Revisiting Star Trek [Part 3 of 7]: Deep Space Nine
“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!)
Filed under: Star Trek
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