of the series, which are very much intended to draw down the curtain on seven years of storytelling, while reinforcing the sense that this has truly been an epic narrative.

Feels like coming home…

In The Fifty-Year Mission, Ira Steven Behr argues that Deep Space Nine could be distinguished from the other Star Trek series by its structure, comparing Deep Space Nine to a televisual novel:

I think we honour the franchise by attempting to move it forward. And at the end of seven years, we basically had a novel for television. Some of the chapters you might want to skip over, but on the whole it hangs together, and as a creative endeavour it honoured the actors, it honoured the writers and it honoured the crew.

It is certainly a very valid way to talk about Deep Space Nine. It is not a comparison that feels particularly applicable to any other Star Trek series.

Shawl good, baby.

Indeed, it helps to explain why Deep Space Nine has aged better than any of the other Berman-era spin-offs. The idea of a novel-for-television was fairly radical in the context of the nineties, even with shows like Babylon 5 and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer embracing serialisation and long-form narratives. For the most part, television was still seen as a largely disposable medium, the infamous “vast wasteland” in which production companies were asked to churn out twenty-odd episodes in a season, with little real eye on posterity or prestige.

In the twenty-first century, the balance has shifted somewhat. With shorter seasons allowing for greater creative control and the development of a “prestige” model of television storytelling that embraces the idea of the writer as an artist, it have become customary to talk about successful serialised television shows as “novels for television.” Novelists from Norman Mailer to Gary Shteyngart have described The Sopranos as “a Great American Novel.”  Kasia Boddy has suggested that The Wire looks a lot like “the Great American Novel.”

There’s still time for one last Sisko face palm.

However, what exactly does it mean for a television show to be a like a novel? What are the defining attributes? What is the balance between an individual episode and the larger arc? These are questions that even modern television has struggled to answer, as Jill Soloway acknowledges:

It’s so complicated, and we’re so still using the rules that were built for episodic television that we’re really trying to figure it out. And it’s exciting: as we’re going into writing season 3, we’re asking ourselves, “Is there a way to write for each character and then only begin to weave it together when we start to edit?” We do all of this experimentation aware that many people, particularly foreign markets, will be watching it a half an hour at a time. And some people will be getting it a week apart. And the episodes do need to have their own structure. So I can say the most I’ve learned is that the sort of typical episodic structure that we still find ourselves doing is typical hero’s journey. There’s a problem five minutes in. There’s a climax. And then, what I call the TV roundelay at the end: you put on a great song, you check in with all your characters, the Grey’s Anatomy roundelay. I’m starting to feel like you can’t do that every episode but that you can do it as act breaks in the season. You can do this around episode one and again around episode three or four. But you can’t repeat that structure every episode because the people are binge-watching. If they are bingeing they don’t want to feel that lack of dynamic, where every episode has the same rhythm. The climax just can’t happen at 23 minutes in every episode. It will feel boring when you’re bingeing. So we’re right in the middle of experimenting and trying to figure out how do we deliver something that feels like an episode to somebody who might be grabbing it on its own yet really respecting variance of the five hour watch. Especially if people want to watch that five hours on their own terms in their own schedule. It needs to work if somebody wants to stop after an hour and a half or stop after half an hour.

However, perhaps the best way to look novelistic television is to try to strike a balance between the demands of the individual episode and the larger story being told, to treat each installment of a television series as a chapter in a book. Each episode should have its own clear structure and rhythm, but still exist as part of a larger tapestry.

Winn is having one of her episodes.

Deep Space Nine is unique among the Star Trek shows in that it genuinely feels like a larger tapestry. There is a clear sense of movement and purpose to the series, a sense that underlying rules and themes of the narrative remain relatively constant as the characters and the situations evolve. Deep Space Nine is always recognisably Deep Space Nine, remaining consistent in its outlook and its core values. However, the characters and the world of Deep Space Nine are in a constant state of growth and evolution.

