It has been a long time since I’ve made a random geeky post (OK – so it has been a long time since I’ve made a post of any kind) but I’ve recently been enjoying something of a Star Trek renaissance (a rebirth of my interest in the franchise rather than of the franchise itself, obviously) and as a result I’ve had Deep Space Nine on the mind.
Deep Space Nine? More like Deep Space Nein! you say. Alright, that was me. But while the wording may be a little trite, the sentiment is one I often hear expressed with regard to the original (and best) universe’s third installment (I’m discounting the animated series – sue me).
So why all the hate? Is DS9 really Star Trek’s ugly stepchild? And if one were to revisit the adventures of Captain Sisko and co. on their embattled ex-Cardassian/weird kitchen utensil of a station, is Emissary, the first DS9 episode, necessarily the best place to begin?
A brief discussion with possible mild spoilers (for DS9 and potentially the prime universe’s overarching story line) to follow…
Dark Space Nine
One of the big criticisms of DS9 is that it’s just too darn dark in tone, which often leads quickly to the accompanying accusation that it’s therefore just not Star Trek. I get this. Star Trek a la Roddenberry’s vision was, after all, a sci-fi utopia (for humans anyway, but more on this later) in which the upstanding protagonists strove to eliminate war, prejudice, oppression etc. etc. from the galaxy.
DS9 on the other hand is a series set in the aftermath of the Cardassians’ brutal occupation and subjugation of the Bajorans and is swiftly caught up in the several seasons-spanning Alpha v. Gamma Quadrant war with the Dominion, a conflict which the Federation very nearly loses. Admittedly a far cry from exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new civilizations, although they also manage to squeeze in a fair bit of that too.
I would argue, however, that it is in these darker moments that DS9 really comes into its own. That it is only in amongst all of this darkness that the series’ own, unique light is able to shine (ahem).
Captain Picard may spend TNG’s seven seasons occupying the moral high ground but it’s Sisko’s ability to delve into the grey (actually following through on a threat to poison a Maquis planet in order to stop the Maquis from unleashing biogenic weapons of their own in For the Uniform 5.13, for example) that makes him a commander capable of winning a war against an enemy like the Dominion. It is also part of what makes Sisko, and DS9, such an interesting and entertaining show to watch.
Star Trek obviously has a long and laudable history of addressing social injustices, but whereas TOS and TNG did so from a firm and inflexible Federation (read vaguely liberal American/Western) viewpoint, allying the audience with the (obviously correct) Starfleet protagonist’s moral position, DS9 goes further than any Star Trek series before in not just inviting the audience to question the motives and ethics behind its characters’ actions, but having the characters actively engage in this practice onscreen themselves, often without compromise or apology.
The prime example of this must surely be the season six favorite In the Pale Moonlight (6.19), in which Sisko not only admits to being an accessory to politically motivated murder, but that, given the stakes and the outcome, he’d do it again. He might not like it, but he can live with it.
Now I certainly understand people who complain that this is not their idea of Star Trek, and the morally questionable character actions/generally darker tone of DS9 is probably the main area in which Roddenberry’s lack of involvement with the creation of the series is felt. But after all of Picard’s moral grandstanding and inflexibility it’s refreshing to see someone uncomfortable in their Starfleet uniform, or who has the capacity to ask what it means to be morally flexible in a universe of moral hard-lines, however liberal. How can the Federation justify its pacifistic policies in the face interstellar aggression? And, at the end of the day, what gives the Federation the moral upper-hand anyway?
Little better than a homo sapiens only club
It’s during an ill-fated diplomatic summit aboard the Enterprise-A in the late twenty-third century that the Klingon Chancellor’s daughter, Azetbur, refers to the United Federation of Planet’s as “little better than a homo sapiens only club”, calling out the unspoken human-bias visible beneath the surface of the Alpha Quadrant’s major power.
Ignoring the obvious allegory of the real-world fall of the Soviet Union, Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country can be seen as the beginning of a process of the franchise’s knowing self-reflection that would be continued in Deep Space Nine, where – for the first time – non-Federation aliens are featured as main characters (the final movie to feature Kirk and co. as the central protagonists was released in December 1991, just over a year before DS9 made its TV debut).
