Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Good and Bad of Deep Space Nine (p1): the Characters

Hey y'all.  So I've been watching a lot of DS9, lately.  It's a bit of the "black sheep" of the Star Trek franchise, as it goes too far away from what Star Trek is about, people claim.  While in certain ways this claim is true, it's also partially false.

One of the more ridiculous claims about this series is that it's not Star Trek because it's not a "trek": none of the characters are going anywhere to discover new worlds and whatnot.  This is very silly, because quite often Next Generation set exploration aside in favor of putting depth into the races and worlds already created.  The "Star Trek" label is now a label of a franchise, and only the first series and Next Generation (because it appeared after a long hiatus) were obligated to trek.  It's okay for there to be a side story or spin-off that focuses on things that aren't entirely unknown.  Yes, this changes the focus of the series, but that in itself doesn't make it bad.  Of course, if it's one's personal taste to prefer exploration over a space station, that's fair enough.  It's just not an objective concern.

However, there are objective complaints about it.  The primary one is that Deep Space Nine betrays what Roddenberry intended in having an ideal universe where people learn to get along.  For a series in Star Trek, this is hard to accept.  Some argue that by having people act more realistically, the show is better.  On an entertainment perspective, I agree.  On the other hand, Star Trek is made distinct by its idealism, and the goal of Trek was never simply about being entertaining.  It was to create something new and refreshing, with the belief humanity could improve itself.  While I feel that much of this philosophy is humanistic bunk, it was hopeful and fun in its own way.  In the original series, anyway.

So if you want to say that DS9 is too non-idealistic, that's certainly true.  It can also be argued that this series is more entertaining than the others.  It's certainly more entertaining than Voyager (a collection of mostly bad actors) and Enterprise (boring and insensitive to canon).

In any case, let's just talk about Deep Space Nine, shall we?

So Deep Space Nine is the story of Captain Sisko and his crew at a space station on the edge of known space.  It starts out as an unremarkable assignment to help the planet Bajor recover from Cardassian occupation.  This all turns around when a stable wormhole is discovered, opening up worlds that are lightyears upon lightyears away.  This leads to discovering the Dominion, a shapeshifter controlled political entity that wants to make sure nobody every mistreats shapeshifters ever again, decides that the best way to do this is to conquer everybody else.

Dude, bitter much?

So there are a few aspects I want to talk about.  I'll go over the good and bad of each, and talk about why I feel that way.  Because, why not?  Talking about long cancelled television shows is fun, right?

1. Cast

So the cast of Deep Space Nine consists of Commander (later, Captain) Sisko, Doctor Bashir, first officer Kira Nerys, science officer Jadzia Dax, station security officer Odo, chief engineer Miles O'Brien, and later on....something position Worf.  Side characters include bar owner Quark, his brother Rom and nephew Nog, Cardassian exile Elim Garak, Sisko's son Jake, and O'Brien's wife Keiko.  The more common antagonists are Cardassian leader Gul Dukat, Dominion servant Weyoun, a nameless female shapeshifter, and power-hungry Bajoran leader Winn Adami.

Y'know, maybe I won't go over each one of these.

Overall, I liked Captain Sisko.  Was his the best actor ever?  No.  Was he the best captain ever?  Not really.  Picard, for all practical purposes, is the best captain as far as in-universe considerations go. However, I judge my captains more on out-universe entertainment factors, meaning that Kirk is first and Sisko is second.  Picard's a bit dull and Janeway's alright at best.

I wrote a blog already about Captain Sisko, but I'll summarize it here: my main problem with Sisko as a character is that the writers go out of their way to avoid placing Sisko in "captainy" situations.  His storylines are all based on individual situations, such as his role as Emissary of the Prophets (Bajoran gods), his relationship with his son, his love of baseball, his desire to build an old Bajoran ship, etc.  He's almost never in the captain's chair, directing his officers in ways that enable everyone to survive.  He's usually off doing his own thing while the other officers take turns telling whoever's around what to do.

As far as the acting goes, Avery Brooks is better when he's not captain, but rather in a side role where he's independent or semi-independent from whatever social structure happens to exist.  For example, his mirror universe equivalent, his stint as "Dr. Noah" in the James Bond holosuite program, and his visions of being a writer in the 50s are all far more interesting incarnations than Captain Sisko.  For that matter, Sisko is more fun when he's not in command structure, but rather when stranded on planets or doing things with his son. Actually, any time Sisko is around a baby, he's an utter delight.  Seriously, dude needed to hold more babies.

