“The offender, Miles O’Brien, human, officer of the Federation, Starfleet, has been found guilty of aiding and abetting seditious acts against the state. The sentence is death. Let the trial begin.”
-- Chief Archon Makbar
Sometimes, your best ideas come out of other, unrelated ideas. Remember Gul Dukat’s random-at-the-time monologue about the wonders of the Cardassian justice system in Part 2 of “The Maquis?” The trials are speedy, efficient, and determined in advance. The verdict is always guilty because Cardassians don’t make mistakes, and besides, the true purpose of the justice system is to show the people that the state is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. You know, the big three of oppressive regimes. Unfortunately, manpower shortages make them pretty much impossible goals. Automation will cure that one, too! I’m digressing into some pretty depressing territory, but can you blame me? The Cardassian Empire is frickin’ terrifying.
“The one thing I’ve learned about you humanoids is that in extreme situations, even the best of you are capable of doing terrible things.”
-- Constable Odo
If you decided to learn only one rule of writing, here’s the one you want: conflict is king. In order to tell a story, you need some form of conflict, which can be in any form you like. Person A wants to do something, and Person B would rather they didn’t. That’s it. The story is working that disagreement out, and this formula appears in everything from The Lord of the Rings (Frodo would like to throw the One Ring in Mount Doom, while Sauron would rather he didn’t.) to Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. (The evil developer would like to bulldoze the community center, while Turbo and Ozone would rather he didn’t.) “But, Justin,” you say, “what about Twilight? Those barely had any conflict at all, and when it did, it always got sorted out pretty easily!” Well, unseen person, if we were in the same room, I would have just slapped you across the face. So, please do that for me now. The rest of us can wait.
“This man is a doctor where he comes from. And, there’s an O’Brien there, just like me. Except he’s some kind of high-up chief of operations. And, they’re Terrans. Maybe it’s a fairy tale he made up, but it started me thinking how each of us might have turned out, had history been just a little bit different.”
-- Smiley O’Brien
What is DS9 about? Say it with me, everybody! Consequences! Yes, the point I keep harping on reaches perhaps its most ridiculous extreme in this week’s episode. We’re going to discuss that, but to get there, I need to do a quick sidebar about facial hair.
“Out of all the stories you told me, which ones were true and which ones weren’t?”
“My dear doctor, they’re all true.”
“Even the lies?”
“Especially the lies.”
-- Dr. Bashir and Garak
I’ve made no secret of my love for plain, simple Garak, the Cardassian tailor who might be in exile, might be a spy, or as he suggested to Dr. Bashir in a previous episode, might be a spy in exile. It should come as no shock that this is my favorite hour of the second season. Oh, there are episodes more important to continuity, ones that are thematically richer, and ones with actual space battles. None of that compares with the chance to get the origin story of DS9’s most enigmatic inhabitant. Well, kind of. Nothing is ever plain and simple with Garak.
“It’s easy to be a saint in paradise, but the Maquis do not live in paradise.”
-- Commander Benjamin Sisko
The above quote comes during a rant to Kira about Picard-nemesis Admiral Nechayev. She asks Sisko to “establish a dialogue” and while Sisko is far too disciplined an officer to call her out, that doesn’t stop him from uncorking a monologue as soon as Nechayev’s gone. He points out that Earth is a paradise, and that’s a problem when it comes to the Federation’s thinking. They can’t wrap their brains around anything but the perfection they see around them, and it’s cost both empathy and ability to problem-solve in the real world. He’s talking about privilege here, a term that’s only just beginning to assert itself in the national dialogue. He might as well be saying that it’s easy for the Federation to trust the Cardassians, because Cardassians don’t choke Starfleet personnel to death on camera. DS9 once again shows how relevant it is over twenty years later.
“Education is power. Joy is vulnerability.”