Whereas TNG had offered occasional philosophical explorations of the purpose and worth of the UFP and its ongoing scientific and diplomatic expansion via the character of Q, it took DS9 to invite “outsider” viewpoints firmly onto the screen, week after week in the form of central alien (aka non-Federation and, crucially, I think, non-human-looking) characters. Non-human people with whom we were encouraged to empathize, not as oddities-of-the-week, but shopkeepers, scientists, merchants and even spies whose everyday lives were shown unfolding just as complexly as those of the Starfleet crew with whom they cohabited.
Now DS9 obviously needed the success of TNG (and the Kirk-led big screen outings) in order to facilitate such a risky change of perspective, and the shift of setting from a starship to a station can be viewed as part of this experimental leap (a part that one could argue was not entirely successful, necessitating the introduction of the Defiant in season 3). The result is that DS9 often plays more like a soap than a traditional dose of weekly sci-fi, and therein lies the second major criticism of the show.
Robbed of the “These are the voyages…” ritual opening and weekly meet-and-greet with strange new civilizations, many Star Trek fans were turned off by the seemingly pedestrian pursuits of the station’s promenade. But behind all of Quark’s get-rich-quick scheming and Garak’s vaguely camp suggestions of Cardassian intrigue, this different type of storytelling allowed Star Trek to explore something even more interesting: alien perspectives.
Now as the human audience, we all know that the Federation is the galaxy’s very best society, with its post-money, post-resource scarcity economy and commitment to freedom, equality, and fraternity between species. But what does the UFP’s smug we’re better than gold-pressed latinum attitude mean for, say, the Ferengi, a culture whose sole sense of worth is derived from the accumulation of material wealth? Or what about the Cardassians, a people unfortunate enough to find themselves on a relatively resource-starved planet and therefore seemingly forced to adopt an authoritative, militaristic style of government, bent on aggressive expansion as a means to survive?
In TNG such aliens were cast as cut-out enemies and/or comic relief; cold, inhuman adversaries to be defeated, and sometimes pitied but always defeated, by the superior Federation. It is in Deep Space Nine, however, that we start to see the other side, that the Federation’s growing diplomatic and military clout necessarily means a reduction in space, political and literal, for others, and through scatterings of conflict with the Cardassians, the Klingons, and a smattering of folks from beyond the wormhole, we realize that when the Federation wins, someone else invariably loses.
If DS9’s alien protagonists allowed the audience to peek behind the curtain and explore the cost of Federation expansion, it also encouraged them to adopt, however briefly, an alien perspective and view the UFP (and by extension, the USA/West) through the imagined outsider’s eyes. This, I would argue, is one of the best and most enjoyable elements of Deep Space Nine’s soap opera style storytelling, facilitating often insightful and invariably humorous reflections upon what is ultimately an expansionist, if peaceful, United Federation of Planets.
But is it still Trek? Perhaps not in the traditional sense, but I do think DS9 represents the genuine growth of the franchise, even if Voyager and Enterprise later seemed to do their best to set the clock back, recycling everything good from TOS and TNG.
While it is certainly not without its flaws (and detractors), I would argue that DS9 is well worth a second look (or first, if you skipped it before). So where should the discerning viewer start such an endeavor? Probably at the beginning, but then skip ahead…
Deep Space Nine in Seven Parts
Following the breakout success of TNG, it seems there was some sort of rule written at Paramount that no Star Trek series after could be called a triumph unless it too ran to a full seven seasons (hence the reason the USS Voyager’s journey back from the Delta Quadrant is SO bloody protracted while the adventures of the Enterprise NX-01 (mixed as they were) are dismissed by many as a failure after managing a season count of a paltry four). While DS9 is no exception to this rule, it is also not immune to the dangers of drag and fluff, many episodes, and indeed seasons, contributing very little worth savoring, and are in fact just best avoided.
So how should Star Trek fans looking to fill the void left by the end of CBS’ reboot/squeal Discovery with DS9 proceed? I’m glad you asked.
As I previously mentioned, I recently returned to Trek after some time away (it was always in my heart, just not on my screen) and, at my suggestion, my wife and I sat down to watch DS9.
