This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.
Part of what is so remarkable about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is how prescient it seems.
The Star Trek franchise is renowned for its central metaphors and allegories, its fondness for addressing contemporary issues through abstract philosophical discussions. Even the most casual of television fans can point to episodes like Let That be Your Last Battlefield or A Private Little War as examples of the franchise’s engagement with contemporary social issues. (Of course, they may not be able to actually name those episodes.) Of course, the reality was always more complicated than that, but this social engagement is part of the popular memory of the franchise.
While there is a tendency to overstate the importance of social commentary and engagement in the history of the Star Trek franchise, it is a massive part of the cultural behemoth. Although not every (and arguably not even most) Star Trek episodes are explorations of moral philosophy that apply to the contemporary world, they are an essential part of each and every Star Trek series. Sometimes these episodes are brilliant, and sometimes they are heavy-handed. Sometimes they are earnestly sincere, and sometimes they are hopelessly misguided.
However, Deep Space Nine stands out in comparison to its contemporaries. Even twenty years after the show aired, it seems like Deep Space Nine speaks to contemporary anxieties and uncertainties.
With the exception of the original Star Trek, Deep Space Nine is perhaps the Star Trek series that has aged most gracefully. Star Trek: The Next Generation feels rooted in the late eighties and early nineties, bridging the “morning in America” of the Reagan era and the prosperity of the Clinton era. Star Trek: Voyager unfolds against the listlessness of the late nineties, its own identity crisis perhaps resonating with a deeper cultural ennui. Star Trek: Enterprise plays against turbulent and uncertain times when history itself threatens to unravel.
Deep Space Nine, on the other hand, always felt like the odd duck of the Star Trek family. Particularly against the backdrop of the nineties. Most obviously, it was the Star Trek show that never actually went anywhere. It was never a huge hit in the ratings like The Next Generation had been, and it was not the flagship of UPN like Voyager was. Instead, Deep Space Nine played with long-form storytelling and narrative arcs, dealing with themes tied to war and terrorism at a point when those ideas seemed quite removed from the national consciousness.
In terms of its storytelling and structure, Deep Space Nine resembles an early twenty-first century cult television series, with set-up and pay-off rippling across seasons instead of threading through a single forty-five minute block of television. In terms of theme and plotting, Deep Space Nine resonates a great deal with the political realities of the twenty-first century, tapping into broader fears about infiltrators and war, religious extremism and the erosion of utopian ideals.
Deep Space Nine arguably speaks perfectly to the War on Terror and post-9/11 anxieties. The changeling spy in The Adversary speaks to fears about terrorists hiding in plain sight, extremists willing to weaponise planes and destabilise fragile political equilibrium; not to mention cause untold pain and suffering. The Way of the Warrior is a more potent and insightful metaphor for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan than anything that appeared in Enterprise. Homefront and Paradise Lost only hammer this idea home.
Watching this episode in 2004, when I was writing Articles of the Federation, it was a punch to the gut. The closing scenes of this episode resonated with sitting on my couch on a Tuesday afternoon in the fall of 2001 after some crazy people flew planes into buildings in my city. But even more so, the calls for blood screenings and security sweeps and of troops beaming down into the streets were reminders of what was still going on three years later—just substitute the PATRIOT Act for declaring a state of emergency, and airport security for blood screenings, and this episode is eerily familiar.
Even today, we’re still forced to go through ridiculous “security” procedures that do absolutely nothing to make ourselves safer during an airline flight. (The only security measure taken in the past dozen years that actually made us safer was a cockpit door that bolts shut.) Just like the phaser sweeps and blood screenings weren’t even slowing the changeling on Earth down.
It is an unsettling prescient piece of television, and it frequently feels like Ira Steven Behr and Robert Hewitt Wolfe had somehow glimpsed the future.
The bigger details all line up. The security checks that don’t actually do anything. Joseph Sisko is able to work out a way around the blood screenings, and Apocalypse Rising will suggest that the changelings have been capable of doing something similar since at least The Way of the Warrior. In the real world, it has been consistently and repeatedly argued that all the increases in security screening since 9/11 are essentially worthless. All they do is cause inconvenience and reinforce a climate of fear.
