“Progress” (season 1, episode 15; originally aired 5/9/1993)
In which Kira makes a friend, and then burns down his house…
It’s not easy being a revolutionary. You’re a minority against a controlling, entrenched force; you lack your enemies’ resources, your loved ones are targets, and there is no safe ground to retreat to; and often, even the people you’re fighting to free won’t understand your cause, or will even prefer a dictatorship to the uncertainty and upheaval of a new regime. But at least in a revolution, you can believe in the purity of your intentions. In the heat of the moment, you know you’re fighting for freedom from tyranny, for the end of oppression and the downfall of the cruel and merciless. You may lose your life, but it’s a price you’re willing to pay if it means that someday, justice may be served.
Say that day finally arrives. There are parades and speeches, and everyone puts in extra hours to make sure there’s none of that crazy French Revolution-style fall-out. Further, say you succeed in not butchering your fellow revolutionaries in a frenzied, paranoid power grab, and that you manage to install an interim government that meets most, if not all, of your initial demands. All well and good, but at some point, being at the top means you’re going to have to start compromising on some of those ideals you once held dear. This isn’t a cynical or negative process; it’s a simple fact of existence that not everyone wants the same thing, and doing your best to serve the needs of the many means every so often you have to royally screw over the few. That’s how things are. You can make the world a better place, but you can’t make it a perfect place, and that’s a hard truth to realize. Revolutions have obvious villains. Reconstructions have gray areas and bad moods.
Such is the problem Major Kira Nerys faces in “Progress,” a terrific hour of television. For the first time, we have an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that delivers on potential instead of just hinting at it. The story is affecting, smart, and moves in unexpected ways, offering opportunities for characters and relationships to develop while still delivering a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. Kira once again takes center stage, and as with “Past Prologue,” she’s forced to make a decision between the monochromatic Bajoran ideals she once held and the political realities of a world struggling to rebuild. Here, though, there’s no convenient act of violence, however well-intended, to let her off the hook. In “Progress,” Kira has to accept that life isn’t always as simple as we need it to be, and being in a position of power means sometimes, you have to be the bad guy. All this, and we get a B-plot which manages to be both funny and, no joke, heart-warming. When I started this project, I expected I would come to appreciate DS9 in its way as much as I appreciate Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. I didn’t expect that appreciation would come so soon, and this has me very excited to see what the show’s like when it really gets good.
Initially, “Progress” follows a pattern which should be familiar to TNG fans: the crew of the DS9 is working with Bajor on a science project. The Bajorans need energy, and to get it, they’re planning on tapping into the core of one of their moons, Jeraddo. The moon has been evacuated, and Kira and Dax are on a routine flyover when they pick up some telltale energy readings; looks like Jeraddo isn’t quite so evacuated after all. Promising Dax she’ll only be gone a few minutes, Kira beams down and is immediately menaced by a pair of mute Bajorans with farming implements. (In case you’ve never seen an agrarian horror movie, farm implements can be very, very menacing.) Another farmer, this one an older man who likes calling Kira “girl,” explains the situation: He and his friends are all refugees from the Cardassian camps. They’ve lived on this farm for the best years of their lives, and they have no intention of leaving now, no matter what anyone says.
This is a solid premise. TNG did a few variations on the same theme: individuals who refuse to compromise when faced with the demands of society. In the context of this episode, it’s a way to show the divisions in the still developing relationship between Bajor and the Federation. More importantly, it’s also a way to highlight the series’ strongest recurring trope so far: Kira’s struggle to define herself in a post-Cardassian landscape. Where “Battle Lines” spent too much time outlining a heavy-handed metaphor, “Progress” focuses the lion’s share of its 40 minutes on Kira’s relationship with Mullibok. This is a smart choice, and the episode succeeds in most every way “Battle Lines” failed, making a point based as much on character as it is on politics, and refusing to allow our heroes an easy exit from the conflict. The Moon of Eternal War in “Battle Lines” was hellish, no question, but, invading nano-particles aside, it was easy for Kira, Sisko, and Bashir to leave it behind. On this week’s moon, life isn’t so simple.
