Whilst the Star Trek franchise is generally as mainstream as sci-fi gets, what most passing viewers tend to think of is either the groundbreaking Original Series with Shatner and Nimoy or the hugely successful Star Trek: The Next Generation with Patrick Stewart in the lead. The other three Star Trek series’ tend to be largely overlooked by all except proper fans; the last one, ‘Enterprise‘ (with ‘Quantum Leap’s‘ Scott Bakula as the lead) is deservedly cast to one side, it being a dreadful drop in quality from previous offerings, while ‘Voyager‘, though it had its moments, was generally not of the standard of its predecessors.
However, the third series in the franchise, ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘ (1993 – 1999) is in my opinion one of the most underrated and unappreciated television series’ in history and in fact the very best Star Trek series to date.
It’s a series that is difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t seen any of it (like trying to explain the film ‘Inception’ to your not-very-fluent-in-English grandmother); but that is partly a pointer to its strengths. Whereas most television shows, and certainly all of the other Trek series’ can be explained in one sentence – “they’re on a ship exploring the galaxy and every week they have a new adventure and then move on…” – ST:DS9 is so complex and multifaceted that it’s virtually impossible to sum up.
Part of that is in its structure; unlike the other Star Trek series’, which are broadly episodic, DS9, especially in its later seasons, was much more like a continuous serialisation (more like ‘Babylon 5‘, to which it was often compared); a collection of ongoing storylines and interconnecting threads. This multi-faceted form meant that by the final season there were so many storylines and character arcs to be resolved that the writers had to set up a 9-episode finale. Even the ninety-minute series finale itself – the epic ‘What You Leave Behind’ – had so much going on that it was almost impossible to write; so many plots to resolve, so many characters to say goodbye to and relationships to tie up, including the fate of entire societies and worlds.
There are four main factors that put DS9 on a pedestal rarely reached by other series’; high quality storytelling by a roster of talented writers, a very high standard of production value, special effects and set design, frankly brilliant scripting, and, most of all, a superb array of characters and of extremely talented performers portraying them.
To my mind a more endearing and engaging ensemble has never been assembled for a television series, and most of them portrayed by first-class actors. For one thing, I’ve yet to see an American TV actress play a role as beautifully as the criminally-underrated Nana Vistor did over seven years in the form of Kira Nerys, a character as far away from fictional female archetypes as you could get; a terrorist full of hate and anger who, across the series, matures into a responsible leader as well as a moral and compassionate heroine.
I’d be intrigued if you could cite a television series that could boast so rich a collection of well-developed characters as DS9 does; everyone from the avaricious Quark and the cantakerous one-of-a-kind outcast Odo, to the beautiful Jadzia Dax (a woman who is the eighth incarnation of the same soul, so to speak) and the prim and proper Doctor Bashir (played by Alexander Siddig, who also makes a good job of portraying brooding Arabs in films), who starts out an idealistic and clean-as-a-whistle medical student and ends up a grim-faced, war-ravaged pragmatist mired in secret plots and conspiracies.
There’s the brilliant Garak, who is a tailor by day and a secret spy working for the space-Nazis (otherwise called Cardassians) by night. The compelling Damar, who starts off a villain in charge of an evil empire and ends up a freedom fighter and dies a hero (think Colonel Gaddafi becoming Che Gueverra and ending up as Davy Crocket). The twisted Gul Dukat, who is a spellbinding cross between, again, Colonel Gaddafi and Mark Antony. The charismatic Weyoun, who is sort of a hypnotic version of Tony Blair, but who works for the allegorical Nazis. The religious leader, Kai Winn, who is sort of a cross between Margaret Thatcher and the Pope.
There’s more; we have a character who’s basically a holographic continuation of Frank Sinatra, for example (‘Vic Fontaine‘, played by the sixties TV star James Darren), or the lovable Miles O’Brien, portrayed by well-known Irish actor Colm Meaney. And our main character, Benjamin Sisko (played with great dignity and charisma by Avery Brooks); an African-American who, it turns out, is a religious icon to an entire race (a kind of space-Moses), who has been created by gods (or scientifically-explainable super-entities) who live in a wormhole.
The performance level of the actors was generally superb, with cast members like Nana Visitor and Rene Auberjonios being more than a match for the likes of Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner in ‘The Next Generation‘; adroit character actors like Armin Shimmerman (Quark), Marc Alaimo and Casey Biggs (Dukat and Damar), Jeffrey Combs and Andrew Robinson (Weyoun and Garak), and Wallace Shawn (the comic-relief character, Grand Nagus Zek), to name just a handful, created entities that were in equal measure compelling and endearing, and so full of personality and life as to be permanently embedded into the loyal viewer’s mindscape for life. The series also drew guest appearances from the likes of Iggy Pop, amongst others.
