The Future Will Be Carpeted: An Analysis of ‘Deep Space Nine (S7E17)’

“Penumbra”
7.17 (aired April 7, 1999)

“Accept your fate. Your greatest trial is about to begin. Don’t be afraid. All will be as it should be.”
    -- Sarah Sisko

DS9’s serialization was never part of a master plan. The show started life like any other Trek installment, with the difference that the antagonists came to the protagonists rather than the other way around. As the writers, especially Ira Steven Behr, steadily took greater control over the direction of the show, it grew more and more beholden to its rich continuity and fascinating cast of secondary characters. But there was no grand plan behind it all; these were merely the stories the writers wanted to tell, and the Star Trek brass was distracted enough with Voyager and the movies to allow them to do whatever they wanted.

DS9 finishes its run with what amounts to a 10-parter (or 9-parter, if you view the two-hour series finale, “What You Leave Behind,” as a single episode), but this was far from a foregone conclusion. Even into the beginning of the seventh season, the writers weren’t sure precisely how they were going to end things. Oh, they had endings planned for most of the main characters (Sisko, Kira, Odo, and O’Brien all have had ample foreshadowing for their eventual destinies.), but they weren’t certain on the format. While in retrospect, a 10-part series finale sounds like the audaciously perfect or perfectly audacious way to give this most serialized its swan song, it wasn’t even something that would have normally been considered an option.

The show aired from 1993 to 1999, which is important to remember to understand where it was in the evolution of television. Thus, it started its life with serialized curiosities like Twin Peaks in the rear view, and was concurrent with The X-Files, which was the model of a rich (and ultimately nonsensical) mythology, punctuated by standalone episodes, as well as Babylon 5, a show famous for being both highly serialized and entirely planned out from the beginning. Buffy the Vampire Slayer followed the X-Files mold, with an even greater emphasis on continuity, throwing mythology beats into standalones. As a side note, Armin Shimerman was on both Buffy and DS9 and lost two steady paychecks in 1999.

DS9 went off the air before the Second Golden Age of Television began, an age that coincided with the rise of both DVRs and streaming, allowing an audience to binge shows. Now, intense serialization was a feature rather than a bug, as viewers could jump in whenever they liked and never miss out on a thing. The point is, DS9 doesn’t have the roadmap established by so many great modern shows. They were flying blind. They might also have been crazy, as airing a 10-parter was pretty much unheard of. The writers assumed, rightly, that the fans who were still with them after seven low-rated seasons were the kinds of obsessives who would follow their favorite show through this outbreak of awesome madness.

With that in mind, the writers decided that they would craft each episode as having its own plot. Thus, the hours conform, at least partially, to the prevailing wisdom of the time. There’s an A-plot, a B-plot, and a protagonist crewmember. Oftentimes, the hero of the story is generally getting set up for their ultimate destiny.

The writers decided to kick things off with Ezri, which might be why I regard the opening salvo of this grand experiment as its weakest entry. While I’ve come around on Ezri as a character, I strongly disagree with the destiny the writers planned for her. We’ll get there in the series finale, but I think they did her and the Dax symbiont a disservice with her ending. I mean, when the whole plot centers around her unresolved feelings for Worf, you’re on shaky ground.

Some of the problem is they never did quite figure out the puzzle of the Dax characters. Ironically -- or perhaps not, since they had six earlier seasons of rough draft -- Ezri was a more compelling take on a 300-year-old worm in the body of a 20-something woman than Jadzia was. Because she wasn’t ready or self-assured, she was allowed to play up the dichotomy between two halves of her character. She was constantly wracked with memories and impulses she didn’t understand and couldn’t control. Still, Dax finds herself primarily defined by the men in her life. So, when Worf goes missing after a Jem’Hadar ambush in the Badlands, Ezri disobeys orders to go and look for him.

She finds him pretty quickly, which I liked. Dax has a wealth of experience as well as the memories of some pretty brilliant hosts (Jadzia included), and it makes sense for her to come up with the relatively obvious in retrospect way to find Worf’s lifepod. It also plays well with her vulnerability, as this requires her to be tossed around by plasma storms, and Ezri, memorably, is prone to spacesickness. She finds Worf, and the two of them immediately get on one another’s nerves. Worf is still uncomfortable with the limbo Jadzia Dax exists in, being dead but also living on inside of a stranger. Ezri would really like Worf to stop being such a jerk to her all the time.

On the way back home, they get attacked by Jem’Hadar and end up marooned on what looks like the same planet Worf nearly let Jadzia die on. I can’t complain too much -- the show used the same quarry for some of the best episodes of the series. In any case, the two of them do the standard romcom sniping at one another until they inevitably fall into one another’s arms. They awaken later fully clothed, which is a little weird. Even weirder, they’re captured by the Breen, the encounter-suited aliens who have popped up from time to time, first holding Ziyal in “Indiscretion,” and later in “In Purgatory’s Shadow/By Inferno’s Light,” when we learned the wonderful proverb “Never turn your back on a Breen.” The problem is, the Federation isn’t at war with the Breen, so what gives? It’ll have to wait for next week.

Sisko’s plot inevitably concerns the Prophets. As Space Jesus, it’s inevitable. He’s made noise about building a house on Bajor previously, and now he’s bought the actual property where he’ll do it. I’m not sure how buying real estate works when you’re a messiah from a post-scarcity economy. It’s either much easier or much harder. Anyway, he takes the time to sweetly propose to Kasidy Yates, who accepts. Whenever we talk about how good Captain Kirk is with the ladies, remember this moment. Sisko sent Kasidy to prison and got her to marry him. It’s The Sisko’s world. We just live here.

Speaking of The Sisko, the Prophets make a return in the form of his mother, Sarah. The show reminds us in dialogue that Sisko is partially Prophet, paving the way for Sarah’s return. She warns him that he can’t get married; it’s not part of the plan for him, and if he does it, he’ll “know only sorrow.” This is likely a callback to the price the Prophets demanded for destroying the incoming fleet. That price should have been the Reckoning, but Kai Winn’s crisis of faith prevented that and allowed Space Satan to get all comfy up in Dukat. Sisko was promised to find no rest on Bajor, and now the Prophets are telling him the check is due.

Meanwhile, the Dominion isn’t the monolithic force it wants to portray. The friction between an increasingly alcoholic Damar and Weyoun has only gotten worse. The illness the Female Changeling is suffering from has apparently expanded to the Great Link, and she has teams of Vorta scientists (teams she’ll casually order executed and replaced with their clones for a fresh perspective) working on it.

Most importantly, Dukat secretly returns. He’s gone mad and much as Sisko has embraced his role with the Prophets, Dukat worships the Pah-wraiths. While the true scope of his plan won’t be revealed yet, arguably the most disturbing part is the preparation. He has Cardassian surgeons alter him into a Bajoran. It’s as wrong as it sounds.

“Penumbra” is the weakest part of the finale, but that’s almost inevitable. It’s the beginning, setting a number of balls rolling for the end, and only somewhat resolving Ezri’s residual feelings for Worf. Rest assured, things only get better from here, as the Dominion War reaches its height, and the series its end.


Next up: The end, part 2.

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