Amid the drudgery of working on sermons, writing my series of blog posts on anger, coaching Cross Country, dealing with an obstinant two year old and a fussy infant and spinning the plates of church work, I did not have time to finish the book I am reading this week.
I did, however, manage to watch a few episodes of the Star Trek classic Deep Space Nine. I watched the whole series a few years back when I had more time on my hands and fell in love with it. I return to the station from time to time when I can’t find anything else to watch.
There is an ongoing argument among Trekkies about whether The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine was the better show. While TNG represented Roddenbery’s vision of a diverse group of people all playing by the same rules (aka, The Scientific Method), I found DS9 moved beyond Roddenberry through its portrayal of a group of diverse people who did not play by the same rules doing the difficult work of trying to get along.
With all that said, my favorite DS9 episodes were not the high concept narrative arcs (like the one beginning with Season 5’s finale) or dramas (like Visitor or Far Beyond the Stars). Instead they were the ones that best embodied and showed life on the station itself or dug deeper into a character’s life and story.
So here is my list of some of the unsung episodes of the series. This is not a “best of” list. I am in agreement with most fans that the best episodes were Visitor, Far Beyond the Stars, Duet and In the Pale Moonlight (in no particular order). Instead these are the episodes I felt deserved more attention and are worthy of watching again.
This season 1 episode suffers in that it puts Kira front and center before Nana Visitor learned how to act. However, the plot is top notch. I loved the early season meta-narrative involving the struggles of Bajor’s new found independence. This particular plot revolves around a farmer holding out on a moon that Bajor needs for “progress.” This plot has been done in countless movies and TV shows, but Kira’s character growth throughout the episode makes it worth watching. Kira’s final act of burning the cottage was chilling and definitely took Star Trek into new, albeit controversial, territory. And it did what all the great DS9 episodes do. It asked all the right questions and refused easy answers.
In sharp contrast to the previous episode, I picked this one because it is just too much fun. There had to have been an agreement among the writers that when things got too serious they would throw in a tongue in cheek episode. In this episode it really worked. The characters accidentally trigger a security program that wreaks havoc on the station, threatening everybody’s life. If anything could go wrong it did, often in entertaining ways. The best part of the episode was when Gul Dukat suddenly beams aboard to take advantage of the situation. Of course, before too long he becomes a victim of the security program himself and is forced to help resolve the conflict. It was an episode where anything could happen and it was fun watching the characters react and renegotiate the situation as things spiraled out of control.
A DS9 list wouldn’t be complete without an episode about Bashir and O’Brien. At this point in the series they are not quite best friends but also not the enemies they once were. The pair crash land on a planet and are captured by Jem Hadar soldiers who are trying to free themselves of the drug that makes them slaves to the Founders. Julian decides to help them. O’Brien decides to escape. In the end O’Brien wins but not at great cost to their budding friendship. The episode also toyed brilliantly with the idea that the Jem Hadar could be free of their gods. It really is too bad Julian never discovered the cure.
Like Civil Defense, I picked this episode because it is incredibly entertaining. Unlike Civil Defense, the tongue in cheek was tempered by a prevailing doom. The very next episode would officially begin the war with the Dominion and have half the cast abandon the station. The Federation would not return to power for 6 more episodes and 5 months of audience time. But before all that doom and gloom, Jake and Nog chase a baseball card around the station, doing various favors for the crew and waltzing into a conspiracy theory involving the Dominion. Sisko’s monologue at the end brings it all home and the optimism generated by this episode would carry us through the next 7 episodes and 5 months.
I admit the Orion Syndicate narrative was useless to the show. There were all ready too many antagonists in Deep Space Nine. Adding another one in the sixth season was a bit of an overreach. With that said, I have a sentimental attachment to this episode. When I was in High School I was channel surfing and came across it. I watched the whole thing, not knowing anything else about DS9 and found myself strangely challenged by the idea that a good guy could befriend one of the bad guys. O’Brien works undercover to discover a Syndicate plot that involves assassinating a Klingon ambassador. His handle, a man named Bilby, is not the antagonist my unenlightened High School self expected. He has a family he loves and a back story with many shades of gray. Needless to say, I mourned with O’Brien when Bilby was killed in the end. Star Trek has always succeeded by transcending the imaginary lines between good and evil and my early experience with this episode became quite formative in my own theological and ethical struggles.
Many will point to “In the Pale Moonlight” as the episode where Starfleet sacrificed her principles in order to win the war against the Dominion. I think “The Siege of AR-558” accomplished it better. In it the crew helps an embattled group of soldiers defend an installation against invading Jem Hadar. Rom’s leg gets amputated and the Federation wins by using the Jem Hadar’s weapons (in this case mines) against them. The episode’s power was summed up in two moments. The first was the disgust displayed when the Federation learned of the invisible mines. Their existence seemed to prove how unethical the Jem Hadar were. The second was when the Federation used the same mines to kill half the invading force. This truly was where no Star Trek episode has gone before. It asked all the right questions about war without giving any easy answers. It also set up another brilliant episode in “It’s Only a Paper Moon” which I have no time to discuss here.
I could go on with other great entries into the DS9 narrative but the ones above sufficiently encompass the brilliance of the show. In a week where I needed an escape from the drudgery of life I found these episodes and others like them did not only provide entertainment but spoke wonderfully into the world I live in. When the credits rolled and I returned to earth I did so with a greater compassion and understanding for the world around me. And that is what good television and good art in general should accomplish.