Content warning! I dig into the Cardassians a little bit later on in this, and that means there’s going to be a mention of Nazis and stuff Nazis like in media. Tap out at the end of Take Me Out To The Holosuite if you wanna skip it!
Like I said last time, I actually like Deep Space 9. It may be a bit of a surprise that someone can have four thousand words (good god) of non-stop complaining about a show they liked, but I was trying to avoid being toxic about it. It’s one thing to criticise a show’s direction and story structure and its narrative priorities, and another thing to talk about how people are idiots for liking something. And hell, since I like it, I get to be one of those idiots.
We’ve talked about the death of the author in the past, and we’ve talked about wrestling as live theatre, and I’ve talked about the idea of the Ghost of the Author, an occluded identity of someone who ‘made’ the story and ‘made’ the choices that went into it. In the case of Deep Space 9, though, there’s a clear, fracticious and well-documented explanation for why things were weird.
Rick Berman sucks.
That’s not as simple as all that! Rick Berman, the head of Trek Stuff, was a conservative mealy mouthed douchebag who hated women, focused on commercial viability, and also, haaaated women. The dude was responsible for the overseeing of Star Trek as a franchise through series Deep Space 9, Voyager and Enterprise. Berman didn’t oversee Deep Space 9 personally – but Ira Steven Behr, who did, answered to Berman. Berman had a more direct hand in Voyager and Enterprise, and we’ll get to them later but for now, the long and short is that Rick Berman was regularly making choices that made it harder for Behr to tell intresting stories. Stories about contentious themes were scrapped, actors were abused and put under pressure that made it hard to do their jobs, writers were separated, and writers were thrown together, contracts were negotiated and all that stuff.
Stuff from the top down was all being affected by Berman’s vision, which was largely unchallenging, episodic, extremely conservative and specifically contrary to a lot of cool things the show was doing. But the show had to get made, week to week, on a tight schedule, and they couldn’t readily replace actors, especially popular ones, and that meant that a lot of the time, individual characters’ scenes were defined by the actor playing them, more than they were defined by the story they were being put forward by the world.
What I’m saying is that in Deep Space 9 I liked characters more than I liked stories. It wasn’t like the characters were unassailable – after all, Worf and Sisko’s stories both made the characters so much worse in my opinion. The Ferengi are all dreadful even though Nog’s story is good. Vic’s dreadful, and his story gets to include an actual casino heist, I should be a mark for that.
Still, there are a bunch of things in this series that I liked a lot, that I want to talk about, and mostly, they’re where the character complements the narrative, or the narrative doesn’t diminish the character.
Odo’s a cop!
And I like him anyway!
Odo’s doing a lot, overall. First, episodes that focus on Odo tend to be either really good, solid science fiction narratives on their own, like A Simple Investigation, which is a cyberpunk mystery story, or Chimera, where we get to compare Odo to another person of his culture that isn’t part of the evil hegemony of the Dominion. There’s Treachery, Faith and the Great River, which has this excellent A-plot with these layers of priorities. One Weyoun needs to destroy another Weyoun, the priorities of Odo as a Founder versus the Founders as a group, the way the story is resolved in a sudden, shuddering shake by someone making a sacrifice – god, it’s such a good story.
Kinda not here for Nog Does Another M*A*S*H episode, but whatever.
Anyway, Odo is a really great character played with compelling depth by a veteran actor, so big deal of course. Some of the things I like about Odo is the way they use his outsider status in a lot of different ways. He’s outside of normal emotional and social relationships, meaning that he has to spend his time learning what that’s like. This means there’s a lot of practice and contemplation of social scenarios and existence, so Odo can reflect on the way humans treat other humans in a human-understandable way.
There’s also the way Odo’s difference and flexibility is treated as a subtle bisexuality metaphor – the way his father doesn’t understand him and is sure he can just bull over him to normalise him, even while celebrating him, or the way Laas’ encouragement to leave is shown as an alternative to his sexual relationship with Kira. There’s the extremely tangled way he relates to Luxwana Troi, a The Next Generation character I find incredibly irritating yet is responsible for two really excellent stories here in Deep Space 9.
