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Deep Space Nine at 25 – The Most Timeless of (Star) Treks

This may be the last time we’re all together. But no matter what the future holds, no matter how far we travel, a part of us – a very important part – will always remain here, on Deep Space Nine.

– Benjamin Sisko, What You Leave Behind

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine turned twenty-five this week.

Deep Space Nine is an important addition to the Star Trek canon in a number of respects. It was the only Star Trek series to air as a secondary series, its entire seven-season run coinciding with the broadcast of other weekly Star Trek series; its first two seasons overlapping with the final two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager. It was also the last Star Trek series to air in syndication. It was arguably marked the point at which the viewing public lost interest in Star Trek during the nineties, the first Star Trek spin-off to lose its audience over its run.

However, Deep Space Nine was also memorable in other respects. It was the first Star Trek series not to take place on a ship named “Enterprise”, and the first not to take place on a ship at all. It was the first Star Trek series to embrace the possibilities of serialisation. It was the Star Trek cast with both the most diverse core cast and the widest ensemble, with an impressive collection of recurring actors and characters fleshing out the world. It was also arguably the only Star Trek series to truly embrace multiculturalism, with several episodes focusing exclusively on Klingon or Ferengi characters.

Still, the most enduring aspect of Deep Space Nine is how enduring it feels. At twenty-five years old, Deep Space Nine still feels fresh and relevant. It is a series that has a lot to say about the current moment, but it also had a lot to say about the moment before that. Deep Space Nine was undoubtedly a product of its time, but never feels as consciously wedded to its cultural context as the other Star Trek series. Ironically for the only Star Trek series to really engage with the idea of time, and the importance of forward movement through time for its character, Deep Space Nine is strangely timeless.

Our imaginary futures inevitably reflect our present; popular culture tends to imagine the future in a way that extrapolates from the present, which reflects cultural anxieties and social issues very much rooted in that moment. As much as Black Mirror might be a spiritual successor to The Twilight Zone, it is hard to imagine the show’s technological social anxieties working as effectively in the context of the eighties or nineties; most of the futures depicted in the series would be impossible to predict.

This is also the case with all that Star Trek series. At its best, the franchise is timeless; Errand of Mercy and The Devil in the Dark are stories that work just as well divorced from their cultural context. However, there is not denying that each and every Star Trek series is of its time. The original Star Trek cannot be divorced from the late sixties; in the spectre of John F. Kennedy that haunts the extrapolation of “the New Frontier” to “the Final Frontier”, to the postwar fascination with a peaceful and idealised American empire in space, to the Vietnam allegories, to the social anxieties bleeding through.

Some of these references are quite easy to spot for modern audiences; Friday’s Child and A Private Little War are transparently Vietnam War allegories, while Let That Be Your Last Battlefield is a commentary on sixties-era civil rights anxieties, not to mention space hippies in This Side of Paradise or The Way to Eden. Some cultural markers are more specific, with the title Turnabout Intruder being a reference to the forgotten 1940 movie Turnabout or the way in which the galactic spread of madness in Operation — Annihilate! reflected fears about the erosion of civilised society in a chaotic decade.

Similarly, The Next Generation was Star Trek reconfigured for the Reagan and Bush eras, with the Cold War winding down and the United States settling into its role as the leading global power in “the unipolar moment.” There was a lot of negotiation and compromise, a lot of reasoned discussion and debate. There was a sense of stability and peace permeating The Next Generation, which exists largely in contrast to the tumultuous reality in which Kirk found himself. The Next Generation was largely a story about television’s most efficient workplace, a crew of genuine explorers who had very little to fear.

Voyager was tied very much to the anxieties of the Clinton era. The racial politics of the Kazon arc that began with Caretaker and were exemplified in episodes like Alliances were tied to the racial politics of the nineties, from the Los Angeles Riots to the O.J. Simpson Trial. Similarly, the series’ fascination with history in episodes like RememberDistant Origin, Living Witness and even Latent Image were tied to anxieties about the malleability of history that tied into broader nineties culture. The show traveled back to the nineties in Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, and also in 11:59.

