“Emissary” (season 1, episodes 1-2; originally aired 1/3/1993)
In which Benjamin Sisko loses a wife, but gains a wormhole
Benjamin Sisko is an angry man. There are a lot of those on TV these days, so maybe that doesn’t sound so important anymore, but it’s worth repeating: Benjamin Sisko is damn near furious. Jean-Luc Picard wasn’t exactly the friendliest man in the world in the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but he was more uncomfortable and irritable than outright mad. James T. Kirk, from the original Star Trek was an all around chummy dude. Now we have our new commander for our new series, and he’s black, which is a small but significant change of pace. He’s also really, really pissed off.
He has his reasons. He’s the first Trek lead we’ve had with a legitimately Tragic Past: his wife, Jennifer, died three years ago. Worse, she died during the Borg’s devastating attack on the Federation, an attack led by Locutus, a.k.a. the briefly assimilated Captain Picard. “Emissary” tries to make some hay out of this in the two semi-confrontational scenes between Sisko and Picard (included mostly so Deep Space Nine could get some proximity-mojo from the then-airing TNG), and it’s not one of the pilot’s stronger gambits; Sisko does barely restrained resentment well enough, but there’s no real place for that resentment to go, dramatically speaking. Anyone familiar enough with Picard to know the resolution of “Best Of Both Worlds” already knows how he suffered for it, and how little any of what happened was his fault; if you don’t know TNG history, it’s unlikely you’ll be much enthused by a protagonist growling politely at a barely relevant guest star.
Still, while Sisko’s issues with Picard aren’t all that compelling, the obvious discomfort the man feels within the framework of the Federation is important. Sisko isn’t precisely an outsider, but, as he explains to Picard early on, he begins this episode nearly convinced he should leave Starfleet for good and take up the civilian life back on Earth. It’s not exactly surprising when he changes his mind before the end credits, because spending an hour and a half introducing a protagonist, only to have him wave goodbye forever before episode two, isn’t good TV writing. But it’s important that he was thinking about quitting, because it sets a certain tone. Captains Kirk and Picard were defined by their commitment, and their loyalty to the Enterprise. Sisko is not, at least not yet. This indicates a basic shift in intention that runs throughout the entirety of “Emissary.” The people we meet here (most of whom aren’t actually “people” in the traditional sense) aren’t uniformly happy, or satisfied with their jobs, or excited to be working together. Sisko isn’t the only angry member of the cast, and the tension these various frustrations create when they collide against each other shows promise. Up until now, Star Trek has focused on individuals coming together for a purpose greater than themselves. DS9 will most likely still be about this to some extent, but this is a disparate ensemble; each person in it has their own goals, and their own needs. Great drama comes from the opposition of understandable viewpoints, and there’s a lot of potential present in this episode. If only we didn’t spend so much time getting all mystical.
“Emissary” is a pilot episode, and “pilot episodes” tend to bring a certain amount of baggage along with them. This one runs double the size of a regular episode, and much of its length is given over to the usual table-setting one finds in a series première. We meet our ensemble, we establish the primary setting, we introduce potential conflicts, some of which will pay off in later episodes, some of which will most likely be forgotten before the end of the season. There’s a story arc that helps bring everyone together in the face of a common enemy, a temporary cooperation which, while not precluding arguments and contention down the line, at least indicates that our heroes are capable of working together, even if they don’t always want to. “Emissary” debuted in 1993, right around the middle of TNG’s sixth season, and there’s a level of professionalism right off the bat which wasn’t present in TNG’s first episode, “Encounter At Farpoint.” Where “Farpoint” had to both re-introduce Trek to television after a 20 year absence, as well as convince an audience they could enjoy Trek without Kirk or Spock or the rest, DS9 comes to us in a world where all of this is basically a given. By 1993, the Trek-verse was an established commodity, which meant it was time to start bending the line.
