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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – In the Cards (Review)

In the Cards is the perfect penultimate episode to a sensational season of television.

One of the more common observations about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is that it is the most dour and serious of the Star Trek series. It is the grim and cynical series of the bunch, with many commentators insisting that the series rejects the franchise’s humanist utopia in favour of brutality and nihilism. This criticism is entirely understandable. The series is literally and thematically darker than Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager. Even at this point, it is about to embark upon a two-year-long war arc, the longest in the franchise.

Jake and the Ferengi Man.

Jake and the Ferengi Man.

However, this is also a very reductive reading of Deep Space Nine. The series is more willing to criticise and interrogate the foundations of the Star Trek universe than any of its siblings, but it remains generally positive about the human condition. Governments and power structures should be treated with suspicion, but individuals are generally decent. Positioned right before the beginning of an epic franchise-shattering war, In the Cards is the perfect example of this philosophy. In the Cards elegantly captures the warmth and optimism of Deep Space Nine.

Deep Space Nine is fundamentally the story of a diverse and multicultural community formed of countless disparate people drawn together by fate or chance. In the Cards is a story about how happiness functions in that community, how the bonds between people can make all the difference even as the universe falls into chaos around them. It is also very funny.

Pod person.

Pod person.

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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 – The Darkness and the Light (Review)

The Darkness and the Light is the first television credit for writer Bryan Fuller.

There is no way around that. It puts a lot of emphasis on this fifth season episode, drawing a lot attention to the story. Fuller didn’t even write the script, instead pitching a story that would be developed by Ronald D. Moore. However, later in the fifth season, Fuller would pitch the story for Empok Nor. After that, he would be recruited on to the writing staff on Star Trek: Voyager. Then Fuller would begin developing his own shows. Dead Like Me. Wonderfalls. Pushing Daisies. Hannibal. American Gods. Star Trek: Discovery.

Face-off.

Face-off.

That naturally casts a shadow over his first television pitch, the premise sold to the writing staff of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Even watching Fuller’s idea filtered through the lens of Ronald D. Moore, there is a strong urge to read too much into this forty-five-minute piece of television. How much of it represents Bryan Fuller’s vision of Star Trek? How have its themes and ideas resonated across the rest of the writer’s work? What insight might it offer into the producer’s vision for the future of the franchise?

A lesser episode would crumple under that weight. It helps that The Darkness and the Light is an ambitious and exciting piece of television, a triumph of concept and execution that stands as one of the most distinctive and memorable episodes in the fifty-year history of the franchise.

A time to heal.

A time to heal.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Trials and Tribble-ations (Review)

Trials and Tribble-ations is a love letter to the franchise.

The thirtieth anniversary of Star Trek was a big deal. In many ways, the thirtieth anniversary celebration marks the end of the franchise’s cultural peak. Star Trek: The Next Generation is still fresh enough in the cultural consciousness that the anniversary is a big deal, even if the ratings on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager are not necessarily what everybody would want them to be. The decline that would last through to the end of Star Trek: Enterprise only really comes into play in the wake of the big anniversary.

You know when you've been Gumped.

You know when you’ve been Gumped.

The thirtieth anniversary of the franchise was an embarrassment of riches, particularly from the perspective of a rather limp fiftieth celebration. Even the disappointment of Flashback was dwarfed by the abundance of affectionate homages and triumphant celebrations of a television series that had gone from a cult failure repeating endlessly in syndication to a pop cultural juggernaut with two television series and a successful film franchise running simultaneously. Trials and Tribble-ations was very much the cornerstone of all this.

Sure, there were other celebrations to mark the franchise’s big three-oh. While Flashback might of been a bit of a disappointment as a big anniversary special, Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II were a loving ode to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Indeed, Star Trek: First Contact went even further and threw Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan into the mix, blending the franchise’s most acclaimed and most financially successful films together for the occasion. Captain Janeway even crossed paths with the cast of Frasier to mark the occasion.

Quite the lineup.

Quite the lineup.

In spite of all of that, Trials and Tribble-ations stands quite apart from all the noise around it. There is a legitimate debate to be had about whether it is unequivocally the best of these productions, although it stands a very strong chance of winning that particular argument. However, there is no denying that it is the best celebration of the thirtieth anniversary. It is an adoring and affectionate love letter to the Star Trek franchise, one that seems to have been produced with giddy grin on its face and a skip in its step.

