Friday, May 27, 2022

Star Trek: Emissary

Episode: "Emissary"
Series: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Season 1, Episodes 1 & 2
Original Air Date: January 3, 1993

Commander Benjamin Sisko takes charge of Deep Space 9, an abandoned Cardassian space station orbiting Bajor.  The Cardassians' long, brutal occupation of Bajor is finally over.  Starfleet hopes to preserve the fragile peace and prepare Bajor for admission to the Federation.  Unfortunately, Sisko isn't initially thrilled with the assignment.  He lost his wife three years before in the battle with the Borg at Wolf 359.  He still has not recovered emotionally and is understandably bitter, particularly towards Captain Picard (series-bridging cameo by Patrick Stewart).  

But there are a couple game-changing surprises in store for Sisko and his new crew.  First, Kai Opaka, the Barjoans' spiritual leader, tells Sisko he's the "Emissary," destined to find the Prophets' Celestial Temple.  Next, a stable wormhole is discovered nearby (Suez Canal equivalent?).  These two revelations, along with Sisko's spiritual experience within said wormhole, change the commander's outlook substantially on both the space station's significance and his own role to play in protecting it.

Yup, there's a lot going on in this first episode.  DS9 requires significant set up. It's a lot to take in and I haven't even gotten into the introductions of the other principals yet.  Long term, it's all worth it.  I'll spoil the surprise.  I adore DS9.  It's easily my favorite of the NextGen era series.  It's become a family favorite for all of us.  

The faithful were skeptical at first.  What's the point of a Star Trek show that mostly stays in one place?  But the faithful missed a weakness in the established premise of the franchise.  The Enterprise never sits with a problem for long.  Seemingly each week, our heroes visit a new planet, resolve a surface-level dilemma and move on.  Somebody will need to do the arduous, long-term work but it ain't gonna be us, suckers.

DS9 changed the rules.  Our new friends are stuck in the muck with the Bajorans and the answers aren't going to come cheap.  The new series lives on an emotional edge NextGen inches towards infrequently.  And it embraces a significant cultural element Trek has mostly avoided to this point: religion.  

The cast, almost across the board, is an upgrade.  With TNG's success, Star Trek was a much safer bet for an actor in 1993 than it had been six years earlier.  The writing is also improved, led by NextGen veterans ready to fly with new ideas, no longer limited by the Roddenberry vision.  Perhaps most importantly - and of course, it's impossible to see this in the premiere - adherence to concept was rock solid through seven seasons.

Okay, now it's time to play my game, as good a means as any for introducing the new characters.  When I started my NextGen posts, I matched each of the newbies with his/her closest predecessor in the original series.  Now, I'll take the next step and find each of the TNG leads a successor in DS9.  The older series still has more than a season left to go so passing the torch isn't quite the right metaphor.  Even so, for a character-driven operation, a touch of familiarity eases the transition.  As before, I will do my best to make my choice based on what we know from this first offering, setting aside future developments until their proper time.  And please remember, I am looking for similarities in narrative purpose as much as in personalities or professional roles.  This is an admittedly subjective and inexact science.  My matches are not always perfect, and it's worth noting the obvious differences plant seeds for new and exciting possibilities for Trek, just as they did with TNG.  I welcome debate.

Picard = Benjamin Sisko
Protagonist becomes protagonist.  Yet, right off the bat, Sisko is granted a reluctant hero narrative that sets him on a divergent path from that of the Enterprise captain.  Ben is also a family man, one with an obvious emotional life.  We don't see genuine, human vulnerability out of Jean-Luc until Season 4.  Sisko's composure doesn't even survive the first teaser.  

Patrick Stewart is probably a more skilled actor than Avery Brooks, an important exception to DS9's generally superior cast.  It's particularly difficult to deny that after Stewart's masterful performance in "Chain of Command, Part II."  But it's not exactly a slam dunk.  It's no stretch at all to assert that Sisko is a more interesting and dynamic character than Picard.  Brooks was given a lot more room to play and he made the most of it.

The overall lineage thus far: Kirk = Picard = Sisko

Riker = Kira
By the middle of Season 6, TNG is clearly a Picard-centric story.  Sure, plenty of episodes focus on other characters but for the overall scheme, each of the supporting principals is defined by their relationship with the captain.  Over time, DS9 feels less that way but for this first night experience, I'll try to follow the TNG model.

For me, Riker is the most difficult NextGen character to pin down but his relevance to the captain, at least, is clear from the beginning.  Riker is the friendly foil, the final check before Picard makes a decision.  Kira is the obvious equivalent for Sisko though initially, she's not so friendly.  Kira's not Starfleet.  She's a Bajoran freedom fighter and while the war is over, her rage hasn't dissipated much.  There's a lot of trust to build here.  Interpersonal tension among the Enterprise crew was deliberately avoided as a pillar of concept.  We're going to get plenty of it on Deep Space 9.

Kira's character was initially intended to be Ensign Ro Laren but actress Michelle Forbes didn't want to commit to a series.  For my money, Kira's an improvement - less pouty.

