Think about Game of Thrones for a minute, can you name every main character off the top of your head and get anywhere close to the total number of people that have floated in and out of the series on a regular basis in the first 60 episodes? I’m willing to bet no. Star Trek has never been one of those shows. Despite the fact that the series take place on an enclosed setting with a set population, it seems like all we ever see are the same eight or nine people. You know who didn’t do that? Deep Space Nine. Like with so many other broken molds, DS9 broke the mold on having and using a large secondary cast.
Of course, this was not a function of design, but an organic development. By the time we got around to the backhalf of Ds9’s seven year run, it had somewhere in the neighbourhood of two dozen semi-regular characters that made multiple appearances in a season, but each of those characters weren’t baked in the cake, as it were, when DS9 debuted in January 1993. Take Elim Garek for example, the Cardassian tailor and rumoured spy played by Andrew J. Robinson, was introduced in the series’ second episode and was intended to be one-off character. Can you imagine Deep Space Nine without the inscrutable Garek, and his sometimes morally ambiguous assistance? Hardly.
It’s tough to find out how many “Gareks” there are in the DS9 expanded cast because obviously a writers room wants to look like they have a plan, so when you introduce a character like Damar as an underling to Gul Dukat during his exile as a cargo ship captain, you would never suspect that Damar would end up being the guy to lead a Cardassian resistance to the Dominion. Indeed, actor Casey Biggs, who played Damar, explained in an interview that during the first episode of the show he appeared in, director Jonathan West told him that the writers had “big plans” for Damar. Whether that was “big plans” in the nebulous sense, or a specific arc they were going to take Damar on, he didn’t say, but Biggs wondered in the beginning why he might be cast for what looked like, on paper, to be a utilitarian role.
But how much can you really plan? General Martok was introduced as the main Klingon antagonist in season four, later revealed to be a Changeling, only to come back after being freed from a Dominion prison camp to become a heroic character and eventually the new leader of the Klingon Empire. That’s an almost Arthurian-level hero’s journey. Then there’s the father-son duo of Rom and Nog, they both appear in the pilot, but who would have guess that by the series finale, one would be the leader of the Ferengi, and the other would be a lieutenant in Starfleet? So much of Star Trek seems designed to create a state of homeostasis, but these characters, and others, were constantly changing.
Perhaps that’s why by the time that DS9 came around to its seventh and final season, the show felt so comfortable letting recurring characters guide entire plotlines. Better still, look at the episode “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” which is an episode that’s predominately about Nog and the holodeck character Vic Fontaine with the regular characters filtering in and out briefly. And this was no mir whim or flight of fancy either, the story was dealing with the very serious implications of Nog’s PTSD from losing his leg during the Siege of AR-558. Star Trek rarely stops to deal with the long-term repercussions of its main characters, let alongesomeone much further down on the casting sheet.
You can hardly imagine another Star Trek series doing that. Sure, you can point to the Next Generation episode “Lower Decks,” a story told from the perspective of junior officers on the Enterprise, but none of those people were ever heard from again. And sure, someone like Reginald Barclay would put in an appearance once a year, but where would he be the rest of the time when he wasn’t feeding his holodeck addiction or his transporter phobia. Can you image an episode of Next Gen built around a character like Nurse Ogawa, or a Voyager character like Vorik? Sadly no, and not because any of the main characters aren’t good enough or interesting enough on their own, but because sometimes other people can tell you things about the main characters that they themselves cannot.
What’s interesting is that DS9 was able to do these things and the other Trek shows couldn’t, but that could be said of so many other things that Ds9 did at the time. Much has been said about Paramount‘s insistence that nothing be done to shake-up things on a Star Trek series too hard; they had a formula, it had worked in the past, so why wouldn’t work in the future? It’s a remnant of a bygone era of TV that nothing changes and everything stays the same as audiences supposedly crave the same people doing the same things week after week after week, but even that wasn’t true at the time Star Trek was in its prime. Shows like Hill Street Blues featured a huge cast with ongoing personal struggles, and the 80s audience seemed to keep up even while the case changed week-to-week.
The idea in having an expanded cast for Deep Space Nine had a lot to do with the just the general nature of the show, because it was so different by not being based on a starship, the writers had permission to try more, and be more creative. The stationary basis of the show also promoted more ongoing stories, and more demand to draw things out and keep certain characters around. Fair enough, but one would think that in series like Voyager and Enterprise, where crew swaps weren’t as close as the next starbase, we might have gotten more people with actual names. It fleshes out a world to have a familiarity with more than just a handful of people, which is maybe why the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery will feature multiple ships and multiple crews. If you’re going to fill a universe, you need lots of people to do it.
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 is going to take a little break to recharge its batteries, but will be back sometime in April.