A favorite of the primary crew is Doctor Bashir.  Siddig el Fadl is perhaps one of the best actors in the cast. It doesn't hurt that he's frequently paired off with the Garak character, whose suspicious nature and dark side bring out all the best in our overly heroic doctor.  I consider Bashir to be the second best doctor, because quite frankly DeForest Kelley will never be overtaken, and the other Star Trek doctors aren't even competition (the first person to bring up the doctor on Voyager gets an internet slap).  Bashir is one of the more consistently good characters, and despite the character going through changes, he never feels unnatural, or that a later point contradicts his nature in the earlier series.  No, I don't feel it was jolting at all that Bashir turns out to be genetically manipulated.  It fits.

The other members of the crew are okay.  I like Miles O'Brien's return from the Next Generation.  His character gets on my nerves every once in a while, but generally he's a great friend and foil to Bashir, as well as being a personality not very modern.  This gives him a unique, if a bit gruff, perspective.  Different is good. Only trouble is, his wife Keiko is present, and she hasn't gotten over the fact that she's not on Next Generation anymore -- she doesn't have to be a shrill modernist who treats her husband like a child.  My favorite episode of her is where she's taken over by the Bajoran equivalent of a demon.  She's a lot more likable in that episode.

Kira Nerys is a lot of fun, as she's bad tempered, believes in morality, and knows when to kick butt. Sometimes she gets a little preachy, particularly when she's talking about violence, but generally she's a good character.  So is Odo, her best friend and later love.  He's a changeling, separated from his people, and his love of justice makes him and Kira the best of friends, despite the fact that they approach ethics from opposite sides.  Odo is more of a lawful good, who believes in respect and order.  Kira is more of a chaotic good, who believes in doing whatever is right, screw the people too polite to do what needs to be done. This could have been explored more, but the characters have chemistry, so it's all good.

So I'm pretty content with most of the cast.  Except with Dax.  Don't get me wrong, the Trill thing where she keeps a sentient slug in her gut is pretty interesting, if portrayed a bit inconsistently during the show.  Even that's not so big of a problem, as the whole slug thing should be more ambiguous than not to make it more appealing.

Thing is, there's two kinds of bad.  One is not so well-acted, well-scripted, etc, generally referring to the more objective side of things.  Dax is usually good on that end.  The other kind of bad is more subjective, meaning morally bad, or annoying, or propaganda pushing.  Things of that nature.  Dax gets on my nerves on this side.  People have called her character confident, and that's true, but she's really...well, slutty.  She allows a Trill initiate to see the guy she's slept with the previous night (or so it's implied), she messed around with a dude she just met on an alien world, she tries to get Kira to fool around with holographic projections, frequently comments on strange men she's attracted to, hits on a guy in front of her future mother in law, and, when she can think of no other way to cheer up a depressed Worf, she seduces him.

In one sense, this is an interesting characteristic.  Generally Jadzia gets through the day calmly and unperturbed by things that shake the other characters.  However, when something does reach through her shell, she crumbles and becomes ineffective in making logical choices.  It's like Jadzia tries as hard as she can not to face her own emotions, and deals with them by sleeping around -- hence her seeming to believe that this is the only way to get Worf through his own heartbreak.

Examples: in the episode where Kurzon's (a former host of her slug) memories are placed inside Odo and she confronts him about something she's always wanted to know, her discouragement prevents her from demanding that the memories be returned.  Once the Trill initiate questioned Jadzia's worthiness to be a host, Jadzia was filled with doubt about her entire life.  And in the episode with her bachelorette party, she deals with confrontation from her mother in law and Worf by shutting them away, trying to pretend everything is fine when it's clearly not.  Seriously, just check out any episode where Jadzia is emotional, and see how it affects her ability to function.

It's also interesting to find that despite Kira having stricter morals in this area, the show tends to show Kira in more compromising moments and revealing outfits.

Still, I don't want that kind of thing in Trek.  Yeah, they're trying to be realistic, but Star Trek is more fun when it's shared with the younger crowd, and of course I don't want the younger crowd to think that sleeping around is a good idea.  It has emotional and physical consequences that can't be ignored, and not to mention societal ones.

