Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – What to Watch

Deep Space Nine is one of my favourite TV shows of all time, but nevertheless, like The Next Generation, jumping straight in from the start is a big mistake. The first two series are kinda ropey, but the show is so heavily serialised that you can’t just watch the top ten episodes either as you won’t understand what’s going on. Thus I’ve put together another watch/skip list for anyone wanting to check it out for the first time. As with the TNG list, you can skip straight to the episodes by going here, or read my musings about the series first.

Why Do People Watch This Goofy Show?

Well the obvious reasons are the same ones people watched The Next Generation, optimism, exploration and a show about ideas. But there’s also three more:

A Show About Consequences

The fundamental difference between Deep Space Nine and The Next Generation is that the latter is set on a ship and the former is set on a station. This means that once a story has happened, you can’t just fly off, you’re stuck with the consequences of what happened, and boy howdy was DS9 into consequences. The entire set-up of Bajor and Cardassia is about the consequences of colonialism. This also drove the show to become more and more serialised at a time when this was deeply unusual. When stuff happened in DS9, it stayed happened. It informed characters and politics and plots for literally years to come.

A Show About Conflict

Early TNG is defined by Gene Roddenberry’s utopian edict that there would be no conflict between Starfleet officers. Something that might be nice but doesn’t make for good drama. DS9 quickly does an end around on this rule by making half the cast non-Starfleet characters, either Bajoran military like Kira and Odo or civilian merchants like Quark and Garak. This keeps people in dramatic conflict, making things more fun.

Testing Star Trek’s Optimism to Destruction

Deep Space Nine is often described as the darker Star Trek, and this is true, but it isn’t the whole story. DS9 accepts the sunny, optimistic Federation we’ve come to know and love, but then asks if that optimism can be maintained when confronted with a seemingly unbeatable enemy and a long, draining war. It puts the principles of Star Trek under pressure and asks if they will crack, and sometimes they do, characters break under the strain and do the wrong thing. This for me is what puts DS9 above Battlestar Galactica (whose creator, Ronald D Moore, was heavily involved in DS9). The weight of that history of Trek means that we know what is at stake here, we know these are good people even when they make bad choices. When Laura Roslin condones torture she’s just an arsehole, when Ben Sisko lies to bring allies into the war it’s a god damn tragedy.

This is why there’s nothing else really like DS9. Nothing else had twenty odd years of established utopia to spent seven years tearing down, only to (and incredibly obvious spoilers here) have optimism triumph in the end. Your affection for Star Trek is part how DS9 tells its’ story, that’s what makes it work.

So Should I Binge it All Then?

Once again: God no. Series one is very weak, still trying to be TNG, and not very good TNG at that. Series two is better but is obsessed with low stakes antagonists like the Marquis and Bajoran dissidents, that feel small coming after TNG’s Romulans and Borg. By Season 3 The Dominion have been introduced and you can dip in pretty easily at random, but you might find yourself confused because of the heavily serialised nature of the show, which is where the guide comes in.

Could You Tell Me a Little About The Characters?

Sure! There are lots of them! DS9 was a very ensemble show:

Commander/Captain Sisko is the Captain. Where Kirk was defined as a man of action and Picard as a man of diplomacy, Sisko is a man of will and determination. To paraphrase SF Debris, Ben Sisko is a man who when his wife was killed by the Borg, went and designed a spaceship designed specifically to fight the Borg. Then he named it Defiant. He does not back down from a fight, and is willing to do whatever is necessary to win that fight as long as he believes it is right. He is also consider a religious figure by the Bajorans for discovering the wormhole. He has a son called Jake who doesn’t really get much characterisation and exists largely to further his father’s plots.

Major/Colonel Kira is the second in command. She’s our first non-Starfleet character! She’s a Bajoran who spent most of her youth fighting in the resistance. Though she has a spiritual side, she more embodies the tough as nails guerilla fighter aspect of Bajor, struggling to adapt to life after the occupation and worried she has merely traded one master for another with the Federation.

Odo is the security officer. Like Kira he works for the Bajor rather than the Federation, but he’s not a Bajoran. Instead he’s a shapeshifter, who can adapt to any form at will (but can’t do faces very well). He has an innate love of justice, but often feels the temptation to lean towards order rather than freedom. He also has a crush on Kira.

Chief O’Brien is the Chief Engineer. He’s the everyman of the crew. It seems like that should make him uninteresting, yet somehow it works. While everyone else has some deep inner angst or major political issues to work out, he’s just a regular guy with a wife and kid. Like a suburban dad whose job it is to make sure the space lasers are working properly. Half his storylines are about him trying to balance his work and family life. It’s so incredibly normal it’s downright weird.

