Star Trek: Visions In Conflict

In 1992, for the first time ever, there were two iterations of the Star Trek franchise airing at once. As Star Trek: The Next Generation hit the zenith of its popularity and story-telling prowess a new, very different kind of Star Trek was taking shape. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine stands as the last take on the franchise to have any input from Gene Rodenberry and the first iteration to eschew the name Enterprise. In many ways, the show was a complete departure from form, replacing a starship with a space station and tightly written and powerful stories with sprawling and engaging sagas. Far more thought was put into the grand narrative of the series than any Star Trek show before or since. Unfortunately, in many ways the smaller details that made the greatest Star Trek episodes so great faded just a bit.

It’s unclear whether it was a deliberate choice from moment one, just something that happened over time, or a direct result of Rodenberry’s vision departing from the show but the world of DS9 has little of the direct parallels to current political tensions. It’s possible that this is because, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the United States as the only global superpower, the showrunners felt there were few noteworthy parallels worth telling stories about. The 1990s were a pretty slow time on the geopolitical scale, although there were social patterns and smaller regional conflicts that could have served as jumping off points as well. Or perhaps – and I find this most likely – the writers just wanted to go off and explore their own ideas more than what already existed.

That suspicion is reinforced by the fundamentally different tenor of DS9. Most takes on the Star Trek formula are somewhat introverted. They focus on one ship in one situation at a time, with very few characters outside of the main cast to keep track of. DS9 is fundamentally extroverted, focusing on a crossroads where many people come and go regularly, full of recurring side characters and unfolding situations that must be tracked carefully over many hours worth of content. If the original Trek centered around the bridge as a metaphor for humanity in the driver’s seat, and the follow-up put them in the courtroom to weigh their actions, then this iteration sought to place them in the town square and see how they would live when the rubber met the road. It’s no accident that the most used set on the show was not the station’s operations center but the station’s Promenade, the business center for the residents.

No other show was as much about the people who came into contact with Starfleet as was Deep Space Nine. This is part of what has won it such a large and loyal following. There are four whole series worth of Star Trek dedicated to the basic premise of a crew in space solving the problems of space. People who want stories about a city in space have only one Trek series that caters to them. It’s not my cup of tea, or at least I prefer the other blends more, but I don’t begrudge this blend its fans. It certainly earned them.

Characterwise DS9 is an interesting mix. It boasts the strongest cast across the board of any series in the franchise. Spiner and Stewart were standouts in NextGen but are almost the baseline for cast performance on DS9. Of course two actors, the formidable and excellent Michael Dorn and the personable and fun Colm Meaney, joined the DS9 cast from NextGen. But beyond these two Rene Aubejonois, Armin Shimerman (an occasional guest star on NextGen), Andrew Robinson and Marc Alaimo deliver stunning performances of deeply nuanced characters. Notably, none of those characters wear Starfleet uniforms. The rest of the cast was very good, but these men cast very, very long shadows.

Deep Space Nine also wins the coveted “Most Attractive Women in the Franchise” award, but that is neither here nor there.

From it’s very first episode the character writing for DS9 was very, very strong. Unlike most other Star Trek series it struggle to find a place for its characters in only two cases – Dr. Bashir and Dax. This strong writing shows from the pilot episode – another best in franchise award that DS9 walks away with – and continues to the very end. And it’s in this series that we also get the most meaningful character development for the core cast. The character arcs of the cast are pretty varied and could probably support multiple essays on their own so we’ll treat them very lightly in the next paragraph or two and then touch more heavily on the two most important – those of Captain Benjamin Sisko and Gul Dukat – later in when we look at story and themes.

My favorite character arc was Nog – a Ferengi who decides the archetype of his native culture is a poor fit for him, as much as he would like it to be otherwise, and decides to join Starfleet. Nog goes from craven and singleminded to overzealous and cocky to mature and seasoned with comparatively little time spent on him through the course of the series. Odo was the series’ take on someone struggling to understand himself and the addition of his shapeshifting nature and connection to the series’ primary antagonists made his character arc very touching and interesting, even if it was not particularly groundbreaking. Doctor Bashir became a sort of man for all seasons, his weak characterization early on giving way to a shrewd but good natured genius character who doesn’t become too much of a plot convenience. Once he joins the cast Worf is given an expanded role in leadership and new responsibilities as a married man. These arcs were all handled well and made for fun and engaging characters.

