Revisiting Star Trek [Part 3 of 7]: Deep Space Nine

[NOTE: This is the third essay in Pete Tzinski’s 7 part series leading up to the premiere of the new Star Trek film. See also: Part 1 and Part 2]

“John, since the new Star Trek movie is coming up very quickly now, can I write a series of articles about Star Trek, and my memories of it, since I’ve recently been re-exploring all the series?” “No, Peter, you can’t, go away. I need to finish my Gollum/Dobby Slash story.” “Okay. John? What does this rag smell like?” “Chloroform, why do you -.” Thud.

The mid-1990s was a pretty fantastic time to be a Star Trek fan. In 1991, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country came out. The Next Generation remained on the air until 1994. And in 1993, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine appeared, meaning that for a little while, Star Trek fans had two series to occupy themselves with. And a year later, there would be Star Trek: Voyager kicking around. Trek was thick on the ground, and I couldn’t have been happier.


Deep Space Nine had a lot of problems to overcome. For one thing, it had to compete not only against the initial Star Trek cast, who had just bowed-out in the films, but it had to compete against The Next Generation, which was very popular. Furthermore, because we had already seen that a lot of the starships looked similar on the interior, it would cause nothing but confusion amongst the casual viewer if this third Star Trek series were also set on a ship. Having two series on two ships exploring the galaxy at the same time would be too much. It may be a big galaxy, but it was pretty close-quarters from a television standpoint.

The problems were solved in a unique fashion, and they could have been disastrous. Deep Space Nine was set on a space station, near the planet Bajor, and by a wormhole…but it didn’t move. As the singer Voltaire so memorably put it, “Sisko’s on a mission to go no bloody place.”

Furthermore, in order to make the series stand out acutely from The Next Generation, DS9 was set on a former Cardassian station. It couldn’t have looked less Star Trek-like, less Starfleet-like. These were some pretty stiff odds not only for the fans to overcome, but for the writers to get past in order to tell good stories.

I may as well tell you up front, so you know where my bias lies: Deep Space Nine was, and is, my favorite of all the Star Trek series. And I’ll fight anyone who’s got a problem with that, bub. I adored it. And I’ll get into that a little more later.

DS9 suffered at first. It still shared some space with The Next Generation, with occasional crossovers between the two series for the first couple of seasons. And in an effort to carry the audience over a little bit, the minor-but-enjoyable character of Miles O’Brien was reassigned from the Enterprise-D and became a full member of the cast on DS9.

Everything was different. Captain Benjamin Sisko was another different direction for Star Trek to go. Much was made out of the fact that he was black, sure…but beyond that, he was a darker, more impatient, different captain than Jean-Luc Picard ever was. A good example of this is how they each dealt with the character of Q. Picard would out-smart him, or just get frustrated. Ben Sisko punched him in the face and put him down. There’s your difference.

For the first couple of seasons, DS9 felt very much like Star Trek-lite. And then The Next Generation went off the air, and DS9 had to find its own footing and do something unique.

And it did.

Right from the get-go, DS9 was a darker series. We begin with Ben Sisko’s wife being killed by the Borg (Locutus, specifically, who was Picard). The station is Cardassian, who occupied Bajor until very recently. The peace in this part of space is fragile. The enlightened, utopia vision which was on-display in TNG gave way to an interesting look at how a huge collection of alien races, not all of them fond of each other, would interact. DS9, more than any of the other series, had to be carried by strength-of-writing. And it was.

And then it turned its attention to the subject of war. First, we had the Klingon War (and we gained Worf as a regular cast member, and he would blossom into a fascinatingly rounded character as he went through his second TV series). And then we got into the Dominion War, which would occupy the rest of the series.

The writing really took off, when they turned their attention to the wars and the series grew darker and more involved. It started to become increasingly difficult to just jump and watch any old episode, as they started to carry stories from one to the next. The war built and twisted and turned. It was full of really astonishing battles, in which dozens and sometimes hundreds of ships populated the television screen.

