It’s been a long time, since October 13 2015 in fact, since I sat down and watched the two-part opening to Deep Space Nine, ‘The Emissary’, with the intention of watching, and blogging, the series in its entirety. I came at it from the perspective of someone who had, in the late Nineties, watching something like two-and-a-half to three seasons of the show, in the middle of its run, but who had seen neither the beginning nor the end.
Watching DS9 then was partly ritual, as was all television when you were more or less tied to transmission times. On Wednesdays (I think it was, or maybe Thursdays) I would get in from work, doff my jacket and tear off my tie and sprawl on the couch to watch. I think the programme was broadcast from 6.00pm to 6.45 pm, on BBC2: once it finished, I would busy myself about an evening meal.
For a long time though, it’s been evident that my memory has tricked me, has expanded the experience as I drew further from it. It wasn’t two-to-three seasons. It wasn’t even one. Because, after twenty-one months of weekly viewing, and as Ive known for some time, I have finally caught up with that first episode of Deep Space Nine. And I know why I watched it, where I’d had no interest in the past. It’s because it’s this specific story, ‘Trials and Tribble-ations’, because of what it did, because it was an audacious and astonishingly successful merging of DS9 and it’s ultimate parent, Star Trek, the one with no sub-title, the one they now call The Original Series.
I’m old enough to remember watching Star Trek the first time round, just arriving in my teens. It excited me then. It surprises me to think back and realise that my parents must have enjoyed it too, else how would I have seen it at all? I don’t remember them as being into SF in any way. That would be me, alerted by The Lord of the Rings in the back end of 1973 to the infinite possibilities, and devouring books left, right and centre all along the spectrum between Hard SF and Mystical Fantasy thereafter.
Ironically, that interest in SF soured me on the original Star Trek. It was the Seventies, I was at university, I was growing to understand that my political and social instincts were wholly liberal. Between the two, I found it impossible to suspend my disbelief to accept a future that would be governed by the mores of mid-Fifties, middle-America.
I suppose I must have seen ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’ at least once, though I don’t remember anything of it. I remember Tribbles: little, hairy balls that shivered and squeaked but showed no signs of actual characteristics. I never could accept them as real because they looked like children’s playthings, to be waved about in the excited hand of a toddler but abandoned not too long after because they simply didn’t do anything.
‘Trials and Tribble-ations’ was conceived as DS9‘s contribution to the Star Trek 30th anniversary, although broadcasting it in the week of the anniversary would have meant it opening season 5. Though the episode is every bit as light-hearted and insignificant as the original episode, it’s one of the most involved episodes ever of DS9 because of the sheer amount of detail that went into it and, of course, the astonishing technical work that made this episode not merely possible but stunningly good – even when set against the standards of today.
The story is simple. It’s framed around an enquiry by Starfleet’s Temporal Investigations Bureau into an incident in which the Defiant, and the entire senior staff of DS0 travel back in time just over one hundred years. Captain Sisko narrates the adventure to agents Dulmur and Lucsly (it is an example of the level of intricate in-joking that these two names are near-perfect anagrams of Mulder and Scully). The Defiant has been on a secret mission into Cardassian space to collect a Bajoran orb, as it turns out the Orb of Time. They also pick up a stranded seeming-human, a trader named Barry Waddle, played by Charlie Brill, a name any old Trekkie would recognise. Brill is not what he seems and uses the Orb to send the Defiant back in time and across two hundred lightyears. When the viewscreens clear, the first thing is comes up is a spaceship. The U.S.S. Enterprise. The ‘Enterprise.
Because the whole point of this story is to dress Messrs Sisko, Dax, Bashir, O’Brien, Odo and Worf up in the Starfleet uniforms of the day, transport them onto the Enterprise and Space Station K7, onto absolutely 99.9% perfect replicas of the stage sets, and have them experience a shadow story created in and around and based upon ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’.
And, what’s more, have them appear with, and interact with Messrs McCoy, Scott, Chekhov, Uhuru and most especially Mr Spock and James T. Kirk as they appear in the parent episode.
How they do it is ingenious, and in one instance resolves a minor quibble from the original show (whose writer, David Gerrold, not only approved the notion but got to play an Enterprise crewman in two brief scenes). The MacGuffin is brilliantly conceived: Waddle is actually the original Klingon spy, Arne Darvin, the villain of ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’, whose plan to destroy Federation colonisation by poisoning their grain supplies was defeated by Kirk, who used a Tribble to expose the surgically-altered Darvin as Klingon. Disgraced by his defeat, Darvin, once again played by original actor Charlie Brill, intends to go back in time and change history by killing Kirk, via a bomb in a Tribble.
But we all know that the story, however cleverly put together, how carefully interwoven into the established events, is ultimately just a vehicle for the sheer fun of going back and playing Original Star Trek one more time, and to recreating those days, down to sets, uniforms, hair-styles (Terry Farrell suits the old ultra-sexist micro-skirt and boots: I just wish Nana Visitor hadn’t still been pregnant as I would have loved to see her beamed aboard).
The episode stands or falls on its effects. Film qualities have been matched throughout to almost exact duplication: there are only a few scenes where the lower quality definition of the original stock is evident and even then you have to be looking for it. But what impresses even now is the quality of the digital matching.
Mostly it’s done by inserting the DS9 gang into the background of existing scenes, which is marvellous in itself, especially when Sisko and Dax turn up on the Bridge, but the standout scene has to be the one where Kirk confronts the crewmen who have gotten involved in the canteen brawl with the un-cornish-pastied Klingons. Kirk is on stage right, facing a line of men stage left, ranging towards the perspective point.
From camera front to back these are Scottie, Chekhov, O’Brien, Bashir and a half dozen original extras. O’Brien and Bashir, inserted into the middle – the middle – of a scene, with original footage foregrounded and backgrounded.
There are so many details to what goes on. I’m not going to detail these: you can read them via these links: here and here. The amount of effort, and money, that went into creating a gigantic cosmic in-joke is astonishing, but the outcome is well worthwhile.
This was my first Deep Space Nine, and this is the first time I have seen it since that time I watched it out of curiosity, and it’s delightful how much of it I remembered. It was intended as a one-off, as indeed the episode was, in every respect. But somehow, without knowing anything about these characters, I switched on BBC2 the same time the next week, and for all the rest of the season. Then life changed, and the easy days of coming home from work and doing whatever I wanted went with them, in exchange for better, I’m glad to say.
So, for the next twenty episodes I’ll be in that narrow zone of nostalgia, as I go through real recollections. The Great Deep Space Nine Rewatch. By the time I get back to ‘new’ episodes, it will be the New Year.