With Deep Space Nine, the Star Trek franchise has boldly shifted tone and setting, creating a world quite unlike the previous Roddenberry-helmed television shows. The results in season one of said show are... mixed.
Maybe it's the acoustics in here. Did everyone not hear "Smile!?"
Wow. What a slog. It gets better... right? That's what I kept asking myself during Season One of DS9. I've seen the whole series before this, and I know there is a point coming at which I can't wait to watch the next show. But that time is not during this season. It's only in the last 2 episodes that things threaten to become compelling. So let's do a post-mortem and try to dissect what the problems were.
Tone and Pacing are, I think, some of the most major issues. The tone problem is when an episode strikes an odd tone - usually too comedic. I feel like a lot of shows integrated too much of a comedy B story for variety, which detracts from the main story. "Progress" for instance can't decide whether it's a sober meditation on the challenges of broken people keeping their land in the face of progress, or a screwball romantic triangle between Jake, Nog, and some visiting babe. In addition, so many episodes get bogged down in long, boring sequences that are just a real drag to watch. Episodes in this category include "The Storyteller" and "Vortex."
Story Focus is something slightly different - in which the entire episode misses the interesting aspect of the story and instead focuses on something less interesting. "The Passenger" could have been a really interesting psychodrama, had the Vantika consciousness inhabited someone, anyone, more interesting than Dr. Bashir. The mystery was poorly developed, and it never really threatened to be interesting, and none of the interesting sci-fi questions were tackled. It was a wasted opportunity. "Battle Lines" took a novel idea (immortal prisoners) and answered none of the interesting questions about it. "Move Along Home" might have been salvageable if it had focused on the real sci fi questions of what a gaming obsession writ large would really do to a society.
Characterization. Speaking of Dr. Bashir, wow, he's a problem. If he's not being simply written out of episodes (e.g. Q-Less), he is being portrayed as an insufferable douchebag. Dax also is inconsistent, and Kira starts out quite shouty. Only Quark and Odo are really finely drawn from the start. It got better, but season one's characterization was embryonic in a bad way, especially in concert with the show's other issues.
Theme. So what is this show about, anyway? Is it a frontier western? Is it about religion vs. secular humanism? Is it sci-fi focused, or political in nature? Things just kept flailing around, and I felt like it never really jelled.
So when it all comes together, the season as a whole feels dreadfully unfocused and difficult to follow. In watching at all again and rating it, it is apparent to me why (in addition to going to college) I fell away from it during its first airing.
I like Deep Space Nine. A lot. I've gone on record (to the extent this blog forms a record) several times stating it is my second favorite show after TNG. I still think that, but I will admit, I rarely watch season one when I rewatch DS9. In addition to the flaws Matt outlines, I think there's another problem. The show is still living in TNG's admittedly long shadow. The Duras sisters, Q, Vash, and Lwaxana all smack of TNG characters being shoehorned into the show rather than organically fitting into an interesting story. The hand of the people making the show is a little evident in decisions like these.
Later seasons solve all these problems. Even Worf's addition is handled with a more deft hand than first season and ultimately, I think, overcomes the clear ratings grab it was, and once the show settles on its own tone and structure, it really shines.
I will say this for the season. The building blocks are clearly there, and have been from Emissary. I never felt that the show suffered from a lack of care, and even with the guest spots stumbling, it never felt like a cynical attempt to get my money. Everything else aside, this still feels like Star Trek, and it is still clearly helmed by talented people who care about the work. They fail more often than they succeed this season, but I wouldn't go quite so far as to suggest its from not trying, and like I've said before, I'll take Star Trek trying and failing over a lot of other people's successful attempts any day.
Ultimately, I think this show fills a necessary niche in the franchise. A redux of TNG, even expertly done, would have felt stale after six successful years of TNG. Exploring Star Trek's ideals in a more cynical world is an interesting addition to the canon. Like I like (at least some) Star Trek video games, comic books, novels, etc. trying Star Trek in other genres and forums is valuable and helps ensure the vitality of the franchise without abandoning what we like in the first place (with one notable exception). Season 1, unarguable really, fails to do that, but the building blocks are there, and they will get there eventually.
