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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Star Trek: The Next Generation got really popular in the early ‘90s. So much so that Paramount launched a spin-off in the form of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Taking a new approach to give it its own voice, the series was set on a space station instead of a ship. It inverted the Trek concept by having aliens and guest characters come to them instead of our heroes going to them. It also, in many ways, harkened back to the western vibe the original series had (in this case, a western town on the far frontier).
The series is also known for its lengthy story arcs and strong character development. By the end of the series, there were somewhere around twenty recurring characters who were completely fleshed out as well as the regulars. While many Trek fans tend to love the series (some claim it is the best of them all), others are not as favorable since the show took such a different path from what Trek was typically known for.
But before all that set in, they had to have a pilot. Deep Space Nine, as a whole, was nearly always interesting and, many times, action-packed. It was rarely boring. “Emissary”, the first episode, however, can be quite dull in some places. It does a good job of setting up our characters – we meet everyone with a snapshot of who they are and their place in the show. The scene is also set pretty well. But the story itself is a little too out there to be all that engaging.
In “Emissary”, widower Commander Sisko (Avery Brooks), with his son in tow, takes command of space station Deep Space Nine surrounding the recently liberated planet Bajor. He immediately finds a difficult political situation as the Bajorians – as represented by his first officer, Major Kira (Nana Visitor) – are somewhat resentful of the Federation coming in to help as the Bajorian government is trying to restructure itself after nearly 50 years of occupation from the nearby militant race, the Cardassians (no relation to Kim and Chloe – yeah, I just went there).
After settling in, Sisko discovers a stable wormhole (the first known to exist) connection the Bajorian sector to a far distant part of the galaxy. Even more startling, he finds aliens living inside the wormhole who perceive time in a non-linear fashion. Sisko now has to make peace with these aliens who believe those who view time linearly are a threat to their existence while Kira and the rest of the DS9 crew face off against the a small Cardassian fleet who suddenly take a renewed interest in the space station.
Did I lose anyone there? See where the problem arises in this episode. They play around with a lot of neat concepts, but they are also very confusing for viewers who are looking towards a light adventure with a possible message in there too. The ideas of linear versus non-linear time are discussed and explained well enough for viewers to “get it”, but it takes some time to get there. Even after they are done, you still might need a few more minutes to really absorb it.
I think part of the reason why this can be an issue is that the way the aliens are portrayed are so, well, alien that it is tough to really get a read on them. Also not helping matters is that once you do figure out what is going on with this non-linear time stuff, the concept and central conflict in the story kind of falls apart (Sisko needs to teach them about linear time so they realize he is not a threat, but if these beings live non-linearly, then they should already know about what Sisko is teaching them since he “already” did it”).
Add to that that the issue the wormhole aliens have is resolved entirely off-screen. It makes it a bit anti-climactic. However, this whole linear-vs-non-linear thing is really a smokescreen for what the episode is really about: Sisko getting over his wife’s death and moving on with his life. This part of the episode is handled incredibly well. Brooks brings some real emotion to when the wormhole aliens continue to flashback to the scene of his wife dying on a crumbling starship.
In some ways, and perhaps this is me looking too deep into it, Sisko being “linear” was his problem. He was never looking back and, subsequently, never brought himself any closure with his wife’s passing. The aliens, living in all points in time, inadvertently forced Sisko to confront this. To really acknowledge it, and come out strong for it.
Even though the episode has its fair share of explosions and philosophical discussions, “Emissary” is really a character piece. But, as odd as it sounds, it is done so subtly. You do not quite realize the arc Sisko goes on, because it seems like such a small change. However, for anyone who has ever lost someone close to them, you will understand how confronting and accepting their death can be profound.
“Emissary” is really the only Star Trek pilot that really focuses on the characters more than what they are doing. Interestingly enough, that became a hallmark of the Deep Space Nine series. That said, it does take a bit of an adjustment if you go in unprepared for that uniqueness. Perhaps that is partially the reason why some of the Trek fanbase never got into Deep Space Nine. I guess I’ll never really know, because I wasn’t one of them.