Star Trek: Enterprise was anchored in the War on Terror, with the attacks upon the World Trade Centre occurring during the filming of Civilisation early in its first season. The first two years of Enterprise struggled with how to tell Star Trek stories in that context, with episodes like Minefield, Dawn and Cogenitor suggesting that the universe might be safer if everybody left one another alone. The third season tackled this subtext most directly, building off a terrorist attack on Earth in The Expanse. Even the fourth season could not escape the spectre of the War on Terror, typified by The Forge, Awakening and Kir’Shara.

Similarly, while Star Trek: Discovery is similarly young, it is impossible to view the latest Star Trek series outside of its cultural context. T’Kuvma’s resurgent Klingon nationalism in The Vulcan Hello is framed in such a way as to evoke the ethno-nationalism of Trumpism, and it is impossible to separate the show from the reactionary strains of fandom upset at the fact that the two leads in the pilot episode were women of colour and that it would be the first Star Trek series to feature a gay regular character.

As such, Deep Space Nine feels very much like an outlier. Of course, there are episodes that inevitably mark Deep Space Nine as a product of the nineties. The early portrayal of the Bajoran religion in episodes like Emissary or The Collaborator conscious evoke Buddhism, capturing Michael Piller’s interest in New Age religious philosophy that would inform the creation and characterisation of Chakotay on Voyager. Later religion-centric episodes like Rapture or The Reckoning tap into millennial anxieties about the end of the world at the end of the twentieth century.

Similarly, individual episodes can often be tied to certain nineties pop culture trends. Whispers reflected the same culture of paranoia and existential uncertainty that could be seen on The X-Files or in The Matrix, more frequently simmering through episodes of Voyager like Course: Oblivion or The Voyager Conspiracy. In The Abandoned, the show toys with using the Jem’Hadar for a racially-charged metaphor like the Kazon, tied to fears about gang violence. Field of Fire is a serial killer episode, reflecting nineties pop culture’s obsession with serial killers.

However, there was also something timeless in the stories that Deep Space Nine told. These were not stories anchored in the show’s cultural moment. This was reflected in the show’s interest in mid-twentieth century cultural markers, like the Battle of Britain simulation from Homefront or Bashir’s spy fantasy in Our Man Bashir or the sixties version of Vegas introduced in His Way. When the show went back in time, it frequently traveled into either Star Trek history (Past Tense, Part I, Past Tense, Part II, Trials and Tribble-ations) or into mid-twentieth century history (Little Green Men, Far Beyond the Stars).

Deep Space Nine cribbed mercilessly from Hollywood cinema, but from classic Hollywood cinema. While Voyager would build episodes like Prey as an homage to the then-stuck-in-development-hell Alien vs. Predator or Vis à Vis as an extended riff on Face/Off, Deep Space Nine pitched Rules of Acquisition as Yentl, Profit and Loss as Casablanca, Meridian as Brigadoon, Fascination as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The show seemed quite far removed from the culture in which it was produced.

Perhaps the most telling example of this was the decision to construct an elaborate two-season-long Dominion War, beginning with Call to Arms and ending with What You Leave Behind. (That arc is arguably five seasons long, if the audience counts the Cold War that began with The Jem’Hadar.) The nineties were a time of peace and prosperity for the United States, sandwiched between the Cold War and the War on Terror. The Dominion War had no contemporary parallel, unlike the space-age War on Terror in Enterprise or the futuristic culture war with the Klingons in Discovery.

The Dominion War drew on a variety of previous wars. The rigid moral contrast between the Federation and the Dominion evoked the clear moral boundaries of the Second World War, with the Founders’ obsession with order and tendency towards genocide making them the perfect moral foils to the Federation. (To be fair, episodes like InquisitionInter Arma Enim Silent Leges and When It Rains… would make it clear that the Federation was capable of horrific moral compromises.) The ground war in episodes like The Siege of AR-558 consciously evoked the spectre of Vietnam.

