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New Podcast! The Pensky File – Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Season 3, Episode 20 (“Improbable Cause”)

I had great fun talking about Defiant with Wes and Clay at The Pensky Podcast.

So I was thrilled by invited back to talk over one of my favourite episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine with the guys, the late third season two-parter Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast. It’s a brilliant story, in large part because (unlike a lot of Star Trek two-parters) it is very clearly two different stories that happen to neatly dove-tail into one another.

Improbable Cause is a fascinating character study of Elim Garak, following a botched attempt on his life that suggests more powerful forces at work. As Odo investigates the bombing of Garak’s shop, he gradually uncovers evidence of a much larger scheme. It was a pleasure to record, and I’ll be back next week covering the conclusion, The Die is Cast.

You can find more from The Pensky Podcast here, and listen to the podcast by clicking the link or just listening below.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Extreme Measures (Review)

Extreme Measures is the closest thing to a standalone story within this epic ten-part conclusion to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

All of the other episodes carry over plot threads and subplots that either develop existing narratives or set-up future twists. This is true even of the more self-contained chapters: When It Rains… and Tacking Into the Wind are something of a two-parter in the middle of the arc, but they pick up in the wake of The Changing Face of Evil; although The Dogs of War has a self-contained subplot focusing on the Ferengi, it deals with baggage from Extreme Measures while setting up What You Leave Behind.

“Well, Miles. If you think it’ll make the episode go easier.”

In contrast, Extreme Measures is practically a bottle show. With the exception of a short one-scene appearance from Garak, Extreme Measures is devoid of the recurring guest stars that populate this final run of episodes. Although Damar and Martok are mentioned, neither Casey Biggs nor J.G. Hertzler appear. Perhaps glad of a week off before his double duty on The Dogs of War, Jeffrey Combs is entirely absent. There is no guest appearance from Louise Fletcher, Marc Alaimo, James Darren, Barry Jenner or Salome Jens.

Indeed, Extreme Measures is very precisely focused on the single story that it wants to tell. Most episodes in this final stretch of the final season have at least two or three plots running through them: Penumbra focuses on the loss of Worf, on Sisko’s retirement plans, on Damar’s growing unease; When It Rains… features the plotting of Dukat and Winn, the development of Damar’s rebellion, and the threat to the Alliance posed by Gowron; The Dogs of War witnesses Ferengi succession, the plan for the invasion of Cardassia, the implosion of Damar’s rebellion.

Journey to the Centre of Sloan’s Mind.

There is so much happening across these ten episodes that it feels strange that Extreme Measures can effectively call a timeout on these recurring plot threads. There are references to the Breen weapon and the Cardassian rebellion, to the ascension of Chancellor Martok and to Bashir’s lingering attraction to Ezri. However, Extreme Measures is an episode without a b-plot or a c-plot. The episode is driven entirely by its primary narrative, the story of how Julian Bashir and Miles O’Brien embark on one last adventure together.

There is something surreal, and almost endearing, about the fact that Deep Space Nine feels comfortable taking time out from its most ambitious experiment with serialisation to make the journey to the centre of Sloan’s mind.

“Julian, are you sure you haven’t been watching too much Star Trek: Voyager?”

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Inquisition (Review)

Inquisition is a superb piece of television, and a highlight of the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

It is a very clever extrapolation of various themes and ideas that have been bubbling across the length and breadth of the series, particularly concerns about what happens when incredible power is concentrated in institutions that find themselves under threat. One of the underlying assumptions of the Star Trek universe is that mankind is somehow different than any other sentient life form, somehow more enlightened and more idealistic than the other major powers that make up the broader shared universe.

Luthless.

Deep Space Nine has always been wary of this assumption, in part because it is frequently made with no real exploration of what specifically makes mankind more evolved and more compassionate than the Romulans or the Klingons. More than that, Deep Space Nine has been openly suspicious of that idea because of the moral complacency involved. If Star Trek assumes that mankind is so special and so unique that it has evolved past all of its darker impulses, the franchise has a massive blindspot that could be readily exploited.

This is nothing new. Although the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation leaned heavily into the idea of mankind as a hyper-evolved species with much to teach the wider cosmos, that series really came of age when it followed this train of thought to its logical conclusion in The Measure of a Man. A society that deems itself beyond moral reproach is capable of anything, because it lacks the introspection to really consider the moral weight of its actions. Even in peacetime, the Federation was only a single court case away from re-instituting slavery.

Imperialist leather.

Inquisition is very much a logical extension of this idea. Beyond the sprawling epic six-episode opening arc, the sixth season of Deep Space Nine arguably works best when it sits outside the Dominion War and explores the impact that the conflict has beyond the space battles. Statistical Probabilities ponders the war in numerical terms. Honour Among Thieves inquires about life in the underground and at the margins. In the Pale Moonlight touches on the backroom politics and the moral compromises. Inquisition looks at how the Federation itself has been changed by the war.

Like Homefront and Paradise Lost, Inquisition has aged well. Less than half a decade after the episode originally aired, the United States would be trying “enemy combatants” in secretive military tribunals, detaining suspected terrorists without trial in secretive holding facilities, and engaging in “enhanced interrogation” including sleep deprivation to make subjects more pliable. Although the production team could have no idea at the time, the image of a dark-skinned man being paraded in irons is a lot more evocative two decades after the fact.

“Not quite the parade that I had in mind.”