"Dax" is notable for its crisp, exciting pacing. The abduction scene was fun to watch, and then we get courtroom drama, which, if safe, is at least always entertaining. We also learned something key about the character, which was surprisingly rare in season one.
"The Nagus" is played almost purely for comic relief, which might be questionable this early, but for the fact that it centers around the unadulterated highlight of season one, Quark. While it cements the transition of Ferengi from adversary to comic relief, it's hard to argue that they ended up more suited to the latter role than the former.
"Duet." What's this? A truly great episode? Yes. Take every blanket criticism I offered of the show above, and imagine the reverse. Yep, that's pretty much this episode. It confidently mines the story potential of the Bajor/Cardassian setup, gives us a taut drama, and teaches us about the Kira character and shows us her growth. Add some superb performances, and you've got the best of the season.
"In The Hands of the Prophets" is another "Finally!" episode. Finally, they've used the socio-political backdrop to tell an allegorical sci-fi story about religion vs. secularism. Finally, we focus on a villain for more than 2 minutes. Finally, Bajor becomes a real-ish place, instead of just a story prop for our main characters. Finally, I want to watch the next episode!
I agree with the above episodes, obviously, as sadly, there aren't many to choose from. I would add a couple to the list though. I really liked "Dramatis Personae." It's a ballsy episode so early in a run, and if nothing else, the actors were clearly up to the task. The problem and solution are a little contrived, but who cares? Kira throwing Quark over the bar was a riot, and ditzy Dax was hilarious.
I also think "Emissary" warrants a mention. It is one of the high rated episodes this season for a reason. Looking back, I think it shows a lot of potential. It falters in places, but does a good job of setting up the basic through line of the show, that of watching Federation people and beliefs in decidedly not Federation settings and situations.
"Q-Less" was the worst sort of character cross-over - one that not only didn't need to occur, but also diminished the character in question. Q went from galaxy-striding colossus to creepy stalker in the space of 2 or 3 scenes. And he tells Sisko that he's "no Jean Luc." Not a flattering comparison, writers.
"Babel" devolved into a standard "will disease X overtake our intrepid crew" story, replete with principal characters lasting way too long against it, logically inconsistent symptoms, and annoying dialogue. Then, the stupid thing gets cured in 90 seconds by a boring guest star. Ugh.
"Move Along Home" is of course replete with episode (and franchise?) killing issues. Chief among them, though is stupidity. The episode is just stupid. It makes no sense. The aliens make no sense, the heroes make no sense, the game makes no sense. It's impossible to enjoy, even as a guilty pleasure.
"Forsaken" has one REALLY awesome scene in the turbolift, but otherwise goes right back to the "Manhunt: version of Lwaxana. The moment of "Half a Life" Lwaxana is great, but it only serves to highlight the problems with the rest of the episode.
"Storyteller"...eesh. Boring, senseless, awkward. I don't know what else to say.
I also was not a fan of "Past Prologue." It is the opposite of "In the Hands of the Prophets," in that the Bajoran politics are stilted and as much as I love the Duras sisters, it reeked of stunt casting from a parent-show.
Matthew: I don't think we've been unfair. We only disagreed on four episodes, and I rated one of those higher than you did. It seems clear that the pronounced leftward lean on these charts is very much owing to the actual fact that, well, season one of DS9 kind of stinks.
Matthew: This season ended on a up note. But given the run of episodes in the middle of this season, almost anything would have been an up note. To the show's credit, it stuck with the characters and settings laid down in Season One, and actually made them work eventually. But wow, were there some growing pains.
Kevin: You make a good point. They don't abandon what they started here, they just got better at doing it. So, like I said above, the materials are here, they just weren't put to great use. Let's just all agree that Move Along Home never happened and try to move on with our lives.