Star Trek 289: Emissary

289. Emissary

FORMULA: The Best of Both Worlds + Ensign Ro + The Wounded + Encounter at Farpoint + retroactively All Good Things with elements from The Final Frontier, The Host, The Last Outpost and The Corbomite Maneuver

WHY WE LIKE IT: The best Trek ever starts... NOW!

WHY WE DON'T: Fighting cast members.

REVIEW: With over 5 years of experience under their belts, the Modern Trek folks pull off a more confident and assured series premiere than TNG's in Emissary, a show promises to be very different from Next Gen. Too different? For one thing, it takes place at a stationary base with no big iconic ship in sight. But I think Sisko makes a good point to the Prophets in the climax: "We're explorers, we explore our lives day by day..." Though there's a new quadrant a stone's throw away, DS9 will be about exploring one environment. As an audience, we'll be exploring these characters and their neighbors, the local culture, and their roles in it. With hindsight, we might say that other Treks changed locales every week, but on DS9, it's the characters and their situation that changed.

Another different is the look. The smooth reflective pastel surfaces of the Federation are relegated to a couple runabouts (basically just pimped out shuttles named after rivers), and we're into Cardassian architecture instead. Elegant yet creepy curves and impressive two-storied sets, lots of shadows and negative spaces. The station itself is presented in the opening sequence as a strange jewel in the sky. I think it's really cool, and the music is the first new theme Trek's gotten in years. It's melancholy yet uplifting, much like the show.

And then there's the tone. Roddenberry's "everyone gets along in the future" policy is subverted by populating the cast with non-Starfleet characters. These people have different agendas and opinions, they don't see eye to eye and may not be happy to work together. Cumulatively, I seem to remember the first season as the one where they always fight, but in practice, that's hardly the case. The characters don't have an immediate and implicit trust between them, and that's a lot more realistic. We're watching them grow, and are invited to give them a chance. Because the creators are pretty bold in daring us to like these guys...

For one thing, by the time this came out (and certainly now in the way I've scheduled these reviews), we're well in love with the TNG cast, so comparisons become second nature. Sisko is a commander, not a captain, which means we automatically think less of him, and though his anger at Picard for the Wolf 359 incident is understandable, our new hero is starting out at an antagonist to the captain we do know and like. Despite all that, Sisko is a complex character, at once amused and disconsolate over his situation, depending on the moment. He's a man who's been asked to build a community and he's quite able to make the rules up as he goes along. I'll admit that Avery Brooks has an unusual acting style, with strange mouth and head movements, but he feels real enough. And he's got a young son who, thankfully, isn't the new Wesley. Jake isn't some wunderkin boy genius, he's just a kid, and the father-son relationship here is one of the best things about Sisko.

What we have to forgive Major Kira is that she isn't Ro Laren, which is hardly her fault. Her anger is more out there than Ro's, and yes, she can be a bit strident, but her bluffing the Cardassians out by wasting all her torpedoes is just the kind of dramatic maneuver I like to see. She's really not that irritating and has her heart in the right place. Odo is another gruff character that you're meant to like only because he has a cool "power", but his no-nonsense attitude is there right from the start, and he comes out aces. His foil will be Quark, a Ferengi (oh that most ridiculous and hated race), and again, another surprising hit. Armin Shimmerman was one of the first Ferengi and he's come a long way in portraying the diminutive merchants. Quark is incredibly charming right from the start, which is tough to do given the make-up and reputation. In the background are Morn and Rom, who haven't yet even gotten names, and Nog, Quark's no good nephew.

On the Starfleet side, O'Brien is our identification figure, not just because he's the only character we already know, but because he's so down to earth. He gets right in there, kicking consoles, cursing the bloody Cardies and basically acting as the resident miracle worker. Which doesn't help Bashir whom O'Brien immediately takes a disliking to. The enthusiastic young doctor is the polar opposite of the practical career man engineer after all. Julian spends most of the pilot with his foot in his mouth, but it's great fun (especially the frontier medicine business). The science officer is Dax, a joined Trill in a brand new body who has been Sisko's mentor in an earlier life. Interesting dynamic only hinted at here, and aren't we glad they switched the Trill make-up to Kamala's? Really, you better forget everything you knew about the Trill from The Host (from the look to the transporter weakness), because only the concept and name truly remain.

Off-station, we have the Cardassians, represented most ably by the very first actor to portray the slimy race, Marc Alaimo AKA Gul Dukat. Dukat says one thing and means another, setting the tone for all that is to come. Part of Sisko's job is maneuvering in this political environment, and the Cardassians will certainly prove to be interesting "politicians" in the Romulan mold. Bajor's also part of this, a world torn between spirituality and terrorism, rebuilding but on the cusp of civil war. Kai Opaka is our introduction to the spiritual side (Kira to the other), and to Sisko's destiny (though it will take a number of episodes before this Emissary business is mentioned again). There's definitely something going on here, especially with that creepy priest stalking Sisko at opportune moments.

