January 6, 2012

Blog Space Nine, part #1: "The Homecoming" Trilogy

During a post-Christmas sale I managed to pick up a cheap copy of Season 2 of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which happens to be my favourite Star Trek television series. In the mid-1990s there was one of those ridiculous science fiction fan rifts between fans of DS9 and fans of Babylon 5. It's not entirely unsurprising: both series started at about the same time in 1993 and both were set on space stations filled with various alien cultures and strange visitors. Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski even managed to stir up his end of fandom with continuing accusations that Paramount deliberately created DS9 to take the shine and appeal off his own series. This is not, by the way, an accusation I agree with, but I will openly admit I haven't seen the series outline, bible or proposal for either show. I will say that I always found Straczynski's accusation that Paramount stole his shapeshifter storyline rather odd, as if shapeshifters had never been seen on screen before.

What occured to me, however, while I watched DS9's Season 2 premiere, was that this was the exact season that ran opposite Season 1 of Babylon 5 (there was a one-year gap between "The Gathering" and "Midnight on the Firing Line"). Given the apparent animosity running between each of the series' fans at the time, I wondered if it was worth watching DS9 at the same time as Babylon 5 to compare them with two decades of hindsight. I haven't seen either season since I watched them both in 1994.

It turns out that, for the first three episodes at least, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine wipes the floor with Babylon 5. It knocks it to the floor in one punch. It rules the chess board. Pick your metaphor.

I have always vastly preferred the political complexity of DS9 to the relatively naive politics of Babylon 5. In the latter, a group of alien civilizations convene on a space station in an attempt to hold galactic peace together. In the former, the focus begins less on the entire galaxy and more on the fate of a single planet. Bajor was for decades violently occupied by the militaristic Cardassian Union. As the series begins, Cardassia has finally withdrawn from the planet, and the Bajorans are free to rebuild their society with the assistance of the United Federation of Planets. At the time there was a thinly-drawn analogue between Bajor and Palestine. In 2012 it's hard not to draw comparisons to Afghanistan or Iraq. As Season 2 begins, Bajor's provisional government is beginning to fall apart and extremist groups are beginning to assemble to agitate for severe forms of nationalism and to expel all non-Bajorans from the planet as well as the nearby station Deep Space Nine (originally a Cardassian mining centre called Terok Nor).

There is an immediate complexity to this story, which was Star Trek's first-ever three-parter ("The Homecoming", "The Circle" and "The Siege" - and to be fair it's only first if you don't count The Next Generation's "The Best of Both Worlds" parts 1 and 2 and "Family" as a single story). It's been given enormous room to breathe: 126 minutes instead of the standard 42.

Part of the complexity comes in the story features more than two sides, and only one which genuinely comes across as actually villainous (the Cardassians). Each group has different and conflicting agendas: the existing provisional government wishes to continue receiving the support of Starfleet; the agitators of the Circle want to take control of Bajor's destiny without the aid of Starfleet; Kai Winn (the Bajorans' equivalent of a Pope) wants to make sure she's on the side of whoever forms the legitimate government; Starfleet wants to obey the wishes of whoever winds up in control of Bajor; the Cardassians want their old territory back; Commander Sisko wants to stay on Deep Space Nine and stop what he sees as an illegitimate extremist group; and recently freed political prisoner Lee Nalas, who remains Bajor's single-greatest hope for a unified peace, wants nothing but to escape and be left alone.

Over this complex political intrigue lie DS9's regular cast, who are without exception interesting, multi-faceted and well-performed characters. DS9 may not feature Star Trek's best lead actors (they would be Patrick Stewart and Leonard Nimoy, in my opinion), but it absolutely features the strongest ensemble cast of all five TV incarnations. I'm a particular fan of Armin Shimerman as Quark, who takes a one-dimensional and fairly tedious money-hungry species called the Ferengi and with the support of some excellent writers gives them a fleshed-out, fascinating and distinct culture.

Perhaps it's unfair to compare Season 2 of DS9 with Season 1 of Babylon 5, since it gives the Star Trek team a full year's head-start to iron out creative kinks and push their series into high gear. On the other hand, these were the episodes that ran against each other (more or less: the DS9 episode that ran against Babylon 5's "Midnight on the Firing Line" was actually "Armageddon Game"). Seeing them both again 18 years after their original broadcast just cements my original opinion: there is no comparing these shows. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is far and away the American science fiction space station drama of choice.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't rewatched DS9 yet, though I have the whole series. To date, I own only the original series and DS9 completely. Those are the two I remember enjoying the most.

    That said, I found the first season of both DS9 and Babylon 5 to be a bit bloody ordinary. And I still hate the ending of the DS9 pilot.


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