Across it’s seven years (particularly the latter three) DS9 created so many extradorinary stories and moments that it’s difficult to even pick out the best; but it’s the diversity of the storytelling that’s extraordinary, flowing seamlessly from dark and compelling (‘In the Pale Moonlight‘ or ‘Strange Bedfellows‘, for example) to light-hearted and comedic (‘You Are Cordially Invited‘, ‘Badda Bing Badda Bang’), from epic galaxy-spanning plots (‘Sacrifice of Angels’, ‘The Changing Face of Evil‘) to simple, character-focused drama of the best possible kind (‘Chimera’, ‘Doctor Bashir, I Presume‘), and high-concept science-fiction (‘Children of Time‘, for example, in which the crew passes through a temporal anomaly, causing them to go forward in time and meet their own descendants, only to then have to decide whether to go back in time and try to avoid the accident, thus denying existence to their descendents, or to simply remain in the future and therefore forfeit their own lives and families).
The writing and performances could reach levels of poignancy that a great many more ‘straight’ dramas could only dream of; as it does in, for example, the episode ‘Chimera‘, which is a powerful examination of what it means to be a loner in a society, the subject of mistrust or racism in turn becoming mistrustful and racist in response.
Meanwhile some of the ideas leave other SF televsion series grasping at thin air. An episode named ‘Far Beyond the Stars‘, for example, is set in the 1950′s and portrays a black SF writer of that time, the gist of it being the possibility that the entire television series we’ve been watching is being imagined in the mind of a black writer in the fifties who is suffering racial persecution. In the fifth season ‘Trials and Tribble-ations’ (then) state-of-the-art effects allowed an episode of the original Star Trek series from the nineteen-sixties to be blended seamlessly with the DS9 cast, allowing, for example, DS9‘s main hero Benjamin Sisko to do a scene with a thirty-something-year-old William Shatner.
The themes the series deals with; war, racial persecutions, terrorism, coups, totalitarian regimes, secret organisations, interstellar espionage, religious extremism, quantum physics, inter-racial marriage… the list goes on and on. All of that and of course the obvious mix of high-concept science, action-packed adventuring, brilliant special effects and set pieces (particualrly in the marvellous ‘Sacrifice of Angels‘, which contains the most breathtaking visual effects I’ve ever seen for a television production), complex relationships and of course poignant love stories.
Two of the recurring central themes in DS9 are highly challenging ones; firstly, exploring the point where science and religion meet and make reality (where do ‘gods’ become scientifically explainable phenomena, for example), and secondly a constant exploration of morality and often the turning of morality on its head. The good guys often do very questionable things and the bad guys often gain our sympathy through being well-developed, three-dimensional characters and not textbook villains. Dramatic ironies are also the lifeblood of the series, the long-term development of characters being full of them; there is a constant poetry to the way stories are developed and resolved and to the journeys that the characters take.
I watched an absolutely brilliant documentary series on Channel 4 (UK) two years ago called ‘Apocalypse: The Story of the Second World War’, which charted the timeline of World War II from beginning to end; when watching this I noticed how much the storyline and tone of DS9 echoed the real-world events of WW2 and that maybe this was a central part of its appeal. The bulk of DS9‘s bigger storylines and episodes could be seen as a sort of futuristic World War II allegory, in fact (the galaxy-spanning war that forms the main overarching storyline for the final two seasons of the series involves every major race or power in the Star Trek universe).
I could go on and on, but I think I’ve said enough; besides, there aren’t enough superlatives in the dictionary. There are two dozen more things I want to say about the show, but it’d turn this into an essay. DS9 is without doubt the best of the Star Trek series’; even if it isn’t the most popular. It may, in time, gain more popularity; but it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t. Original Walt Disney productions ‘Pinnochio’, ‘Dumbo‘ and the ‘Jungle Book’ were flops at the box office. Frank Capra’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, now considered an all-time classic, bombed when it came out in the forties. Likewise ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ was a commercial flop at the time of its release. And no one gave a flying fig about Vincent Van Gogh until he was dead.
However, DS9 has gained, if not necessarily more popularity, then certainly even more resonance in the decade since its end. In our post-9/11 world, the series has in fact become even more relevant. Here’s a mainstream (at the time) US television series that has terrorists as hero and heroine figures (Kira Nerys, Michael Eddingtion and the Maquis, and in the end the likes of Damar and Garak), that justified terrorism frequently, and that also dealt massively with dictators, civil uprisings, occupations of foreign lands, long-term peacekeeping forces, alliances with corrupt regimes, immoral behavior by government agencies, and the like.
If DS9 were on the air right now, in this current climate that’s witnessed the Egyptian uprising and ousting of Hosni Mubarak, the uprising against Gadaffi in Libya, the Tunisian coup, the demonstrations and despotic retaliation in Syria and Yemen and Bahrain, the decline of Pakistan, the War on Terror… the series would be regarded as having its finger on the pulse of global events. Yet it ended over a decade ago (two years before 9/11) and followed on from a much more optimistic and idealistic tone that underpinned its predecessor ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation‘.
It’s possible, on the other hand, that some of these themes, especially the lionising of certain terrorist characters and resistance movements in the series, may have rendered the series unpalatable to some audiences even retrospectively, especially in America. I also believe that the fact that its main character is black may have something to do with it. As for the ‘DS9 versus Babylon 5‘ debate, I shall not enter into that hornet’s nest here; that is a question every person must resolve for themselves…