The cast of characters blossomed in a way that was previously unheard of in Star Trek. Sure, there had been some recurring characters in The Next Generation, some crewmembers you only sometimes saw (like Reginald Barclay, or Miles O’Brien), but that was nothing. On Deep Space 9, you had an extended cast of characters who weren’t on the main credits, which was actually larger than those who starred in the show. And they were all memorable and exciting and had long storylines which you touched on all the way throughout the series. Who can help but to fall in love with Quark’s well-meaning, clumsy, brilliant brother Rom? Or his son, Nog? Or Bashier’s friend, Garak, who would become such a memorable character in certain episodes (particularly when he tortured Odo, on a Cardassian ship). What about Klingons like General Martog? None of them were in the regular cast, but they might as well have been, with the screen-time they got. Their performances were amazing.

And when the series moved into war, you suddenly got a cast of villains, something else that Star Trek hadn’t really had before. The Jem’Hadar were an amazing group of bad guy foot soldiers, some of whom were given personalities and poignant moments all their own. And the Vorta were, all of them, interesting…but of particular note was Weyoun, who was devious and sympathetic and horrible. And the Female Shape-Shifter, who reappeared now and then, and who was a terrific villain.

Even as war took over the series, though, it didn’t stop some beautiful one-off stories from being told.

If you don’t watch any other episode of Deep Space 9, please go out and find the episode titled “Far Beyond the Stars”, which was in season 6. In it, Benjamin Sisko suddenly finds himself as a science fiction writer in the 1950s. A poor black writer, in a time when being black is not a good thing to be. The episode is powerful. It is barely science fiction. And at the very end, Avery Brooks gives a performance that you cannot look away from. It’s riveting. And sad. (And if you are a fan of science fiction authors and pulp stories, watch closely. Everyone’s a joke on a famous SF writer, and all the stories mentioned are real).

There were some rubbish episodes, I’ll grant you that…but I think DS9 was courteous enough to get them mostly out of the way by the time the first two seasons were done. And they really weren’t all that bad. They just paled in comparison to the huge and terrific stories that came later.

And if it seems like I’m gushing here…well, I am. I told you from the start, this was my favorite series. If it was during The Next Generation that I was beginning to tell stories and gently experiment with hopping in the nest and flapping, then it was during Deep Space 9 that I began to clumsily flex my muscles and really take flight. I did what any fine young writer would do, with his head full of Star Trek and Babylon 5 and all the books he’s reading: I created a web-site, wrote like a fiend, and created my own Star Trek fanfiction series. Yes I did. It was called Star Trek: Starship Khitomer. It took place during the last year of the Dominion War. It was my own cast of characters, my own ship, my own stories. In a few places, I wove in and out with what stories were happening with Deep Space Nine, but as I stretched my muscles more and more, that stopped and my Star Trek stories went their own way. I divided my stories into ‘seasons’ and treated it like a TV series. I wrote my first season, ended the Dominion War, wrote a second season with adventures following it.

You might be scoffing at fanfiction, perhaps, but I am completely unashamed of it. I have, in the passing years, never made a single effort to take Starship Khitomer down, although it can be a bit tricky to find, given the poor way in which the internet ages.

The reason I am telling you about this is to underline the sheer impact that Deep Space Nine had on me. It came along with powerful storylines and characters at exactly a time when I needed it. In my own fanfiction stories, I did not imitate their stories…but what I did imitate was trying to build well-rounded characters and tell long, complex story-arcs. I had my main cast, and a huge cast of extras. My episodes blended into each other. I wrote several hundred thousand words of Star Trek fanfiction.

If it hadn’t been for DS9, I wouldn’t have done that. And if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have built a lot of strong writing muscles as I was cutting my teeth on writing. I wouldn’t have learned a whole lot about writing and rhythm and cliffhangers and character arcs and so forth. I wouldn’t have spent my writing career with such a passionate love for serialized fiction. Perhaps the infection was already in my blood, perhaps it would have been inevitable…but DS9 accelerated it by huge amounts. (And I have never lost my love of serial fiction. I am, at this moment, writing the early episodes of a series. It is original, it is better-written by someone a lot older…but at my heart, I am still writing tv-shows-for-the-net, as I was when it was labeled Star Trek.)

And as I discussed with the other series, I want to touch on the question: how does this series hold up today? Well, to my mind, it holds up extremely well. The storylines are still fantastic and involved and all over the place (from the epic war, to the covert stories of Section 31, to the personal arcs of the Ferengi, or the others).