Watching the show at the time, Deep Space Nine felt rather abstract in the context of the nineties. It presented the Federation facing an existential struggle against a clearly-defined enemy at a time when the United States was the sole global superpower with few credible threats to concern it. Voyager was arguably more in step with the mood of the times, imaging a stable and secure Starfleet that would exist (largely unchanged) into the twenty-ninth century. Deep Space Nine seemed to suggest (in episodes like A Time to Stand, Sacrifice of Angels and Statistical Probabilities) that the Federation was in great danger.

In some ways, this reflects the way that Deep Space Nine approached the idea of history in general. Voyager seemed to imagine the nineties as “the end of history”, as a point in time where liberal democracy had emerged victorious and stood as a colossus at the gates of the new millennium. Deep Space Nine tended to treat history as cyclical, as a forced that ebbed and flowed. It moved forwards, but it also moved in arcs. It may not have repeated itself, but it did rhyme. Characters evolved and grew, but others relapsed. Cultures moved forwards, but others stumbled.

Deep Space Nine suggested that history stopped and started. It slipped backwards. The past exerted a strange gravity, and it took real effort to break out of destructive patterns of behaviour. This was true of individuals as much as governments. Cardassia’s fascistic and militaristic tendencies would lead it to folies; the failed attack on the Dominion in Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast, the doomed alliance with the Dominion in In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light. Dukat’s nod toward redemption, and his refusal to do the hard work.

The Cardassian Occupation of Bajor ended in Emissary, only for another Occupation to begin in Call to Arms. During the lead up to Dukat’s triumphant return to Terok Nor at the end of the fifth, Deep Space Nine made a point to emphasise that that the mark of the Cardassian Occupation was still felt upon Bajor; the flashback in Things Past, the retribution for sins past in The Darkness and the Light, the hints of lingering resentment within Bajoran society in Rapture. All of this seemed to be a reminder that the past is never truly buried.

There was often a sense of irony in these repetitions. Kira was a terrorist before the events of Emissary, waging war on the Cardassians; Kira was again a terrorist in What You Leave Behind, this time waging war alongside the Cardassians. Jake Sisko lost a mother in Emissary; Jake Sisko lost a father in What You Leave Behind. Bajor was in ruins following the end of a brutal enemy occupation in Emissary; Cardassia was in ruins following the end of a brutal enemy occupation in What You Leave Behind.

These repetitions often served to underscore how much the characters had changed. When Sisko is assigned to Deep Space Nine in Emissary, he is actively resentful of the assignment. However, the show’s final three finales each see Sisko forced to leave under heartbreaking circumstances; leading an evacuation in Call to Arms, taking an extended leave following a personal failure in Tears of the Prophets, and finally ascending to godhood in What You Leave Behind. It seemed that leaving Deep Space Nine was so hard that Sisko only truly accomplished it on his third trial.

Similarly, Deep Space Nine would occasionally replay certain beats and arcs to underscore how much (or how little) certain characters had changed. Bashir falls for a young woman in his charge in both Melora and Chrysalis, in the second and the seventh seasons. Because Bashir is a different person at those two stages of the run, the story plays out differently, with a different emphasis. In contrast, Dukat spends the fourth and fifth seasons in exile from Cardassia, stripped of his social status and his privilege. However, he refuses to learn from his experiences, engineering a return to power with disastrous consequences for everyone.

The net result of all this was that Deep Space Nine seemed to understand that history never really ended, that the status quo never remained frozen in time. Indeed, the last standalone episode of Deep Space Nine to air – the episode broadcast directly before the sprawling ten-part finale – dealt with this idea head-on. Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges suggested that Starfleet was already in the process of planning for the geopolitical crisis that would follow the existential struggle against the Dominion. Even a struggle like the Dominion War did not represent “the end of history.” It was just another big event that bent the arc.

