– Two and a Half Badges – (Series Finale) “Not with a bang, and not with a whimper. With a bang first, THEN a whimper.”
2020 UPDATE – Twenty-one years later I have remained disappointed in the conclusion of Sisko’s arc as Emissary, but I suppose adult life may have compromised my expectations for presentation of an idealistic future, because the conclusion to the Dominion War arc and its Great Link resolution doesn’t bother me. I do think I have a really good point, however, about how the conclusion leaves Bajor forever bereft of the optimistic opportunities that the wormhole seemed to promise at the start of the series. Having sine backed and watched “What We Left Behind,” in the time since, I think we can all agree both: 1) that Deep Space Nine is the series that with more story to tell, and 2) that no matter when and how it ended Deep Space Nine would have ended with still more story to tell. As I state below, “wrapping it up” just wasn’t in their wheelhouse. Ask Ezri Dax. Ron Moore would in face go on to prove this without a doubt with the Battlestar Galactica reimagining.
**These Star Trek reviews/opinion pieces were originally written as forum posts on the old Trekweb.com forums, back when Deep Space Nine and Voyager were still airing first-run. Those forums are now long gone, so if these passages start a bit abruptly or seem to continue an off-screen conversation, at least you know why even if the surrounding context is lost to time.**
It seems as if, in the end, Deep Space Nine has had so much potential for dramatic exploration pass into and out of its hands that it will forever be judged by some (myself included) NOT for the series that it was, but for the series it was alluded to be, and the series that it could have been. It is ONLY because Deep Space Nine DID develop characters of depth and texture that I became irritated when episodes in later seasons left these self-same characters experiencing only cursory exploration. It is only BECAUSE the original tack on Sisko’s relationship with the Prophets and Bajor was so unique, that I became enraged when the conclusion of that arc became a hackneyed affair of red contact lenses and the destruction of a book.
If I hadn’t been made to care so much for Jake, I wouldn’t have given a whit that he barely figured at all in the final season. If I hadn’t witnessed 7 years of life and depth with Dukat, I wouldn’t have gotten such a sour taste when he shambled up for the final showdown, both dead and shallow.
I think in the end it turned out that Deep Space Nine was better at bringing up plot lines and complications than resolving them, even throughout the course of its run. As far as inventing natural, realistic and believable drama in a futuristic setting, Deep Space Nine, throughout EVERY ONE of it’s seasons, remained consistently the best out of Trek. DS9’s problem was it never knew when to let go. The evolution of the conflict on Bajor, the political strife of “In the Hands of the Prophets,” and “The Circle” trilogy, was masterfully brought about and played out, but it was not fully laid to rest. Consequently the remnants lasted throughout the series, in the form of less-than-interesting political strife between Kai Wynn and the thoroughly uninterested Shakarr.
We saw it again and again. The growing peace and cultural exchange with Cardassia, discarded. Not explained away, just dropped. The bold mission to the Gamma Quadrant at the beginning of season 3, and one of the last significant times in the series we’d ever spend on episode on that side of the galaxy. The Klingon War that roared out of the gate with a two-hour movie… and just seemed to run out of gas. The inspired judgement of Odo, that became an uninspired punishment shrugged off when it became inconvenient and familiar. Each book in the story of Deep Space Nine came open on top of an older, already open book. I find it remarkable, thinking back now, how little was resolved. The finale can’t be judged on those merits. You could have given the writers two more seasons and they still wouldn’t have resolved it, BECAUSE THAT WAS NEVER THEIR TALENT. Their talent was making you care about and understand the people who were dragged through these “interesting times.”
In that respect, “What You Leave Behind” is a success. And it succeeds despite itself. It succeeds even though the Female Changeling and Weyoun are given a more touching farewell than Sisko’s son. It succeeds despite the technical brilliance and dramatic pointlessness of its space battles. It succeeds based solely on the fact that it could never be a conclusion to the story of these characters, of this universe, but only a sad farewell. In short, it succeeds because I’m sentimental and I want it to.
