After a very strong beginning, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine season 3 started alternating between good and so-so episodes. This trend continues here, with some of the very best (Past Tense), some not great but far from awful either (Heart of Stone). Every episode, even the not too memorable ones, has some sort of character development, which was not that much the case with TNG. On to some episode reviews of DS9 season 3 (1994-1995)!
3×09: Defiant: “Terrorists don’t get to be heroes”
Jonathan Frakes not only behind the camera (not in this one, in other episodes this season) but also in front in DS9 — is it Will Riker? No, surprise: it’s Thomas Riker, from TNG: 6×24: Second Chances! Somewhat bitter with Starfleet and trying to make a name for himself that will differentiate him from Will Riker, Thomas has joined the Maquis! With him is Kalita, who was also seen with the Maquis in TNG: 7×25: Preemptive Strike. As soon as Riker appears, immediately there is flirting going on. But there is also talk of terrorism, which, coming from Kira with her past in the Bajoran resistance, is a bit surprising — TNG and DS9 had accustomed me to more subtlety than Kira giving Riker lessons on how condemnable terrorism is (TNG: 3×12: The High Ground! 5×03: Ensign Ro!). And to top it off, the Riker-Kira kiss at the very end of the episode comes completely out of left field — it’s there just because it’s Riker the womanizer, but comes right after Riker and Kira’s argument on terrorism… That being said, I hope we will see T. Riker again!
Still, the episode is great at creating tension! T. Riker obviously does not consider himself a terrorist, and is very much focused on his mission in the same way as if this were W. Riker on the Enterprise, the only difference being that Starfleet does not approve of the mission. Riker’s near-suicide mission forces the Cardassians to reveal that the Obsidian Order has been secretly preparing something obscure in the Orias system that they are trying to hide from everybody, Cardassian military included. Throughout, Sisko and Gul Dukat reluctantly team together to stop Riker. In this episode, Dukat is very much humanized, talking about his children and their future, quite differently from his last appearance in Civil Defense: it’s a bit jarring, but I like the depth of characterization this creates.
A good episode for the Maquis with some awkward moments.
3×10: Fascination: “Best not think about it too much, if you ask me”
Lwaxana Troi visits the station during a Bajor celebration party and unknowingly brings a virus aboard with her — and it results in everybody flirting with everybody! Many awkward moments, jealous moments, passionate moments ensue… Jake is infatuated with Kira, who kisses Bashir, while Vedek Bareil hunts Dax, who wants Sisko, etc. Only the O’Briens stay together — actually they have an argument about their relationship, and their dialogue is quite good and realistic. It reminded me of early TNG eps like 1×03: The Naked Now, where everybody suddenly has sex (itself a remake of TOS 1×06: The Naked Time). Some funny moments, but…too much campy for me.
3×11/3×12: Past Tense: “Having seen a little of the 21st century, there is one thing I don’t understand: how could they have let things get so bad?” “That’s a good question. I wish I had an answer.”
These two episodes are as close to the definition of what Star Trek is all about as DS9 has ever come (or even TNG for that matter): using time travel as a storytelling device to present an optimistic vision for human civilization! If you need proof of Star Trek‘s progressive politics, Past Tense is it.
TNG‘s Time’s Arrow had fun with time travel but it didn’t use it to comment on the evolution of human society, which was a big missed opportunity. TOS‘s The City on the Edge of Forever and the TNG movie First Contact did deal with issues of how far humanity has progressed by the 24th century, and these episodes are DS9‘s entry in this theme. More specifically, Past Tense also plays on several levels by commenting long-term future (24th century) vs today (or at least when the episode was made), and mid-term future (2024, 30 years away when the episode was made, i.e. as far as 2050 for us) vs today, which makes for very interesting viewing. The dystopia before the utopia. Incidentally, First Contact, which did something similar, was in pre-production at the time.
Sisko, Bashir and Dax land in 2024 — a rather dystopian future where the rich live in their bubble and the poor and unemployed are repressed by police forces and bureaucracy. While Dax is catapulted to the high spheres of this society, up in the skyscrapers, Sisko and Bashir are left wandering in the low levels, in the slums. By random chance, Dax is treated to good food and quiet, while, by chance, Sisko and Bashir have to deal with thugs, waiting lines for food and strict rules. The fact that their fate is easy or tough is completely random is very interesting: for these 24th century people, there is no intrinsic worth to a person having a high or a low income, they are just people; there is no intrinsic value assigned to money that makes them treat people differently, money is just a tool at best, an obstacle at worst. This whole experience of an alien visiting a highly unequal capitalist society reminded me of Ursula K Le Guin‘s masterpiece The Dispossessed.