Deep Space Nine repeatedly reinforces this delicate balance between consistency and evolution through its own rhythms and beats. Deep Space Nine is structured in such a way that events and ideas recur across the seven-year run of the series, creating a pattern and tempo that helps outline the story that exists beyond the confines of any given individual episode. The audience and the characters recognise that events have meaning beyond the immediate situation, placing them in a context larger than any distinct forty-five minute block.

Cardassia getting Netflix was not good for the war effort.

One of the hallmarks of epic storytelling is this sense of repetition, which arguably contributes to the “epic” feel of Deep Space Nine. As Elizabeth Minchin outlines in Repetition in Homeric Epic, repetition is a narrative tool that provides a sense of scale to the story being told:

I conclude that practitioners of this oral epic tradition that we associate with Homer identified over time a small range of narrative features – principally, type-scenes (including verbal scripts or formats), similes, and stories – and that, for the convenience of the poet, the comfort of the listener, and the effectiveness of the tale, the presentation of each ‘genre’ came to be standardised. This tradition has used and re-used those standardised forms, building into them further opportunities for repetition. Repetition, therefore, serves to conjure up a world in which nothing is hurried: actions are elaborated at a deliberate pace; even in the heat of battle words are exchanged with a degree of formality; similes may be used both to elucidate and to highlight; and through repetition similes, as well as inserted stories, are marked off from the narrative proper. Audience members not only tolerate repetition; they expect it at certain points and they depend on it; for them repetition is a defining aspect of oral song. This is the point at which production, comprehension, connectedness, and interaction coincide: the poet uses repetition in this high-pressure context as a device to manage the business of storytelling.

Repetition provides a basis of comparison between seemingly unrelated stories and characters, to reflect change in individual characters, to hint at underlying ironies, and also a neat way to delineate the flow of the story being told.

Ring cycle.

Deep Space Nine is full of repetition. Sometimes that repetition happens within a single episode, as Kira recalls the death of her father while processing the death of a father figure in Ties of Blood and Water. Sometimes that repetition can be separated by entire seasons, such as Sisko’s departures from Deep Space Nine at the end of Call to Arms, Tears of the Prophets and What You Leave Behind. Sometimes that repetition bookends the show.

The final ten episodes of Deep Space Nine are saturated with these references and these callbacks. A lot of these references run back to the very start of Deep Space Nine, providing a rich textual connection between the beginning and the end of the series. In What You Leave Behind, as in Emissary, Jake Sisko confronts the loss of a parent. In ‘Til Death Do You Part, Benjamin Sisko gets married for the second time; in What You Leave Behind, as in Emissary, Sisko is separated from his wife.

One Kai problem with all that.

The destruction of the Defiant in The Changing Face of Evil mirrors the destruction of the Saratoga in Emissary, Sisko once again forced to retreat from a horrifying and morale-destroying defeat to find some purpose in his life. Even the closing shot of Jake looking out into space towards the wormhole where he lost his father at the end of What You Leave Behind recalls the shot of Sisko looking into space towards the Saratoga where he lost his wife at the start of Emissary.

The destruction of Cardassia in What You Leave Behind provides a strong tether back to Emissary. While the Starfleet officers are too polite to acknowledge the comparison, both Martok and Garak admit the similarity. “Before you waste too many tears, remember, these are Cardassians lying dead at your feet,” Martok advises Sisko and Ross. “Bajorans would call this poetic justice.” Reflecting on the casualties, Garak confesses to Bashir, “Some may say that we’ve gotten just what we deserved. After all, we’re not entirely innocent, are we?”

He won’t let you (Da)mar the Cardassian people like that.

Even before the holocaust, the second half of the final arc makes a point to parallel the Dominion Occupation of Cardassia with the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor. In Tacking Into the Wind, Damar receives a communication from Cardassia revealing that his wife and children were executed for his crimes. “What kind of state tolerates the murder of innocent women and children?” he asks. “What kind of people give those orders?” Kira responds, pointedly, “Yeah, Damar, what kind of people give those orders?” They both know the answer.

