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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Covenant (Review)

Covenant is a flawed and fascinating episode.

In its own way, although obviously a much less extreme manner than The Siege of AR-558, this is an episode that could only have been produced on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. This is not simply down to matters of continuity, and how the episode ties into the mythology of the series. More specifically, it is an exploration of religious themes and ideas that is only really possible within the framework of this particular Star Trek spin-off. It is difficult to imagine Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager tackling the idea of religious cults so effectively.

Altaring his plans.

Part of this is down to a lingering suspicion that the other Star Trek shows subtly (or not so subtly) consider all religions to be cults. After all, shows like The Return of the Archons, The Apple, For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the SkyJustice, Who Watches the Watchers? and Devil’s Due left little room for ambiguity. The other Star Trek series seem downright hostile to the idea of religious belief, even if episodes like The Cloud and Sacred Ground might suggest a more open-minded approach to spirituality.

Deep Space Nine has generally been more willing to engage with the idea of religious belief as something that is worthy of exploration and consideration, something that is for an individual to determine on their own terms. Some characters on Deep Space Nine are explicitly atheist, like Jadzia Dax or Odo. Some characters hold strong religious beliefs, like Kira or Nog. Some characters believe in spiritual traditions without ever seeming particularly devote, like Worf. Some characters even evolve over the course of the series, like Sisko.

Preach out and touch faith.

This willingness to accept multiple facets and forms of religious belief allows Deep Space Nine to construct a story like Covenant. In any other Star Trek series, Covenant would seem like a knee-jerk dismissal of religious faith and organised belief, the tale of how a group of Bajorans were swindled by a charismatic leader with tragic consequences. It would be read as a generic condemnation of religious belief, an endorsement of an atheistic worldview that has developed beyond the need for such superstition.

Instead, Covenant is something more interesting and nuanced than that. It is an episode about a particular kind of belief, about a particular sort of religion. It is an episode about the dangers of a very particular form of worship. It is an episode about the perils of religious cults, but one which understands the distinction between that and other forms of spirituality.

He hasn’t a prayer.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Treachery, Faith and the Great River (Review)

Treachery, Faith and the Great River is a beautiful piece of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

It is a meditation on everything suggested by the title, recurring themes across the seven-season run of Deep Space Nine. Indeed, it is a reflection on how each of those three concepts all tie back to the same notion of belief. Treachery is what happens when belief is betrayed, faith is what happens when belief is held without validation, and the great river reflects a more generic belief in the balance and distribution of the wider universe. Treachery, Faith and the Great River is a story about belief and the various forms that it takes, and the rewards that it offers.

“And how can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods?”

In many ways, Treachery, Faith and the Great River marks a return to the sort of softer religious belief that defined the early seasons of Deep Space Nine. It is an episode that engages with the challenges of faith, rather than taking it at face value. It is no small irony that an episode as nuanced as Treachery, Faith and the Great River should be credited to the writers responsible for The Reckoning. In many ways, Treachery, Faith and the Great River asks what it means to truly believe in something, even knowing that this belief might never be rewarded.

Treachery, Faith and the Great River is a story about looking for the divine, and the answers that are offered in return.

Weyoun Six, Weyoun Seven…
All good clones go to heaven…

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Afterimage (Review)

Afterimage is a necessary episode, in part because Ezri Dax is a necessary character.

Adding a new character to a show in the middle of its run is always a challenge. The addition of Seven of Nine to Star Trek: Voyager had generated considerable tension, both around what the show wanted to be and in terms of the cast working on the series. It can be difficult to strike a balance, to figure out how much attention to devote to this new arrival, to give them some focus without stealing focus from the surrounding cast. It is a tightrope for the writers to walk, one compounded by the relative novelty of this late addition, the new toy in the writers’ toy box.

Make it sew.

This problem is compounded when the new addition arrives at the start of the final season. In any final season, space is at a premium. The production team are racing towards the finish line, trying to service all the dangling plot threads and complete all the important plot arcs. Every beat is important, every story vital. Final seasons are about providing closure, about wrapping things up. Introducing a new character in the midst of all that is a daunting responsibility, a challenge with very high stakes.