The future of 2024 is not exactly bright: a lot of unemployment, people waiting for the public bureaucracy to give them low-paid jobs, the poor fighting against themselves or taking drugs and adopting conspiracy theories, highly authoritarian security, unreachable ultra-rich. Why, this looks like our world today! The “Sanctuary Districts” where people are amassed is Orwellian newspeak for what are essentially slums in inhuman conditions for the economy’s surplus workforce, like today’s camps for immigrants/refugees in Europe and USA in our world.
At the end of the first episode, what every viewer who has seen or read many time travel stories expects to happen happens: Sisko takes the place of the instigator of the riots for civil rights, Gabriel Bell — Sisko takes on the role of a Christ-like saviour. When Sisko returns to the 24th century, history has been rewritten and everybody should be remembering Bell as Sisko — is this now an alternative universe? I’m not sure how the time travel rules work here. This part with the dark future and the time travelling savior, but also that dark lighting typical of the 1980s/1990s and the depiction of poor neighbourhoods, reminded me of The Terminator.
Meanwhile, in a timeline where Starfleet did not happen (à la Back to the Future!), O’Brien and Kira search for their missing colleagues, and travel to the 1930s (film noir and jazz!) and 1960s (flower power!), in fun little interludes!
Two really excellent episodes by Ira Stephen Behr and Robert Hewitt Wolfe, who are the show’s main writers at this point.
Bill Smitrovich (the simple family man turned civil rights activist Webb) was the memorable and sadly missed Detective Bletcher during season 1 of MillenniuM!
Dick Miller (the security guard Vin) has a very recognizable mug — he was in The Terminator and Gremlins!
Frank Military (the hot-tempered gang leader BC) was the “Son” in the unholy trinity of vampires in The X-Files‘ 3!
Clint Howard (the paranoid homeless guy; and Ron Howard’s brother) was in NASA Mission Control as Sy Liebergot in Apollo 13!
3×13: Life Support: “I never would have guessed that you would be the one to bring such a bold vision of peace to Bajor”
Surprise: there’s a Bajor/Cardassia peace treaty! For such a big event it comes a bit out of the blue and is introduced, negotiated and signed all within the space of an episode. But it’s an interesting evolution for what might come next.
The main story of the episode is not the politics, but that of Vedek Bareil, in a story about morality and choosing your own death reminiscent of TNG 5×16: Ethics. He is wounded in an accident (which I was expecting to be revealed as a terrorist attack but it’s left as an accident, which was weird) and goes against the doctor’s better advice when he pushes himself to work on the negotiations on the treaty instead of resting. Kai Winn manages to be unlikable even when she is truly trying to achieve something good — she thinks of Bareil only as a tool for political gain, as much as she tries to hide it under her soft voice.
Ultimately, much to the despair of Kira, Bareil dies but his work is a success and the treaty is signed. I was surprised at this turn of events, as it reveals a bit that there was no particular plan for his character, like nearly all of his appearances: his opposition to Winn generated drama for a handful of episodes, his sudden romance with Kira was surprising, Winn becoming Kai over him was another surprise, and ultimately the writers thought of an interesting self-contained story with his death and went ahead with it. It is sudden and a bit underwhelming.
Meanwhile, Jake and Nog get serious about dating girls; and with the Ferengis’ extreme sexism, things don’t go as planned for Jake!
3×14: Heart of Stone: “No changeling has ever harmed another.” “There’s always a first time.”
Odo and Kira track a Maquis ship to a moon, and in the caves Kira becomes trapped…in a rock that grows and grows and menaces to suffocate her. Yes, it’s quite ridiculous. Isolated, increasingly desperate, Odo eventually declares what we have been suspecting for a few episodes now, that he is in love with Kira. Building an entire episode around this revelation — more soap opera tropes, of which I’m not a big fan, and after Kira and Bareil I don’t know if this is going anywhere interesting. Ultimately it’s not very useful to both characters either, as Odo did not actually make the confession to Kira — it was a Changeling! The Founders are test Odo’s allegiances, which is a nice reminder of where things are since the beginning of the season. We do get a great origin for Odo’s name: ““Odo’ital” literally means the word “Nothing.” Even after it became clear that I was sentient, the Bajoran scientists kept calling me that. As a joke, they split it into two words, like a Bajoran name: “Odo Ital.” Which eventually got shortened…“
Meanwhile, Nog tries to convince Dax and Sisko (and himself?) that he wants to be the first Ferengi to apply to Starfleet Academy — the end of Ferengi civilization according to Quark! And, much to my surprise, he does a good job at that, and explains that he sees Starfleet as a way out of his family situation: he does not want to become like his father Rom…and his father approves. Jake/Nog stories are always excellent!
