Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Why I Love Deep Space Nine

Celebrating the five full decades of Star Trek should be a yearlong event, so I thought I would spread the love of all things Trek. Previously in this series I wrote about why I love the Original Series and then why I loved the Next Generation. Next up, Captain Benjamin Sisko and the diverse crew of Deep Space Nine.

In 1993 we were introduced to a new type of Star Trek. Instead of being the adventures of the Enterprise and her crew, the focus would be the happenings of a space station with a motley crew of Starfleet officers and their Bajoran counterparts. The station, named Deep Space Nine, would find itself on the edge of a stable wormhole, and soon the focal point of intergalactic interest. What would follow would be seven seasons of intriguing characters, fascinating stories, and another chapter in the Star Trek universe. Deep Space Nine became a very unusual entry in the world of Star Trek. It was the first time that two Trek series would be on the air at the same time. Being set in the same era as the Next Generation, there was room for some good cross-overs, starting with Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the pilot. It brought certain species into the forefront of the mythos, most notably the Cardassians, the Bajorans, the Ferengi, and the Trill. Some fans looked at this new show as the Black Sheep of the family as it seemed to depart a bit from the usual “everyone in the Federation gets along” motif. Instead, there was more conflict among the main characters. There was more grit and less polish in the set. The stories were a bit darker in tone. People did not get along to the same level as we had seen in Trek up to this point. Building relationships was a lot dirtier than we had been accustomed to. For many of the fans, it felt more realistic. Less utopian, but more realistic. For seven years we were treated to powerful story-telling, intense action, and compelling characters. The third live-action series was a great ride, and it was one of my favorite series of all time. Here are Five Reasons I Love Deep Space Nine.

1.     The Dominion – While not always a sure hit, the Dominion provided something that had not been seen in the Trek for a while; a worthy adversary. The Original Series had the Klingons and the Romulans. The Next Geneartion continued with the Romulans and tried out the Ferengi and, more successfully, the Borg. Deep Space Nine had started with the Cardassians, then introduced the Maquis, and even mixed it up with the Klingons again, but it wasn’t until the Dominion that we had a really tough villain to go up against. One of the things I loved most about the Dominion was that they weren’t just automatically the military aggressors. They started with mystery, intrigue, and espionage. Then, in the Season 2 finale, the Dominion roared into the fray with the episode “The Jem’Hadar”. In the third season, we see that Odo is one of the Founders, the changeling race that created the Dominion, and we see a great story arc for our Constable. It was because of the Dominion that we saw some of the greatest fleet battles, something which we had never seen before or since. It was because of the Dominion that we finally got to see the Federation, the Klingons and the Romulans form an awesome alliance. We had seen super soldiers in the past, but the Jem’Hadar took the concept to the highest level. We had seen manipulators in the past, but the Vorta proved to be masters of the craft. No other adversary took the Federation so close to the brink, and the Dominion was a huge reason many of us came back week after week.

2.     Secondary characters – I wrote an article that ranked the different series in their ability to develop secondary characters. It should be little surprise that Deep Space Nine reigned supreme in this category. So many amazing and fascinating characters came and went from our beloved space station. We saw great devious villains like Dukat, Weyoun, and Kai Winn. We found delightful humor in the likes of Grand Nagus Zek and Brunt. There were mighty warriors like Martok and Shakar. We also had some fascinating character development from some unlikely sources. Damar, going from Cardassian officer to Dominion puppet to resistance fighter was so multi-faceted. Plain, simple Garak became anything but. Nog, who went from thieving youth to promising Starfleet cadet. The list of compelling characters included everything from the loveable Rom who was often taken advantage of by his brother Quark to Klingon leader Gowron, who grew more in Deep Space Nine than in Next Generation, to a self-aware hologram who could croon the classics in Vic Fontaine. Heck, there was Morn, a popular character who appeared in over ninety episodes, even had his own episode, and he never spoke a word. These characters played excellent foils to our main cast and are a big reason for the success of the series.