When Sisko meets with changeling!O’Brien in Paradise Lost, the shapeshifter boasts at how much chaos a single terrorist attack has caused. “What if I were to tell you that there are only four on this entire planet?” he wonders rhetorically. “Not counting Constable Odo, of course. Think of it. Just four of us, and look at the havoc we’ve wrought.” Again, this resonates with political realities after 9/11; despite all the anxiety about terrorist attacks, Americans are more likely to be crushed by furniture than killed by terrorism.
Homefront and Paradise Lost finds Earth dealing with the aftermath of a horrific terrorist attack. According to Sisko, “A crime like this hasn’t been committed on Earth in over a hundred years.” Innocents are killed. More than that, the changelings are explicitly responsible. In the wake of the attack, more hawkish members of the military seize upon the opportunity to grasp power. Civil liberties are trampled, draconian measures are introduced. “With a Starfleet officer on every corner, paradise has never seemed so well-armed.”
Paradise Lost even demonstrates of the chilling effect of fear, the way that the immediate response to a horrific trauma is to seek security at any cost. While Joseph Sisko was a voice of reason in the face of the increasing militarisation of Homefront, the staged attack upon the power grid scares him into submission. Sisko is shocked to see his father volunteer to surrender the liberties that he had fought so hard to protect only days earlier. When Sisko points this out, his father observes, “That was before the changelings sabotaged the power grid.”
The two-parter resonates in more subtle and insidious ways. While the idea of a Starfleet coup of the Federation is chilling, there is something even more uncomfortable bubbling just beneath the surface of Admiral Leyton’s plan. Although left largely unspoken, there is a thinly-concealed nativism bubbling through the attempted coup d’etat. Leyton is human; Benteen is human; Riley Aldrin Shepard is human. The most prominent alien member of the conspiracy is a Bolian Starfleet Academy attendant, and it’s never clear how much he knows.
This subtext becomes more pronounced when Leyton discusses Jaresh Inyo, the Grazerite President of the United Federation of Planets. “All he cares about is not upsetting people,” Leyton assures Sisko. “But humans are tougher than he thinks. We’ve created a paradise here and we’re willing to fight to protect it.” When Sisko asks why Leyton would assume Inyo won’t fight to protect Earth, Leyton responds, “I think the President is a long way from home. This isn’t his world. We can’t expect him to care about it the way we do.”
There is a very strong racist undercurrent to that observation, one that suggests Inyo is an alien and therefore cannot be trusted to properly prioritise the safety and security of Earth. It reflects the increasingly strong paranoid nativism that has come to underpin United States politics in the years since the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, Leyton’s observations about Inyo also seem to foreshadow the paranoid “birther” or “secret Muslim” theories about Barack Obama, with the unchallenged assertion that these details would somehow make President Obama less trustworthy.
However, this nativist trend has broader implications; it corresponds with a marked increase in Islamophia and anxieties around immigrant communities. Leyton does not come out and identify himself as a racist in the style of Colonel Green or John Frederick Paxton, but is somewhat implied. “Do you think other Federation worlds are going to sit back and let their President be replaced by a military dictatorship?” Sisko challenges Leyton at one point. Leyton does not seem too concerned with what other planets might want.
This implied and unspoken racism trickles down through the episode. It is particularly pointed when it comes to “Red Squad”, the elite group of cadets who are conscripted by Admiral Leyton to assist in his palace coup. Indeed, Sisko’s discovery of the organisation is treated as one of the first indications that something is legitimately wrong on Earth beyond the changeling attack. “A group of elite cadets?” Sisko reflects. “They never had anything like that when I was at the Academy.”
Rather pointedly, the members of Red Squad are all human. The group is portrayed as quite W.A.S.P.-ish, both in this two-parter and in Valiant. Although not overtly racist (or speciest), there is some suggestion that the self-selecting nature of the group keeps it very human. While Nog seems to shrug off the suggestion that he is being excluded because he is Ferengi, he does acknowledge that his academic performance is more than good enough. “I have the grades to qualify, but I need to be sponsored by a high-ranking officer.”