-- Gul Dukat
Of all Sisko’s nemeses, none got under his skin quite like the Maquis. No one likes it when their entire worldview gets called into question. So, while Sisko might hate the Borg, Gul Dukat, and the Dominion, he could also couch that hatred in the comforting balm that these people were not Federation. They had embraced the wrong ethos, so any evil they committed fit comfortably into Sisko’s own driving philosophy. The Maquis, though . . . they had no excuse.
“It is a good day to die.”
-- Lieutenant Jadzia Dax
Star Trek has always had a complicated relationship with its past. As forward thinking as the show is, it remains stubbornly mired in the time period in which it was made. The cheesy sets and optimism of TOS mark it as a child of the ‘60s, the wall-to-wall carpeting and a therapist on the bridge crew mark TNG as a product of the ‘80s, the jittery camera work and focus on mindless action mark the reboot as modern, and so on. Subsequent entries in the franchise always struggle to differentiate themselves from their predecessors, and sometimes these go far enough to suggest embarrassment. To reach a wider audience, the new entry has to look down, blush, and mutter, “Okay, I guess the Gorn look a little silly now . . . but there’s some other cool things . . . ” As much guff as DS9 gets for being un-Treklike, it is the only one of the modern shows that proudly wears its love for TOS on its sleeve.
“That’s the thing about love. No one really understands it, do they?”
Fanfic is the great engine driving all fictional writing. Stop laughing, I’m serious. Well, sort of. For one thing, fanfic is older than you think it is. Did you think the Holy Grail was originally part of the pagan Celtic myth that became known as the King Arthur stories? Do you think Homer intended that Aeneas be the founder of Rome? Did you think Alan Moore actually invented any of the characters he has written about for the last several decades? And, just to be clear, I’m not exempting myself from this. Would Undead On Arrival exist without the noir classic Dead On Arrival? (Answer: no. No, it would not.) Much of writing is taking a story you love, then bending it to accommodate the characters or ideas you always thought it should have. I’ve said it before, but sometimes Spock has to be a werewolf.
“I’m nothing like I expected. Life after life, with each new personality stampeding around in your head, you get desires that scare you, dreams that used to belong to someone else.”
-- Lieutenant Jadzia Dax
Like any occupation, writers have their own jargon, a combination shorthand that allows them to communicate complex ideas with one another efficiently and a way to exclude the outsiders from the conversation. Different kinds of writers have their own dialects, as well, and though there is some overlap, it’s not complete. This is why you will hear novelists like me fretting about our count, while TV writers will put a certain joke on the roof. And, all of us, regardless of medium, lay pipe. (I assure you, that’s one of those things that only sounds obscene, like “quarter pounder at the Golden Arches,” or “performing oral sex on a woman.”) A piece of slang most often associated with TV writers is the A-, B-, and C-stories (or -plots), a shorthand that refers to the different stories that happen in the same episode. The A-plot is the main one, the B- the secondary, and so on down. It’s possible to have a show with only an A-story (“Necessary Evil” from earlier this season is a good example.), but you couldn’t have one with only a C-plot. This week’s episode, “Playing God,” arguably goes all the way down to a D-story, and it’s a royal mess. Not too shocking, then, that a Dax-centric episode has an identity crisis.
“Who is to say that our definition of life is the only valid one?”
-- Constable Odo
When genre fiction is about ideas, it’s about the big ones. The definition of life as applied to artificial organisms has been an important convention in both science fiction, horror, and fantasy since Mary Shelley wrote her masterpiece. I’ve toyed with the idea myself, somewhat glibly in Get Blank, and with far more depth (and gore) in The Dollmaker. Why? Because it’s fascinating. To me, there is nothing more tantalizing than the idea of a creature made by human hands that has both free will and the intelligence to use it. What would their thought processes be without millions of years of evolution shaping them? What kind of being would deeply flawed humans be capable of creating? What the hell do they want? It’s a well Star Trek would return to over and over, most notably with Data. DS9 dips its toes into it this week, in an uncharacteristically lighthearted, but still very good episode.