But really it doesn’t. Because “What You Leave Behind” is a story about rubble and murder, about the clash of bodies. Every clash of idea, and every moment of redemptive love in this episode is handled off screen. “What You Leave Behind” coasts in on the wave created by seven years of effort, and is most unfortunately preoccupied with trying to close as many of those previously mentioned, previously opened books of plot. I’d almost wished the writers had just realized that plot conclusions weren’t their strength (I mean, how many threads were CONCLUDED in the run of that series?), and turned the series on its ear–if not with a Benny Russell vision of him NEVER wanting to end the story (if you want to piss off the brass upstairs), then with having Sisko somehow come into his own as a part-Prophet, and exercise a little non-linear time-action to resolve the plot in a non-sequitor way, something from left field, so to speak.
But, alas, “What You Leave Behind” was, as the whole series had been for two years, obsessed with The Dominion War, a plot line not without merit, but one that had long since stagnated and lost relevance. That war should have moved, changed, transmuted in ONE WAY or another a year ago, maybe two. That was part of what I loved about Deep Space Nine–shifting alliances, deceptions within deceptions–the Machiavellian clockwork precision of its politics. This quality of it seemed to reach its peak with “Improbable Cause/The Die is Cast,” but still fueled the series through “In Purgatory’s Shadow/By Inferno’s Light,” “In the Pale Moonlight,” Kira’s standoff with the Romulans in “Image in the Sand,” and, in one final encore appearance, the Cardassia uprising against the Dominion.
But of course those final three instances were muted by the new manifestation of the war. Not as a central point of conflict, but as a SETTING. The minute it became “Black Sheep Squadron,” with the war as some ongoing condition that seemed to never have any hope of ending, Deep Space Nine lost some of its identity, and became a lot more predictable. It cleaved the show’s focus entirely in two, and despite subsequent unimpressive attempts, entirely divorced the story line of the Dominion and the story line of the Prophets and their Temple. It also ensured that we would never again see a significant venture into Quadrant Gamma.
So the series ender had a job to do. A job that should have been done long ago, to move the story line in a new direction. And in that it succeeded. It ended The War That Would Not End. And, although it definitely compressed the time frame, it kept true to it’s vision of the war, and of what it ended up doing to both the solid (?) moral fiber of the Federation and the already shaky nature of the Dominion. The changeling disease can be seen as a manifestation, a symbol for this change. The real shame is that the Dominion, in becoming an unstoppable juggernaut of destruction–to the final point of attempting to kill the entire Cardassian race–retains any character or nuance, as it has for two years, SOLELY due to the talents of Jeffrey Combs and his fascinating portrayal of Weyoun. The Jem ‘Hadar, the Breen, the Dominion itself is relegated to the status of plot complication.
A complication that, in truth, is resolved in an off-screen dialogue between linked changelings. Unforgivable. I have said in the past that the real problem with the development of Odo’s character is the idea that the SOLE REASON he has not rejoined his people is his love for Kira. I have adamantly demanded that it is obvious that at least part of the reason is the contrast between Odo’s ideal of Justice, and the Founders’ ideal of Order–and what that contrast means in terms of respect for life. In this finale, it became clear that there was some ideological distinction, something Odo was able to communicate and convey.
Not even telling us what that is, and yet having it change the actions of the Dominion and the fate of the Alpha Quadrant, was the single most disappointing aspect of the episode. Odo and Kira’s relationship is given the best farewell of any in the series, but it plays awfully poorly without an understanding of why he has to go away.
So, too, does the massive death the Cardassian race endures. It is powerful, yes, in terms of impact, and in terms of the irony of the Cardassians enduring what they put the Bajorans through. But in terms of message, and meaning, it seems the most that is said is that justice is served, even if it is an Old Testament kind of justice. Leaving one to wonder who’s going to come along and slaughter the Dominion to teach THEM a lesson. This leaves the final episode extremely dark, violent, and nihilistic. Not a Trekkian message in sight. Oh, wait. I suppose there’s some Trekkian message of hope and understanding that the Founders are going to learn from Odo. Off screen.
For that matter, with no real understanding of why the Female Changeling and the Dominion gave up, much of the series, and the death and destruction that enfolded the last two years of it, have much relevance. Nothing is redeemed, and how can anyone walk away with the belief that Odo’s love affair, and his friendships, are going to sway the thousand-year-old link into changing the Dominion’s ways? The future looks at least as bleak as it did in the beginning of season 3, when Sisko bravely struck forth into Quadrant Gamma to contact the Founders and find away to continue to explore the galaxy peacefully. Except maybe now we’ve got the Wormhole Aliens (or the Prophets depending on which season of the show was your favorite) to protect us from further incursions by the fruits of our own discovery.
