“This may be the last time we’re all together. But no matter what the future holds, no matter how far we travel, a part of us – a very important part – will always remain here, on Deep Space Nine.”
– DS9’s finale, What You Leave Behind
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s finale aired 17 years ago, and as much as the new films have brought the public back to the classic science fiction franchise, Star Trek always worked best for me on the small screen, telling human stories through actors with rubber prostheses attached to their faces. I miss that type of Trek, the tales it told.
Deep Space Nine is my favourite Trek. While other shows in the franchise featured starships flying around the galaxy in search of new life and civilizations, DS9 stayed put, concerning itself with the day-to-day happenings of its sprawling cast living within its constructed universe. Onboard this ramshackle space station situated near Bajor, an alien world emerging from decades of brutal occupation, actions have weight, carry short and long-term consequences. Unafraid to experiment with a range of subjects and storytelling styles, DS9 found excellence in everything from devastating chamber pieces and detective noir tales to the grand season-spanning sagas that have since become staples on the modern television landscape. Rewatching the series on Star Trek’s 50th anniversary (it being finally available on Netflix), I was delighted to find that the show’s core has held up after two decades, and that part of me, indeed, still remained on Deep Space Nine.
Progress is a quiet little episode that aired during the first season when the show was still finding its footing. It would be a prelude to the type of tales the show would excel at telling, strong character pieces that blend great performances with nuanced stories that acknowledged and embraced clashing worldviews, hard choices, and lasting change.
The world of Bajor is about to tap the molten core of Jeraddo, one of its moons, for energy to heat hundreds of thousands of homes. As the process will render the moon uninhabitable, our protagonist perform a flyby to ensure that the area is evacuated. Detecting signs of life, Bajoran Major Kira Nerys heads down and is surprised to find a cottage inhabited by an old man named Mullibok with two mute farmhands. She tells them they must leave before the moon’s core is tapped, while Mullibok invites her in for dinner. Kira relents and stays for what she assumes will be a farewell supper.
Once inside, Mullibok saddles Kira with busywork, trying to annoy her so that she would give up and leave. Kira sees through his ploy and tries again tell him the need to leave, but Mullibok politely declines, stating that Jerrado has been his home for four decades, and that if he leaves he will die.
Over dinner, Mullibok talks about how he escaped the Bajoran occupation and settled on Jerrado; a bemused Kira listens to his tall tales of defying hunger by cinching up belts, tilling the soils with fingernails, and chewing the earth to make it fertile. When urged once more by Kira to leave Jerrado, Mullibok asks the former freedom fighter how her resistance cell was able to defeat a vastly superior force during the occupation. Kira concedes that it was because they hung on like fanatics. Mullibok smiles, satisfied, and heads outside to work on building a new kiln.
Kira returns to the station and reports to her commanding officer, Benjamin Sisko, who is accompanied by a representative from the Bajoran government. Her orders are clear: Remove Mullibok and his companions by force if necessary, as the power project is too important to delay. Torn between her duty and her fondness for Mullibok, she returns to Jerrado with security personnel hoping for a peaceful resolution. But the already tense situation escalates: Mullibok charges an officer and gets shot.
Doctor Bashir arrives to treat Mullibok’s wounds, insisting that he be taken back to the station for treatment. Mullibok naturally refuses, but wonders aloud why Kira didn’t simply take him away while he was unconscious. Kira decides to stay behind to provide Mullibok with round-the-clock care. She begins working on the kiln.
Bashir informs Sisko of the situation. Concerned about his first officer, Sisko buys Kira some time with the Bajoran government before heading to Jerrado to assess the situation. After meeting Mullibok, Sisko sees why Kira feels attached to the old man; she has spent her whole life fighting as and identifying with the underdog. Speaking both as her CO and her friend, he reminds Kira that she is on the other side now, and that while Mullibok’s fate is sealed, hers is not. Kira is appreciative of the advice, and stays overnight to tend to Mullibok.
In the morning, Mullibok is well enough to head outside to work on his kiln. Kira helps him put the last tile on before packing up his belongings in preparation for departure. Once more, Mullibok refuses to leave, insisting that as long as his home stands, he stays. Kira destroys the new kiln and sets fire to the cottage.