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – In Purgatory’s Shadow (Review)

In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light represent a fantastic accomplishment for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

In keeping with the television of the time, the first Star Trek show had been firmly episodic, to the point that there are arguments about the order in which episodes happened. Even in the context of the early nineties, Star Trek: The Next Generation tended to shy away from making dramatic decisions with huge consequences. The Klingon Civil War is resolved in Redemption, Part I and Redemption, Part II. The failed Romulan invasion of Vulcan in Unification, Part I and Unification, Part II is never mentioned again.

"Mister Worf, we really shouldn't have mounted this mission during Sweeps."

“Mister Worf, we really shouldn’t have mounted this mission during Sweeps.”

Deep Space Nine grew increasingly adventurous over the course of its run. The series had flirted with up-ending the status quo before, from the introduction of the Defiant and the Founders in The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II through to the dismantling of the Khitomer Accords in The Way of the Warrior. While those decisions had very long-term consequences for the show, their impact was not as dramatic and immediate as that seen here. Even the defeat of the Cardassians and Romulans in Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast took time to ripple down.

In contrast, In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light change a lot of what the audience think they know about Deep Space Nine. The fifth season pivots on this two-parter, which serves to enable just about every major dramatic development between this point and the end of the series. This only serves to make it all the more impressive that the two-parter is so firmly rooted in its characters and characterisation.

Gripping drama.

Gripping drama.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Our Man Bashir (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.

Our Man Bashir is an underrated masterpiece.

It is possibly the best holodeck (or holosuite) episode in the history of the franchise; only Ship in a Bottle can really compete. A lot of this is down to the production value of the episode; Our Man Bashir looks and sounds beautiful, a delightfully detailed throwback to its source material. The production team on the Star Trek franchise seldom get enough credit for their skill at realising alien worlds and cultures from scratch, but their beautiful evocation of sixties design is breathtaking. Our Man Bashir is a clear forerunner to Trials and Tribble-ations, less than a year away.

"The name's Bashir, Julian Bashir..."

“The name’s Bashir, Julian Bashir…”

However, there is more to it than that. Like Little Green Men, Our Man Bashir succeeds as a (relatively) light-hearted run-around that never loses track of its characters. The first three seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine struggled with the character of Julian Bashir; audience members could wait entire seasons for a good Bashir episode. With the fourth season, three come along at once. Our Man Bashir might look light and fluffy – and it largely is – but it never loses sight of its core character dynamics in the midst of all the fun unfolding around them.

More than that, Our Man Bashir plays into the broader themes and strengths of the fourth season. The climax of the episode feels like Deep Space Nine is ruminating on its new-found place dictating the direction of the Star Trek canon. Bashir’s decision to “save the day by destroying the world” feels oddly prophetic. The fifth season of the show would find the writers destroying some of the most fundamental rules of the franchise in an effort to keep things vital.

Got some bottle...

Got some bottle…

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Starship Down (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.

It is surprising that the Star Trek franchise has not done more “disaster” episodes, given the science-fiction setting and the occasional budget overruns that make a simple and effective bottle show all the more effective.

Starship Down is not the first time that the franchise has attempted to emulate the classic disaster film formula. Star Trek: The Next Generation had produced an episode (called Disaster, appropriately enough), which used many of the classic disaster movie tropes to explore various cast dynamics. Starship Down is arguably structured more like a submarine thriller than a disaster film, but the point of comparison still stands. There are conflicts over command styles, characters caught in lifts, high stakes and higher tension.

"Hanok, would you care to assist me in performing surgery on a photon torpedo?"

“Hanok, would you care to assist me in performing surgery on a photon torpedo?”

It is interesting to compare Starship Down to Disaster, if only as a point of comparison between the two shows in question. In many ways, the contrast serves to highlight the difference between the respective shows and their ensembles. In Disaster, the show was careful to give every combination of the cast something to accomplish. Picard and kids escape the turbolift; Geordi and Beverly vent the containers; Riker and Data’s head have excellent adventures; Worf delivers Molly.

In contrast, the character combinations in Starship Down are less goal-orientated. Worf and O’Brien defeat the Jem’Hadar while Quark and Hanok disarm a torpedo. However, Kira simply tries to keep Sisko awake while reflecting on their relationship and Bashir and Dax huddle together in a turbolift waiting for their oxygen to run out. There is a sense that Starship Down is much more interested in its character dynamics than it is a sense of narrative momentum or objective-orientated storytelling.

"Thank goodness only the LED's were affected."

“Thank goodness only the LED’s were affected.”

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Hippocratic Oath (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.

Hippocratic Oath represents a return to normality for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The Way of the Warrior was a feature-length war epic tasked with introducing a new regular character and a new status quo, while The Visitor was an intimate character study that stood quite apart from the show around it. With Hippocratic Oath, the show gets back to business as usual. It even has a classic a-story/b-story split with Bashir and O’Brien’s Gamma Quadrant hijinx juxtaposed with Worf learning his place on the station (and the show).

This is not to suggest that Hippocratic Oath is a bland hour of Star Trek. Indeed, it is a tightly-constructed story that hits on some of the show’s core themes and most interesting dynamics. One of the problems with the third season of Deep Space Nine was the fact that it had a strong start but no idea on how to build from that. Hippocratic Oath seems to serve very much as a “business as usual” episode of the fourth season, helping to set a baseline of quality of the show going forward.

Awkward bromantic moment...

Awkward bromantic moment…

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