Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, 20 Years Later

WTF is Star Trek: Deep Space Nine?

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a seven-season TV show that bridged Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager in the late 1990s. It’s also either the best or worst thing that ever happened to Star Trek, depending on your point of view.

Focused on politics, religion, and the horrors of war, Deep Space Nine follows Benjamin Sisko, a disaffected Starfleet officer who draws a crap assignment at a remote space station near the planet of Bajor. Sisko’s job is to help the Bajorans get ready to join the Federation, now that they’ve escaped the shackles of a brutal, decades-long occupation by the Cardassian Empire.

It’s supposed to be easy and boring but, almost as soon as he arrives, Sisko discovers a wormhole leading to an unexplored area of space. Recognizing a resource when they see it, the Bajorans move the station to defend the wormhole and, as the Klingons, Cardassians, Ferengi, and new groups of aliens start to converge, Sisko’s crap assignment suddenly has the power to decide the fate of billions.

There are too many other characters to list them all here, but, suffice to say that, even though Sisko’s journey anchors the story, a very large ensemble cast goes on to weather seven years of political upheaval, religious in-fighting, unrelenting war, disillusionment, betrayal, and loss.

I fucking love this show

Other than a handful of scenes seared into my brain as trauma memories, Deep Space Nine made no impression on me when I was a kid. I liked Dax, because she was an honorary man, and I thought that’s what I wanted to be when I was ten. I liked Kai Winn, because she was unrepentantly evil, which is also something I thought I wanted to be at that age. But, mostly, the whole thing scanned as drab and boring, and I realize now that that’s because I didn’t understand what was going on.

The biggest lesson I learned about my ten-year-old self from rewatching this show is that I used to take people at their word when they described their feelings and intentions. Deep Space Nine doesn’t operate that way – it’s interested in the distance between who people really are, who they think they are, and who they say they are when speaking to others. Quark and Odo act like they hate each other every time they cross paths, but they’re actually friends. Garek pretends to be a spy pretending to be a tailor because he wishes he were still a spy. Odo is seen as a hero by the Bajorans because he stood up for them during the occupation, but, in his heart, he’s ashamed to know that he never believed in their cause.

There are layers to almost all of the characters in the series, and to almost all of the situations they face, which adds a sense of realism that the other Star Trek series lack. I admired the characters on Star Trek: The Next Generation because they were better than we are today, and I wanted to beat up the characters on Star Trek: Voyager because they seemed impossibly naive – the characters on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine seem more like our peers, human and alien alike. They have the same faults we do, they face the same struggles and crises of conscience – they don’t always know the right answer, and they suffer the consequences when they make the wrong choice.

The end result of that is that the series seems darker and more cynical than its sister shows – but it’s also more directly relevant to the world we live in today. I swear to god, I’m not making this up – the night after Donald Trump became president, I turned on Deep Space Nine and Odo was telling Kira that sometimes the consequence of letting people hold a free election is that they elect someone you didn’t want. In this case, they were about to elect Kai Winn as their leader, and she went on to literally make a pact with the devil that sold out her whole planet. No comment beyond that.

Deep Space Nine is a show that rewards investment and thought and attention – it can be tedious sometimes; the war that dominates the last few seasons is a morale killer for the audience as well as the characters – but it’s the richest, deepest version of Star Trek I’ve seen.

It’s also a prelude to Battlestar Galactica

I loved Ron Moore’s reboot of Battlestar Galactica, but, because Deep Space Nine was a blur in my memory, I didn’t realize it was such a direct precursor until I watched it again. At the macro level, both shows are interested in the same things: war, religion, politics, the petty ways we fail ourselves, and so on. At a micro level, though, there are also a lot of details that cross over between the series – the soldier who suddenly loses his leg; the arrogant, womanizing doctor; the beloved non-commissioned Chief who knows more than the junior officers around him; the leader with a special destiny, plagued by strange visions; the way the characters suddenly become obsessed with popular music from the 20th century. There’s even somebody incessantly called “(the) old man” in both shows.

It’s not at all surprising that the things I like about Deep Space Nine are pretty much the same things I like about Battlestar Galactica, but I now have a better understanding of where BSG came from and what its television ancestry was.

Season four did course-correct some things

When you go on the internet to read about Deep Space Nine, a lot of people who love the show tell a story about how it was just getting good in season three, before The Powers That Be intervened and tried to course-correct the show by introducing Kilingons and bringing Worf over from Star Trek: The Next Generation. After that terrible misstep, the story goes, the show was able to finish strong in the last two seasons by returning to the narrative it started in season three.