Red Squad serves as an example of carefully coded exclusion; it is not an explicitly racist organisation, to the point that most of the human cadets are also excluded. However, it does seem to consciously favour an elitist and speciest attitude that reflects some of the unspoken assumptions that underpin Leyton’s attempted coup. The version of Starfleet presented in Homefront and Paradise Lost is decidedly unsettling, very much in keeping with the show’s cynical attitudes towards authority.
Indeed, Homefront and Paradise Lost suggest that there is perhaps a systemic and historical issue with Starfleet itself. The Earth- and human-centric nature of the institution is presented as more than just a production reality. In hindsight, it makes it appear that the predominance of human characters in Starfleet across the franchise is down to more than budget and time constraints. The organisation seems to rather strongly weighted towards mankind, particularly in contrast to the more diverse portrayals of the Federation.
Building off themes that have been seeded throughout Deep Space Nine since the beginning, Homefront and Paradise Lost really engage with the idea that Starfleet is not the be-all and end-all of the larger Star Trek universe. There is not one right way to engage with the universe. The Sisko family is proof of that, with Joseph operating his own restaurant and Jake becoming a writer. The Sisko family provides quite the contrast with the Crusher family over on The Next Generation, where it seems that the only alternative to a Starfleet career is godhood.
During his big argument with his son in Homefront, Joseph draws attention to the fact that Starfleet is not an absolute; it is not the only lifestyle choice for an adult in the twenty-fourth century. “I didn’t take an oath to Starfleet,” Joseph advises Ben. “Neither did Jake or your sister or anyone in your family. We have rights, Ben, including the right to be as stubborn or thickheaded as we want.” There has often been an unspoken assumption that Starfleet is synonymous with mankind in the Star Trek universe.
In fact, the two-parter finds the production team going into greater depth about the logistics of twenty-fourth century Earth’s power structures than ever before. As Ronald D. Moore concedes, the franchise had always played somewhat fast and loose with the particulars of Earth’s government structures:
We wanted to tell the story of an attempted military coup of the Federation and that meant dealing with the Fed president. However, that meant the troops “in the streets” had to be on Earth and that Earth itself had to be under martial law since the Fed is headquartered on Earth. We discussed having the Prez “federalize” the Earth defence forces or supersede the authority of an indigenous Earth Govt, but the story kept getting too complicated and we didn’t want to start mentioning all these other players and organizations that we weren’t going to see. So in the end, we skirted the issue of who actually governs Earth. Personally, I think there is an Earth Govt that operates like more powerful versions of States do in the US system, but this is all VERY murky water. Gene was pretty smart back in the 60s when he decided not to discuss the exact outcome of Earth’s political/social/economic future and we’ve come about as close to doing just that as I think we should.
While the workings of these structures remain somewhat ambiguous over the course of the two-parter, Homefront and Paradise Lost consciously emphasise the conflict that exists between Starfleet and more mundane life on this utopian version of Earth.
There have been stories about rogue admirals and secret conspiracies within Starfleet before. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Too Short a Season, Conspiracy and Ensign Ro all come to mind. However, Deep Space Nine is not necessarily wary of how particular individuals might abuse these venerable institutions; instead, Deep Space Nine seems wary of the institution itself. Even as Leyton commits to his coup in Paradise Lost, the episode is careful not to reduce him or his followers to two-dimensional antagonists.
“These aren’t evil people, Odo,” Sisko insists, even as the extent of Leyton’s plot becomes clear. “These are people I’ve worked with. They’re my friends, people I respect. How can I turn against them?” Leyton is a decorated war hero who has served the Federation well. However, he is also a soldier who is very much the product of this system. The attributes that made Leyton such a worthy commander during the Tzenkethi conflict make him a threat in the midst of the changeling crisis.
After all, Leyton is a military man. He is doing what military men are trained to do, to safeguard the institution that he has sworn to serve. The idea of Starfleet as a military organisation has always generated some measure of conflict with the utopian ideals of the franchise as a whole. Deep Space Nine is not the first Star Trek show to acknowledge this. The original Star Trek touched on this conflict in episodes like Errand of Mercy, wherein Kirk’s concern for the Organians was very clearly secondary to his role in a space-age Cold War.
