As someone who never really “got” Star Trek growing up (I was one of those misguided people who believed in the dichotomy of Star Trek and Star Wars; you liked either one or the other, never both), I’ve been caught up in a long, slow process of becoming acquainted with the material associated with the franchise long, long after it was shiny and new. I’m by no means a superfan, or that particularly dedicated to seeing the entire library of Star Trek episodes that exist across five extant television series. If you asked me to complete a checklist, I’d mark three or four episodes from the original series, about half of The Next Generation, a couple seasons of Voyager and most of the movies (I may have actually seen all of the Next Generation movies in theaters, including the really bad and forgettable ones). Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has generally eluded my attention for the last twenty or so years.
The thing with Deep Space Nine is that I’ve heard two very different opinions on it over the years. When it was first airing and in the time immediately afterward, I heard that it was sort of the black sheep of the Star Trek franchise. Generally, Star Trek is a series focused on exploration; you got a ship, you got a crew, you got an intrepid captain to lead everyone into the unknown and find out what’s there. Deep Space Nine eschews the majority of that formula. It’s set on a space station; there’s no captain at all; our crew aren’t explorers but administrators. This third iteration on an idea was a hard sell because it decided to radically alter the formula for what made Star Trek popular.
The other opinion that I’ve heard over the years is that Deep Space Nine is a very special sort of Star Trek show. It’s darker, more morally ambiguous. Because it sticks to one location for its entire run, there are opportunities for long form storytelling that had been very rarely attempted previously. The Federation, that organization which both Kirk and Picard’s crews have faithfully represented to the best of their abilities, doesn’t always come out looking like the good guys. Deep Space Nine is the Star Trek series for people who aren’t really that into other Star Trek series.
So Rachael and I recently decided that we would watch some Deep Space Nine. At this point we’ve completed the first season, and while the pilot was a little shaky (what pilot isn’t?), I’ve been impressed with just how consistently good the show is. The cast establishes itself very firmly within the first few episodes, and there’s a remarkable lack of idiot plot (the first couple seasons of Next Generation have a bunch of really bad episodes). We’re introduced to the ongoing conflict of Deep Space Nine: the tensions between the recently independent planet of Bajor and the Federation, which has offered to provide support to Bajor’s fledgling government in exchange for access to a stable wormhole that connects Federation space with the Gamma Quadrant some ninety-thousand light years away. This is a complex status quo, and there’s a lot of politicking that has to be done by Commander Sisko and his senior officers to keep relations stable.
Now, there are naturally other bits of silliness thrown in; Star Trek has an incredibly goofy side to it, and the setting on the edge of a new frontier for the Federation allows for some weird stuff to happen, like First Contact with an alien race that loves games and drafts the crew to be pawns in their favorite pastime. You get subplots about the children on the station being children, and unlike the obnoxiousness that is Wesley Crusher, boy genius, Jake Sisko and Nog’s adventures are delightfully low stakes affairs that highlight their struggles to mature in a place where they’re constantly being exposed to new ideas and different cultures.
All of this is really refreshing, and honestly I was surprised to find so much complexity in a television series from the early nineties. If you set aside the look of the show, which absolutely dates it, it feels like something that would have been created at least a decade later.
In some ways Deep Space Nine does disappoint. The Ferengi, while I generally love their plot lines for trying to explore in a value-neutral way how a purely capitalist culture would operate in a post-scarcity society, are uncomfortable racial stereotypes. Their large ears and noses combined with their unrepentant greed and extensive business empire evoke the worst of Jewish caricatures. I’m glad for the complexity that’s allowed in characters like Quark and Nog to undermine these caricatures, but the initial impression is still off-putting.
Also troubling is the way that the show approaches certain stories. Easily the most complex character in the first season is Major Kira Nerys, a former Bajoran rebel who spent years fighting against the Cardassian occupation of Bajor and who is now serving as Sisko’s second-in-command aboard Deep Space Nine as the chief representative of Bajoran interests on the station. Kira gets a wealth of development in this season as she comes to terms with her shift in role from rebel to establishment figure (perhaps the best episode of the season is one where Kira has the unpleasant job of forcing an old man out of his home in order to make way for a major mining operation that will provide power to thousands of others), but her past constantly haunts her. In one of the last episodes of the season, she’s faced with the problem of what to do with a Cardassian who appears to be a wanted war criminal although there is no firm evidence that he is who she suspects. This episode is clearly modeled on the history of Nazi concentration camps, and it asks questions about how much guilt should be assigned to those people who were complicit in genocide but not directly responsible for the actual killing. The ending comes down clearly on the side of absolving complicit individuals if they are remorseful enough, but this resolution feels facile in the way that it lays blame only on people who commit direct physical violence against others. The man at the center of the episode’s conundrum was a filing clerk at a concentration camp whose duties never involved interacting with the prisoners. In-universe he’s not technically guilty of war crimes, and this judgment bothers me to no end. There’s a complete failure to examine how his complicity contributed to the deaths of others even indirectly. It reminds me particularly of the ending of Schindler’s List where Schindler resolves to contribute absolutely nothing to the German war effort despite his role as a munitions manufacturer. He understands that any sort of work that supports a system of violence is immoral and tries to resist as best he can, even while still feeling immense guilt over his inability to do more. You get something similar in the Deep Space Nine episode, but it’s too quick to dismiss the man’s personal feelings of guilt as misplaced.
On the whole, I’m really pleased with what I’ve seen so far of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. If it shows this much promise in its first season, then I suspect there’s a lot more to enjoy about it, and I’m looking forward to getting deeper into its story and characters.