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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Call to Arms (Review)

The release of atomic energy has not created a new problem. It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an existing one. One could say that it has affected us quantitatively, not qualitatively. As long as there are sovereign nations possessing great power, war is inevitable. This does not mean that one can know when war will come but only that one is sure that it will come. This was true even before the atomic bomb was made. What has changed is the destructiveness of war.

– Albert Einstein, “Einstein on the Atomic Bomb”, The Atlantic, November 1945

Feels like coming home...

Feels like coming home…

Can war ever be justified? Can war ever be inevitable? Can war ever be necessary?

These are very tough ethical questions, particularly when posed in the abstract. In fact, the vast majority of policy decisions about warfare are rooted in living memory rather than philosophical certainty. It has been repeatedly suggested that Bill Clinton’s reluctance to intervene in Rwanda was a consequence of the spectacular failure in Somalia, and that his eventual intervention in Kosovo was an act of atonement for the moral lapse in Rwanda. This is to say nothing of how Obama’s policy on Syria is shaped by Bush’s actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Station keeping.

Station keeping.

The Star Trek universe is a utopia. It is a world where technology has eliminated poverty and hunger. The replicator, the holodeck, the transporter and warp drive are the building blocks of an idealistic future in which mankind seems to have found peace with itself. Dating back to Star Trek: The Motion Picture at the latest, Gene Roddenberry proposed that the franchise represented an idealised future for mankind. It was a world in which nobody ever wanted for anything, in which mankind were free to explore the universe.

This idealism is a cornerstone of the franchise. It is one of the most recognisable and universal aspects of Star Trek. This is a franchise that genuinely believes that mankind can be better than we are today. That is a large part of what makes the show so powerful, particularly in its original context. As the Doomsday Clock ticks closer and closer to midnight, Star Trek is a franchise that seems to argue that mankind has a future worth aspiring toward; a future beyond the end of the world or some corporate dystopia.

A farewell at arms.

A farewell at arms.

The franchise was never particularly interested in exploring how mankind reached that level of enlightenment. Star Trek: Enterprise was nominally a prequel series for the franchise, picking up in the wake of Star Trek: First Contact, but it opened after mankind had eliminated warfare and famine and nationalism. In some ways, the franchise could seem like a rather surreal experiment. If you imagined a world without warfare or without greed or without hunger, maybe people would get along? There is undoubtedly value on this, but it feels simplistic.

In contrast, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine dared to ask tough and uncomfortable question by challenging these assumptions. If these characters did not live in a perfect world, would they still aspire to betterment? If hunger and greed were still a part of everyday life, could mankind still work to improve themselves? If warfare is the inevitable outcome of statesmanship, then how do these twenty-fourth century people retain their values and ideals? These are legitimately tough questions for the franchise to ponder, but Deep Space Nine embraces them.

Terror on Terok Nor.

Terror on Terok Nor.

It is hard to overstate just how shocking Call to Arms was on broadcast. The actual plot mechanics are fairly standard Star Trek season finale stuff. The ominous and mounting sense of dread coursing through the episode evokes The Best of Both Worlds, Part I, the first season-ending cliffhanger from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The decision to have the recurring antagonists hijack the eponymous space station recalls Basics, Part I, the cliffhanger that Star Trek: Voyager broadcast at the end of the previous television season.

However, Call to Arms is more shocking for the one element of the episode that has been building since the first encounter with the Dominion in The Jem’Hadar. It is the beginning of the franchise’s first extended war story. This is bold new territory for the franchise, something that remains controversial to this day.

"The ball is in your court."

“The ball is in your court.”

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Blaze of Glory (Review)

Blaze of Glory is a spectacular piece of television.

It is an episode that serves a very clear plot function in the larger context of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It is clearly designed to tidy away some of the dangling loose ends before the show transitions into the Dominion War. Much like Children of Time was really the last “strange Gamma Quadrant phenomenon” episode, Blaze of Glory is the last Maquis episode. It also marks the last appearance of Michael Eddington, a character who has come a long way since his first appearance as the station’s new security officer in The Search, Part I.

