"Past Prologue" (season 1, episode 3; originally aired 1/10/1993)
In which an old friend returns, and a new friend cuts right to the point…
I may not know everything about DS9, but I know enough to recognize an important recurring character when I see him. Andrew Robinson (best known as the Scorpio Killer in Dirty Harry, and the most miserable cuckold ever in Hellraiser) makes his debut appearance in “Past Prologue” as Garak, a Cardassian tailor who is almost certainly more than he seems. Garak is striking from his first scene, which also happens to be the first scene of the episode; he sits down with Dr. Bashir, introduces himself in a manner which can only be described as “playfully aggressive” (with emphasis on the latter), and sets to making friends. Partly it’s the script, which gives Garak ample opportunities to play up his ambiguity, and partly it’s Robinson. At this point, Garak is more idea than fully-formed character, but the actor manages to hit a note of intensity which is at once weirdly sexual and asexual. The Cardassian isn’t hitting on Bashir, not exactly, but there’s a flirtation, and a sense of an old pro putting the moves on a naive, well, virgin. Their developing “relationship” isn’t the centerpiece of “Past Prologue,” but it’s indicative once again of DS9’s willingness to keep people on their toes. Garak is a Cardassian, and Cardassians are not to be trusted; what’s more, he’s a spy, and spies are dangerous, treacherous folks. Except, he helps connect Bashir (and by extension Sisko and the rest of the main crew) to the relationship between a recently arrived Bajoran terrorist and the Duras sisters, a connection which proves crucial to preventing the terrorist from carrying out his plans. And yet, we don’t know why Garak decided to help. We don’t know anything at all, really.
This sense of uncertainty, and of the necessary effort required to forge safe ground in hostile territory, pervades both of this week’s episodes. After being warned repeatedly that the first season or two (or three) of DS9 is uneven, I was surprised at how consistent “Past Prologue” and “A Man Alone” are. Neither are mind-blowing, of course, and if this was later in the show’s run, if I’d heard higher praise, or if I’d watched these when they originally aired and had my expectations based off of TNG’s success, I might be inclined to judge more harshly. But viewed as a show that’s still finding its legs, DS9 has a lot of confidence, and a clear sense of the kind of stories it wants to tell. Those stories aren’t exactly subtle yet, and they aren’t as complex or effective as they could be, but the details are less important in the early going than the characters and the world they inhabit. What we see in both these episodes, as heavy-handed and clunky as they often are, is the station of Deep Space Nine and the people who inhabit it coming into existence.
Out of the two, “Past Prologue” works the best overall. It’s a plot you can see coming from the moment Kira was introduced in “Emissary.” Kira is passionate, devoted to her people, and she used to be a member of the resistance, fighting back against the Cardassian oppressors. Now she’s taking a role in the burgeoning Bajoran government, and working to help bridge the gap between Bajor and the Federation. She has understandably mixed feelings about this. She and others like her fought long and hard to secure Bajor’s freedom, and the hegemonic nature of the Federation is bound to make anyone with a strong sense of national (planetary?) identity skittish. However, the Cardassians are still lurking in the margins, ready to take advantage of even the slightest show of weakness, which means Bajor needs the Federation—and the massive resources and manpower it can provide—around. This means Kira is going to be a bit suspicious of Sisko from the start, as well as resentful of the fact that she has to take orders from someone who wasn’t around when her friends were dying. It also means, as we see in “Prologue,” that people from Kira’s old life are going to show up occasionally. People with their own agenda, who aren’t on-board with being friendly with outsiders, and who is more than willing to call Kira’s loyalty into question, especially if it serves their aims.
That last bit is the tricky part. Stories of divided loyalty are a delicate balance, and it’s a highwire act that’s even more difficult to maintain when a main character in an ongoing television series is the one in the middle. Back on TNG, Ro Laren (Michelle Forbes) faced a similar sort of crisis as Kira does in “Preemptive Strike,” but there, Ro was a sort of special guest star; she’d appeared in a handful of episodes, which meant that she was recognizable, but her choices on the show weren’t defined by a need to keep her in the same space (so to speak) as the rest of the ensemble. This meant that when Ro was asked to spy on a group of freedom fighters, she found they were good people, and that their goals were much the same as hers. It also meant that when the push came to shove, Ro sided with the freedom fighters, abandoning her position in Starfleet and engendering the rare “disappointment face” from her mentor, Picard. This was possible because, again, Ro wasn’t a regular. (It was also possible because TNG was coming to the end of its seventh and last season, so why the hell not.)
