In 2018, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) celebrated the 25th anniversary of its premiere in 1993, and recently, in honor of of the series storied history, Ira Steven Behr (one of the show’s show-runners and executive produces) released the documentary retrospective, What We Left Behind. DS9 has at times been referred to as the “black sheep” of the Star Trek family; it challenged many of the fundamentals already established in the universe, carried a darker tone, and generally shirked the exploration narrative embraced by its predecessors. To some, this new direction was unappealing — an affront to Gene Roddenberry’s initial vision — but to many others, Deep Space Nine represents the best of what Trek has to offer.
The series initially ran for seven seasons from 1993–1999 and could have very easily fallen into relative obscurity; however its presence on Netflix and other streaming services (and of course, the continued dedication of Trekkies everywhere) has contributed to a return in its popularity and earned it a renewed place in today’s cultural and critical zeitgeist. Viewing the series under a modern lens, Deep Space Nine holds up in a variety of ways, I want to focus on three specific aspects that I believe really stand out: the show’s method of storytelling, its handling of race, and its depiction of terrorism and the concept of the anti-hero.
Long-Form Serialized Storytelling
Going against the grain of much of the way stories were told on television during this time, Deep Space Nine made the effort to embrace longer-form story arcs much like a lot of the prestige TV we see today. Historically, the Star Trek franchise had placed an emphasis on a more self-contained, episodic form of storytelling. While there were two-part episodes and character arcs that carried on throughout the seasons, one could generally catch any episode on syndication and easily have most of the details to sufficiently enjoy it. By virtue of being set on the titular space station, however, rather than a starship ‘trekking’ the galaxy, the writers behind Deep Space Nine found that they had to play around with the characters and cultures that made up the setting they had to work with, and ultimately, this better lent itself to a more serialized storytelling approach.
As writer/producer Ron Moore put it in an interview with TrekMovie, “The Enterprise…could pull up to a planet and have an episode and keep going. With Deep Space Nine, anything that took place on the station, well guess what? Next week you are still on the station. And Bajor is not going anywhere. So really you had to keep playing those stories. You couldn’t make a big change in Bajor’s political structure in one week and then ignore it the next. You had to keep it going.”
With this in mind, DS9 told stories that were first and foremost about the characters. Star Trek had undoubtedly given us some phenomenal and iconic characters prior to this, but it was effectively a concept show that often placed a greater emphasis on varying ideas presented from week to week. DS9, on the other hand, grew to become a series primarily about people. Star Trek has never shied away from complex moral, socio-political, and scientific ideas, but Deep Space Nine explored these predominantly through the lens of the people experiencing them as they grew throughout the series. This allowed for deeper dives into the concepts and a stronger showcase of how the characters develop along the way. Because of this, Deep Space Nine not only had some of the most fleshed out leads of any Star Trek series, but some of the best recurring and side characters as well, giving us a multitude of diverse stories and perspectives that we hadn’t really gotten in Trek before. In today’s landscape of streaming services and binge-watching, Deep Space Nine fits right in.
Recognizing and Reflecting on A Legacy of Racism
Star Trek has always attempted to depict a progressive future and with that, a racially and culturally equitable one. Diversity has been a stalwart pillar of the franchise — just look at the basis of Vulcan philosophy, IDIC (infinite diversity in infinite combinations). Deep Space Nine carried on that tradition while also pushing boundaries. Most notably, the series gave us our first black captain to headline a series in Avery Brooks’ Captain Benjamin Sisko. It was also one of the first prime-time American dramas to feature an Arab actor in a leading role — the Sudanese-born Alexander Siddig who portrayed the station’s doctor, Julian Bashir. With that, the series featured an entire cast that showcased a diverse makeup of individuals, cultures and races.
While showing diversity on screen is one thing, DS9 went the extra mile to actually wrestle with the human legacy of racism, making it an integral part of Captain Sisko’s character and identity. One example of this is the season seven episode, “Badda-Bing Badda-Bang” in which the crew band together to help the sentient hologram, Vic Fontaine (a 1960’s lounge singer who resides in one of Quark’s holosuites), when a surprise change in his program led to the loss of his casino at the hands of a simulated 1960’s mob boss. While the majority of the crew is on board with the plot, Sisko is reluctant, leading to this exchange:
KASIDY: Then what is your problem?