3×15: Destiny: “Where you see the Emissary, I see a Starfleet officer”
With this episode, Sisko starts embracing his role as “Emissary” — which I suppose will be significant going forward, in some way. Fresh from the recent peace treaty, DS9 hosts the first joint science mission between Bajor, Cardassia and the Federation: a stable communication link traversing the wormhole. However, a prophet of doom appears in the person of an extremist Bajoran Vedek, who has found very specific parallels between religious texts and the current situation, and only Kira will believe him. Ultimately, in trying to solve a technical problem Sisko and company do make it so that the prophecy turns out to be correct, but not in the way the religious zealot thought it would — prophecies have a tendency to do that! And all ends in a positive note.
There’s also a B-story with O’Brien being flirted by a Cardassian scientist, who reads his irritation at Cardassians as a sign that he is interested in her, quite funny. Back during early TNG I was saying that it was great how TNG “humanized” the enemy, never quite presented things as one-sided; in DS9 that happens so often that it is a given.
The Vedek is Erick Avari, memorable as Kasuf in Stargate and Stargate SG-1!
3×16: Prophet Motive: “Without ambition, without, dare I say it, greed, people would lie around all day doing nothing!”
Grand Nagus Zek goes mad! He wants to rewrite the Rules of Acquisition into something much more like “be fair to your neighbour” and convert the Ferengi Alliance into a charity. Even his mute assistant Maihar’du is desperate! Quark and Rom discover that behind all this is one of the Orbs of the Prophets: Zek met the “Prophet” aliens who have a different perception of time and they changed him into somebody who doesn’t live for short-term material accumulation. Quark tries to rationalize this with far-fetched theories, that this is all a grand plan that will pay off in the long term thanks to Zek’s glimpse of the future. But no: Zek truly has gone mad…at least for a Ferengi! We learn of some Ferengi homeworld landmarks: the Sacred Marketplace, the Tower of Commerce!… Quark enters into contact with the Prophets and pesters them enough that they revert everything to how it was. I loved how this episode took something very serious from the mythology of the show — the Prophets — and used it to tell a comedic story, it helps in the world-building. A funny little episode! (But who can believe that such a caricature of a civilization like the Ferengi can really exist, with this mouse-like leader with a high-pitched voice? Their Rules of Acquisition sound like Gordon Gecko from Wall Street, “Greed is Good”! No less caricatures than the Klingons, I guess!)
Meanwhile (yes, I will systematically introduce B-stories with “Meanwhile”!), Bashir is unexpectedly nominated for a big Federation-wide medical award. The know-it-alls at Memory Alpha give a great interpretation of that: TNG had been snobbed from the big awards for years because of its reputation as childish scifi, but it got an Emmy nomination for best drama for season 7! The discussions centered around which show would win, the favourite or the underdog, and certainly it wouldn’t be TNG, just like with Bashir here! (FYI, Picket Fences won…25 years later, I wonder who even remembers that show, compared to TNG…)
3×17: Visionary: “I hate temporal mechanics”
Just as the best pals O’Brien and Bashir start playing darts at Quark’s, O’Brien starts jumping forward in time and whatever happens he seems to be dying in the future he visits! I remembered from TNG 6×25: Timescape that Romulan engines run on some quantum singularity thing so I expected that the Romulans would be the culprits, I was very glad it was the case! The big twist at the end is that the O’Brien that we follow does indeed die and the O’Brien from the time jump in the future is the one that returns to the present and continues living. Mind blown!, etc. But that, along with the way that the radiation causes time travel and how quickly Bashir masters how to control time travelling with precision, makes me think that I should not think too much about how all this works scientifically!… Does this mean that they can time travel at will now? Still, a good exciting episode. It’s funny, this is a very TNG-like episode with its sci-fi big concept, but in the middle of DS9 that has by now found its strong identity in character and social stories it almost feels out of place!
By the way, I like the politics in the background here. The Romulans are pushing for more intelligence on the Dominion in exchange for the cloaking device of the Defiant, and are willing to go to great lengths to get it. In the beginning of the season I thought that this collaboration was a sign that the cold war between Federation and Romulans was thawing, but they are as shady as ever — could they be thinking about circumventing the Federation altogether and invading the Gamma Quadrant?
On our next trip to the Gamma Quadrant, things start really picking up!…