Dr Bashir is the Doctor. When he first arrives he’s very young and enthusiastic and incredibly obnoxious and condescending. Eventually he finds his feet as a character and these aspects get toned down a little. He has a major changing point as a character in series five, which is detailed in that episode summary.

Jadzia Dax is the Science Officer. She is a Trill, a species that is actually two people, a young ‘host’ who is mostly human but with weird spot patterns on her skin, and an ancient ‘symbiote’ that has had many hosts and remembers them all. Dax is thus the blending of both these personalities and the memories of every host before her. She actually knew Sisko when she was a lecherous old man known as Curzon Dax. Dax starts out kind of stoic and wise, but rapidly becomes more of a playful ‘carpe diem’ character. In the final season she is replaced with Ezri Dax, who never really establishes herself as a character.

Quark is the main Ferengi presence on the show. He’s a bar owner and two bit crook always trying to get ahead with some kind of scheme. Any scene where he trades barbs with Odo is a treasure. Quark has fully bought into the Ferengi philosophy of hyper capitalism, despite the fact that he’s only ever achieved middling success within it, making him basically Space Willy Loman. His brother, Rom, would like to be an exemplary Ferengi, but is clearly terrible at it. He eventually gravitates more towards Bajoran culture, which appreciates his technical know how more than his poor business skills. Meanwhile Rom’s son Nog eventually elects to join Starfleet, wanting a clean break with a philosophy he sees as having ruined his father. Yet he still maintains aspects of his own reclaimed interpretation of Ferengi philosophy. Yep the Ferengi came a long way in DS9.

Garak is a tailor. Just a simple Cardassian tailor. Exiled from his home for unspecified reasons and forced to live out his life on the station. He is certainly not a spy, perish the thought dear boy. What ridiculous rumours these gossips spread. Garak knows absolutely nothing about Cardassian politics or their Secret Police, the Obsidian Order, but he can make you a lovely suit.

Finally about halfway through the show’s run Worf joins from The Next Generation. His DS9 characterisation mostly matches up to his better TNG episodes, showing him less as the dude who always wants to shoot everything and more as a restrained and stoic individual with a deep moral code.

Bajoran? Cardassian? Can You Tell Me A Bit More About The World?

Absolutely! That’s way more important in DS9 because, again, we stay in one place for the most part.

The Wormhole is discovered in the first episode and is a key part of the series. It connects the Alpha Quadrant (ie: where the Federation is) to the Gamma Quadrant (the other side of the galaxy, home to The Dominion). The Wormhole is home to a group of aliens that exist outside of time. The Bajorans worship these aliens and call them The Prophets. DS9 literally sits right next to this thing so you can see it is important to the show. The Prophets are part of DS9’s attempt to do Space Religion, and I can confidently say it’s one of the best takes on Space Religion I’ve ever seen. This doesn’t mean it’s great, just that the bar is set incredibly low one that one (looking at you Battlestar Galactica). Specifically if possible you should avoid any episode that involves the Pah-Wraiths, evil wormhole aliens.

Bajor is the co-owner of DS9 and the closest major planet. The Bajorans are a deeply spiritual people who were invaded and occupied by the Cardassians, who strip mined the planet and committed many atrocities. The Bajorans engaged in guerilla warfare and eventually forced the Cardassians off planet. Bajor is a world still defined by the occupation, with most major political figures being former resistance fighters (such as First Minister Shakaar) or religious figures (such as good guy Vedek Bariel and the villainous Kai Winn). A lot of season 1 and 2 episodes are based around Bajoran politics, but most of them aren’t on this list because they’re less interesting than the other stuff.

The Cardassians
are a fascist military junta that occupied and exploited Bajor for years. Their society is based around obedience and service to the state, but there are dissidents trying to establish a more civilian lead government. We usually see the Cardassians through Gul Dukat, one of the greatest and most complex villains Star Trek has ever produced. The commander of DS9 back when the Cardassians ran it, Dukat is a colonialist figure who sees himself as bringing civilisation to the Bajorans and protecting them from the excesses of other far worse Cardassians. He is fundamentally a narcissist, who has never gotten over the fact that the Bajorans were not grateful to him for ‘civilising’ them. Episodes dealing with the emotional legacy of Cardassia’s occupation of Bajor are usually good stuff. Later on they also join forces with The Dominion to recover after losing a war to the Klingons.

The Dominion are the big bad of DS9. Discovered at the end of Season Two but foreshadowed from very early on, they’re an advanced empire from the Gamma Quadrant ruled by the xenophobic Founders, and managed by the subservient Vorta and the soldier cast of the Jem’Hadar, who worship the Founders as gods. We often see them represented by Weyoun, an obsequious Vorta middle manager who represents a thoroughly banal evil.

Go to the next page for the actual list!

