One of the telltale omens of the looming Long 1990s is a desire to see stories where heroes fail, lose or make bad decisions. I’ve spent a good amount of time, space and energy looking at the psychology of this, which is curious considering I haven’t actually begun looking at the Long 1990s yet (although there is the argument that the groundwork has already been laid by numerous sociocultural factors and a handful of influential works).
This desire to voyeuristically engage with failure is not a guiding principle of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Although future Star Trek creative teams will most assuredly take this as gospel, most of the touted “conflict” of this particular series was designed to hinge around the natural tension that organically emerges when you take a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds and make them live and work in close proximity with one another. You can actually see a number of good examples of the show’s approach to this throughout the various subplots in “Progress”: The B-plot is the obvious one, where Nog tries to teach Jake some basic Ferengi philosophy to make an “opportunity” out of a supposed setback. But Nog isn’t able to turn a profit on his own, because he’s not capable of negotiating with respect to the various positionalities of the parties involved in his transaction (the only thing he can do on his own is subtly manipulate Quark, which is just him working his native Ferengi system of social mores). It takes Jake to come in and help steer the negotiations into a direction that’s beneficial for everyone’s interests, which provides an interesting echo for the events of their subplot in “The Storyteller” last week.
There’s also the obvious anxiety of the Provisional Government’s representative in Ops before the A-plot kicks off in earnest, who’s not sure he can trust Commander Sisko and Jadzia Dax to oversee the drilling project, and isn’t sure what to make of Major Kira working with them. Kira has to be their spokesperson to him, and bridge the gap between the two teams, which subtly foreshadows what she’s going to have to do once the story itself gets going (and fails to, but that’s getting ahead of things). But the best example is actually the scene where Kira and Dax are in the Runabout en route to Jeraddo: Wonderfully, it’s the first glimpse we get of Jadzia’s signature libido, as she chats to Nerys about attracting Morn’s attention, almost bragging about it. Nerys is repulsed because not only does she not share Jadzia’s taste in friends-with-benefits or her promiscuity, but she can’t even conceive of how someone could swing that way in the first place. She doesn’t think less of Dax, but she’s entirely incapable of putting herself in her shoes. Which is Jadzia’s entire point: She knows Nerys is too buttoned-up and too immersed in her comfort zone, which is something that comes with youth. Jadzia has the wisdom and empathy that comes with age while maintaining the zeal of youth, and she’s trying to open her friend’s eyes to that possibility and also get her to loosen up around her.
What all of these scenes have in common is that they’re all examples of, believe it or not, utopian conflict resolution. The show sets up a conflict brought upon by the heterogeneous mixture of life aboard Deep Space 9 to be sure, but critically it then proceeds to resolve that conflict by demonstrating examples of how to move beyond that in a mutually amicable and constructive way. Where the Long 90s grimdark stuff falls down is that it neglects the second part of that structure, setting up a conflict (be it brought upon by multiculturalism or angsty manpain or what have you) and then, figuring its job is done and thinking itself quite clever for getting to this point, just leaves the story there and wallows in it. And this is where the rest of “Progress” actually starts to walk kind of a thin line for me: I think it succeeds in what it’s trying to do, but just barely, and it’s probably one of the more imperfect episodes in this classic back half of the season.
The elephant in the room is of course that this story is setting Kira up for failure because there is absolutely no way any remotely conscious or empathetic reader is going to say the Provisional Government’s position is anywhere near defensible. It’s putting Kira in the same position Data was forced into in “The Ensigns of Command”, which is to say, that of a stooge for a genocidal imperialist relocation effort disturbingly reminiscent of any number of forced displacement programmes that have wrecked indigenous communities around the world in real life. She’s being made to do something that’s only a few degrees removed from what the Cardassians did to the Bajorans decades earlier, which is the basis of Mullibok’s whole argument. I used to think “Progress” was a classic because of the issues it tackled, even though in hindsight it’s rather egregiously similar to “The Ensigns of Command” (although, to be fair to me, this was largely because I barely fucking remembered “The Ensigns of Command” when this was going out), but even so there are a few noteworthy aspects that push this story out ahead of its predecessor in the comparison.
The first of which is simply that the setting of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is far more conducive to doing this kind of story. Bajor has a long history of this kind of thing happening, and it’s easier to get invested in something happening to the Bajorans than Random One-Off Forgotten Human Colony #9573. Also, and far more crucially to the success of “Progress”, is that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is fundamentally a show about bureaucratic administrators. The Enterprise is supposed to be an exploration and research vessel, so when they get wheeled in to play pansy for the Federation it feels even more awkward, strangled and wrong than it normally would. But this is exactly the kind of headache the Deep Space 9 crew, tasked with reconstruction and development of an unofficial protectorate, would be expected to have to shoulder. This means “Progress” is really the prototype of a new kind of Star Trek story, one that can look far more closely at what happens when you have a bunch of good, well-meaning people stuck in a fundamentally wrongheaded and dehumanizing system: Commander Sisko and Major Kira fundamentally know Mullibok is right, but the amount of power they each individually have to change the system is limited, and ultimately they’re forced to take the least worst action given the circumstances.
The problem with this is that it does trend dangerously close to the “let’s watch our heroes screw up because for some reason we think that’s what makes for good entertainment” mindset, and truth be known “Progress”, at least to my mind, it not the most elegant execution of this formula. The problem is, ironically enough, that the issue at hand is almost too cut-and-dry: There’s no way to reasonably argue that Mullibok is wrong and the Provisional Government are within their rights to forcibly relocate him. There’s not enough bureaucratic messiness, and the crew come across as looking more heartless and amoral than I really think they were supposed to. Writer Peter Allan Fields felt a lot of the problem was Brian Keith’s performance of Mullibok, who he had envisioned as a far more unsympathetic and manipulative character than Keith played him. But I think that would have just made things worse, as it would have implied that all rural or indigenous people are dangerously backwards and irrational. The reality as I see it is that this problem simply doesn’t have enough bureaucratic messiness to be effectively sold as a convincing moral dilemma.