Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Star Trek-Related Service Journalism Mental Health Break

Why am I even writing this? This blog used to be a place where I would try to push my skills as far as they could go, a place for narrative and experimentation and writing I'm conceited enough to think of as art. It was an aspirational sort of place, and maybe it still can be, at least when I achieve the level of caffeination necessary to pull off a non-bullshit 4,000 word post. But until that day, and because this is a post I'll quite enjoy writing and have actually been thinking about for awhile now (pathetically enough...)--it's my top 15 Deep Space 9 episodes!

Recall that a few months ago, I wrote rather a long meditation on the first two seasons of DS9. Since then, I've finished watching every arc episode, Klingon and Ferengi-centered episode, and interesting-sounding standalone--in total, I think I've watched a little over half of the series, which Ronald D. Moore accurately described as the most "human" of the Star Treks. I agree with him, but before sharing my best-of it's worth looking at what exactly this might mean, at what "humanity" meant in the context of a show practically dedicated to fictional alien cultures. After all, the show's four principal races—the Klingons, Ferengi, Bajorans and Cardassians—are given something more than a schematic treatment, and their affairs upstage most of the human goings-on, I think. DS9 went for nearly-anthropological thoroughness as far the Big 4 were concerned; you learn not just how their political and religious systems are organized, but also what they value, and how their basic attitudes towards life, the universe, everything etc. differ amongst each other, and from ours as well.

It's easy to say that humanism in DS9 really refers to the use of alien cultures as a kind of reflection upon human values and human society, but I'm not sure this is true. In The Original Series, Kirk and Company were constantly encountering alien races whose sole existence in the universe seemed to be to teach humanity (which in this case meant racism/Cold War-addled late-60s America) a lesson. It's more accurate to say that the humanism of DS9 is rooted in both a celebration of and ambivalence towards multiculturalism that was very 1990s, but somehow still resonates. For instance, in the final episode (spoiler ahead), the Klingon Chancellor Martok disgusts Sisko by celebrating the destruction of Cardassia--one only needs to look at the debate over what to do about the ongoing slaughter in Syria, along with Russia and China's happy abetting of said ongoing slaughter, to see the difficulty of co-existing with people whose values disgust us. And one only needs to look at an American society still hopelessly—yet rightfully—hung up on issues of race and class difference to see the importance of understanding what multiculturalism and co-existence can and cannot do. DS9 is partly about the discontents (and, if you're being uncharitable, the hollowness) of the Federation's brand of liberal utopianism, a situation that's not without its parallels in the contemporary democratic west.

But that's not the only "human" thing that this orgy of brilliantly-realized alien races seemed to hit on. DS9 was about other perennial issues too. I think O'Brien was the only major character without an identity-related hangup or ten. Meanwhile, the Cardassian occupation of Bajor left the Bajorans coping with the aftermath of a century of victimization, and the Cardassians dealing with the failure of their entire political and moral order, for most of the show's first five seasons, and possibly even longer. The show was about how and why the scars of war can never heal, as well as how and why they eventually must heal. Indeed, I cannot think of another show that took a more nuanced view towards the legacy of genocide, xenophobia and war--in fact, I can't think of very many shows that are even interested in these sorts of questions or issues.

BSG, I supposed. But DS9 lacks BSG's didactic quality, which even the battle scenes and slickly-produced explosions couldn't distract from. I would sometimes got the sense DS9's producers were lecturing me (they certainly don't seem like free market types), but I always got the sense that BSG's producers were lecturing me. And I never really liked what they were telling me either--as I mentioned earlier, BSG tried to pull the neat trick of drawing constant, belabored equivalencies between the human race and their Cylon tormentors, as if victim-blaming and relativism were a substitute for moral nuance. DS9, which has the deepest and most interesting stable of villains of just about any sci-fi show ever, never needed to use cheap equivalencies and parallelisms as a crutch. Because why should it, or any creative endeavor worth its salt, approach evil with laziness? Evil, after all, is extremely fascinating, perhaps the most fascinating phenomenon in this or any universe.

