Thursday, July 7, 2016

Final Voyages and Beyond

Tonight, I finished off a sporadic Netflicking of Enterprise, which (along with all the other Trek the 'flix has to offer) is always in my queue. This finale wants to be a Trekkie/Trekker love letter, but is one of those notorious fails that cheapened what came before. Since it was early yet, I decided to finish off my *evening* with the next-up episode of DS9, "Far Beyond the Stars".

FBS has been next-up for some days, if not a week or two, because it's so damned good I don't just watch it any old time as background noise. Every time I see it, this episode is new again.

In the best possible way, this script is tight and taut. It runs like a well-oiled machine, but is not a device, is not a tool. It is story within story; one of the best frames on TV, even though it uses an unremarkable conceit to take us where it literally goes. After the cruel framing device used in Enterprise's finale, this one shows all the world how it is DONE.

Synopsis - The diverse crew of the 24th-century space station Deep Space 9 play different roles in the old "is it all madness/a dream?" scenario, through the character of Captain Benjamin Sisko. Now set in 1950s NYC, the cast are now an ensemble of neighborhood and office characters who know Benny Russell, a science fiction writer enduring racial prejudice and the question of his own sanity.

Stock setup. Stellar (har) execution.

This episode would make a perfect exemplar for a non-fan of the best of Star Trek - why those of us who love it so much, do. It's also deadly goddamned good TV completely apart from its Trek-ness. The production values are strong, the acting is wrenching (a good thing), the comedy is not neglected, and the characters each get the most fascinating workouts. Penny Johnson, who interestingly is barely noted in any of the links above for the ep (perhaps her understatement and naturalism make her work seem effortless), is marvelous, and brought me to mind of Nichele Nichols in "The Lieutenant".

Notable, too, is Michael Dorn's sole outing in all his Trek experience, playing a human being. His exceptionally warm smile and non-Klingon voice are perfect as he plays a smooth baseball hero himself up against the fact he's alone, playing in a white league.

Freed of heavy makeup, Armin Shimerman (there's a Buffy inside joke, by the way), Rene Auberjonois, Marc Alaimo, Aron Eisenberg, and Jeffrey Combs are all quite good.

Cirroc Lofton is a revelation, now no longer Sisko's son, but a savvy young man whose lines are almost the perfect commentary on the episode's racial themes. He is heart-rending and almost as innate in his character's skin as Johnson is. It probably doesn't need saying that Brock Peters is good; but I'll say it.

Those who know DS9 know the complex, maddening, yet charismatic Marc Alaimo - originator of the Cardassian species on Trek during the TNG years - and his role here is, even for those familiar with his villainous Gul Dukat, honestly bone-chilling. I say this on a 90-plus humid night in Virginia in July, sitting on a leather couch.

Rene Auberjonois has a thankless role in an alter-ego which echoes, without the comedy, his role as Clayton Endicott in Benson; unlikeable, and scarily authentic in the punctilious, officious skin of a character the actor himself, I believe, could not less resemble.

Avery Brooks' sometimes over the top performing style is harnessed here (under his OWN direction) in one particular scene of unhinged horror that is powerfully effective.

Even the music is excellent, and used practically, not just sound-tracked over scenes as an emotional instruction how we should feel. One brilliant use of a free-form so famous even I have heard it, though I cannot name it and am not going to throw more links around, uses the cacophany and melody of the instrumentation in a harrowing moment where the main character fears he is losing his mind. The moment he clings to Johnson is sublime, animal, gripping in the physical and the metaphorical sense; his eyes are hunted and his intelligence is both at its height and teetering upon madness. Live brass in the streets, the noise of mammoth crowds, the traffic and a little stock footage of NYC - even Brooks' own moment of song - are the best music Trek ever used.

The editing is a great tool in service of this story; it moves the story subtly, alarmingly, follows the overarching arc, and picks out fine detail.

Keith DeCandido and I have swapped a grin and a lie in the past about this story, either at RavenCon or on Twitter. I've had his "rewatch" essay bookmarked for yeas. I like his take on this piece.

All this is to say - this is why I love DS9 the best. This is why I love Trek. This is what I'd tell people who know me, but don't understand why I am a fan. This is where I might point someone, if they were not and were curious. This would be a hell of a gateway drug (the fact that some areas of the Trekverse might thereafter disappoint notwithstanding).

I love it. And now for bedtime.

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