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Posts Tagged ‘Deep Space Nine’

(With due apologies to Tony Hawks.)

It is interesting, and not a little cheering, to see that most people are resisting the crack of the whip as wielded by the vested interests of the untrammelled capitalist system and not trudging back to the old status quo simply because those who would benefit most from this demand them to. For me and many others the pause in everyday life continues (not quite a complete pause, as the passage of time is reflected in the slow erosion of my savings, but that’s by-the-by) and we continue with whatever we’ve been doing for the last two months. In my case this has been online gaming of various kinds and watching films and TV shows online and on DVD.

One of the games I ended up trying was Modiphius’ Star Trek Adventures, the latest in a very long line of Trek-related role-playing games and wargames. I and the player group I rassled together have been having quite a good time with this – although it’s hard to tell whether the dud moments we occasionally have are down to problems with the way the system translates Trek into an RPG context or just us not getting the vibe right ourselves as players.

Anyway, we have been having a good enough time to want to continue for the foreseeable future – inasmuch as that expression has any meaning at present – and this has put my mind to the question of writing stories for the game (this would probably be a more appropriate topic for a more gaming-focussed blog, but hey, one thing at a time). Star Trek RPGs can be difficult to write for, as the characters are not acquisitive or inclined to violence as a first resort, standard jeopardy plots are often negated by the ship’s transporter beam, and many key conflicts are often internal or somewhat abstract (you want your players to respect the Prime Directive, but if they treat it as an unbreakable rule in the way that Picard and Kirk frequently don’t, it becomes an obstacle to stories rather than a facilitator of them).

Then there are the really odd episodes that a game like Prime Time Adventures would probably handle better than even a semi-traditional RPG like STA: the one where Picard goes home to his family, or the one where someone unknowingly gets stuck in a micro-universe and has to figure our why the galaxy is now only half a mile across, or… you get my point. Or, and we finally reach our topic, the one with the baseball game.

I speak of Take Me Out to the Holosuite, fourth episode of Deep Space Nine‘s final season. DS9 has a reputation as the grimmest and grittiest of the Trek series, which I suppose is not undeserved – although personally I think of it as a series which, once it found its stride, was essentially about what happens when a utopia faces an existential threat: can it hang onto the values and philosophies which are at its core? When does survival come at too high a price? Nevertheless, the show also occasionally throws out what I can only call a goofball episode, of which this is a good example.

The USS T’Kumbra, an all-Vulcan ship, is docked at the station for repairs and refits, and it turns out its captain, Solok (Gregory Wagrowski), is an old rival of Captain Sisko. That doesn’t sound very Vulcan, I hear you say, and I agree: but quite apart from holding a grudge, Solok is also arrogant about Vulcan superiority and dismissive of other less developed races (which is to say, all of them). Solok completes his bid for the title of least authentic Trek alien this side of Australian Romulan Legolas by also revealing he is a follower of baseball and has formed his senior officers into a team. (It is implied he has done this just to wind the baseball-loving Sisko up – I know, I know, it just keeps on like that.)

Needless to say Sisko accepts Solok’s challenge of a game between the Vulcans and his own staff, to be played on the holosuite in two weeks’ time. Cue various droll scenes of Klingons, Trill, and Bajorans sitting around trying to learn the arcane rules of baseball, try-outs amongst the regular characters, and so on: even sour-natured barkeeper Quark ends up on the team, even though he has virtually no reason to want to take part. Odo is recruited as umpire; O’Brien invents whiskey-flavoured chewing gum for his role as coach; and so on. (Meanwhile, the Dominion War, in which more than a billion sentient creatures die, continues to rage off-screen, although no-one really mentions this as it would break the whimsical tone of the story.)

Most of the latter part of the story is taken up with the game itself, between the Logicians (Solok’s team: in one of many nice touches, their team symbol is the Vulcan IDIC icon) and the Niners (their symbol merges DS9 itself with a baseball). But how can Sisko and his people hope to stand a chance against a team who are much stronger, tougher, and faster, and – perhaps more crucially – actually know how to play?