Thoughts on Star Wars: Rogue One

There’s two kinds of hero in Star Wars. The most obvious are the Skywalkers and other Jedi, a space aristocracy destined to decide the fate of the galaxy because of their magic wizard blood. Rogue One is about the other kind.

When I wrote about Force Awakens, I said there wasn’t really an Original Trilogy analogue for Finn, the faceless nobody who saved the galaxy because one day he decided to do the right thing. But that’s not really true, oh sure the defecting Stormtrooper bit is new, but as my friend Chris recently pointed out, the sudden attack of conscience is very Han Solo. In fact you can find characters like this throughout Star Wars: relatively ordinary people who’ve learned to live with Imperial oppression who suddenly one day snap and Do The Right Thing. Han and Finn are both that person, as is Lando in The Empire Strikes back, so are most of the cast of the underrated Star Wars: Rebels, and so is pretty much everyone in Rogue One. There aren’t really any in the prequels, which is one of many reasons the prequels are rubbish.

This isn’t just a co-incidence, there’s a theme here: every time the baddies think they’ve finally ground the galaxy beneath their jackbooted heels, someone suddenly develops a conscience and suddenly there’s a plucky band of misfits gallivanting around on a cool looking ship blowing up your murderball. This is why the Empire lose, not because of magic space Jesus and his son, but because they can’t seem to extinguish people’s basic humanity, no matter how hard they try. Hell in Force Awakens the First Order literally raised Finn from a child, gave him a number instead of a name and train him to be a perfectly obedient soldier and he still defects on his very first mission. What’s an evil fascist space wizard to do?

That’s a powerful message, arguably a better one than “the psychic laser sword boy will save us”, but it’s one that usually bubbles beneath the surface. Where Rogue One works is by making this explicit, hence the “rebellions are built on hope” message. Literally half a dozen people snap out of their apathy and Do The Right Thing in this film, arguably the only one who doesn’t is Cassian, who has been Doing The Right Thing (or rather Doing the Wrong Thing For the Right Reasons) since he was a kid.

Cassian’s a pretty interesting character himself, standing in a more morally ambiguous place than your typical Star Wars hero. He not only shoots first, but will shoot an ally in the back if he thinks it’ll help the cause. He is, to paraphrase one line, “a killer with the face of a friend”. It would have been interesting to see the film commit to this particular anti-heroic depiction, but honestly it’s just as interesting that it doesn’t. I’ve seen a lot of anti-heroes over my time, and my favourite ones are always the ones that drop the anti part when the space-chips are down.

Rogue One then ends up not bright and optimistic, nor dark and pessimistic, but instead an intriguing concoction of dark and optimistic. Somewhat inevitable considering we all know where the story ends (spoilers: Star Wars happens). Thus it chooses to show us the transition from a dark and hopeless galaxy to… well… A New Hope.

Star Trek: The Next Generation – What to Watch

UK Netflix recently added every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (and the other series, maybe I’ll do those later) and it turns out a fair few people I know on twitter have never watched it properly. Since attempting to watch all of TNG from the start is a terrible mistake, I’ve put together a watch/skip guide for anyone attempting the feat today. You can skip straight to the list by clicking here, or you can enjoy my musings on the series first.

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Thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I think if you had explained the plot of Star Wars: The Force Awakens to me I would have rolled my eyes. As a bullet point list it is fanservice to the point of obnoxiousness, repeating an absurd amount of classic Star Wars beats. Several things happen that I had literally joked about beforehand “If they do this, I’ll walk out”.

And yet I didn’t. Somehow, those nostalgic call backs are downplayed, delayed or slathered in enough good humour to stop them from being intrusive. There’s never a ‘dun dun dun!’ followed by ‘I am your father’. It’s all just a little bit classier than that.

This isn’t to say there aren’t clumsy moments. I found the fact that the film tells us there’s a New Republic, but never actually shows it in order to preserve the image of our heroes as a scrappy resistance pretty silly. But then there’s also moments of genuine cleverness, like the First Order.

The First Order are essentially the cargo cult version of The Empire, much like those that sprung up after the fall of Rome. They dress like the Empire, act like the Empire and collect imperial memorabilia. A handful of throwaway lines even reveals that they number their Stormtroopers in train them much like the Clone Troopers of old.

It’s a very clever idea, because it takes what could be criticisms of the First Order being a bad Imperial knock off and puts them the text. When Rey shouts “You’re terrified you’ll never be as good as Darth Vader” at Kylo Ren, you can almost believe the screenwriters are talking to themselves.

Ren is the focus point for a lot of this meta-commentary. Throughout he is presented as a guy who is trying a little bit too hard to be a cool Star Wars villain. Darth Vader wore a mask because he was horribly injured in Revenge of the Sith, Kylo Ren wears a mask because he thinks Sith Lords are supposed to wear scary looking masks. And yet what could’ve been a criticism of the script becomes instead a criticism of the character. It fits perfectly with Ren’s insecurity and conscious aping of the Empire. He isn’t a malevolent villain, he’s just a whiny adolescent cosplaying as Darth Vader.