The writers at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine were working at something of a disadvantage and to a deadline. However, they did have some handicaps. Most notably, the production team had already successfully integrated a new character into the ensemble, when Worf joined the cast in The Way of the Warrior. More than that, there was some luxury in the fact that Ezri Dax would not be an entirely new character. She would be a logical extension of the premise that was built in Jadzia Dax. She was at least partially familiar, and her concept had been properly seeded.

On airlock down.

Still, introducing Ezri Dax into the final season of Deep Space Nine would prove difficult. The production team would often struggle to strike a balance between writing stories that extended (and concluded) the arcs of other major characters while also writing episodes that introduced and established the character of Ezri. It could often seem like Ezri’s journey was just beginning, right as everybody else’s was coming to a close. The final season of a seven-year show is seldom the perfect place for a new beginning.

As such, Afterimage is more an episode driven by necessity than by desire, a story that has to be told because of factors that were outside the control of the production team. The result is solid, if not exceptional. It is an episode that works best at establishing a new character and new dynamics, suffering just a little bit from clumsy storytelling in the process.

Holo pleasures.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Image in the Sand (Review)

There is an endearing sense of symmetry to the seventh season premiere of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

The writers who worked on the show have been quite candid about their creative process. In particular, most of the production team would acknowledge that the show was heavily improvised rather than planned in advance. While the creators had a sense of the direction in which they wanted to move, they did not have a clear destination in mind until quite late in the journey. This was quite obvious looking at a number of the strange narrative detours that the arc took, most notably Gul Dukat’s time as a space pirate between Return to Grace and By Inferno’s Light.

A Time to Sands.

At the same time, as the seventh season began, it seemed like the writers working on Deep Space Nine had a much stronger idea of how they wanted the series to come to a close. Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols feel like a very clever structural choice for the seventh season premiere. They exist at once as echoes of the arc that opened the sixth season and as preludes to the story that would conclude the seventh. They exist as bookends to these two chapters of the larger series, feeling almost like the exact midpoint of a larger story.

Positioned approximately half-way between the epic six-episode arc that opened the sixth season and the sprawling ten-episode narrative that would draw down the curtain at the end of the seventh season, Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols feel like a much smaller affair. However, they are still well-observed and well-written, covering a lot of thematic and narrative ground in a way that contextualises what come before and sets up what will follow.

“Play it again, Sisko.”

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 6 (Review)

The sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine seems to brush up against the limits of what the show could do.

To be fair, Deep Space Nine spent most of its fourth and fifth seasons smashing through the arbitrary boundaries imposed upon what a Star Trek show could and could not do. Overseen by executive producer Ira Steven Behr, the writing staff very consciously and very vigourously pushed past the limitations imposed by the so-called “Roddenberry Box” and the style of television overseen by franchise leader Rick Berman. The storytelling became more complex, serialisation crept in, the music became more noticeable, conflict became more evident.

This all built to a climax in the second half of the fifth season, a series of interlinked stories that stretched from In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light through to Call to Arms. Diplomatic tensions rose, character arcs became clear. Then, at the very end of the season, the unthinkable happened. The Federation went to war with the Dominion. More than that, the Federation started a war with Dominion. It was a bold creative choice, one that chipped away at so many of the assumptions underlying the utopian future of Star Trek.

The sixth season faces a number of serious problems. Most obviously, the fourth and fifth seasons had pushed so far that there was only so much ground left to cover. The sixth season explored that ground thoroughly. There is an argument to be made that the arc that opens with Call to Arms and continues through the first six episodes of the sixth season ranks as the single most ambitious stretch of the Rick Berman era. Episodes like Far Beyond the Stars, Inquisition and In the Pale Moonlight pushed the franchise well outside its comfort zone.

At the same time, there was a clear sense that the production team was butting up against the limits of the form, that they had pushed Deep Space Nine almost as far as it was possible to push a nineties Star Trek show, and so the season lacked the same sense of forward momentum as the fourth and fifth seasons had. Many creative decisions in the sixth season feel like the result of creative compromise, whether the sense that the writers had told all the big stories that they wanted to tell or because they had to bow in some way to the conventions of television storytelling.