The most obvious difficulty is Mullibok (Brian Keith), the older Bajoran farmer refusing to leave Jeraddo. Mullibok is everything you don’t want in a friendly enemy: He’s charming, intelligent, and completely unwilling to change his mind. Worse, he’s thought through his position. He knows he’ll die if he stays, but he’s convinced he’ll also die if he goes, and he’d rather die at home. This is difficult to argue against. Kira doesn’t want anyone to die, but she also doesn’t want to have to force anyone to move at phaser-point. If Mullibok and his companions (who are mute, thanks to the Cardassians) already understand the consequences of their actions, there isn’t anything she can threaten them with. Her only hope is to talk through the situation, and try to find some way to convince Mullibok that not dying really is the better option here, however worried or afraid he is of change. This is what Kira does, although she does more listening than talking for most of the episode, and it’s her back-and-forth with Mullibok that gives “Progress” its soul. Keith is a fine actor (his IMDB page features some impressive credits), and he and Nana Visitor have excellent chemistry together, the sort that achieves connection even after only a few minutes of screentime. Mullibok tells exaggerated stories of his life, calls Kira a pretty girl, and generally makes a nuisance of himself, while Kira struggles between irritation and a growing affection. Much in the way that “Progress” initially follows a common TNG story pattern, the friendship between the farmer and the major runs along well-established lines: the wise old mentor teaching a brash up-and-comer some simple truths about the world.
What’s great, though, is that isn’t what this relationship is. While Kira is charmed and moved by Mullibok’s struggles, she doesn’t think he’s right in his cause, at least not entirely. When she decides to stay on Jeraddo with the old man after the first attempt to forcibly remove him and his friends goes awry, her decision is driven by a number of complex emotions: guilt over Mullibok’s injuries, concern for his well-being, and, perhaps most strongly, an inability to let go of the past in order to prepare for the future. Mullibok repeatedly makes connections between his struggles against the Bajoran government, and the Bajorans’ fight against the Cardassians, but the resemblance is, at best, a shallow one; Mullibok claims his stubbornness can save him, but it won’t, and both he and Kira realize this. The difference is, Mullibok doesn’t have to act on this knowledge—he’s decided he’s ready to die for what he believes in. That leaves Kira to resolve the issue, and that means it’s Kira who is ultimately the more adult. Other characters offer advice, most notably Sisko, who tells her she has to get used to being on the side of the people who are in power, however unpleasant that may be. In the end, though, it’s Kira who has to realize the limitations of Mullibok’s obstinacy, as she’s forced to come to terms with the fact that, unlike fighting the Cardassians, government is a battle with few clear victories, and constant, often agonizing attrition.
Most of “Progress” is spent getting to the heart of Kira’s dilemma, but the episode also finds time for a light-hearted B-plot, a story about Nog and Jake’s business adventures that manages the double trick of being both effective comic relief and a winning use of Ferengi avarice. While he and Jake are playing cards in Quark’s bar, Nog overhears Quark yelling at his father for a bad supplies order. Nog thinks this could be an opportunity, and quickly goes about trying to sell his father’s order, a shipment of yamok sauce which has been rendered largely useless now that the Cardassians have left the station. While he isn’t able to profit immediately off the sauce, he does find someone whose willing to trade a load of self-sealing stem bolts for the shipment; Nog is reluctant to accept, but Jake convinces him that this is a good idea, and a handshake later, the two boys are trying to find someone, anyone, to pay them for an item they don’t understand.
It’s fun to watch Nog and Jake work together, especially once you understand where their efforts are headed. One barter leads to another barter, until finally, the boys get their hands on something that someone will actually pay money for: land. (Or as Nog keeps insisting, “Dirt.”) None of this connects directly into Kira’s efforts on Jeraddo, although the “Noh-Jay consortium" is a more optimistic take on the importance of negotiation, compromise, and patience. Combined, however, these two plots make for the best episode of the show thus far, and one that demonstrates the ways that DS9 is already staking out new territory. Unlike TNG, the show can handle entertaining comic storylines without compromising characters or engaging in outright camp; and unlike TNG, it’s willing to allow its heroes to be just as complicated as its guest stars. In the end, Kira destroys Mullibok’s house herself, saving his life and, most likely, ending their friendship. It’s probably the right choice, but the episode ends without giving us a comforting final thought from Sisko or Dax, and no sense that Kira is happy with what’s she’s done. It’s this kind of uncertainty that leads to great art, and having it become an integral part of the show’s texture means this episode more than lives up to its name.
- Morn has been hitting on Dax, and she’s slightly interested. Enjoy that image.
- Kira’s my favorite character on the show right now, but what’s impressing me more and more each week is how much I like the entire ensemble. With TNG (which I still love, in case that’s in question), it took at least a season before I found anyone beyond Picard and Data worth watching. On DS9, the only bad apple in the bunch is Dax, and she’s just bland, not actively irritating.
