Written By: Ashley Stevens
The opening sequence of Emissary Part 1 and 2, the pilot episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9), comes out swinging. It starts with an infamous battle of Star Trek lore: Wolf 359. This is the battle in which Starfleet captain-turned-Borg puppet Jean-Luc Picard goes toe-to-toe with a small fleet of starships which culminates in destruction and loss of life for Starfleet.
But this is not Picard’s story. This is Commander Benjamin Sisko’s story. Wolf 359 will, as the show progresses, be a defining moment of his life. It is at Wolf 359 he loses his wife. Sisko, his son, and others barely escape with their lives. It is the shadow that hangs over him.
At a whopping 90 minutes, Emissary is a heck of a pilot episode, originally airing on January 3, 1993. The opening sequence establishes Sisko but also links DS9 to the existing Star Trek universe. DS9 exists at the same time as Star Trek: Next Generation (TNS). This is evident by the presence of the USS Enterprise and Picard.
The episode brings with it some major themes that carry throughout not only this episode but will carry out, to some degree or another, for the run of the show. Spoiler alert: I watched DS9 as a kid and now watching again as an adult.
- Black Love & Grief – 1993 was a great year for featuring an African-American lead. The Cosby Show, Family Matters, and A Different World dominated the airwaves. Images of black love abounded even in the midst of the stark reminders of police brutality. The show aired less than a year after the L.A. riots due to the beating of Rodney King and acquittal of the officers involved. (The more things change, the more they stay the same, amirite?)
Where Star Trek differed is that it introduced loss. Our first introduction to Jennifer Sisko is her untimely death. But, it is Sisko’s behavior when faced with that death and his grief that shows us how profound his love is for her. In the latter half of the episode, we discover that her death haunts his dreams. Now, I love me some black love. And, it was great to see the highlight reel of Benjamin and Jennifer’s life, even if it was an alien illusion. Admittedly, I felt she got shortchanged as a character. Another victim of that all-too-common plot device: fridging. Her life and who she was reduced to her death, specifically how that death impacted Sisko. Another black woman’s voice silenced before she has a chance to speak.
- Colonialism – Early on, we learn that Sisko’s assignment as commander to a space station is rife with problems. The space station was formally held by the Cardassians, a reptilian-like, opportunistic, and cunning alien race, who oppressed the Bajorans, a headstrong, spiritually-driven race. Having been abandoned by the Cardassians, Starfleet has moved in to help the struggling Bajorans. Starfleet’s ultimate goal is to see Bajor become a member of the Federation. Everything about the Cardassian experience screams colonialism.
The Cardassians oppressed Bajor for over 60 years. And, as stated by Major Kira Nerys, Sisko’s Bajoran liaison to the new Bajoran Provisional Government, they fought as hard as they could against their oppressors. Nerys barely hides her disdain for the Federation in her first meeting with Sisko. He replies that the Federation is here to help. Nerys counters so did the Cardassians. That made me wonder: Isn’t the Federation just another colonizing force?
The Cardassians ruled with an iron fist and exploited the resources of Bajor. Now, the Federation has come into dole out humanitarian aid. I couldn’t help but draw parallels to the history of Africa. From being exploited to having humanitarian aid that really begs the question of whether it truly helps those in need.
The irony was not lost on me of a Bajoran (albeit white woman) schooling a black man on her struggles to fight oppression. Later, in the episode, she snarkily remarks that Sisko probably never got his hands dirty. Hold up, lady. Her statement is predicated on accepting that mankind has evolved beyond racism AND that she was unaware of Earth’s history but still. Her exchanges had me feeling a type of way.
- Spiritualism – Bajorans are a spiritual people. To bring stability to the area, Sisko embarks on a mission to meet the Bajoran leader: Kai Opaka. It is this theme that the pilot’s title Emissary comes into play and where the episode takes a philosophical turn. Sisko inadvertently becomes the diplomat on a special mission to communicate with the Bajoran prophets located in the *surprise* wormhole near the station. While the action happens back at the station, Sisko is attempting to explain to sentient beings the concept of time for corporeal beings. Wha…? Again, weighty stuff. This alone, I believe, sets DS9 apart from its predecessors TNS and Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS). Sure, they would delve into weighty topics, but they would be neatly wrapped up in 45 minutes. DS9 spends a decent part of the episode exploring it and it’s only the beginning. Now I’m starting to remember why, as a kid, my eyes glazed over when the show went spiritual/philosophical. Maybe as an adult, I’ll actually listen.
Other items of note in the episode:
- The tension between Picard and Sisko was INTENSE. Avery Brooks conveys the seething anger and disdain of Sisko toward the man who is partly responsible for his wife’s death. In turn, Patrick Steward conveys that guilt to perfection. I would have loved to see the two of them act opposite each other more.
- A woman in charge. Nerys takes charge in Sisko’s absence which is new territory for Star Trek as the Captain and First Officer is typically male characters. (No, I haven’t forgotten the pilot episode of TOS). Also, this is the first of the Star Trek franchise to show a coalition of forces operating together. There is Starfleet and the Bajoran Provisional Government.
- Medical Officer Bashir likens the space station to the Wild West, the primitive frontier. It made me think of those idealistic missionaries that go to Africa with these misguided, problematic ideas of what that country/experience is about. Nerys checked him hard on that one and I was glad for it.
Thanks for reading. Next time, we’ll explore Episode Two: A Man Alone.
Star Trek Redux is a bi-monthly examination of the themes, messages, and morals of the Star Trek Universe.