I think that Deep Space Nine has a single weakness, which it shares with Babylon 5, which is that you really can’t just tune in and watch any old episode, like you can with other Star Trek series. With DS9, you really do need to start at the beginning and watch all the way through. That can make it harder to bring in new viewers, beyond the already-dedicated and loving audience.

This is probably the least-objective and most blithering and personal of these Star Trek articles, but I don’t mind, and I beg your leave. I think that while it’s all fine and good for me to say that Star Trek has had an impact on my life, it does a lot more to tell you, in all honesty and detail, exactly what the impact was, and exactly why I care. I suspect any Star Trek fan has a similar story to tell.

And if all of this is just water off a duck’s back – and I can understand, really – then do me a favor: go out and find a copy of “Far Beyond the Stars” and then kick back and watch it. Even if you have no interest in Star Trek, it’s just good stand-alone science fiction. You won’t regret it.

(Tomorrow, we head off into Star Trek: Voyager and discuss not only what I remember of watching it, but what I thought in the last two weeks when I started re-watching it. Stay tuned!)

11 thoughts on “Revisiting Star Trek [Part 3 of 7]: Deep Space Nine”

  1. I always thought I loved DS9 because of the dark, non-Roddenberry settings, but you’ve reminded me of the sheer number of astonishingly complex, riviting characters that walked the decks of DS9. Garak and Weyoun were worthy of whole episodes in and of themselves. The actors were extraordinary, but the writers realy did make you feel for a great many of those “throwaway” characters.

    You can stop reviewing Trek now. It only goes down hill from here. : )

  2. Gush on, brother. I enjoyed your essay on Next Generation, but this one…I had goose bumps all the way through. While I love all things Trek, I have a very, very special fondness for DS9. From the pilot episode on, it was not your daddy’s Star Trek. Even that first season had stories that have stayed with me. “Captive Pursuit” was just the sixth episode and told a story with a very un-Trek conclusion.

    I won’t go on because you’ve done such a great job. You’ve made me long for lunches with Garak and Bashir, or a raktajino at Quark’s. I have so missed my DS9. I get my TV over the air for free, the way God intended, and no one within range has played anything for a long, long time. Your essay was the incentive I needed to fork out the bucks for the series, and now that I’ve made that decision, I can’t wait.

     

    Good job on these essays, Pete, and a great job on this one. Die with honor.

  3. You must be joking.   DS9 was AWFUL.  For one thing Avery Brooks NEVER got into the skin of Captain Sisko.  Never.   He’s an outstanding actor, but he just could not get a steady take on that character. 

    The writing was, for the most part, awful.  The Dominion war was just a way to fill out episodes.  There were some great characters, sure.   Garak was wonderful.  And Rom.   But for the most part this show was so bad I finally stopped watching it.    I did catch the final episode, though.   Gee, the commander of the space station goes off into a mysterious white space with the weird aliens.   Where have I seen that before?   Oh yeah, it was the finale of B5, which aired a couple of months earlier.   And don’t even start me on the ‘Kira Nerys and Odo’ romance.   How something so ridiculous could be dragged on so long….

    This was a low-mark in Trek not to be equaled (or possibly surpased) till ‘Enterprise’.  

  4. Thanks for that! DS9 was my favourite Trek by far, for all the reasons you’ve so clearly articulated. I recently re-watched the episode where Kira is assigned to help the cardassian rebels – the moral dilemmas were nicely explored and the characters and their actions were so believable, especially as the cardassians realise the costs of their rebellion. That was such a magnificent series!

  5. Oh it’s so nice to be among other DS9 fans. You’re right though, Pete. I had to sit down and explain the series to my DH before he could click into it. Now, he’s as big a diehard DS9 fan as I am. And they stand up very well. We were just starting on Season 4 again a couple of nights ago, cherrypicking our favourites here and there. I don’t think a series like DS9 could be made now. As with Next Gen, both series were quite nuanced in their response to war. By the time Enterprise (yuck!) came along, the world (and Trek) was in a different place. * sigh * I liked Garak and Weyoun of course, but I also have a soft spot for Damar. For me, Kasidy Yates was a loser character. And thanks. Will go look for Far Beyond the Stars this evening.

  6. Martok rocks!

    Garak is one of the most complex and well-executed characters in all of Trek.

