TL;DR – From the setting to the characters to the story and themes, Deep Space Nine stands as one of the high points of science fiction
This week we have the season finale of Star Trek: Discovery (see review) and it has been such a strong first outing for the new series. Because of this, I have been thinking back over the history of the entire Star Trek franchise and when I do that I can’t help but focus on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9). Now DS9 was always the odd one out of the Star Trek spin-offs for some. It aired at the same time as both The Next Generation and Voyager, so it never stood apart. It dealt with issues that the other shows either avoided or ignored altogether, and some felt started to walk away from the vision Gene Roddenberry established. Indeed, it was the first series where he didn’t have a direct control over the creation and direction of, though from all accounts he did approve of its creation. So what I want to do today is talk about the reasons that I love DS9, the setting, the characters, the themes, and the stories. But just before we move on DS9 has been off air for almost 20 years, but all that being said, I will be talking about the series as a whole so there will be [SPOILERS] going forward, however, I will also provide links to the Memory Alpha Wiki when introducing characters and races so you can explore it more if you are new to the show.
Introduction to DS9
If you have not seen the series let me give you a crash course on the world of DS9. In 2370, after years of occupation that devastated the planet’s culture, religion, people, sustainability, and environment, the Cardassians withdrew from Bajor and its colonies. Knowing there was a very real chance of them coming back, indeed the Cardassian Military did not support the withdrawal in the first place, the Bajoran Provisional Government invited The Federation and Starfleet to manage the old Cardassian space station Terok Nor as a sort of buffer to stop the Klingons coming back. The station now renamed Deep Space Nine was now sitting barely habitable in Bajor’s orbit after the Cardassians striped almost everything of value from it and damaged pretty much everything else before handing it over. Leading Starfleet’s contingent to the station is Commander Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) a single father of Jake Sisko (Cirroc Lofton) who lost his wife during the Borg attack during the Battle of Wolf 359. This is not the job he wanted, taking his young son halfway across the quadrant to an unsecured station that could erupt into conflict at any moment, and at the start of the series he is actively contemplating resigning his commission. His first officer is Major Kira Nerys, who now works for the Bajoran Militia and fought for the Bajoran Resistance during the Cardassian Occupation, and was not happy with being placed as the Bajoran Liaison Officer on the station. To round out the crew you have the science officer Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell) a Joined Trill who’s Symbiont use to be Ben’s mentor, Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig) the station’s new doctor fresh out of the Academy, and Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney) the station’s Chief of Operations. Add to this Odo (Rene Auberjonois) the Chief of Security that can also shapeshift into nearly anything he wants to be, and Quark (Armin Shimerman) the local Ferengi barkeep, who is totally not running an adult entertainment business out of his holosuites at the start of the series.
Now Ben Sisko has one mission, to do anything short of breaching the Prime Directive to get the Bajorans to join the Federation. Now, this is not an easy task because Bajor is in ruins, with the Cardassians leaving the planet in a worse state than the station. The Bajoran Provisional Government is trying to bring the planet together but there are a lot of years of grief and now there is not an enemy to fight old grievances are starting to rear their heads. All of this changes when Kai Opaka (Camille Saviola) the head of the Bajoran religion invites the new captain down to the planet to meet her. She checks his pagh and discovers he is the one that the Prophets prophesied and introduces him to the Orb of Prophecy and Change one of the holy icons of the Bajoran people. Interacting with the Orb sets Sisko on the path to discovering the Bajoran Wormhole the only stable wormhole in history that links the Alpha Quadrant with the Gamma Quadrant. Not only is the wormhole a gateway to a new sector of the universe it is also is the home of the Prophets, known in Bajoran mythology as the Celestial Temple, and by discovering the Temple, Sisko becomes the Emissary to the Bajoran people. While this was happening the old Prefect of Bajor Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo) started to make his presence known, and leaps at the chance to stake a claim on the Wormhole as a prelude to re-occupying the system. To prevent this from happening the station is moved out of Bajor’s orbit and to the mouth of the Wormhole chasing off the Cardassians … for now. So Bajor has gone from being a backwater planet on the edge of the known universe to a key crossroad, and DS9 went from being an afterthought to one of the key strongholds in the Federation and maybe the key strategic location in the quadrant. For you see not everything they will find in the Gamma Quadrant will be friendly.