As a result, Deep Space Nine is a television series that feels less firmly anchored to one particular cultural moment, and one that seems continually relevant. More to the point, different aspects of Deep Space Nine seem relevant in different ways. The paranoia and uncertainty of episodes like The Adversary, or the erosion of freedoms in the face of such paranoia as in Homefront, Paradise Lost and Inquisition felt more timely during the War on Terror than they did on broadcast. The Way of the Warrior seemed to prefigure the War in Iraq, with phony changelings standing in for imaginary weapons of mass destruction.

Indeed, it should be noted that certain aspects of Deep Space Nine seemed to prefigure the JJ Abrams reboots, which were produced in direct response to the War on Terror. Most obviously, Star Trek Into Darkness treated the concept of Section 31 as a core plot element, a metaphor for the rot at the heart of Starfleet Command. More than that, it could fairly be argued that Star Trek Into Darkness was a retread of the plot of Homefront and Paradise Lost. Ira Steven Behr acknowledges the similarities in The Fifty-Year Mission.

Certain other aspects of Deep Space Nine feel more timely a decade on. The self-serving arrogance of Gul Dukat in In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light, couched in the trappings of crowd-pleasing nationalism that covers his betrayal of his nation, cannot help but evoke the spectre of Donald Trump and other twenty-first century right-wing nationalists. (There is even a Twitter parody account.) The introduction of the cynical and hypocritical Vedek Winn in In the Hands of the Prophets also seems particularly timely.

Of course, most of these events were inspired by historical examples, by events that had come to pass before. In particular, the decline and decay of the Cardassian Union in In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light was explicitly modelled on the collapse of Weimer Germany. The attempted military coup in Homefront and Paradise Lost was a reference to Thirteen Days in May. It was not that the writers working on Deep Space Nine could see the future. It was instead that they understood the past and could extrapolate from that. Deep Space Nine is strangely timeless, and yet always timely when it is watched.

Then again, all of this makes sense. Time was always very important to Deep Space Nine. In fact, the central conflict of Emissary hinged on Benjamin Sisko explaining the very concept of time – the idea of change and growth and evolution – to an alien (and possibly divine) presence that existed outside the constraints of linear time. It felt like a metaphor for Deep Space Nine, which evolved into a series very much interested in how the passage of time affected things; people, governments, relationships, perspectives. Not one major character was unchanged between Emissary and What You Leave Behind.

Deep Space Nine was a show that was fascinated by cause and effect, action and reaction, event and consequence. Even small decisions and happenings could have serious consequences further down the line. Jake teaches Nog to read in The Nagus, Sisko sponsors Nog joining Starfleet in Heart of Stone, Nog loses his leg in the line of duty in The Siege of AR-558. Damar is introduced as little more than a named extra in Return to Grace, developed in episodes like Behind the Lines, and becomes the revolutionary leader of a reborn Cardassia in The Changing Face of Evil.

Deep Space Nine was keenly aware of the fact that its characters were moving through time, and that time tended to accrue through small details and minor moments. Benjamin Sisko and Kasidy Yates enjoyed an extended relationship often depicted in subplots and small scenes; Jake setting his father up in Explorers, a first date in Family Business, Yates moving to the station in Indiscretion, the couple drifting apart in The Sound of Her Voice. All the other characters had similar evolutions over the seven-year run of the show.

It is very telling that one of the most popular and iconic episodes of Deep Space Nine is The Visitor. In that episode, an accident dislodges Benjamin Sisko in time, while tethering him to his son. Ben visits with Jake randomly in the intervening years, checking in on his son at various stages during his life. The Visitor is essentially the story of a life haunted by the loss of a father, peppered with hints of both the life that Jake lived in the absence of his father and the life that he denied himself. We can escape the future no easier than we might evade the future. Time runs on by.

This sense of the passage of time is perhaps reflected in the series’ growing reputation in the years after it was initially broadcast. Deep Space Nine grew as much as its characters. On broadcast, Deep Space Nine was met with confusion and hostility by a fanbase who reacted aggressively to its unique take on the Star Trek mythos. Deep Space Nine seemed to be subjected to a wealth of philosophical complaints that sought to attack it for challenging preconceived notions of Star Trek. This is still on-going, with Next Generation regular Marina Sirtis dismissing Deep Space Nine as a show about a hotel in space.