However, Trials and Tribble-ations works even beyond that. It is not simply a loving tribute to a monument of American popular culture, although that would be entirely justified. It is an acknowledgement to the decades of fandom that kept Star Trek alive during its occasional adventures in the wilderness.  Trials and Tribble-ations does not just praise Star Trek for surviving thirty years despite being cancelled after three seasons, but which captures the enthusiasm that sustained the series across those thirty years.

Doesn't scan.

Doesn’t scan.

It would be easy for a thirtieth anniversary special to treat the occasion as an act of cultural archeology, the careful and ritual unearthing of a popular artifact with all due reverence paid. Indeed, this was arguably the central problem with Flashback, an episode more interested in Star Trek as a memory and as a subject of nostalgia than a living breathing organism. Trials and Tribble-ations instead opts to treat Star Trek as a living and breathing organism, something tangible and material rather than abstract and ethereal.

Indeed, the episode ends with the revelation that the past is not another country. Sometimes you can bring something back. Even if that thing is a tribble.

You can go home again...

You can go home again…

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Die is Cast (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

The Die is Cast is, like Improbable Cause before it, a wonderful piece of television.

As with most Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine two-parters, The Die is Cast maintains continuity and consistency with its predecessor, but it feels like a very different episode than Improbable Cause. After all, the curtain has been pulled back. The assassination attempt is no longer the driving force of the narrative (in fact, it’s barely referenced), with the plot focusing on Enabrain Tain’s pre-emptive strike against the Dominion.

A bruised ego...

A bruised ego…

It’s interesting that it falls to the Cardassians and the Romulans to drive the Dominion plot onwards. There’s been no real development of this long-form plot since Sisko and his crew escaped at the end of The Search, Part II. Episodes like The Abandoned and Heart of Stone have seen the crew encountering individual members of the Dominion, and shows like Visionary have had characters sitting around talking about them, but nothing has actually happened. It is mostly business as usual.

As such, the episode’s title feels beautifully appropriate – it’s the crossing of a threshold, a point from which there can be no return. Not just for Tain or the Cardassians, but the show itself.

Odo's sympathy for Garak runs dry...

Odo’s sympathy for Garak runs dry…

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Improbable Cause (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Improbable Cause is an episode that should be a mess. It was originally conceived as a sort-of-sequel to Second Skin, building off Garak’s murder of Entek in that episode. The idea was that Garak would face the consequences of that action, with the Obsidian Order planning an assassination attempt. However, the script was incredibly difficult to break. The resolution felt contrived and forced, closing the story out with Garak blackmailing is adversaries into compliance using a never-before-referenced isolinear rod felt overly convenient.

With the script not working, desperate action was taken. It was decided to extend Improbable Cause into a two-parter at the last minute, tying it into the proposed sequel to Defiant. The decision was made so late in the production schedule that it was impossible to pull the script back out of production. Even though Improbable Cause aired after Through the Looking Glass, it was produced beforehand. Writer René Echevarria re-wrote the last two acts of Improbable Cause with The Die is Cast screenwriter Ronald D. Moore in a frenzy, to tie both parts together.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

This is the very definition of “production nightmare.” It recalls one of those stories that you hear about blockbuster movies that start shooting without a finished script, or directors being locked out of the editing suite. By all accounts, Improbable Cause should have been a trainwreck held together by duct tape and good thoughts. Instead, there’s a credible argument that Improbable Cause is the strongest episode of the third season. It’s certainly the strongest episode broadcast since Star Trek: Voyager came on the air.

And that’s down to one simple fact: every single aspect of Improbable Cause works extraordinarily well.

Odo has the scent...

Odo has the scent…

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – House of Quark (Review)

The September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

House of Quark is a delightful episode that probably does a better job of setting the tone for the third season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine than The Search. As much as the Dominion were introduced as “a big deal” and clearly intended to change the show’s status quo, the third season does very little with them. There are a few mentions here and there, a late-season two-parter, two scattered episodes looking at aspects of the Dominion, and a series finalé, but they don’t drive the third season as much as one might expect, or as much as they drive the fifth through seventh seasons.

In contrast, House of Quark is a decidedly irreverent look at the world of Star Trek, a decidedly cynical perspective on one of the franchise’s sacred cows – a downright subversive exploration of something that the franchise takes for granted.

A knife story, there, Quark...

A knife story, there, Quark…

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