The first thing I want to talk about is the setting because in more ways than not, it is the one thing that differentiates DS9 from just about every other series of Star Trek. For you see, this is not a series set on a starship that can warp away at the end of the episode to somewhere new the following week, it is based on a space station, and space stations don’t move, well they do move from Bajor to the Denorios Belt, but you get my drift. Things that happen in one episode have ramifications going forward not just for the crew on the space station but for the people and worlds around them. Though it may be different from the other Star Trek series it also has a lot in common with The Original Series with its setting reflecting that of the old Westerns. DS9 is the frontier town, with the local barkeep, doctor, mayor, and sheriff, and while I don’t think there is a good comparison between the Bajorans and Indigenous Americans the general analogy holds up quite well. Because of the fixed location, it means that a number of key things flow from that one decision which we will now look at.
One of the key things it does is that it forces you to work on making the region of space that the show is set in as interesting as possible because if it is dull people won’t come back each week to watch. So starting with Bajor we have a deeply conflicted people struggling with the scares of war and the newfound notoriety of the Wormhole that is also the home of their deities. Their world was torn apart both literally and metaphorically and they are trying to put it all back together again, but this is not an easy job in an area of space full of potential threats. You have the Cardassians literately next door who feel embarrassed that they were forced to retreat. But not only that you have the Maquis fighting along the border with Cardassia, the Breen and the Tzenkethi nearby, and all of that was before The Dominion poured out of the Wormhole. But more than that they are a deeply religious people who discovered that their gods were real but they could also be aliens living in the Wormhole, which is a great shock for many.
As well as the Bajorans, we get to learn more about the Cardassians who lose at nearly every step of the way. First, at the start of the series, they are forced to retreat from Bajor the preverbal jewel in their empire. Then a failed Obsidian Order/ Tal Shiar first strike on The Founder’s homeworld leads to a dramatic power vacuum. Now here was a moment of progress when the civilian Detapa Council with support from a growing dissident movement were finally able to supplant the military as the arbiters of Cardassian society. Which lasted all of a moment before the Klingons used it as a pretence to invade with fear it was another Dominion coup. This damaged the Cardassian Empire, even more, making them so desperate that the thought of becoming a Dominion Client state was appealing, but like many deals like this in the past, it was a poisoned chalice. What was meant to be a Cardassian renaissance soon found to be like all deals with the devil a bargain you should never have entered into.
Add to this we get more from the Klingons, and yes I know this was kind of forced on the writers but it was still fascinating. For the first time in a long while we get to see the Klingons go to war, first with the Cardassians, then with the Federation, and finally against the Dominion. It is a world of honour but the only honour in wartime is that you win. We also get to explore the Ferengi a race that was first introduced in The Next Generation as the new big bads before being so badly received that they were almost completely reinterpreted here. Instead of a warrior race, they are a race a commerce where greed is the goal that all inspire too, and there are more than few unflattering comparisons to the Earth of the 20th century. Also, the Dominion which has to be up there with the Borg as the best antagonists in Star Trek canon. This is because in many ways they are very similar with their intentions and wants as the Federation but they go about things in a very un-Federation way. It is not about peaceful expansion for the Dominion it is about occupation and divide and concur, and it almost works. In many of these cases and more, you find these races are at a crossroads and some chose to progress forward, and others chose to use the shield of tradition to stay where they are. It is such a powerful setting that was built upon across the series and this depth is one of the reasons I love Deep Space Nine.
Now what this setting does is allows you time to develop fascinating characters that have real depth and who develop across the seasons, and unlike a lot of the Star Trek series before and since many of those characters are not part of the main cast. A really good example of this is Kira who had maybe the strongest arc across the seven seasons. At the start of the show, she is upset with the Bajor’s government inviting the Federation in, for her, it is like they replaced one master with another and she had spent most of her life fighting the last masters of the Bajoran people. To add to this derision she is made the liaison officer to the Starfleet presence on DS9 mostly to get her out of the way. However, as time goes on she begins to respect her colleagues as they stand up to the Cardassians and show through actions that they have Bajor’s best interests at heart. Which is, of course, complicated by her conflicted feeling towards Sisko who is both her commanding officer and a holy icon in her religion. Kira is first tested by this when the Circle attempt a coup on the Bajoran government to try and force the Federation out of Bajor and she has to pick a side. As time went on not only did Kira come to accept her colleagues but also came to the conclusion that Federation membership is the best path forward for Bajor. When the Dominion invaded and took over DS9 she remained behind to keep people safe, one of her friends literally used their own life to open her eyes to the fact that she had become a collaborator, someone who she once despised. Finally, she comes full circle when she has to go undercover with the Cardassian Liberation Front as they fight against the Dominion occupation, and has to teach Cardassians the same techniques she once used against them to help save their planet.