I agree that the show is stronger when it was focuses on new enemies rather than a random war with the Klingon Empire, but I like season four, and here’s why:

  1. Worf is more interesting on Deep Space Nine than he was in Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s like watching a live-action version of an animated movie – it feels more real and immediate, even if it loses some of its grandeur. That’s partly because every character who crosses over to Deep Space Nine immediately becomes more interesting (see also: Lwaxana Troi, Chief O’Brien), but also because Michael Dorn had been playing this role for seven years already and was very confident in what he was doing. He’s able to manage a very difficult balance between drama and comedy that adds levity to the show without sacrificing its poignancy.
  2. Dax becomes who she is when she meets Worf. The character was all over the place in the first few seasons – when I was watching, I couldn’t even remember why I liked her – but once she’s playing off Worf all the time, the two of them get stronger as a pair and we start to understand who they are by watching them grow together. By the end of the series, she was one of my favourite characters again, and that wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t been bouncing off Worf.
  3. General Martok is an awesome character and we wouldn’t have met him if the show didn’t have a hard-on for Klingons all of a sudden.

There’s something to be said for letting people have a vision, but television is always made by groups and, in this case, I actually think the group helped more than it hurt. The greatest gift Deep Space Nine gave Star Trek was making it seem real, and season four extended that to include the Klingons in a very important way.

Quark is the best one

I fucking hated Quark when I was a child, so believe me when I say I am flabbergasted by how much I grew to love him as an adult. Armin Shimmerman did some really good work on this show – he’s admitted that he purposely looked for opportunities to play against the way the character was written and give a more interesting performance, and he succeeded. He is the most interesting person on screen whenever he’s on screen. I wanted every episode to be a Ferengi episode, even if it meant the Grand Nagus was there. It’s crazy.

The Quark character is more or less the pinnacle of what this show did right – taking an alien race that was a weird (possibly anti-Semitic) joke in the other series and making at least one of them seem like a person. A complicated person who you kind of don’t like sometimes but also want to root for. A person who’s got some weird sex thing with his ears and wears a tailcoat all the time and is kind of a douchebag to all his employees but then also surprisingly tolerant and kind when you compare him to his culture of origin. A person who really wants to be accepted by his countrymen, but also kind of can’t stand them and moved as far away from them as he could. A person who vacillates between being the head of his own little kingdom and feeling like the biggest loser in the world. A person I liked watching a TV show about.

Dr. Bashir is the worst one

On the flipside, Dr. Bashir is a character who never quite gelled – and I feel pretty safe thinking I’m not alone in that opinion, since there was a late-series attempt to reboot his character by making him a genetically-engineered super human. As I said, he’s an imperfect prototype of the Gaius Baltar character on Battlestar Galactica – he’s handsome and smart and you kind of want to like him, but he’s also an arrogant dickwad at every chance he gets. The extra element with Dr. Bashir is that his arrogance was meant to be a consequence of age and, to a lesser degree, social privilege – he was a young doctor, just out of medical school, who’d never spent time with anyone outside the Federation, and he thought he knew everything. It was a bold choice to make him so unlikable – it’s just that his becoming slightly more likable did not make for a compelling story.

The greatest lost opportunity in Star Trek Deep Space Nine is the opportunity to have Bashir fall in love with Garak, the Cardassian spy. The actor who plays Garak, Andrew Robinson, has explained that he was purposely going for the ambiguous, sexually-fluid vibe that comes across on screen, but the show never does anything with it, or with Garak’s somewhat predatory is-he-plotting-something-or-isn’t-he interest in the doctor. Maybe it’s not realistic to think that a network drama could have done a gay spy story at that time, but it would have at least given Dr. Bashir something to do besides purposely biff half his lines.

The best and most rewarding part of the show is that it’s filled with great little character moments

I had planned to rewatch this the same way I rewatched Next Generation – that is, by freely jumping between seasons and episodes whenever I felt like it. Deep Space Nine is too linear and involves too many story arcs for that to work as a viewing strategy, but I also discovered that the best part of this show is not the A-plot of the episodes, but the little character scenes wedged in around it.

I found Odo the shapeshifter so socially awkward that it hurt to watch him – which is another interesting acting choice – but one of my favourite scenes in the entire series is this little moment where Lwaxana Troi (a character whose entire being on Next Generation was a stereotype of loud, overbearing women) is trying to have a conversation with him and doing 100% of the social lifting to stop it from being weird. It’s in the middle of an episode about Odo and how he’s weird and how she, of all people, is the only one who truly accepts him the way he is, but the part I like is not the part where she makes a big gesture by taking off her wig to show him how much she hates herself – the part I like is when he snaps at her in response to a personal question and she just goes, “Okay, cool,” and changes the subject.

It was in that moment that I really understood who that character was for the first time – why she would be the perfect person to serve as an ambassador for her planet; how her extroverted personality is actually an asset and not just the basis for a joke about how loud she is.

The last fifteen minutes are the very worst part of the series

This is another thing it has in common with Battlestar Galactica!