That destiny, in it most secular terms, is the discovery of the Wormhole and the Prophets that live within. I've put a lot of thought into how the "timeline" works in relation to the Prophets over the years, and I think the best way to think about them is this: They are timeless, and live outside time as we know it. They are aware of their entire existence simultaneously. Whenever we access them, or they access us, it may be at any point in their existence (Sisko accessed them "first"). Whenever they are accessed, it disrupts their existence and changes it, with all consequences simultaneous. This explains how they feel a destructive disruption when someone goes through the Wormhole. It changes EVERYTHING. And it's also how Sisko can teach them about linear existence when, after all, he should already be among them... or is it just going through the motions?

In any case, what a great way to explore the Sisko character! The Prophets allow us to visit different points in his life, how his loss of Jennifer has impacted him ("You exist here."), uses baseball in a useful way and not just as Michael Piller's fetish, and all in all, produces an incredibly emotional series premiere. The creators could have been content with a simple Wormhole discovery, opening up a new quadrant for exploration, but giving it a personal and mystical resonance, linking it closely with Bajor, that signals a greater plan at work.

Some props to the effects department: The Wormhole is beautiful, looking almost like the opening hand of God. The opening sequence at Wolf 359 is incredible, with amazing model ship work and an eye-popping escape pod release (great idea to start this series in the middle of the best TNG episode ever). The opening sequence with our entering the tail of a comet is beautiful. And though very simple, I love how ships start arriving to DS9 at the very end of the episode, now a hub of activity.

LESSON: Bajoran women wear the pants in the family.

REWATCHABILITY - High: I've made no secret of my preference for this series over all others, but I can confidently say that it's objectively a far more mature premiere than any we've had before. There's a different ethos at work, Ira Steven Behr's, and it's more modern and implicitly dramatic than what went before.

16 comments:

The Mutt said...

I almost didn't watch DS9. I was a huge Trekkie, but the advance word on DS9 kept turning me off with each new bit i would hear. On the plus side was Avery Brooks, whose Hawk on Spenser for Hire is still one of the greatest portrayals in TV history. One the minus side, he has a son. And there's a Trill, who I knew from one of the dumbest episodes of TNG ever. And mystical prophets. And a Shape-Shifter. And a character named Quark. Quark!

It sounded like Space 1999: TNG.

But I gave it a shot. After a rocky start, it hooked me, in large part thanks to O'Brien. Once they added Worf, you had the best Trek ever.

Siskoid said...

It actually started rocking the kazbah in the middle of Season 3 (much like TNG, actually), but because of the many personal arcs, the series' early seasons are much more rewatchable than TNG's.

At least in theory. We'll see how that opinion bears out as I go through them once again.

Anonymous said...

I've always felt DS9 really deserved more respect in the franchise than it got.

Of all the post TOS, I find it the most re-watchable and coherent of the series.

I agree it comes into its own a couple of seasons in, but even those episodes are far less cringe-worthy then the equivalent ones in TNG, Voyager and Enterprise - or some the truly terrible ones of the TOS episodes.

Matthew Turnage said...

In my opinion, DS9 was great from the start. Sure, there's a few rough episodes in the first season as they are finding their way, but there are several strong episodes, and three that are widely considered some of the series' very best (Emissary, Duet, and In the Hands of the Prophets).

Emissary is easily the best Trek pilot. As a baseball fan myself I've always enjoyed Michael Piller's references to the game, but it's so well done here that I've actually used Sisko's baseball as a metaphor for life bit to explain to people why I love the game so much.

As far as the new ethos goes, don't give Ira Behr too much credit yet. The pilot is pretty much all Michael Piller, and while Behr had a lot of involvement from the point regular production began, my impression from reading the DS9 Companion is it's really Piller's baby until around season three. And while DS9 peaked for me during seasons five and six, I agree with Piller that season two is one of the best seasons of Trek ever.

Siskoid said...

I give Piller his due then, and yeah, you can see his fingerprints all over it.

Putting Behr in charge though, after things didn't work out for him on TNG, is part of Piller's decisions, so he was skewing it that way from the get go.

Anonymous said...

Of all the different shows DS9 became as it shifted direction each season, the original idea of exploring Bajor in depth as it recovered from its past and founds its new place in the quadrant is the most mature and promising, I've always thought. It's a shame we didn't get more of that instead of all the galactic war stuff (although that has its own appeal).

