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New Podcast! The Pensky File – Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Season 5, Episode 9 (“The Ascent”)

I was thrilled to be asked back to join The Pensky Podcast to discuss Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, particularly as they hit the fifth season, which may well be the best season of Star Trek ever produced. So, no pressure talking about The Ascent, then.

Wes had a family emergency to take care of, so I joined Clay to discuss this mid-season double-buddy comedy episode in which Odo and Quark find themselves stranded on a hostile alien world while Nog and Jake discover that life as roommates is less than ideal. It’s a fun, broad discussion. We cover everything from the writers’ tendency to use subplots lifted directly from sitcoms to flesh out supporting characters through to debates about stakes in modern mass media, as well as the shift away from the twenty-odd episode season that has squeezed out episodes like The Ascent. It was great fun, and I hope you enjoy listening. I’ll let you decide which one of us is Quark and which one of us is Odo.

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 – The Dogs of War (Review)

The Dogs of War is the penultimate episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

As such, it has lots of important things to be doing. The episode’s primary function is to streamline the ongoing narratives so that they might all neatly feed into What You Leave Behind. The goal of any penultimate episode is to set up the shot so that the finale might punt the ball into the goal, in a manner that leads to a satisfying conclusion. Given that The Dogs of War is arriving towards the end of a seven-season series, a two-year war story, and a ten-episode closing arc, that is a lot of setting up to be done.

The best is Yates to come.

There is a lot of work to be done on paper. The plot thread focusing on the Pah-Wraiths has been dangling since When It Rains…, the Federation has not reengaged with the Breen since the disastrous encounter at the end of The Changeling Face of Evil, and Bajor hasn’t even mentioned the possibility of joining the Federation since Rapture or In the Cards. With that in mind, it makes perfect sense of The Dogs of War to focus on getting Bashir and Dax together while Quark thinks he is about to be Nagus as Damar is forced to hide in a cellar.

However, there is something inherently charming about how The Dogs of War chooses to prioritise threads over story beats that might seem more relevant or important, to dedicate a sizable chunk of the penultimate episode of Deep Space Nine to tying up a clumsy “will they?”/“won’t they?” romance and telling one last Ferengi story. The Dogs of War is an episode that speaks to what Deep Space Nine was, both in terms is esoteric plotting and its skewed-but-optimistic outlook. There might be better ways to wind down a series, but this is very Deep Space Nine.

Love in a turbolift.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Who Mourns for Morn? (Review)

Who Mourns for Morn? suffers a great deal from its place in the sixth season.

Who Mourns for Morn? is the second broad comedy in the last three episodes. It is the third light-hearted episode of the last six. That would be a lot of comedy for any season of Star Trek, but it is particularly apparent in the context of the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. After all, there is supposed to be a war raging in the background. The cathartic release of You Are Cordially Invited made a great deal of sense after the opening six-episode arc, and The Magnificent Ferengi was a brilliant comedy episode. However, this is just too much.

Painting a picture of a life...

Painting a picture of a life…

To be fair, the structure of the season contributes to this sense of humour fatigue. The decision to open the sixth season with a six-episode arc focusing on the retaking of Deep Space Nine was bold and ambitious, but it left little room for comedy or humour. As a result, the comedy episodes were concentrated in the aftermath of that sprawling war story, making for a particularly jarring contrast. The first half of the sixth season of Deep Space Nine only has three comedy episode, which is not too much by any measure. However, they arrive in rapid succession.

Taken on its own terms, Who Mourns for Morn? is a solid and enjoyable episode. It is not as funny as House of Quark or Little Green Men, but it moves quickly and works from a clever premise. It is populated with quirky supporting characters, none of whom outstay their welcome. Who Mourns for Morn? is a fun little runaround. Unfortunately, it arrives at a point in the season where the audience is exhausted from all those runarounds.

A very messy, very dirty business.

A very messy, very dirty business.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Magnificent Ferengi (Review)

In some ways, The Magnificent Ferengi serves as a logical end point for the Ferengi.

It is, after all, the last good Ferengi episode of the Berman era as a whole. The Dogs of War is not terrible, but it has serious problems. It looks much better following on from the double-header of Profit and Lace and The Emperor’s New Cloak, which rank among the worst episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ever produced. Then again, it is not like the other Star Trek series had much better luck, with Inside Man on Star Trek: Voyager and Acquisition on Star Trek: Enterprise also falling flat. However, there is more to it than that.

The comedy really Pops here.

The comedy really Pops here.

The Magnificent Ferengi is an episode that revels in one of the franchise’s most reviled recurring alien species, serving as a grand celebration of the work that Ira Steven Behr has done with the Ferengi since The Nagus during the first season of Deep Space Nine. This is reflected within and without the text. The Magnificent Ferengi is  about a band of Ferengi who finally get to be the heroes of their own weird little war story. However, it’s also a celebration of how well-developed the species is that the episode has seven distinct major Ferengi characters.

Indeed, it could reasonably be argued that the best thing about The Magnificent Ferengi is that it puts a cap on the Ferengi as a concept, rendering any further Ferengi episodes completely superfluous to requirement.

Sharp wit.

Sharp wit.

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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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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 – 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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