And I suppose leaving Bajor to be spoken of in a few war stories, as it fades into obscurity–a world on the border of a hostile and unapproachable terrain, rather than the center of trade, exploration, and scientific discovery it was hoped to be. I suppose it shall quietly join the Federation without too much fanfare somewhere down the road. The spotlight of destiny will have casually focused elsewhere.
And speaking of destiny…
Sisko’s story line suffered the most when the Dominion story line was divorced from the fate of the Wormhole. You can’t blame that on “What You Leave Behind.” That began way back in “In Purgatory’s Shadow,” when the wormhole was sealed open with a techo-macguffin that had nothing to do with the Prophets, and the Dominion started setting up camp here. It was reinforced after “Sacrifice of Angels,” when it became clear that Sisko’s actions in making the wormhole impassable to Dominion ships was not going to mean an end to the war on this side of the wormhole. And it was sealed in “Image in the Sand,” when it became clear that the wormhole’s status didn’t mean much at all in terms of the Dominion War. Oh sure, there were some lines about the war going the Dominion’s way without the favor of the Prophets. But the truth that we all knew by then was that the war would go on either way–the Wormhole had already been cut off to the Dominion; their presence in the Alpha Quadrant had already been established as enough to sustain the conflict; and virtually no mention was made when it reopened in “Shadows and Symbols” of that being any help or hindrance to the Dominion effort.
That said, Sisko’s story line, the final corporeal test of the Emissary of the Prophets, is still sadly isolated, not only from the rest of the plot of the episode and the series, but from the rest of Bajor, the rest of the cast, the rest of the galaxy. Sisko receives an (off screen) vision, and rushes off to a secret destiny, leaving no body, no evidence, and no final words for his son. The culmination of, not only one, but three character’s destinies, should not play out like an afterthought, having no impact on the rest of the characters (unless you bought all that about the Pagh-Wraiths bringing about a galactic apocalypse, which was also introduced at the last minute).
There should have been a way, despite the fact that this episode is not responsible for their divorce, to remarry these disparate story lines into something with thematic and dramatic flow. As it was, Sisko’s destiny as emissary, the relevance of Bajor, the fate of Wynn and Dukat, all end up as afterthought, tacked on after the celebratory drink of victory. This reinforces the schizophrenic quality of the episode. At one point, we see Wynn and Dukat, hatching their schemes in the fire caves. We flash back to the war, follow it through the fall of the Dominion stronghold, the massive space battle, the formal surrender of the Dominion (which seems to be signed ON DS9), then after all that time–time enough for empires to rise and fall and for everyone to return to the station and start to settle back down and have a few drinks–Sisko receives his vision and we return, once again, to Wynn and Dukat in the caves, hatching their schemes and playing out their mutual treachery, as if twenty minutes had passed.
And when the final conflict is played out, Sisko’s final destiny turns out to be rather simple–a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Did it take all the other trials to prepare him to launch a flying tackle at Dukat? No. I like to think it took all the other trials for him to believe enough to throw his life over that cavernous cliff edge in service of the Prophets. His willingness to sacrifice makes for good drama, even as the waffling that leaves him sorta-killed but not really works against it. Deep Space Nine has not been known for that kind of waffling, at least not when it comes to bringing up conflicts.
But if you look at it, DS9 is the ultimate waffler when it comes to closing doors, finishing the story, completing a character arc. That Sisko’s half-death leaves Kassidy, his crew, and us with a… somehow incomplete feeling… comes as no surprise. It is almost an encapsulation of one of the reliable facets of the series, what some folks might call one of it’s more daring and compelling features–nothing ever ends cleanly, prettily, nicely with no loose ends and things forgotten. That this aspect of DS9’s storytelling, as represented here, leaves one with a lingering feeling of unresolvedness, is a feeling that a regular DS9 viewer would recognize as familiar.
That is, if it were not tainted with the knowledge that these loose ends may NEVER be cleaned up, and that a satisfying, complete conclusion may never come.
As a series ender, I would say that “What You Leave Behind” ranks somewhere below “All Good Things,” and somewhere above “Turnabout Intruder.” 😉 As an episode of Deep Space Nine, it is messy and erratic, but full of punch, genuine sentiment, and true to the nature of the show. Right down to its flaws.