It’s a bit difficult to believe that this month is the 25th anniversary of the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine, which premiered on January 3, 1993. Time really does fly.
Unlike other Star Trek shows, DS9 was set on a space station, not a starship. Spinning off from events in The Next Generation, the premiere of DS9 saw the planet Bajor achieving independence after four decades of brutal occupation by the militant Cardassian Union. The space station Deep Space Nine was originally Terok Nor, a former Cardassian outpost orbiting the planet Bajor. Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), a Starfleet Commander mourning the recent death of his wife, is assigned to the newly rechristened Deep Space Nine, to help oversee the restoration of the devastated Bajor in the hopes that it can join the Federation. In this unpredictable environment Sisko also sought to build a new life for himself and his young son Jake (Cirroc Lofton).
Sisko’s assignment appears to be very much a dead end for his career, until a stable wormhole opens nearby, a shortcut to the far distant Gamma Quadrant. The alien beings who occupy the wormhole are worshiped by the Bajorans as their gods, the Prophets. For seemingly-inexplicable reasons the Prophets have now manifested for the first time in centuries, and have anointed Sisko their Emissary. Instantly Sisko becomes one of the most important figures in the Alpha Quadrant, in charge of the station guarding a strategic wormhole, the sole individual with whom the entities occupying it will communicate. Sisko is, to say the least, ambivalent about his position of Emissary, especially as many Bajorans now see him as the representative to their gods.
Star Trek: DS9 had a dual focus. It examined the efforts of Sisko and his crew to aid Bajor in recovering from 40 years of foreign occupation, a task complicated by both the ineffectual, corrupt provisional government and by the continuing machinations of the Cardassians, who were still stinging from the humiliation of being driven from the planet. The show also concerned itself with the Federation’s explorations of the mysterious Gamma Quadrant, which until the discovery of the wormhole was a region of the galaxy that would have taken decades to reach via normal warp drive.
Due to the fact that it was set in a fixed point in space, DS9 was able to examine how various cultures grew and developed over time. The Bajorans, after spending 40 years fighting a desperate guerilla war to liberate their planet, now had to figure out how to work together to restore a stable system of government. The return of their Prophets also brought about conflicts between science and faith, further threatening to fragment Bajor’s people.
Meanwhile the Cardassians, after centuries of militaristic expansion, were beginning to enter a period of steep decline, with various factions within the corrupt government attempting to exploit the chaos for their own personal benefit. The proudly nationalistic Cardassian people also struggled to deal with guilt over the crimes their military had perpetrated against the Bajorans, and with the inconvenient truth that if their society did not change then it would eventually perish.
Beginning with the season two finale “The Jem’Hadar” and continuing until the conclusion of DS9’s seven year run, the Federation was faced with an existential threat in the form of the Dominion, a vast alliance of powers based in the Gamma Quadrant that was obsessed with bringing “order” to the galaxy. The Dominion was, in a way, a dark mirror of the Federation. Whereas the Federation relied upon diplomacy, the gift of technological advancement, and the promise of a “better” way of life to attract new member worlds, the Dominion utilized brute force and terror to expand its reach. DS9 was a show that was skeptical of institutions & authority, and it would make the case that though their methods differed dramatically, the Federation and the Dominion were alike in each arrogantly believing that their system of government was the ideal one.
The conflict with the Dominion enabled the show to take a close look at the United Federation of Planets. In both the original Star Trek and The Next Generation, the Federation was typically characterized as something quite close to utopia, a near-perfect society seemingly without any significant injustice or inequality. In spite of its occasional excesses and various blind spots, the Federation was, at least in theory, fundamentally based upon the principle of the rights of the individual. The Dominion, in contrast, was a fascist structure that demanded absolute obedience from its subjects. Not only was the Dominion diametrically opposed to the ideals of the Federation, it was also a vastly superior military power.
DS9 addressed the question of what happens when a utopia like the Federation encounters an adversary inimical to its very ideals, a foe that can neither be negotiated with nor outfought. Faced with the very real possibility of its destruction, the question repeatedly arises as to how far the Federation will go to achieve victory, how much it will compromise its principles to ensure its survival.
These ideas were, of course, examined via the regular characters of DS9, how they acted and reacted to the events of galactic importance taking place around them, how their lives were affected over the show’s seven years.
