|Notice how no one is smiling?|
Deep Space Nine
It is now the year 2016, and we have reached the 50th anniversary of the first airing of Star Trek. The original Trek series (TOS) was one of my favorite shows when I was young, and I would watch it whenever I could find it airing on the TV. By the mid-80’s it was very hard to find the reruns on the TV, but I could always go and watch the movies that were being made. The excitement I felt when I read that a new Star Trek show was being developed was dampened a bit upon watching the first season as it aired in 1987.
It is generally agreed that season 1 of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) is subpar, as the writers and actors still had to find these new character’s voices, and the influence of the old 60’s Trek show seemed like too heavy a burden to bear. TNG ended up becoming its own thing, apart from the OG series, and it was very good. Certain episodes reached true greatness, but the old Trek model of a crew on a ship traveling through the galaxy and exploring new worlds clashed a bit with that era’s awakening of characterization in television dramas. Everything essentially “reset” after every episode, just like standard television shows. This was cool in that you could watch any episode in any order and still enjoy them (a must for a show that seeks substantial syndication), but aside from the android Data, none of the characters truly changed or grew with time. They were essentially archetypes.
In the OG series, the characters became archetypes for the fans, while the TNG characters seemed to be presented as archetypes from the beginning. Their backgrounds were only superficially explored, their interpersonal relationships were devoid of conflict, and their motivations were far removed from us regular humans. This was all as Gene Roddenberry wanted, for he envisioned Star Trek as an example of the idyllic, humanistic, accepting future that humanity could eventually hope to achieve. TNG achieved this, and is deeply loved by fans, but it did so at the expense of characterization. The crew, even one as big as the TNG Enterprise one was, sought mainly to solve problems external to themselves. The only time personal issues were ever addressed was in light-hearted or farcical episodes, such as the ones that “explored” the relationship between Counselor Troi and her mother. TNG was essentially like a Greek morality play. The good guys are unbreakably good, honest, hard-working explorers, and nothing will change that. They were paragons of virtue to be emulated and admired, but they did not reflect the humanity familiar to us humans of the 20th century.
On January 3rd, 1993 I was a student at the University of Houston and home for the winter holidays. That day, a new Trek show aired, one that from the start was a different beast than the previous two, and one which would grow to become my all-time favorite Trek. Deep Space Nine, a show named after its location, was still a show about exploration, but not of the boldly-going-where-no-one-has-gone-before type. There are many ways for a being to explore the cosmos, and not everyone shares the same appeal of flying from new place to new place, getting a superficial understanding of it, and then moving right along to something new. This may be the way for those whose thrill is to discover, but Deep Space Nine was a show about those explorers who seek not just to discover, but to understand what they are discovering. This is a much harder and much more fulfilling end. In order to frame this exploration, DS9 gave us the most relatable Captain yet, Benjamin Sisko, and instead of having him encounter a new friend/foe/anomaly each week, Sisko had to manage a remote outpost of the Federation, one where dozens of alien races, both from the Federation and from without, had to learn to live together, and he had to do it while raising his teenage son.
James T. Kirk (TOS) was a man devoted to his ship, his crew, and his career. He never married (at least on the show). He did not build a family. He did not seek to educate. He was first and foremost a swashbuckling leader of men. He led by force of personality, and by the respect and admiration he engendered in his crew. His defining trait is his enthusiasm for life. Jean-Luc Picard (TNG) was a scholar and a diplomat, and every bit the refined European gentleman to Kirk’s farm-raised Iowan. He too was a single man, devoted to his career, never marrying or fathering children. He was a moral leader, one whose leadership stemmed from his vast intelligence, his ability to think critically, and the respect he held for both his crew and anyone they encountered. His defining trait is his emphasis on order and stability, predicated on intellectual, philosophical grounds. Both Kirk and Picard are archetypes representing the ideal of a man in the era when the shows were made.
|The Sisko don't play!|
Benjamin Sisko (DS9) stands in stark contrast to these two previous Captains. From the first moment we meet him we learn he is a widower, his wife dying at the hands of Jean-Luc Picard when he was assimilated by the Borg and became Locutus. He is a single father, raising his son Jake alone. He is an African-American man, raised in Louisiana by his own widowed father. He has known a deeper loss than anything in Kirk’s or Picard’s initial characterization. He initially does his duty begrudgingly, for he nearly quits his commission when assigned to the remote DS9 station seen as the Federation’s boondocks. Apart from that, he is seen by the people of Bajor, the planet nearest DS9, as The Emissary of the Prophets, a messianic figure. This is something he initially denies and avoids, but ends up coming to grips with as he matures throughout the show. In other words, he is a REAL MAN, not an archetype of what a man should be.
Whereas the Federation in TOS and TNG was a group of humans with a few alien races thrown in (the only alien regularly seen on TOS Enterprise was Spock), the Federation of DS9 better reflected what was supposed to be a conglomerate of wildly different worlds and races. In this sense it was much more modern than its two older siblings. The world of DS9 is a lot more like the world we all seem headed for than the antiseptic world of TOS and TNG. We may all be humans, but we should all revel in our differences just as much as we appreciate all our similarities. Cooperation, civility, and kindness are great equalizers. These traits, along with a deep intelligence and a deep sense of empathy, allowed Capt. Sisko to manage a space station where the bar owner is a greedy Ferengi, the security chief is a shapeshifter, the security forces are Bajoran, the tailor is a Cardassian, and the great masses of the galaxy come by regularly to repair their ships, engage in commerce, or just have a little rest and relaxation. Capt. Sisko was at home in chaos, and he provided stability for all involved.
