Sunday 20 January 2008

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Seasons 1 & 2

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine debuted in January 1993 and ran for seven seasons and 176 episodes. In time, Deep Space Nine became the 'least Star Trek-like' of the six series, more interested in long story arcs about war and political intrigue than boldly exploring new worlds. However, these early episodes saw the series initially hamstrung by a more traditional approach and episodic structure.

Deep Space Nine opens in 2369. The Cardassian Union has withdrawn its occupation forces from the planet Bajor, leaving its infrastructure shattered and its populace in need of help. The United Federation of Planets assists with the planet's reconstruction efforts as a prelude to Bajor joining its membership, and Starfleet takes command of the former Cardassian orbital facility, Terok Nor, now renamed as Deep Space Nine. Initially it appears that the Federation's role, although important, is somewhat unexciting. However, a stable wormhole is discovered linking the Bajoran system to the Gamma Quadrant, located seventy thousand light-years away on the far side of the Galaxy. As dozens of races clamour for the opportunity to explore this new frontier, Bajor becomes enriched by the wormhole's presence and the Cardassians begin scheming to retake the station and Bajor, with only the thin red line of Starfleet's small presence to stand against them.

As the series evolved this initial premise gradually shifted and eventually was discarded altogether. But these early episodes are driven by this backstory. Bajor's politics and religious strife becomes a dominant force in the early series, to the bemusement of the audience. Although Bajor is a very well-developed culture and world (arguably the most well-developed planet ever created in Star Trek's history), the Bajorans are not one of the more colourful races in the Trek canon. Unfortunately, when not dealing with Bajor and its problems the series tends instead to recycle old Trek ideas, plots and characters. It's not long before characters such as Q, Vash, Lursa and B'Etor from The Next Generation are making cameo appearances which are vaguely amusing but don't really seem to help the show establish its own identity. The series is also not helped by a somewhat stiff performance from Avery Brooks as Commander Sisko, although he gradually relaxes into the role as the series progresses.

However, the first season of each incarnation of Star Trek is traditionally a pretty rough time as actors and writers find their feet. Compared to the first seasons of both The Next Generation and Voyager, Deep Space Nine's first year is actually pretty good. The pilot sets things up reasonably well (kicking off with a spectacular flashback to the Battle of Wolf 359 between the Borg and forty Federation starships) and subsequent episodes explore each of the main characters and the setting in turn. There's some ropey acting and a few of the effects have not aged well, but otherwise everything stands up. In fact, considering DS9's story arc was made up as the writers went along rather than being pre-planned in advance it's surprising how cohesive the series is and how many elements are set up in the first few episodes that reach fruition at the end of the seventh year. And, naturally, DS9 at its worst is still more than a match for Voyager at its best. The stand-out episodes from the first season are probably the last two: Duet, a powerful two-hander which pitches Nana Visitor's Major Kira against guest star Harris Yulin as a Cardassian war criminal accused of murder and complicity in genoicde; and In the Hands of the Prophets, which sees a destabilised Bajor descending into political and religious strife which endangers the station.

Season 2 sees the writers and producers taking a different tack. Existing Trek elements are downplayed, TNG cameos and recurring characters are dramatically reduced and the show starts building its own mythology. New characters and factions are introduced. The characters of Bareil and Winn, who represent the two different ideologies battling for control of Bajor, are developed, whilst 'simple tailor' Garak evolves into the most multi-layered character in Star Trek's history. The Maquis - a terrorist group made up of disaffected Federation citizens who turn to violence to protect themselves after their planets are given to the Cardassians as part of a treaty - muddy the waters of our heroes' allegiances quite a lot. Early in the season we hear a whisper about something called 'the Dominion', which controls some of the Gamma Quadrant and as the season progresses we start to see some of their handiwork in the form of planets devastated by their actions and entire races displaced because they had nothing to give the Dominion. This latter plotline culminates in the impressively foreboding finale, The Jem'Hadar, in which the Federation is faced with a powerful new enemy and suffers a hefty defeat which leaves things on an ominous note going into Season 3.

Deep Space Nine Season 1 (***) is a bit rough around the edges and at times clings a bit too readily to existing Star Trek cliches, but there's a huge amount of potential on display here and most episodes have something interesting to offer. The series is available on DVD in the USA and UK.

Deep Space Nine Season 2 (***½) is stronger, introducing new concepts, ideas and characters which give the series much more of its own distinctive identity, complete with the introduction of Trek's most fascinating enemy since the Borg. The series is available on DVD in the USA and UK.

Saturday 12 January 2008


I am currently reading Bernard Cornwell's Warlord Chronicles Trilogy (The Winter King, Enemy of God and Excalibur), his 'realistic' retelling of the Arthurian legend. So far, this is one of the finest works of historical fiction I have read. I predict a glowing review score if the quality is maintained throughout the series.

I am also rewatching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine on DVD. Expect reviews of the DVD box sets in the near future, although I am also maintaining an episode-by-episode commentary on the message board in the Entertainment section if you are really that interested.