The result is a frustrating season of television. The sixth season of Deep Space Nine features some of the best Star Trek episodes in the fifty-year history of the franchise. However, it also contains a lot of thwarted ambitions. For every barrier that the sixth season smashes through, it brushes up against another. It is a reminder of just how far Deep Space Nine had pushed the franchise during its run. In some ways, it felt like the sixth season of Deep Space Nine was not so much brushing up against the limits of Star Trek as against the limits of nineties television.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Tears of Prophets (Review)

Tears of the Prophets has a number of very good ideas.

The character arc driving the episode is very good, particularly in the context of a finale leading into the final season of the show. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has always been a show more interested in character arcs and long-form storytelling than the other Star Trek shows, so “Benjamin Sisko experiences a loss so great that he resigns his commission” is an organic story beat. It feels like a story that the writers on this show can tell, and a story that fits very comfortably within the grand mythic framework that the writers are trying to construct.

All fired up.

Deep Space Nine has earned a lot of goodwill in this regard, demonstrating a willingness to let stories play out over extended periods and to follow stories through to their natural conclusion. Sisko leaving the station at the end of Tears of the Prophets is not the same as Picard being assimilated at the end of The Best of Both Worlds, Part I or Worf leaving the Enterprise at the end of Redemption, Part I. Any savvy audience member knows that Sisko will return to his post, probably sooner rather than later, but they also trust the show to treat it as more than just a striking cliffhanger.

Unfortunately, Tears of the Prophets is compromised by a number of very poor ideas. Some of those ideas did not originate with the writing staff, their hands forced by outside factors. Ira Steven Behr’s original plans for Tears of the Prophets did not include the death of Jadzia Dax, but the writers had to incorporate that plot element rather late in the cycle. Of course, this does not excuse some of the poor decisions made in how the writers chose to handle that unforeseen plot element, although that was also a result of a number of outside factors.

So Jad to zia you.

However, Tears of the Prophets also leans into some of the more frustrating creative decisions of the sixth season as a whole. The script doubles down on some of the least satisfying elements of Deep Space Nine‘s long-form storytelling, even combining several of these frustrating beats into a central narrative strand of the season finale. Tears of the Prophets combines the generic cartoon villainy of Gul Dukat as suggested at the climax of Waltz and the teaser to Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night with the stock mysticism of the Pah-Wraiths from The Reckoning for a heady ill-judged cocktail.

The result is a somewhat uneven episode, a story with a very strong central character arc that plays to the strengths of the show, but with several supporting elements that indulge the series’ worst impulses.

Funeral for a friend.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Valiant (Review)

Valiant is a very bitter and mean-spirited little episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and all the more effective for that fact.

Some of that bitterness is baked into the basic premise. Valiant is an episode about a bunch of plucky young cadets who get brutally murdered for daring to believe in themselves. The final act of Valiant is a brutal piece of television, the camera lingering over the death and destruction on familiar sets, panning across the dead bodies of these promising young recruits. No matter how arrogant or inexperienced Red Squad might be, no matter how eager their participation in an attempted fascist coup in Homefront and Paradise Lost, it is still an unsettling image.

A legend in his own mind.

However, there is something even nastier lurking beneath the surface of this episode. On a superficial level, Valiant suggests that the guest characters fail in their daring mission because they lack the self-awareness to recognise the folly of their plan, but this is disingenuous. Countless Star Trek episodes have been built around far more reckless and audacious schemes, generally paying off the heroes. Valiant does not punish these young cadets for doing something that the main characters would never have attempted, it punishes them for not being the main characters.

Valiant is in some ways a brutal deconstruction of the typical Star Trek storytelling framework, an episode built around a selection of guest characters whose biggest mistake is assuming that they are the stars of the show rather than simply bit players. Valiant comes down hard on these would-be heroes, a reminder that life does not always operate according to familiar storytelling structures.

Hard to pin it on just one person.

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