SISKO: You want to know? You really want to know what my problem is? I’ll tell you. Las Vegas nineteen sixty two, that’s my problem. In nineteen sixty two, black people weren’t very welcome there. Oh, sure they could be performers or janitors, but customers? Never.
KASIDY: Maybe that’s the way it was in the real Vegas, but that is not the way it is at Vic’s. I have never felt uncomfortable there and neither has Jake.
SISKO: But don’t you see, that’s the lie. In nineteen sixty two, the Civil Rights movement was still in its infancy. It wasn’t an easy time for our people and I’m not going to pretend that it was.
It’s a small part of a generally fun and lighthearted episode, but it is nonetheless an important moment. Specifically, when Sisko states, “that’s the lie,” he points to a long history of revisionism in which generations of people neglect to recognize the failures — particularly pertaining to racial violence and persecution — of the past and allow it to prevail in the present.
Any conversation on Deep Space Nine and race would be careless not to mention the iconic sixth season episode, “Far Beyond the Stars,” in which Sisko finds himself in an altered state of consciousness becoming Benny Russel, a science fiction writer in 1950’s New York City. This episode tackles racism head-on and not through allegory or metaphor as the franchise traditionally did in the past.
In the episode, Benny Russel writes a sci-fi story about a space station with a black captain (sound familiar?). His story is then rejected because of the character’s race: “People won’t accept it; it’s not believable,” his editor argues. “For all we know it could cause a race riot.” Further, as described by Ross Pomeroy in an article for Real Clear Science, this episode “was brutal, at least as much as prime-time television would allow. At one point, Benny Russell is beaten by bigoted white cops, similar to how his story is later pulped. The “N-word” was actually used and uncensored, a rarity for the series and for modern American television in general. Russell’s story does not end happily. It ends with him, mentally and physically beaten, breaking down and sobbing among his co-workers.”
The last point I want to bring up under this category is one that develops throughout the series in its entirety: the show’s revolutionary take on black fatherhood. Sisko’s relationship with his son, Jake (Cirroc Lofton) was tender and loving, and it directly flew in the face of the stereotype of the absent black father. As writer N.M. Praska points out in an article for Women at Warp, “The stereotype of the absent black father has been prevalent in national conversations; however, the data shows that black fathers tend to be more involved in their children’s lives than fathers in other racial groups. Benjamin Sisko is a shining example of this truth.”
The relationship between father and son was at times strained and difficult, as are all relationships of this kind, but what was especially refreshing is the trust between the two that only grew as the serious progressed. The two always had a rock — a foundation — in one another. Sisko never acted as the bumbling, absent-minded father, nor was he the cold-hearted parent too hard on his son. As they grow and develop together and separately, we see a truly meaningful and healthy relationship.
In 1993 when the series debuted, America was coming off the heels of the Rodney King decision, the Los Angeles riots, and the racial dog-whistling of prominent politicians such as Ronald Reagan’s frequent employment of the ‘welfare queen’ trope, and the alarmist emphasis on the Willie Horton scandal from George H.W. Bush campaign. To say racial tensions were high would be an understatement and all of the above points intended to counter negative perceptions about people of color — particularly African Americans — that were pervasive in the U.S at the time.
Terrorists and Anti-Heroes in a Pre-9/11 Landscape
There was always an implication of interstellar wars in the Star Trek universe, but Deep Space Nine was really the first iteration of the franchise to tackle that concept head-on and to dive in and explore its often gritty and unsavory elements. As the series aired well before the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the subsequent, seemingly endless wars we’re faced with today, the show’s takes on terrorism, surveillance, occupation and PTSD feel well ahead of their time. While these concepts are often explored in-depth in popular culture today, Deep Space Nine was able take on these issues with a level of nuance through angles we might not often see in a post-9/11 landscape.
The show frequently flirted with the concept of terrorists and terrorism, and often blurred the line between what makes one a terrorist vs. a freedom fighter. While a lot of the actions thought of as terrorism are generally condemned by the Starfleet brass, the show does not depict it as so black and white. Much of the series is set around the planet, Bajor, directly after a brutal occupation by the Cardassian empire. Since the end of the occupation, Starfleet has stepped in to evaluate Bajor as a candidate to join the Federation while also attempting to smooth over relations between the Bajorans and the Cardassians.
