04 September 2015

Serialized Storytelling in 1990s SF Television (that just means I've been watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine recently)

My wife and I have been watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for what I think is a year now-- I believe we started at the beginning of academic year 2014-15, and we're now a week into 2015-16. For me, this is kind of a third watch of the show. Though I had seen scattered episodes earlier, when it was originally airing, I came on board sometime during Season 5 (with "In Purgatory's Shadow," I think) and watched it through to the end-- I remember coming home my eighth grade graduation dance and watching the recording I'd made of the series finale. Later, my parents bought me the series on DVD, and I watched each set as I received it. This is my wife's first time seeing any of it (bar "Trials and Tribble-ations"), and indeed, her first time watching any Star Trek show systematically. Garak is her favorite.

Attention, Bajoran workers!
We've just hit the end of Season 5/the beginning of Season 6 (on Wednesday night we watched episode 6x02, "Rocks and Shoals"). I have to say, I'd forgotten how much I like this show. Of all the Star Trek series, I think this one has the best ensemble cast-- there's not a main character I don't like. You don't groan like you do when you're watching The Next Generation and realize you're about to hit a Crusher episode. And that's before you even get to the extended cast of recurring characters: Dukat, Rom, Nog, Weyoun, Kai Winn, Morn, they're all great.

Most of all, though, I like its approach to serialized storytelling. I like how it mixes standalone episodes with "arc" ones, and that the arcs get heavier and heavier the further you get into the series, but every episode still feels like it has a distinct middle and end. We've also been watching Downton Abbey off-and-on the past couple years (usually more "off" than "on"), and one thing that drives me nuts about that show is how little ever seems to happen in any one episode. Series 1 was mostly  standalones, but once the Great War kicks in, it feels like Julian Fellowes just has three story ideas per series and stretches them out artificially across a run of thirteen episodes.

Deep Space Nine gives you a lot of standalones, and I like that: you get to know these people and the place they live in. There is a status quo, so when it gets upset, it actually means something. Some shows never have a status quo, and I think that makes it difficult to get invested-- everything is always changing, seemingly arbitrarily. But in Deep Space Nine, you know the way their world works, so when everything changes you feel it as much as the characters do. The last couple episodes of Season 5 and first couple of Season 6 really drive this home.

cellular entertainment:
the key to immortality
"In the Cards" (the second-last of S5) is a light Jake-and-Nog story, but the arc gives it weight and undercurrents: while Jake tries to track down a baseball card, Sisko and Kai Winn spar with Weyoun. You know something big's about to happen while Jake and Nog try to elude the soulless minions of orthodoxy. Then, in "Call to Arms," everything really does fall apart-- when the Starfleet characters abandon the station and everyone splits to the nine winds, you really feel the import of it.

This means the beginning of Season 6 feels like a completely different show... in a good way. Sisko and company are in a war show, and in a different one than we saw during the Federation's brief S4-5 war with the Klingons. They're being forced to approach things a completely different way: one of the things I really liked about "Rocks and Shoals" was that those normal Starfleet methods of problem-solving don't apply anymore in wartime. In a previous season they might have found a way out of the situation they were in with little violence; now that war has broken out, they have no choice but to kill the enemy.

a different kind of Mirror Kira
Even better is the arc of Kira, Odo, Jake, Rom, and all the other left behind on the station. Deep Space Nine has been about occupation and colonization and resistance, and that's one of my favorite parts of it, but often in really distant ways: the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor and subsequent decolonization all happened before the series began, and the Maquis question was always pretty abstract, since we're never really invested as viewers in any of the various Maquis characters. But now instead of hearing Kira talk about the Occupation, we're seeing her live through one. Kira's journey from freedom fighter to member of the system is one of the big arcs of the series, and it's interesting for this season to suddenly place such a negative spin on it. Kira has become a member of the establishment, and that is wrong. "Rocks and Shoals" is one of the best episodes of the series, because of the way it builds on what's gone before but also upsets what we think we know about these characters by putting them into new situations.

Rewatching with my wife at my side has been instructive: so much of S1-5 were known to me before I saw them, that it's great to get a feel for what the twists and turns were like to someone who, for example, didn't realize Eddington would turn out to be a traitor. (It's pretty fascinating, actually; Season 3 is always making you suspicious of Eddington, but then Season 4 backs off from that by making him just be there in lots of episodes, and then all of a sudden BAM! My wife declared that "For the Cause" was the first time she hadn't been suspicious of him.)

Additionally, two websites have provided me with some interesting critical perspectives. Tor's Deep Space Nine Rewatch by Keith R.A. DeCandido has pointed out a lot of trivia, and the comments are usually pretty entertaining. Even better, however, has been Zack Handlen's commentary at the A.V. Club. Zack is an excellent, thoughtful reviewer, able to bring out nuances that make me realize why I like what I like the way a good reviewer out to be able to. The comments there have much less content than the ones at Tor, but they do have Rapping Jake Sisko's own recaps of his dad's adventures as well as lots of jokes about Gowron's bug eyes, so there's that.

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