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Crack, Old School

I've been watching a lot of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine the last few days, mainly because reading about Stargate: Universe is depressing me. And it's not that I ever actually forget the deep and abiding glee this show inspires in me, it's just that it's the kind of glee you can't really recall properly outside of the present-tense. Admittedly Deep Space Nine was a blatant knock-off of Babylon 5 - another show I absolutely adore - but for me that's fully one-third of the reason for its utter awesomeness.



DS9 is my favourite Trek. Don't get me wrong - I adore Jean Luc Picard as much as the next Trekkie, and I was brought up mainly on Next Gen. But DS9 holds a special place in my fannish little heart mainly because, I guess, I was old enough to have my own opinions about it when it was still new and on the air. I remember my also-Trekkie parents handing down punishments of "you may not watch the new episode this week," though for the life of me I can't remember what I'd done. (I expect it was homework-related. I do remember it only happened once - at the time we had only the one TV and I didn't want to risk it happening again.)

There were several years before I was forcibly brought into Stargate fandom where I wasn't really caring about what was on television. Or in comics. Or getting that excited about new books. I read Harry Potter, did the premiere thing, but as far as fandom went I mostly lurked. Stargate was a... I don't want to say "breath of fresh air" because it was more like a snort of coke after years on the wagon. You never forget your first taste. Fannishness is as much an addiction as anything, and once you become an addict - or in my case, are born with a genetic pre-disposition towards it - you're always an addict, whether you partake or not. (I still blame calantha42 for this, because if it wasn't for her I wouldn't now be attached enough to Stargate to have felt offended by all the crapslinging at the fanbase that's been going on lately. I wouldn't have this fandom, either, and all its wonderful, life-affirming crack, and you guys, though, so I consider it balances itself out. ^.^)

Anyway. DS9 was always awesome, because what it mainly was (aside from a knock-off of Babylon 5), was Star Trek: Meta. It took all the previous canon of Star Trek and put it on a space station on the edge of nowhere, added a tense political situation (Bejor, post-Occupation), an unusual commanding officer and a frankly bizarre senior staff (my dad used to call B5 and DS9 the misfits-in-space shows - he was fond of Atlantis for the same reason), tossed in a healthy dose of twitchy religious types and then settled in and started talking about whatever the hell they felt like talking about.

DS9 was also remarkable in that it actually had a story, at least by the end of the first season. This was new for Trek, as before it had mainly been an episode-to-episode sort of deal, though Next Gen edged more in that direction than the original series did. DS9 had a Plan, and you could tell they had one, to the point that when they wandered off to do Weird Shit you didn't mind so much because hey, they Had A Plan.

DS9 had politics. It had thoughtful insights into how human beings interact with alien cultures. It had human characters questioning the righteousness of the Federation (which to my poor little twelve-year-old brain was downright scandalous). It had complications and flawed characters and some pretty awesome amorality when it was necessary. The phrase "I can live with it" lives forever in my personal Awesome Lines Hall of Fame, because DAMN, Benjamin Sisko.

(Let's not forget, it had The Sisko.)

And the thing that distinguishes it from Stargate? It was Star Trek.

Okay no, I swear, that's exactly what I mean. DS9 was made in a time when Star Trek simply did not get cancelled. It overlapped for at least a season with Next Gen, which ran for seven years and set a precedent that went unbroken for a decade. I mean my god, even Voyager never got cancelled (and I'm going to stop that sentence right there before I say something that gets me beaten up the next time I go to a convention - not that I couldn't take 'em, my Trekkie muscles are like steel, guys). The streak went unbroken until... well, we don't talk about that. The other show. It retconned itself out of existence and I take comfort from that. ;)

We live in a very different television world, these days. Mainly we live in a different advertising world. It used to be that advertisers paired products with the projected audiences of a certain genre. Now it's the other way around - studios try and create demographics that please advertisers by tailoring their shows to an imagined template. You make a show with the advertisers' wishes in mind, shaping it to the largest demographic, and this, as we've all seen, gives us shows that are long on cleavage and explosions, and short on political intrigue or morally ambiguous starship captains. The problem, of course, is that the largest demographic is emphatically not made up of sci-fi fans. They don't really want us around. They want people content to take their entertainment with a side of 88% commercial breaks and not demand content or depth. They most decidedly don't want us getting our nerd cooties all over them and scaring off their Key Demographic.

This whole mindset strikes me as backwards, but I'm not an advertising exec, of course. I'm also just covered in nerd cooties. ;)

1990s Star Trek existed in the last golden age. Deep Space Nine was made during that brief, safe period where they were practically untouchable. Just mainstream enough to get by, and therefore safe to explore more interesting avenues. So DS9 got to tell stories about genocide. And terrorism. And zealotry. And bigotry. And treason. And also stories about families and children and friendship and all sorts of normal, boring nonsense like that, without having to give a damn about whether it was exciting enough to keep the beer-drinking, two-car-driving, Swiffer-using Key Demographic entertained. They had one of my favourite things in Star Trek: Section 31, whose entire purpose was to do dishonest, un-Federation things in order to preserve the Federation (I realise the show's been over for a decade, but if you're worried about such things, this is definitely a spoiler :)):



"I wanted to thank you."

"For what? For allowing you to manipulate me so completely?"

"For being a decent human being. That's why we selected you in the first place, Doctor. We needed somebody who wanted to play the game but would only go so far. When the time came, you stood your ground. You did the right thing. You reached out to an enemy. You told her the truth. You tried to stop a murder. The Federation needs men like you, Doctor. Men of conscience. Men of principle. Men who can sleep at night. You're also the reason Section 31 exists. Someone has to protect men like you from a universe that doesn't share your sense of right and wrong."




