Tuesday, June 1, 2010
There are a number of considerations to be made when launching a spin-off of a successful television series. The new show should contain enough familiar elements to bring over the fans of the first series while presenting the correct amount of variance to allow it to establish its own identity. Also, the new program should be able to attract and retain new viewers that have never seen the prior series.
I have never watched Stargate SG-1 or Stargate Atlantis, however I’ve been watching the first season of the newest spin-off, Stargate Universe. For the most part, it has felt fairly autonomous and I haven’t been confused by any references to the older shows. However, the latest episode was full of unfamiliar galactic politics that would have made sense if I had watched the other programs. Events, factions, and characters were given a great deal of importance that I have no prior connection to or any interest in. As a result, this was my least favorite episode of the series and I’m contemplating terminating my regular viewing of the SGU if the season goes out in a similar fashion.
On the other hand there is Caprica, the prequel show to Battlestar Galactica. Viewing of BSG will deepen one’s appreciation of the new program, but new watchers can come into Caprica cold and get immersed in that world without needing to see the first program. There is a connection to the original’s mythology, but the new show is definitely forming its own.
In attempting to create a fresh take on the Star Trek franchise, while still firmly existing within the continuity of its progenitor Star Trek: the Next Generation, the two-hour opener of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a success. Instead of a ship soaring through the stars, the new setting is on a space station orbiting a wormhole. Instead of a tight-knit crew, the crew of DS9 is made up of members of two militaries forced to work together. Captain Kirk and Captain Picard were both single men, while Commander Sisko is a widower raising a teenage son.
Yet, this is still Star Trek. Our heroes wear primary colored uniforms and work for Starfleet. There are familiar alien races dancing across the screen. We hear the words “phaser”, “warp core”, and “transporter”, and if we have watched the original Star Trek series or TNG, we know immediately what is being referenced.
Even if we don’t, by the end of these two hours, a fairly clear picture has been drawn of who the main characters are and what is the temperature of the setting around them. The Bajorans have won their independence after being occupied by the Cardassians for about sixty years and their internal politics are a mess. The Federation has been brought in to help them through this rough transition. The Cardassians are the wolf on the door, waiting for it all to fall apart. The Bajorans are a very spiritual people and Benjamin Sisko, a human, an outsider, has suddenly been given a role of great importance by their gods, the Prophets. Kirk and Picard always left the planet of the week at the end of each episode. Sisko is stuck on his station in the middle of this mess. Events one week should come back to haunt him in later episodes.
The set up is great and the production, for the early ‘90s, is pretty stellar. The sets alone are a wonder to behold. Ops, the operational nerve center of the station, is multi-tiered and detailed with lights and panels and screens. It’s the bridge of the Enterprise, but on steroids. This is nothing compared to the Promenade, the business district and main thoroughfare of DS9. It has a lower level lined with shops and offices, while the upper level is series of railed walkways that course overhead and are backed by large oval windows that look out to the expanse of space. The Promenade contains Quark’s bar, the security office, and the infirmary; all of which are fully realized spaces. There is a real sense that this is a functioning and thriving piece of architecture.
While each member of this eight person ensemble (plus a few well-fleshed out supporting characters) receives introductions, with varying degrees of development over the two hours, "Emissary" is clearly Sisko's show. Not only do we witness the tragic death of his wife at the Battle of Wolf 359, but learn about the fragile political situation of Bajor and meet the principal cast through him. We get to see how he is able to adapt to his first contact situation with the Prophets, aliens that live inside the newly discovered wormhole, in a long sequence that further illuminates the station commander.
I always thought it a bit odd that the first African-American commanding officer to head a Star Trek show had the rank of commander rather than captain. My guess is that one "commands" a station rather than "captain" it like a moving vessel, but it's still a step down in rank. However, Avery Brooks' performance leaves little doubt of who is in charge on DS9.
At this point in his career, Avery Brooks was probably best known for the role of Hawk on Spencer for Hire and its own spin-off A Man Called Hawk. As with most of the cast on DS9, Brooks has a very stage-like performance. He is very emotive, almost in a way to make sure that someone in the back row of a playhouse can pick up on every level of his performance. This is most evident in his initial scene with Patrick Stewart's Jean-Luc Picard. Stewart is very nuanced and subtle compared to Brooks' smoldering Sisko. Granted Sisko partially blames the Enterprise's captain for the death of his wife, but I can't help but notice the differences in technique.
Appropriately enough, Sisko's first officer, Major Kira Nerys, receives the second most development in the opener. Originally, Michelle Forbes was to continue her portrayal of TNG supporting character Ensign Ro, but she turned down the opportunity. Though I loved Ro and think that Forbes is a fantastic actor, this was probably for the best. Ro, though Bajoran, was a member of Starfleet. Kira, played by Nana Vistor, is not, which gives her further distance from Sisko and the Federation. This opens up even more opportunities for the two highest ranking officers on the station to come into conflict on matters.