We see these same arcs across the rest of the main cast. Take Ben Sisko who grows from being disgruntled with his assignment and being a reluctant religious leader to being a builder of planets, alliances, and of a community people could call home not just for Jake and Kasidy (Penny Johnson Jerald). Or Bashir who came to the station as an eager and fresh faced doctor right out of the Academy who thought of the frontier as a concept and not as a real place with real people trying to live their lives. As he grows he becomes more confident and losses some of that boyish naïveté, though how much of that was just a cover for his genetic modification we will never know. Or Odo who grew up as an orphan not knowing who his race was, only to discover that they are the leaders of a multi-system alliance hell-bent on destroying all the people he cares about because they are ‘solids’. The Great Link is almost like a drug for him, that connection to a people he always wanted but that comes with a high price, indeed so high that at one point they turned him solid as a punishment for killing one of his own kind. In the end, he becomes the saviour of the same people that consistently cast him out become it was the right thing to do even though it personally cost him dearly. Also Jake, who decided not to follow in his father’s footsteps and instead of following his own dreams and become a writer, which leads to him choosing not to evacuate when the Dominion occupies DS9, even though it put his life in peril.
However, it is not just the main cast where we can see examples of this progression, we also see it in the supporting characters across the seasons, who by the end were anything but supporting. Take Garak (Andrew Robinson) a Cardassian tailor left behind on DS9 as the rest of his people retreated. Though of course, he is more than just a simple tailor, his real motivations and past always remain behind a cloud of mystery and subterfuge. In the end, I know only three things about Garak; he cared for Bashir, he loved Tora Ziyal (Melanie Smith), and he loved Cardassia, everything else was up for debate, as Garak himself once said: “The truth is usually just an excuse for lack of imagination.” We also have Gul Dukat, the once prefect over Bajor who is so full of his own self-worth that he could never work out why the Bajoran people didn’t love him like a child loving their parent. This confidence and bravado are only broken when he sees his daughter killed in front of him and suffers a mental breakdown. But this is not the end of Dukat story, he then searches for power in all the wrong places and stumbles across the Pah-wraith leading to the enviable showdown with Sisko in the finale. You have Nog (Aron Eisenberg) that through a bond with Jake goes off to become the first Ferengi in Starfleet. He is a model student that rises through the ranks fast and is on top of the world until in a moment he loses his leg in during the Siege of AR-558. He has to learn to adapt to this change in his life, but it is a new battle, one that takes months and even years to fight. Or Weyoun (Jeffrey Combs) who was so good as a Vorta that they created the whole backstory of cloning just so they could bring him back after he died in his first encounter. He is almost the personification of the concept of a carrot and a stick, for most of the time he is pleasant almost to a fault, but when something threatens the Dominion it is almost like night and day. As the Female Changeling (Salome Jens) once said he was “The only solid [she’s] ever trusted.” Or Kai Winn (Louise Fletcher) who worked her way up to being the head of the Bajoran religion yet still struggles with her own faith. She also has a deep resentment for Sisko for complicating her role as leader of the Bajoran faith by his very presence, this leads her down a road she can never recover from. Like many of the antagonists in the series, there is a moment there where it looks like she may have come around, only to return former ways.
Now, this barely scratches the surface, you have the star-crossed lovers of Rom (Max Grodénchik) and Leeta (Chase Masterson), one a brilliant engineer suffering under his brother Quark, the other a Dabo girl who constantly fights the low expectations placed upon her by others. You have Martok (J.G. Hertzler) a lowborn Klingon thrust into power, who is so liked by his people that Gowron (Robert O’Reilly) tries to sabotage him even at the expense of losing the war. Also, Damar (Casey Biggs) Dukat’s underlying thrust into power after his mentor’s defeat and soon learns the price Cardassia paid for Dominion assistance was too high. Or even Morn (Mark Allen Shepherd) the local barfly just does not shut up, I mean the man could make a Vulcan contemplate a fall from grace just to extricate themselves from his talkative grasp. It is the depth and breadth of characters that cemented Deep Space Nine as something different on TV at the time and is one of the big reasons I love DS9.
