I have now devoted one hundred and twenty-nine hours of my life to watching the entirety of Deep Space Nine. Assuming I’d never slept, that’d be five and a half straight days of television, but as it was, finishing DS9 was a commitment. We gave up Mythbusters, we gave up sitcoms, we gave up Boardwalk Empire because we knew if we strayed we’d wander off and never know how all of this ended.
And how did it end?
I told you when I started watching DS9 that I hadn’t seen it before now because I “knew” it was a pale rip-off of Babylon 5 – a complaint that has some traction. But DS9 and B5 had similar evolutions because of the nature of the show.
Which is to say that Next Generation was a spaceship swooping from exotic locale to exotic locale, every week a new distraction, so you didn’t have to worry about the characters all that much. Hey, it’s Picard – on a pleasure planet! Hey, it’s Picard – fighting the Borg! Hey, it’s Picard – arguing with Q! So your main plotline isn’t so much the evolution of the characters, it’s the latest show-and-dance.
….Though I note that the fan favorite episodes tend to be the ones where Picard is forced through character evolution, such as “Picard has to live a whole life as someone else” or “Picard goes home and breaks down over the Borg.”
What DS9 did, simply because it was a static locale and didn’t have the luxury of a different enemy every week, was to change the characters. Because you literally couldn’t go elsewhere, the characters had to evolve, and as such what you had was a situation very unlike Star Trek where the characters’ choices in Season 1 would not be the choices they made come Season 7. (As evidenced by Sisko’s chilling, yet correct, choice in “In The Pale Moonlight” – a choice Picard never could have made, yet a choice that needed to be made.)
Deep Space Nine is both far better and far worse than Babylon 5. B5 had the problem of wooden characters and bad actors, while DS9 had rich characters and some very bad actors mixed in with some very good ones. (It took me a long time before I could accept Sisko’s stilted delivery as a riff on Shatnerian earnestness. And ever since Bec made me watch Shatner’s documentary “The Captains,” where he interviews all of the other Star Trek captains only to find Avery Brooks is a singing, piano-playing loon, I found it hard to separate Avery from the role.)
Basically, every flaw Deep Space Nine has when compared to Babylon 5 comes down to “Babylon 5 knew where it was going.” B5 had an end point, so it had a clear character arc for every character – Londo’s redemption and corruption, Garibaldi’s fencing with the Psi Corps, even Sinclair/Sheridan’s attitude towards Earth. As such, the characters had very bold decisions where they moved from friends to enemies, or vice versa, with the grace of a dancer.
DS9 gets the evolution, but falters a bit because they don’t know where they’re headed – they were just running for a few seasons and hoped to tie it up. The only one where they absolutely nail the arc is Odo and Kira, and even that wavers for a bit as the “Will she or won’t she” turns into cruelty for a bit as you can sense the producers not quite sure what to do. So you have a lot of relationships like Odo and Quark that are quite nice as they are, but are entirely about moving by inches and never reach a breaking point.
On the other hand, DS9 has a much better grasp on emotional issues, unlike B5 which treats emotions as something that happens to further the plot. DS9, like all Star Treks, loves devoting individual episodes to giving each of their leads a challenge that shows us who they are. So we get these character spotlights where we wind up getting very much inside the heads of Kira and Dax and co, which matter more because that’s what Star Trek does well – that human factor.
On the other hand, DS9 has the Ferengi episodes, which vary wildly in quality, and a lot of Klingon episodes – and since I can’t stand Klingons, it feels like there’s a lot of filler.
Thing is, though, the end game of DS9 is ultimately pretty satisfying. It suffers because, like all “We’re making it up as we go along” shows, there are dead-ends and shoehorned in aspects – hey, what’s that book that suddenly turns out to mean anything, and why’s it only show up three episodes before the end? Why did the prophets make such a big deal about Sisko making a choice where his punishment was that he could never return to Bajor if this was their end game all along? Who are these Breen guys, anyway, and why’d they steal Leia’s armor from Jabba’s palace?
None of that matters, though, because they got some of the emotional arcs right. DS9 is different from Roddenberry in that it believes that war has a cost, and that cost takes its toll. The end of Next Generation is Picard saying “Engage,” and that there are tons of new adventures to be had – which is inspiring, but not necessarily honest.
DS9 shows that characters must make sacrifices in the course of this war, and what happens in the end isn’t always happy. Some real losses are had – not death, which is kind of easy in fiction, but the kind of thing where ultimately to do the right thing you have to step away from what you want personally to accomplish the larger goal. And in that, DS9 shows how friendships are born and shift as yes, you have friendships, but you have marriages and careers and, yes, the fate of the fucking galaxy, and sometimes you’re going to pay for that currency in unhappiness to get the paltry satisfaction of having done the right thing.
That’s where DS9 nails it. Yes, it’s a little uneven in the last season as the non-arc shows sputter out. Yes, maybe some of the end game is too much “Because The Prophets say so.” Yes, maybe all our questions are not answered. But the emotional resonance of knowing that no, in fact being a tool of the Prophets does not lead to happiness, war does not lead to happiness, combat costs.
And that, I like. So much that I can forgive the unevenness.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.