Plain and Simple – Star Trek: Deep Space Nine 1×02, “Past Prologue”

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Kira Nerys finds herself in the tentative and sometimes uncomfortable position of having achieved the thing she’s been fighting for all her life, just as her people have achieved what they’ve been fighting (and/or pining) for for sixty years. The Cardassians left, and now the Bajorans are left with one massive question: what next?

That’s one of the central motivators of Deep Space Nine. “Emissary” wasn’t a story about Sisko losing his wife, it was about what happened next, the grief that overtook him and the way that he eventually came to work through it. Along the same lines, while there are certainly stories to be told about the Bajoran resistance, life under the Cardassians, and the mechanisms of their withdrawl, that serves as background for stories about how Bajor is moving forward and the role Kira is playing in that process. When we first met her in “Emissary” that role was one of stubborn refusal to condone any outside power coming anywhere near recolonizing her home; by the end of the pilot episode she had tentatively, begrudgingly, admitted that because the Bajorans needed to aggressively stake their claim to the wormhole discovered in their space, and a Starfleet presence was necessary to keep the Cardassians away, she would need to work with Sisko and the others for now. In “Past Prologue” we meet Tahna Los, a terrorist from the days of the occupation whose group hasn’t stopped even after the Cardassian withdrawal; the Kohn-Ma find themselves on the outside of every organization, not just Starfleet but the Bajoran provisional government as well. When Tahna gets an extanded scene in which to make his case, however, he sounds very much like Kira did just a week ago: Starfleet and the Federation have no business here; Bajor should be for Bajorans; letting the Federation right in defeats the point of driving the Cardassians out.

(It’s interesting to note that the character of Major Kira didn’t exist in the original conception of Deep Space Nine. The series was originally going to feature two well-regarded guest characters from The Next Generation, with Ro Laren joining Chief O’Brien on the new show. Presumably the Bajoran setting was partially chosen to fit with her character (and the fact that the Bajoran nose is one of Trek‘s least intrusive or expensive alien prosthetics), but Michelle Forbes didn’t want to commit to a series, so Kira was created in her place. The two characters are similar in some respects, but the change provides them with a nice contrast: while Ro grew up in a refugee camp and fled to join Starfleet, Kira was born on Bajor and made a life in the struggle there. While this particular episode would have worked essentially the same way with Ro instead of Kira, their different backgrounds and the input of different actresses would have put a different shade on things, not least because Ro’s loyalties aren’t as solidly aligned with Bajor as Kira’s are.)

Don't worry, the wormhole's still gorgeous.
Don’t worry, the wormhole’s still gorgeous.

Great attention is paid in TV writing to keeping certain characters in a series likeable. Particularly in a series like Deep Space Nine that’s stepping outside of Gene Roddenberry’s famous edict from the early days of The Next Generation that there shouldn’t be any conflict between the members of the crew, because by the 24th century humanity (and, again, the Federation by proxy) has evolved culturally to a point where petty disputes just don’t happen, it can be difficult to maintain that utopian vision and still create compelling stories. DS9 skirts by this by introducing a bevy of non-human, non-Federation characters with varied perspectives, but they’re still an ensemble cast that must ultimately work together…though not too much, just yet. It’s a balancing act. Deep Space Nine is a series about people with disparate backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives coming together to drive the progress of their respective societies, but the narrative importance of Starfleet threatens to roll over the other cultures (suggesting a critique of cultural imperialism that the show isn’t quite equipped to make yet). An audience coming to this series with any knowledge of prior Star Trek will in all likelihood identify heavily with the Starfleet characters, especially Sisko as he has the most character development out of anyone thus far, and the show is self-aware enough to know that it must slowly, believably, align some of the other characters a little more with the view the audience is expected to have if they’re all going to gel as an ensemble, as Our Heroes. We never seriously think that Kira’s going to betray the rest of the crew of the station, any more than we ever seriously thought that Sisko was going to quit Starfleet and run home in “Emissary,” given that both actors and characters are listed in the opening credits of each episode, but the point of the episode is to show how Kira comes to her decision.

“Past Prologue” is careful to find a middle path for Kira, and a more extreme element that forces her onto that path: she says that she fought alongside Tahna in the resistance; the word “terrorist” is only used in this episode to refer to Tahna and the other Kohn-Ma members, never for any other resistance fighters. It’s a bit of terminological hedging that the series lets go of eventually, to its credit. (It’s also one aspect of the show that’s unintentionally dated, as the context for a terrorist character on TV is very different today than it was in 1993, when the most prominent terrorist conflict to a Western audience probably would have been either the Troubles or the Intifada.) When presented with Tahna’s hardline views, Kira is sympathetic, but she’s taking a middle path: the Federation is a necessary ally for now, until Bajor is strong enough to defend itself. But Tahna keeps trying to make Kira anxious that she’s compromised too much already, and take advantage of whatever anxieties she may already have.

