Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Nitpickery: Captain Sisko

Hey y'all.  I've been watching a lot of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine recently, and I was puzzling over the fact that Captain Benjamin Sisko never interfered in the Picard vs. Kirk conflict over which Star Trek captain was the best.  Granted, he's an easy third, but that's primarily because Janeway was boring and Archer's actor didn't even belong in the Star Trek universe.  Good for Quantum Leap, but not so much Trek.

Anyway, Captain Sisko is in charge of Deep Space Nine, a station that is near the planet Bajor and a wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant.  Thus, he's got the war aftermath between the Bajorans and the Cardassians to deal with, as well as whatever goes through the wormhole.  Isn't that situation at all interesting?

Note that the captains past Picard faced a problem.  The writers apparently felt that a starship captain had to refer back to the previous captains to be a good one, and Picard himself, like much from his series, set a precedent that the others had to follow, for some reason.

In fact, the reason why Kirk and Picard are so entertaining is that they're their own people.  Kirk is a swashbuckling type common in early sci-fi, and Picard's the anti-Kirk who is dignified and diplomatic.  Picard's writers felt no need to make him imitate Kirk, unlike the writers for the subsequent series.  Janeway, Sisko, and Archer all are forced into playing analogues for the two main captains.  One comment I read online even calls Janeway a male Kirk.

Thankfully for Sisko, Deep Space Nine allows him to break free of this.  Note, however, that I have several problems with this series.  It tries to do too much with too many over-arching plotlines, there's really no need to see all those female characters sleeping around, the commentary on capitalism through the Ferengi was uneducated and two dimensional, and most times the show tried to refer to previous series in the franchise, the attempts to do so were flat and uninteresting.

Despite this, DS9 managed to be an entertaining show, probably because it's far more character driven and emotional than the others -- it's not trying to follow Roddenberry's philosophy to a T, and thus it shows humans being human and not some sort of ultra-moral philosophers on spaceships.  It may not fit in so well with the past, but it's an entertaining show, and with television that's all that matters.

But back to Sisko.  So why isn't he up there with Kirk and Picard?  Let me sum him up before we get to the reasons I've guessed.  He's a guy from New Orleans, raised by a man who hates replicator food and taught his children to cook.  Sisko's ultimate goal was to become an Admiral, but through the death of his wife at the hands of Borg Picard, Sisko ends up at Deep Space Nine, a position which appears to be a dead end as far as careers go.  However, though the wormhole and, later on, war with the Gamma Quadrant Dominion, increases Sisko's importance.  Also, he's the Emissary of the Bajoran religion, communicating between them and their gods, the Prophets.  These Prophets, timeless creatures from the wormhole, are ultimately responsible for Sisko's birth, as it turns out, and they also end up responsible for his ultimate fate: to join them in the timeless space.

Okay, so knowing what we know, why isn't Sisko as popular as the two main captains?  Perhaps we can develop a theory.

- Sisko works on a station.

This is a primary reason, in my opinion.  Thing is, all the other captains, from Kirk to Archer, have been the captains of their own vessel, able to travel far from civilized space and do whatever they want.  Everything the ship does is determined by the orders of the captain, and in every episode, even the ones focusing on other characters, have to center around whatever the captain chooses to do with the crew.

Sisko, on the other hand, works on a station.  His entire job hinges on being near to civilization, and thus everything he does hinges on Bajor and whatever comes through the wormhole.  Thus, he doesn't get to control the destiny of his station the way the others do their ships.  His captain's personality doesn't get to show through as much because his will has to more often bow to the higher ups and the circumstances around him.  In fact, much of what goes on depends far more on the day to day activities of the civilians on the station than the captain's choices.  Sisko's ultimate job becomes to then foster his community rather than show his stuff.

In any case, you can't easily compare a starship captain to a station captain, and thus Sisko may ultimately be on the side, whether or not people like him.

- Sisko's black, and people are racist.

I list this for completion's sake, but I don't believe it for a moment.  Trekkies were the "love and tolerance" crowd long before the bronies came along, and Trek is known for pushing racial boundaries.  There's the whole "infinite diversity in infinite combinations" concept, as well as the fact that there's forty bajillion races in the Star Trek canon.  Some of the best characters of Trek aren't even human.  Point is, the fan of such a racially forward show isn't likely to be racist.

- Deep Space Nine was never as popular as the other shows.

This reason could be faulty.  I'm checking a poll right now, and it shows that Deep Space Nine, according to this poll, is only more popular than Enterprise and The Animated Series.  I question the accuracy of this poll, as I had to search the net to find it, and Voyager to me is insanely boring, but apparently placed second on this poll under The Next Generation.  Checking IMDB showed that the shows were ordered by ranking: 1. TNG  2. TOS   3. DS9   4. Voyager.  5. Enterprise.