However, things have arguably changed in the years since it was retired. During the production of the show, Ira Steven Behr reportedly told Chase Masterson that Deep Space Nine would grow in the years following its cancellation. This seems to have been the case. Deep Space Nine has arguably seen its star rise more than any other Star Trek series since its end. (The original Star Trek and Enterprise are both contenders, to be fair.) Deep Space Nine is recognised as a direct ancestor of Battlestar Galactica, one of the most highly-regarded shows of television’s golden age. It is also subject to a reunion documentary.

Deep Space Nine understood that moments are not trapped in amber, that the world does not remain frozen in place, and so the characters in that world must also move. More than any other Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine understood that time meant change and growth, and that it was impossible to construct a perfect snapshot of a cultural moment because that moment was always shifting. The result is perhaps the most dynamic and organic of the Star Trek series, a show that somehow continued to grow and evolve after it was cancelled.

Much like the Prophets themselves, Deep Space Nine is both in one moment and every moment. It is a piece of nineties pop culture, and a piece of lasting pop culture. It is a prism and a mirror, a show with enough depth that its emphasis can shift depending upon the context in which it is watched. The series finale, What You Leave Behind, derived a great deal of power from the fact that the show was temporal and that the story had to end. In its own way, it was even more a testament to the adage that had titled the last episode of The Next Generation: all good things must come to an end.

However, in its own strange way, Deep Space Nine remains the most eternal of Star Trek shows.

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11 Responses

  1. Excellent post, Darren. Happy 25th to DS9.

    Deep Space Nine is my favourite Trek series, along with TOS and TNG. I love DS9 for its complex, strong, and well written characters. I love how it shows the Federation crew dealing with war and trauma.

    I really like how there are strong roles for women, and that the female characters are very developed for a change. In earlier series the men had the better developed characters, with the women just being secondary roles. Kira and Jadzia are two of the strongest female characters in any TV series.

    I like how we learn more about the Cardassian and Trill species. I like how characters with such different cultures and opinions are forced to live and work together to fight for their future.

    My favourite characters are Jadzia, Garak, Sisko, Kira, Odo, Dukat and O’Brien. Garak in particular is one of the most layered, complex and fascinating characters in Star Trek history. I think Andrew J. Robinson delivers a career best performance there.

    I also like how the series shows Sisko’s reaction to meeting Picard in the pilot episode. Here he stands face to face with the leader and face of the massacre of Wolf 359. Sisko’s wife was killed in this Borg attack. You can see that Sisko respects Picard for who he is, and you know that rationally he also knows that Picard was not himself when he was a part of the Borg. Never the less, Sisko really can’t hide his rage, his pain, and his disgust at having to be the same room as the man who was behind that attack. TNG showed Picard dealing with his PTSD after that incident, but we never saw what colleagues and family members of Federation officers felt towards him.

    Rarely had Star Trek tackled issues this deep and complex before. I thought Avery Brooks and Patrick Stewart were both excellent in this scene, with Stewart conveying that Picard has latched onto Sisko’s resentment and rage, and Brooks conveying how hard Sisko was trying to control his anger.

    This is a quality series. It had its weak points (the first couple of seasons, and the end of season 7 were on the whole not as good as the rest)but mostly it was a strong, well made series. I wish Trek creators could give us a new series that tackled moral ground in the way this series did. Maddy

    • “Rarely had Star Trek tackled issues this deep and complex before.”

      VOY and DS9 sort of represent the two “sides” to The Next Generation. VOY inheiried the high concept episodes and family appeal, while DS9 got the politics and cloak-and-dagger feel.

      TNG did a lot of interesting stuff on Qo’noS and the Bird of Prey set, but it was a jarring difference from the rest of the show, which muddied the execution.

      • Yep. There’s a tendency when praising DS9 to dismiss TNG, which isn’t fair. DS9 would never have been possible without TNG, even if the writers on DS9 occasionally seemed to view TNG as the over-achieving elder sibling.

