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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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Star Trek: Voyager – Message in a Bottle (Review)

Message in a Bottle is an intriguing episode, although not necessarily for the most obvious of reasons.

Working with Andy Dick can be tough.

Working with Andy Dick can be tough.

Message in a Bottle is notable for its stunt casting, featuring controversial comedian Andy Dick as the Emergency Medical Hologram, Mark II. Given his background and his interests, Andy Dick is a very strange choice for a Star Trek guest role. Then again, it takes all sorts; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine cast Iggy Pop in The Magnificent Ferengi and Star Trek: Voyager finds room for the Rock in Tsunkatse. However, the last time the franchise attempted to cast a famous comedian, Star Trek: The Next Generation ended up with The Outrageous Okona.

Understand, Andy Dick tends to be the focal point for discussion around Message in a Bottle. However, the episode is notable for other reasons. In a weird way, Message in a Bottle kicks off a very loose serialised arc that plays through the next handful of episodes. It introduces the communications grid that plays a major role in Hunters, and features the first glimpse of the Hirogen. The Hirogen go on to play a major role in episodes like Prey, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II.

"What the hell are YOU doing in my Star Trek show?"

“What the hell are YOU doing in my Star Trek show?”

Message in a Bottle also comes at the half-way point in Voyager‘s run, speaking in terms of structure rather than episode count. Message in a Bottle is positioned mid-way through the middle season of Voyager‘s seven year run. Although the count is skewed somewhat by the series’ abridged first season, it feels like the last point at which Voyager is closer to its beginning than to its end. As such, there is something strangely appropriate in the fact that Message in a Bottle allows Voyager to reconnect with Starfleet and the Alpha Quadrant.

This is perhaps the point where the end of the journey “seems a little closer.”

"This never would have happened if they'd just gone with the Bashir model!"

“This never would have happened if they’d just gone with the Bashir model!”

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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 – Sons and Daughters (Review)

If A Time to Stand and Rocks and Shoals demonstrate the raw potential and ambition of the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, then Sons and Daughters demonstrate its shortcomings.

The fourth and fifth seasons of Deep Space Nine rank among the very best seasons of Star Trek every produced. These two seasons demonstrated a striking level of consistency. There were undoubtedly terrible episodes, like Shattered Mirror and The Muse in the fourth season or The Assignment and Let He Who Is Without Sin… However, these episodes tended to be quite concentrated. Even other episodes that didn’t quite work, like The Sword of Kahless, Sons of Mogh, A Simple Investigation or Ferengi Love Songs, were more bland than outright bad.

Let me be your father figure...

Let me be your father figure…

The sixth and seventh seasons of Deep Space Nine lack that consistency. They are even more ambitious than the two seasons directly prior, pushing harder in bolder new directions and resulting in brilliant television like Waltz, Far Beyond the Stars, In the Pale Moonlight, Treachery, Faith, and the Great River, The Siege of AR-558, It’s Only a Paper Moon, Chimera, Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges and Tacking Into the Wind. The sixth and seventh seasons of Deep Space Nine were breathtaking and highly enjoyable on their own terms.

In fact, there is a very credible argument for ranking the sixth and seventh seasons of Deep Space Nine among the best seasons of the franchise. They represent the last great narrative leap forward until the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise. These two seasons are driven by a desire to take risks and try new things, to make ambitious gambles knowing that they might not pay off. These are certainly virtues to be encouraged, even without that laundry list of spectacular television.

The lost art of parenting.

The lost art of parenting.

However, with that level of ambition, the sixth and seventh seasons were also much more variable in terms of quality. They contained a lot more misfires than the previous two seasons. This is not just the obvious high-profile failures like Profit and Lace or The Emperor’s New Cloak, but also a lot more episodes that disappoint without hitting quite that level of awfulness; One Little Ship, The Reckoning, Time’s Orphan, Prodigal Daughter, Field of Fire, Extreme Measures. There is a sense that the number of bad episodes increases noticeably.

Sons and Daughters is perhaps the first example of this trend. It is an episode that is not soul-destroying terrible, but it simply does not work in the way that it is intended to work. Sons and Daughters is not only the weakest episode of the six-episode opening arc, it is also the first episode to be written by David Weddle and Bradley Thompson as members of the series’ writing staff. The two facts might not be unrelated.

All (Mar)tok tok tok.

All (Mar)tok tok tok.

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