Some updates: Lost Season 4 begins with its first episode, The Beginning of the End, airing on ABC in the United States on Thursday 31 January. Sky One follows three days later with its transmission of the same episode. Battlestar Galactica Season 4 follows at the end of March. Ashes to Ashes, the sequel series to Life on Mars (expect a review of the full series of this in the next few weeks), starts on BBC-1 in February, exact date to be decided.

Steven Erikson's eighth Malazan novel, Toll the Hounds, has had its release date brought forwards to June 2008. Bantam UK are going to be making a bigger push for the series, re-releasing Gardens of the Moon (the first volume) in March at the cheaper price of £3.99.

Sunday 6 January 2008

Dying of the Light by George RR Martin

Worlorn is a world without a sun, ejected from its home system by a supernova millions of years ago and now hurtling out of the Galaxy. For a few years as it passed the colossal red supergiant Fat Satan and is attendant stars Worlon became a Festival Planet, with millions flocking from the outer worlds to spend a decade partying before it passed beyond the edge of the Galaxy. Now the Festival is over, its peoples all but gone, leaving behind a few die-hards determined to stay as long as possible before the planet freezes and becomes cloaked in eternal night.

Dirk t'Larien is summoned to Worlorn by his former lover, Gwen Delvano, for a reason she will not specify. On Worlorn Dirk finds Gwen the lover and bonded partner of Jaantony Riv Wolf high-Ironjade Vikary, a visionary leader from the barbarous world of High Kavalaan, but as he learns more about the Kavalar he becomes convinced that Gwen is trapped in a life she does not want. However, as Worlon passes into the night, greater stakes are raised and Dirk finds himself caught in a desperate struggle for survival.

Dying of the Light was George RR Martin's first novel, published in 1977. It is set in his SF 'Thousand World's' mileu, but no prior knowledge of the setting is required. As GRRM's first experience of the long-form novel, it is perhaps unsurprising that Dying of the Light is somewhat rough around the edges, lacking the trademark expert pacing of his later works. The first half of the novel is terribly drawn out. Whilst Worlorn, its flora and fauna and its dying cities are beautifully described, there is the feeling of the plot meandering around without a purpose for a while. In the second half, the book's various strands coalesce into a much more driven storyline and the pacing ramps up to the ambiguous finale in a manner which is classic GRRM.

The protagonists are well-drawn. Once again (see also many of the short stories in Dreamsongs), anyone who has been been through a painful or awkward relationship can identify with GRRM's main characters, Dirk and Gwen. The Kavalar are also a well-drawn species, whose complex codes of honour are logical, although the exploitation of legalistic loopholes in their traditions and customs occasionally makes the book feel like a 'Klingon honour' episode of Star Trek. Some may also bemoan the Butch & Sundance-style ending.

Overall, the novel has aged reasonably well, although the odd pacing means the first half of the book has a tendency to drag somewhat. Once the reader hits the second half of the novel, however, things improve immeasurably. As usual, it's fun finding precursors to George's later work (particularly the similarities between Bretan and A Song of Ice and Fire's Sandor Clegane), but Dying of the Light is a somewhat slight work compared to ASoIaF, Fevre Dream or The Armageddon Rag.

Dying of the Light (***½) is published by Gollancz in the United Kingdom and by Bantam Spectra in the United States.

Thursday 3 January 2008

RIP George MacDonald Fraser

Historical novelist George MacDonald Fraser passed away yesterday from cancer, at the age of 82. Fraser was an accomplished journalist and writer, best known for his Flashman Papers series of historical novels, which ran to twelve volumes published between 1969 and 2005, as well as six other novels, two memoirs and a book about making historical movies in the Hollywood system. His last published work was the novel The Reavers, which was published in October 2007. He also penned eight screenplays (including the James Bond movie Octopussy and some drafts of the fantasy movie Red Sonja). He also served in the military, with the Border Regiment of the 17th Indian Infantry Division during WWII and then with the Gordon Highlanders after the war.

Fraser was a talented writer with an eye and ear for character and dialogue. His Flashman novels - which inspired Bernard Cornwell and George R.R. Martin among others - are exceptionally fine historical novels, concentrating on the adventures of the rakish and cowardly Harry Flashman who somehow comes out of every situation smelling of roses and covered in glory. Whilst it is sad that Flashman's full adventures will never be told (Fraser had planned several more Flashman stories, allegedly including his much-anticipated American Civil War epic), the existing books represent an accomplished and enjoyable body of work, and I thoroughly recommend them to any fan of historical fiction.

An adaption of the Flashman novels for television has been rumoured for many years, with recently Picture Palace and Celtic Films (the two companies who brough Sharpe to the screen) confirming they were working on an adaption of Flashman at the Charge with Fraser's involvement and, it was rumoured, Rome's James Purefoy (Mark Anthony) as a possible Flashman. This would be perfect casting if the project goes ahead.

The Flashman Papers
Flashman (1969)
Royal Flash (1970)
Flash for Freedom (1971)
Flashman at the Charge (1973)
Flashman in the Great Game (1975)
Flashman's Lady (1977)
Flashman and the Redskins (1982)
Flashman and the Dragon (1985)
Flashman and the Mountain of Light (1990)
Flashman and the Angel of the Lord (1994)
Flashman and the Tiger (1999)
Flashman on the March (2005)