DS9 was also much messier. A ship traveling from one place to another can leave its cares behind every episode. A space station however does not go anywhere. Issues that arise one day will have repercussions on the next, and could continue to affect people for years. Religious fanatics will bomb a school in one episode and they will not disappear in the next. Their concerns and demands must be understood and there are no easy answers, especially for their Emissary. The audience is taught to expect no pat resolutions, and to instead appreciate the hard work it takes to bring conflicts into non-violent resolutions. This does not mean that Capt. Sisko is a pacifist, far from it. Capt. Sisko is the foremost military strategist of all the Trek Captains. He ends up leading the Federation forces against the Dominion in a war that takes up years, and costs countless hundreds of thousands of lives. He makes decisions that would be morally repugnant to Kirk or to Picard, but they are still the right decisions to make. He even falls in love with a woman who turns out to be a smuggler, and ends up arresting and incarcerating her. The way they reconcile this, and manage to stay together afterwards, and grow in their love for each other is very much like real life. It is through Capt. Sisko that all of the main themes of DS9 are explored. There are never any easy answers.
DS9 is a show about the hard choices that must be made in life, and the repercussions of those choices. When people deride it for being the “morally grey” Trek, I get so upset. Dichotomous morality is fine for children’s stories and simple comic books, but the world is not that way. There are very few instances in life where something is truly 100% bad or truly 100% good. Everything carries its positive and negative effects. DS9 is the first and only Trek series to deal with this universal truth. Not a single character remains unchanged, each one in some deep, meaningful way growing from the first episode to the last. Not a single character reaches the end of the series without a deep sense of loss, even in victory. Every single one of the characters experiences profound changes, just like in real life. Nothing is gained without an accompanying loss. Such is the real world. It is a masterful thing, looking back on all of it, just how much I as a viewer was affected by the truths of DS9, in ways that neither TOS or TNG ever sought to do. The very Federation itself, the ground for all Trek fandom to grow from, is challenged and its supposed ideals scrutinized. The idyllic life of Picard and his crew is only possible because of the stability and regularity inherent in their setting. Unless something is attacking the Enterprise, life goes on the same as every other day aboard ship. Capt. Sisko and the crew of DS9 did not have that luxury, and it is very much a luxury.
One more aspect of DS9 exemplifies the moral relativity inherent in the show itself. The space station is located near the only stable worm-hole the Federation has ever encountered, allowing near instantaneous travel to an unexplored quadrant of the galaxy. The people of Bajor believe that their creator gods, the Prophets, live in the wormhole, which they call the Celestial Temple, and that they bestow blessings upon the Bajoran people. Capt. Sisko is taken to the worm-hole in the very first episode, and is confronted by the Prophets. They turn out to be an alien race that exists outside of our corporeal, linear time. Capt. Sisko uses his intelligence to explain to them the reality of his existence, its linear nature, the limited time available to each creature, and the motivation that this mortality imbues in people to better themselves and those around them. In his role as the Emissary of the Prophets, Capt. Sisko is seen by the Bajorans as a conduit between them and their gods. A cold, clinical, Roddenberry-esque character would never allow anyone to worship him when they knew the “truth.” However, Capt. Sisko is very aware of the role that faith plays in many cultures, and the fact that denying that faith can be just as upsetting and damaging to its faithful as reinforcing it. He has to walk the thinnest line, and he does not always get it right. His humanity is always at the forefront. In the series’ last episode, a melancholy meditation on what is lost when something is gained titled “What You Leave Behind,” Capt. Sisko sacrifices himself and is taken to the Celestial Temple/worm-hole to spend eternity. His son, now a fully orphaned adult, must continue in his life without his father. The station itself continues without its Captain, and the Bajoran people continue without their Emissary. The crew we have come to know and love is dispersed to new duties, and will never be together again. It is both sad and very real.I could write for pages and pages about Deep Space Nine. There is so much I have not even begun to explore here. This show had the most racially, ethnically, and sexually diverse cast of all the Treks. Topics such as terrorism, sexuality, war, religious hate, genocide, post-traumatic stress, inter-species romance, racism, greed, etc., are all explored thoughtfully and without pat resolutions. Whereas in TOS or TNG the crew members are all supposed to be buddies from the start, the crew of DS9 is shown creating, building, and also at times ruining inter-personal relationships in ways that no other Trek has ever explored. The relations between the Federation and the Klingon Empire are so multi-faceted. The development of the best villain a Trek TV series ever had, one Gul Dukat, proceeding from a tyrannical military man, to a despot who betrays his own people for greater glory, to a flat-out unhinged lunatic obsessed with how he is viewed by his enemies and former subjugates is an amazing thing. The addition of the battleship Defiant, the massive supporting cast which were all treated with respect by the writers, the personal growth of each character, the introduction of Section 31, Starfleet’s Secret Police…there is so much. It is for all these reasons and more than Deep Space Nine is my favorite “flavor” of Star Trek.