3.     Fantastic storytelling – Like all series, every episode was not a home run. There were a few stinkers, but when you look at the depth of powerful stories, it’s easy to forgive those. One of the strengths of the series was that while most episodes were stand-alone tales, the thread of the overall story was skillfully woven throughout the seven seasons. We saw some real gems that dealt with real issues. Racism, specifically Earth’s racist history, was dealt wonderfully in the classic “Far Beyond the Stars”. PTSD was deftly treated by Nog’s coming to grips with his lost leg in “It’s Only a Paper Moon”. The horrors of war were grimly shown in great tales such as “Nor the Battle to the Strong” and “The Seige of AR-558” (where Nog lost his leg). We see excellent character examinations in greats like “In the Pale Moonlight” and “Doctor Bashir, I Presume”. We laugh at the fun had in “Take Me Out to the Holosuite” and cry during the most touching episodes of all “The Visitor”. The storytelling in DS9 was exemplary and continued on this great Trek tradition. The list of great episodes goes on and on, but when one watches the show from the solid pilot “Emissary” to the amazing finale “What You Leave Behind”, it is easy to see why the fans of this show are so enthusiastic about it.

4.     Respect to the past – Many detractors argue that the different tone of the series was disrespectful to the legacy of the franchise. I strongly disagree. No other series in the Trek universe showed as much respect to TOS and TNG as DS9 did. Now, don’t get me wrong. TNG showed proper respect with “Relics” and “Sarek”, as well as great moments between the likes of Data and McCoy and Picard and Spock, but Deep Space Nine took it to another level. Think of the inclusion of classic Klingon characters Kang, Koloth, and Kor in the superbly done episode “Blood Oath”. The show gave Chief O’Brien the focus he deserved. Many argue that Worf was able to grow in so many ways that were difficult to do while he was serving on the Enterprise. What the writers did with the Mirror Universe that was introduced in the Original Series classic “Mirror, Mirror” was stupendous. I think, however, the best argument can be made with the best crossover episode “Trials and Tribbleations”. It took the classic tale of “The Trouble with Tribbles” and spliced Sisko and his crew in the actual footage. Great lengths were made to ensure that everything was just right, from the costumes and hairstyles to the sets and props. While Voyager had their own great crossover episode, Deep Space Nine hit a grand slam with this one.

5.     Ben Sisko – I love Captain Sisko. I think he is my favourite of all the captains. Don’t get me wrong, Kirk and Picard are fantastic, but Sisko was a very different captain, and it was necessary to keep the franchise fresh. I will admit that I didn’t always feel this way about Sisko. I thought in the first season and a half that the character had a lot of growth to do. A good part of it was how the character was written, a portion due to Avery Brooks trying to find the right rhythm with him. I would argue that once the writing and the acting meshed together in the perfect mix, Sisko became the man to look up to and admire. Q visited the station once, and Sisko knocked him flat on his rear end. I loved that. Sisko was a diplomat and a soldier. He had honor when dealing with his enemies (see “Rocks and Shoals” for a prime example). He was fiercely loyal to his friends and family, devoted to Starfleet, but he also had flaws. Kirk and Picard were almost too perfect, which is why they are so iconic, but Sisko had weaknesses that made him more realistic. He was the Emissary of the Prophets and the Starfleet officer who saved the Alpha Quadrant from the Dominion. He was a mentor to the first Ferengi in Starfleet and the next incarnations of his Trill mentor. He made decision on logic and passion. He had pride that sometimes worked in his favour, but sometimes it led him to make mistakes. In the episode “In the Pale Moonlight” he showed that he could dirty with the best of the scoundrels. In “Take Me Out to the Holosuite” he showed he could admit when he was wrong. Most of all, in my eyes, he was the best father depicted onStar Trek. His relationship with Jake was one of the best relationships in the show. Look no farther than “The Visitor” for proof. Some may argue that Deep Space Nine was a long story about Benjamin Sisko. I have no problem with that.