Now, it's very clear that the first series and the Next Generation were the most iconic of the series, what with TOS starting it all and TNG cementing and setting the foundation of the universe.  Deep Space Nine did neither, and when someone suggests to another what they should watch to start with Star Trek, it's usually one from the first two series or one of the movies.  Not DS9.

My own experience with Deep Space Nine was to at first ignore it.  Before Netflix and my not having a job with which to buy the then expensive VHS tapes, I wasn't able to watch.  In fact, through much of my childhood we only watched the first two series, because that's all the resources we had.  And as a child of the 90s, I preferred children's shows, which were pretty awesome at the time.  When I got old enough to care again, Voyager was on, and I watched it's last couple of seasons air when I was in high school, as well as a few airings of the terrible Enterprise.

Only on a whim with Netflix did I ever look at Deep Space Nine, as I was intrigued by the episode "In the Pale Moonlight".  By the time I watched this, Kirk was already firmly cemented in my head as the best starship captain.  While granted, watching TOS again shows that Kirk's weakness for women seriously impeded his ability to lead.  Seriously, watch any episode with major female characters.  It gets really creepy how fast he "falls in love" with a woman.

However, those who like me neglected the Star Trek series after the first two shows have already cemented their choices as well.  Granted, this may yet be more of a theory than fact, but it's at least plausible.

- Deep Space Nine isn't that much like Star Trek.

Now here we get to the meat of the matter.  DS9 is a clear departure from Trek, with its soft porno love scenes, violence, war, and people not behaving as though they live in a world where they've outgrown personal conflict.  Also, the writers that doomed Voyager and Enterprise weren't involved.  Thus, Deep Space Nine was free to go in what direction it wanted, for better or for worse.  As a result, it's not much akin to its origin.  It got way too dark and non-utopian to really support Roddenberry's view that morality evolves.  Which is fine, because morality doesn't evolve, and people are imperfect.

This relates to Sisko in that some might deliberately not consider him a Star Trek captain because his show wasn't "real Trek", but mostly in that people subconsciously dislike DS9 for going too far away and thus Sisko doesn't get a chance in the first place.

Okay, those are the outsider reasons.  What about Sisko himself?

- Sisko is too angry.

Seriously, this guy is stubborn.  There's a video online of Sisko yelling at people (, cutting together from several episodes.  What makes this even funnier is that I just watched an episode where Sisko's line was literally "I wasn't yelling, I was expressing my opinion...loudly."  Sisko just gets angry too easily.  His pride is easily wounded, and this is shown especially in the episode where he challenges a Vulcan to a game of baseball because this particular Vulcan pissed him off.

I've noticed that when Sisko's enemies or other antagonists show up, like Weyoun or Kai Winn, Sisko always turns into a wall.  He makes it very clear by his words and stiff gaze that he doesn't like said person, ignoring the fact that people with authority at times should be diplomatic.  Maybe there's a time to be a wall, but there's also a time to try to be reasonable and come to an agreement.  Seriously.  Watch any scene where a delegation he doesn't like comes to the ship.  Sisko never hides his emotion.

The episode where this really becomes a problem is Waltz, where Sisko finds himself trapped on a planet with the villainous and now borderline insane Cardassian, Dukat.  This is a great episode for Dukat's actor, who does a marvelous job portraying a man who can't handle the guilt of what he did to the Bajorans when the Cardassians occupied their planet, and seeks to blame anyone but himself for his actions.  He desperately is in need for respect and for someone to tell him that he only did what he had to do, and Dukat seeks this by trying to get respect from Sisko, whom he admires.

Sisko, however, turns into his usual emotional wall.  As soon as he figures out Dukat's head is a mess, he doesn't attempt to negotiate or help Dukat see that he's torturing himself.  Instead, he angrily insists on "evidence" that Dukat really tried as much as possible to stop Bajorans from dying under his rule.  His wall that he sets up emotionally alienates Dukat, and allows Dukat to follow the stream of his own thought to the "realization" that all Bajorans are bad, and they deserved what happened to them.  At this point, Dukat closes off all opening to be influenced by Sisko, and determines to go on a path that ultimately leads to him murdering a main character and joining with the Pa'Wraith, the demons or anti-gods of Bajoran religion.  And he kills and tries to kill a lot of people in his wake, as you would imagine.

Thus, because Sisko didn't take his one chance to influence a deluded man, desperate for justification, he thus aggravates his own situation.  Sisko never takes into account that since he's trapped on a planet with this man, he may want to be more careful.  I'm not saying that Sisko should have lied to him (Dukat probably would have seen through that), but he should have at least attempted to make Dukat see his own sins, say that he has to respect himself before anyone else can respect him, or at least to make Dukat face his "undeserved" fate with dignity.  Sisko, however, doesn't even try to stand in the path of Dukat, and loses his chance to steer the vulnerable nutjob into clearer philosophical waters.

This leads to my next point.

- Sisko isn't "captainy."

