Wednesday, June 28, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine helped me recognize the authoritarianism of the Bush Administration for what it was.

That's quite a feat considering when the show left the airwaves, Bill Clinton was still in office, but by that time, DS9 (created by Michael Piller and Rick Berman) had devoted at least half of its seven-year run to storylines about ethics during wartime. I've already written two posts about how a 1996 two-parter called Homefront/Paradise Lost dealt with the debate of security from terrorism versus individual liberty. Produced during peacetime, it was easy to see that the right answer ALWAYS is "Side with your principles. Never embrace any fascist security policies against your own people in the name of fighting the enemy because then they've already destroyed you." It was all about how paranoia and fear can be misused by power-mongers for their own purpose.

I guarantee you that if this episode was produced in 2004, it would have been attacked by all manner of conservative media and Fox News for being "unpatriotic." It absolutely feels like a pointed and direct criticism of post 9/11 America, even though it preceded the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks by almost six full years. That is the power of storytelling, to confront social issues in a way that keeps them relevant even decades removed from the context that inspired them. Wartime ethics was such a focus of DS9 during the Dominion arc that it became surreal to see the same sorts of questions emerge about the Iraq War and the hunt for Bin Laden. I already knew which side I was on because the storytelling forced me to examine my own values years later.

And yet, one of my favorite episodes is "In The Pale Moonlight," where the message is almost unquestionably "The ends justify the means." At this point in the series, the Federation is getting hammered in the Dominion War. Captain Sisko realizes that their only chance might be to convince the Romulans to abandon their non-aggression pact with the Dominion and join the Federation and the Klingons in the fight against them. He hopes he can convince them that the Dominion is just biding their time and will eventually turn on the Romulans after crushing their other foes. And he's probably right. Problem: all efforts to turn up evidence of this plot come to naught.

So with the help of Garak - a Cardassian former spy-turned-tailor - Sisko produces fake evidence of the plans and arranges for a Romulan senator to visit the station in secret. There he offers his argument and a fake recording of a Dominion meeting where they discuss the invasion of Romulus. One problem: the Senator figures out it's fake and plans to go back to his government with the news that the Federation attempted to deceive them. If that happens, they might enter the war AGAINST Starfleet and the Klingons.

Fortunately Garak has a solution. He plants a bomb on the Senator's shuttle and blows it up, killing five people. Sisko's incensed when he finds out and confronts Garak, but Garak says that it's worked out perfectly. The Senator's meeting was secret, and so the Romulans will assume the hit came from the DOMINION. Better still, when they recover the data rod with the fake recording, they'll assume anything imperfect about the recording will be the result of the explosion. It will look like the Senator uncovered vital intel and was killed for it, adding to its authenticity. And aside from those lives, all it cost "was the self-respect of ONE Starfleet officer."

He's right. The Romulans join the Klingons and Federation, and their forces are enough to turn the tide. Because of this, the Dominion stands a better chance of being defeated.

Over the course of the episode, to make this scheme happen, Sisko has been a party to bribery, extortion, forgery and assassination. And as he tells us at the end. "I can live with it."

This never would have happened on Star Trek: The Next Generation, where the only lead character to come even close to making morally questionable choices was Worf. On TNG, either Picard would have swayed the Romulans with an unrealistically persuasive speech, or there would have been a last-minute recovery of a real recording. The Enterprise crew were good guys who never had to get their hands TOO dirty. Morality on Picard's ship is black and white, while Sisko lives in a world full of shades of grey.

And that's what made DS9 more fascinating to me as a teenager. It seemed determined to test the boundaries of what Star Trek could be, both inside and outside the narrative. Characters sometimes made horrible choices and weren't always exonerated by their circumstances. They failed, they learned, they grew. It made them feel more like people rather than stiff representatives of a point of view who rarely changed week-to-week. As a long-time viewer, it was rewarding to see long-term stories build. Seemingly disconnected threads would come together in a tapestry that eventually used the backdrop of the Dominion War to explore all sides of their characters.

Don't get me wrong. I love TNG. It has some of my favorite hours of TV. But if we're talking about the show that made me go, "Damn, I'd like to write THAT," it's Deep Space Nine all the way. Over the years, the show explored issues like terrorism, faith, religious fundamentalism, homosexuality, and much more.

DS9 also stoked my TV writing interest in another way. One of the writers, Ronald D. Moore, used to answer fan questions on an AOL discussion board on a fairly regular basis. It's hard to remember this in the age of Twitter, where every writer and writers' room has their own twitter account, but there didn't used to be this sort of ongoing dialogue with TV creators. Moore was one of the few, and DS9's Robert Hewitt Wolfe was one of the others. Beyond that, there weren't many peeks behind the curtain outside of magazine articles.

Moore ended up answering a lot of questions about the process of writing and producing TV. I learned a lot about breaking and developing story from those Q and As, lessons I applied a few years later when I started producing my own half-hour drama series in college. I wrote Ron Moore a fan letter at that point and was stunned a few weeks later when he tracked me down to call me at home. That full story is here if you want to read it.

And of course, Moore went on to create the revival of Battlestar Galactica, a show with absolutely became a commentary on Bush-era politics, this time intentionally. It's hard not to see BSG as a descendant of DS9, and a reaction to Star Trek: Voyager.

Deep Space Nine will always be a big part of my journey to becoming a writer. It's just great drama dealing with great ideas. Star Trek has never produced anything else like it.

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