Saturday, 29 June 2019

Prophetswatch: Behind the Promenade

https://www.ds9documentary.com
In one sense, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was a microcosm. A big microcosm.

At its height, the series' parent TV franchise embodied four multitasking programmes that successfully built upon a measured mix of speculation and contextualisation. In broader terms, Star Trek as a whole, dramatically explored the disparate notions of belonging and isolation, love and loss, and the militarisation of peace-keeping. Its very premise was a fascinating contradiction; a series that presumed a future without conflict, but where gunboat diplomacy was part of the day job for an exciting star-fleet of exploratory vessels, each busy combing the cosmos for answers to Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Earlier this week, for the first time and in most eager anticipation, I caught a limited, theatrical screening of, What We Left Behind - Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. This new, feature-length retrodoco, revisting the classic television curio (sound familiar?), discusses both the creation and manifestation of what is quite possibly my own consistently-favourite, aforementioned incarnation of the Star Trek brand.

'Brand'. It seems strange to apply that word to what has now become for so many, a philosophy. Until recently, not much seemed to have changed aesthetically or culturally within the Star Trek formula, since its inception back in the 1960s. Even today, in the world of post-Prime Trek, similar archetypes still wear the same, similar uniforms of yesteryear, and populate similar-looking space vessels, uttering similar-sounding techno-poetry to help resolve similar, weekly, dramatic dilemmas.

All of this is still willingly enabled by fine character actors, often swayed in similar creative splodges of ear, nose or forehead-based, moulded latex. As a fan, I find it difficult to critique these similarities, as I find they work so well! And perhaps never more so, than in this particular spinoff, often abbri'vd to, 'DS9'.


I know all-too-well how potent a thing, nostalgia can be. It's the nice surprise you somehow gift yourself, for simply doing that same thing you enjoyed doing, once before. But much more than just a mere memory reflex, the process feels so earned, so vital to your very being - spiritually, though inexplicably, and undeniably propping-up everything that makes you, 'you'.

This week's meaningful experience of viewing, What We Left Behind on the big screen, was to me, bursting with nostalgia, for so many reasons. The evening itself, ironically proved to be far more an unexpected journey through the ever-fluxing space-time continuum than I could have possibly hoped.

When I heard, almost at the last minute, that a not entirely-local cinema chain would be hosting a special presentation of the film, it didn't take long for me to purchase my first Showcase Cinema ticket, in a very long time. This is largely owing to one unforgettably sad day, some years past, that saw my much loved-since childhood, local National Amusements venue unexpectedly shut up shop, after being acquired by the neighboring Jaguar plant, then-seeking expansion.

I recall, this took place early 2013, because the last film I saw there was Sam Mendes', Skyfall. And what an entirely worthy flick to go out on, that thankfully turned out to be. But even so, I was bloody crestfallen when those tall glass doors closed unceremoniously and without warning, forevermore. So much so that I contacted the local paper, requesting a print of a published article photo, showing two workmen on a crane, taking down the giant letters that comprised its sign; which is now framed, ably reminding me how seldom things last forever. Until yesterday, I hadn't even considered making a trip further afield to explore an alternate venue, largely due to the now far-increased distance, Showcase-to-Showcase...

You can imagine my glowing surprise then, as just moments after pulling into the car park, I noticed that the interior of the complex almost exactly resembled my long-since bulldozed haunt; no doubt, care of standardised architectural plans, commissioned by the chain, long ago.

This genuinely proved to be one of the most inexplicable moments of my entire life. I double-taked at the same polystyrene squares lining the ceiling, the same circular concession island which lay just away from the main entrance, the same ticket desks at either end of the lobby, and even what appeared to be the same model hand dryers, in the gents. Ironically, I couldn't help but compare this same uncanny observation to when DS9 characters occasionally found themselves on the dimly-lit, Dutch-tilted, abandoned sister station, Empok Nor, for the occasional bottle episode, in which the same sets could be cunningly repurposed, at presumably short notice.

Just for any Non-Trekkies reading this, the boldly-gone premise for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine centred not on a star-ship, but rather the star-base 'Terok Nor', later rechristened, 'DS9' by the ever-expanding United Federation of Planets. Starfleet has been invited to occupy and maintain the station by the spiritually-guided, Bajorans, following their righteous expulsion of the ruthless Cardassian invasion force, which had mercilessly occupied the planet with an iron rod, for decades.

Until then, the dominant Cardassian invaders had built the station by way of slave labour, all the while too busy subjugating their unwilling workforce, to notice the whacking great, stable wormhole, just a short hop from Planet Bajor, itself. When the newly-arrived Starfleet mark the discovery of this precious, spacial shortcut just two episodes in, tensions immediately rise as the station becomes the only thing standing in the way of any neighboring government or aggressor seeking to exploit the wormhole for their own gain.