Major Kira Nerys (a member of the Bajoran militia and Captain Sisko’s first officer aboard the station), is a primary example of this. She is openly depicted as a member of the Bajoran resistance during the occupation and participated in numerous actions that one might consider terrorism. And while the show could have taken the easy route and depicted the Bajorans as solely the oppressed and the Cardassians as solely the oppressors — the writers took a different route. Take this exchange from the fifth season episode, “The Darkness and the Light,” in which a Cardassian citizen, Silaran, injured in an attack carried out by Kira, attempts revenge many years later:
KIRA: So you were wounded during an attack I carried out when I was part of the resistance, and I’m supposed to feel guilty? We were at war, Silaran. Fifteen million Bajorans died during the occupation and you want me to feel sorry for you?
SILARAN: No, I wasn’t part of your war. I was an innocent. I wasn’t even in the military. You know what I did on Bajor? I was a servant. I cleaned uniforms for Gul Pirak.
KIRA: Gul Pirak. Commander of the weapons depot at Hathon.
SILARAN: I’m glad that you remember. Now, do you remember what you did? How you put a plasma charge outside his bedroom window in the middle of the night?
KIRA: I remember he executed fifteen Bajoran farmers because they refused to display the Cardassian banner outside their homes.
SILARAN: Trentin Fala showed you how to circumvent the defense system. Latha Mabrin built the plasma charge. Furel and Lupaza stood guard outside while you crept up to the house.
KIRA: None of us liked killing. We were fighting for our freedom against —
SILARAN: You vaporized the entire east wing! Twelve Cardassians were killed, including Gul Pirak’s entire family. Twenty three others were crippled. Don’t you feel guilty? Don’t you feel ashamed of what you did?
KIRA: None of you belonged on Bajor. It wasn’t your world. For fifty years you raped our planet and you killed our people. You lived on our land and you took the food out of our mouths, and I don’t care whether you held a phaser in your hand or ironed shirts for a living. You were all guilty and you were all legitimate targets!
It’s a fascinating exchange and part of a fantastic arc for the Kira who goes from despising all Cardassians in the beginning of the series to ultimately aiding them in their own resistance to occupation by the show’s final season.
Another angle of this came in the form of the Maquis, a group of former Federation citizens who found themselves on the wrong end of a border after a treaty between the Federation and the Cardassian Empire. Feeling abandoned by the Federation and threatened by the authoritative Cardassian government, once peaceful civilians take up arms to fight for their collective freedom from either entity. The Maquis were introduced in TNG and featured heavily in Voyager, but it was Deep Space Nine that went the extra mile to put a realistic, sympathetic, and nuanced face to the group. Frequently, Sisko and his crew are tasked with stopping Maquis raids or hunting down Maquis “terrorists” that threaten the treaty, but just as often we’re given perspectives of these events from Maquis characters who see our heroes as villains. Effectively, the very concepts of heroes and villains are frequently challenged throughout the series, which brings me to my last point in this category: the anti-hero.
In presenting our villains with redeeming and sometimes even heroic qualities, Deep Space Nine also never shied away from allowing our main characters to submerge into morally ambiguous territory. Now, anti-heroes are quite prevalent in various forms of media today, but for Star Trek at the time, this was generally not the case. This is the series that introduced us to Section 31 — a covert organization that protects the interests of the Federation while actively going against its values — and gave us the fan-favorite character of Elim Garak, who maybe is/maybe isn’t a Cardassian spy and is often more than willing to sink to the depths of morality to accomplish his goals.
But arguably the most evident of the anti-hero concept is Captain Sisko’s journey in the famous sixth season episode, “In the Pale Moonlight.” In the episode, the Federation’s war against the Dominion is not going well and the only way they can turn the tides is to somehow convince the Romulans to join the cause — and with no love for the Federation, it’s not something they are willing to do lightly. In order to accomplish this, Sisko joins forces with Garak to orchestrate a plot to show the Romulans the threat that the Dominion presents. Through a series of schemes, shady dealings, and cover-ups, we see Sisko sink to his own personal moral lowest. And in the end, their plan is successful.
“So I lied, I cheated, I bribed men to cover the crimes of other men. I am an accessory to murder. But most damning thing of all, I think I can live with it.”
Time to Fire up Netflix…
With it’s style of storytelling, it’s exploration of complex issues such as race, terrorism, and PTSD, and it’s conscious blurring of the lines between heroes and villains, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is almost more relevant now than ever. If you haven’t already, perhaps now is as good a time as any to give the show shot.