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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Strange Bedfellows (Review)

Three seems to be the magic number when it comes to long-form plotting in Berman era Star Trek.

Star Trek: The Next Generation arguably pulled off a three-consecutive-episodes arc with The Best of Both Worlds, Part I, The Best of Both Worlds, Part II and Family. Even the continuity-adverse Star Trek: Voyager managed something similar with Scorpion, Part I, Scorpion, Part II and The Gift. Star Trek: Enterprise tried a number of three-episode arcs in its final season, even if only The Forge, Awakening and Kir’Shara really worked; Borderland was a preamble to Cold Station 12 and The Augments, while The Aenar was a postscript to Babel One and United.

Super villain team-up.

Three episodes seems to work quite well for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The series’ second season premiere was the franchise’s first bona fides three-parter, The Homecoming, The Circle and The Siege. Even when it came to longer arcs, three consecutive episodes seemed be the limit; after Call to Arms, A Time to Stand and Rocks and Shoals, the arc opening the sixth season stumbled with Sons and Daughters before regaining its footing for Behind the Lines, Favour the Bold and Sacrifice of Angels.

As an aside, it also took three episodes for the alliance between the Dominion and Cardassia to properly integrate into the show’s mythology after the events of In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light; the fifth season took a pause with Doctor Bashir, I Presume, A Simple Investigation and Business as Usual before beginning to unpack the consequences of that statusquo-shattering twist in Ties of Blood and Water.

Hang loose.

There are any number of reasons why three works so well. Maybe three episodes allow for that classic three-act structure, the iconic storytelling template. Perhaps the production team on Deep Space Nine tended to work in chunks of three scripts at a time, with two or three subsequent scripts in development by the time that any given script was finished; if this was the case, it would mean that the production team was ready to start fresh with the fourth script. Whatever the reason, it is a familiar pattern.

Although “the Final Chapter” is nominally a ten-episode arc, counting What You Leave Behind as two distinct episodes, the plot beats tend to flow in discernible three-episode chunks. Ezri’s mission to rescue Worf plays out over Penumbra, ‘Til Death Do Us Part and Strange Bedfellows. Gul Rusot is introduced in The Changing Face of Evil, is built up in When It Rains…, and meets his end in Tacking Into the Wind. Bashir discovers that Odo is sick in When It Rains…, figures out Section 31 is responsible in Tacking Into the Wind, and recovers the cure in Extreme Measures.

The window of opportunity is closing.

The opening salvo of this ten-episode arc was clearly intended as a three-part story. The original titles of the episodes were Penumbra, Umbra and Eclipse, suggesting an encroaching darkness that would cast a long shadow by the end of the third episode. Coincidentally or not, that would mark the end of the first third of the larger story arc. It suggests a very formal and careful structure, suggesting a three-act structure within the first act of a three-act structure. On paper, it is a very bold and ambitious piece of structuring from the Deep Space Nine writers.

However, the production struggle to maintain that structure. These ten episodes stumble when it comes to pacing and plotting. The weakest threads in this final run are those that feel either rushed or over-extended, which struggle to hit the right beats. Strange Bedfellows is an episode that struggles because it feels like its storythreads have either been stretched or compressed, the important events either pulled back into ‘Til Death to Us Part or pushed forward into The Changing Face of Evil. The result is an episode that feels stranded between bigger story beats.

No time for reflection.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Penumbra (Review)

Penumbra represents the beginning of the end, kicking off the epic ten-episode conclusion to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

To be fair, Deep Space Nine had already embraced serialised storytelling, whether in the seeding of gradually-building plotlines or its long-term character development. The show was most serialised in the audacious six-episode arc that opened the sixth season; A Time to Stand, Rocks and Shoals, Sons and Daughters, Behind the Lines, Favour the Bold and Sacrifice of Angels. In some ways, the ten-episode closing arc is ultimately an extension of that basic idea. However, it is also something more complex.

When the moon is in the seventh house in the Kendra Province…

In some ways, this last narrative experiment would be the boldest creative decision of the entire seven year run. The production team had strained a little bit in structuring and pacing those six linked episodes; Sons and Daughters was notably the runt of the litter, telling a relatively standalone story about Worf while essentially repeating Kira’s character arc from Rocks and Shoals in a much less effective manner. As such, trying to tie ten hours of television together into a single cohesive narrative was a bold move. Then again, Deep Space Nine had never been short of ambition.