Now while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my wife was singularly unimpressed by the series’ opener, the aforementioned Emissary, I would say that she was decidedly underwhelmed. And with good reason: it kinda sucks. Partly this is due to age (honestly, even I was surprised at quite how 90s the show feels) but it’s also partly because DS9 has a fair few teething problems and takes a while to get going (to be fair, do you remember the first two seasons of TNG though?).
While sharing these musings with my brother in-law, he commented that while he thought the overarching story of the series was one of the best in Trek, he felt most individual episodes failed to stand on their own merits, describing them as “so-so” at best.
Although I do not agree that there are no good standalone episodes in the DS9 canon, I do agree that watching DS9 is an exercise in delayed gratification and much more similar to the way people watch modern, epic showstoppers like Game of Thrones, for example, as opposed to the episodic style pacing of TNG. With this in mind, my advice to the novice viewer is to simply cut the chaff and jump straight into the action.
Start at the very beginning: Despite everything, Emissary *is* still worth watching. It sets up the premise of the show and introduces all the main characters. Start here but move swiftly on.
The Way of the Warrior: This *might* be controversial advice, but now you know the station and the crew, do yourself a favor and skip straight to season 4, which starts with two part epic The Way of the Warrior.
Not only does this episode signal the introduction of everybody’s favorite klingon to the main crew (it’s set just after the events of the movie Generations, so no lingering commitments to the Enterprise) it also kicks off the main story arc of the Dominion War that dominates the remaining seasons.
Yes, there will be a few details with which you’ll be unfamiliar (the presence of the Defiant and Sisko’s jump from commander to captain, for example), and you will have missed out on some hit or miss character development, but generally the best is still ahead of you, so strap in, and…
Stay the course: DS9 really is all about following the story line of the conflict with the Dominion through to the end. Yes, there are some twists and turns along the way and not all of them are expertly handled but overall I still think it’s the most satisfying story arc in Trek. Also, it’s not all doom and gloom – starting in season 4 means you still have the enjoyment of both Trials and Tribble-ations (5.6) and Far Beyond the Stars (6.13) to go; both standout, standalone episodes that allow you to see your favorite characters in a very different and fun light.
A few to consider: If you still feel you’re missing out on too much by skipping the first three seasons, here are a few early offerings you might also want to consider beyond simply Emissary.
The Jem’Hadar (2.26) Notable really only for the introduction of the titular enemy super soldiers that will become a mainstay of the Dominion War and the destruction of the Galaxy class USS Odyssesy on the far side of the wormhole, The Jem’Hadar is otherwise a largely forgettable episode. But the death of such a big and powerful Starfleet vessel really sets the stakes for the impending conflict. Plus, it’s really cool.
The Search Part 1 & 2 (3.1&2) The season 3 opener is interesting for two reasons: 1) It introduces the USS Defiant, giving Deep Space Nine a much needed edge now that it has suddenly found itself on the front line of a developing conflict. 2) It firmly establishes the identity of the founders and starts Odo on his path of self-discovery/determination that will have drastic consequences for the fate of both the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants.
Past Tense Part 1 & 2 (3.11&12) Another two parter, this one is, on the face of it, a classic Star Trek time travel yarn, facilitated via the good old transporter malfunction mechanism. Upon closer inspection something else is revealed however, as Sisko, Bashir and Dax must navigate the perils of 21st century San Francisco, facing racism of a kind eradicated in their sanitized 24th century lives.
Apart from being a time travel story exploring the requisite action vs. inaction conundrum, Past Tense is notable too as a rare depiction of racism not from the viewpoint of the Federation (read white saviors) swooping in to educate the ignorant locals, but of people of color, as Sisko and Bashir actually face discrimination and violence themselves. A first for Star Trek.
Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast (3.20&21) Although denied the Part 1 & 2 moniker, these episodes are definite two halves of the same story focusing on one of the very best DS9 characters, Garak. Here, Andrew J. Robinson is really allowed to let loose as we explore Garak’s past, filled with twists, guile, betrayal and, of course, intrigue for everybody’s favorite not-so ex-Cardassian spy.
So what do you think? Am I completely off the mark and DS9 a mere pile of sci-fi space trash? Or are you a DS9 fan and you’re angry because I missed your favorite season 2 episode? How would you recommend a newbie approach the series? And just what is the deal with Morn?
Let me know in the comments below.
As usual, thanks for playing and TTFN!