    I was a late convert to DS9, but the quality and depth of the last couple seasons were excellent. The series earned its place in the Trek tapestry.

    And by the way, what’s B5? Is that a Stargate? (Yaaaawwwwnnnnn!)

  7. “B5″ is “Babylon 5,” an SF series running at about the same time as Deep Space 9…and if it could have an article in this series, it would have one possibly longer than this one. B5 and DS9 are ingrained into me, the way certain books are. Things that are just built into you from the ground level. Those two series, and Ray Bradbury, and a few other books and authors, are at the core.

    Like DS9, B5 needed time to develop and devotion to appreciate. You have to follow it all through.

    You know what was interesting, the day after this article was written, I watched a long Star Trek trailer, for all things Trek. And for Deep Space 9, it talked about and showed clips from “The Die Is Cast.” Remember that? When Garek went off with the Cardassian Gul who had been his friend. Odo is captured by them and unable to shapeshift. And as he rots, and rots away, Garek questions him.

    That was stunning. That was a powerful, powerful episode. I watched the trailer, and it came back in a rush.

    And then I thought of all the other episodes I should have mentioned. Trials and Tribble-ations! I mean, corny as hell, but that was so…much…fun. Or what about “The Magnificant Ferengi” episode? Hilarious.

    What I liked was that we not only had this huge, huge cast of characters…but they ALL had relationships with each other. You hadn’t had that previously. there is a vague sort of friendship between Data and La Forge, a sort of companionship between Riker and Worf, maybe. They play Poker. and do their duties.

    but DS9, you had Doctor Bashir and Garek. Doctor Bashir and Jadzia. Doctor Bashir and O’Brien. And everyone had a whole network of ongoing relationships and plots with everyone else. It really, really worked.

    Anecdote: My family and I were having to move from one town to another one, across the country. and my mum was a big star Trek fan, and I was a rabid Star Trek fan. So we actually planned the whole move so that Wednesday night, we would watch Deep Space 9, and then Thursday morning, we’d leave. And we’d get to our new place in time, we’d have the cable guy waiting, get all set up, and catch the next episode of DS9. I remember we planned the whole trip around that.

    We got to the new place. And I was crushed to discover that they didn’t carry the channel. We couldn’t seem to get DS9. So I wound up not watching the seventh season until much later (and I’ve still missed episodes).

    Okay, and this comment has become nearly as long as my original article. Sorry. :)

  8. DS9 is indeed the best Star Trek series. I still remember so many amazing episode, like the one where Sisko is shooting back and forth through time as his son tries to save him. These episodes functioned as excellent science fiction stories, regardless of the larger Star Trek continuum. With the other Star Trek series, while I enjoyed the overall storyline, individual episodes rarely rose to the level of greatness. With DS9 in its later years, greatness was extremely common in its stories.

  9. Ummmm, I was being sarcastic. Of course I know what B5 is. But it still was a yawner.

  10. Personal, intimate and poignant essay. I loved it! I’m too one of the DS9 affecionados and while the original series and TNG have got the special place in my heart, it is the DS9 that I watched as a whole almost back-to-back (my work and biological needs permitting).

    Funny, it is somehow satisfying that despite some strong opinions (especially among the casual Trek followers) that it was too different to be as venerated like the more classic-like series, I did manage to discover the gem it really is. Like to many other it’s the characters that do it for me – plots as well but characters first and foremost. Quark and Rom, Quark and Odo, Quark and Grand Nagus (you can tell my favourite don’t you) Bashir and O’Brian, Bashir and Garak (fantastic), Gul Dukat, Martok and let’s not forget about Morn your quintessential patron. It is through their intricate relationships that the series shine and you did not fail to highlight that too ;)

    This is Star Trek noir I feel, unsettling and ugly in places as far from the “sterile future paradise” tag attached to the franchise as one can get and, I hate to abuse the word again, gritty.

    Not all is great I agree, and some ideas are better conceived then other but it is solid and captivating. The underlying plot unravels with brilliant panache and the main setting twist – a “backwater” station in a volatile frontier catapulted to become the pivotal stronghold of the epic war – well if that’s not the top-notch SF drama I don’t know what is.

    Once again thanks Pete.

Comments are closed.