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Non-Review Review: What We Left Behind

Part of what is so remarkable about What We Left Behind is the way in which it feels more like a testament (and love letter) to how series producer and documentary co-directory Ira Steven Behr saw the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine than an exploration of the show itself.

This is not a surprise. Indeed, the poster for the documentary notably features Behr holding the eponymous space station in the palms of his hand, as much trying to figure it out for himself as offer it to the audience watching. Behr jokes that the documentary began production in 2012, but spent three years trying to figure out its identity and its angle. With its release in 2019, this puts Behr in the paradoxical position of having lived with What We Left Behind for almost as long as he lived with Deep Space Nine itself.

There isn’t too much in What We Left Behind that a dedicated fan won’t already know about the show’s production and history, but that’s not the point. An early sequence in the documentary exists largely in order to caution the viewer against interpreting the accounts offered in the documentary too literally. Repeatedly, actors and writers contradict themselves and each other. At one point, Robert Hewitt Wolfe casually recalls the finer details of Shadows and Symbols better than Hans Beimler, who actually wrote the episode. “I wasn’t even on the show at that point!” Wolfe jokes.

However, the documentary comes back time and again to the second season episode The Wire in order to explain these competing accounts and contradictory stories. They all hint at some greater truth.

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Deep Space Nine at 25 – The Most Timeless of (Star) Treks

This may be the last time we’re all together. But no matter what the future holds, no matter how far we travel, a part of us – a very important part – will always remain here, on Deep Space Nine.

– Benjamin Sisko, What You Leave Behind

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine turned twenty-five this week.

Deep Space Nine is an important addition to the Star Trek canon in a number of respects. It was the only Star Trek series to air as a secondary series, its entire seven-season run coinciding with the broadcast of other weekly Star Trek series; its first two seasons overlapping with the final two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager. It was also the last Star Trek series to air in syndication. It was arguably marked the point at which the viewing public lost interest in Star Trek during the nineties, the first Star Trek spin-off to lose its audience over its run.

However, Deep Space Nine was also memorable in other respects. It was the first Star Trek series not to take place on a ship named “Enterprise”, and the first not to take place on a ship at all. It was the first Star Trek series to embrace the possibilities of serialisation. It was the Star Trek cast with both the most diverse core cast and the widest ensemble, with an impressive collection of recurring actors and characters fleshing out the world. It was also arguably the only Star Trek series to truly embrace multiculturalism, with several episodes focusing exclusively on Klingon or Ferengi characters.

Still, the most enduring aspect of Deep Space Nine is how enduring it feels. At twenty-five years old, Deep Space Nine still feels fresh and relevant. It is a series that has a lot to say about the current moment, but it also had a lot to say about the moment before that. Deep Space Nine was undoubtedly a product of its time, but never feels as consciously wedded to its cultural context as the other Star Trek series. Ironically for the only Star Trek series to really engage with the idea of time, and the importance of forward movement through time for its character, Deep Space Nine is strangely timeless.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Tears of the 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 – The Sound of Her Voice (Review)

The Sound of Her Voice is a very sweet and thoughtful little episode.

In many ways, it is the perfect penultimate episode of the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It is a reminder of just how much the series has changed over the past few seasons, but also a demonstration of the things that make the show different from Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager. It is an episode that is anchored in the sort of careful character development and rich atmosphere that sets the series apart from the other Star Trek series. It is difficult to imagine this episode working as well with any other cast.

Absent friends.

However, The Sound of Her Voice is more than just a clever character-driven ensemble piece. It is a very reflective piece of television. Like Ronald D. Moore’s previous script for the sixth season, Valiant, his work on The Sound of Her Voice feels very introspective. Over the course of the episode, the characters find themselves in contact with a voice from the past. In a very direct way, The Sound of Her Voice puts the characters from Deep Space Nine in conversation with the franchise’s history.

There is a lot of maturity and consideration in The Sound of Her Voice, which feels appropriate as the sixth season draws to a close.

The window of opportunity is closing.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Sacrifice of Angels (Review)

Sacrifice of Angels goes like the clappers.

If Favour the Bold worked so well because it took its time and invested in character dynamics in the shadows this epic confrontation, then Sacrifice of Angels works so well because it just powers through to the end of the story. Sacrifice of Angels is an immaculately paced piece of science-fiction television, an episode that kicks into gear that the spectacular effects shot of the Starfleet fighters swooping down over those Galor-class destroyers in a haze of phaser fire and chaos. The episode doesn’t let up, powering through the plot to get back to the familiar status quo.