Now, overall, I like his actor Avery Brooks.  Brooks plays a very emotional role, and he does very well in situations where he's showing his love for his son, being his alternate self, or just any role where he shows his sensitive, emotional side.  However, at times I feel that when it comes to his duties, Brooks is just doing an impression of what the Starfleet captain should be.  To be fair, the actors for Janeway and Archer definitely were shallow imitations, and Avery usually does a far better job than them in the acting department.  He definitely breaks through the captain's deficit that plagues the latter Trek spin-offs.

But only most of the time.  Every time Sisko attempts to do something in a Starfleet manner, or order his officers to do stuff, he doesn't seem all that professional.  For one thing, he yells a lot and turns into an emotional wall, as stated before.  He doesn't get any help from the writers, either.  Episodes that focus on Sisko are generally about him doing personal stuff, like overcoming delusions of him being a writer in the past, building an ancient Bajoran spaceship, challenging a Vulcan to a baseball game, or finding out about his real mother.  They're almost never about commanding his station through a difficult situation, or demonstrating his intelligence through facing a hostile alien or force, or negotiating something complex with a potential Starfleet ally.

The few times Sisko is in more of a command situation, he's not always the best captain.  In fact, several of his direct orders are ignored.  In fact, through many of the episodes, people don't consult much with Sisko unless they want something or they do something wrong.  His own son doesn't stop seeing his Ferengi friend Nog when Sisko tells him not to, and it's just pure luck that Nog turns out to be not so bad.  If Nog had been a bad influence, then Sisko would be in a lot of trouble.

It doesn't help that in the few command times the plot focuses on him, he's not really doing much in the way of making himself look unique.  He defies Starfleet orders to go save one person, a Trek cliche, and a mission where he flew in the Gamma Quadrant to speak to the founders would have ended badly if Odo hadn't been around.

The trouble is, he's just too impulsive.  One time a Vorta woman had been "rescued" alongside Sisko and three others from the newly discovered Jem'Hadar warrior race.  Only it turns out she's not who she seems.  Sisko finds this out away from her presence, so he has to decide what to do with the information.  And what does he do?  He charges in with phasers and demands she explain, whereupon she teleports away.  Thing is, she didn't know that he'd found out, and she was pretending to be innocent.  She even said she would give them information about the Jem'Hadar.  Does Sisko wait until she talks before pulling out a phaser?  Nope.   And now the crew has learned nothing about the Jem'Hadar at all.

Much of that I don't blame on Avery Brooks.  It's really to do with the writers.  They never really give him much of a chance to lead well and focus on his choices, not in the way that Kirk's and Picard's writers had.  This may relate back to the show being set on a station than a ship.  However, some of the trouble I do blame on Brooks, as he seems like he's much more of a dramatic character actor than his predecessors.  He's very intense and deliberate, and this comes through in Sisko.  Maybe the writers never really took this into account and didn't put Sisko in situations where Avery's emotional strength would lead the day.  You know the one Next Generation episode where Picard is interrogated?  Brooks would have done a great job in a similar situation, perhaps better than Patrick Stewart did.

Also, before I go too far with talking crap on Sisko, I need to counteract that by saying that being a flawed captain is normal.  Kirk can't think with a woman around, and Picard has been described at times as a wimp, particularly since he can't even face Deanna Troi's mother.  Having anger issues doesn't make Sisko a bad captain.  It's just that we don't see enough of his good choices, and good things coming of those choices rather than from luck or the work of his more technical colleagues.

Note also that his captaining doesn't have an overall bad effect on the show.  The point of a show is to be entertaining, and James Avery is entertaining.  That's what counts.  It's only in a comparison to the others in a judgement of pure captaining ability that he suffers at all, and personally I think he's still really good, with a lot of potential that never really got tapped.

Huh.  I've written all this, and I still don't feel any closer to understanding why Benjamin Sisko isn't as highly ranked.  I can't believe Janeway appears to be more popular than him.  I really hope it's not because she's the token female captain.  I personally find her mostly boring, but that may have more to do with her show being utterly boring and most of the cast being extremely tedious.  Seriously, Chakotay's characterization came only from his tattoo.

But before I go, let me point out some interesting quotes I found at a forum talking about the best Starfleet captain.

Tigojones --
'Sisko because of the stuff he went through, because he was different from the other show's captains. First off, he wasn't a Captain at the start, and was only promoted a few seasons in. Second, he was at the front for nearly the entire Dominion War. That's not counting the fact that he pretty much started the war in the first place.'

Crazyb --
'Sisko was meh'ish.'

Auroro --
'Dealing with Q:
1: Sisko (He punch[ed] Q)'

Skizzit --
'Shaved head + Goatee Sisko is a BA. No goatee + hair Sisko = wimp. To be fair though, the early seasons he was more concerned about his son and trying not to piss everyone off while setting up the station where as in the later seasons he has gained the full confidence of his people and become the main driving force in the Dominion War.'

Clickhack --
'Sisko- who? oh that guy... no one cares. "captain's log 9000 today I'll do nothing and the episode will centre around other characters, like the bar tender."'

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