Thursday, March 1, 2012

Deep Space Nine's wartime morality plays show that good writing is timeless - Part II

Part I

Following on from yesterday, when the Deep Space Nine episode "Paradise Lost" initially aired, I remember being a bit disappointed to find out that the attack on the Earth's power grid wasn't part of a Changeling plot.  I wanted to see the Changeling threat at last boil over and instead was treated to a story about how an Admiral's paranoia mixed with his best intentions put him and Starfleet on a path to compromising their own principles for what they believed to be stronger security.  I didn't think it was a bad episode - I just wanted action and instead I got a morality play.

In retrospect, this was one of the early examples of how DS9 would use the Changling threat and the later Dominion War to great effect.  The emphasis was not on space battles, but rather on morality during wartime.  Time and again, we were reminded that this war might not cost human lives, but also the very principles of those seemingly fighting for righteousness.

I find this compelling because those storylines rendered the series almost more timely ten years after it aired than it was when those episodes were first produced.  If the episodes had been written in a post-9/11 setting, surely some critics would say that the writing was too on-the-nose and too much of a direct exploration of 21st Century events.  Yet the DS9 writing staff couldn't have intended their work would be more relevant years after the series ceased production.

Writing ages well when it deals with big ideas and also universal ideas.  The morality plays of the original Star Trek still can be potent today, and the war stories of Deep Space Nine are timeless not because they deal with specific events, but because those "big events" are used to explore the characters and their conditions.  Writing that's about big ideas can resonate longer than stories that are just about flash and explosions.

The excellent (and extremely comprehensive) book Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion by Terry J. Erdmann has a behind-the-scenes look at this episode, with some interesting quotes from the writing staff.  Writer/producer Ronald D. Moore, who's own Battlestar Galactica would also heavily explore wartime morality, recalls that this two-parter began life as a story about the Changlings turning Starfleet and the Vulcans against each other.  When attempts to follow that concept proved unsatisfactory, the writers changed course.

"We started talking about a military coup of the Federation by Starfleet, ala Seven Days in May.  We thought that was actually more interesting, and more unexpected in the Star Trek universe - that Starfleet would take over the government out of fear and paranoia.  What the fear of the other, of an enemy, could drive even Starfleet to do."

Episode co-writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe confirms that they hoped to draw the audience into the paranoia as well.  "We wanted to make people think we were doing a different story.  The whole thing is a misdirection.  Part I is a total misdirection of Part II."

If anything in these two episodes disappoints me, it's that the ending of Part II is a bit too pat.  As you might expect, Sisko thwarts the coup.  In the process, he narrowly prevents one Starfleet ship from destroying another.  Though he gets the corrupt Admiral to resign, it's hard to overlook the fact that everything the Admiral and Sisko were saying about the Changling threat in Part I still applies.  With their new security measures rescinded, that means that the Federation is no closer to halting the infiltration than they were at the start of the story.

And yet the tone of the ending doesn't totally acknowledge that. It's made somewhat clear that the real Changling threat is to foster enough fear and paranoia so that the Federation essentially destroys itself.  However, the final scenes of the episode don't play quite foreboding enough.  Sisko should be disturbed and uneasy that a man he respected would so easily toss aside his principles for a cause that he believed was righteous.  This should be treated as the first major salvo in what would turn into full-blown war down the line.  Instead the show raises a lot of really strong issues, takes them to a head, but leaves them jarringly unresolved.  Had the final scenes conveyed that "unresolved" feeling, sold the sense that things will soon get a lot worse, it would have made for a more powerful ending.  Oddly all the pieces are there that should make for this kind of ending.  The issue seems to be more one of execution. Later seasons would be more effective at dealing with that conflict.

I remember sitting in a college ethics class a few years after these episodes aired.  The topic of morality and principles during wartime came up (again, it was prescient because this was pre-9/11) and I distinctly recall being able to apply no fewer than a half-dozen DS9 storylines to some of the issues we discussed.  In fact, I was probably better able to develop and articulate my own moral stances in the class discussions specifically because my exposure to DS9 had already forced me to confront where I stood on those sorts of issues.

We aren't always lucky enough to deal with such grand ideas in our own writing, but if the opportunity presents itself, don't shy away from it.  Even if your story feels like it could be action-driven, see if there's a way to use that action to force your characters to confront something in themselves - something that challenges their own beliefs.


  1. I am working on that last, trust me! Thank you for this fascinating article.

  2. Are you reading the AV Club Classic reviews on DS9? They're still in the first season so it's pretty rough going as yet but I'm itching for when they get to "Duet." Beautifully written first season penned by a Trek writer that did some of the best episodes across the franchise.

    Also, "In the Pale Moonlight" is not only a beautiful wartime mentality story but also one of DS9's best episodes. I think it captures both the sense of a mission accomplished but perhaps with the bitterness of a pyrrhic victory

    1. Haven't seen the AV Club reviews but I concur "Duet" is incredible. I also heartily agree about ITPM, which I nearly wrote a piece on before deciding it was best to lead off with this two-parter. That was an incredible hour

  3. Just noticed that today's review of DS9 includes a comparison/reference the same black-white faced race you brought up in your last blog post. Some of the early DS9 really were on the same level of complexity as TOS