Kira is a pretty fiery character, having grown up under the boot of Cardassian rule and then becoming a freedom fighter for Bajoran independence. Visitor's performance does a good job of channeling these aspects of her character. It's a pretty solid performance with only a few overcooked moments (there's a moment at the end of the episode when Kira points out the wormhole to a Cardassian gul that is particularly bad). Still, this is a character with plenty of backstory that can be mined for future episodes.
Miles O'Brien is the one character to actually crossover from TNG to be a full-fledged cast member on DS9. Colm Meaney played O'Brien over five seasons of the TNG and was on the verge of overshadowing some of the regulars. He was certainly receiving a great deal of development for someone that wasn't a principal player, probably more so than half of the regular cast. We got to witness his marriage and the birth of his daughter on that show. It makes sense that the former transporter chief would be given the chance for further development on the spin-off.
It also doesn't hurt when you've got a really solid actor like Meaney to work with. As the station's engineer, he's given a large helping of the technobabble to spew, but he takes in stride. What really works is Meaney's portrayal of O'Brien as this universe's everyman. He's the husband and dad that works in space. A lot of crazy stuff happens on his shift, but it's all part of the job, and Meaney sells me on the idea.
I like the idea of Jadzia Dax. She’s a young woman with the memories of past lives due to a symbiotic relationship with the slug in her belly. The last host was Sisko's mentor, an old man named Curzon Dax. She's still the friend he had many years ago, but very different in many ways. She's certainly better looking than Curzon. Terry Farrell's performance is decent and she's plays the character with a bit of whimsy, particularly in her moments with Sisko. Like Kira, this is a character with plenty of backstory to play with.
Though Jake Sisko serves mainly to add more definition to Ben Sisko's character, the remaining three principal characters have a great deal of potential. Doctor Bashir is young, arrogant, and idealistic. He quickly inserts his foot into mouth and gets called to the carpet by Kira as a result. Constable Odo, the station's irascible shape-shifting security chief, has a mysterious origin to explore and it will be fun to see how he is able to work with his new Starfleet bosses. I hated the Ferengi on TNG; however Quark, the shady owner of the station's premiere watering hole and casino, looks to be a lot of fun. He’s almost an unleaded, big-eared version of Al Swearengen from Deadwood. Armin Shimerman skillfully balances the character's broader comedic moments with those of implied menace.
The guest cast is for the most part fairly solid. Felecia Bell is pretty stilted as Jennifer Sisko but comes across more effectively as a wormhole alien that has taken the dead woman's form. Camille Saviola's Kia Opaka, sort of the Bajoran Pope, has a good balance of gravitas and sincerity. However, it is Marc Alaimo's performance as the deposed former station commander that almost steals the show. In one scene with Sisko, Alaimo’s Gul Dukat is immediately arrogant, intelligent, charming, and sinister. This is a rival that is perfect for our space station commander and one that demands to return.
After establishing the crew of Deep Space Nine, the plot splits into two fronts. On one, Sisko attempts to demonstrate to the wormhole aliens that humanity is not a threat to them. The big obstacle is that the aliens have no concept of linear time. For them the past, present, and future are happening all at once. It becomes a nice example of man teaching god something that it has grown too big and powerful to understand.
This is pretty high concept material and is bound to bore some viewers. However, it is artfully lit and sharply edited with quick cuts as Sisko bounces back and forth through various moments of his life, almost like a new wave Billy Pilgrim, during his conversation with the Prophets. The sci-fi still gets a heavy helping of humanity, as we learn that Sisko, though continually moving forward in time like the rest of us, is still held back in a way by his memories of Jennifer’s death.
There is still some action to be had back on DS9. Kira and O’Brien have to ward off three Cardassian ships with only their wits and a broken down station to aid them. While this falls into the familiar rocking camera and exploding panel territory that Star Trek is known for, there is still a decent amount of tension built as our heroes attempt to hold off the attackers until help arrives.
After the conflict is resolved and Sisko has negotiated the use of the wormhole with the aliens, there is a great feeling that this is only the beginning of the journey. “Emissary” has provided a great deal of story potential, not only from the interesting histories of the individual characters, but also in the socio-political landscape of Bajor and its former rulers the Cardassians, and the vast unknown of the Gamma Quadrant, an unexplored section of the galaxy now reachable via the wormhole.
Does Star Trek: Deep Space Nine still feel like Star Trek? Cosmetically, that’s a definite “yes”. Does it cut its own path and set itself apart from the original series and Star Trek: the Next Generation? Most assuredly. This crew may not agree on everything and they can’t zoom off to the next planet at the end of hour. While the plot of “Emissary” was interesting, it’s the characters that ultimately sell me on this show.
As I mentioned in the first post, all commenting is to be spoiler free and only about the episode that is being written about in this particular post or episodes that were before it (which would be kind of hard since this is the first one).