Kira, though, is a regular, and while theoretically the show could pull a fast one and ditch her in the early going, it wouldn’t really work; we’re too close to the start for that kind of sucker punch to have much effect, and Trek, even edgy Trek, isn’t big on rug-pulling-out-from-under-ing. This means that if Kira faces someone from her past, someone who makes her wonder where her real loyalties lie, there has to be a narrative reason for her to end up reaffirming her status quo by the conclusion. There are different ways to do this, but the easiest way is for the person who inspires all this self-doubt—in this case, Tahna Los, a member of the Kohn Ma terrorist organization—to be demonstrably foolish or out and out corrupt. If Tahna, for all his high-minded lectures, turns out to be a greedy bully or an idiot, Kira can go on her merry way of shouting at Sisko, but still, basically, doing what he tells her to do.
The problem is, if Tahna is too corrupt, it makes the whole storyline absurd. And it is so tempting to make him a flat out asshole, because by doing so, not only is Kira let off the hook, the rest of the good guys look even better by comparison. A well-meaning writer could make Tahna a once idealistic warrior who has turned to crime in the wake of the Cardassian departure, frustrated that he’s never been officially recognized as a hero by the current government and determined to get his fair share of what he assumes is the immense wealth the arrival of the Federation has made available. Then we could have a big, grouchy speech about being left out or abandoned or whatever, and Kira could arrest him with a clear conscience (or get Odo to arrest him) and move on. It would neat, clean, and utterly predictable.
Instead, we get something close to that, but not exactly that. Tahna is still fighting the good fight, but Kira isn’t sure it’s quite so good anymore. He arrives at Deep Space Nine on the run from some very unhappy Cardassians; he requests political asylum, which Sisko temporarily grants. (This surprised me. I expected much of the episode to focus on Kira and Sisko arguing about the best way to deal with Tahna’s past crimes, but Sisko is mostly secondary here, and the choices he makes are, basically, the only choices he can make. Before Tahna’s true colors are revealed, it wouldn’t be very smart for a Starfleet officer trying to establish diplomatic relations with a foreign body to hand over one of that body’s citizens to their sworn enemies, whatever sins he’s committed.) Kira is excited to see an old colleague—and one whom she clearly respects, even idolizes—but he’s less than impressed, telling her she’s changed, and that she’s turned into an appeaser, and so on. He tries to guilt her into helping him carry out a plan to rid Bajor of the Federation, but Kira realizes he’s up to something.
There’s a lot to like here. I appreciate that Kira’s decision is made without a lot of hand-wringing on her part. Sure, she’s upset and none too happy about what she has to do, but as soon as she figures out that Tahna knew she’d be on the station, and had been planning on exploiting her all along, she understands she can’t go along with him. What’s also nice is that she doesn’t immediately go to Sisko with this information, instead paying a visit to Odo for moral advice. This helps establish their friendship, and reinforces the idea that Odo is a straight shooter. It’s also great that Tahna turns out to be telling basically the truth when he assures Kira no one will get hurt in his plan: he just wants to use a massively powerful bomb to collapse the wormhole. Admittedly, the wormhole aliens might not enjoy this, and who knows what kind of effect a bomb that big would have on the sector as a whole, but it’s not like he’s a psychopath who intends to murder thousands to prove his point. He’s moral in his way, it’s just that his goals aren’t really in keeping with what’s best for Bajor in the long run. Tahna is a single-minded individual, which means he can accomplish amazing things; it also means he’s worse than useless in a society which needs compromise to survive.
As for failings, well, great as Garak is, Bashir is a bit of a twerp through most of his scenes, repeatedly failing to pick up on the tailor’s obvious clues. I don’t mind if the good doctor isn’t up on his espionage, but there’s no need for him to be an idiot, especially not the kind of overly childish idiot he appears to be here. Using the Duras Sisters as Tahna’s Klingon contacts is a silly way to try and remind us that DS9 is connected to TNG; the characters are appropriate enough for narrative purposes, but a new Klingon would’ve done the job just as well, and not given Trek fans the weird feeling that the universe only has about 20 people in it.