Michael Eddington, Noted Brigand.

Michael Eddington, Noted Brigand.

However, even ignoring the fact that Blaze of Glory fulfils these larger obligations in terms of the show’s long-running plot threads, the episode is an engaging and exciting buddy action film that finds Benjamin Sisko paired with one of his most hated adversaries on a dangerous mission into the heart of enemy territory. Ira Steven Behr and Robert Hewitt Wolfe prepare a script laced with wry banter for unlikely action heroes Avery Brooks and Ken Marshall, while Kim Friedman directs the episode as if it were a lost Reagan era Shane Black script.

However, Blaze of Glory also feels very much like Deep Space Nine at its best. It is an episode that celebrates how much these characters can grow and change, while also revelling in the diversity of perspectives that make Deep Space Nine such a compelling show. It is an episode that understands Sisko and Eddington are perhaps more alike than either would concede, but which explores those parallels in a way that never obscures their key differences or their mutual mistrust.

Disarming conversation.

Disarming conversation.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Children of Time (Review)

Time is the fire in which we burn.

Children of Time comes towards the end of the franchise’s thirtieth anniversary season. By all accounts, the thirtieth anniversary season had been a resounding success. Star Trek: First Contact managed to please audiences and critics with a journey back to the beginning of the Star Trek universe. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine offered a crowd-pleasing homage to The Trouble With Tribbles in Trials and Tribble-ations. Even Star Trek: Voyager got in on the act with Flashback, Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II.

More than that, the franchise was thriving by just about any measure. Three casts were active simultaneously; two casts on television and one in cinemas. The thirtieth anniversary had garnered incredible media attention and had helped to remind audiences that the franchise was still chugging along a decade after its resurrection. To many observers, it appeared that the Star Trek had been resurrected. Against all odds, the television show that had been cancelled by NBC after only three seasons seemed to have been granted a form of immortality.

Walking into the sunset.

Walking into the sunset.

However, things were not as rosy behind the scenes. In fact, the franchise had been underperforming since the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The ratings would not become a real problem until the launch of Star Trek: Enterprise, but there were early signs that the franchise was in decline. Both Deep Space Nine and Voyager underwent cast revisions in their fourth seasons to try to solidify the ratings. Deep Space Nine got to keep its existing cast and add one new face, while Voyager had to fire one cast member to make room for the newest player.

Children of Time feels very much like a meditation and contemplation upon the theme of legacy, asking the characters on Deep Space Nine to wonder what they might leave behind.

Shocking.

Shocking.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Soldiers of the Empire (Review)

Soldiers of the Empire is a very effective illustration of just how far Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was willing to push the Star Trek franchise.

It is an episode that unfolds primarily on a Klingon Bird of Prey. This is nothing new. After all, Star Trek: The Next Generation produced A Matter of Honour in its second season, assigning Riker to serve on a Klingon ship as part of an exchange programme. However, that episode was told primary from a human perspective, the story centring on Riker adjusting and adapting to an alien culture before saving the day. When Worf joined the Klingon fleet in Redemption, Part II, the story kept cutting back to life on the Enterprise in his absence.

"Mahk-cha!"

“Mahk-cha!”

In contrast, Soldiers of the Empire is primarily focused upon the Klingon cast and the Klingon crew. Worf and Dax join the IKS Rotarran to support General Martok in his first command since escaping the Dominion prison camp at the end of By Inferno’s Light, but they are very much bystanders. Although Worf and Dax provide vital narrative functions in introducing the audience to Klingon customs and cultures, the narrative arc of the show belongs to Martok and the crew of the Rotarran. This is not a story about Worf and Dax, this is a story about Martok.

The result is an episode that really pushes the limits of the storytelling possibilities on Deep Space Nine, a reminder that the production team remain as ambitious as ever in the show’s fifth season. Soldiers of the Empire suffers from a few minor plotting issues, but it is exciting and compelling in a way that captures the very best of Deep Space Nine.