In ‘Til Death Do Us Part, Bajoran!Dukat regales Winn with a story about Cardassian brutality during the Occupation. “When the Resistance destroyed the Cardassian outpost in Relliketh, Gul Dukat ordered a hundred Bajorans rounded up. His intention was to send us to the capital for public execution.” This story is paralleled in What You Leave Behind, when the Dominion enacts a similar policy of retribution against the Cardassians. Weyoun pledges, “For each act of sabotage committed against the Dominion, another Cardassian city will be destroyed.” History repeats.

Ticking clocks.

These points of overlap provide a sense of history and context, a reminder that events do not exist in a vacuum, that characters exist as a sum of their life experiences rather than in a single moment. History grounds these characters. This final run of ten episodes understands this one a fundamental level; Kira returns to her life as a terrorist in When It Rains…, Odo finally returns to the Great Link in What You Leave Behind, Worf slays the other contender to be Chancellor to the High Council in Tacking Into the Wind almost a decade after Reunion.

There are countless references and callbacks. Even Extreme Measures, the runt of this run of episodes, is saturated with references and nods. Odo acknowledges that he does not want Kira to have to watch him die in the Infirmary, like she did with Vedek Bareil in Life Support. Bashir traps Sloan and plans to extract information from him using the Romulan mind probes from Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges. Even the entire plot of the episode, with the inside of a character’s head looking a lot like the standing sets, recalls the plot of Distant Voices.

It’s okay Worf, you don’t have to watch Distant Voices.

This attention to detail allows for character moments and beats that feel genuinely earned. Penumbra, ‘Til Death do Us Part and Strange Bedfellows are the first episodes to really focus on the relationship between Ezri Dax and Worf, building off an entire season of carefully-developed mutual anxiety on both sides. “This is ridiculous,” Ezri reflects in Penumbra. “We can’t have a conversation if you refuse to talk about the things that we have in common.” Worf responds, “Perhaps we should not have a conversation.”

Ezri replies, “You have been avoiding me for the past six months now.” She is entirely correct. More than that, the audience has actually seen Worf and Ezri avoiding one another. Worf was initially actively hostile to Ezri in Afterimage, before tempering his opinion and advising her to stay. Even after reaching a detente, Worf has consistently been uncomfortable around Ezri. The two talk to Kor separately in Once More Unto the Breach, while Worf awkward tries to explain his continued concern for Ezri in Field of Fire.

Paste tense.

Obviously, the two characters have been in the same room together, attending various staff meetings and even joining the Niners in Take Me Out to the Holosuite, but the production team have been very careful to maintain some consistency in the dynamic between these two lead characters. (In fact, Worf was notably excluded from the crew’s casino heist in Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang.) The result is that their delayed interaction in Penumbra, ‘Til Death do Us Part and Strange Bedfellows carries more weight because the audience has actually seen Worf avoiding Ezri.

(It is worth taking a moment to compare the very careful character development on Deep Space Nine to the more haphazard approach taken by Voyager. In Penumbra, ‘Til Death do Us Part and Strange Bedfellows, Ezri and Worf have a conversation that has been set up since Ezri was introduced in Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols. In contrast, The Fight decides to build a story around the character of Chakotay by introducing a love of boxing and history of mental illness, neither of which has been introduced before and neither of which will be mentioned again.)

Lighten up…

The characters in the final chapter of Deep Space Nine are largely driven by their sense of history and continuity. When Ezri sneaks into Worf’s quarters in Penumbra, she replays memories of her previous life with Worf, with Terry Farrell appearing both on screen and on the soundtrack. When Ezri and Worf are tortured by the Breen in ‘Til Death Do Us Part, they both retreat into memory. Worf talks about Alexander and dishonouring Jadzia’s memory; Ezri references Afterimage, Prodigal Daughter and Field of Fire.