The final episode of Deep Space Nine does a good job of wrapping up the war story, letting us know how things land with the Klingons and Cardassians, and delivering Odo to the destiny that’s been awaiting him since he first looked at the stars and wondered where he came from. It does a worse job of wrapping up Sisko’s character arc and the special, prophesised destiny that’s been dogging him.

Without giving a bunch of spoilers for a show that’s been over for decades, the last fifteen minutes reveal that Sisko’s special destiny is to run through a cave and tackle someone. It’s pretty silly, but, more importantly, it’s followed by a scene where he has one last conversation with another character before leaving the station forever, and that character is not one of the series regulars. Or, you know, his son, who is the emotional centre of his entire story.

It’s a weird way for him to go out, but it’s not as weird as what happens next, because what happens next is a musical montage where the characters walk through the station and flash back to things that happened to them over the course of the series. Except, for reasons I can only speculate about (maybe this got dropped on the editors right at the last minute and they didn’t have time; maybe there was some technical reason why it was hard to access the old footage) almost every single thing everyone remembers is something that happened during the final two seasons. There’s also no real rhyme or reason to what the characters are remembering and, in many cases, it’s probably not a moment that was especially meaningful to them. Like, Worf remembers the time he and Ezri were hanging upside down together about three episodes ago, but he totally blanks on any experience he had with his wife.

I don’t know what that was about but, just like Battlestar Galactica, the person with a special destiny didn’t have that special of a destiny, a father coldly abandoned his adult son without saying goodbye, and then they played a song and everything was terrible.

The mirror universe was also kind of barfy

I forgot how much time Deep Space Nine spent in the mirror universe, but it was too much. For the uninitiated, the mirror universe is a “dark” or “evil” version of the primary Star Trek universe, where all the characters are auditioning for roles on Lexx.

The main problem I have with the mirror universe is that I don’t like how it takes for granted that there’s something dark and evil about people who like sex.

The secondary problem I have with the mirror universe is that, when Sisko went there, he had no hesitation at all in sleeping with the mirror versions of his female friends and subordinates, and the show just brushed that off like, “Obviously that’s what you would do. It totally wouldn’t make everything weird.” But it would.

Other things were weird, too

Remember the time when Garak tortured Odo for hours and hours because he thought he’d get his spy job back and, when that didn’t happen and they both went home, Odo never told anyone about it?

Also, remember how Odo had a gender? And the “female” shapeshifter he met had a gender? Why did they have genders? And why were their genders exactly the same as the solids they met? How does that make sense?

Also, remember when Ezri had sex with Dr. Bashir and she made a joke about him finding out how far the Trill spots go down, but he’s a doctor who’s been treating Trill patients for seven years, so it seemed like something he would know?

And finally, remember how the Ferengi’s ears were supposed to be major erogenous zones on their bodies, and they masturbated by rubbing their ears, and someone wrote a book about how to give them an orgasm by rubbing their ears, and then the other characters still kept twisting their ears in what was ostensibly a non-sexual way?

That stuff was also weird.

In conclusion, this is now my favourite version of Star Trek

I understand the point of having a utopian vision of the future and showing us what we could be. But I also think that can’t sustain five TV shows and a movie franchise. Star Trek: The Next Generation arguably portrayed the utopian ideals of Star Trek in the best way possible, so it was only right that the series following immediately after tried to do something different.

The core insight of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is that maybe everyone in the Federation is just Wesley Crusher – maybe they think they know better than all the aliens they meet because they’ve never experienced hardship and don’t understand how the universe looks from a one-down position. Maybe utopia only seems like utopia to the privileged few.

The majority of characters on Deep Space Nine are not only not human; they’re also not Federation citizens, and they don’t want to be. That’s a perspective that was missing from Star Trek, and one that greatly complicates the universe these stories take place in. If Captain Picard’s most defining action was befriending a lizard alien instead of fighting him the way Kirk did, then Sisko’s most defining action is helping a lizard alien assassinate a foreign dignitary to try to win a war his side is losing.

We can aspire to be like the characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the world we live in now is lot more like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and the choices available to us, if we’re trying to be good people, are a lot more like the choices available to Sisko than to Picard. Both stories have their place – I just enjoy the second one more.

Whether you agree with me or not – and you very well may not – the least you can say about Deep Space Nine is that it has its own voice and perspective, and that it managed to take some risks rather than riding the coattails of the series that came before. That in itself makes it worthwhile to me.

My secret wish for the future is that Star Trek stops spending its special effects budget on big explosions, and starts spending it on CGI to selectively replace and enhance the prosthetic makeup so that the alien races we already know can look real. Marry that to the character realism brought about by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and you’d have an amazingly immersive movie.

Image: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; UPN | January 27, 2017