Themes & Story
Finally building upon both the setting and the characters is the themes and stories that the show was able to tell and explore, which you could only tell because of the setting that you had created here. There has always been this undercurrent when discussing DS9 that somehow it strayed away from Gene Roddenberry’s view of the future world, and in most cases, I think that I think this is an unfair assertion. I think the better analogy is that DS9 is the test for Gene Roddenberry’s universe, can it hold up to the stress put on it when everything goes wrong, because as moral philosopher Chidi Anagonye famously stated: “Principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re gonna follow them!” Now we can see that being put to the test with the theme of War that explored in the later seasons.
Now there were a lot of conflicts during DS9’s run but we will focus here on the conflict that ran for almost the entire show in some form and that is the Dominion War. The conflict first started all the way back in Season Two when the Galaxy Class USS Odyssey was sent into the Gamma Quadrant to help rescue Ben, Jake, Quark and Nog who had been taken captive by the Dominion a race that had been heard about but not seen before then. While everyone escaped capture the Odyssey was destroyed in a quick fashion by the Jem’hadar instantly showing that the Dominion might be the greatest threat the Federation had ever faced. Now while the war proper would not start until the end of Season Five in the preceding years of the Cold War were not lacking in difficulties. What do you do when if an enemy could walk around undetected on your planets while they plotted your downfall? Would you curtail certain unalienable rights in the name of security? In many respects DS9 was ahead of its time because soon we would be having the very same discussions in the real world, but with sadly different outcomes. The years of the Cold War with its proxy conflicts and militarisation had the possibility of forever changing the Federation and even though it was touch and go there for a while Gene Roddenberry’s universe showed it had the strength to persevere and fight for what was right.
The themes of war or course intensified once conflict broke out and it was a way of showing concepts that many had experienced themselves through the lens of science fiction. Take Nor the Battle to the Strong, where Jake is confronted with the realities of war, and his first instinct is to run away even though it left the people he carried about behind. He came into it happy that he got to report on a real battle, and discovered the realities of war are not trivial, and even though by some fluke he is considered a hero by the end, that moment of understandable cowardliness has a powerful influence on his life going forward. We also see this with In the Pale Moonlight when after weeks and weeks of reading casualty reports and learning that Betazed had been occupied Ben Sisko decides to dance with the devil in the pale moonlight and enlist Garak to get the Romulans to join in the war effort. Whether he understood the cost or not going into it he eventually gets them to join in the fight, as Sisko himself said “So… I lied. I cheated. I bribed men to cover up the crimes of other men. I am an accessory to murder. But most damning of all… I think I can live with it… And if I had to do it all over again… I would. Garak was right about one thing – a guilty conscience is a small price to pay for the safety of the Alpha Quadrant. So I will learn to live with it…Because I can live with it…I can live with it.” Would you compromise yourself to save your own people from attack, I hope I am never put in a position to make that choice.
As well as war, DS9 had time to touch on other themes that other shows didn’t approach directly both religion and race. Religion and faith have been a topic that most series of Star Trek has avoided looking at due to part because of Gene Roddenberry’s views on the subject, which of course is a little bit odd because some of the strongest references of religion outside of DS9 come from The Original Series. There are a number of religious characters in the show, mostly based on the Bajoran region. We have Kira, who has a strong faith as we see in Accession where she had to face the realities of her religion and the caste system that had been destroyed during the occupation “That’s the thing about faith… if you don’t have it, you can’t understand it and if you do, no explanation is necessary.” Even though she struggled with it at times her faith got her through some of the most difficult moments of her life and even led to her being chosen as a vessel for the Prophets at one point in their battle with the Pah-Wraths. You have Kai Winn that worked every day with her faith but became frustrated when the Prophets would take to everyone, even Quark, but they never spoke to her. Interestingly the one character with the greatest arc with religion is the one character who didn’t want it, Ben Sisko. He is reluctant from the start to take up the mantle of The Emissary and he had no plans what so ever to become a religious figure for the people of Bajor. Over the seasons he becomes more and more accustomed to the role, though he still made up excuses to get away from the station when there were important ceremonial duties that he could be made to participate in like Ha’mara. While there was never a Road to Damascus moment for Ben, by the end of the series it is clear that has accepted his place within the religion even when he knew that it would mean that there would be sacrifices that he would have to make.