Of course, sometimes that memory is imperfect. When the final ten episodes shift their emphasis to the Breen, much is made of the mysterious alien species. “I wonder what the Breen look like under those helmets?” Ezri reflects of their captors. Worf responds, “They say no one has ever seen one and lived to speak of it.” It is suggested that even the Dominion have no idea what the Breen actually look like, with Weyoun gossiping about their mysterious new allies.

Vedekked out to the nines.

There is just one small problem with this. The audience already knows at least two characters who have seen beneath a Breen’s mask. Kira and Dukat infiltrated a Breen outpost in Indiscretion by posing as guards, it is implied that they stole the costume from two incapacitated soldiers. The error is somewhat compounded in What You Leave Behind, when Kira steals another Breen costume. Then again, it is entirely possible that Kira is just that bad ass. It is also just as possible to come up with some fan logic to justify it. These errors are ultimately minor in the grand scheme.

Even within the sprawling ten-part finale, there is a sense of certain storybeats and images echoing and refracting. The sequence of the Female Changeling providing Weyoun with a sample for analysis in Penumbra is repeated later between Odo and Bashir in When It Rains…, the irony of the comparison underscored by the fact that Odo and Bashir do not release that Odo has been infected. Similarly, Damar is shamed when he catches a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror in ‘Til Death Do Us Part, and lashes out at that reflection in Strange Bedfellows.

“I’m talking to Damar in the mirror…”

Of course, this cycle of repetition exists as an opportunity for change and development. Characters find themselves confronted with the same choices and the some events, just from different perspectives. Ezri is a living embodiment of this paradox. Ezri is both Jadzia Daz and Ezri Tigan. She is something old and something new. She is revisiting the past, but also finding a future. A large part of Ezri’s arc in these episodes is struggling to find that balance. (This journey is perhaps undercut by pairing her off with Julian Bashir, who had a long-standing crush on Jadzia.)

Penumbra underscores the differences between Jadzia and Ezri, even as Ezri tries to do right by Jadzia’s memory. Curzon was Sisko’s mentor, Jadzia was Sisko’s friend, Ezri is Sisko’s protege. Sisko seems almost like a father figure to her, as weird as that seems. Odo wonders why Sisko would allow Ezri to risk her life in search of Worf. Sisko responds, “Because she needs to. And because she’d never forgive me if I stopped her.” He is an understanding father.

“So… how are things?”

(One of the more frequently overlooked consequences of the departure of Jadzia was the way that it fundamentally altered the cast dynamics. Sisko might refer to Ezri as “old man”, but their dynamic is not the same as the dynamic between Sisko and Jadzia. Episodes like Afterimage and Field of Fire make it clear that Sisko is an anchor for Ezri. However, Ezri is not longer as much of a confidante of Sisko. As a result, Yates comes to fill that role in the ensemble, being willing to chew Sisko out in Take Me Out to the Holosuite or Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang.)

This sense of change and evolution applies as readily to entire cultures as it does to individual characters. Destructive patterns of behaviour have dire consequences, and many of these repetitions serve as cautionary tales. As much as history might echo and rhyme, cultures cannot be allowed to be trapped in cycles of violence. Tacking Into the Wind makes it clear that the Klingon Empire and the Cardassian Union must break these cycles. The Dogs of War suggests that the same is true of the Ferengi Alliance.

“This scenery really is quite lovely.”

If this sense of repetition and history reinforces the sense of Deep Space Nine as an epic narrative, so to does the theme of destiny that is seeded through these early episodes. As György Lukács argues in The Theory of the Novel, perhaps the strongest single epic theme is the destiny of a community:

The epic hero is, strictly speaking, never an individual. It is traditionally thought that one of the essential characteristics of the epic is the fact that its theme is not a personal destiny but the destiny of a community. And rightly so, for the completeness, the roundness of the value system which determines the epic cosmos creates a whole which is too organic for any part of it to become so enclosed within itself, so dependent upon itself, as to find itself as an interiority – i.e., to become a personality. The omnipotence of ethics, which posits every soul as autonomous and incomparable, is still unknown in such a world. When life qua life finds and immanent meaning in itself, the categories of the organic determine everything: an individual structure and physiognomy is simply the product of a balance between the part and the whole, mutually determining one another; it is never the product of polemical self-contemplation by the lost and lonely personality. The significance which an event can have in a world that is rounded in this way is therefore always a quantitative one; the series of adventures in which the event expresses itself has weight in so far as it is significant to a great organic life complex – a nation or a family.