Oh, and Jadzia does have some writing issues, none too serious.  One is that it's really hard to imagine her being in command of anything, despite her outranking many people on the station.  While most of the other characters (Worf and Kira especially) feel like they can take over in a pinch, the few episodes where Jadzia commands feel strange and out of place.  The writers probably noticed this, which is why most of her appearances are as a side character to what's happening in the main plot.

There's also a problem with her character for the episodes where she does star, and this is probably what led actress Terry Farrell to eventually leave the show.  Despite DS9 being the Trek series that is the least episodic and most contiguous over its run time, Jadzia Dax has no over-arcing plotlines, other than possibly her relationship with Worf (but we'll get to that later).  The others have issues throughout the show's run that could show up at any point.  Doctor Bashir's was his desire to become a hero, and later his genetic manipulation.  O'Brien had a family life and children to think about.  Kira's love life, her turmoil over her past as a freedom fighter, and her antagonistic relationship with Gul Dukat are all continuous issues.  Sisko has his son and his role as Emissary.  Worf has to learn to fit in, deal with being an outcast, and figure out his son. Odo is constantly at odds with being the only changeling not trying to conquer everybody.  Dax has nothing.

You'll notice that Dax's episodes are generally one-shots that involve random things coming up and then never recurring.  For example, the blood oath that her previous host made to avenge the deaths of three children.  Jadzia fulfills this oath, despite Captain Sisko's disapproval.  There are no consequences for this episode, and it is never referenced again.  Jadzia's past host is accused of a crime, and cleared.  A man no one's ever met tries to steal her symbiont.  She has to meet her past hosts.  She has a one-shot romance with an alien whose planet phases in and out of existence.

I guess you could say that Jadzia suddenly finding out she has a murderer for one of her previous hosts is kind of an arc, but it was never a pressing matter that needed resolution in some way.  It was actually fairly awkward.  Sure, it worked for its first appearance, but after that the previous host was reworked from a confused man into a deranged serial killer, and with only two more appearances.  One was in the episode where Jadzia was meeting her former hosts, and this murderer was placed into Sisko's body for a few moments of emotional and physical torment -- despite Jadzia having accepted him into her past during his first appearance.  His only other appearance is when Terry Farrell is replaced by Nicole de Boer, and he becomes even more of a cliche then.

So Jadzia is the only episodic character, while the others get to change and grow.  This could be fine, as it's not really necessary for all characters to have an arc in a story (the original cast, Guinan, etc).  It's just very strange on a show like Deep Space Nine, which is far more emotional than the other series.

The character that gets on my nerves the most is certainly Worf.  Don't get me wrong, I like both the actor and the character.  That's exactly why I hate his incarnation on the show.  See, while DS9 is emotional, The Next Generation was not especially.  Worf, as a main in TNG rather than a recurring character like O'Brien, was more affected by this, and is thus stiff and uncomfortable where the other characters are relaxed and natural.  You could call this Worf's angle, what makes him different.  Trouble is, it makes him the sad child at the birthday party.

Worf on TNG was constantly being put down by both Picard and Riker, as he tended to suggest solutions and ideas that were more violent than they preferred.  However, that show was more...well not "military", but certainly more disciplined.  Therefore Worf wasn't treated like an oddity.  In DS9, people criticize his choice of drink, mock his love of discipline, accuse him of crimes he didn't commit, and generally don't befriend him. There's an especially awkward scene where Worf insists on sitting in the same chair he always sits, despite someone else having taken it.  I mean, sure Worf is a bit retentive, but nothing about his TNG appearance indicates he had that big of a stick up his butt.  DS9 just takes whatever chance they can to make Worf feel out of place and awkward.

The other characters have chemistry together, and naturally fall into friend arenas: Odo and Kira, Sisko and Dax, Dax and Kira, Bashir and O'Brien, Bashir and Garak, etc.  Worf has nothing in common with any of them.  Despite having served on the same ship as O'Brien and the two having a love for their respective ethnic backgrounds, they don't really work as friends because neither are especially social, and O'Brien has someone else (Bashir) to pry him out of his solitude.  Worf has no such person, and the writers make no attempt to pair him off in such a way.