I suspect I’m coming across as a bit dismissive of this episode, which is not my intention – I do like it a lot, mainly because it is so atypical of DS9. The thing is that it is quite self-indulgent – or that you have to indulge it in its various conceits, I’m not sure which is more accurate. The characters forget about the war to play baseball for a while; there happens to be a Vulcan baseball team in Starfleet; Sisko believes for a moment that his guys have a chance against them (only Worf the Klingon and the genetically-augmented Bashir can realistically match the Vulcans). There is something deeply un-Roddenberry-esque about the decades-long, and seemingly quite bitter rivalry between Sisko and Solok, and Sisko’s characteristically ruthless determination to win (to begin with at least).

There I go again. It is still really very likeable, even if, like me, your grasp of the rules of baseball is negligible – this is apparently one of those stories which has proven a victim of history, as the rules of baseball have changed since it was made – it seems that while people are still playing the game in the 2370s, they’ve reverted to an archaic version of the rules. I would never have known this; I don’t really understand what is going-on game-wise at the end of the episode, although of course I can follow the emotional track of the story, which is about Sisko learning to loosen up and Rom getting his moment of glory (the famous behind-the-scenes anecdote from this story is that Max Grodenchik, who plays the Ferengi, was a semi-pro baseballer in civilian life and found it almost impossible to convincingly play badly).

In the end this is a cheery little story, two-parts character study to one-part love letter to baseball itself. The stakes are personal and the tone gently comic, for the most part. How you’d make people buy into it as a traditional RPG scenario I’ve no idea, but perhaps the lesson to be learned is that some things just don’t transfer from one form to the other that well. In any case, this is an entertaining example of what Deep Space Nine routinely absolutely isn’t.

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With the release of Star Trek: Discovery only a few weeks away, my impression is that much of Trek fandom, far from being in a state of happy anticipation, is basically on Yellow Alert, hoping for the best, but fearing that… well, apparently the new show is essentially from the same place as the JJ Abrams movies – enough said, probably. (I almost get the impression that some people are more excited about The Orville than an ‘official’ piece of Star Trek.) One of the things most responsible for this general uneasiness is the new show’s take on the Klingons, particularly their appearance. After viewing one of the trailers, my comment to a friend was ‘What the hell have they done to the Klingons?!?’, to which his response was ‘How do you know they’re Klingons?’ (the dialogue gave it away – although well-versed in Trek, his grasp of tlhIngan Hol is even shakier than my own). The fact that a seasoned Trekkie didn’t recognise Discovery‘s Klingons as Klingons really kind of says it all.

Not that there haven’t been radical reimaginings of Klingons in the past, of course, make-up techniques and budgets having developed somewhat in the last fifty years. The original Klingon characters are basically just dudes in blackface makeup and droopy false moustaches, while The Motion Picture features a style of Klingon never quite seen elsewhere. From 1984 until the end of Berman-era Trek in 2005, things become a lot more consistent, of course. The shifts in makeup even get addressed in the text of the episodes themselves – there’s some lantern-hanging for comic effect in Trials and Tribble-Ations, where Worf, in all his lumpy-headed glory, gets to meet some ‘original’ Klingons, and then a sincere attempt to explain the various inconsistencies towards the end of Enterprise.

It’s telling, however, that when 90s Star Trek reintroduced Klingon characters from 60s episodes, they just updated the make-up without making any reference to the fact that they’d done so. My understanding is that consideration was given to simply retaining the original look, but the decision was that this might be confusing to the general audience.

The episode in question is Blood Oath (written by Peter Allan Fields), from the second season of Deep Space Nine. At this point in its history, DS9 is still essentially an episodic programme, with the Dominion yet to make its presence felt, and this installment is distinctive mainly because of a premise guaranteed to excite the truly devoted, while not meaning a huge amount to the general viewer.