On the flip side, my favorite characters don’t have arcs at all. Plain and simple Garak, Cardassian tailor and retired spy, is his same enigmatic self the whole way through, lying to stay in practice and dedicated to his nation and his work. There’s a delightful cunning to the man you can’t help but love and an awkward, roundabout way of helping his friends that is almost endearing – but winds up being a little sad. Chief O’Brien is the pillar of the station, an unchanging force of good natured optimism. Even when episodes focus on him they mainly boil down to a series of punishing emotional trials that the Chief endures until he can go home and see his wife and kids. And Quark… is the perfect businessman. He loves his job, his customers and his home and he defends them with a fierceness and determination that puts most of Starfleet to shame.

Then there were the characters I didn’t care for as much. Major (later Colonel) Kira is an interesting idea, an officer from the nearby planet of Bajor, put there by the Bajoran government to see that Bajor’s interests are observed by the Federation – as Bajor is not yet a member planet. In practice she spends a lot of time in the first several seasons as a shrill nag, dogging Captain Sisko to explain how the Federation’s interests and Bajor’s coincide. Eventually this tension boils down a bit as it becomes clearer and clearer that Bajor needs Federation support in the times to come but, in my personal opinion, this theme is dragged out too long and, more than anything, her constant antagonism towards Starfleet impedes her growth as a character until about season four.

Dax is treated as a sort of get out of plot trouble free for a good stretch of the show – which is to say, she’s a convenience for the writers not the crew as the long life of the Dax symbiote allows its hosts – first Jadzia and later Ezri – access to a plethora of skills and connections that will drag her into and out of weird situations.  Worse, with all those personalities jumbling around in her head it’s hard to pin down who, exactly, Jadzia is. Ezri is written better, with more of a clear identity, but she’s only there for one season so it makes her only a little less muddled. The idea of Dax may work well in a franchise where it’s front and center, like Doctor Who, but as a part of an ensemble it was more of a question mark than an exclamation point.

Sisko is a mixed bag. Much of his character progression I found lackluster, but more on that once we talk themes. His position on the station is quite interesting, as he functions as much as the mayor of a small town as a starship commander. A large portion of his crew is Bajoran and not technically under his direct authority. Plus he has to deal with a large contingent of civilians like Quark and Garak who are outside the reach of all but the most direct and dictatorial exercises of his authority. Undoubtedly his greatest asset as a character is that he’s a family man. He has a son who he has to help grow up, and a dead wife who’s loss he has to get over. He falls in love again and even gets married, all things that make him distinct from other Star Trek captains and make him feel more organic to the frontier town feel of DS9. He’s a good character and a good leader, even if I feel the writers didn’t always serve him well.

Thematically, DS9 tackles fewer ideas than its predecessors but goes at them at greater length. As with many of its creative decisions this is a mixed blessing. It works fantastically for characters like Garak, Dumar and Gul Dukat who’s conflicted and evershifting relations to their strict, nationalist culture make for fascinating character studies. By the same token the deep dive into Ferengi culture the show takes is both hilariously entertaining and fairly insightful, although a little less evenly handed than the Cardassians. But for the central themes I feel like it’s more of a miss.

At the heart of the show, Deep Space Nine attempts to tackle the morality of Star Trek at the edges of the story, where the many luxuries of the core Federation worlds are not available. Where NextGen gave us a moral mosaic of contrasting situations and outcomes, DS9 gives us moral grays. The problem with pictures of all gray is that all the shapes bleed into one another leaving a drab, blurry boring stretch of canvas. Nothing illustrates this more than Captain Sisko’s role as the Emissary of the Prophets and his character arc for most of the show.

The Bajorans are a deeply spiritual people, worshiping a group of deities called “The Prophets” who turn out to have a stable wormhole built a good ways out from the planet of Bajor. Conflict over this wormhole is much of the plot of the show and it all starts when Ben Sisko flies out into it to find the missing ship of the Cardassian officer Gul Dukat and stumbles on the wormhole and the Prophet’s sanctuary. From that moment on Sisko is considered a voice for the Prophets in the mortal realm. Periodically Sisko will be given some insight on a problem the station is – or will be – facing and he must trust the Prophets and work out the situation. At first he’s reluctant, both to trust the Prophets and act as their Emissary, but by seasons four or five he’s settled into the role and is actively using its influence.

The problem with this arc is that there’s no real meaning to the Bajoran religion. At least, not that’s shared with us. The Prophets are basically powerful beings who kinda want to do something about some evil things and Bajor is somehow involved. But what the codes the Propehts demand of their followers, what their morality is and how it might intersect with Sisko’s loyalty to Starfleet or his personal code of conduct is pretty sketchy.