I'd forgotten how freeing it felt to watch a show that simply wasn't going to be cancelled. Because seriously, I bet DS9 could have gotten away with a lot more shit than it ever tried. Voyager, its successor, tamed down some - though they did get a lot weirder. DS9 was hands-down the most balls-out of all the Trek series - you'd have to be, to have a Starfleet captain (in previous series an sainted figure, if you set aside Picard's unfortunate tendency to get assimilated by the Borg) destroying a planet's liveable atmosphere for the greater good. DS9 was confident in its awesomeness. </i> DS9 made you proud to be a geek. As with Babylon 5, you never got the feeling that half the writing staff was ashamed of what they did for a living. Nah, this was the best job in the world - geek for pay. DS9 gave you the impression that the longer a franchise went on, the better it got (an illusion, of course, as it turned out, but a fun one). DS9 simply did not care about your bullshit. It was glorious. And its glory is undimmed in repetition.

And then, somewhere around season five, they went "fuck it!" and WROTE THEMSELVES A 1960S VEGAS LOUNGE.

AND YOU DAMN WELL BELIEVED IT.

I was watching the casino heist episode today (THAT'S RIGHT, THEY WENT THERE), and I found myself thinking, "man, Stargate, you could have been this cool." I mean, don't get me wrong, SG-1 certainly had this level of awesome in their own way, but they never quite achieved this degree of "FUCK YOU MAN, I'M STAR TREK." Atlantis might have managed it eventually - they certainly had the whole "space station full of misfits" thing going in their first few seasons. But they constantly chickened out, and that's sad. It's like all the "FUCK YOU MAN" momentum built up in SG-1 just... went away (calantha42 swears up and down that if SG-1 had gone on one more season, they would have done a musical episode, and I agree with her one hundred percent). And with SGA's last season, they'd forgotten what it even felt like. They chose a different path, and the one they picked led to general boredom and a declining quality of storytelling. It's tragic, really, because they had the potential to Totally Go There, but they let it slip away.

Damn good thing there's fandom, really.

I have no idea what DS9's ratings looked like in its latter seasons - I'm not sure it really would have mattered, at the time - but I like to imagine that they were pretty good. Star Trek was, of course, always more mainstream than Stargate ever managed - simply because it had a reputation and a lot of the hard work had already been done for them by then. I am quite confident that people write better stories when they think the stories are worth telling. And while that may have been true a long time ago with Stargate, it certainly hasn't come across as being the case in the last few years of Atlantis. (It makes me very dubious about the future of Universe. You can't write good sci-fi if you're convinced that sci-fi is for losers - not that I know that's the case with the Stargate writing staff, of course; it's just the impression I get, as both someone who considers being a writer a part of her core personality, and a sci-fi fan. You can't do anything well if you don't believe it's worth doing. If you get no joy from it.

Anyway, if you are, like me, suffering from SGU-related depression, I strongly recommend both Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 as a balm for your soul. If you want some FUCK YOU MAN! SCI-FI IS AWESOME! to brighten your day, these are the shows for you. It's certainly made me feel better. If you really want to kick up your mood, join me a moment in envisioning an unlikely future: that some day the networks will be gone, and the advertisers will be obsolete, and we will write our own stories, and tell them to each other, for each other.

In the meantime, there is always fandom.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
monkey_junkey
Jan. 28th, 2009 10:37 am (UTC)
You have made me so, so nostalgic for DS9 right now. I may have to beat up my boyfriend's flatmate and steal his DVDs. I still have a postcard of Dr. Bashir I bought some 13-14 years ago because I thought he was the hottest man ever. I actually wanted to be a doctor for a while because of him but then I realized modern healthcare is a deadly gauntlet of insurance companies and liability(in the US anyway).

But yes. DS9 had BALLS TO SPARE.

Oddly coincidental that both Trek and 'Gate have decided to produce a misfits-in-space series followed immediately by a lost-in-space series.
xparrot
Jan. 28th, 2009 04:15 pm (UTC)
I've never actually seen the last few seasons of DS9 - went to college, lost track of broadcast TV for a while. My kneejerk Trekkie loyalty is to TNG, but there was a lot of really interesting stuff in DS9 (plus DS9 had Garak!) - and yeah, if SGA could've been to SG-1 what DS9 was to TNG, its dark side, the deconstruction, the exploration pushing different boundaries - oh, man, it could've been something. Sigh...

B5, now, remains my favorite TV show of all time. For all its faults, I've never seen another show that tells a story as completely as B5 manages *mmmmm scifi!*
winter_rogue
Jan. 28th, 2009 05:57 pm (UTC)
DS9 was always my fav too, because it had politics and intrigue and misfits and it took the time to develop characters and relationships, friendships and enemies and it wasn't purely plot driven, it had kick ass people making hard decisions and real mistakes. (that heist episode was beautiful btw)

the the one thing i've always been sad about SGA is that there are episodes where for the sake of time and plot they cut character development short, leaving it to our imaginations sure, but still leaving it for the sake of one more explosion. i feel like sg1 dealt with the characters better and i'm not sure if it was the actors or the relationship precedent set in the movie that RDA seemed to really carry to the series or what and i'm sad we didnt see as much of that (beyond just the team grabbing cups of jello together on a balcony) in Atalntis. it had all the potential with talent, actors and writers, but it seems like they just got bogged down in telling a mainstream thriller in the space of 42min.
tharaist
Jan. 28th, 2009 07:23 pm (UTC)
Babylon 5 was my ultimate sci-fi series in the 90s, I still remember how I felt when new grand events took place and the destiny of the galaxy was on hold. I loved it and taped every single episode.

I prefer Next Gen to DS9, but I've never been able to watch DS9 in the right order to really get the bigger story arch behind it.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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