Monday, January 20, 2014

Space: The Old Frontier

If you ask people what their favorite Trek is, the odds are you'll get an answer based on age. Those who were around for the original series speak confidently about being around when it all started. Those who were teenagers in the 90s speak enthusiastically about Next Generation, and how it modernized everything into a sleek new appeal. Those born a few years later will defend Voyager (although generally, what they're actually defending is "hey, that Borg chick was hot, and the hologram doctor was cool). And I'm sure there's a generation now who will defend nuTrek as being the most exciting of all possible worlds.

No one defends Enterprise. No one.

But for my money, my favorite is always the black sheep of the group, Deep Space Nine. Yes, okay, it was riffing off, if not ripping off, Babylon Five. And yes, it was dark, in tone and in lighting. (Cardassians apparently are not the most gregarious of interior decorators.) But it had and has so much in its favor. First, it's still the only Trek that stayed in one place. Arguably, that's a point against it: exploration is ingrained as a Trek element ever since a certain ship set out on its five year mission. But being stationary meant that it could explore the cultures of the races around it much more.(Plus, from a fancy scholar perspective, there's a lot troubling about a civilization that has its roots in Western culture going around on a never-ending colonial expansion quest.) Yes, we still had episodes about the culture of the week, but there was a lot more chance to get really deep into the established cultures: Cardassian, Bajoran, Dominion, and even Ferengi. After DS9, there was depth to the Ferengi culture. That still seems like it should have been impossible.

Going back way back, I once set up some criteria for what I look for in a show: good set pieces, a long term plot, character development, dialogue, and characters. Dialogue is probably the weak point for DS9; not that it's bad, it's just that it can be hit or miss. It has some great one liners and great scenes, but also some real clunkers. This is the fate of a show with a lot of different writers. In terms of set pieces, there are some really appealing episodes; comedy-wise, the time-travelling "Trials and Tribble-ations" is a great salute to the original series. And "In the Pale Moonlight" is a wonderful take-down of Star Trek optimism for something more complex and sinister. Character-wise, it's an ensemble cast down to its core, with traditional Starfleet types (Bashir, the bright-eyed doctor, Dax, the cheery second-in-command, the workmanship of O'Brien, and and the brash captain style of Sisko) clashing with the more jaded world views of the revolutionist Kira, the isolated Odo, the cheerful skullduggery of Garak, and the scheming Quark. As for character development, I make fun of Voyager a lot, but the one thing it did absolutely right is center the later seasons around Seven of Nine's growth towards humanity, and the earlier seasons around the Doctor's experience of the same. The other characters are kind of splotchy--Kim, Paris, B'Lanna, Janeway, Chekotay sort of reach a certain point, and remain static. DS9, on the other hand, puts all of its characters on a trajectory, and you can see how their relationships and their selves evolve over time. And that leaves its high point, plot. More than any other Trek, Deep Space Nine kept its continuity. The war with the Dominion, its big overarching plot, lasted for whole seasons, and really gave a sense that something was going on that affected the entire universe. And you need to remember, this is the 90s--before DVR, Netflix, and streaming, networks were basically disincentivized to do dramas with continuity; if viewers missed an episode, the only possibility was to wait and hope it randomly showed up in the reruns. So for the long-form show to even exist, there had to be a struggle. (Which probably explains why Voyager adopted a more episodic approach.) That DS9 tried for that struggle, and succeeded to the degree it did, matters. It paved the way for later continuity-heavy sci-fi, such as Battlestar Galactica (not least because Ron Moore was one of the writers hired for later DS9 episodes).

But if I argued that my attachment to the show was entirely objective or historical, I'd be lying. It mattered to me. It matters to me. Basically, I watched the show through twice. The first time, I was in high school. I had spent most of my youth being culturally deprived, as my parents didn't have cable. (That mattered! I had a lot of strikes against me as a kid--not being able to relate to the shows the cool kids were talking about did not help! Although if I hadn't resorted to teh books instead, who knows where I'd be now.) So it was a big deal when my father the teacher gave me permission to use the elementary school's cable to tape whatever I wanted. I kind of went nuts with it; I remember spending long sessions staring at the TV guide, trying to decipher which channels on the elementary school TV corresponded to which stations in the book. It must have been season 5 or so before I caught on to the tail end of DS9 in my TV trawling, but I remember being hooked right away. Until then, I had been a STNG type--DS9 was too slow, and too political for my tastes. But the teenage brain was just in the right place for it, and thus, hooked. My brothers couldn't stand the show--they would watch Voyager with me, but didn't see why DS9 was worth taping. And we had only a single 8 hour cassette to capture a week's worth of television, so there were actually arguments over whether it deserved its place in the line-up.

And that's my interest in media culture--endlessly fascinating how we adapt something like the limitations of a 8 hr VHS tape into our lives.

The second time I watched through the series, it was in reruns. It was during the summer of 2002, which was... not a pleasant time in my life. Academically, I was still in full over-achiever mode, so that was fine. But socially, I was pretty much a disaster. I had made zero close friends in my first year of university, and I was literally spending the summer living unemployed in my parents' basement. Not a high point. The only interesting things that ever happened to me personally for four months were volunteer jobs at the local library and senior centers--which were educational in their own way, I guess. Deep Space Nine was the show on every week day at 2:00 pm--the last show, essentially, that I could watch before my family came home, and I no longer had the freedom of being alone. I want to emphasize at this point that my family has never been less than totally supportive of me--it was just my mindset at the time that any other human presence served to remind me that I was falling below my own impossible standards of success. And it mattered, then, that the last piece of my daily solitude was spending an hour with a bunch of oddballs who managed to get their shit together every week to keep the space trains running on time.

I'm bringing all of this up now because I'm currently reading my way through the AV Club reviews of Deep Space Nine. I've reached third season, and I came across this passage: "There’s a great scene early in the hour when Kira brings by a plant as a house-warming gift, and Odo, after initially not wanting to let her inside his new apartment, tells her excitedly about all his plans to try new shapes and new textures. It’s a sweet exchange between the two of them, but it also shows just how vulnerable and lonely Odo really is. He isn’t a cynic at heart; he wants to engage with life, he’s just terrified of risking a sense of self." I read that, and I felt such a pang of sympathy for Odo--and for my past self, remembering me watching that scene.

Hang in there, Odo-me. It gets better.

Later Days.

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