It is tempting to treat this ten-episode run as a single story, and it kinda is; Netflix labels the forty-five minute episodes as “Part 1”, “Part 2”, “Part 3”, “Part 4”, “Part 5”, “Part 6”, “Part 7” and “Part 8.” However, the run can also be broken down into smaller chunks. ‘Til Death Do Us Part and Strange Bedfellows were originally titled Umbra and Eclipse, suggesting a three-parter. In contrast, TV Guide listed the first four episodes in the run as a four-parter. When It Rains… and Tacking Into the Wind are definitely a two-parter. Extreme Measures is practically standalone.

Build a final arc.

Admittedly, the storytelling falters in places, as the production team’s reach occasionally exceeds their grasp. Some of these issues are outside the control of the production team, such as the budgetary concerns that hinder Extreme Measures. Some of these issues are entirely within the control of the production team, such as the pacing of the subplot with Winn and Dukat that leads to the most transparent stalling tactic in When It Rains…. Individual story choices are occasionally misguided, such as the emphasis on the Breen or the Pah-Wraiths.

Nevertheless, these ten episodes hang together surprisingly well. There is a sense of purpose and momentum running through these episodes that strengthens even the weaker hours. More than that, this ten-part saga includes some of the strongest episodes in the entire franchise, with episodes like When It Rains… and Tacking Into the Wind feeling like the culmination of more than nine years of storytelling across two different series. Though individual elements of this sprawling epic might miss the mark, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Dukat is of Bajor…

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – It’s Only a Paper Moon (Review)

It’s Only a Paper Moon is a fantastic illustration of a lot of things that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine does consistently well.

It is an episode that builds off events depicted in an earlier story, picking up with the character of Nog following the loss of his leg in The Siege of AR-558. In many ways, It’s Only a Paper Moon feels like a necessary part of that earlier adventure, dealing with the consequences of something truly horrific. It would have been cheap and crass to gloss over the enormity of what had happened to Nog. In The Siege of AR-558, the loss of Nog’s leg was a minor detail; one of many reminders of how war is hell. It’s Only a Paper Moon allows that story to play out in more depth.

“I’ll be seeing you…”

It’s Only a Paper Moon is also an episode that feels quite removed from what audiences expect from a Star Trek episode. The central story focuses on two supporting characters who exist outside the regular cast, trusting Nog and Vic Fontaine to carry a story on their own terms. It is a testament to how well-developed the world of Deep Space Nine has become, recalling the focus on Martok in Soldiers of the Empire or Once More Unto the Breach, Dukat in Indiscretion or Return to Grace and Garak in The Wire or Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast.

Unfolding primarily in a holographic recreation of sixties Las Vegas, It’s Only a Paper Moon is a very surreal and unusual episode of Deep Space Nine. However, it works perfectly in the context of Deep Space Nine.

A hard day’s Nog.

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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: Voyager – Hope and Fear (Review)

Hope and Fear is a reasonably solid conclusion to the fourth season of Star Trek: Voyager.

To be fair, the episode has a number of very clever ideas. There are a number of creative choices in Hope and Fear that feel entirely appropriate for the final episode of what has been a relatively strong season. Various concepts and ideas are brought back into play, from Janeway’s alliance with the Borg in Scorpion, Part II through to her conversion of Seven of Nine in The Gift and up to the secret coded message from Starfleet suggested in Hunters. It makes sense to bring all of these ideas back into play for the grand finale.

The fourth season comes to a head.

More than that, it makes sense to build the episode around the dynamic between Janeway and Seven. One of the recurring tensions in the fourth season, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, has been the debate about the prominence of Seven of Nine. In the year since she was introduced, Seven has effectively become one of the three most important members of the cast. There is a credible argument to be made that she is the most important member of the cast, an anxiety played out in One. As such, it is logical to build Hope and Fear around Janeway and Seven.

At the same time, there is a certain clumsiness to the plotting of the episode. There is a very rushed quality to the story, which never really takes the time to develop or explore these big revelations and twists. Hope and Fear races towards its conclusion as if it has been sucked into quantum slipstream, a very disorienting and disjointed effect. Certain character arcs feel under-explored, and certain gaps in the plot logic are brushed aside. Hope and Fear feels like a story that deserved a bigger canvas.