Mullibok asks Kira to shoot him, stating that he will die if he leaves. Kira says that he won’t and that she would like to have him as a friend back on Bajor. Mullibok turns away from her as the cottage burns. The scene fades to black.
(Progress also features an amusing B-plot in the episode around two of the teenagers on the show, but I left that out of the summary for the sake of brevity and relevance.)
A Different Type of Trek
Deep Space Nine was the first and arguably only Star Trek series to take a reflexive look at the franchise’s central ethos of exploration. While Trek’s mission to seek out “new life and new civilizations” embodies the noblest aspects of humanity, the discovery, mapping, and assimilation of “new” spaces and cultures can also be perceived in a darker tone:
“Mapmaking follows on the heels of discovery; and a new place is born with a new name. This foreign land is both occupied and possessed, and the act of conquering it is repeated on the map. Only when a place has been precisely located and measured can it be actual and real. Every map is the result and the exercise of colonial violence.”
– Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands
There’s an exchange between two main characters in DS9’s pilot episode that succinctly sums up the show’s take on the original series’ “western in space” mentality:
Bashir: “This’ll be perfect! Real frontier medicine!”
Kira: “Frontier medicine?”
Bashir: “Major, I had my choice of any job in the fleet.”
Kira: “Did you?”
Bashir: “I didn’t want some cushy job or research grant. I wanted this! The farthest reaches of the galaxy, one of the most remote outposts available. This is where the adventure is, this is where heroes are made—right here, in the wilderness.”
Kira: “This ‘wilderness’ is my home.”
Bashir: “I—I didn’t mean—”
Kira: “The Cardassians left behind a lot of injured people, Doctor. You can make yourself useful by bringing some of your Federation medicine to the natives. Oh, you’ll find them a friendly, simple folk.”
– DS9’s pilot, Emissary
Deep Space Nine asserts that the frontier contains its own centre, reminding the viewer that alternate cultures and civilizations exist and act according to their own agency. Besides the human-centric Federation, other powers large and small within the DS9 universe constantly work to shape the interstellar community towards their own interests. Even the cast reflects this diversity – DS9 is the only Trek to feature more aliens than humans in its main and recurring cast.
Progress, for example, is an entirely Bajoran story. While the Federation provides technical support for the power project, the driving force behind the episode (and for much of the first season) focuses on how Bajor works to recover from decades of cultural and environmental destruction caused by a foreign occupying power. Because Bajor operates outside the Federation’s post-scarcity economic system, its provisional government is faced with a dilemma: Either deprive hundreds of thousands of people of much needed energy, or forcibly dispossess a man and his friends from the only home they have ever known.
But while Progress is an alien-centric story, it also directs its science-fiction lens to delve into some fundamentally human issues. It looks at the clash between those who refuse to compromise when faced with societal demands and at those who adapt at great personal cost. What’s compelling about Progress is that it doesn’t resort to a convenient technological fix, as Trek often does, to offer amicable solutions for all. There are no easy answers, even in the distant future.
Nasty Old Tree
Concept and ideas do not make compelling stories – good characters do. Luckily, Progress features some great writing and acting, constant sources of strength through the show’s seven-season run. The dialogue written by Peter Allan Fields (who also co-write the teleplay for The Inner Light, an episode I’ve covered on Ekostories) is sharp and subtle, and ever after two decades, the banter between Nana Visitor’s Kira and Brian Keith’s Mullibok brings a smile to my face.
Mullibok is simultaneously charming, perceptive, and manipulative, constantly trying to persuade Kira to abandon her mission. His refusal to leave his home arises not out of an ignorance of the dangers that staying poses, but from an acceptance of his situation. Having lived removed from society for most of his life, he refuses to cede to its demands. Despite enjoying Kira’s company, all he ultimately wants is to be left alone.