And there you are, my Top 5 Reasons for Loving Deep Space Nine. There are likely many reasons for loving this show, so please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments. If there is a special episode you would like me review, feel free to suggest it and I’ll get to it as soon as I can. Next up, Star Trek Voyager!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Why I Love the Next Generation

Celebrating the five full decades of Star Trek should be a yearlong event, so I thought I would spread the love of all things Trek. Previously in this series I wrote about why I love the Original Series. Next up, Picard and his crew aboard the USS Enterprise D and my Five Reasons for why I love the Next Generation!

It’s hard to imagine that TNG is almost 30 years old. For me, this is the series that I grew up with. I remember the excitement of hearing about a new Star Trek series, and in 1987 we began a seven year journey that furthered the story and ideology of creator Gene Roddenberry. Sadly, it was during the height of TNG that we would lose Gene, but he was able to see a renaissance of the franchise that has carried it forward for decades to come. So, in continuation of my reasons for loving all things Trek, I give you my Five Reasons for loving what became not only a worthy successor to the Original series, but arguably the most successful series in the franchise.

1.     Familiar, yet new – Whenever there is a sequel to a popular series, fans are anxious because they want to see that which is familiar, but not have it be a blatant copycat of the original. TNG achieved this in grand style. The ship is still the Enterprise with a familiar approach to the design, but is now the flagship and much sleeker. While Kirk and Picard are definitely different as captains, there is a familiarity in Riker’s charm and swagger that reminds us of good ol’ James T. Even the uniforms are familiar yet updated, with the same basic colors (red, gold, and blue), just a bit of switching (how many of you were originally concerned that all captains now wore red shirts!). It brought us a sense that yes, this is Star Trek, but it is also something new and exciting.

2.     Star Trek became cool in mainstream – The Original Series was cancelled after three years (and we were lucky to get the third season) due to low ratings. While you will get no argument from me that Star Trek was and continues to be influential, the franchise really jumped into the mainstream midway through the Next Generation. TNG became a ratings juggernaut, which was impressive for a syndicated series. Soon, it was beating out all comers, including the traditional powerhouse Monday Night Football. When it ended its seven year run (which became the unofficial bar for all future series to meet), it went out on top. Many thought it could have gone on for a few more, but people were hoping to turn it into a successful film franchise. TNG helped a lot in making it cool to be a Trekkie. I can think of no bigger endorsement for Star Trek than to have Whoopi Goldberg request to be a part of the show. To have an Oscar-winning A-lister Hollywood want to be a large part of the franchise says something, and she was not alone.

3.     A strong main cast and the characters they played – I love the original crew, but the show revolved around the triad of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy for the most part. On TNG, an equally diverse cast spread the love a little more evenly. We had stories dedicated to each of the main crew, and the actors who played them were solid. Gates McFadden gave the compassionate Dr. Crusher a level of strength that helped her character grow. Levar Burton brought a level of vulnerability and eagerness to Geordi. Michael Dorn brought depth and respect to our favourite Klingon, Worf. Marina Sirtis gave Troi a fierce conviction. Johnathan Frakes brought a sense of professionalism and charm to Riker. Arguably the strongest actors were Brent Spiner, whose portrayal of Data required such great discipline, and Sir Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard, taking the leadership role to a new realm. Many of these fine actors brought their theatre training as one of their assets, and after watching an episode like “Frame of Mind”, “Brothers”, or “The Inner Light”, we can see just how great an asset it was.

4.     Story telling ahead of its time – Ask anyone for their top 10 favorite Trek episodes, and there will most likely be some real gems from TNG. “The Inner Light”, “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, “Relics”, “The Measure of a Man”, “The Offspring”, “The Drumhead”, and the list goes on. And let’s not forget the classic “The Best of Both Worlds” that kept audiences trembling with anticipation for an entire summer, desperate to know the fate of Picard in what is arguably one of the best cliffhangers of all time. Yes, there were some duds (looking at you, Code of Honor), but we had a good mix of wonderful tales that kept us coming back each week. We dealt with the death of beloved crew member in “Skin of Evil”, tackled themes such as sexual identity, torture, terrorism, and what constitutes life. The stories also, and appropriately, brought us the odd tip of the hat to the original crew, with episodes like “Sarek” and “Unification”. Suffice it to say, the stories were more often than not very well told.