Again this might seem like a bad thing, but it isn’t. Ren being incredibly insecure is an explicit part of his character, one which gives him far more depth as a villain than Vader or Palpatine ever had. The Force Awakens’ depiction of the Dark Side is more nuanced too. I always hated the Dark Side as evil energy that flips people to 100% pantomime villain the moment they make a mistake (I’m looking at you, Revenge of the Sith). A villain who struggles with guilt and believes he cannot be forgiven for what he’s done is far more interesting. He might not be better than Darth Vader, but he’s definitely better than Anakin Skywalker.

Interesting though he is, Kylo Ren is essentially a new spin on a traditional Star Wars role. The same could be said of Poe and Rey, the same could be said of a lot of the film. In many ways The Force Awakens plays it as safe as it possibly can with the Star Wars legacy, but there’s one exception to that: Finn.

There isn’t really another character like Finn in the Star Wars canon (although I’m sure there were plenty in the expanded universe). He’s just an ordinary guy, a literal faceless enemy drone who one day and decides to do the right thing and changes the course of history as a result. None this film happens if Finn doesn’t have doubts. The entire narrative hinges on the First Order’s inability to crush his humanity.

For much of the film Finn’s motives are presented as shallow. He’s either fleeing in fear or acting out of a naïve infatuation with Rey, the first person to ever treat him like a human being. Yet I still find him heroic, he’s the one guy at the Nazi rally who says “hang on guys, this isn’t right”, and that takes tremendous strength of character, even if your response is to run away rather than turn and fight.

I really hope the subsequent films don’t make Finn a secret Jedi or Lando’s son or something terrible like that. Finn shouldn’t ever be special, Star Wars is full of special people with the right lineage, Finn is the nobody who changed the world.

That, I think, encapsulates my hopes for the new trilogy. Having delivered a film that was not terrible, I’d even call it ‘good’, I think it’s time to start taking a few more risks. The Force Awakens camouflages its nostalgia expertly, but if the next film is just a blow for blow repeat of The Empire Strikes all this goodwill will just be wasted.

Seriously though, if this all with Kylo Ren throwing that giant bald guy down an elevator shaft I will scream.

A list of games that are not my games of the year

Recently I tweeted that 2014 had been a pretty bad year for games. A few people were surprised at this, but honestly every time I looked at any list of best games of the year I felt decidedly underwhelmed.

So by way of explanation, here is a long list of games that I don’t consider games of the year, and why:
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Football Manager 2015 review

I reviewed the latest Football Manager for PC Gamer. It’s not an easy thing to review, being so iterative, you can fall back on a simple list of features. In the end I decided to centre my own approach to Football Manager, which is rooted in community. I also tried to critique the match engine itself, and the style of football it encourages.

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Ingress article

On Thursday I got a phone call from Keith Stuart of the Guardian, saying “Would you like to go down to London for the day for an Ingress event?” Thankfully I could make it, and spent a day wandering around London with this wonderful community. This one was a lot of fun.

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Game Chef entry – Za Vstrechu!

Za Vstrechu! (named after a traditional Russian toast) Is a game by myself and Matthew Ward. We created it for Game Chef, a nine day tabletop game jam. The theme of the jam was “There is no book” and we had to incorporate two of the following four ingredients “Glitter, Wild, Absorb and Sickle”.

We chose glitter and sickle and made a game about a masked ball on the eve of the Russian revolution. All the instructions are either on the invitation or on the masks themselves, hence the minimalist rules:
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Storium Article

I’ll take any excuse I can to bring my pen and paper RPG knowledge into videogames, which is why I pitched Rock Paper Shotgun an article on Storium, which exists somewhere between the two.

The opening paragraph contains a manifesto of sorts:

Computers suck at stories. We’ve been trying to create AIs that will make writers redundant for decades and it’s just not happening. Even clever, experimental systems like Storybricks are using sophisticated technology to create stories which amount to “There are bandits on the road.” If you want plot twists more complex than “And then I killed the guy”, you’re going to need a writer.

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2013 in stuff

2013 was a weird year for me. I spent the first half of it with no money, no prospects and no motivation, but by the end I had a steady income, a bunch of new friends and small cool writing in lots of different places. I can probably credit a lot of that to the Not a Game podcast. Recording something every week really helped me get out of my rut, so thanks for that guys.

I mention this because it probably explains a few things here. Like not going to the cinema or reading much and just binge watching TV instead. Basically it’s about how I suck, but I suck slightly less than I did ten years ago.

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