Anyway, the story gets underway with a rowdy, if somewhat geriatric Klingon, causing trouble in Quark’s bar. This turns out to be Kor (John Colicos), last seen in Errand of Mercy from the first season of the original series. Kor has let himself go a bit since his glory days on Organia, rather to the disgust of his old friend Koloth (William Campbell), last seen in the flesh in The Trouble with Tribbles, from the second season of the original series – Koloth refuses to bail him out.

News of this unusual grip of elderly Klingons (‘grip’ is the collective noun for Klingons, apparently) reaches the senior staff of the station – those of them actually appearing in the episode, anyway. It turns out that Science Officer Dax was friends with both Kor and Koloth in her previous incarnation, and that they have come here in preparation for the fulfilment of an oath of vengeance taken decades earlier. All this has happened at the behest of a third old Klingon, Kang (Michael Ansara), last seen in Day of the Dove, from the third season of the original series.

However, Kang got to know Dax nearly a century earlier (the implication, if you do the sums, seems to be that this happened before the peace talks of Star Trek VI), and is unaware Dax is now an MTA. Kang releases Dax from the obligation to help them kill a Klingon renegade responsible for the deaths of the three Klingons’ eldest children on the grounds that she is not really the same person. But Dax is not sure she wants to be released…

Now, I like Deep Space Nine nearly as much as I like the original series, and so I really want to like this conjunction of the two of them: the whole idea seems to have been ‘let’s get the three most famous original Klingons back!’ – but having got them back, the episode struggles a bit to find worthy things for them to do. Now, Michael Ansara as Kang is very nearly as authentically Klingon as Michael Dorn, while the relish with which John Colicos attacks his lines as a newly Falstaffian Kor is also extremely good value. William Campbell gets swallowed up by his makeup and hair, though, and perhaps suffers from having less to do than the others (though this was also really the case in his original appearance, too).

Beyond the performances, though, the bulk of the episode is taken up with Dax wondering if she wants to go and help kill the bad guy, and then trying to persuade the others to let her come with them. And the scent of pre-mixed filler is all over this stuff – of course she does. Of course they will. I’m reluctant to say this is the fault of Terry Farrell (who plays Dax) as an actor – your level of expertise is really immaterial when it comes to dealing with a script which fails to really dig down into its subject and give it any depth or genuine emotion.

This is, in the end, a story about someone who sets off on a quest to kill someone – the oath of the title is an oath of vengeance, after all. It goes without saying that this is against the ethos of Starfleet and the Federation, and you might expect, firstly, that Dax would do a bit of histrionic soul-searching in the classic Trek style, and, secondly, that her colleagues and commanding officer would have something to say about it too. The episode makes a vague gesture in the direction of both these things, but in the end it doesn’t really do anything interesting with them.

I suppose in the end this episode is a dictum victim – the dictum in question being that of Trek writing luminary Michael Piller, who decreed midway through TNG that every episode would focus on one of the regulars and be about that character in some way, rather than being (say) a plot-driven action-adventure. Whatever you think of this in general, it’s surely a terrible basis for an episode the sine qua non of which is bringing back three classic characters for a tale of old warriors facing their last battle. All the stuff with Dax gets in the way of Kang, Kor, and Koloth getting good scenes, and it means the concluding action sequences feel rather underdeveloped too. The writer throws in a twist, but it’s a bizarre and somewhat illogical one – Kang is knowingly leading the other two to their deaths, believing they have no real chance of ever killing their target, and reasoning that any kind of demise in battle is better than simply fading away. Really? That’s a very defeatist attitude for a veteran Klingon commander.

And I wonder if the decision to stick the boys in the standard Klingon make-up wasn’t a mistake. For one thing, it makes at least one of them virtually unrecognisable from their original appearance, and for another, while the story is clearly gunning for a Three Musketeers or Seven Samurai kind of vibe, the Klingon wigs, on top of all the leather gear, gives it more of the feel of a geriatric hair-metal band reunion tour. On one level I suppose it sort of is. In the end, it is pleasant to see these characters again after all this time – and better episodes for John Colicos follow. But on this occasion, the strength of the material doesn’t come close to the potential of the concept.

 

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