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STAR TREK At 50 - DEEP SPACE NINE (1993-1999)

We continue our tribute to 50 years of Star Trek with a look at the first series not to feature a Starship Enterprise.

Words by Michael James (@chinstroker)

Star Trek Deep space nine

It's fair to say that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the red-headed step child of the Trek franchise. While two other shows got prematurely cancelled, it did run for its requisite seven seasons, but arguably on the commercial good grace of what had (boldly) gone before. However, it came as no surprise when, in 1991, Brandon Tartikoff (a TV executive so notorious that Punky Brewster’s dog was named after him) approached Gene Rodenberry’s successor Rick Berman, and his Star Trek: The Next Generation head writer Michael Piller to create a second spin-off in 'the franchise that wouldn’t die'. This was inevitable; the franchise had never been stronger, and TNG had established a viable place in the modern world for the show, largely free from the nostalgia and (perceived) high-camp of the original. It was also clear that this would need to be a very different show from the one it was overlapping with.
It would take another two years of development, and a difficult casting process, to get the show to air, but on January 3rd 1993, Emissary Parts 1 and 2 (broadcast as a feature length special, and separated into individual episodes subsequently) introduced us to the very stationary Terok Nor, or to go by its Federation designation, Deep Space Nine. The alien station, repurposed by our heroes, the Federation of Planets, had previously been run by the Cardassians, a fascistic alien race subjugating the (sometimes gratingly) peaceful, spiritual Bajoran’s. The Federation take over the station to 'facilitate' until the newly emancipated Bajorans can evolve past a provisional government and hopefully join the Federation. This already dense set up is exacerbated by our primary character, single father Ben Sisko (Avery Brooks), trying to readjust to life on the decimated station with his young son, his attempts to re-build the wild west style community all the while dealing with being identified as a Bajoran deity and the unexpected appearance of a 'stable wormhole', which works as a convenient subway to a distant, and possibly deadly, quadrant of space. Phew.
Star Trek Deep space nine
The idea (broached by Tartikoff and greeted with enthusiasm by Berman and Piller) was that of a Wild West town. We have the Sherriff (the mysterious, shape shifter Odo) the saloon/whorehouse owner (the shifty Quark) and the frontier Doctor, eager for adventure (Bashir). Again, this genre fascination with the western was nothing new for the franchise; it had after all been initially pitched as 'Wagon Train to the stars'. The stationary nature of the show would echo the western TV shows of the 1950s and '60s, with visiting villains swinging by to cause problems before being inevitably dispatched, and the wormhole would work as a way of occasionally taking our characters to 'strange new worlds' where they could trek to more colourful environments. At least that was the plan.
It is cliché at this point to say that one of the tropes of Star Trek is to essay current day events through the censorship-dodging prism of sci-fi. The original series did it and so did its TNG sequel. Between Tartikoff commissioning the show and the first episode being completed, historical disturbances swept across Los Angeles in the spring of 1992. Following the shocking acquittal of Police Officers on trial for the beating of African-American Rodney King, despite unambiguous evidence, a race riot erupted that would go on to be known as the 'LA Riots'. Such a world-shifting event hit at the core of the social commentary tradition that Star Trek had always courted and we would see the Western elements dialed down in favor of an emphasis on 'community rebuilding'; the broken store fronts of the now abandoned promenade, and the steely efforts of African-American Commander Sisko to 'rebuild', were as rooted in the '90s as the carpeted walls and psychoanalysis of TNG were in the '80s.
Another inevitable (but strangely fought against in early seasons) side-effect of the stationary setting is that the consequences of actions and events would come back to haunt characters, and the world of the show. Kirk and Picard had the relative luxury of flying away at Warp 5 from the cluster-fucks they left behind, onto the next adventure with nary a reference to past events or characters. Whether they liked it or not, an accumulated story and character mythology, much like the other burgeoning sci-fi show of the time, The X-Files, began to organically grow out of the show. Many early episodes felt like TNG, despite the darker uniforms, creepy sets, and back-lit aesthetic. Efforts were made to emphasize the differences between this new, edgier show and Rodenberry’s fluffier universe (principle characters not getting along, unreliable technology and moral shades of grey) but many early episodes, such as Q-Less called back to characters and events from the previous show, inadvertently highlighting the differences between them. The first season of DS9 was at its best when it dealt with the relationship between religion and science, and the moral complexities of war in episodes such as In the Hands of the Prophets and the wonderful, play-like Duet. Cries of "this isn’t how Gene would have done it" fell on deaf ears. Gene had given a vague blessing to the show before he died, and most of the conflict between the principles (including for the first time, an extended cast including numerous alien and non-Starfleet characters) afforded the writers a dramatic latitude they had craved for years.
