Another Sort of Marathon

I just finished the entire run of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. 173 episodes, 121 hours and 6 minutes of TV that took 7 seasons to produce and 4 months to consume.  Here are a few thoughts:

  • It is a huge step up from the original show inasmuch as the focus is much more on the long term plot.
  • For a pop TV show it gets pretty dark: The Federation is supposedly about rationality and rights and justice and all that, but even the series protagonist Ben Sisko engages in a certain amount of arm twisting and political skullduggery. It’s all the more rewarding for the ambiguity.
  • When they aren’t paying attention to the main plot, the writers can lose track of that ambiguity and fail to follow up on it.[i] It makes you think of what might have been.
  • There’s a lot of fat and filler. If you subtracted the wacky Quark plotlines, the holosuite-malfunction plotlines, the time-travel plotlines and all of the potential villains that the writers test run and drop,[ii] you could probably trim 50% of DS9’s run-time and still get a decent long-form story.
  • Many of the actor’s performances set up plotlines that are subsequently dropped or reversed in a way that suits the plot as it develops.[iii] These aren’t red herrings—you just get the sense that the writers were making it up as it went along, and these are just seams showing.
  • It’s easy to compare the show unfavorably with later triumphs like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad, which shows most people agree are some of the best television produced, and which no one would scoff at you for liking or comparing to high art from other periods.[iv]
  • Before doing that, though, I consider the differences between the system that produced DS9 and that which produced the previously mentioned series. DS9 was one of the last network shows that weren’t delivered over the internet. It maximized profit by producing a TON of content that could be syndicated. They wrote twice the number of episodes per seasons as The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad. Given that task, the writers couldn’t very well write only episodes that had to do with the Dominion; they’d risk boring people who didn’t like that plotline and losing people who’d missed a few episodes and didn’t know what had happened since they’d last tuned in. And so they sprinkled these among smaller, standalone episodes.

Even with that in mind, I have to ask myself whether or not the show itself is compelling. My answer: for all the modern ambiguity, it still works primarily in the deep sort of way that we think of as childish or hokey or wonderful, depending on our temperament. It is not so gutwrenching or as challenging as some of the other shows I mentioned. It is not, dare I say, as well acted or as well executed. But that brings its own charm. It is easy and safe to like Mad Men, but it takes a good bit of youthful enthusiasm to take your cockamamie theory about how the Star Trek is really similar to Wagner’s Ring Cycle and run with it. Maybe you’ll get it wrong, but I’ll take unabashed enthusiasm over wry distan

[i] Example 1: Dax goes off to fulfill a blood feud that she is not obligated to fulfill. She doesn’t pull the trigger, so to speak, but she has run off to murder someone, a little problem that other characters only mention within that one episode. Example 2: At a certain point Quark becomes an arms dealer. Everyone gets mad at him in the episode, but all is forgotten by the time the credits roll. Example 3: we learn that the morally upright Odo once failed to protect the rights of the accused and innocent. Major Kyra is shocked to learn that he would ever have failed so glaringly, but that doesn’t stop her from getting together with him later on.

[ii] First it’s Gul Dukat the Cardassians… then the Maquis… then the Jem Hadar… then the Dominion… then the Founders… then the Cardassians and the Dominion… then it’s the Breen… you get the idea.

[iii] E.g. O’Brien and Kyra seem to have a momentary attraction while she is carrying Keiko’s baby, Jake Cisco seems a bit infatuated with Ezri Dax, when Worf comes aboard he has a tense moment with O’Brien that is never explained. Gul Dukat and Damar’s personalities also change rather conveniently: Dukat is a heartless functionary in an evil regime; then he finds his long-lost daughter and—instead of killing her to bury the evidence as a Cardassian would usually do—he takes her back home and destroys his political career. In the process he becomes a sympathetic freedom fighter. But then the daughter dies and he becomes a half-mad religious fanatic bent on destruction. Damar is Dukat’s right hand man, then a stock heartless Cardassian (he’s the one who kills Dukat’s daughter), then an alcoholic collaborator and political puppet, then a freedom fighter in the cause.

[iv] For our part, my little circle thinks of Breaking Bad as Shakespearean tragedy and Mad Men as a Gatsbyesque.

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