Odo gets to do noir stories, stories about identity, stories about choice, and stories that resonate with me personally about how hard it can hurt to want to go back something terrible that you know hurts everyone, and know that you have to choose to endure that pain.
I already knew I liked symbiotic characters, and the Dax lineage of symbiotes is a great one. We get to see a lot of what the symbiote can do as a story tool; there’s a line of continuity, there’s questions about where identity begins and ends, there’s questions of culpability and even an interesting set of societal and cultural rules about abstaining from reattachment. The Trill are something I dig to start with (indeed, I did start an article just talking about how the trill were neat), and they even pull the most important trigger in the series that they had when Jadzia dies and Ezri gets the symbiont.
Jadzia as a character runs along a borderline for me. On the one hand I love the fact that there’s this fun, experienced, seasoned character with this wealth of experience, confident and assured of herself, and it is neat that in this series the Horndog Who Sleeps With Strange Aliens is a woman and not another dude. As an aside, I’m told from someone better versed in The Original Series than I am that Kirk wasn’t even that bad, apparently, but the reputation and style he carried himself with was absolutely the kind of dude who wanted to fuck a mountain.
Still, Jadzia’s got a lot of personality, she’s fun, she’s interesting, there’s a bunch of stories about the politics and history of her life, the way she feels about her own past and the way her past is part but not just part of the Dax symbiote’s past. There’s a whole story arc they do with a couple of veteran actors that Jadzia brings to the forefront in Deep Space 9 and that’s great.
I do deeply hate the relationship between Worf and Jadzia, in part because whatever chemistry those characters have requires Jadzia to constantly be saying something along the lines of ‘well, I know I don’t actually want this, but-‘ and well, it’s pretty easy to put that on Worf, who sucks. Worf, without Jadzia, is still a string of failures in a bad forehead. Jadzia, without Worf, is still this interesting mix of mercurial pixie girl and terrifying knife fighter.
Then they throw the whole thing to Ezri, and for a character who has basically half a season to get going, she does a lot. There is again, a problem when she relates to Worf, which builds on my theory that he’s the one who sucks because, again, slut-shaming his dead wife, what a piece of shit, but Ezri has a few episodes that are positively excellent, and it’s all done with this deliberate contrast of who she is compared to who Dax is and the nearest memory being who Jadzia was. That kicks ass.
Also, Ezri had huge shoes to fill and she did her damnedest, especially since the entire loss of Jadzia was handled badly. It’s easy to give the character a bit of slack when you know the story around how she wound up being jammed into the series so quickly (because Rick Berman sucks ass).
Speaking of the Klingon veterans, there’s this trio of characters who show up for two episodes that I really like. Blood Oath, and Once More Unto The Breach. These episodes bring back old – and I mean 1960s old – Klingon characters from before the Klingons were heavily defined as a culture, played by the same actors, now quite old. These two stories are both just good sci-fi stories in their own right. The first is a reflection on old glories and when you choose to die and when you choose to kill, and the second is really the first episode you can call a Worf episode that didn’t leave me mostly angry at how terrible a character he is. It helps that Worf’s not the focus.
I’m a sucker for last words, and Kor has some great ones. Also the actual device of the finale of Once More Unto The Breach is to have the bridge officer reporting to a room full of people what’s happening, without showing what they’re reporting back; it’s the image of a room full of people gathering around a single radio, trying to piece together what’s happening, trying to hold on hope as long as they can, with their own fates literally entwined with this, while also grieving in real time of the loss of a hero. It’s a great moment and by showing it mostly in terms of reactions and feelings, the story can show you a set of different narratives in a glance. Worf, grateful that his faith in his friend was worthwhile but also shaken by knowing he was gone; Martok, refusing to join in the death song with enthusiasm because he still hated Kor and with good reason; the crew, seeing not the man, but the story, and the shape of it they would carry together.
Kinda wish they didn’t misgender Dax, though, the dickholes.
I don’t think I’ll ever really like Bashir as much as I like Bashir’s friends liking Bashir, but he is responsible for opening the door to the narrative presented in the Jack Pack from Statistical Probabilities and Chrysalis. They’re extremely annoying, supremely intelligent, and beautifully, narratively capable of being wrong.