Star Trek Deep space nine
The cast also worked well as an ensemble, despite a few weak links. When we saw the crew of TNG playing poker in their 'down time', it was difficult to believe in them as a true social unit. The interactions between the crew of this Cardassian station were much more layered and believable. Brooks, a solid stage actor with an unusual style of either being deliriously happy or gravely aggressive, brought a solemnity to Commander Sisko which, while not being the most naturalistic style, afforded the character an almost Shatner-esque energy. Terry Farrell, an ex-model, is probably the weakest link in the principles. While working well with the rest of the crew, and undeniably easy on the eyes, she often felt like she was simply reading dialogue and it was difficult to believe she had lived for several lifetimes. The rest of the cast were easily the strongest ensemble in Trek to this day. Rene Auberjonois is steely and sympathetic as the lonely pedant Odo, Nana Visitor balances bitterness and vulnerability as the seemingly reactionary ex-terrorist Major Kira, Alexander Siddig has a genuine arc as the wide-eyed Doctor who grows into a battle-weary cynic. Then there's the extended cast, such as the wonderful Andrew Robinson as the deliciously morally ambiguous Cardassian tailor and possible ex-spy Garak.
Like all post Original Series Trek shows, DS9 took a while to find its own voice. It began to separate itself out by essaying contemporary issues such as the teaching of evolution in schools, the semantic differences between freedom-fighters and terrorists, and the concept of home as a place of mind and war and prejudice. The introduction of the neighbours across the wormhole, The Dominion, slowly began to transform the show into being about all-out war, and the revelation that a strand of the Dominion were shape-shifters fed into the paranoid zeitgeist that the aforementioned X-Files did with its iconography of 'shadow-men' and whispered conversations in car-parks (or in DS9, usually caves.) Trust No One was a new concept in this world.
Around the Season Two episodes Improbable Cause/The Die is Cast, Ira Stephen Behr took over from Piller with a very specific mandate: SPACE BATTLES. This reimagining of the show as a political actioner would fully come to fruition with the introduction of the fan-favourite Defiant, a mean little warship with machine guns (which also served the dual purpose of helping the show ‘Trek’ again once TNG was off-air) and the reintroduction of Michael Dorn’s Worf character from the previous show. In many ways, Worf made more sense as a DS9 character, and introducing him at the beginning of a Klingon-war story arc (manipulated into happening by the meddling Dominion) was a smart move. By the time we reach season five the show has developed a serialized structure, with story points continuing episode to episode into sometimes season-long arcs, which preceded 24, Lost, Heroes and Battlestar Galactica as a genre experiment in long-form story telling (although it should be pointed out that J Michael Straczynski was doing similarly epic work on his Station based sci-fi, Babylon 5). All of this was supported by an impressive roster of writers such as Robert Hewitt Wolfe, and Ronald D Moore, who would re-explore these themes of war, religion and terrorism in his own Battlestar Galactica remake in the mid-2000s.
Star Trek Deep space nine
Heavy arc episodes such as Way of the Warrior, Hippocratic Oath, Apocalypse Rising, Call To Arms, Sacrifice of Angels and the incendiary In The Pale Moonlight became signature strokes of how far the story-telling styles of the franchise had evolved, and made DS9 the first 'must see' Trek series in the same way that the previously mentioned genre shows would be in the following years. These were also tempered by some very clever, fun 'bottle shows' such as Our Man Bashir (James Bond pastiche), Little Green Men (where we learn that our bumbling Ferengis were the 'Roswell Aliens') and most impressively, the 30th anniversary episode Trials and Tribble-ations.
Thanks to these injections of new blood and narrative devices, Deep Space Nine made it to the goal of seven seasons, but not as easily as its more respected older brothers. DS9 is now very much consigned to being 'just another Trek show', and exists on the wrong side of the Trekkie divide. By this I mean many non-Trekkies know of the original series and TNG (and even the less accomplished Voyager) and probably take in the odd episode when repeated on cable on a Saturday afternoon, but DS9 is perceived as being 'hard' Star Trek, an inaccessible show that can only be understood by those who know the secret Trek handshake and have learned to speak conversational Klingon from an audiobook. It is true that the pilot of DS9 assumes a little knowledge of the universe, but I would urge those who have not seen it to give it a go, as in many ways it is the last time (until 2009) that the franchise took a real creative chance. It paid off with some of the most epic storytelling, kick-ass visuals, and interesting characters that the franchise has ever offered.

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