One Trek Mind #56: 20th Anniversary of "Emissary"
Much like the Prophets, I have trouble understanding linear time. Has it really been 20 of your Earth years since we first saw “Emissary,” the pilot to, as we called it then, “the spin-off to the new Star Trek?”
Indeed it has, and while Deep Space Nine is now recognized as top-shelf Trek, as well as a precursor to so much of our current, highly respected serialized television, it was anybody's guess how things were going to turn out back then. For starters, it was revolutionary to think of a Star Trek show that didn't involve the Enterprise zooming to a new star system each week. In the months leading up, it was discussed (at lunch, over issues of Starlog, if you are the same age I am) as a darker, Wild West-style Star Trek. I had visions of the Mos Eisely Cantina from Star Wars.
What I ultimately got was partially like I envisioned – Dr. Bashir refers to the outpost as the “frontier” and the first look at Quark's has plenty of crazy aliens (including one playing music!) - but the pilot episode itself was much more deliberately paced and dense than I expected.
“Emissary” had a lot to get through in its 90-minute running time. It had to sum up the entire Cardassian occupation of Bajor and the subsequent rebellion. It had to delineate just exactly what Starfleet's role was going to be. It had to orient us with the rather complex Bajoran religious belief system. And, of course, it had to introduce us to an entire new crew – plus explain what a Trill was for folks who'd never seen TNG's “The Host.” Oh, and to top it off, there was the first stable wormhole in existence thrown in there, too.
By and large, “Emissary” does a good job of ticking all these boxes. Using the “orb experiences” as a way to flash into Dax's mind certainly helped a lot, as well as kicking off Sisko's basic conflict as a wounded single father-turned-reluctant-leader. The way Odo just blurts out his backstory on the way to a runabout is a little less subtle. Indeed, there were a few odd things that struck me as I watched “Emissary” for the first time in years, in anticipation of its anniversary.
For starters, how NUTS was it to position Sisko as someone who hated Captain Picard? I mean, I get it, his wife was killed in the Battle of Wolf 359. But here's a new show trying to gain traction and you present its protagonist as someone who has to restrain himself from leaping over a desk and strangling our Captain – our beloved hero – the man we'd gladly step forward and take a phaser blast for?!? Isn't it a little immature for Sisko to hold Picard responsible for what Locutus did? Yes, in the end, after his trans-dimensional chat with the Wormhole Aliens, Sisko learns to put these feelings aside, but this is still a risky way to introduce a new leader. Especially risky considering the casting of the very unique actor Avery Brooks.
Now, hold on a minute. I wouldn't be much of a Star Trek fanatic if I didn't love Avery Brooks. He is my Captain, my Emissary and he saved us all from destruction during the Dominion War. But let's be honest – if we all weren't doing impressions of the odd speech patterns of Star Trek's first captain, we'd be doing them of him.
Brooks' acting technique is… specific. And takes some getting used to. By the time of season three's “Past Tense” he'll have you proudly cheering, or by season four's “The Visitor” he'll have you outright sobbing. For the initiated, however, his odd cadences can be a little jarring. His “I don't know anything about an Orb!” retort to Gul Dukat might elicit snickers from those looking to poke fun. (His delivery, however, is a natural fit for the non-corporeal Wormhole Aliens, however!) It was a casting choice that took guts.
Other funny things strike you watching “Emissary” again – like Nog being arrested for stealing. He's going to grow up and be the first Ferengi in Starfleet! And yet if it weren't for him being a lawbreaker, Quark would have never stayed on the station. Also, it was a good thing they brought in the Defiant. Having the station itself move around and fire photon torpedoes doesn't have the same oomph as a starship.
On a more superficial level, what was up with Major Kira's hair? I know she's been leading a resistance army, but it's all over the place. (Furthermore, will bathing suits of the future really look like that? Time will tell.)
Lastly, and most curiously, why does Captain Picard refer to Bajor as Ba-JOR? I guess it's a good thing they left Sisko in charge.
All told, it's a miracle that they were able to pack this much into 90 minutes. Of course, characters like Garak and Rom and Damar don't even get introduced til later – that's how awesome DS9 is. To celebrate the anniversary, maybe take another look at “Emissary” again. Let me know your thoughts -- that is after you pinch yourself after realizing it's been 20 years.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, ScreenCrush and Badass Digest. On his BLOG, Jordan has reviewed all 727 Trek episodes and films, most of the comics and some of the novels.