Retro Review: Emissary

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Commander Sisko arrives at Deep Space Nine and finds himself caught between Starfleet, the Bajorans, the Cardassians, and the mysterious beings called the Prophets who may hold the key to controlling the Alpha Quadrant.

Plot Summary: Commander Benjamin Sisko reluctantly brings his young son to Deep Space Nine, a former Cardassian station which the Bajorans have asked Starfleet to help them reclaim. Captain Picard, who has brought Miles O’Brien to the station to become chief of operations, is disappointed to learn that Sisko is planning to leave Starfleet. The Bajoran first officer, Major Kira, doesn’t trust the Federation much more than the Cardassians who occupied her planet for decades, fearing that Sisko will be autocratic and the adventurous Doctor Bashir will be condescending. Sisko’s team includes a young Trill science officer, Dax, who was Sisko’s good friend when her symbiont was joined with an older man, and a security officer, Odo, who formerly worked for the Cardassians yet is trusted by Kira and has the invaluable ability to shapeshift. Sisko pressures the Ferengi Quark to keep his bar open on the station’s Promenade and visits the Bajoran spiritual leader known as the Kai, who tells him that it is his destiny to protect the Celestial Temple of the Prophets. After seeing a vision in an Orb of the Prophets that allows him to relive his meeting with his late wife, Sisko asks Dax to help him search for evidence of a Celestial Temple and discovers a stable wormhole that leads to the Gamma Quadrant. The beings that live in the wormhole have no sense of linear time and cannot understand why Sisko experiences emotions like pain and fear of loss. While they learn from each other, the Cardassian Gul Dukat – the former prefect of the space station, who intends to reclaim that position – searches for the wormhole as well. Kira proposes moving the station to stake a claim to the wormhole for Bajor and defend it from the Cardassians. While Dax and O’Brien take on that dangerous task, Sisko convinces the Prophets, who appear to him as people from his life, that linear life forms like himself and the Bajorans are not a threat and they have much to teach each other. When the wormhole reopens, Sisko must rescue Dukat, who orders the rest of the Cardassians to cease hostilities against Deep Space Nine. Because of his new role as the Emissary to the Prophets and his new perspective on how the loss of his wife changed him, Sisko decides to remain in command of Deep Space Nine.

Analysis: Nearly twenty years ago, I experienced love at first sight with Deep Space Nine – much to my surprise, given how long it took me to warm up to The Next Generation. I suffered a brief period of disillusionment right after Voyager premiered because my love for Janeway blinded me to all other Treks, but by the time DS9 went off the air, it had proven itself to be the best by far of the Star Trek series, and I waver about calling it my favorite only out of lifelong loyalty to Kirk and Spock. There’s no doubt in my mind that, episode for episode, DS9 is better written, and the extended recurring cast is exceptional – more than 20 characters who recur through the show’s storylines in addition to the series regulars, each one cast and played superbly. I know some fans believe that DS9 is too dark to fit in with Gene Roddenberry’s hopeful vision of the future, and it’s certainly more engaged with themes like war, occupation, slavery, bigotry, and the limits of religious tolerance than either of its predecessors. To me, though, that makes it more realistic and relatable than the original series or TNG; rather than simply assuming that peace, financial stability, and tolerance have been achieved among most of the spacefaring worlds of the galaxy, DS9 shows the painful process by which peace and tolerance might be achieved, and it is not afraid from the first to tackle tough subjects like crushing grief and the yearning for spiritual faith. Looking back at it now after seeing some of the shows that followed (Babylon 5, Andromeda, the Stargate franchise, the Battlestar Galactica reboot, to name a few), its influence seems as great as that of the original Star Trek.