        (“Oh, you got an Emmy nomination, eh? Well, let’s make a comedy subplot about that, then!” “Oh, we have to have Riker on to promote your new movie? Okay, but’s not going to be goodie two-shoes Riker!”)

    • Yep, the confrontation between Sisko and Picard in Emissary is so good, because it works on multiple levels.

      Most obviously, the first time you watch the episode, the audience has no idea who Sisko is and has a deep affection for Picard. More than that, the audience has watched Picard wrestle with his own trauma and guilt over what happened with the Borg. So it really feels like a stranger is showing up, and rubbing a family member’s worst sin in their face. It feels like a disruption. It feels mean. It sets a tone for Deep Space Nine, making it clear that the show won’t be as smooth as The Next Generation.

      However, the argument also makes sense from Sisko’s perspective. If you come back and watch it – particularly after you spend a bit of time with Sisko – his argument is justified. There is a sense that Picard never really got called on what happened, that he never got taken off duty, that he was never held to account. How many officers lost friends and relatives at Wolf 359? How many must harbour some resentment of Picard, even if that resentment is not entirely justified?

      It’s a great scene.

  2. DS9 feels even more relevant to our times than Star Trek Discovery does. I’ve felt like most of the episodes of Discovery covered moral dilemmas or issues that DS9 already covered years ago, but better. The DS9 cast even felt more diverse than Discovery’s (aside from the laudable addition of a homosexual crew member).

    • I agree. Ahead of its release, the cast/marketing team for Discovery kept making statements about how the cast was the most diverse in Star Trek, or that it would be the first to really look at how a war would shape the Federation, or that it would give the audience a deep understanding of Klingon culture, and I kept thinking…great, looking forward to it, but DS9’s already been there.

      To me, a lot of DS9 is focused with post-colonialism and grappling with reconciliation and how to overcome loss or old prejudices. I’m looking forward to seeing what Discovery’s niche ultimately turns out to me.

      • I keep waiting for Discovery to feel relevant to our social and political situation, but it just doesn’t. Part of the problem is that the Klingons are just too cartoonishly evil. They’re even cannibals! Granted it’s perhaps unfair to judge a show so harshly in the middle of its first season, but it does seem a step back from the multi-layered Cardassians, who were evil but also intelligent and at times even charismatic.

      • I don’t know.

        I feel like T’Kuvma’s big opening monologue in The Vulcan Hello is the best statement on the appeals of nationalism that Star Trek has ever given – the alien is coming, the alien will change you, your culture will die. And, more than that, the audience knows that T’Kuvma is correct based on the rest of the canon – the alien does come, the alien does change Klingon culture, the Klingon Empire does enter decline. T’Kuvma is right to be afraid, and his response is rational, from his perspective.

        (Of course, just because it’s rational from his perspective doesn’t make it right. The Klingon Empire is a culture that deserves to die – the culture, not the people, in case it sounds like I’m going full Undiscovered Country Kirk here – and needs to be reformed. However, there will be losers in that reformation and it makes sense that they would react against it. Just like a lot of real world resentment and nationalism – a class of people worried that they will lose their place on the pecking order if the humanity and plight of others is recognised.)

        For the record, I have my issues with Discovery. It’s very fan-service-y. I’d like it better if I knew the show was going to push past the prequel setting next year, as Fuller planned. But it’s still having the best first season of any Star Trek spin-off. As low a bar as that might be to clear, it still deserves acknowledgement.

    • Well, to be fair, Deep Space Nine had the most diverse cast in the franchise’s history. Discovery is a close enough second, give or take Captain Lorca.

      And Discovery is only in its first season. Barring the final two episodes, the first season of Deep Space Nine wasn’t exactly a franchise high-point either, give or take The Nagus and Dramatis Personae. (While Discovery has its problems, it’s still having the best first season of any Star Trek spin-off by some distance.)

  3. When are you publishing the review Xfiles My Struggle III?

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