Now it is not fair to say that that Star Trek has never looked at race in its history before, indeed gong all the way back to The Original Series. In the Let That Be Your Last Battlefield episode it dissects the stupidity of attacking someone over the arbitrary nature of the colour of their skin, and hell, even having Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Sulu (George Takei) as main cast members was a political statement on race at the time. However, DS9 took this a step further and actually explored the issues of race as it pertains to Earth and humans during its run. I mean much like The Original Series casting Ben Sisko as an African-America was a big statement at the time, and it was one of the first times we got to see a representation of a black family in science fiction. As well as this, it dealt directly with racism and race in both Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang and Far Beyond the Stars. Now there were other areas where DS9 didn’t do the best job of showing its understanding of diversity and I am glad this is one area that Star Trek Discovery is starting to address.
Now finally the setting, characters, and themes allowed Deep Space Nine to do something that had not been attempted in Star Trek before and that is to have story arcs that in the case of Season Seven, lasted the whole season. Now at this point I do want to make it clear that I am not going to get into the chicken and the egg debate between DS9 and Babylon 5, because simply I was not in the offices back in the early 1990s so I have no idea what actually went down, but also the shows literally had cast members appear in each other’s shows to make it clear there was no ill will, and I will leave it at that. The multi-episode arcs allow the show to explore places and events never seen on the show before, and also allowed the ability to show battles not seen outside of movies and bring them to the small screen. Now yes a lot of that was achieved by reusing footage but when you get episodes like Sacrifice of Angels with the USS Defiant zips through the Dominion line that outnumbered them two to one and just at the last moment Worf (Michael Dorn) arrives with Klingon reinforcements to punch a hole allowing the Defiant to escape, well I’ll take a some reused footage in that trade-off. Also complaining about the reused footage in Star Trek is a bit of a non-starter since they have been using that same shot of the exploding Bird of Prey for 20 years. We get to see the ebb in battle the highs and the lows, the retaking of DS9 from the Dominion to the Breen Dampening weapon carving its way through the Alliance Fleets. In nearly every battle there were characters we knew and liked on both sides and while it is a common form of storytelling today, it was revolutionary at the time.
In the end, I feel that even though this is heading towards 5000 words at warp speed I have barely scratched the surface of the behemoth that was Deep Space Nine. I mean I just realized that I have not mentioned Ezri Dax (Nicole de Boer) yet, or Jadzia’s death or the make Miles suffer episodes, or that Rom becomes Grand Nagus, that one episode each season that just didn’t work like when they gave Quark a sex change for one episode, Section 31 (the weakest part of DS9) and the Changeling virus, The Mirror Universe, The USS Defiant or the USS Rio Grande, the hologram Vic Fontaine (James Darren) that everyone becomes friends with, or really anything from What You Leave Behind. But I hope I have imparted to you all the things that really make Deep Space Nine stand out in the land of TV, why in many respects it was ahead of its time, and more importantly why I love this groundbreaking entry into both the Star Trek canon and also science fiction in general. Now if you missed it I believe it is available in most territories on Netflix so catch it whilst you can, because if you can’t tell already I highly rate it.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Trailer – Click Here to View (all trailers have heavy spoilers)
Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Writers – Ira Steven Behr, Hans Beimler, René Echevarria, Ronald D. Moore, Bradley Thompson, David Weddle & Robert Hewitt Wolfe
Based on – Star Trek by Gene Roddenberry
Show Runners – Ira Steven Behr, Rick Berman & Michael Piller
Music by – Dennis McCarthy
Starring – Avery Brooks, Rene Auberjonois, Nicole de Boer, Michael Dorn, Terry Farrell, Cirroc Lofton, Colm Meaney, Armin Shimerman, Alexander Siddig & Nana Visitor with Cecily Adams, Philip Anglim, Marc Alaimo, Casey Biggs, Rosalind Chao, Jeffrey Combs, James Darren, Cathy DeBuono, Aron Eisenberg, Louise Fletcher, Max Grodénchik, Hana Hatae, J.G. Hertzler, Barry Jenner, Salome Jens, Penny Johnson Jerald, David B. Levinson, Kenneth Marshall, Chase Masterson, Robert O’Reilly, Duncan Regehr, Andrew Robinson, Tiny Ron, Camille Saviola, Mark Allen Shepherd, Wallace Shawn & Melanie Smith