The Next Generation struggled in trying to reconcile the idea of Starfleet as a military with the idealism of the Federation, perhaps most obviously in Picard’s bizarre assertion that “Starfleet is not a military organisation” in Peak Performance. It is easy to see why the militarisation of Starfleet was seen as a potentially controversial subject for the franchise. A franchise about peaceful explorers is very different from a franchise about space-age militarism, and it is perhaps disconcerting to see a utopian future where everybody of note is in the military.
(“Starfleet as the only way” was arguably taken to its logical conclusion with Voyager, where the production team made a choice to convert all the Maquis crewmembers to Starfleet officers by the end of Caretaker and to resolve most of the conflict by the end of Parallax. It is no coincidence that both Ronald D. Moore and Ira Steven Behr have pointed to the decision to put the Maquis in Starfleet uniforms as one of the biggest mistakes (or greatest missed opportunities) in the history of the franchise.)
Deep Space Nine works around this by allowing Starfleet to be a military organisation while taking a great deal of care to ensure that Starfleet is not presented as the only career path for its characters. Ben Sisko might be a Starfleet captain, but his father is a chef in New Orleans and his son aspires to be a writer. Kira, Quark and Odo are all vital to the functioning of the station, but they are not Starfleet officers. Major supporting characters like Kasidy Yates and Garak exist without ever needing to put on a Starfleet uniform.
Deep Space Nine is free to engage with (and criticise) Starfleet without critiquing itself. The argument could be made that Deep Space Nine is the first truly multi-cultural Star Trek show, a series that understands that there is no singular “right” way of life. In its own way, the show embraces the philosophy of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” much more readily than its sibling series. Homefront and Paradise Lost allow Deep Space Nine to push this idea to extremes, suggesting Starfleet may not be entirely open to other perspectives.
(This openness is apparent even in the smaller character-driven scenes early in Homefront. Discussing the strange occurrences involving the wormhole, Kira and Worf have a brief theological discussion about the relative merits of Bajoran and Klingon belief systems. It is a nice bit of character work and world-building, but it also speaks to the diversity of opinions and world views on Deep Space Nine. After all, it is possible to read the Prophets both as standard “god-like aliens” or as actual deities, depending on the viewer’s perspective.)
One of the more interesting aspects of Deep Space Nine is the way that the show largely avoids moral relativism when dealing with the Dominion. Episodes like Hippocratic Oath and Faith, Treachery and the Great River go a long way towards generating sympathy for the Jem’Hadar and the Vorta, but the series is generally unambiguous in its portrayal of the Founders as genocidal fascists. Indeed, What You Leave Behind goes so far as to have them attempt genocide out of spite. For all the show’s moral ambiguity, the Dominion is fairly unambiguously evil.
However, portraying the Dominion as unambiguously evil allows Deep Space Nine to focus more attention on the Federation’s response to the Dominion threat. The beauty of Homefront and Paradise Lost is that Admiral Leyton is entirely correct in his assessment of the risk to the Federation when he states that Earth is in “the greatest danger it’s faced since the last world war.” However, the point of the story is not the danger itself, but rather humanity’s response to that danger.
In a way, then, the Founders make the perfect foil to the Federation. If the Borg reflect the dark side of the Federation’s policy of integration and consolidation, then the Founders offer the perfectly abstract opponent against which the Federation might define themselves. The Borg represent everything, an all-consuming ever-growing Lovecraftian horror of assimilation and appropriation; the Founders represent anything, an opponent capable of taking any form and appearing in any shape with any face.
The Founders are fluid; they are, ironically, more adaptable than the Borg. Even in humanoid form their faces appear indistinct and generic. The Founders do not so much represent a particular threat as they represent any threat. The middle seasons of the show cast them as terrorist infiltrators. The Dominion War casts them as a fascist rival power. However, what the Founders actually are is relatively inconsequential. Instead, they allow for a more thorough and meaningful exploration of what the Federation is when put under pressure.