I must admit that, before this week, I hadn’t watched “Emissary” since the show finished its first broadcast run. I had remembered it being slow in parts, and that I’d had a hard time warming up to Sisko, particularly after his confrontation with by-then-beloved Picard. So imagine my surprise to find myself on the edge of my seat this time around despite knowing everything that was going to happen, and to find that my sympathies had shifted entirely. Of course, this is hindsight born of great affection, and I’m not sure that I wouldn’t still find it a bit plodding if it was entirely new to me, but wow does “Emissary” hold up with the best of Star Trek episodes (and exceeds “Encounter at Farpoint” so greatly that comparisons seem odious…though I’d argue that it leaves the reboot film just as far behind). Some things that I loved the first time around still leap out at me, like the fact that two women are in charge of the station, making all the important scientific and strategic decisions for Starfleet and for Bajor while Sisko is off communing with the Prophets, and the fact that Kira and Odo have an immediate and deep rapport that suggests a long, complicated backstory. If you’ve read my reviews before, you know that as a fan I’m very relationship-oriented – not in the superficial “oh, Dax and Bashir would be hot together” sense that the writers seemed to be pushing from the first, but in terms of watching drama unfold centered on the characters and their interactions rather than from whatever sci-fi gimmicks come into play. Many fans were skeptical about how a Star Trek series set on a space station rather than a moving spaceship could work, fearing that an element would be lost without exploring strange new worlds, suspecting that we’d get even more of the kids-and-families elements that didn’t always work on TNG. I will admit up front that the community-building, the marriages, the friendships, the personal bonds are the biggest thing that I love about DS9…and I think they are catalysts for the optimism and forward thinking that might otherwise get lost in the Bajoran-Cardassian conflict and later the Dominion War. This show demonstrates over and over a belief that most beings inherently want to learn from and trust one another, and that the inability to do so eventually leads to catastrophe.

We don’t really see enough of the characters besides Sisko to get a sense of who they are in this pilot, and Sisko at the end isn’t who he was at the beginning, before the Prophets showed him that he has never let himself move on from the moment of his wife’s death. I remember having a few moments of fear that Kira might be a stereotype of a woman with a chip on her shoulder, clinging to control at all costs, but she’s beginning to work with Sisko, O’Brien, and Dax before the second hour is up, and there are magical moments when she and Odo seem to understand one another without dialogue. It’s pure joy to watch those now, knowing the full arc of their relationship, even its less-than-happily-ever-after denouement. It’s also pure joy to watch Kira and Bashir’s first meeting, in which he’s a bouncy puppy and she’s a wry cynic, though the wider interest there involves knowing that those actors eventually married and had a child, even if that story too has a less-than-happily-ever-after denouement. If Bashir has a bit too much Wesley Crusher in him, if O’Brien seems to be channeling Montgomery Scott, if Jake’s role isn’t quite clear, if Dax’s personality seems fuzzy around the edges, there’s plenty of time for the characters to be more sharply defined and their jobs to be more thoroughly explored. Curiously, considering that this is the installment to launch him as the new leader, DS9’s pilot is much more focused on Sisko’s roles as husband, father, friend, and Emissary than on his command style. One of the reasons I adore Sisko is because he never stops juggling all those roles; unlike Kirk and Picard, who define themselves first and foremost as starship captains even with their nearest and dearest, Sisko always understands that he is part of a much larger community, and his threat to resign in the early minutes here is the last time he will ever try to withdraw from full engagement with it. Kira’s first line to him is, “I suppose you want the office!”; Odo’s first line to him is, “Who the hell are you?” And it’s all to the good!

For all these reasons, it’s very difficult for me to come at “Emissary” as if it were all new rather than as a delightful reunion. Even things that I know are coming which I resisted upon first viewing – the fits and starts of Odo’s self-awareness, Kira’s growing religious consciousness, Dukat’s madness, Worf’s arrival, the O’Briens’ marital ups-and-downs, a change in Dax’s host – now seem worthy of anticipation, since I know how well everything worked out in the end. Don’t count on a lot of negative criticism in these reviews, but rather on nostalgia, a sense of how perspectives change over time and with hindsight. And expect spoilers not just for this entire series but for all the Star Trek shows, plus many of the franchises this one inspired. Episode for episode, I don’t think there has ever been a science fiction show as good as Deep Space Nine – its peers are M*A*S*H and The West Wing, not space operas and alien thrillers – and I can’t make that case without talking across individual episodes to look at the larger picture.

What do you think? Chat with other fans in the Star Trek: Deep Space nine forum at The Trek BBS.

Michelle Erica Green

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Michelle Erica Green

Writer, mother, reader, traveler, teacher, partner, photographer, activist, friend, fangirl, student, critic, citizen, environmentalist, feminist, vegetarian, enthusiast. TrekToday staffer for many years, former news reporter, current retro reviewer.

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