A sharp stabbing pain.

A sharp stabbing pain.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Business as Usual (Review)

Business as Usual is, appropriately enough, a very typical Star Trek morality play.

It is a relatively rare example of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine engaging in the sort of pointed social commentary that many fans expect of the genre, the rather straightforward moral lesson couched in science-fiction trappings; The Devil in the Dark as a commentary on “the other”, A Taste of Armageddon as a condemnation of the Vietnam War, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield as a critique of racism in general. There are all but expected in a Star Trek show, but Deep Space Nine rarely plays them particularly straight.

Disarming conversationalists...

Disarming conversationalists…

Deep Space Nine has told issue-driven stories before, with In the Hands of the Prophets serving to explore the gap between creationists and those who believe in evolution or Past Tense, Part I and Past Tense, Part II constructed as a direct commentary on Los Angeles’ plans to lock up their homeless population. However, the series tend to favour broader commentaries about grander themes. The show arguably as a timeless quality because it tends not to dwell too heavily upon specific ideas, instead meditating on particular themes like authority and conflict.

Indeed, Star Trek: Voyager is a lot more traditional in this respect. That writing staff has a clear fondness for the archetypal Star Trek morality play, constructing episodes as metaphors for contemporary issues; Remember explores Holocaust denial, Distant Origin deals with creationism, Displaced offers a reactionary take on immigration. Even non-issue-driven episodes like Darkling and Fair Trade make a point to stress the franchise’s utopian values in a manner much more overt than Deep Space Nine.

The hard sell.

The hard sell.

With that in mind, Business as Usual feels strangely old-fashioned. It is very much an episode of Deep Space Nine in terms of setting and character, in that no other Star Trek show would have a lead character knowingly and willingly become an arms dealer. However, it feels very much like an archetypal Star Trek show in that it is an episode about how the arms trade is implicitly immoral and horrific. It is a very worthwhile message, and in no way diminished by its obviousness, but it does feel surprisingly clear cut when compared to episodes like The Ship or Rapture.

Business as Usual is essentially a very conventional Star Trek story that is elevated by one of the best guest casts in the history of the franchise.

"No, Mister Quark, I expect you to buy!"

“No, Mister Quark, I expect you to buy!”

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – For the Uniform (Review)

For the Uniform forms the second entry in a loose trilogy of Michael Eddington stories, sitting between For the Cause and Blaze of Glory.

Much like The Begotten before it, For the Uniform feels like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is tidying up a bunch of loose ends before it barrels into the second half of the season with In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light. It is offering one last story built on the status quo established by The Maquis, Part I and The Maquis, Part II before things change dramatically. It is also quite heavy on the kind of impressive space battles that will become a major part of the final two seasons.

Terrorise this!

Terrorise this!

The episode even puts an increased emphasis upon the series’ military themes, with much made of the crippling blow dealt to the Defiant by Eddington’s virus and the operational protocols that this attack necessitates. With Nog standing on the edge of the bridge echoing Sisko’s orders to Engineering, For the Uniform occasionally feels more like like a submarine movie than an episode of Star Trek. This is to say nothing of the attention paid to the Defiant’s departure from Deep Space Nine itself, which plays up the military protocol of such a launch.

However, there is more to For the Uniform than all of that. It is an episode that touches upon a number of key themes for Deep Space Nine. It is a story about moral compromise and ambiguity, about narrative and mythmaking. It is a tale about obsession and vindictiveness, rooted in the flaws of its central character. For the Uniform struggles a little bit in how it approaches Sisko’s monomaniacal pursuit of Eddington, wrapping up so fast that the closing lines offer a sense of tonal whiplash. Nevertheless, it is a bold and breathtaking piece of television.

Shadow boxing...

Shadow boxing…

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Ascent (Review)

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.

"And to round out the thirtieth anniversary, we're going to climb the Paramount logo."

“And to round out the thirtieth anniversary, we’re going to climb the Paramount logo.”

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.

An uphill struggle.

An uphill struggle.

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