As writer René Echevarria notes of the franchise, Star Trek is relatively unique in the annals of popular science-fiction because it is not a dystopia and it largely unfolds from the perspective of a (relatively) stable and prosperous future society:
Star Wars is about rebelling against power. In Star Trek, we have the power and the question is, how are we going to use it? I think it would be fascinating to update the idea of Starfleet, which presupposes a lot of things about civilization and the responsibility of power. It’s not dystopian, which has always been its allure. Sci-fi tends to go dystopian in its allegory; Star Trek has always been fresh because it asks what are the challenges of creating a well-ordered society where there’s not a big bad that you’re fighting.
That is as true of Deep Space Nine as it is about any of the other spin-offs. The show is sceptical of Starfleet as an institution, but it is never explicitly hostile to it. Deep Space Nine is more interested in how Star Trek‘s utopia responds to the Dominion threat than it is in the Dominion War itself.
Homefront and Paradise Lost seem to speak to the twenty-first century, perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of an era that would not arrive for over half-a-decade. As much flack as Star Trek Into Darkness gets for its blatant references to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, JJ Abrams’ second Star Trek film also owes a sizable debt to the plotting of this two-parter, with its broken mentor figure organising a military conspiracy and even the climax of two Starfleet vessels going head-to-head.
Deep Space Nine has certainly grown increasingly relevant in the years since it went off the air. (Appropriately enough, it also seems to have found a stronger cult following in the intervening years as well.) The show’s willingness to engage with subjects like religion and terrorism ensured its continued relevance in a world where those topics became increasingly important. However, this tendency to play up the prescient themes of Deep Space Nine must also be discussed in the show’s original context.
After all, it is tempting to believe that the War on Terror came out of nowhere. It is almost reassuring to believe that there was no way to see the 9/11 attacks coming, because that would mean that they could not have been prevented or foreseen. The trauma of the attacks extends indefinitely into the future, with the attacks serving as a wound to mark the dawning of the twenty-first century. The belief that the 9/11 attacks (and the ensuing War on Terror) were completely arbitrary insulates the past and prevents that trauma and guilt from slipping backwards.
The nostalgic view of the nineties paints the decade as a peaceful and prosperous time. Charles Krauthammer described it as “the unipolar moment”, while Francis Fukuyama described it as “the end of history.” Both descriptors proposed that the United States stood victorious at the end of the Cold War, looking over its domain much as Alexander the Great is said to have done. Wars were things that happened far away, no longer intruding into the everyday lives of citizens. Money flowed freely. The nineties were arguably “the best decade ever.”
This is undoubtedly an idealistic depiction of the decade, but it is the version of the nineties that tends to linger in the popular consciousness. In particular, this nostalgia of the nineties helps to provide a clear contrast with the uncertainty of the current political (and economic) climate. However, the nineties were not necessarily as tranquil and idyllic as they might have seemed. There were ripples of what was to come, broader social and cultural trends that seemed to hint at current uncertainties.
The Los Angeles Riots and the O.J. Simpson trial prefigured the current debates about race in American society. The culture wars of the nineties gave way to Gamergate and Rabid Puppies. Even the seeds of the War on Terror were beginning to germinate over the course of the decade; Oklahoma afforded the United States its first glimpse of domestic terror on so large a scale in 1995, while Osama Bin Laden made his first attempt to destroy the World Trade Centre in 1993. (Never mind all the actionable intelligence that something was coming.)
It should be noted, for example, that a lot of the security provisions implemented by the United States government in the wake of 9/11 had originally been proposed as responses to the Oklahoma bombing. Michael Crowley notes, Joe Biden had been pushing for these measures even earlier:
In the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Biden did, in fact, champion an anti-terrorism bill similar to the one now before Congress (though it was, as he complains, badly watered down by anti-government conservatives and leftist civil libertarians). And Biden doesn’t let you forget it. “I introduced the terrorism bill in ’94 that had a lot of these things in it,” he bragged to NBC’s Tim Russert on September 30. When I spent the day with him later that week, Biden mentioned the legislation to me, and to several other reporters he encountered, no fewer than seven times. “When I was chairman in ’94 I introduced a major antiterrorism bill–back then,” he says in the morning, flashing a knowing grin and pausing for effect. (Never mind that he’s gotten the year wrong.) Back in his office later that afternoon, he brings it up yet again. “I drafted a terrorism bill after the Oklahoma City bombing. And the bill John Ashcroft sent up was my bill.” You don’t say.