But the wormhole isn't just a handy means of cutting back on this month's antimatter fuel bill. It is also the fabled 'Celestial Temple' that much of Bajor's religious dogma is based upon. Residing within it, are the non-corporeal 'Prophets'; powerful, non-linear aliens who consider the station's new commander, the widowed family-man, Benjamin Sisko, to be their Emissary; the only person capable of leading Bajor into a golden age of peace and prosperity.

Under strict orders to facilitate Bajor's long-mooted membership into the Federation, neither Sisko, or his superiors, seem very keen on his newly-bestowed title, but soon he comes to appreciate more faithfully contemplating his life and the galaxy in a wider context, as he and his crew struggles and strives to maintain order, in preserving the ever-fragile peace between bitter nations.

In short, it's all very political.

"On Earth, there is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window of Starfleet Headquarters, and you see Paradise.

Well, it's easy to be a saint in Paradise. [...] Out there, in the Demilitarised Zone, all the problems haven't been solved, yet. Out there, there are no saints, just people." 

- Commander Sisko, The Maquis Part II

At its heart, Star Trek has for the longest time, arguably been an extended discussion on the nature of humanity. In preserving creator, Gene Roddenberry's hopes that all works that followed The Original Series, should continue broadcasting the ever-hopeful message of a future unburdened by human (though not alien) conflict, The Next Generation's USS Enterprise-D was a markedly-different working environment to Jim Kirk's otherwise tall Constitution-class ship, in that its apparently-refined, replacement command crew usually preferred talking their way out of Dodge than whipping out the photon torpedoes, and blasting the enemy to cosmic smithereens, on sight, alone.

This choice turned out to be most-appealing to fans at the time, with the series' lasting success proliferating to this day, later earning an exhaustive HD remaster from its original 35mm negative; and not forgetting, the upcoming Picard revival, in which even Sir Pat Stew has agreed to bring back his albeit wholly-worthy lead character, at one point thought to be totally played-out.

Between the diplomatic, Next Gen and long-journey-home fable, Voyager, was the bleak but brave, DS9. Notoriously resisted by a number of ardent Trekkies on release, though decreasingly-so as time went on, this particular iteration of Star Trek notoriously carved its own path, breaking away from its tried-and-tested franchise roots, and offering the simple thesis that war may not only be inevitable, and destined to bring out the worst in some, but that such awful conflicts may also inspire new opportunities, and even the best in others.

"You know, I never thought I'd say this, but I'm glad the Dominion is around. Otherwise, we'd have never started these upgrades, let alone have them almost finished, by now." 

- Chief O'Brien, Way of the Warrior

Prior to this daring take on Trek, a bad day for the crew of the luxury, Galaxy Class, Enterprise-D was not getting the plasma injectors aligned, in time for tea (... Earl Grey, hot). A bad day for the DS9 Operations Staff was potentially losing a main character. It is precisely this perpetual sense of threat that for me, made the series so compelling. The foreboding tension of increasingly-malevolent forces slowly gaining ground on the station aided in persisting a defensive tone, with characters developing into a consistently-inconsistent, multifaceted, and familial ensemble. Though largely likeable and relatable, these frontiersmen were also tough, hardened, and often highly-adept at gallows humour.

Refreshingly, nothing trivial seemed to bother this lineup particularly, and despite the many hardships of slowly restoring the station to its future glory, overall seemed like a fairly interesting place that one might someday find themselves assigned to serve. All in, the whole thing just felt more real and credible, despite still being an otherwise fantastical endeavour, crucially still wedded to continuity.

Never straying too far from its inherited blueprint, DS9 was also a scientifically-based serial, though exploring the science of interpersonal politics, as opposed to say, quantum physics. But so codified was its content, so densely-packed was its deeper meaning, that of all Treks, this inevitably proved to be the iteration that fans would deem to be most worthy of a feature-length revisitation.

The documentary that enabled these collective hopes, I am pleased to report, proved to be a highly-enjoyable watch. Quirky, unrestrained, and very much self-aware, it could easily have been the first in a series of exploratory docos, not unlike Charles de Lauzirika's inspirational explorations on, the Alien saga.

A prime example of highly-successful crowdsourcing, having raised well-over half a million dollars in fan-finance alone (... 'jealous', moi?), the film is notably prefaced with a forewarning on the ever-tenuous line between fact and fiction, and how time can unduly affect emotive opinion. This may seem a given in any retrospective exploration of some past artistic dalliance, but the admittedly-curious choice of introduction functions more as a prelude to the overall tone of the piece, which oscillates between bittersweet reminisce, heated frustration, and assured, good-hearted humour.

With so much to potentially discuss in just over two hours, the largely interview-lead piece efficiently zips from one sincere anecdote to the next, with regular narrative breathers occupied by a truly-inspired Writers' Room 'subplot', in which several of the show's creators hypothesise a figurative eighth season, further elucidated by way of narration over storyboarded, comic-like frames. These sections may seem off-the-cuff, but it's clear that a lot of effort has gone into breaking the new story-line, and it certainly made me eager to see such future episodes eventually see the light of day.