Deep Space Nine plays with this, even its epic final act. The final nine episodes play with the idea of destiny and free will, but also of the role of the individual as opposed to the health of the larger community.

Captive audience.

In its final act, Deep Space Nine presents closer to the larger arcs of the Klingon Empire, the Ferengi Alliance and the Cardassian Union. In many ways, these final ten episodes are the story of an epic cosmos of great empires intersecting and overlapping. At the same time, these epic fates are rooted in personal decisions. Odo ends the war by linking the Female Changeling, sharing the cure that Bashir found in Sloan’s brain. While Sisko and Odo lay siege to Cardassia from orbit, Kira and Damar take Cardassian Central Command from the ground.

In some ways, this blend of galactic politics with personal decisions underscores just how awkwardly the Pah-Wraith narrative integrates into the rest of the ten-episode finale. Most of the final arc of Deep Space Nine touches on ripples and consequences, how the personal becomes the political. However, the final confrontation between Sisko and Dukat in What You Leave Behind eschews all that for a more conventional messianic “chosen one” narrative. It is a dissonant note in the context of most of the preceding eight hours

She hasn’t a prayer.

The final episodes of Deep Space Nine weight up this theme of destiny. Repeatedly in the early episodes of the final arc, characters allow themselves to be passive in the grand and epic sweep of the universe. In Penumbra, Ezri surrenders control over her own destiny in multiple ways; she surrenders to Jadzia’s love of Worf to mount a rescue, and she cuts the power to her runabout to follow the tides within the Badlands. “With any luck, the currents will take us to the same place they took Worf.” Ezri passively follows her destiny, and it leads her right to Worf.

In the opening scenes of Penumbra, Sisko and Yates reflect on the past seven years. “I guess I was meant to come here. You see, it’s almost like my…” He trails off. Yates finishes the thought for him. “Destiny.” Sisko agrees, “Destiny, yes.” Yates muses, “I guess when your mother turns out to be part Prophet or part wormhole alien or whatever it is you want to call her, words like destiny begin to mean something.”

“This is not my beautiful house.”

At the end of Penumbra, the Prophets warn Sisko not to marry Yates. “You must accept your destiny,” instructs prophet!Sarah. Sisko spends a significant portion of ‘Til Death Do Us Part trying to reconcile his own wish to marry Yates with the demands imposed by the Prophets. Kira makes it very clear that she believes that Sisko should listen to the Prophets. “The Prophets wouldn’t ask you to do something like that without a reason,” Kira states. “Well, what they’re asking you to do isn’t easy, but they’ve never led you down the wrong path.”

Characters in these opening episodes are often led down paths. At the start of ‘Til Death Do Us Part, Kai Winn receives her first vision. She believes that vision to come from the Prophets. They urge her to follow her destiny. “Only you can bring the Restoration,” promise the mysterious figures. “Bajor’s fate rests with you.” Winn blindly follows the words and direction given in her vision, listening to the voices that claim to be her gods. Like Ezri does when pursuing Worf, and like Sisko does when he calls off the wedding, Winn passively embraces her destiny.

Damar is bottling up his anger.

However, these early episodes suggest that it is not enough for these characters to passively allow a story to unfold around them. The characters who blindly follow fate inevitably discover that their destiny is not satisfying. One of the interesting structural quirks of this opening triptych is that these three characters would originally have reached the conclusion at the same point in the story; struggling with their destiny in ‘Til Death Do Us Part, and rejecting it outright in Strange Bedfellows.