That confidence shows, and while it’s clear these actors will get more comfortable with their roles as time goes by, there’s a gratifying lack of the sort of clumsiness that typified early TNG. “Emissary”’s plot, at least the non-Emissary elements, works in a standard nuts-and-bolts, let’s see how these underdogs can kick a bit of ass kind of way. Sisko arrives at the station, and he learns from Chief Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney, a cast-off from TNG, and a smart choice for this show; O’Brien was a welcome presence on Picard’s Enterprise, but he was rarely given much to do) that the Cardassians wrecked up the place before they left. Sisko’s first officer, Major Kira (Nana Visitor) is a Bajoran with an understandable chip on her shoulder, and truth be told, hardly anyone on the station is all that excited to have a new Federation representative to boss them around. On top of that, the Cardassians, who are tricky bastards to say the least, haven’t exactly “left;” they lurk at the edges of the quadrant, just waiting for an excuse to swoop in and start shooting. After the comparative stability of TNG (where bad things happened, but there was always a status quo to return to), DS9 gives us a world that needs more than speeches and idealism to get back on the right track.
I have a few minor complaints with “Emissary,” and one big one. The small stuff is to be expected in a pilot. The dialogue is heavy-handed in spots, and some of the performances aren’t quite there yet. I like Avery Brooks as Sisko, but there’s an occasional awkwardness to his work, like he isn’t quite sure where to put his feet. In his defense, he’s asked to do a lot of heavy lifting over the course of the hour and a half, and Sisko is, at times, supposed to be a bit crazed. I realize Kira is an intense character by nature, but Visitor’s intensity can border on hysteria, and Alexander Siddig’s Bashir is almost a non-entity. It’s difficult to introduce a cast this large without a certain level of “Let’s stop and explain ourselves,” though, and while it’s not perfect, there are no obvious weak links here to give me concerns about the weeks ahead.
For much of its first season, TNG relied heavily on Patrick Stewart’s talent and presence to help carry an inexperienced and unproven cast, but DS9’s ensemble is fairly deep even on first introduction. Brooks is, essentially, good; I already know Siddig gets more to do as the show goes on; and while Visitor is corny in spots, I appreciate her passion. I especially appreciate that the show has two strong female characters right off the bat, which is something Trek has often struggled with in its many incarnations. Terry Farrell’s Dax carries herself with the appropriate self-assurance of a creature who’s been alive (in some form or another) for a very long time; Rene Auberjonois does excellent work under a lot of make-up as the ambiguously speciesed Odo, Deep Space Nine’s law man and resident sour-puss (he even mostly sells the incredibly awkward, “I HAVE A MYSTERIOUS PAST” info dump); and Armin Shimerman is the first Ferengi I’ve seen who isn’t immediately awful. In fact, I found Quark to be fun right off the bat. He may be greedy and treacherous as Ferengi so often are, but he wasn’t sniveling or cowardly, and this is clearly a show that enjoys having as much gray area as it can. And of course Colm Meaney is great. He’s always great. I even liked him in Con Air.
These are fascinating individuals, and while none of them are perfectly drawn, we get enough sense of their various drives and insecurities to make me eager to watch them bounce off one another. My biggest reservation about “Emissary” isn’t the cast, then, or the meat-and-potatoes nature of much of the writing. My problem is with the part of the story that gives the episode its title, the revelation that Commander Sisko is a prophesied connection between the people of Bajor and a group of aliens living inside a nearby wormhole. For the first 20 or so minutes, “Emissary” moves along at a decent clip, a bit rough around the edges, a trifle clumsy, but clearly setting down the necessary tracks to get things rolling. Then Sisko has to go meet up with the Bajoran religious leader Kai Opaka, and she shows him the Tear of the Prophet, and things go a bit pear-shaped.
