If there is one thing that Deep Space 9 has taught us, is that Deep Space 9 can teach us everything. For example, if one wishes to explain how short-form and long-form story telling can be present on one television show, then Deep Space 9 will provide an example of these forms and show how they interact within a series. Of course on TV, the terms episodic and story-arc, are used to describe the short and long term aims of a single dramatic piece.
The episode which best demonstrates these two concepts, operating together, is ‘In The Pale Moonlight’ (Season6 Episode19). Generally thought of as among the very best that DS9 has to offer.
In brief, our beloved United Federation of Planets is locked in a fight to the death with The Founders. The war is not going well. The denizens of DS9 are confronted with ever growing casualty lists. Friends and colleagues are appearing on these lists with growing frequency. Then Betazed falls. Commander Deanna Troi’s home planet falls to the enemy. Disaster. The Federation is out of friends and seemingly out of options.
The Federation is forced to try something underhanded and morally dubious. Captain Sisko is expected to find a way to bring The Romulan Empire into the War, on the side of The Federation. To achieve this, Sisko plots with a Cardassian Master Spy, called Garak, to create evidence of a Founder plan to invade The Romulan Empire. Murder, assassination, espionage and various other unFederation actions ensue. Result being, The Romulan Empire is tricked into declaring war on The Founders.
That’s the entire episode, in 150 words. A plan is hatched, the plan succeeds, the end. Anyone not having watched Deep Space 9 before, or any of the Star Treks for that matter, will be able to follow the story. The episode stands as a discrete piece of drama. Little nods though, are given to the fans, like Betazed falling or more immediately, the now ironic rejection of realpolitik as the theme of the previous episode. But it can be understood by the uninitiated. This is an episode.
It is also exists as part of a larger story. Or more accurately, as part of a larger series of story arcs. The war with the Founders, Garak’s attempts to free his beloved Cardassia, the demands forced on Sisko by his duties to The Federation and to The Prophets and the larger implications for the geopolitical situation in the alpha-quadrant are all arcs which are served by this stand alone episode.
The strength of a series, especially in the pre-boxset and digital recoding eras, was the ability to entertain both the diehards and the occasional viewer. On could tune into an episode of Cheers and not know its provenance. but in the first ten seconds one would discern that Sam was a slut with a heart of gold. He has unresolved feelings towards the terminally uptight Diane. Norm is a barfly and Carla a harsh tongued independent woman.
Back then there might be the occasional two-part episode and the second part would be preceded by a reminder of what was going on. If one was to try that with a demanding series like Homeland, the entire episode would be taken up with call-back.
One now only sees the episode and the arc co-existing in soap-operas. One can dip in and out of ‘London Harpies and Their Wide Boys Being Shrill’ and have an idea what is going on. The devoted fan however, cannot afford to miss an episode. A particular arc may end, but it will spawn others. A series of true quality, will provide riveting episodes that both stand alone and continually move these arcs along. Deep Space 9 always did this, it was the Space Opera extraordinaire.