What a waste it seems sometimes that I have all seven seasons of Deep Space Nine on DVD but haven't watched them all again. It's my favourite of the Star Trek series, after all. So now that's going to change.
I remember when the first Deep Space Nine episode, “The Emissary,” came on to my screen. What a Trek concept! A station rather than a ship, a weird planet that we had never seen before (though we had seen a few of its inhabitants in The Next Generation). With a few beginning scenes, we are shown that the Bajoran religion is going to be a big part of the series. Religion? In a Trek series? Wow. Was this going to work? Within a few weeks, Deep Space Nine had become my favourite Trek series of the three (at the time). Gene Roddenberry had proclaimed that humanity has learned to get along, so there would be little to no conflict between fellow Starfleet officers. While this is quite idealistic, it doesn’t make for very good drama. The producers of Deep Space Nine got around that by making half of main cast aliens, with conflicting viewpoints. Yay, conflict!! And interesting conflict it was. These characters showed that they could be friends and loyal to each other, yet still argue and come at problems from different, often conflicting sides.
All of these attributes are brilliantly shown in the premiere episode, “The Emissary.” The episode begins with a special FX extravaganza, featuring the Borg (led by a borg-ified Captain Jean-Luc Picard) attack on a bunch of Starfleet vessels at Wolf 359 (as seen in the Next Generation episode, “The Best of Both Worlds Part 2”). Commander Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks, who some of you may remember as Hawk from the Spenser for Hire series), first officer of the Saratoga, is one of the few remaining bridge crew after a direct hit to the bridge. He manages to get his son, Jake (Cirroc Lofton), out, but his wife, Jennifer (Felecia M. Bell), lies dead underneath the rubble in their quarters (which really makes you wonder about the logic of having civilians on Starfleet ships that are supposed to be going out into the dangers of the “unknown,” but that’s a rant for another series). As Ben and Jake’s escape pod moves away from the Saratoga, it explodes in a fireball, taking all of Sisko’s dreams with it.
This sequence has some of the most amazing television special FX that I have seen that weren’t computer-generated. It also contains one flaw that runs throughout the entire seven-year run of the series. As much as I love Avery Brooks as Sisko, he can tend to overact some of the more emotional moments. This was one of them. As he has to be dragged away from his dying wife, I think it he could have saved her by chewing away the scenery wreckage that was on top of her. Thankfully, this bit of overacting only lasted for a few seconds, so we are saved. Until the next one, of course (and there would be many).
Three years later, Sisko is assigned to command a space station orbiting the planet Bajor after it was abandoned by the Cardassians after sixty years of brutal occupation. Newly christened “Deep Space 9,” the station was a Cardassian mining station. Now, Sisko is charged with aiding the Bajorans in whatever way necessary to help guide them toward the ultimate goal: Federation membership. Sisko, however, doesn’t want to be here, and he blames Picard (Patrick Stewart) for his wife’s death. So to add the ultimate bit of salt into the wound, Picard is the one who gives Sisko the assignment. There is some nice tension between the two as Ben lets his disgust with Picard be known, and Picard lets him because he completely understands where Sisko is coming from.
After visiting the Bajoran spiritual leader, Kai Opaka (Camille Saviola), Sisko is charged with finding the Celestial Temple before the Cardassians do. He is given an orb, one of the gifts from the Prophets (inhabitants of the Celestial Temple). The other 8 orbs have been captured by the Cardassians. After some extensive research by Dax (Terry Farrell), she and Sisko take a runabout to look for it. Instead, they find a stable wormhole, a passage that ends up in the Gamma Quadrant, more than 70,000 light years away from Deep Space 9 (wormholes are notoriously unstable and disappear as fast as they come, which makes this unique). Sisko meets some strange beings inside, aliens who do not live in linear time, seeing every moment the same as every other moment. They have no concept of past, future, death, life, or anything else. Can Sisko convince the wormhole aliens that humanity means them no harm? And can he do so before the Cardassians, convinced that he has discovered something important, reduce the station to molten metal?