5.     It has to be Q – From the first to the last episode, Q has been there. John de Lancie appeared in eight separate episodes and each one were memorable. OK, so “Hide and Q” may not have been the best episode (it was one of de Lancie’s least favourite), but we did see Wesley get the point! All bad puns aside, Q was often one of the highlights of the season. We had the silly fun Q stories (Deja Q and Q-Pid), the serious tales (Q Who and True Q), and the truly philosophical (Tapestry). And while the crew were ultimately frustrated by this omnipotent rascal, we the audience were delighted. I particularly thought that the pilot and series finale being the ultimate bookend to the introduction to Q was perfect for the series. Q was a perfect foil for Picard and gave us some great moments. Whether it was his banter with the crew (“Growl for me micro-brain! Show me you still care!”), introducing us to the Borg, trading verbal barbs with Guinan (likely my second most favourite guest character) or teaching Picard about the value of a life lived without regret, Q was always a welcome visitor to the show.

So there you go, my Top 5 reasons as to why I love the Next Generation. I have many others, and I am sure that you have your own Top 5 list. Please feel free to share the reasons you love Picard and the crew of the Enterprise D. If you want to know what my Top Ten favorite TNG episodes are, check out this link.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Episode Review - Mirror, Mirror (Original Series, Season 2)

For those who are new to my episode reviews, you can find the post where I establish my point criteria here.

Episode Overview – While beaming back from a meeting with the Halkan people, Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura experience a transporter malfunction that places them in a parallel universe. The United Federation of Planets has been replaced with the Terran Empire. In addition to a bearded Spock, officers in Starfleet use brutality to advance their orders, assassinations to advance in rank, and seek strength at all costs. Kirk and his officers try to return to their universe while trying to avoid being killed at the hands of the counterparts to their shipmates.

Episode Score – 9/10. What a great episode. Such a fun way to have the actors play someone very different from their characters. The whole “evil twin” scenario is expanded to the entire universe. While there are some obvious similarities between the two universes (e.g. the Halkans are the same in their desire for peace, even at the cost of their own lives), the rest is almost day and night. We do get a brief glimpse of Kirk’s counterpart in the Prime universe, and it would have been nice to see more of how he and the others were, but it is sadly only a one hour show. Some cool differences include Sulu, complete with facial scar, as head of security, and the new uniforms. My one complaint is that some of the counter parts of the main characters were spared a death when it did not make sense. I am speaking of Chekov and Sulu. While Chekov being spared by Kirk can be explained as Kirk trying to spare the life of someone who looked like one of his friends, Sulu’s is a bit more of a stretch. In his last scene, Sulu confronts Kirk and the others in sickbay, with a squad of security guards, start to disappear due to the interference by the Captain’s woman, Marlena Monroe. She dispatches the security guards, but not Sulu. Still, with that one flaw, I think the episode is rightfully one of Trek’s finest.

Relevance – 3 points. Consider that this episode sets the stage for five Deep Space Nine episodes, an exciting two-part Enterprise episode, and several non-canon novels and comics, this is a very influential episode on the Trek universe. Two points scored for the connections to both Enterprise and DS9. A third point for the last scene of the episode which is used in the DS9 “Trials and Tribble-ations” episode where Sisko replaces Monroe in the scene.

Continuity – 3 points. Character continuity, check. Kirk acts in a way we come to expect from the captain. Even Mirror Spock is true to his Prime universe counterpart. Story continuity works well. Being the first episode shown in this universe, it sets the stage for the rest, but there are no contradictions. We also have the Trek universe showing continuity, so the third point is well earned.

Character Development – 2 points. No major growth for any one character, but a lot of highlighting well-established growth in more than a few characters. Uhura shows some vulnerability to her Captain, but when she is needed she brings on the strength. Kirk shows his quick-thinking as he tries to do the right thing in a universe where doing so could cost him and his crew their lives. Even Spock gets a great moment at the end where he gets a great zinger off on Kirk and McCoy.

