As a life-long Trekkie one thing has vexed me more than all others, how is Deep Space Nine the Star Trek that time forgot? On Canada’s Space channel, they dedicate three hours in the afternoon every weekday to Trek: the original series, The Next Generation, and Voyager, and it sticks in my craw that Voyager, a show that struggled to maintain a steady level of mediocrity for seven years, gets that third slot ahead of what is, arguably, the best modern Trek series. That’s a bold statement, but in the next couple of columns, I hope to lay out my case.
So Star Trek: Deep Space Nine began almost 25 years ago, in January 1993. Immediately it dared to be different because this Star Trek was set on a space station and not a starship. It would force the show to deal with things in the long-term, and since DS9 wasn’t a ship out exploring, the issues it dealt with couldn’t necessarily involve the discovery of the latest planet, lifeform, or doodad. It was bold, as in DS9 was boldly making the decision to not boldly go.
Let’s begin with something simple, and it’s a quality that can’t really be planned for in the show bible: subtext. It’s a subtle thing, but it’s easy to feel its presence missing when it’s not there. For example, the original Star Trek captured that new space age feeling, the push to conquer the new frontier while back home a new wave of equality and inclusiveness fostered a new understanding beyond people’s outward differences. Then, when we get to the 80s and Next Gen, travel through space runs like a Swiss clock, there’s a very business atmosphere on the bridge as the captain acts like a CEO from his own private side office, and the emphasis of design is on comfort and style.
So what was the subtext of DS9? You name it.
For starters, there was the limits of power. Think back to 1993. The Cold War was safely over, and the United States stool alone as the sole remaining super power, and no one was sure what that meant or what the responsibility of being the world’s only super power would entail. Sure, America and its allies were successful at pushing Iraq out of Kuwait, but Saddam Hussein was still the boss in Baghdad. Then, by the end of ’92, long-term humanitarian crises would erupt in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, years of carnage that America seemed powerless to stop or influence.
On DS9 we look to its setting, a former Cardassian space station in orbit of Bajor. It’s revealed that the Federation fought its own war against the Cardassians, but in the meantime, those same Cardassians ravaged an entire planet and ground its population underfoot turning the ones that escaped into galactic refugees, and many of the ones that remained into freedom fighters who scrounged all petty resources possible to resist. Where was the Federation as such a tremendous humanitarian crisis was happening within spitting distance of their borders? We don’t often see the Federation and Starfleet viewed cynically, but through the eyes of the Bajorans it’s easy to cede the view.
Of course, DS9 made life more complicated as it went along with developments like the Maquis and the arrival of the Dominion. The Maquis in particular, a rebel group of Federation colonists whose worlds were traded away in the Cardassian peace deal, was a commentary on government’s apparent willingness to surrender its people for some possibility of a vague notion called “the greater good.” DS9 commander Sisko once observed that in the treatment of the colonists, “It’s easy to be a saint in paradise,” his way of saying that Starfleet Command back on Earth is out of touch. Hardly an original sentiment, and one that still works, as we’ve recently seen, in modern politics.
Perhaps in that regard, DS9 was ahead of its time, but of its time was a cynicism in the institutions themselves. Criticism is one thing, but it’s another thing entirely to doubt the foundational basis of those institutions. Take the Dominion, a big bad from the other side of the galaxy introduced at the end of season two of DS9 as a kind of anti-Federation. The Dominion, who either conquered by persuasion or force, was several different worlds in the Gamma Quadrant led by the Founders, a race of shapeshifters who can infiltrate and undermine that which they can’t take by force with their Jem’Hadar, who are basically genetically-engineered stormtroopers.
The two-part “Homefront”/“Paradise Lost” dealt with the possibility of a Founder infiltration of Starfleet Command, and in a move that would be repeated years later in Star Trek Into Darkness, we see that there are some among the high brass of the Federation that can slip pretty quickly into an authoritarian mould when pushed hard enough. Among them is our hero Captain Sisko, and although he turns around when he sees how far others are willing to go, it’s a reminder that we’re all never too secure in ourselves and our values to not be susceptible to the siren song of strong men.
At the end of that arc, it was revealed that the Founders had not infiltrated Starfleet Command, but the leaders of the Dominion had found an even more powerful weapon: paranoia. Paranoia was everywhere in the 90s, the feeling among people that the power structures and those in them were not looking out for the communal best interests and were perhaps persuaded to act against those interests by outside forces. Although this feeling somewhat dispersed after 9/11, it’s come back in a big way in the Trump era, but what DS9 did, perhaps to the detriment of the franchise’s future, was poke a hole in the utopian facade of Star Trek.
Take, for example, the introduction of Section 31 in season six’s “Inquisition.” For years, we were aware of this vague “military intelligence” entity known as “Starfleet Intelligence”, but Section 31 was something different, a Black Ops agency inside the Federation that the masses didn’t know existed for hundreds of years. The thread’s been picked up in several novels and comics, not to mention Enterprise, where it was revealed that one of the bridge crew was a member, and the aforementioned Into Darkness. Although long-time fans were aghast at the idea of a group of Draconian cutthroats being codified behind the scenes in the Federation, in the 90s, it made perfect sense.
Call it millennial anxiety, call it a culture clash of generations, call it the political vacuum of a super-power needing an enemy, but for whatever the reason, it became so much easier in the 90s to think that the power structures that govern us were secretly out to get us. It speaks to the dexterity of Star Trek that Deep Space Nine was able to play into that, and not get drowned in it. If there was a fault in The X-Files, it was that every uncovered conspiracy led to five more, but the point of learning the ugly truth is to overcome it, and to persevere and be more than the sum of our mistakes.
And this is where Deep Space Nine might be the most Star Trek of all Star Treks, the realization that people aren’t perfect, but they strive to be better than what they are. Next Gen shows us perfection, it shows us utopia, but DS9 shows us the struggle with how you get there, or more importantly, how you get back. As a wise man once said, “the path of progress has never taken a straight line, but has always been a zigzag course amid the conflicting forces of right and wrong, truth and error, justice and injustice, cruelty and mercy.” Who knew that Kelly Miller was pitching Deep Space Nine 100 years ago?
If you like reading about DS9, then the next couple of Trek Bastard columns are going to be your jam. I’m not yet sure how many columns there will be, but I will not rest until we can all recognize the point: DS9 is the best modern Trek.
Trek Bastard is a bi-weekly column that looks at the issues, history and art of Star Trek over its first 50 years. Trek Bastard will be back on February 19.