“If Wishes Were Horses” (season 1, episode 16; originally aired 5/16/1993)
In which there are no horses…
After the newfound heights of “Progress,” “If Wishes Were Horses” gets back to the important business of mistaking molehills for mountains. Where the previous episode did a fine job subverting expectations established by TNG, this entry follows the predictable path laid out all the way back in the original series: namely, that the universe is full of whimsical, hyper-powerful alien beings who like to show up every once in a while and screw around with the norms.
The first sign that something is wrong comes when Chief O’Brien finds a horrible little man in his daughter’s bedroom. O’Brien had been telling his daughter the story of Rumpelstiltskin just a moment before, and now, it seems, the fairy tale dwarf with a knack for spinning straw into gold has come to life, and decided to mess around with Molly and her parents. That’s bad enough, but strange things are happening all over the station. A famous baseball player, Harmon Bokai, followed Jake home from the holosuite because he was hungry, and Bashir, after striking out with Dax for the umpteenth time, is woken mid-nap by a suddenly interested and very frisky Jadzia. On Deep Space Nine, fantasies are coming to life, and, unsurprisingly, it’s not as much fun as it sounds.
In order to create a sense of urgency, the station is also threatened by the development of a space rupture that could, if allowed unchecked, take out half the system. But (SPOILER ALERT), there’s no rupture. It’s just another example of fantasy, coming into existence when Dax started looking for something unusual right after everyone’s dreams are made flesh. She saw one thing, wondered if it might be something else, and ZAP ZOOM ZOWIE, it was. Sisko realizes this just in time, calls the fantasy’s bluff, and life is returned to normal. In the last scene, “Harmon Bokai” stops by Sisko’s office to explain that he, along with all the other fantasies, is part of a different race which is attempting to study the power of imagination. Bokai and Sisko have a nice little chat, Bokai makes the standard, “Maybe we’ll see you around” speech, and that’s that.
I don’t hate this sort of thing—really I don’t—but it’s pointless. For an hour, the show is transformed into a kid’s cartoon, and not a very good kid’s cartoon at that. The explanation as to how all the wishes are coming true is the worst kind of Trek laziness, the sort of thing which worked in the original series only because everything it did was so new and exciting. By now, any time anything weird happens, your first guess is either “space-time anomaly” or “aliens screwing around.” Whenever either of these is right, it makes the whole episode pointless. DS9 doesn’t need to pull off striking character growth every week, but there’s something depressing in seeing the show push itself to expand its horizons, and then immediately backtracking into the same old hoary crap. Genre should never be an excuse for lazy storytelling; just because you can say, “A wizard did it” doesn’t mean you should. While “If Wishes Were Horses” tries to justify it’s foolishness with some sop about how wonderful the imagination is (how is it possible to have a mind interested in and capable of studying other species and not have imaginations? In order to innovate, you need be able to imagine new ideas), but that just makes it worse. It’s not just a story of magical aliens; it’s a story of magical aliens who remind us how wonderful we really are. Bleagh.
It’s not a total wash. While this is all silly, and various castmembers are asked to engage in the silliness, no one embarrasses themselves. O’Brien is once again put in the role of baffled, put-upon Everyman, and while he’s sidelined for most of the hour, he does get some nice material near the end, when Rumpelstiltskin offers to save everyone from the rupture, so long as O’Brien is willing to give up his first born. Meanwhile, Bashir’s fantasy Dax means that Terry Farrell spends half the episode groping Alexander Siddig and being disappointed when he doesn’t return the favor; it’s, again, goofy, but not unpleasantly so, and the show veers away from spending much time on how the fantasy Dax makes the real Dax feel. Sisko and Bokai’s conversations have a certain authenticity, and there’s an unexpected, brief scene in which all three major fantasy characters meet and talk about how their relationships are working out. We rarely see these stories from the meddling aliens’ side.
Still, none of the good points are enough to save this from being a waste of resources, and evidence that, despite signs to the contrary, the show still has a ways to go toward finding itself. Although really, hoping that a Trek series would ever say goodbye to the occasional visit from a nutty Godlike Being is a futile endeavor. Hopefully DS9 will eventually stop engaging in the sort of lazy, trope-ridden writing sessions that lead to tomfoolery like “If Wishes Were Horses.” If not, this is small price to pay for the highlights.
- I did enjoy the beginning of Odo’s attempt to address the patrons of Quark’s bar: “Ladies and gentlemen and all androgynous creatures... ”
- Bokai’s comment to Sisko about why imagination amazes them is nicely meta: “That you can have such an affection for someone you’ve never met.”
Next week: Lwaxana Troi arrives on the station, making us “The Forsaken,” and people start acting all crazy in “Dramatis Personae.”