This is not to state the 9/11 or the War on Terror were inevitable, merely to suggest historical context. While the scale of the atrocities (and the scale of the response to these atrocities) was largely outside anybody’s frame of reference, they did not emerge from nothing.
After all, this conflict between liberty and security is hardly new. It was not new when Benjamin Franklin made his oft-quoted observation about those who would sacrifice liberty for security in his letter to the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Consider Bertrand Russell reflecting on the ease with which the human mind might be manipulated through fear, writing in An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish in the midst of the Second World War:
Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd. So it was in the French Revolution, when dread of foreign armies produced the reign of terror. And it is to be feared that the Nazis, as defeat draws nearer, will increase the intensity of their campaign for exterminating Jews. Fear generates impulses of cruelty, and therefore promotes such superstitious beliefs as seem to justify cruelty. Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear. And for this reason poltroons are more prone to cruelty than brave men, and are also more prone to superstition. When I say this, I am thinking of men who are brave in all respects, not only in facing death. Many a man will have the courage to die gallantly, but will not have the courage to say, or even to think, that the cause for which he is asked to die is an unworthy one.
There is a tendency to assume that our moment of history is unique or special; that it looks and sounds unique compared to anything that might have come before. However, the reality is that history has its own recurring themes and ideas; events do not materialise from nothing. Even the reach of the surveillance state in the twenty-first century can be traced back to the United States occupation of the Phillippines at the end of the nineteenth century.
A large part of what allowed Deep Space Nine to retain its relevance was the skill with which the production team chose their themes. While the show’s themes might speak to the realities of the War on Terror, they also spoke to the nineties. For example, the show’s engagement with religious extremism resonates particularly well in the era of ISIS, but In the Hands of the Prophets originally positioned Vedek Winn and Vedek Bareil as part of the culture wars unfolding in nineties America. (It is effectively a metaphor for the debate over teaching intelligent design.)
Similarly, a lot of Deep Space Nine‘s anxieties about authority structures are rooted in the same nineties paranoia that drove The X-Files. Although Homefront and Paradise Lost are more applicable to the War on Terror, they hit on many of the ideas that the show explored with scripts like Whispers. Under Ira Steven Behr, Deep Space Nine always had a stronger anti-authoritarian (and occasionally anarchistic) streak than any of its Star Trek siblings; it just so happens that those tendencies feel even more appropriate now than when the show was produced.
Indeed, Homefront and Paradise Lost were very clearly written with an eye on the past. In keeping with their own interests, the writing staff were actually inspired by classic cinema. According to The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, the episode was steered away from the original plot that would have seen the Vulcans leaving the Federation:
But as the writers began breaking the story, Moore notes, “We realised that the whole thing with the Vulcans wasn’t quite selling it. So we starting talking about a military coup of the Federation by Starfleet, a la Seven Days in May,” he says, referring to the 1964 film about a military scheme to overthrow the U.S. government.
As with Our Man Bashir, it is interesting how the production team’s nostalgia seems to imbue Deep Space Nine with a timeless quality. Similarly, the portrayal of the Dominion War would be heavily influenced by cinematic portrayals of Vietnam and the Second World War, but still speak to the realities of the War on Terror decades after they were originally produced.
In a way, perhaps, this plays into the show’s recurring theme of history as a circle rather than a line. It is a theme that was suggested as early as the first encounter with the Prophets in Emissary, and which recurs across the seven years of the show; whether in the continuity assured by Dax’s continued presence or in the juxtaposition of Bajor and Cardassia at the beginning and end of the run. Deep Space Nine seems to suggest that history moves in arcs and circles rather than straight lines.
This is not to undersell just how skilfully and carefully the Deep Space Nine writers chose their themes. The show engaged with the politics of the nineties without anchoring itself in that particular moment. The show arguably has a greater resonance now than it did when it was first broadcast. That takes a lot of craft and a lot of savvy, and it speaks to the prowess of the writing staff as a whole. Homefront and Paradise Lost combine to form a powerful piece of television, one that endures and resonates beyond the show’s broadcast run.