Social Commentary – 1 point. As is common for some of these great episodes, it is tough to put my finger on a message being given. Perhaps the idea that there is the capacity of evil in all of us, just based on what environment you are raised in.

Cool Factor – 3 points. Seeing the evil counterparts of the crew is definitely a highlight. I scored a second point for the detail that was given to even the simplest differences (e.g. the ship’s computer having a female voice in our universe while a male voice in the mirror universe). The third point goes to some of the technology shown in the mirror universe, such as the agony booth, the agonizers, and especially the Tantalus device.

Rank Admiral (21 points). One of the gems of the Original Series. Especially if you are watching DS9 and/or Enterprise, this episode would be a high recommendation, but even in spite of that it is a must see.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

50 Years Ago, In the Great White North

While many people will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Star Trek airing for the first time on NBC this Thursday, September 8, today marks the actual 50th anniversary of the very first time that Star Trek hit the air anywhere. On September 6, 1966, the episode "The Man Trap" was aired for the first time... in Canada. With no disrespect meant for the rest of the world, Canada got the first view of what has become one of the greatest science fiction franchises and arguably the most influential piece of pop culture.

William Shatner at the Calgary Comic Expo, April 2016

Canada loves Star Trek, and we have made our fair contributions to it. From great actors like William Shatner and James Doohan in the original series, to Nicole de Boer of Deep Space Nine, plus many notable guest stars, to countless who worked behind the scenes, Canadians left their mark on this great franchise, and it seems fitting that the new series, Star Trek Discovery, is going to be filmed in Toronto. Oh, and let's not forget the unofficial Star Trek capital of Canada, if not the world, Vulcan Alberta, where the pharmacy has all the doctors on the wall, the tourist station is full of Trek props, and city hall is known as Starfleet headquarters.

The Enterprise that greets you to Vulcan, Canada

Trek has given us the odd nod from time to time. Wesley Crusher went skiing in Calgary with his cadet buddies. Toronto's city hall was one of the places that showed up in the Iconian gateway (if Picard hadn't known that the bridge of the Enterprise had shown up, I'm sure he would have happily stepped out into Toronto). Michael Eddington had a lucky loonie, and Sam Lavelle, whose grandfather was Canadian, thought that Riker was also Canadian because he was so awesome (sadly, Will was from Alaska, which is geographically closer to Canada than any of its amazing state brethren).  

Stamp collection to honor 50 years of Trek

So, on this historic day, grab a glass of Canada Dry, a handful of maple-flavoured Timbits, pop in the first season DVD with the Man Trap, and sing a little "O Canada" as the intro music plays. All hailing frequencies open on the ship with the registry number NCC-1701-EH! 

Sorry, I couldn't resist that last bit.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Star Trek Episode Analysis - The Jem'Hadar (DS9 Season 2)

For those who are new to my episode reviews, you can find the post where I establish my point criteria here.

Sisko, Quark, and Edirs confront their captors
Episode Overview – Jake and Nog get a chance in a lifetime when Commander Sisko offers to take them to the Gamma Quadrant to survey a planet as part of a school project. Much to Sisko’s chagrin, Quark accompanies them. While on the planet Ben Sisko and Quark are taken prisoner by a new species, the powerful Jem’Hadar, who claim to be a part of the Dominion. As the two adults try to set aside their differences to escape, Jake and Nog seek to get back to Deep Space Nine and find help.

Quark has a proposal for the commander

Episode Score – 8/10. This is an exciting episode that not only effectively ends the second season but sets us up for the Dominion War, which will become one of the great events of the series. While not an official cliff-hanger episode that we became accustomed to in TNG, it does leave us with a great deal of anticipation about the next season. This is an episode that has a great deal of action while at the same time gives us some great character development. There is great dialogue between Sisko and Quark, and Jake and Nog get some good screen time.