The hard cell.

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

The end is nigh.

As the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine draws to a close, the production team are increasingly aware that things will be wrapping up shortly. Star Trek: The Next Generation ran for seven seasons, setting a nice target for the spin-offs. Indeed, most of the sixth season had been spent discussing contract extensions with the cast for a final season. The writers (and the cast) knew that the seventh season would be the last. As the sixth season wound down, that massive deadline loomed large.

That’s gonna leave a stain.

The long-term storytelling on Deep Space Nine was largely improvised on the fly, with the writers adding new and interesting twists to the mythology as they went; this led to strange-in-hindsight tangents like Dukat’s time as a space pirate between Return to Grace and By Inferno’s Light. There had never really been a long-term plan, explaining why seemingly important plot points like Bajor’s admittance to the Federation seemed to just drop off the table after Rapture.

At best, the writers on Deep Space Nine knew the direction in which they were moving, but had not charted the course that they would follow. Still, a looming deadline tends to focus the mind. In the final third of the sixth season, the production team begin aligning plot points and character arcs towards the end of the story. Ira Steven Behr wrote His Way in large part because he wanted to introduce Vic Fontaine and pair off Kira and Odo, realising that time was working against him.

Who Prophets?

The Reckoning is a story about the end of days, in more ways than one. Broadcast in April 1998, it perfectly taps into the millennial eschatology that had taken root in the popular consciousness in the lead up to the twenty-first century. The Reckoning posits an epic battle between good and evil that will mark the end of an epoch, tapping into an anxiety simmering through popular culture in television shows like Millennium and films like End of Days. As the nineties came to a close, there was a clear anxiety about what the future might hold, if it existed at all.

However, The Reckoning also feels like a conscious effort to align various characters and plot beats in service of the final season ahead. The Reckoning properly seeds an entire subplot that will play through the remainder for the show, from Tears of the Prophets through to What You Leave Behind. Character motivations are made clear, stakes are heightened, mythology is explained. All of this is very much in service of where the writers plan for Deep Space Nine to go.

The wormhole in things…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Hunters (Review)

Hunters is a weird episode of Star Trek:Voyager, perhaps most notable for the manner in which it flirts with serialisation.

More than any other episode of the fourth season, with the possible exception of The Gift, this mid-season episode seems to exist primarily in relation to the episodes around it. The script is very consciously a sequel to Message in a Bottle, with the crew discovering the ancient network of space stations is a two-way radio back to the Alpha Quadrant. It also introduces the Hirogen, an alien species that will recur in Prey, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. The story also sets up a narrative thread that will pay off in Hope and Fear, the season finale.

“Prey, tell.”

More than that, Hunters is an episode that is very consciously engaged with dangling threads of continuity. It resolves the relationship between Janeway and Mark that has haunted the lead character since Caretaker, offers Tom Paris some hint of reconciliation with the father who seemed so disappointed in Persistence of Vision, and even resolves the Maquis plot thread by tying back to Blaze of Glory. This is an episode that exists as something of a storytelling nexus point, a variety of intersecting threads all tied together as part of a single narrative.

Voyager had largely eschewed any attempt at long-form storytelling, perhaps in response to the trauma of the troublesome Kazon arc in the second season that led to ill-judged misfires like Alliances and Investigations. However, those early attempts at serialisation were heavily plot-driven, a series of stories building towards a number predetermined plot points. In contrast, the serialisation suggested by Hunters is looser; a collection of character beats, some earlier details that had largely been forgotten, some elements that might be useful in the future.

The farthest woman from home.

That said, Hunters seems just as cautious about long-form storytelling as The Gift was. As much as Hunters revives old story lines and character beats, it also makes a conscious effort to close many of them. Hunters makes it very clear that this level of serialisation will not be the default for the series going forward. The episode tidies away more loose threads than it unravels. The relationship between Kathryn Janeway and Mark Johnson is brought back purely so it can be ended. The Maquis are mentioned only to confirm they have been destroyed.

Still, there is something oddly intriguing about Hunters, a mostly quiet episode that exists primarily as both prelude and coda rather than a narrative in its own right. It is a quieter, stranger Voyager episode, even while introducing a race of giant space!hunters.

Gripping stuff.

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