Even without these issues, “Prologue” still wouldn’t be a great episode. It’s good, by and large, and it serves the purpose of establishing some of Kira’s history, and reaffirming her position on the station, but there’s a certain bloodless formality to it that keeps it from being as consistently powerful as it is in its few best moments. Maybe the biggest problem here is there’s still a sense of too much safety—as much as I appreciate the gray area Tahna represents, and Kira’s struggle against temptation, the Federation is there to pick up all the pieces at the end, with Sisko and Dax standing by in case things get out of hand. Still, Tahna gets the last word here, hissing “Traitor” at Kira before being led away in manacles, and that at least indicates that this is a show that’s willing to put its leads in uncomfortable places. It just needs to get more willing to embrace the discomfort. Both episodes we’re looking at this week are streets ahead of TNG’s early years, but “Prologue” makes you want them to farther. Maybe check what’s down a few of the darker alleys, just to see who’s waiting.
- For some reason, Netflix had these two episodes out of order, and I ended up watching “A Man Alone” first. It doesn’t matter very much here—but if you’re following along online, watch out for future episode-jumbling.
- Dax barely exists here, and what’s troubling (at least in terms of her character) was that I didn’t realize how little she was a part of everything until she popped up halfway through the episode.
- The episode doesn’t go out of its way to endear us to Kira. When Sisko doesn’t give her exactly what she wants, she goes over his head to a Starfleet admiral. (Whose none too pleased about the intrusion.) Still, I like her. I find Nana Visitor charming, and there’s something endearingly dorky about her enthusiasm. She’s not an idiot like Bashir, she’s just an idealist who actually won the war she was fighting, and now has to deal with the cost of victory.
"A Man Alone" (season 1, episode 2; originally aired 1/17/1993)
In which Odo battles the Clonus horror
Every Trek needs its outsider. The original series had Spock, a half-human, half-Vulcan whose commitment to stoicism frequently put him at odds with his more emotionally driven crewmates. TNG had Data, an android whose main goal in life was to become more “human,” which meant he spent a lot of time on the show wandering around commenting on other characters’ behavior; that’s not the easiest way to fit in. And now, we have Odo, a shape-shifting constable who, as he helpfully explained in the pilot, has no idea where he came from, what his species is, or if there’s anyone else like him in the universe. To the good: Odo is played by Rene Auberjonois, a talented character actor you might remember from such movies as MASH and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. To the bad: There’s something more than a little contrived about the character’s murky backstory. Spock was a Starfleet officer, and, while his mixed-race background made him something of an anomaly, he wasn’t a singular event in the universe. Data was a bit more special, but he’s a robot, and you expect the occasional robot on a science-fiction show. But Odo is so unusual, he might be the only one of him there is! Not only that, he can actually change his shape into anything he wants. We could get an explanation for all this later (I actually suspect we will, and it probably has something to do with those pesky wormhole aliens), but for right now, he’s basically just magic, and given how grounded the rest of DS9 is, that makes him a little suspect.
“A Man Alone” takes the “suspect” aspect quite literally, with a silly murder mystery that puts Odo in the hot seat for no other reason than to remind us that everyone, everywhere, fears the unknown. Like “Prologue,” “Man” puts in some effort to establish Deep Space Nine as a dangerous place, full of different races and less than savory individuals, but unlike the former episode, the latter spreads its focus over a number of different subplots of varying importance. The murder mystery is the primary focus, because a corpse tends to draw the focus, and also because it allows the time for a lot of angry mobs and Odo being persecuted and so forth. But there’s also Keiko (Mrs. Chief O’Brien) and her efforts to start a school on the space station, which dovetail with Jake Sisko’s brief foray into pranking with his Ferengi buddy, Nog. And there’s also the brief love triangle (which threatens to pop up again, sadly) of Bashir, Dax, and Sisko. This may not sound like much, but “A Man Alone” does a decent job weaving these storylines together in a way that helps to establish our sense of the space station as a definite location. Three episodes in, and I’m actually more comfortable with the geography of Deep Space Nine than I ever really was with the Enterprise-D.
