Deep Space Nine Season 1 is a Bit of a Hot Mess
By Kristin Battestella
Yes, many elite fans find the second Star Trek spinoff series Deep Space Nine to be superior Trek TV. However, when the show first began in 1993, I found myself disinterested and never went back. Now, we’ve decided to try this debut season again, and thus far, DS9 still has a lot- perhaps too many- growing pains.
Cardassia has finally withdrawn from its half-century occupation of the planet Bajor, and the Federation sends widowed Commander Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) along with his son Jake (Cirroc Lofton) to the newly rechristened space station Deep Space Nine to ease the transition for former resistance fighter Major Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor) as Bajor rebuilds towards Federation membership. Also along on the Federation’s frontier are newly reassigned from the Enterprise Chief Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney) and a fresh out of the academy doctor, Lieutenant Julian Bashir (Siddig El Fadil). Sisko’s old friend, a Trill named Dax (Terry Farrell), joins him as they discover the first known stable wormhole- a passage to the Gamma Quadrant created by aliens worshipped as prophets on Bajor. Interstellar trade, tension, and exploration to the newly contacted region are only the beginning.
Whew! It all sounds magical and promising, I know. Unfortunately, the writing and storylines from longtime Trek producers Rick Berman, Michael Piller, Ira Stephen Behr, and their team are awfully slow and dry. There’s a feeling of busy space station happenings off screen- but the viewer gets to see a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation filler instead. At worst, it’s too much of TNG’s leftovers; at best, there are too many TNG déjà vu similarities. It’s as if the direction and initial planning for Deep Space Nine is torn at the foundation. Yes, we want DS9 to attract Next Generation fans- the akin science fiction ideals and explorations are there of course. Out the gate, however, DS9 simply doesn’t have the allure. Core characters here are too broadly written, with little more than their bland show profile information given. Though interesting, the titular “Dax” feels like an inferior “Measure of a Man” trial, and “Q-Less” completely screws the fun out of prior Q appearances. Likewise, Deep Space Nine’s built-in Bajoran and Cardassian nucleus feels barely touched upon except for the solid “Past Prologue”, “Duet”, and “In the Hands of the Prophets.” Looking back, even the Trek crew admits the inferiority of this debut season, but it doesn’t take much to see it. Useless episodes like “Move Along Home”, “If Wishes were Horses”, and “Dramatis Persona” are dream/games/crew possessed and acting weird shows that do nothing to advance narratives or characters. Of course, this format is nothing new in genre television and especially Trek. In fact, such unusual or diversionary bottle shows are often welcomed- but later in a series, when one can deviate from the firmly established source. In this first season, how many people going wonky on a space station bottle shows can one have before the audience realizes we know nothing about the players? What’s going on on this space station and why should we care? Perhaps “Babel” is the exception here, as it comes early enough in the season to show viewers how our players react in a crisis. Otherwise, the episodes themselves are uneven, imbalanced, or poorly planned depending upon which characters are leading the A and B storylines. Some parts and players in some shows are better than others, creating a serious inconsistency. In today’s desperate and changing television model, these 19 episodes would not have survived in syndication or on cable, much less prime time. DS9 stands up best when it sticks to its own budding Bajoran/Cardassian mythos, creates interesting characters on its station, and explores the unique SF concepts within those dynamics. It is quite ingenious that we’re supposed to see more politics, religion, spiritualism, disagreements, and confrontation on DS9 instead of the longstanding ideal Trekdom. So why is this first season deviating from its plans with funny filler knock offs every other episode?