It’s not that this is awful, exactly. It’s just unnecessary. Sisko already had his hands full dealing with the problems inherent in taking over command of Deep Space Nine. He didn’t need a lot of mystical claptrap, including long-form flashbacks and extensive debates over the nature of time. We don’t need it, either. The best parts of DS9’s first episode take some of TNG’s strongest conceits—the importance of consequences, the difficulties in negotiating strong relationships between different species with different ideals—and expand on them, without shying away from the darker side of politicking and compromise. The greatness isn’t there yet, but there are hints of it throughout, most notably in the fact that this is a show about sticking around after the adventures are over, and after the ambassadors have left. The Federation is considering Bajor for membership, and now it’s up to Sisko to hang out with a few other officers and try to rebuild with some locals who are understandably suspicious of outsiders. There’s a rawness there which speaks to Q’s trial of humanity in “Encounter At Farpoint;” will these individuals learn to rise above their prejudices and fears and become a functioning unit? And even if they do, will that be enough to weather the trials ahead?
That’s exciting stuff, and watching Sisko negotiate the backroom deals necessary to get Deep Space Nine up and running again sold me on the show far more thoroughly than the 20-minute discussion of memory and linear progression the Commander had with the wormhole aliens. Sisko’s efforts to uncover the mystery of the magical orbs, and his interactions with the beings who sent those orbs, are the weakest part of the episode, because it’s all very silly and inert, and because it fits so neatly into our expectations of what television science fiction is “supposed” to be. Character drama is set to one side so an outside force can swoop in and force our leading man to deal with his issues. The sequences with Kira and O’Brien attempting to bluff a superior Cardassian force are thrilling, and help establish that this space station is not the weapons powerhouse that the Enterprise was. The sequences with Sisko using baseball to explain why humans don’t know what happens next are… actually, they’re sort of fun, but they aren’t necessary, and every time the show shifts its focus, it feels like were losing sight of everything that made DS9 such a breath of fresh air in the first place.
Yet hope remains. Of all the Trek pilots I’ve seen (all three of them), DS9 is the one most rife with possibility. The setting is unusual, and cast is strong, and the conflicts are there; everything just needs a little more flesh. I’m not sold on Sisko as a “chosen one," but I recognize the plot possibilities the wormhole brings to the series. I also appreciate the sense, right from the start, that this is a story which isn’t going to be resolved any time soon. I don’t want to spend the next seven seasons watching Sisko teach memory jumping morons, but I do appreciate the already inherent assumption that events on DS9 will be on-going. No reset buttons here, no convenient forgetting or warp drive. TNG dabbled in serialization, but DS9 is set to embrace it. We get to see what happens next. I, for one, can’t wait.
- Welcome to TV Club Classic’s coverage of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), the third Trek series, and the first not to take place on some version of the starship Enterprise. Or any starship at all, in fact—DS9 is set on the titular space station, a former Cardassian outpost orbiting the planet Bajor which has come into Federation hands. Some of you have been following along with my Trek reviews since I covered the original series, or else joined up when we took a look at TNG; welcome back, good to have you on board again, help yourself to the cake. Some of you may be new here, and if so, happy to have you as well. This should be an interesting experience for me, because unlike the original Trek and TNG, I know very little about DS9. I’m familiar with the characters, I’ve seen a handful of episodes, but while I’ve heard the series praised for its serialization and intensity, I haven’t experienced enough of it first hand to really know what I’m getting myself into. Which, after spending about three years covering various Trek-related topics, has me pretty stoked.
- You’ll notice there’s no grade for this episode. I’ve decided to drop them for the duration, as grading is nearly always stressful, and hardly ever relevant.
- Odd seeing Picard in the role of the unwanted authority here, although he had played the part a few times on his own show. He seems a little sad.
- It’s a small detail, but I love how even the temperature controls on the station aren’t working right.
- The actress who plays Sisko’s wife, Jennifer, isn’t very good. So maybe he should be thanking Picard, eh? Eh?
- “Shields up!” “What shields?”
Next week: We check out “Past Prologue” and visit “A Man Alone.”