Before Star Trek: Discovery, a lot of the talk online about what form a new Star Trek series should take often involved a couple of key words: “civil war.” Fans frequently phrased their idea as “after the Federation Civil War,” or “because of the Federation Civil War”, which suggested to me that a lot of people thought the only way forward was to tear down all the things that make Star Trek, Star Trek. But it’s not breaking a thing that can make a story interesting, it’s how far you can bend it and still keep itself from breaking. That’s Deep Space Nine! It tested the very limits of Trek, and it showed, in the end, the centre can hold.
Obviously, you can’t talk about Deep Space Nine without talking about it longest, ongoing arc, the Dominion War. No other Trek series has pursued a single long-form story arc so doggedly, and certainly war, for all its ugliness and brutality, has never been seen in such detail on any Trek series. Yes, many episodes of in other Trek shows have dealt with the horrors of war, but normally our intrepid Starfleet crew is above it. War, as Gene Roddenberry had hoped, was something that humans had gotten over by the 23rd and 24th centuries, but that’s not exactly true.
Some purists like to think that DS9 is an aberration in the canon because of its emphasis on war, and turning Starfleet into warriors, but until Deep Space Nine, the truth is that war was just something that happened off screen for the Federation. Whether it’s the Cold War with the Klingons, the Earth-Romulan War prior to the original series, or the great Cardassian War first mentioned in the Next Generation episode”The Wounded”, it seems that war has always been a reality for the Federation. The audaciousness of Deep Space Nine was that its writers room said, “Okay, let’s show you a war from beginning to end, and reveal how the typically peace loving Federation has to deal with a society that believes in absolute conquest.”
Enter the Dominion, which, unlike a lot of sci-fi big bads, is not a homogeneous wall of nondescript cannon fodder like Stormtroopers, the Cylons, or even Trek’s own Borg. As I said in the last Trek Bastard column, they seem purposefully designed to be an anti-Federation, made up of various races brought together out of fear, or mutual desire to rule the galaxy by the Founders, a race of gelatinous shapeshifters who turned the tables on the “Solid” races that hunted them by becoming their conquerors. In that, the writers built into the Dominion a sympathetic element because who can’t identify with the kind of hate and anger fostered in being persecuted in what was, in essence, a genocide.
Such detail was built into the other two primary Dominion species, the Vorta and the Jem’Hadar. Both races were basically made by the Founders, the Jem’Hadar being genetically-engineered combat troops designed to fight faster, stronger and longer then your average humanoid, while the Vorta were said to be ape-like forest creatures that were artificially evolved by the Founders to the administrators of their vast empire. In “Treachery, Faith and the Great River” we’re told that a family of primitive Vorta once shielded a Changeling from a mob of solids, evolution and a vaunted place at the centre of the Dominion was their reward. Despite the Founders well-earned disgust at most of the rest of the humanoid galaxy, it appears that they are not without mercy.
Mercy though wasn’t in the recipe when the Founders made the Jem’Hadar. Not only were they created solely for the purpose to fight and kill, but they’re purposefully addicted to a drug called ketracel-white to promote loyalty. Despite that, the Jem’Hadar are shown to have developed a code and a culture that’s their own despite the fact that they’re enslaved to the Founders. More than that, the Jem’Hadar have also shown a capacity to be disobedient, like in “By Inferno’s Light” where a Jem’Hadar refuses to kill Worf in a prison camp fight club, seemingly impressed by his opponents unwillingness to yield. This occasional independent streak in the Jem’Hadar is a point sometimes revisited in DS9, like in “Hippocratic Oath” when a Jem’Hadar commander, freed of the addicting influence of ketracel-white, gets Dr. Bashir to try and find out why so he can replicate it.
But in so much as DS9 showed that the bad guys were less than evil, it also showed that the good guys could be less than righteous. Famously, one of DS9’s best episodes is “In the Pale Moonlight”, which finds Captain Sisko working with Garek to manufacture evidence to convince the Rolumans that the Dominion was planning to attack them and thus force them to enter the war on the Federation side. When the Romulan senator sees through the deception, Garek went to plan B and planted a bomb on the Romulan shuttle that would frame the Dominion for the senator’s murder. Sisko, despite his righteous indignation that Garek would go to such lengths, comes to the conclusion that despite the moral bankruptcy of what happened, it was the right call for the sake of the Federation…
“So… I lied. I cheated. I bribed men to cover up the crimes of other men. I am an accessory to murder. But most damning of all… I think I can live with it… And if I had to do it all over again… I would. Garak was right about one thing – a guilty conscience is a small price to pay for the safety of the Alpha Quadrant. So I will learn to live with it…Because I can live with it…I can live with it.“
Can a Starfleet captain covering up the political assassination of another planet’s political leader in order to gain a strategic advantage in a war jibe with Federation ideals? Probably not, and that’s why the episode is so effective, because at that point we long suspected that the moral compass of the 24th century always pointed true north. Or as John Cloud wrote in Time magazine, “As Sisko gives up his principles slowly, one by one, in order to make his plan work, you expect Trek‘s simple moral verities to prevail. It is dumbfounding, and chilling, when they don’t.” As Sisko himself once observed, “It’s easy to be a saint in paradise.”
But it wasn’t just about the politics. While the death of characters in the midst of a war is not unexpected, the more shocking and dramatic effect is felt by the characters that live. Now a lot of DS9 feels like it’s dealing with the effects of war before the Dominion War even begins, you have Capt Sisko who lost his wife in the Battle of Wolf 359, Major Kira who was a freedom fighter in the Bajoran resistance, and Chief O’Brien who was a veteran of the Cardassian War. But the Dominion War leaves its mark too. Garek experiences panic attacks as a result of the psychological effects of fighting against his own people, and Nog struggles after losing a leg in “The Siege of AR-558.” It feels like DS9 was ahead of the curve in the showing the very real struggle of warriors with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. A cost of war that many warriors have to deal with long after the battle is over.
So when somebody means to say that what Star Trek needs is a good war, I can only assume that they never watched Deep Space Nine because it feels like anything that Star Trek can say about war, DS9 has already said it. The one thing that DS9 didn’t do, because the Dominion War ended during the series finale, was really dive deep into the aftermath and reconstruction following such a destructive conflict. I’d like to think that’s why people want to pursue the “civil war” story, but it probably has more to do with the idea that war equals more drama. But that’s not the lesson of DS9. The lesson is that the best values of Star Trek can survive even the very worst of circumstances.