Jack himself is a bit of a problem because this series doesn’t seem to recognise that sexual boundaries aren’t a funny thing to tease about, but the actual dynamics of watching these confused, super-genius characters correctly interpret immensely complex information from tiny windows is fun and it shows a basic assumption of Star Trek.
In Star Trek, most everything about a person is knowable.
This is a really interesting philosophical position and it jives with the philosophical questions around things like transporters and holosuites and clones. There’s a vision of the world in which people may keep secrets, but fundamentally, there’s a certain foundational thereness to a person, that the transporter transports you even if it’s not necessarily moving the atoms around, and that you isn’t your soul, no no no, we’d never call it a soul, but your youness can be transferred by a nerve ritual or something like that, and now it’s in a hologram and that hologram is spy, but don’t worry, it’s still you and we can get the youness out of it, that’ll be fine.
The thing that flummoxes the Jack Pack isn’t even external; it’s not understanding their own personalities, their own identities, that there was some knowing that was hidden from them, and that knowing was hidden from them because they weren’t looking for it. That’s really interesting and it makes their story internally work. They’re idiots. They’re brillliant idiots. I guess I’m really fond of geniuses who are also completely crap people.
Again, it’s a shame this story is filtered through Bashir, who, uh, yeah, gets creepy with Sarina, someone who he knew at the start of the episode couldn’t talk, let alone navigate a complex romantic relationship with him and I am
trying to not make this about how much Bashir sucks.
I could really go on for good episodes in this series and I think that’s part of the problem for criticising it. There’s a lot of connecting infrastructure that sucks – like the Ferengi as a culture are dreadful and attempts to make them ‘nice capitalists’ is horse-shit – which means that some really good stories are tainted by their association, because the characters involved can’t carry the narrative that they’re being asked to support. Just trying to think about a small handful of episodes that were great is easy, so much so that ‘small list’ becomes a medium sized list pretty quick.
In The Pale Moonlight is excellent. It has a great framing device, that device lets actors put out a great performance. Every character behaves the way that makes sense for them, there’s layers of motivation, the more you know the more you follow what the framing device is doing, and the type of story it is is an insight into how these things get done by people able to interact with systems in secret ways.
That’s all I have for that. It’s a great episode. It does a lot of stuff I like and it does it well. It doesn’t need to invoke the supernatural or impossible. Where Odo has cyberpunk noir stories, this is a really great spy thriller done where a man who considers himself above the actual work of protecting his ideology is presented with the realities of what that means.
Really, the only reason to mention this is because the episode is generally held up as one of the best in Star Trek and I, based on my current experience, agree. I wouldn’t want to leave it up to the obvious.
I have less positive an opinion on Far Beyond The Stars. That’s a really good little episode of an anthology show about science fiction, but I kind of hate how this story has to wedge it into the narrative of Deep Space 9. Season Seven even opens by implying (?) that the whole thing is a vision from Pah’Wraiths to distract Sisko with … fantasies of… being an oppressed, marginalised guy in the 1950s? Great episode of a different series, plays into the problem with Prophet Stuff here though.
Duet is excellent, showing that Cardassians were capable of empathy and emotional respect and that the genocide was not some sort of genetically mandated thing. It was necessary to show that a sin was committed rather than a tragedy happened, and Duet both made a powerful story about it, but also showed it in some of the most efficient ways. I also quite liked Waltz for driving home the point that Gul Dukat is bad, you fucking idiots.
I also kinda liked Kira, though they kept pushing her into these story spaces that made me unhappy. I disliked the Odo relationship, and the whole plot about time travelling to slut-shame her mother for being subjected to sexual assault just made me deeply uncomfortable, continuing the trend that boy, this period of Star Trek was pretty weirdly regressive about women huh?
I’ve talked about games in media a bunch because I have read a book and it just keeps fizzing in my brain about how it works. Generally, the series sucks at games. Julian gives a speech about games while ‘playing’ Dabo which shows a sort of babby’s first basics on scales of games studies, there’s Dabo itself and Tongo, which are both incredibly shit ‘space’ variants of other games that don’t actually make sense, and then there’s the Wadi, in Move Along Home, who are not only awful shitheads, but who basically stuff their plot up its own ass. Games are consensual, a culture founded around them should understand that.