Naturally, the cast is hampered by all this indecision. Avery Brooks (Spencer for Hire) is the man, and yet Benjamin Sisko- a mere commander despite DS9’s increasing strategic importance- is meh. It’s surprising because we know Brooks can be so glorious, but Sisko is too dry, made too everyman and uninteresting somehow. Despite a lovely father and son dynamic, Cirroc Lofton as Jake Sisko is inexplicably barely there, too. Why are we not seeing this unique relationship if the show is about life on a space station? It is mostly juvenile adventure when we do see Jake, yes. Fortunately, he and Aron Eisenberg as the young Ferengi Nog are a lot of fun together. It’s not the annoyance of Wesley Crusher on TNG at all, and it’s as if the writers don’t know what to do with their players. Sure, Trek audiences already know and love Chief O’Brien, but Colm Meaney really only excels in “Captive Pursuit.” Otherwise, he’s the same old lovable Chief with lots of techno babble to do, and again, it is a little weird that a would-be lowly NCO has a barely there team for his pseudo chief engineer role on a space station. Likewise, one would presume his wife Keiko would be a major character on the show. But alas, Rosalind Chao is only a guest star, leaving Keiko more often than not just an on-camera dialogue reference. You would think there would be a lot of use for a botanist from the Enterprise to grow plants on a space station, but apparent not so on Deep Space Nine.
Thankfully, Armin Shimerman (Buffy) as Ferengi bartender Quark and Rene Auberjonois (MASH) as the shape shifting head of security Odo know their characters’ unique complexity and bemusing antagonism. Ferengi centric episodes like “The Nagus,” with Wallace Shawn (Clueless) as Zek, enlighten us with wit and otherwise new and unseen Ferengi intricacy and charm. Though also fringing on a ‘Data esque’ feeling, “The Vortex” and “The Forsaken” are great Odo shows. He’s special, he’s crabby, he’s alone, and the seed is there for years of fine development. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Terry Farrell (Becker) as Trill Jadzia Dax and Siddig El Fadil (24) as Doctor Bashir. We can forgive the changes to the Trill design, sure, but Dax isn’t very interesting beyond her spots. Seriously, she does almost nothing but sit in the same place and press buttons. And Bashir, I must say, seems like a real jerk, even a quack. He almost always doesn’t know what he’s doing, and nearly every case is something he has never dealt with before. Really, how can a junior grade lieutenant be your only doctor anyway? Part of the stagnancy in DS9’s first season is simply that the undercooked players aren’t developed or even that likeable. Wild card Nana Visitor (Wildfire) as Major Kira is both annoying on her Bajoran high horse and layered with sympathy, anger, and pain. Beyond “Progress” and “Duet,” however, too little time is spent with Kira’s history and wartime complexity. We know we’re supposed to like Bajor and hate Cardassia, but recurring guests Marc Alaimo (Hill Street Blues) as Gul Dukat and Andrew Robinson (Dirty Harry) as the supposedly simple tailor Garak add much more dimension. Honestly, the audience wonders why they just aren’t regular characters.
Looking back on these early 1993 models and computer effects, any flaws are forgivable. The visuals are, in fact, just fine most of the time. Unfortunately, the set design and costumes are woefully futuristic nineties dated. I know it is meant to be a clunky Cardassian space station, but Deep Space Nine doesn’t look well. The Promenade is supposed to be a bustling interstellar hub, but it’s kind of bland and underdone. Instead, Operations has a lot of cluttered and useless Cardassian design for the sake of it junk, and Quark’s Bar looks like a dated discothèque. Now that I think of it, we don’t really see that much of the eponymous station at all, much less Bajor or the Gamma Quadrant. Despite those uptight, unnecessarily belted and big shoulder pad Bajoran uniforms and all these new opportunities, what we see still looks decidedly Trek. There’s not much stylistically to set Deep Space Nine apart, and I’m sorry, I have to say it, these credits are slooowwww.
Certainly, that lingering Trek feeling and TNG kinship is perfect for longtime fans and Trek enthusiasts tuning in for DS9’s debut. Die hard fans can begin anew and casual audiences can start with the galactic possibilities and Trek spirit. There are new hints of explorations to come, yes- though the presentation is uneven with directionless ill footing. Except for its flaws, nothing much stands out this season for Deep Space Nine. Were it on television now, it would be very easy to give up on this spinoff and change the channel. Truly, it isn’t rerunning on numerous cable channels like its two predecessors. However, now affordable DVD sets and Netflix streaming options combined with the shorter episode order here make it easy for a general SF fan or a new to Trek layman to give DS9 a whirl. It gets messy before it gets good, but why not begin the beguine with Deep Space Nine.