Star Trek is enormous. While it began life as an upstart series facing cancellation, it eventually assumed the mantle of pop-culture juggernaut. Over 5 decades, it’s spawned a dozen various spin-offs and remakes. Its impact on both media and society cannot be ignored. Our TREKSPLOITATION series takes a look at Treks past and present (But mostly past) and why they mean so much to so many.
As a child of the 90s, I grew up with Star Trek on TV. There were 3 Star Trek shows on TV, on multiple channels. Often I could catch 3-4 episodes of different Treks every day. We even had a VCR, so I could tape them and watch at my leisure. These days, despite the fact that JJ Abrams has brought back TOS as high-budget films, there’s very little Star Trek on TV. Except for good ol’ Space Channel. (FYI Americans, Space is the Canadian equivalent of SyFy) Space is great, showing re-runs of TOS, TNG, and Voyager on almost a daily basis. Unfortunately, there’s one thing missing from that list that I consider a huge mistake. There is one Star Trek TV series that is missing. The very best Star Trek series:
Deep Space Nine.
And with that, many Trek fans reading this are stretching their typing fingers, saying something like “Oh no he didn’t!” and preparing to crack out a response as vacuous as it is pointless. And this isn’t their article, so fuck ’em.
Yes, I believe that Deep Space Nine was the best Star Trek. And even if you don’t agree, you should be mad that it’s not being given its due as a syndicated SF show being aired on Space. Why? Because Deep Space Nine was far ahead of its time. It did all the things the latest wave of acclaimed SF shows did later. Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Stargate and Farscape all played Space Opera in a manner that was hailed as unique or groundbreaking, for doing the same things that Deep Space Nine did. It was the forerunner, the ur-example, the shape of things to come. These ideas are very familiar now, but at the time, they should have been groundbreaking. I suppose that means nothing to people who’ve never seen Deep Space Nine. So, what exactly did this show do that it should be remembered for?
Setting as a Character
An alien space station, scarred by a brutal occupation and full of its own secrets, transformed into the centre of an uneasy truce. DS9 was a mirror that reflected the crew that populated it – the main cast all carried secrets and scars from their own pasts. Some of these were on the surface; the loss of a wife, years spent fighting an occupying force. Others were hidden underneath; riddles of the psyche to be unlocked, personal secrets hidden to keep safe. DS9 (or Terok Nor) was its own character, another player on screen that the cast could interact with. While hardly a new concept in storytelling, Deep Space Nine was the first SF show to make this trope overt. Giving DS9 flaws and problems helped create an extra level of connection with the audience, because people form emotional attachments to places in real life. This is especially true for SF and Fantasy – the time and place must feel real, and a great way to achieve that is to give it characteristics the audience can empathize with. This is practically a staple of space opera now. Serenity was referred to as “The 10th Character” by Firefly‘s writers, and it was integral to the theme of being a small, unimpressive part of a vast universe. More than that, it was treated as a person by its crew. Farscape took the trope even further with Moya, an actual living spaceship, who had her own character arcs and interactions. But a living, breathing setting also made other demands.
On a mobile starship, the episodic format is captain. It lends itself to developing done-in-one stories that need to be wrapped up in the hour. The purpose of this is obvious: It allows audiences to pick up the show whenever they watch it, rather than needing to go back and get context. Unfortunately, it sometimes locks writers into more simplistic storytelling. By picking a stationary setting, Deep Space Nine allowed its writers to structure their stories around continuing conflicts. DS9 had the most ongoing story arcs of any Trek series. The Dominion War storyline was the backbone of DS9, a thread that wove its way through 6 of its 7 seasons. It would prove to be so useful that DS9 writer Ronald D. Moore would repurpose it as the engine that drove his re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. Star Trek: Voyager did this to a lesser extent, with recurring story arcs such as Time Travel and the Borg. Stargate and Farscape were both built around singular story arcs with episodic breaks. In fact, it’s hard to imagine Space Opera being episodic these days. The serialized format makes it stronger, because it allows more nuance – in both story and character.