While I can complain about games as presented for a long time (and do, and will), the overall series redeems itself in how it uses games with the late-series Take Me Out to the Holosuite, an episode so fantastic that I’d use it as an example of how to use games in TV storytelling.
There’s a lot to dig into for how this episode is good, and maybe it’d be worth doing, but I spent four thousand words complaining about this series so I figure if I treat a single episode to that kind of depth you’ll get sick of me very quickly. With that in mind here’s an attempt to be brief.
- Relevant rules of the game are communicated meaningfully for an audience that does not know them
- Irrelevant rules of the game are followed anyway, meaning that the game is being meaningfully played
- If you come into the episode at mid points, the game state is coherent and meaningful
- Ordinary game actions are executed by players in ways that express who those characters are – like Ezri performing a flip and Worf’s trash talk
- The game is not distorted beyond capacity for the narrative – there’s no moment when a player flips a perfect poker hand three rounds in a row, characters actually play the game
- The game is actually winnable or losable – there is no secondary mechanic meaning that all the play prior is meaningless like the Golden Snitch
- The game’s purpose as an equal playing field is used to compare characters to one another
- The game’s purpose as a cultural element is used to show the importance of the play and not just some arbitary rules point (Dabo!)
And now, just a reminder: We’re about to talk about the Nazi shit.
I like Damar.
Damar gets involved in this conversation of ‘a good Nazi,’ which is a real literary trope that can be wielded a variety of ways. The idea is that there’s a lot of fiction that frames Nazi characters as ‘not so bad’ or ‘forgiveable’ despite their part in the war machine that committed some of the largest-scale atrocities of the industrial age. There’s a big conversation there, and it’s pretty uncomfortable, especially because the purely academic conceptual position of ‘one could write a redeemable Nazi’ is a position that just so happens to land right next to the practical wants of a lot of actual Nazis who want that conversation to lead to their Youtube channel about how Crusaders are cool and maybe while you’re here watch their twelve part video series with a title like like How Steam’s Forum Purges Enforce The Holohoax.
I’m pretty free about calling the Cardassians space Nazis. The thing is, that kinda undersells it, because Cardassia didn’t have an expansionist war chaining into a genocide of their own people. Cardassia instead invaded another system of planets, and occupied them for fifty years.
Now here’s where the numbers get fucked up: According to Memory Alpha, the war dead of Bajor is fifteen million. The real world Holocaust, which took place over four years, killed about eleven million. If you take that number of dead and assume that’s just military deaths, that seems congruent (to me) with a fifty year occupation and war, but the labor camps and genocidal slavery probably killed a lot more than that. Bajor is described as being unable to farm, it’s so utterly wrecked. There’s even talk about decimation of Bajor, implying that a tenth of the population were killed, which when you’re talking about a planet of (apparently) 3.8 billion people puts the labor camp deaths at 380 million people. It could be compared to the occupation of Ireland, with a prolonged period of terrorist resistance, and it could also be compared to the Stolen Generation of Australia and Re-education camps in Canada and hey have you noticed we are comparing this to some pretty dark shit.
So okay, whatever, the science fiction authors don’t know how to handle scale, whatever. Just the idea of an occupation and the scale of a planetary population is kind of brain melting in the first place. The Cardassians are meant to be Nazi-like. It’s in their modes of dress, their architecture, their rhetoric, and the Bajorans are definitely made to seem Jewishish. If the Cardassians aren’t Nazis, they’re definitely Adequate Narrative Nazi Supplement.
Damar then, represents an interesting form of one kind of ‘good Nazi.’ That is to say, Damar kills some Nazis, and dies.
It’s a surprisingly effective story turn.
Joking aside, though, Damar is a non-factor for most of the show he shows up in. At the end they need someone to leverage the Cardassians against the Dominion, which is a very satisfying story beat, but also, Damar never has to deal with the problem of decolonisation and fuck that up because he dies. Not only does he die, but he doesn’t even get a final dying speech, and I dig that. He’s a symbol, sure, but the symbol he represents is just being the highest guy on the totem pole who sucked the least. And it’s not like he didn’t suck, the dude was a debauched drunk in private.