So grateful am I to this cast for so effectively solidifying their characters, that I almost wished at certain points, I could just reach out through the screen, and put a reassuring arm around one or two of the, at-times highly-emotional speakers, and tell them not to worry. A fair few of their thoughts and recollections centre on various negative reactions to the show since or during broadcast, and/or insecurities and frustrations over characterisation.

The writers and producers meanwhile, debate not having done more to focus on meaningful takes of ever-important progressive issues, at the time. If it means anything, I would say, why fret over potential failures, when you have so many proven successes? It must be difficult enough fleshing out the premise of such an untested, sprawling space opera, let alone balancing two dozen characters, series-long story arcs, and so many other aspects of production, simultaneously.

The documentary itself is proof alone that DS9 managed to cultivate a loyal and eager fan-base. Who can say if this doc would ever have happened, had it not been for those kind enough and able to contribute to its production?

If each Star Trek series has a unique or reliable strength, I most confidently think back on, Deep Space Nine for having cultivated as original and intelligent a sense of humour, as you could possibly hope to engage with.

It seems that this may have been borne more from the production having to bear the brunt (... F.C.A.) of being different. With the various creative teams inexorably coming to depend on each other, rather than much in the way of outside assistance, the resulting family atmosphere that developed, effortlessly came about, care of a deep respect for each other's invaluable strengths & talents in keeping the show unique, worthwhile, and afloat. If those present during much of its tumultuous run hadn't learned, or made the effort, to at least occasionally have a giggle, I think someone likely would have found themselves on the other side of an airlock, long, long ago.

As a piece of film-making, the documentary is well put-together, and boasts a welcome score from composers, Dennis McCarthy and Kevin Kiner that helps tie the visuals together nicely. Specially-sourced HD footage from the original show, and remastered Dominion War CG sequences are at times achingly beautiful to behold. My only technical gripe would be some teeth-grindingly inconsistent kerning on the name-flags, but I doubt many others would have caught that blip. Or cared.

Something I did find particularly interesting was the vital subject of inclusiveness, and how this very importantly applied to the series' long-and-involved production run. Though, hearing cast & crew express concerns about how their show was then-being sidelined, or compromised by studio edicts hoping to make the premise easier for general audiences to follow [at one point, specifically referring to the insertion of fellow Next Gen star, Michael Dorn], strikes me as a fascinating contrary view to the very kind of resistance to change, the show itself often trailblazed in deconstructing. As once astutely forewarned in a certain, near-cult 2000AD adaptation, "As a city we continue to grow, and growth is painful." It goes without saying, there are clear benefits to selflessness, compassion, and goodwill, but it seems, in Hollywood, as soon as paychecks are on the line, you can depend on sides being taken, and lines in the sand being drawn to defend almost anything at risk of being lost.

As with all the higher-quality examples of the Star Trek franchise, Deep Space Nine was most useful when contextualising real-world events in its colourful prism. It tends to be easier to see the simple facts in any conflict when freed from the prejudices of proximity (I often use that line, I'm sure from Trek). But when you're on the inside of such a fracas, even a relatively minor one, the truth can be that much more clouded, certainly in considering objectively. Again, perhaps it was because so much money was involved in the making of the show, that the mere suggestion of change was so instinctively resisted by those ultimately responsible for its public reception. But the genuine regret from those interviewed, when pressed on how and why things didn't always work out for the better, is at times as hard to watch, as I'm sure it was important to document.

Above all, I highly recommend, What We Left Behind. I think, we may still be waiting on a home media release to drop, in the UK (a common occurrence, around these parts), but perhaps if you hear of another screening heading your way, you can try checking it out on the big screen, in the meantime.

The very notion of multiplexes hosting rare, and let's be honest, niche showings of retrodocs such as this, seems to be a growing trend. That is a good thing, and no doubt indicative of a level of quality at work, in this particular instance.

Oh, and just on the right side of inexplicably, the screening also featured a making-of of the making-of(!), with an additional post-credits bonus round of round-table discussion from the doc's makers; determined it seemed, to ensure that every penny of our ticket prices, counted.

I'd also like to say, it was a really lovely atmosphere in the cinema, on the night. The vintage 90s seats were appropriately creaking and clanging, strongly upholstered in coarse green fabric. You could have eaten off the floor, it was so clean and tidy. The staff were helpful and polite. And my fellow theatregoers themselves mostly seemed clued-up on DS9 as a programme, and were each just as keen as myself to revisit the rickety-old station, one last time, at least.

At this point, given the breadth of praise and support for this good-natured production, I personally cannot think of many reasons why whichever studio department that presently has the power to bring back the show as suggested, shouldn't also be thinking along similar lines.

I've never been a fan of the term, but with 'binge-watching' now more-or-less the norm for serialised works, you surely couldn't pick a more-willing moment in time to look into commissioning a new run. May the Profits (ahem) guide them, in any event.

Until next time, Ghostwatchers... try not to have self-sealing stem-bolts.

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