Scotty = Tasha Yar = Riker (née Willard Decker line) = Kira

Data = Bashir
This match is the trickiest.  Data does not have an obvious equivalent in DS9.  Bashir is a romantic, something Data could never be.  So, why the match?  Data is TNG's know-it-all nerd, ready to exhibit his boundless knowledge and abilities even when not remotely necessary.  While Bashir's motivations are different, he is equally eager to impress.  To his credit, like Data, he has plenty of substance to back up the bravado.

Spock = Data = Bashir

Worf = Odo
This one's easier.  Worf and Odo bring the same healthy paranoia to their security responsibilities.  They also share an Orphan Far from Home narrative.  Of course, on the space station, everyone not Bajoran is an alien but both Worf and Odo are alone in a way the others are not, without anyone from their own world on board.  At this point, Odo doesn't even know where his home world is or that there are others like him.  

Chekov = Worf = Odo

Dr. Crusher = Jake Sisko
Ha!  You thought I was going to say Jake derives from Wesley, didn't you?  No way.  For starters, Jake is a stronger character than Wes for the simplest and most wonderful of reasons: he's allowed to be a realistic person.  More importantly for this exercise, Jake is his father's most vital link to an emotional life.  In fact, in this regard, Jake plays a more essential role for Ben than Beverly ever does for Jean-Luc.

Uhura = Dr. Crusher = Jake Sisko

Troi = Dax
Dax is a wonderfully dynamic character, one who could have fit into other slots.  She's a little bit Riker, unafraid to challenge Sisko.  She's a little bit Crusher, an old friend connecting Ben to a simpler time in his past.  She even has a touch of Data, turning science geek on demand.  

By Season 6, Troi has been on a long journey to find relevance beyond eye candy.  It's the writers' fault, not the actress's, that it's taken so long.  The costuming department hasn't been much help either.  Even though Crusher and Riker are probably closer friends for Picard, Troi is his emotional confidant.  Dax is already that for Sisko.  Dax is the character Troi could have and should have been from the beginning.

Skipping back a step, Dax is also the clearest legacy from the Original Series.  NextGen never had a proper Bones equivalent of a true pal for the captain.  Dax renews that tradition.

McCoy = Troi = Dax

La Forge = O'Brien
Naturally, Miles O'Brien is already a familiar face as TNG's most frequently recurring secondary character.  Now a principal, he has increased relevance for the overall narrative.  By Season 6 of NextGen, Geordi La Forge is more than simply Reliable Tech Guy.  If the series has an everyman character, Geordi is it.  Sure, he's a whiz at the job but he's woefully clumsy with women and still gives off a charming, goofy guy around the office vibe.  He's the one you want to meet for a drink after your shift is over.  Miles inherits that mantel.

At this point, Geordi's friendship with Data is perhaps even more important than his direct connection with the captain.  It will take some time to develop but eventually, the same will be true of the relationship between Miles and Julian Bashir.

Sulu = La Forge = O'Brien

Guinan = Quark
Unfortunately for all involved, Whoopi Goldberg was never able to commit to Star Trek full time.  Guinan made a lot of her 29 appearances, though, leaving a meaningful legacy for the franchise in the long term.  She demonstrated the value of a character outside the command structure.  Guinan is a friend to Picard in a way the others cannot be.  Granted, Quark and Sisko aren't exactly buddies in the beginning but the commander sees the advantage in having an ally on the promenade.

It's fair to say the Ferengi never worked out as hoped for TNG.  They were intended to be the primary adversaries but in the end were little more than comic relief, and not even especially effective at that.  In DS9, they come into their own and it begins with Quark.  For the first time, we have a Ferengi character we can take seriously.


Acting Notes

Avery Brooks (Sisko) was born October 2, 1948 in Evansville, Indiana though he grew up in Gary.  His was a deeply musical family.  His mother was among the first African-American women to earn a master's degree in music from Northwestern.  His father was a member of the Wings Over Jordan Choir which performed regularly on CBS radio.  Brooks himself earned both a bachelor's and a master's degree in acting and directing from Rutgers University.

Brooks's stage resume is extensive.  He has played singer Paul Robeson (also a Rutgers grad) in two different plays: Paul Robeson and Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?  In the fine tradition of Star Trek leads, his Shakespeare cred is rock solid.  He has played Othello numerous times professionally.

Unlike Shatner or Stewart, Brooks already had an established career in American television before Trek came into his life.  In 1985, he took on the role of Hawk in Spenser: For Hire - based on a series of novels by Robert B. Parker - which in turn led to a short-lived spin-off series of his own, titled A Man Called Hawk.  He was one of over 100 actors to audition for the lead in Deep Space Nine.

Brooks has been married to his wife Vicki Bowen since 1976.  They have three children.

2 comments:

  1. I am one who never watched DS9. I admit, I was a snob but I am taking my nose off the air are flying above and start watching DS9 when I can find the first episode onward.

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    1. I never watched it when it originally aired. We binged it during COVID lockdown and fell in love.

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