It doesn't help that the writers don't seem to know where to go with this guy.  About every single issue he faces in DS9 is something he's already faced on TNG.  He gets discommendated in TNG, he gets discommendated in DS9.  He doesn't know how to be a father in TNG, he doesn't know how to be a father in DS9.  He helps set up a Klingon chancellor in TNG, he helps set up a chancellor in DS9.  Seriously, give Worf a new direction already!  TNG did it all better!

There is at least one semi-new angle: Worf's relationship with Jadzia.  This all starts when Worf is disappointed the Klingon woman he likes doesn't share his feelings, and then Jadzia randomly jumps on him and they fool around.  This is the beginning of a forced, irrational, and only sometimes interesting relationship.

So as not to be a hypocrite, I'll mention that it's disappointing Worf feels the need to sleep around (in the name of equality, slut-shame the men!).  Granted, the writers do acknowledge his feel for morals by having it so that he wants to marry Jadzia (Klingon tradition indicates that you marry someone after you sleep with them), but he doesn't pursue the matter much or appear to have learned this lesson previously with the mother of his son (another repeat from TNG).

The trouble with Dax and Worf is that they too have no chemistry.  Sure, they're a bit better than the Worf is with the rest of the crew (more due to Jadzia's side character role than anything else), a loving relationship for the two doesn't make sense.  For one, Worf is traditional, while Jadzia goes out of her way to dodge convention, even if it annoys other people.

Also, Jadzia, as said before, avoids her emotions.  On a day to day basis, she's generally pretty intellectual and focused on learning.  Worf, on the other hand, is very emotional.  Sure, he covers it over with sternness, but emotion and heart still motivate all his actions.  He doesn't run from what he feels, and doesn't have trouble expressing it.  This contrast means that while Worf wants a deep relationship, Jadzia stomps on how he feels, probably unintentionally.  She treats him like he's an out of place weirdo, increasing the awkwardness already present by Worf's mere existence on the station.

Remember, men, never marry a woman who can't take you seriously.  Especially you, Rory.  Amy's no good for you.

To make it even worse, Worf's time on Deep Space Nine is awful for him.  He spends most of his time there an outcast by his own people.  He has no close friends.  Jadzia doesn't take him seriously and refuses to marry him until the circumstances of war convince her to.  And then, right when they were about to have children, she dies.  The symbiont slug inside of her gets passed on to another woman (Ezri), who comes on the station as a daily reminder to Worf what he's lost.  Then she dates someone else: Bashir.  Quite frankly, Jadzia would have worked much better with Bashir, who is as intellectual as she is.

So Worf's storyline was basically one of tragedy and loss, friendlessness and parental ineptitude.  He loses his brother and his wife, and his son goes off to do his own thing.  The only thing Worf gets in this series is a job as ambassador to Qonos.  He doesn't learn any life lessons or make friends.  He doesn't inspire the audience to be closer to him.  Quite frankly, I dread re-watching any episode where he's in it, and cringe whenever I get to the early part of season 4, because I know he's going to show up.

That doesn't mean his time on DS9 was all bad.  There's one point where he abandons a search for Captain Sisko when the latter is lost, because it's a bigger priority for the Defiant to act as a convoy for another ship. That was very bold and matter-of-fact, and very refreshing when so many times in Star Trek the officer in charge will risk thousands of lives just to save one person, to the point where it's become a trite cliche.  Also, his wedding to Jadzia was a fun, if silly, addition to Klingon lore.

It's just that Michael Dorn is a better actor than that.  In TNG, he was different without being excluded.  In Star Trek VI, where he portrayed Worf's grandfather, Dorn takes the chance to display real emotion without violent passion.  Not to mention his bit as a baseball player in the episode Far Beyond the Stars.  Sure, he can't do a 50s accent to save his life, but watching him be a dapper, flirtatious baseball player was a delight. Let the guy do something that isn't one note!

So overall how does this crew compare to the others?  Really good, when you take Worf out of the equation.  Each character relates to the others well.  Sisko needed more episodes where he interacted with the crew, but other than that it worked.  I still like the original series cast better, as they were more practiced actors, but these ones are good also.  Probably the main difference between the two crews is that DS9's were in more realistic situations, while the original crew made outrageous situations seem more realistic. Sisko and co. have dealt with a lot of stuff, but I'm not sure they could handle their station being taken over by the spirit of a serial killer.

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