There are the obligatory introductory scenes, as with any series premiere. Relationships are established, characters are showcased and they tell us about themselves. One wonderful exception is Odo (Rene Auberjonois), who instead of telling us what he can do, shows us what he can do. We know nothing about him at the start, and when he stops a robbery on the Promenade, he uses his shape-shifting abilities to allow a weapon to pass right through his head. This was a much better introduction then most characters are given. One thing about the introductions that I really enjoyed (much better than Next Generation’s “Encounter at Farpoint”) is that while we are given some information on each of the characters, we don’t suffer from massive infodumps. We are allowed to get to know these characters over time, and are only given enough to make them interesting.
Even better, most of the character information is doled out as part of the plot, or in natural conversation. The best example of this is Dr. Julian Bashir’s (Siddig El Fadil) first meeting with Major Kira (Nana Visitor). Bashir goes on and on about wanting to practice “frontier medicine” and how he had his choice of assignments but he wanted to be out in “the wilderness.” Since this happens to be Kira’s home, she sarcastically brings him down to earth. This shows Kira’s Bajoran pride as well as her abrasiveness. It also clearly shows Bashir’s arrogance and his inability to think before he says things sometimes.
There are many other strengths here, most of which carry throughout the series. I loved the strong acting by the entire cast (bar Brooks’ occasional McScenery Meal). Especially notable is Marc Alaimo as Gul Dukat. Dukat becomes a recurring character in the series, and he more than earns it in this episode. He is the former prefect of the station, before the Cardassian withdrawal. He has one scene with Sisko, and it is crackling. Both Dukat and Sisko are hiding behind words, fencing fiercely (Dukat to find out what Sisko is up to with the orb and Sisko to deny him that knowledge). The dialogue is superb and Alaimo delivers it with an underlying menace beneath all the charm.
There were two character aspects I didn’t like, one of them being acting based and one being writing based. First, Felecia Bell is pretty wooden as Jennifer Sisko. Sure, she has to be when she is a wormhole alien (they take on various aspects of Sisko’s past when they talk to him), but she’s equally wooden as Jennifer herself. There is little chemistry between Brooks and her, and I saw no reason why Ben would be attracted to her other than the fact that he stumbled onto her when she was lying face-down on a beach towel with her bikini top unfastened.
Secondly, the good-bye scene between O’Brien (Colm Meaney) and Picard seemed very forced. They have served together for six years, and O’Brien really respects Picard. Yet other than Picard saying that he called down to the transporter room as if O’Brien were still the chief, there is no real personal connection between these two men. O’Brien doesn’t tell Picard that he respected him, or even that it was a pleasure serving under him. The words weren’t there, and Meaney and Stewart’s acting in the scene reflects that there is no real meat to it. I love Meaney’s acting, and he often ends up being the best actor on the show, but even he (along with a stellar actor in Stewart) couldn’t save this scene. It’s a shame, because it really served as a “changing of the guard,” much like Dr. McCoy’s appearance in “Encounter at Farpoint.”
My final complaint, and one that brings this episode down to 4 stars, is the wormhole aliens themselves. It seemed like every time Sisko said something, they would respond with “What is this?” Sisko would mention “time,” and they would say “Time. What is this?” It got really annoying really fast. The aliens’ remoteness required a certain amount of wooden acting, but that part did become irritating as well. Brooks did his best with these scenes, but it was like playing tennis with the wall. Necessary, but not a lot of fun to watch.
None of this prevents “The Emissary” from being the best Trek premiere up to that time (I thought Voyager’s “Caretaker” was better, though the series went downhill after that). It had a lot of interesting ideas, wonderful acting, the introducing of characters without the viewer being hit on the head with information, and enough tidbits to keep us watching subsequent episodes. It was also nice to see that the Bajoran religion would be a major part in the series, with everything we learned about it in this episode being intriguing.
A great start to a great series.
"Most people in my experience wouldn't know reason if it walked up and shook their hand. You can count Gul Dukat among them." - Odo