Anyway, here are what I believe to be the fifteen best episodes of the series, along with a brief explanation as to why:

15. “Defiant” (Season 3): Thomas Riker hijacks the Defiant for the Maquis, and takes the quadrant’s most powerful warship deep into Cardassian space. Riker’s sense of heroism wavers as it becomes clearer that the mission will be a failure—and as Kira convinces him that he’s throwing his life away for reasons that even he doesn’t seem entirely certain of. This episode achieves something resembling high tragedy, insomuch as this is possible within the formal limits of a 40-minute first-run syndicated sci-fi show.

14. “Rocks and Shoals” (6): A Trek take on the classic set-piece of two enemy ships marooned on the same island, or planet, in this case. Except that one of the enemy ships is full of Jem Hadar, whose Vorta overlord would rather get himself off the planet alive than save his increasingly unstable charges. A Jem Hadar soldier explaining to Sisko why he has no choice but to die in a wasteful, suicidal attack in order to maintain “the order of things” is arguably the climax of the show’s long and highly fraught engagement with the nature-nurture debate.

13. Visionary (3): In one of the most conceptually brilliant episodes of the series, O’Brien finds himself traveling slightly forward in time. At first the future seems banal—he chats up Quark, watches Klingons and Romulans brawl on the Promenade, nothing unusual in other words. Then sees his own dead body in sick bay and eventually witnesses the impending destruction of the station. Odd as this sounds, I actually like this one for its humor. Who couldn’t gaffaw at past O’Brien and present O’Brien lamenting the hopeless convolutions of Trekkian temporal mechanics?

12. Body Parts (4): Liquidator Brunt offers Quark something of a Hobbson’s Choice: kill himself in order to fulfill an earlier contract, or violate the contract and end up on the Ferengi Commerce Authority’s dreaded blacklist. Lots of identity angst ensues—as does buddy comedy, when Quark contracts Garak to kill him as quietly and as cleanly as possible.

11. Tribunal (2): O’Brien becomes the unwitting victim of Cardassia’s Kafkaesque legal system. You share his panic at the cards being so horrifyingly stacked against him—as well as his righteous indignation when refusing to beg for his life at the end of the episode. “Tribunal” offers a fascinating glimpse at the self-image of the series’ major villains—the episode’s almost humorously over-the-top depiction of Cardassian pathology vis a vis the inherent rightness of their social and political system, marks one of popular culture’s better treatments of totalitarianism.

10. Waltz (6): Such a simple episode. Sisko and Dukat are trapped in a cave together; nothing more than that going on here really. Except that EVERYTHING is going on here, because we learn about the dark, psychic forces underpinning the leading villain of the series, a man who, among other things, desperately needs others to validate and flatter his own injured sense of greatness. Also notable: Dukat hallucinates and converses with the sort of “internal” characters that Baltar would have to deal with in BSG. Additionally notable: this is the last time in the series that Dukat would do anything even vaguely interesting, in my mind. This episode is a sort of last-hurrah for the greatest villain in all of Star Trek.

9. Blood Oath (2): Dax fulfils an oath from a previous host and joins three aging Klingon warriors on a bloody and inevitably empty quest for revenge. At least the first 3/4ths of the episode involves Dax talking herself into the necessity of joining such a quest, and coping with her own sudden sense of bloodlust. Contains probably the saddest (and most cinematic) final few minutes of any DS9 episode.

8. In Purgatory's Shadow/By Inferno's Light (5): This one involves a Dominion planet asteroid, gladiatorial combat, and Garak—basically it’s the most thrilling hour and a half of the entire series. The big reveal about Garak and Enabren Tain midway through par two feels like it explains everything, while explaining nothing at all.

7. Civil Defense (3): The Sisko kid trips the universe’s wackiest self-destruct sequence, and what begins as a minor crisis quickly escalates into a life-or-death showdown between Dukat, Kira and Garak. I’m still not quite sure why the station doesn’t blow up in the end, but if Star Trek-style deux ex machina really bothered me that much I’m not sure I would have spent such an in-retrospect appalling amount of my life watching it…

6. For the Uniform (5): Sisko finally captures his white whale (or his Jean Valjean or whatever), but he needs to commit an appalling act of planeticide in order to do it. Sisko sinks to such astounding moral lows in this one that it’s unclear whether you’re meant to sympathize with him—or with Eddington, the most charismatic and idealistic villain (or anti-hero) in the entire series.