In terms of its function within the season as a whole, then, “A Man Alone” serves a purpose. But as an actual episode of television, it falls short, relying too much on contrivance and cliche rather than allowing the characters room to breathe. The best plot is, surprisingly, Keiko’s decision to start a school. Sure, the stakes are low, and the only parent we see Keiko meeting with is Nog’s dad, but there’s a freshness to this storyline I find rather charming. After watching Keiko swipe at her husband for the first part of the hour, I assumed her dissatisfaction with the station would be a runner for the rest of the season. But while “A Man Alone” doesn’t exactly soften the character, they do give her an outlet for her frustration beyond ruining O’Brien’s life one frustrated lecture at a time. Plus, establishing a school is the sort of thing you wouldn’t really see on the Enterprise (on either TOS or TNG), and there’s something satisfying in the idea of someone trying to create a slice of civilization in the midst of chaos. I hope we see more stories like this, which take the time to show us the nuts and bolts of life on the station.
The love triangle is, unsurprisingly, less successful. The chemistry between Dax and Bashir isn’t great, which decreases the will-they/won’t-they tension, and Bashir comes across more desperate and stalker-ish than love- (or lust-) stricken. Dax’s bemused interest helps to make sure Bashir doesn’t seem too forceful (if she acted uncomfortable or shy around him, he’d be an utter creep), but it also makes sure we don’t have any real interest in seeing them hook up. It’d be like watching a babysitter take advantage of a 12-year-old’s crush. Conversations between Dax and Sisko, while a bit more interesting, don’t have any romantic spark in them either, and Dax’s efforts to reassure Sisko that he’ll get used to her new body seem to speak to an awkwardness that doesn’t really exist. Which isn’t to say that Sisko isn’t awkward around her; he goes on a laughing jag early in the episode that made me nervous about sharp utensils. But he’s awkward around everyone, and the attempt to create drama in their relationship is forced and unearned. The same goes with Bashir’s flirting. There’s potential drama here—if not, the show would be perfectly fine with just dropping both ideas—but right now, it’s forcing both, and neither work.
Finally, the murder plot, which is a bit more exciting than either of the aforementioned stories, but still isn’t successful from a plot or a thematic perspective. Ibudan, a black-market dealer during the Cardassian occupation, comes onto the station to do some gaming. Odo doesn’t like him, tells him to get lost, and Ibudan apparently winds up dead. Odo becomes the prime suspect, and then some of the Bajorans on the station start going all bigoted and crazy and mob-heavy, forcing Sisko to shoot a phaser into the air like its a shotgun. (Which is both cool and really silly.) It’s okay, though, because Ibudan isn’t really dead; he murdered his own clone to frame Odo for the crime to get revenge on the shape-shifter for sending him to jail so many years ago. This is absurd, and the awkward attempts to make Odo’s persecution into some sort of grand statement on prejudice are too thin to have much effect. “Past Prologue” was surprisingly complex for its position in the show’s run, but “A Man Alone” fits in more neatly with expectations. It’s not awful, but it’s not good, either, and serves as a pointed reminder of one of the pitfalls early episodes of television series often stumble over: underdeveloped characters behaving in unconvincing ways, and plots that work just a little too hard to mean something.
- “A Man Alone” also expends a lot of energy trying to remind us that it takes place in Science Fiction Land, what with Dax’s holographic brain teaser (it uses brain waves!), Nog’s magic bugs, and the whole clone thing. It’s okay, guys—I trust those are stars out there.
- Odo has a grouchy speech about women. I wonder how he knows which gender he is?
- Kira isn’t as much a focus as she was in “Past Prologue,” but her faith in Odo does her a lot of credit.
- I appreciate everyone's efforts to keep up with Spoiler Alert warnings in the comments. As a comparative newbie to the show, they make it easier for me to read your feedback without finding out story details. (And I'm sure they're nice for other people as well.)
Next week: We deal with the traditional “virus makes everybody crazy” episode in “Babel,” and O’Brien takes center stage in “Captive Pursuit.”