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The important difference between Kira and Tahna — and everyone in the Kohn-Ma, given the descriptions in this episode — is that Kira’s able to see this middle road between the horrors of Bajor’s past and the fantasy that perpetual fighting will somehow heal that pain. At the same time, that struggle is all she knows; the Cardassians robbed a generation of Bajorans of the full expression of themselves, in addition to all their other crimes. So while she’s vulnerable to Tahna’s message, the mistake Tahna makes is in taunting her too much, revealing that he knew she was on the station and acted as if he was surprised to see her to lull her in, and one thing Kira will not stand for is deceit. She confides to Odo — in a scene that’s smartly put together as they were working together on the station before Sisko got there and can easily have been friends already, and because Odo’s character is well-suited to the bluntness that Kira needs to cut through her moral dilemma — that she does have regrets about some of the things she did during the occupation. She has nightmares about some raids she was a part of, but that was guerilla warfare, a dirty business in itself even when pursued for the best reasons. It’s hard to imagine Tahna being similarly regretful; he may come up with a convincing speech about how he does what he feels he must on behalf of his people, but ultimately he uses that as a pretext to become more insular and ultimately xenophobic. His plan in “Past Prologue” is to collapse the entrance to the wormhole, diegetically removing Bajor’s greatest asset in the name of once again making it a corner of the galaxy that nobody cares much about, and extra-diegetically removing the window to strange new worlds that keeps DS9 in the spirit of Star Trek. Ignoring for the moment the fact that Starfleet was already coming to Bajor before the wormhole was discovered (presumably without it the mission would be more limited), Kira sees the benefit that the wormhole promises to bring to Bajor — commerce, exploration, importance — and refuses to see that promise destroyed. In stopping Tahna’s plan, Kira simultaneously refuses to restore the status quo on Bajor and reifies the status quo of the series. Kira was introduced with some very rough edges that have just begun to be smoothed out, and “Past Prologue” is well placed this early in the series as a test case to show just how much her perspective has shifted already.

The episode’s B-plot, such as it is, begins with the introduction of Mr. Garak, the Cardassian tailor who is the last of his species on the station and widely thought to be a spy. He rather boldly introduces himself to Doctor Bashir, whose naïveté shifts from the bravado he showed in “Emissary” to a sort of giddy anticipation of getting into spy hijinks he’s probably acted out in a holodeck somewhere.

The Garak subplot not only moves information around to make the plot work and underlines Bashir’s youthful credulousness — when Garak shoves him into a dressing room in his tailor’s shop so he can hear a clandestine meeting, Bashir actually starts to look at a jacket before realizing what’s going on — it does so by invoking yet another link to TNG. The Duras sisters, Lursa and B’Etor, hadn’t been seen in TNG in a year and a half, but their appearance here makes enough sense, reinforces the status of the station as a point of crossing for many species, and deepens the series’ status in the larger shared universe. It also provides the first appearance of Klingons on the show, with their delicious overacting (and, for Klingon women, their un-warrior-like cleavage windows).

Garak insists on several occasions in the episode that he’s merely “plain, simple Garak,” meaning of course that he’s no such thing. The original conception of Garak certainly didn’t have the shades and subtleties that he accrued over the next seven years, but even here Andrew Robinson’s performance was investing the character with a bit more enigma than the words on the page. Obviously he’s not simply a tailor. He’s not simply a spy either, as he uses Bashir as a conduit to help Starfleet apprehend Tahna without letting him fall into the hands of the Cardassians. He’s also not simply using Bashir either, as he clearly has some interest in the doctor as a new friend…at the very least. Over the years, Robinson has been candid about playing Garak as a bi or pansexual person who happens to find Bashir attractive:

He’s not gay, he’s not straight, it’s a non-issue for him. Basically his sexuality is inclusive. But it’s Star Trek and there were a couple of things working against that. One is that Americans really are very nervous about sexual ambiguity. … Originally, in that very first episode, I loved the man’s absolute fearlessness about presenting himself to an attractive human being. The fact that the attractive human being is a man (Bashir) doesn’t make any difference to him….”

Sometimes, for its reputation about being forward-looking and utopian, the Star Trek franchise can be downright conservative, as proven over and over again in terms of LGBT representation. Considering the horrifying state of affairs for queer people in the 1990’s, at least the show wasn’t lagging behind the larger culture it was being made in, but the resistance to moving forward, boldly, even in a series like Deep space Nine which is proving to be quite interested in some forms of ambiguity, is disappointing. The same goes for gender, for that matter — there’s little reason for Odo to even have any particular gender, for instance, in terms of his character’s as-yet-unexplored background, but the circumstances of DS9’s production demand a binary gender for everyone. For gender as well as sexuality, fanworks come to the rescue to occupy gaps in representation. That’s not necessarily the worst thing for Star Trek, which has survived and grown through its fans before, but it’s still a huge area that the franchise almost completely sidestepped. Even more than actual representation in terms of characters, Star Trek is famous for allegorical Big Message episodes, and indeed DS9 does make a couple attempts at such a message episode, and introduces some amount of subtext…but we’ll get there, all in due time.

Admittedly, Robinson does play it up just a little.
Admittedly, Robinson does play it up just a little. What representation would have actually looked like in 1993 is a reasonable concern.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine season one is available on DVD.
Screencaps courtesy of TrekCore.

All Star Trek articles on PTBN can be found here.

Author: Glenn Butler

Glenn is not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be. He goes forward, he goes back. The Glenn that you know, he had some second thoughts. Glenn has come back to reclaim some infinitude of silence, the unspeaking of his name. At PTBN he's most often seen walking the web, covering the Star Trek beat, and podcasting about various manifestations of life and popular culture. Find him elsewhere on the Twitter, the Instam and/or the Tumblr. Tamp 'em up solid.