Sisko often saw his principles tested. He was stationed far from the peaceful center of the Federation, commanding a space station occupied by a diverse population of alien species. Helping the devastated, divided Bajor to rebuild, fighting the dissident Maquis who had dropped out of the Federation, and serving on the front lines of the brutal war with the Dominion, Sisko regularly struggled to live up to both his personal ethics and the ideals of Starfleet.
The season six episode “In the Pale Moonlight” pondered just how far Sisko would go in compromising his morality in his quest to prevent the Dominion from conquering the Alpha Quadrant. All these years later the episode remains one of the most riveting, thought-provoking, unsettling installments of the entire franchise.
Another character who was repeatedly challenged throughout the run of the show was Major Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor), the station’s First Officer. As a member of the Bajoran militia Kira was often pulled between her loyalty to her homeworld and her responsibilities serving under Sisko. Additionally, Kira had been born during the Occupation, and has spent most of her life fighting against the Cardassians. To be blunt, Kira and her compatriots in the Resistance could be regarded as terrorists. She had a great deal of blood on her hands, having been required commit numerous violent, morally ambiguous acts in the struggle to liberate Bajor. Kira was unapologetic for her actions but at times was nevertheless haunted by her past. She also struggled with having to shift from being someone who had fought tooth & nail against an unjust status quo to being a member of the establishment.
One of the most fascinating characters on DS9 was Odo (René Auberjonois) a mysterious shapeshifting entity who had been discovered by the Bajorans during the Occupation. Odo had no knowledge of his past. Surly and brooding, he had fallen into the role of Terok Nor’s chief of security while it was still under Cardassian control, but was trusted enough by the Bajorans to remain in that position once the Federation moved in. Odo was the ultimate outsider; he was literally one of a kind. There were times when it seemed the only reasons why he stayed on DS9 were that he literally had nowhere else to go, and because he carried an unrequited love for Kira Nerys.
Odo’s sad story took an even more tragic turn once the Dominion entered the picture. Early in season three Odo was reunited with his shapeshifting people, only to quickly learn that they were the Founders, the ruthless rulers of the Dominion. Having spent centuries subjected to mistrust, the shapeshifting Founders had established the brutal Dominion, believing that the only way to escape being persecuted was to seize control of the galaxy. Odo, in spite of his sympathies for the Founders’ cause and his longing to rejoin his people, was nevertheless revolted by the Dominion’s horrific tyranny. He reluctantly returned with Kira and the other “solids” to DS9. Despite having found his people, he was in a way now more alone than ever.
DS9 seemed to be a port of call for people who had no roots, no place to call home. Worf (Michael Dorn), the only Klingon to serve in Starfleet, was one of the most popular characters on The Next Generation. Beginning in season four Worf joined the crew of DS9. He once again found himself expelled from his own society after he objected to the Klingon Empire’s war against the Cardassian Union. Worf correctly perceived that the Klingon Chancellor, by making spurious claims that Cardassia had been infiltrated by the shapeshifting Founders, was using the threat of the Dominion as a pretext to invade Cardassia. Unable to abide by the Empire’s dishonorable actions, he again pledged his loyalty to Starfleet. Worf was in for a shock, though, as he quickly found the colorful mayhem of DS9 to be very different from the orderly routine of the Starship Enterprise.
Another former member of the Enterprise crew who found himself stationed on DS9 was Miles O’Brien (Colm Meany). O’Brien was very much a working-class everyman who had a grounded, stoic perspective on the strange events that frequently beset the station. The station’s Chief of Operations, O’Brien had transferred from the Enterprise at the start of season one. He had hoped to give his wife Keiko and their young daughter Molly a more stable life than on a starship, although he quickly discovered that the station had its own particular brand of chaos. O’Brien seemed to be a magnet for trouble, often becoming mixed up in all manner of bizarre and horrifying events. He was undoubtedly the hard-luck hero of DS9.
Deep Space Nine found its feet much quicker than The Next Generation had, generally offering up some pretty good episodes during its first season. Nevertheless the writer did take a while to figure out what to do with the characters of Jadziya Dax (Terry Farrell) and Doctor Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig). Eventually the show settled down into having Dax as a purveyor of dry wit and confidant to Sisko.