There’s this thing in World War 2 that happened, where after the 3rd Reich fell, and allied troops were flushing out Nazi strongholds, where a group of American soldiers, French prisoners, and German up-to-last-week Nazi soldiers teamed up to defend a castle from other, still-definitely-Nazi Panzergrenadiers. The battle was one of the weirdest of World War 2, featuring multiple heads of state and a tennis star opposing an attacker with their former prison wardens. It was called the Battle for Castle Itter, a battle that sticks in my mind a lot.
There were people in that battle, who had just been part of the most dreadful war machine in history, and instrument of its atrocity; not ‘not so bad’ as Nazis, not ‘not really Nazis,’ they were Nazis, and that’s important as part of the story. The Battle for Itter was where someone, who was a Nazi, was presented with the first chance to fight that same ideology, and they took up arms.
The question I think on with this is: When do you start redeeming yourself?
Damar wasn’t good. Damar was part of the occupation. Damar hated the way Gul Dukat’s ambition corrupted Cardassia, and he hated the way the Dominion made the Cardassians into the Bajorans. Towards the end of the series, Damar was on the precipice of starting to explain the problem, to start considering his own participation in abusive genocidal colonialism, maybe. We don’t know. We never will. At least at the end, he died, fighting fascists. And a fascist who fights fascists and dies is still, in the end, ensuring there are fewer fascists.
Obviously, that redemption, that chance to stop being part of a monstrous system is something that weighs on me differently than it might to most people.
And that brings us…
A friend of mine hates Garak. She’s right to, of course; she hates him because he’s basically a CIA agent of the Nazi empire that the Good Guys employ and the audience forgives him, because the actor is charming, which is pretty easy to do when you’re an actor, because being believable is part of their job. I don’t want to come across as presenting him as redeemed from that position, that those sins were somehow healed. Dude’s bad. Dude’s not just got a lot of moral grey to him, but he’s got some outright black. Garak did bad things, and Garak continued to do bad things. Up until the very end of the series, Garak was doing bad things. We know the one time he actually committed something he thought of as a sin because it was the one time he apologised for killing someone on Empok Nor.
I love him, though.
I love Garak because like Damar, he was part of the organ of evil. He was raised to it, believed in it, believed even in the promise of it, believed even when it demonstrated its corruption, and he did everything he could to live up to it, and spent the entire seven seasons of the series twisting on the knife-point of realising his own evil, and what to do with it.
Garak’s a monster. He’s willing to commit genocide, by name, and not only is he willing to do it, he’s willing to die for it. Garak is violent, traitorous, conniving and condescending, and his belief in his national ideology is so strong that it takes seven years of having it non stop kicked shitless to accept that it’s broken, and even then his acceptance comes in the name of seeing the harm it’s doing to Cardassia.
In the end, most of the spymastering-murdering-resisting Garak does is being done because he’s good at it, because he recognises that his skills are best put to work at this task to achieve a great end and it will kill millions to get there. Ezri neatly encapsulates the way to think of Garak when she tries to help him with his claustrophobia. She thinks the problem is related to what was done to him, forgetting entirely that the problem was his anguish about what he was doing. Garak kills millions of Cardassians in order to free Cardassia and he actually cares about that.
I have sat, in the bombed out rubble of my own existence.
I have watched as the people flee what they made for themselves to save themselves, as our own evil destroyed us.
And I have thought you can’t say we didn’t have it coming.
But remember how I said liking Star Trek is a task of choosing what to ignore? In my version of Deep Space 9, the version that reflects this Garak, the character I care about, there’s no Ziyal. She’s a spur of a character, a nothing thrown in by a higher up in an attempt to make Garak seem less creepily pansexual, and in the process, makes him seem like a sex offender. That is something that I choose to excise, because it’s bad, and it makes the story worse. But if I cut out the torture and the black site transits and the partaking in genocide, Garak’s character is ruined.
Cut out Ziyal and you lose nothing of the character presented, because Ziyal is… nothing.
It sucks that Ziyal can be nothing, especially since she’s presented as so important to Gul Dukat.
I like Garak a lot, but he’s not not a monstrous spy.
And Rick Berman sucks ass.