The Prophets behave much like the stereotypical god put forth by atheists and agnostics – every so often they put forth an edict and expect it to be carried out even if there’s no rhyme or reason. Problem is, even pagan deities, hardly at the pinnacle of systematic theology, had a logic to them. Apollo was god of poetry and music, as well as prophecy, so his myths revolved around story and song as much as predictions of the future. Tyr was god of valor and personal combat and he valued those who faced such adversity with the Nordic spirit of honor. They had a wheelhouse that made them understandable to their followers and useful as storytelling devices – which is undoubtedly why they creep up even in modern story time and time again. The Prophets have no such domain and thus, generally just serve as plot conveniences to drive stories.

That fact really starts to show when the evil counterparts to the Prophets, the Pah Wraiths, show up and take Gul Dukat as their leader. Not only does this destroy Dukat as a character, going from a deep, meaningful and charismatic (but untrustworthy) man to a shallow half of a lazily drawn good and evil conflict who mouths platitudes about love that he clearly doesn’t understand; it underlines just how empty the Bajoran religion is of meaning or driving purpose. Neither side of this battle has a philosophy clear enough to prevent Bajor’s religious leaders from slipping back and forth from one side of the conflict to the other. Sisko himself trusts the Prophets only because they’ve never been wrong – right up until they ask him to not do something he wants to, namely get married. Of course, the Prophets end up correct about that as well – the decision does put Sisko and Cassidy through more emotional pain than they probably would have suffered if they hadn’t gotten married – but it still doesn’t change the fact that the Prophets clearly don’t stand for anything in the minds of those who trust them.

It’s very hard to wield religious figures in fiction, in part because the act of having faith actively works against the kind of emotional conflict that leads to character arcs. Faith is a stabilizing force in a person’s life and stories need instability to be interesting. Thus religious figures work best as antagonists in storytelling, hence the prevalence of the Devil in fiction but not the Christian God or Jesus, or as side characters that provide emotional stability, thus the trope of a supporting priest the protagonist can confess to (or however that works for the religious tradition in question). This is why Q worked in NextGen as the glimpse of humanity’s objectively low place on the galactic totem pole, a pinprick to the hubris of humanism’s centering of mankind in the cosmos. It’s not even that Q disliked humanity – he often seemed to be doing them favors in the manner of a drill sergeant or older brother who torments to toughen people up – it’s just that Q understood how much danger they were getting in to and how best to make them see it.

The Prophets, by contrast, don’t do much of anything for anyone, other than sealing up the wormhole for the last couple of seasons to keep the Dominion from pouring through.

Which reminds me of the other pantheon of DS9, the Founders. These shapeshifting masters of genetics lead the Dominion, the show’s primary antagonists. They’re treated as gods by a handful of races they made via genesmithing and programmed to revere them. The Founders, at least, behave as actual pagan religious figures might. Unfortunately we never see more than a couple of Founders, counting Odo, and we learn little of their philosophy beyond their general distrust of creatures who can’t shapeshift. There is one incident that explains a bit of why that might be – Founders communicate with each other in a sort of telepathic merging that causes them to distrust the vagueness of verbal communication while humanoids distrust creatures who can change shape at will – but what that kind of thought process might imply for their culture is never addressed.

Another theme of DS9 is supposedly the imperfections of human society. But again, it doesn’t show that very well. While there is an attempted coup on Earth during the run of the show and we see several people turn traitor and abandon Starfleet for the Maquis, there’s still one major problem in all this. Ben Sisko is always right. He’s never wrong.

Not once in the show’s whole run does Sisko make the wrong bet when sorting out these problems. Even Picard, the most conscientious and fair minded captain in Star Trek, missed a bet once or twice, as in “Chain of Command” or “Best of Both Worlds”. To say nothing of Ro Laren. But Sisko never gambles wrong, and in time it becomes clear that the moral standard in these “morally gray” situations still exists – it’s just embodied in a single character. We no longer have a moral mosaic where we have to measure the situation, the players and our principles all together to find out where the right of things lies, now we can just wait to see what Sisko does and know that this will be the win. It’s boring, dull and muddled – just what I’d expect when everything is painted in shades of gray.

The epitome of this muddled sense of standards is the constant visits to the mirror universe. It is fun to see the characters with inverted morality – but not everyone’s morality is flipped and the whole string of episodes, stretched over the show’s full run, never goes anywhere. It’s disappointing and a waste of resources that might have been spent better developing other ideas. Like Bajor, that planet that was right next door to the station but that we saw maybe once a season. Missed opportunities there. Or maybe more than just two highly specialized, genetically engineered Dominion races.