Consequences of Choice = Complex Characterization
With its fuller story arcs and recurring guest stars, Deep Space Nine baked something into its format that previous Star Treks only decorated with – consequences. With a mobile starship as the setting, it was much easier for The Enterprise to make a choice, often causing drastic change, then head off into space, leaving it behind forever. Not so for the crew of DS9. They had to repeatedly face the consequences of their choices, often having to make unsavoury choices for a greater good. The station’s nature as a multicultural hub introduced many characters outside of Starfleet, adding a diversity of world views. This meant that two protagonists often had very different ways of tackling a problem. The greyer morality and shifting alliances made DS9’s cast feel more complex – not plastic archetypes who could be packed back into their boxes once the hour was over. Again, we find these same characters present in Firefly and Battlestar Galactica. They’re not high-handed heroes bringing order to the less enlightened, but real people, living in an indifferent and complex universe. More often than not the problems they were pitted against weren’t strange interstellar phenomena, but the complex and real social issues that plague humankind.
Social Issues by Proxy
The choice of serialized plots also allowed DS9 to examine socio-political issues in depth. The religious intrigues of Bajor masterfully represented the Jekyll-Hyde duality of deep faith, once the force that held the Bajorans together through their occupation, now dividing them once they achieved independence. Similar problems would present themselves in Battlestar Galactica, with President Roslin’s belief in prophecy, Sagittaron’s unique religious beliefs, and the Cylons’ zealous monotheism. DS9 also showed a cultural revolution with the Ferengi, whose misogyny went from a moustache-twirling “bad guy” stamp to a very powerful side plot that looked at the treatment of women as property. DS9’s plots worked so well because they were gleaned from real life. BSG‘s mission statement from the beginning was identical – “naturalistic science fiction”. Science Fiction has always been a way to talk about sensitive social issues by proxy, and both DS9 and BSG did it elegantly. Though hardly subtle, their ideas were never one-sided or simplistic.
Post-Colonial Science Fiction
The show’s meditations on societal issues were much more nuanced and complex than other Treks, too. While TNG and TOS tended to favour the Starfleet/Federation viewpoint, these ideals are rooted in notions that we now look upon as particularly hegemonic. DS9 was not afraid to confront those ideas. Episodes like “Mirror Mirror” and “Paradise Lost” were open challenges to the notions that the human race could completely banish their darker impulses through technology, rather than confront our own ugly psychology. In accordance, the show felt much more honest in its depiction of intercultural conflict. Firefly’s central theme was the futility of trying to unite a galaxy of individuals under one central rule, while BSG asked the really tough question – “Are we worthy of continued existence when we continue to subjugate and destroy anything we fear?” This is post-colonial SF at full bore. But while Firefly and BSG got praise, DS9 got flak. To its credit, it never backed down.
This Is Not Your Biological Progenitor’s Science Fiction
Because of many of these differences, fans of Star Trek, particularly those whose introduction to the series was either TOS or TNG, believe that Deep Space Nine contradicted Gene Roddenberry’s original vision of a future utopia. I don’t agree, but that’s another article in itself. It is fair to say, though, that a relevant number of Trek fans were critical of the series. However, this never seemed to deter the writers of DS9 from writing the show they envisioned. If anything, they seemed almost gleeful in upending fans’ ideas of what Star Trek and science fiction “Should Be”. A particularly poignant example is the only episode of DS9 that has Q in it. Q is being, well, Q, antagonizing Commander Sisko. At one point, he conjures a bare-knuckle boxing match. Sisko promptly does what Picard should have done the first time Q showed up and punches him right in his smug little face. “You hit me! Picard never hit me!” Blubbers Q. “I’m not Picard!” Sisko hisses back. There could not be a bigger middle finger to the haters than that. Deep Space Nine, much like Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and most other acclaimed Science Fiction shows, proudly bore the badge of “something different”, and never stopped, even when they were misunderstood in their own time.
A Reverse Parallel
Much like DS9, TOS wasn’t enormously popular when it first came out. Only after it was put into syndication did Kirk, Spock, and Bones become pop culture icons. Like many genre-defining works, when Trek first came out, it was too far ahead of its time to be appreciated immediately. It took a while for people to wrap their brains around it. I think it’s safe to say that there is some parallel to DS9 in that. So, seriously, Space. Deep Space Nine is the exact program you need on the air right now. It’s got all the things that people want out of Science Fiction TV right now. Let’s remember it now as we couldn’t appreciate it then.