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How do you set yourself apart from something so iconic?
It’s a question producers Rick Berman and Michael Piller were confronted with in the early ‘90s. 25 years after it first aired, Star Trek was once again firmly seated in the cultural consciousness; any future series would have the legacy of two giants looming over them. The afterglow of the original cast still lingered from their swan-song film The Undiscovered Country, and the Patrick Stewart-led spinoff The Next Generation had found its footing as an exciting, intelligent progression of the show. Whatever came next had to stand out.
Often referred to as the black sheep of the franchise, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) was certainly unique. The setting changed from a starship to a static space station, the tone was darker and weirder than previous series, and the themes of war and trauma were more pronounced. In a distant corner of space, a band of officers no one really cares about are given a thankless task of keeping a shaky peace after a fascist empire ends its occupation of an unadvanced planet. Bit by bit, it is revealed that they happen to be sitting on the most important cross section in the galaxy, and it’s up to them to make sure things don’t fall apart.
The crew is led by the erratic but decisive Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks). Pulling together a team of Starfleet personnel and outsiders, he tries to preserve stability above the liberated planet of Bajor—despite its former rulers, the Cardassians, always hanging around their recently lost prize. Confronting the legacy of occupation, Sisko has to rely on those who fought against the Cardassians (Nana Visitor’s former resistance fighter Kira), those who served them (René Auberjonois’s shapeshifting security chief Odo), and those who profited off them, (Armin Shimerman’s ultra-capitalist Ferengi bartender Quark). It’s a tricky affair, one complicated by the discovery that Bajor is sitting at the mouth of a transgalactic wormhole, the ramifications of which extend to all life in the galaxy. The team is not boldly going anywhere—the galaxy is coming to them.
It’s obvious that DS9’s themes are a shade weightier than previous iterations of Trek, but the most notable difference is the mood of the show. There’s a tension to proceedings on the station; it’s an unsettled environment teeming with strangeness, duplicity, and resentment. Gone is the sleek design and comfortable ambience of the USS Enterprise—our characters instead inherit harsh, angular Cardassian architecture, with echoes of their brutal occupation still living in the walls.
For those worrying that it sounds a bit too bleak, while DS9 is undoubtedly the darkest Trek show, it’s also the funniest. The station’s strangeness gives a lot of room for heightened, weird hijinks, and the fact that it’s a much less controlled environment than Captain Picard’s strict regimen aboard the Enterprise means there’s a fantastic capacity for chaos. At a certain point, you notice most episodes fit into a binary of “nonsense” or “war,” and the former is as charming as the latter is stirring.
But what holds viewers back from diving in is the fact that this second spinoff of the long-running franchise comes across as a little inaccessible, especially with its complicated premise. But the genius of DS9 is how effortlessly the writers guide audiences through the sci-fi storylines by focusing not on the complexities of the fantastical plot, but on the interior journey of the characters. DS9 boasts the best ensemble of any Trek because it’s here we’re given the most insight into what makes them tick.
Their inner conflict is layered, their emotional crises poignant, and the people that seem the most alien are revealed to be the most human. How can Kira represent her traumatized homeworld while coming to terms with the darkness of her past? How does Odo react when, after living his whole life unmoored from any community and treated as a scientific oddity, he discovers the insidious motives of his people? And how does Quark—well, Quark’s desire for accruing profit is distinctly uncomplicated, but as his brother Rom and nephew Nog start asserting their individuality in a rapidly changing intersection of space, how does Quark confront the meaning of his culture’s traditions and values?
Even with the Starfleet officers on the station, DS9 investigates the status of their uniform more than other Trek shows. Our characters are good at their jobs, but unlike either crew of the flagship Enterprise, they aren’t the best of the best. Because their duty is such an unglamourous one, the honor of working for Starfleet has been more or less stripped away, leaving us with the most “work sucks” series of the Trek universe. Often we’ll see the overworked and undervalued Chief of Engineering Miles O’Brien get dumped with another menial, exhausting task. He shrugs it off and gets down to it, stopping just short of exclaiming, “it’s a living!” every time.
But it’s the interplay of characters that really makes DS9 shine. Because they’re not zooming off to new planets every week, everyone gets more room to breathe. Both in crises and downtime, we see friendships, rivalries, and personal joys bloom as the crew grows closer, and sadness as they drift apart. As it progresses, the show starts experimenting with dynamic mixes of characters, and you realize that there are no bad pairings in DS9—any combination is compelling. By the time DS9 settles into itself (Trek fans coined the phrase “growing the beard” to describe a show improving in quality after the first couple of seasons, as lead characters started sporting facial hair around the time the writing became noticeably stronger), its predecessors’ resistance to showcasing change in their ensemble was shrugged off.
DS9 is also credited with introducing longer serialized arcs to Trek, but the most interesting cases are not in long-form plotting; rather, it’s in how early character change sets up important actions later in the show. You may not need to see Season 4’s “Bar Association” (where Rom leads a strike at Quark’s and tries to form a union) to understand how or why Rom sabotages the Dominion empire two seasons down the line, but because we’ve witnessed his courage and self-worth manifest previously, it’s ten times more satisfying.
But the most affecting relationship changes are ones too painful to share, and are instead concealed in an attempt to return to normality. In Season 3’s “The Die is Cast”, the exiled Cardassian and DS9’s resident tailor Garak joins forces with his former secret police mentor, and proceeds to torture the captured Odo. Eventually the day is saved, the Cardassians thwarted, and Garak returns to his shop on the station. As he’s closing, Odo appears at Garak’s door and calmly confronts him. What Garak did to Odo can’t be undone, the memory of it will never fade; and while in the next episode we’ll see everyone going about their daily business, both Odo and the audience are now more aware of what kind of person Garak is. Change will happen, the show says, but sometimes it’s too painful to admit.
DS9 honored what made Star Trek great while evolving into something more striking. By expanding Trek’s capacity for dramatic writing, DS9 went from a curious outlier to the franchise’s most daring show. Its capacity to engage audiences only grew as it found inventive ways to explore the interiority of people acting in turbulent times. The series was never about being the best, but that turning our focus to those around us is a more fulfilling and meaningful way to exist amongst the stars. Instead of discovering new kinds of life, DS9 was interested in bettering the ones we already have.
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Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.
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