As I mentioned in the comments of a recent post, I’m in the process of rewatching the first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In the great Babylon 5 vs. DS9 rivalry, I started out firmly in the B5 camp, and ended up firmly in the DS9 camp — despite the fact that I missed large chunks of the later seasons. As a result, collecting the DVD sets and rewatching the whole show from start to finish has been a vague ambition of mine for some time. I was finally spurred into action by the confluence of (a) being bought the first season for my birthday and (b) the desert that is the summer tv schedule.

Given that it’s received wisdom that DS9 didn’t get good until the Defiant turned up (which in turn created the received wisdom that it takes three seasons for Trek shows to find their feet), my expectations for the season weren’t particularly high, and so far — with the exception of the pilot, “Emissary”, which turned out to be really quite good — they’ve been met. Abigail made reference to Trek‘s “overpowering squareness“, and it’s certainly something the early DS9 struggles, not very successfully, to avoid. The most interesting characters are almost all the outsiders — the acerbic, abrasive Odo, of course, but also weaselly Quark (I haven’t had to sit through any Ferengi comedy yet), and the rather wonderful Major Kira. I’m enjoying Avery Brooks’ performances as Ben Sisko more than I did first time around, probably because I can see the roots of what he becomes in later seasons, but you can see that neither writers nor actor have really got the hang of how best to deploy the character’s mix of iron authority, explosive anger, and occasional ebullience.

Although there are glimpses. In the episode I’ve just watched, “Dax” — in which Jadzia Dax is put on trial for treason and murder originally committed in the symbiote’s previous life, as Curzon Dax — there’s a marvellous little scene in which Sisko and Kira double-team the man trying to extradite Jadzia, Ilon Tandro (played by President Logan Gregory Itzin). Tandro’s people have a treaty with the Federation that allows “unilateral extradition” (God knows how that one got signed), which they invoke when their initial attempt to kidnap Jadzia Dax is thwarted; but of course, Deep Space Nine is technically a Bajoran station:

That’s absurd. No Bajoran interests are even involved here.

How did you people know your way around this station so well?

TANDRO (with disdain):
My conversation is with the Commander.

SISKO (stepping back):
No, I think your conversation is with my First Officer now.

You Klaestrons are allies of the Cardassians. Your knowledge of this station confirms that. They must have given you the layout, which not only comprises Bajoran security but also … [beat, then with a certain amount of relish] annoys us.

SISKO (faux-apologetic):
I’m afraid it means Bajoran interests are involved. And Bajor is adamant that — [courteous, directed at Kira] At least, I believe it’s adamant —

KIRA (definite relish now):
Oh yes, adamant.

You see. There will have to be an extradition hearing before I can lawfully release Lieutenant Dax.

I never thought I’d say find myself watching an incarnation of Star Trek for the characters, but here I am. Every episode so far has featured one or two wonderful nuggets of interaction like this — or a great guest star; “Dax” features Anne Haney as the fabulously crotchety arbitrator of the extradition hearing (“I’ll start with some informal advice to all: I’m one hundred years old. I’ve no time to squander listening to superfluous language. In short, I intend being here until supper, not senility. Understood?”). Which is just as well, since the plots have been almost uniformly lame. “Dax” is a transparent excuse to explain Trills to the viewers; the exploration of the putative issue at hand is somewhat half-hearted (certainly in comparison to The Next Generation‘s Data-on-trial episode, “The Measure of a Man”), and in the end the question is dodged entirely by having Dax’s innocence revealed just as Dax is finally asked, directly, whether she considers herself responsible for Curzon’s crimes. The secondary theme — the exploration of Dax and Sisko’s friendship; after all, Sisko is in the position of having to prove that Jadzia Dax is not his friend, when he’s spent the previous six episodes trying to convince himself that she is — is also underdeveloped. More evidence of Trek‘s squareness, perhaps; a lingering unwillingness to really delve into interpersonal conflicts between members of the Federation.

Of course DS9 improves, until it becomes the show of later seasons, a show both bolder and more subtle than the one I’m watching at the moment, probably peaking in the sixth season with episodes like “Far Beyond the Stars” and “In the Pale Moonlight”. The high-point of B5, at least for me, is the station’s declaration of independence from Earth. It strikes me now that DS9 made a more gradual declaration of independence of its own, one that I’m still eager, if a little impatient, to revisit.

One thought on “Dax

  1. I enjoyed DS9 a lot, although I remain firmly in the B5 camp.

    Both shows had their fair share of genius and banality, and both went off the rails towards the end, but I find the B5 novelistic approach to storytelling more satisfying than DS9’s increasingly aimless and repetitive war storyline. DS9 also took a fine and subtle villain in Gul Dukat and turned him into a one-dimensional evil super-villain, part of the increasingly macho tone of the series in general and Sisko in particular. Like Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, DS9 came to revel in extremes for their own sake, and this is never more apparent than in its final season.

    Before the end there was plenty to enjoy and I’d still hold it up as easily the best of the modern Trek shows. I find both series flawed and enjoyable in equal measure, but for me what tips it is that B5’s ambition far exceeds DS9’s. For all its relative daring DS9 remains too firmly rooted in the Trek staple of predictable moral dilemmas of the week. ‘In the Pale Moonlight’ is superb, but it’s exceptional even for DS9, and certainly no stronger than the best of B5.

    One thing to note is that while it was DS9’s war arc that got it noticed (and brought Sisko into his own) I remember finding Season 2 exceptionally strong, with a real standout (in Trek terms at least) every two or three weeks and a feeling of gritty political complexity that I think became simplified in later years. Whether Season 2 would stand up in hindisght I’m not certain.

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