Fields of fire.

Fields of fire.

Sacrifice of Angels is also a meticulously constructed piece of television, with all of the dominoes aligned over the previous five episodes dropping at just the right point in a way that seems organic and natural, allowing for moments that are both surprising and inevitable. It is a very clean and sleek episode of television, one built to a singular purpose with a minimum of superfluous material. It really is a triumphant conclusion to an ambitious six-episode opening arc, one of the most daring narrative experiments in the entire history of the Star Trek franchise.

More striking is the sense that Sacrifice of Angels is very pointedly not the end of the larger arc. The Dominion War that began with Call to Arms does not end in Sacrifice of Angels, even though Sisko retakes the station and the characters return home. The Female Changeling even acknowledges as much in her dialogue, “Contact our forces in the Alpha Quadrant. Tell them to fall back to Cardassian territory. It appears this war is going to take longer than expected.” This is not over, despite the assurances that the writing staff gave Rick Berman on launching the arc.

The whole damn ballgame.

The whole damn ballgame.

Then again, this makes perfect sense. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was constantly and continuously reinventing itself over the course of its run, with several of the show’s season premieres serving as de facto pilots for a new and improved version of the show and several season-enders serving as de facto series finales bookending a particularly iteration of the series. The Way of the Warrior and Call to Arms are a great example, the fourth and fifth seasons bookended by the First and Second Battles of Deep Space Nine.

As such, it is probably more satisfying to look at Sacrifice of Angels as the end of another new beginning for the series, the end of an extended opening arc that is setting up themes and ideas that might hope to pay off over the following two seasons. In some ways, Sacrifice of Angels brings the show back to the end of Emissary. Once again, the Cardassian Occupation has come to an end. Sisko finds himself affirmed as the Emissary of the Prophets and the Commander of Deep Space Nine. This is the order of things.

Going for gold.

Going for gold.

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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 – Ferengi Love Songs (Review)

Ferengi Love Songs has one really good joke. In the episode’s defence, it might just be a great joke.

The most striking moment in Ferengi Love Songs comes eight minutes into the episode. In fact, the teaser rushes along so fast that it feels like the production team were pushing for that moment to serve as the sting that would segue into the opening credits. Instead, it arrives during an otherwise short and indistinct first act, providing an effective ad break on syndication. Still, the image is strong enough that it lingers. The image is the sequence in Quark discovers that the Grand Nagus, the most powerful of Ferengi, is hiding in his closet.

Imagine me and you, I do, I think about you day and night, it's only right...

Imagine me and you, I do,
I think about you day and night, it’s only right…

It is a great comedy moment, in both concept and execution. The idea of the leader of a vast interstellar empire hiding in somebody’s bedroom is ridiculous in a way that Star Trek is very rarely ridiculous, at least during the Rick Berman era. It is very much a stock sit-com trope, except it has been dressed up in the trappings of a franchise that has a long record of taking itself incredibly seriously. There is an endearing absurdity to the gag that feels almost like the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine writers are affectionately poking fun at the franchise’s self-seriousness.

Even the execution of the joke works very well. Quark absent-mindedly opens his closet and puts his travel bag inside. The Grand Negus is waiting inside and accepts the bag that is offered. Quark closes the closet, and then does a double-take. He reopens the closet, at which point the Grand Nagus points out that Quark shouldn’t even be here. In a panic, Quark immediately grabs his bag and prepares to leave his house (and the planet) before he properly processes what has happened. “What’s the Nagus doing in my closet?”

He comes with a lot of baggage.

He comes with a lot of baggage.

It is a scene that might have been lifted from some forgotten thirties screwball comedy, which makes sense considering the interests of the Deep Space Nine production team. Rene Auberjonois directs the sequence in which to play into that absurdity, and Armin Shimerman proves quite game at delivering double-takes and exaggerated moments of realisation. It is a great gag, skilfully executed, that is brilliantly silly in the way that Deep Space Nine is not afraid to be.

The biggest problem with Ferengi Love Songs is the challenge of where it needs to go from that brilliant little gag. There is an interesting kernel of a story idea here, the writers’ obvious affection for these Ferengi characters shining through. Unfortunately, none of that fits with the tone of the episode’s central gag, which leads a plot that feels strangely dissonant as it tries to wring drama and conflict from the image of the Grand Nagus crouched over in Quark’s closet.

Strange bedfellows...

Strange bedfellows…

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