Jake and Nog try to find help in a Runabout

Relevance – 3 points. This episode is one of those crossroad episodes that serves as a major transition in the series. Some (myself included) see this episode as a crucial switch from the excitement of exploring a new region of space to something that is darker and a bit on the ominous side. The Dominion had been mentioned in the episode “The Rules of Acquisition”, and leading up to this episode the Dominion became like spectre in the distance, dark and lurking, waiting to strike. Well, in this episode, it strikes, and in a big way. In this episode, we meet the Jem’Hadar, the Vorta, and hear mention of the Founders. We see that the Dominion will do anything to make a statement. They have been watching the Federation for a while, and it’s time to take things up to a new level.

Quark catches his sleeve on fire

Continuity – 2 points. Character continuity scores a point. Quark does whatever he can spin a deal, and Sisko has a lot of mistrust towards Quark. As Quark so effectively points out, Sisko has a prejudice against Ferengi, and realizing it doesn’t sit well with him. Jake and Nog continue to grow as characters and their friendship grows as well. Story continuity gets a point as well. Everything follows what it should. Where this episode loses a point is in the continuity of the Trek universe. While it will not be established until the next season, the Vorta introduced here will not be the Vorta we come to love to hate. Edris uses telekinetic powers, which were cool, but were never seen again. It was also odd that when she meets Odo, she does not identify him with the reverence that Vorta typically show towards a Founder. According to Ira Steven Behr, this is because it had not been decided that Odo was going to be a member of the Founders.

Talak'Talon, the first Jem'Hadar we meet

Character Development – 3 points. Lots of progression in the development of characters. While little of it is Earth-shattering, we see Sisko confronted with his dislike of Ferengi (and of Quark in particular). Quark, while being his  usual greedy self, does manage to find some common ground with Sisko and shows that they can be an effective team. We also continue to see Jake and Nog grow in their characters and friendship. Where his father sees all Ferengi as trouble, Jake sees Nog as something more, something worthy to help. Nog tries to be more than the stereotypical Ferengi, and takes another step further along the path that will eventually take him towards the uniform.

Jambalaya around the campfire 

Social Commentary – 2 points. Amidst the action and excitement of the arrival of the Dominion, we are given a very timely lesson on the hazards of prejudism. When Quark confronts Sisko about his dislike of Ferengi, it hits too close to home for Sisko. He comes to the realisation that he sees the Ferengi not as an enemy, but something worse, as inferior. Because the Ferengi culture has a set of ideological beliefs that Federation culture has rejected, this somehow made Ferengi less than humans. Quark, thanks to a wonderful speech given to him by the writers, points out that while the Ferengi may have some flaws, they pale in comparison to the sins committed by humans in the past (siting slavery and wars). It’s a great moment where the Ferengi become more than a failed TNG villain.

Captain Keogh organizes a rescue mission with the DS9 officers

Cool Factor – 3 points. So much is cool in this episode. The Jem’Hadar show themselves as a tough foe to fight and are the first (official) face of the Dominion, which is impressive to say the least. The battle between the Jem’Hadar and the Odyssey is also a great battle, a sign of even greater things to come. At the time the Galaxy class starship was the top of the line in the fleet, and to see a Jem’Hadar ship take it out is a sight. I also thought the dialogue with Quark stating that Ferengi are better than humans because, despite their flaws of greed and the like, they never had anything like slavery or concentration camps in their history. It helps us put our perspective in place.

The Jem'Hadar wishing Sisko was a Klingon

 Rank Admiral (21 points). This is a very well-crafted episode and is a must watch on everyone’s list. It launches us into the Dominion storyline at warp speed and features great action, humor, and story-telling. We see some wonderful exchanges between Sisko and Quark that is both entertaining and enlightening. 

The USS Odyssey battles a Jem'Hadar attack ship
If you would like to read other reviews from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, please click the following link.

If you would like to read an episode review from any of the Trek series, click the following link to get to the series catalog. If the episode you want reviewed has not been done yet, then feel free to request it in the comments and I will see what I can do.