De said...

This pilot was nothing short of magic and hooked me immediately. It would be a little while before the series would become "appointment television" for me ("Duet" pretty much cinched it), but I was blown away by this premiere. In fact, I've probably watched this episode more times than any other Trek episode.

"It is the unknown that defines our existence. We are constantly searching... not just for answers to our questions... but for new questions. We are explorers... We explore our lives day by day... and we explore the galaxy, trying to expand the boundaries of our knowledge. And that is why I am here. Not to conquer you with weapons or ideas. But to coexist and learn."

Anonymous said...

I remember going into watching the pilot in college, fully expecting a trainwreck. The premise sounded terrible ("they just sit there?"). The characters sounded formulaic (disgraced commander, uppity assistant, nonhuman aspiring to be human, etc.). And rumors that they stole the whole thing from that other stupid-sounding show, Babylon 5, with the guy that looks too much like Larry Fine in the production stills? Argh!!

Yeah. Fast forward a bit. I was in college, so we were all watching in the dorm lounge. By the time the credits rolled, our jaws were all on the floor. Totally. Blown. Away.

DS9 was probably the first thing that made me aware that there was more to entertainment than spectacle and melodrama.

Siskoid said...

It was totally better than it ought to be!

I've vowed not to do the whole DS9/B5 comparison in these reviews. And I won't.

Anonymous said...

To clarify, I wasn't baiting anybody with the B5 reference. I only mention it because it was two more pre-viewing strikes against DS9.

1. They allegedly stole the concept, and copies of nontraditional science fiction rarely come out well.

2. The B5 advertising looked awful, and if that's what Star Trek was going to steal...sheesh!

That said, and loving both shows, if actual theft was involved (and I don't think there was beyond, "hey, that's a neat idea"), they did a very good job of hiding it.

Siskoid said...

To clarify: I didn't think that's what you were doing. In my experience, however, someone might jump on such an opportunity.

And I like both too.

Brian Doan said...

Just started watching this on DVD, so I love your timely (and wonderful) write-up. I feel like I need to catch up to where you're at in your reviews, so I can follow along! (: I, too (thus far, anyway) am thinking it's the best of all possible Treks, or at least the one I find the most absorbing. And Avery Brooks is brilliant.

Siskoid said...

Great to have you along for the ride, Cinephile! So have you never watched DS9 before, or are you "rewatching" it as I am?

Brian Doan said...

Nope-- I am a DS9 virgin. I kind of avoided star trek for a few years, as the movies got worse and worse, but someone whose taste I trust has been telling me for a couple of years that this was the ST to watch (i'd loaned her firefly and got her hooked on Joss Whedon shows more generally, so we were exchanging our mutual obsessions). I netflixed the first disc last month and really liked it. I find all the political stuff and the rich character development really wonderful-- while I like action, I'd be happy if there were no battles, and it was just "West Wing In Space."

I've added the rest of season one to my queue, and I'm looking forward to diving in for more.

Anonymous said...

Wow ... I'd pondered the Wormhole Aliens before, and I figured out that Sisko was the first corporeal life they'd ever dealt with (by their standards, not ours) -- but it never occurred to me that A) each meeting with a corporeal being changes them "past present and future" and B) to them it did seem destructive at first. If anything, Sisko simply helped them understand that they too experienced change. Excellent work!

As far as the B5 / DS9 controversy, if we're going to accuse anyone of theft, it should be pointed out that B5 was technically "stolen" from the TOS episode about squabbling diplomats with secret agendas, named "Journey to Babel" of all things. Either that's theft and B5 should be reviled for its intellectual appropriations, or else we can acknowledge that a lot of sci-fi shows are going to use similar concepts and even similar Biblical references.

Beyond that, most of the genuine similarities between B5 and DS9 have everything to do with stationary settings (it is necessary to import conflict in the forms of disobedience, crime, and competing empires), and most attempts to "prove" the improbable similarities overstate their case. For example, it's claimed that Babylon 5 and Deep Space 9 both "guard" spatial doorways -- except B5 isn't "guarding" a damn thing, the jump gate is essentially a freeway off-ramp that was only built to make it easier to reach the Babylon station(s). But the DS9 wormhole is unique, irreproducible, and of such significant strategic value that DS9 does indeed guard it.

Both series should be enjoyed for their charms, which are ultimately very different anyway.

LiamKav said...

They both have their commanders kick-ass "little ships" to play with in their third season, although in both cases it felt fairly organic and made quite a bit of sense (I personally always thought adding the Defiant was more to hook the TNG crowd than any stealing off B5).

 

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