5. It’s Only a Paper Moon (7): Nog’s PTSD (this show was all kinds of prophetic…) sinks him to a Timon-like retreat from reality—and pushes him into the safety and security of Vic Fontaine’s holosuite program. But It’s Only a Paper Moon, after all, and in a uniquely Trekkian scenario, a hologram has to convince a humanoid of the value and meaning of real, non-simulated life. You could read this as a metaphor for obsessive fandom, but the drama in this episode is so carefully plotted that it seems almost insulting to do so.

4. Hard Time (4): O’Brien emerges from a simulated 30-year prison sentence as a different, broken man. But it’s not the “hard time” that’s gotten to him, so much as his senseless murder of his cell-mate, a murder that he actually quite enjoyed from the looks of it. Of course, his cell-mate never really existed—it’s a stand in for his own humanity, for his moral center, for his sense of compassion. In the series’ most cerebral and most disturbing episode, O’Brien tries to come to grips with the apparent ease with which he extinguished that part of himself. This is the kind of episode that the less character-driven Treks (every one other than DS9, I mean) could not have pulled off.

3. The Visitor (4): What to say that hasn’t already been said already. I think TV Guide once named this the greatest Star Trek episode, period. It is not. But it is one of the franchise’s chief examples of using Trekkian dramatic structure (i.e. shit that involves time travel, wacky pseudo-science, aliens, bizarre astronomic phenomena, omnipotence, faster-than-light travel, surprise M-class planets, etc.) to tell stories that are both universal and piercingly human.

2. Far Beyond the Stars (6): The most po-mo episode of the entire Trek franchise, “Stars” actively draws attention to the artificiality of Star Trek. In fact, the episode is sort of entirely about the artificiality of Star Trek, and about the bleed-over between the real and the imagined that the most convincing of art can create. But this episode is so much more than a cheap po-mo mindfuck. It’s brilliant because it uses that bleed-over to isolate the true villains of the Star Trek, the timeless, seemingly-metaphysical (but only seemingly…) enemy of Kirk, Spock and every Trek character to come after them: xenophobia, groundless hatred, violence, and war. Benny Russell and Benjamin Sisko are effectively fighting against the same thing, and “Stars” subtly points to the possibility that Trek is really a big, elaborate sublimation of latent cultural and social anxieties. In that sense, “Stars” is a kind of companion piece to the TNG finale “All Good Things…,” an episode that has a much rosier (but not necessarily contradictory) thesis as to what this whole Star Trek thing is really all about.

1. The Wire (2): Garak has a headache! Dr. Bashir discovers that it’s due to an implant in Garak’s brain, left over from his Obsidian Order days, that allows him to release endorphins into his brain such that the most brutal of tortures will feel like an afternoon at Spa Castle. Banishment from Cardassia and life on DS9 is such hell that turning the implant on at all times and flooding his system with artificial endorphins is the only way for him to cope with the misery and disappointment of daily life. But he becomes dependent on the endorphins, even as the implant begins to eat away at his cerebral cortex—so the cure to Garak’s depressive madness actually becomes the disease, and the only way to figure out how to safely remove the implant is to get Garak to talk about his past, a fate literally worse than death, as it turns out. The episode is framed around three conflicting (and probably mostly fabricated) explanations that Garak gives for his banishment from Cardassia, explanations that in some way implicate a man named Elim in the events leading up to Garak’s exile. As we learn at the end of the episode, Elim is actually Garak’s first name, and the Elim in Garak’s stories is either a calculated lie or a coping mechanism, or both.

What makes this the finest 42 minutes of the series? Perhaps it’s Alex Siddiq and especially Andrew Robinson’s virtuosic acting; Robinson in particular would never top his performance here. Or perhaps it’s the episode’s elaboration on Garak and Bashir’s friendship, always a microcosm for the multicultural angst that pervaded the first two seasons of the show. But a large part of its allure has to do with the introduction of a mystery that is never actually solved. A lesser show would have told its viewers why Garak was actually kicked out of Cardassia, and would have taken away much of the drama and mystery, much of the slipperiness surrounding a character that many consider to be the most interesting in the series, simply for the sake of satisfying the perfectly human urge to know. But this episode frustrates that urge, and even five seasons later the viewer still has scant idea why Garak was exiled from his home world.

This is the last time I will ever write about DS9 on this blog.