However, due to difficulties in structuring and breaking ‘Til Death Do Us Part, Sisko confronts this realisation earlier than Ezri or Winn. Sisko calls off his wedding to Yates in ‘Til Death Do Us Part, only to change his mind later in the same episode. “I made a mistake,” Sisko confesses to Yates. “I don’t care what the Prophets want. I want to marry you. We’ll worry about the rest later.” The two embrace and get married.

“You… are my number one… guy…”

For all that the Prophets promised sadness, Sisko and Yates are happy together in the time that they have. Sisko and Yates get to love one another for the following six episodes. Episodes like Strange Bedfellows and The Changing Face of Evil convey a sense of domestic bliss. The pair even conceive a child together, one born of love. It would seem churlish to suggest that Sisko would have had a better final few days had he listened to the Prophets. Sisko was always going to ascend to the Celestial Temple in What You Leave Behind. At least he got to be happy for a little while.

Ezri and Winn face their own fights with destiny in Strange Bedfellows. Ezri risks life and limb to save Worf, hooking up with him on an alien planet, only to later realise that it was a mistake. Much like Sisko, she explicitly acknowledges it using the word “mistake.” She confesses, “We both made a mistake back on Goralis. So maybe we both should be forgiven.” When Ezri comes to that realisation, she suggests their fallibility is a mortal trait. “Worf, we’re not gods or Prophets. We’re people. We make mistakes.”

“Carry on, regardless.”

Winn finds herself confronted with the same reality in Strange Bedfellows, realising that the vision came from the Pah-Wraiths rather than the Prophets. She consults with Kira, who urges her to effectively admit her mistake and start over again. “Eminence, being in power is what led you on the wrong path,” Kira suggests, which is probably the wrong line to take in trying to negotiate down an egomaniac having a spiritual crisis. Predictably, Winn cannot admit her own errors. “I have worked too hard, waited too long to give it all up now.”

In many ways, these three stories running through these three episodes reflect the improvisational approach that the writers had adopted to plotting on Deep Space Nine. The writing staff have openly acknowledged that a lot of Deep Space Nine was written on the fly, with very little mapped out ahead in great detail. The production enjoyed a great deal of freedom to discovered what worked and what didn’t. However, this also meant that the production time could errors and miscalculations. In fact, several of them are made within this extended arc.

Thot or not.

One of the strengths of Deep Space Nine is a willingness to take risks and make mistakes, accepting that these mistakes are the price of trying new things and understanding that very few of these mistakes cannot be reversed in the grand scheme of things. Within the massive ten episode finale, there is room for characters to make mistakes, to follow the wrong threads, to do the wrong thing. There is room for characters to course-correct, to recover from their miscalculations.

Penumbra, ‘Til Death do Us Part and Strange Bedfellows effectively comprise a three episode arc in which Worf and Ezri make a very serious mistake, and come to terms with it. The two characters follow the path of least resistance and hook up in Penumbra. Worf seems to be committed to the idea that they will get married and live together in ‘Til Death Do Us Part. It isn’t until Strange Bedfellows that Ezri acknowledges that they’ve made a mistake.

Giving the Prophets the finger.

All of this happens within three episodes of storytelling over the course of the final ten episodes of the series. That is a long time to follow a thread that ultimately goes (and was always intended to go) nowhere. It is in many ways an acknowledgement of the fact that these characters are not following any predetermined path. Much like the writers, the characters are trying to figure out their stories as the narrative unfolds around them. It is a rejection of destiny as an ontological force in the universe, suggesting that these characters have to make their own decisions.

It is an interesting approach to the classic epic narrative, one that incorporates a more nuanced approach to ideas destiny and the individual. Deep Space Nine is ultimately the narrative of how the destiny of a community is ultimately tied up in the choices of its members. It is a storytelling structure and pattern that evokes the epic narrative structure of old, but in a way that remains true to the character of Deep Space Nine.

 

 

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