Jadziya Dax was actually a composite of the Trill woman named Jadziya, the very long-lived symbiont slug-like entity Dax, and the memories of Dax’s previous Trill hosts. Dax’s prior incarnation, a charismatic diplomat named Curzon, had been a mentor to the young Sisko. Now that relationship evolved into a close friendship between the vivacious Jadziya and Sisko. Eventually, at the end of season six, Jadziya was killed, but the symbiont Dax survived. In season seven Dax was joined with another Trill, a young woman named Ezri (Nicole de Boer). This led to an interesting reversal of roles, with the now-seasoned Captain Sisko serving as a mentor to the inexperienced Ezri Dax.
The arrogant, ambitious Bashir, who probably would have been much more suited to service on the Enterprise, was often the odd man out on the dysfunctional DS9. However, as the series became more and more morally ambiguous, Bashir was often used to demonstrate how the ideals of Starfleet were being challenged, and how he refused to let his own ethics to be compromised. Bashir and O’Brien, in spite of their very different personalities & backgrounds, also developed an odd but endearing friendship over the course of the show’s seven years.
A discussion of DS9 would not be complete without mentioning the Ferengi. Originally conceived as uber-capitalist baddies in the first season of The Next Generation, the Ferengi were an immediate flop, and that series very quickly reduced them to comic relief. DS9 set out to rehabilitate the Ferengi, to make them into a three-dimensional, believable species. To a degree the show was successful. While the Ferengi were still rather implausible, and often silly, they nevertheless came across much better on DS9 than they had on TNG.
One of DS9’s regular characters was Quark (Armin Shimerman) a Ferengi bartender & club-owner operating out of the station’s promenade. Quark was always looking to make a quick buck, and often fell afoul of Odo, who was determined to halt the Ferengi’s extra-legal activities. As we got to know Quark, however, it became apparent that he did operate according to his own particular code of ethics. He wasn’t evil; rather his pursuit of wealth caused him to have a number of rather glaring moral blind spots. Quark’s main failing was that he was often unable, or unwilling, to foresee the negative consequences of his actions on both himself and others, at least until some particular scheme happened to blow up in his face, sometimes literally. To his credit, Quark would usually attempt to make things right with those he had harmed, albeit somewhat reluctantly, while also trying to recoup as much of his investment as possible.
I could also discuss such fascinating recurring characters as Gul Dukat, Garek, Nog, Winn Adami, Weyoun and Martok, but we would be here all day. Suffice it to say that DS9 had a rich, fascinating, colorful ensemble.
Deep Space Nine had been described as the most multicultural of the various Star Trek series. It was the first Star Trek show to feature a black man, the superb Avery Brooks, in the lead. Miles O’Brien was played by Irish-born Colm Meany, and Julian Bashir was played by English-Sudanese actor Alexander Siddig. Nearly all of the other characters on DS9, both regular and recurring, were members of different alien species, with their own cultures and mores, their different perspectives on the events that unfolded.
The show is also noteworthy for being one of the first American genre series to experiment with serialization. Various storylines played out across multiple episodes, and the final season concluded with an ambitious, epic nine-episode serial that worked to resolve as many of the plotlines and character arcs as possible.
Deep Space Nine was produced at a time when American television was at a crossroads. It definitely was a forerunner of the now-standard model of serialization, yet at the same time it was still being made when 26 episode seasons were the norm, to crank out as many hours of television as possible to sell to syndication. Inevitably each season had at least a few subpar installments. As the show progressed, and became more involved in long-form storytelling, those surplus episodes inevitably became somewhat more glaring, especially in the final two seasons.
While DS9 has for the most part aged exceptionally well, its treatment of women and sexual relations does feel rather dated. Dax and Kira were the only two significant female characters among the very large ensemble. Bashir’s almost stalker-ish pursuit of Jadziya Dax in the first couple seasons, Ezri Dax in the final season, and a few other women over the course of the show, sticks out as an especially poor choice in today’s climate. The relationship between Odo and Kira also has problematic aspects.
Nevertheless, despite certain missteps, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine remains a quality show. For the most part it was well-acted, well-written, and well-produced. It was actually quite ahead of its time in its examination of the challenges presented by multiculturalism, and its debate concerning liberty vs security during times of war. It is definitely a favorite of mine.