A former terrorist/freedom fighter/revolutionary, Kira holds her own against the witty curmudgeon, running through the full gamut of reactions from exasperation at his attempts to delay the inevitable, to sympathy and deep fondness for his stubbornness. She sees in him the same resolve that kept her alive and fighting during the occupation, and it is out of this mutual understanding and respect that makes their connection so convincing and compelling to watch. Visitor’s visible anguish at having to choose between siding with Mullibok and performing her duty culminates in my favourite exchange of the episode:
Kira: “When I was very small, I remember there was this tree right outside my window. It was the ugliest, most gnarled and battered old tree I’ve ever seen. Even the birds stayed away from it.”
Mullibok: “But you loved it.”
Kira: “I hated it. Because it’d grown so huge that its branches blotted out the sun for kellipates. And its roots buried themselves so deep in the soil nothing else could grow there. It was a big, selfish, annoying…”
Kira: “…Nasty, nasty old tree.”
Mullibok: “Sounds to me like it had a lot of character.”
Kira: “A lot.”
Mullibok: “So what happened? Did you cut it down?”
Kira: “I don’t know yet.”
The ending is heartbreaking as Kira knows that even as she saves Mullibok’s life she has lost him forever.
As someone who writes a lot about connection to place and rootedness as strength, I appreciate that Progress challenges my default thinking and biases. Mullibok’s character initially reminds me of John Vogelin, an old New Mexico rancher from Edward Abbey’s novel Fire on the Mountain. In the book, Vogelin refuses to cede his land over to the US Air Force for use as a bombing range. But while Abbey’s story features a clear-cut enemy and is told from the eyes of Vogelin’s poorly rendered grandson, Progress has the show’s protagonist burn down a man’s house and evict him from his land. How should one feel about dispossession for the sake of development? What cost is acceptable for actions that leads to societal benefit? How does one balance the needs of the many against the needs of the individual? These questions may be easy to answer in the abstract, but are much more difficult when it concerns people and places we come to know and care about. Good Trek episodes like Progress pushes me to think harder and deeper through great characters, alternate perspectives, and compelling stories.
The World From the Other Side
Mullibok: “The problem is, they don’t like uniforms.”
Kira: “Neither do I, but it comes with the job.”
Progress is ultimately Kira’s story. Having spent her life as a morally justified revolutionary fighting against a hostile occupying force, she struggles to adjust to being in a position of power, not being used to compromise or having to navigate a world of greys. In one scene, Sisko arrives in person to remind Kira of her changing identity:
Sisko: “You’ve spent your life fighting to overcome impossible odds just like he’s doing. But you have to realize something, Major. You’re on the other side now. Pretty uncomfortable, isn’t it?”
(As an aside, I was struck by the scene’s blocking on my rewatch. Sisko first stands behind Kira to speak as her commanding officer, and then crouches to her level to talk as a friend. It’s a fine piece of visual storytelling that wordlessly conveys a professional and respectful working relationship.)
Progress burdens Kira with some tough questions: How important is adhering to one’s principle? How much can one bend before they find themselves broken? What role does one focused on change have when that change arrives? How does one redefine oneself in a new world where old lines and loyalties no longer apply?
Mullibok has already chosen his answers to these questions; he will not budge, for anyone, for anything. Kira struggles because she is still capable of change, which is both wonderful and terrifying. In the end, she carries out her mission, even as her action costs her a friend and a pure conscience; she has to live with that and shed her old ways of negotiating the world. Viewed from the context of her journey throughout the series, the title of the episode takes on an extra layer of meaning: Progress marks Kira’s initial steps of personal change as she transforms from a single-minded guerrilla fighter to a respected representative of her world and people, the best that Bajor as to offer. As science fiction critic Abigail Nussbaum writes in her fantastic DS9 essay series Back Through the Wormhole, “a good rule of thumb for Deep Space Nine, and something that its writers were quick to pick up on, is that Kira makes everything better.” Revisiting the series and the story of one of Trek’s strongest and most complex characters, I’m inclined to agree.
- Star Trek’s Finest Hour: The Inner Light
- Atlas of Remote Islands: Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will
- Narrative in Art: The Changing Countryside
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a registered trademark of Paramount Pictures. All images are copyright Paramount Pictures; no copyright infringement is intended. Featured Image from Wallpaper Cave.