The first episode of any television series is important. For completely new shows, it can determine whether a studio will buy an initial season. While the risks are less for a spinoff of a popular show with a built-in audience, especially a flagship show like Star Trek, there are still important tasks to accomplish. The pilot needs to give clear links to the earlier show, usually including cameo guest appearances from an actor on the earlier series. A pilot episode needs to set the scene and establish setting, and it has to introduce and characterize the major characters.
As the pilot episode for DS9, Emissary establishes a number of major themes and story arcs. We also see the important links to TNG, most importantly The Best of Both Worlds, and Encounter at Farpoint. Perhaps most importantly, Emissary introduces the major characters, allowing the audience to identify with them. While it must introduce the main cast, there is a clear focus on the lead role, in this case, Commander Benjamin Sisko.
While Sisko is fully developed as a character in this episode, the rest of the cast is filled in with brief introductions, giving us a taste for their personalities. Before we get to Sisko, here are some of the first impressions from how the characters are portrayed in this episode.
Chief Miles O’Brien is a character already familiar to viewers of TNG. Colm Meany is a great actor, and we finally get to see a lot more of his character in this series. A non-commissioned officer, O’Brien is the Everyman. He’s instantly relatable, and acts as a bridge back to TNG. He really doesn’t need that much introduction in the episode, and instead we see how he adapts to the changes in position. He takes on the “engineer” role, like Scotty from TOS and Geordi from TNG.
Kira Nerys is the Bajoran representative on the station. She comes across as fierce, proud, stubborn and angry. After fighting to free Bajor from the Cardassians, she is frustrated that they have immediately given control of the station to the Federation. We immediately get the sense that there is going to be intense friction between her and the Federation rules. She has vastly different motivations than Sisko, with different loyalties. A beautiful moment for her character is when she orders O’Brien to fire all six of the station’s photon torpedoes across the bow of a Cardassian warship, hoping that she can bluff her way beyond any real confrontation.
Jadzia Dax is a joined Trill, a human-alien symbiotic entity, whose previous host had worked closely with Sisko in the past. Immediate impressions are of wisdom, age, and bemused detachment. In this episode, the writers use a religious artifact, an Orb, to present us with a flashback to the transfer of the symbiont from the previous host. There’s definitely a sense of mystery with Dax.
Doctor Bashir is a young, brash, brilliant doctor, with little experience in the field. He’s completely without any sense of tact. He definitely lacks McCoy’s wry sense of knowing sarcasm.
Odo is the station’s chief of security. As a shapeshifter, he’s an outsider, very much fulfilling the same role as Spock and Data, with hints of an unknown origin story.
Then there’s Quark, the Ferengi bartender, who is quite possibly one of the most amusing characters in Star Trek. Since the Ferengi were introduced in the TNG episode The Last Outpost, they were always conniving little creatures. While profit is certainly still an issue, we see already signs of the importance of the family unit.
Finally, we get to Sisko. He’s a complicated character, especially in this first episode. He’s the lead character of the series as a whole, as well as this episode in particular. In this beginning episode, we see a broken man begin a path to healing.
The great tragedy in TNG was The Best of Both Worlds, when Captain Picard is surgically altered as Locutus of Borg. Here, the Borg represent a loss of humanity, a loss of individuality. In the opening scene of DS9, we see these same events through the eyes of Benjamin Sisko, where his wife Jennifer is killed in the massacre at Wolf 359. This very personal loss leaves Sisko to raise their son Jake alone.
This is a moment which defines Sisko. When he meets with Picard, we get a sense of resentment and anger towards the senior officer. To Sisko, Picard personifies the Borg, and is a reminder of what he has lost.
Sisko’s loss not only defines him as a character, but also defines DS9 as a Star Trek series. TNG showed the Borg wreaking havoc at Wolf 359. DS9 shows the human impact. In the earlier series, events nearly always reset by the end of the episode. Even in the episode Cause and Effect, where the Enterprise is stuck in a temporal loop, leading to the destruction of the ship and loss of all hands multiple times, by the end of the episode, the disaster is averted, and everything has returned to normal. The only enduring loss in TNG is the death of Natasha Yar in the episode Skin of Evil. The most dramatic change in TNG is the assimilation of Picard into Locutus, which is ultimately reversed.
In Emissary, we Sisko finally come to terms with his loss, and start the healing process. We see this change framed by two conversations with Picard. In the first meeting, the audience can see a sullen resentment, as Sisko voices a desire to retire his commission, and live life as a civilian. During the second meeting, Sisko rescinds this wish, and voices a very strong desire to make a go of his new command. So what exactly happens in the meantime that we see such a drastic reversal in Sisko’s outlook?
Some of the most awkward dialogue in DS9. Not that it’s really terrible, but just awkward. This is a first contact event with an alien species that differs considerably from those that normally appear on Star Trek. While Star Trek has been criticized in the past for having aliens that are human, except for pointy ears, or a brow ridge, in this episode, the Prophets are extra-temporal beings: they don’t exist in linear time, but seem to experience all moments at once. In a way, the relative similarities between the alien races in Star Trek has always been minor, emphasizing a common humanity. In DS9, we start to explore a consciousness without our common frames of reference, something truly alien.
Sisko tries to teach the Prophets about cause and effect, and linear time. The whole conversation is an analogy for the way DS9 itself will handle plot lines, with the long term effects of actions carrying on into further episodes. There are some useful analogies made here to the value humanity places on unpredictability, such as the enjoyment one receives from a baseball game. Every pitch is unpredictable, and it is the random nature of the game that gives it meaning.
While Sisko works to show them the value of a linear progression of time, he also comes to realize that he too is stuck in the past, at the moment of Jennifer’s death. This is not only the moment where the healing begins, but also the point that the Prophets find common ground with Sisko, and by extension, humanity.
The Prophets and their wormhole play an important role in the series. The wormhole obviously brings the Bajor system into play as an area of strategic importance, while the presence of the Prophets plays a religious role in Bajoran society, which is also an ongoing theme throughout the show. Sisko has been named the Emissary, a role that will deepen as the series progresses.
The role of the Federation, as part of the command on the outpost is also brought into question. How can Bajor gain independence while inviting the Federation to set up on their doorstep?
Despite the current peace, ongoing tensions with the Cardassians remain high. The presence of the wormhole puts Bajorans back into play, causing the Cardassians to regret relinquishing control.
The Bajorans themselves see themselves as a recently emancipated group. The similarities to slavery in the United States are easy to see, especially with the racial tensions on DS9.
Many other themes have been suggested through the character introductions, and will be developed further in the next few episodes as the characters are fleshed out.
Emissary originally aired on January 3, 1993. Teleplay by Michael Piller, with story by Michael Piller and Rick Berman. Directed by David Carson.