The final thematic element of DS9 is war. Now, the Star Trek galaxy was always on the brink of war and perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us. The political situation was based on the real world for both The Original Series and Next Generation and the world was kind of on the brink of war that whole time. On the other hand, the world was not at war during the 1990s.  It’s almost as if the showrunners wanted to do World War Two in space, with Star Trek sensibilities, rather than address ethnic cleansing or the other geopolitical struggles of the time. It’s not that I don’t understand that – in fact it was probably a wise decision – but it did cost the show some of the timeliness the first two takes on the franchise were known for.

In the end, DS9 isn’t undone by its flaws of character or theme. It’s a different kind of Star Trek story but not necessarily a worse one. One outcome of the changes in format and approach that I’m not sure was fully appreciated was how high impact moments in the story would get spread out. Deep Space Nine has fewer truly standout episodes than any take on the franchise beyond its contemporary, Star Trek Voyager. That’s because many of the best moments happened in episodes that were otherwise just average for the show. In fact, if I had to characterize DS9 in comparison to the rest of the franchise I’d say it was of stronger overall consistency but lacked the highs and lows of other takes. That said, there were a number of very good episodes worth watching. Also, the final half of the last season makes for one of the stronger modern space operas although that hardly counts as “an episode”.

“Duet” comes early in the show’s run and highlights the evils of the Cardassian occupation. The station’s crew has arrested a man who used to run a work camp and Major Kira must lead the investigation, which she does with vengeful intensity. But along the way they discover the Cardassian is an imposter – in truth he was the camp’s file clerk and has taken his old CO’s identity. This episode shows the struggle for redemption and the toll that even adjacency to evil can cause. It also shows how attempts to reconcile cultures long at odds can be easily undermined from either side, even if one of those sides seems to have a clear moral high ground.

“The Magnificent Ferengi” features Quark pulling together a team of crack Ferengi commandos for an impromptu rescue mission. The naturally conflict averse disposition of the merchants supreme is overridden by reward money offered and the galaxy’s most devious minds all come together to thwart the aims of the Dominion. It’s every bit as fun as that sounds, only more so.

Supposedly the British Navy believes that any action worthy of receiving the Victoria Cross is not a sound basis for tactical doctrine. “Valiant” takes a crack at showing that true in the Star Trek lore. The Valiant was a small ship on a training cruise when the Dominion War broke out and they were swept up in hostilities. The three commissioned officers were killed in an initial attack leaving a crew of cadets to repair and run the ship. Rather than going home their commander decides to try and carry out the orders that came in for the ship’s late captain. Along the way they pick up DS9′s Jake and Nog, who were going to Ferenginar, the Ferengi homeworld. Over Jake’s protests the Valiant continues on its way, eventually biting off more than the crew of inexperienced and emotionally unstable cadets can handle. At the end, as one of the cadets defends their now deceased leader, Nog speaks the most memorable line of the entire series. “He was a good man. Maybe even a hero. But he was a bad captain.”

“Waltz” is the single strongest performance of anyone in Deep Space Nine. Both Avery Brooks and Marc Alaimo act their hearts out to deliver the ultimate confrontation between Captain Benjamin Sisko and Gul Dukat. The two spar in a battle of wits, each with a crippling handicap. Sisko doesn’t know what the game is and Dukat lost his wits when he watched his daughter murdered. It’s tense, nailbiting and heartbreaking all at once. Good stuff.

Deep Space Nine went off the air in 1999 and it marked the beginning of the franchise’s decline. Unlike previous series the show would never make the leap to films so that aspect of the franchise would lapse in 2002. While Voyager was still on air, and would be until 2001, and Star Trek Enterprise would carry the torch onwards for another four years, Star Trek was beginning to show it’s age. In fact, by the end of Voyager the real history of Earth would have officially divulged from the history Rodenberry proposed. Many people talk as if the decline was because no one ran with the storytelling techniques DS9 introduced to the franchise, or that it was because DS9 was the peak of what the franchise could aspire to and decline after that was natural. I disagree, and I’ll speak more about why that is in a couple of weeks, but for now I’ll just say I attribute that to their love for the show. As I said, DS9 is unique in the history of the franchise and thus its chunk of the fanbase is very dedicated. And the series did do a lot to explore the cultures of the Star Trek galaxy and raised the art of character writing in the franchise to its peak. It was fresh, fierce and fun, and for that I confess I love it too.

Deep Space Nine was an experiment but the core of Rodenbery’s future lived on. In 1995 the USS Voyager departed Deep Space Nine‘s docking pylons and headed into the Badlands and out into the franchise’s next adventure far beyond the reaches of human knowledge. Because space is one journey that will likely never be over…

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