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

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the first (and perhaps only) multicultural Star Trek.

Ironically, Deep Space Nine is often derided by traditionalist fans for eschewing core Star Trek principles. Deep Space Nine was the first (and only) Star Trek series to unfold on a space station rather than a space ship, boldly sitting rather than boldly going. More than that, Deep Space Nine was the first Star Trek series to embroil the Federation in an active war, notwithstanding the Klingon or Romulan Cold Wars nor the Cardassian Wars that retroactively took place during the early seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

However, in a very real and substantial way, Deep Space Nine was also the Star Trek series that hewed most closely to the humanist principles of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. It could reasonably be argued that Deep Space Nine simply made an effort to interrogate and to explore premises that Roddenberry never properly considered. At its core, Star Trek had always been about embracing the unknown with open arms and about learning that what was different was not always scary or monstrous. Deep Space Nine embraced that.

Deep Space Nine was not a series about a bunch of explorers looking “to boldly go” in any literal sense, but about a bunch of characters struggling to fundamentally understand “new life forms and new civilisations.” More than the other Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine was about embracing other cultures and values, about recognising that differences could enrich as much as divide, and that there was no single “right” way build a better world. Deep Space Nine is an ode to humanism and compassion, embodying many of the virtues other Star Trek shows nod towards.

This sense of multiculturalism within the world of Deep Space Nine might best be gauged by looked at the show’s regular cast. The primary cast of both the original Star Trek and The Next Generation were largely defined by their adherence to Starfleet. Even Wesley Crusher spent most of his tenure on The Next Generation in some variation of a Starfleet uniform, despite the fact that he had not even attended Starfleet Academy. Star Trek and The Next Generation assumed that the Federation and Starfleet were the only way to look at the wider cosmos.

This makes a certain amount of sense. Star Trek had always been an extrapolation of sixties-era American idealism into space. Star Trek was in some ways a benign fantasy of empire from a nation that had emerged after the golden age of colonial powers. The Federation was an extension of American liberal idealism and exceptionalism writ large, and expanded out into the cosmos; an empire without a history of slavery or oppression, instead built upon optimism and hope.

Deep Space Nine gets a lot of credit (or blame) for problematicising the Federation, particularly in episodes like The Maquis, Part I, The Maquis, Part II, Homefront and Paradise Lost. However, writer Gene L. Coon was very interested in the exploring the more unsettling aspects of the Federation as an extrapolation of sixties America; there is something inherently uncomfortable and reckless in the organisation’s aggressive expansion in episodes like Arena or A Taste of Armageddon, while Errand of Mercy hints the Federation is as eager for war as the Klingons.

However, the Federation was always the default option for Star Trek storytelling. As such, the Federation tended to be treated as an unambiguous good, its virtues represented in the largely unimpeachable forms of James Tiberius Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard. The Next Generation was populated with mad and corrupt admirals; Too Short a Season, The Drumhead, Ensign Ro, The Pegasus. However, these were always exceptions and deviants, with the real Starfleet values upheld in solemn speeches delivered with complete sincerity by a Frenchman with British accent.

Even the later Star Trek series returned to the focus on Starfleet personnel. Star Trek: Voyager teased the idea of diverse cast that brought together a Starfleet crew with a bunch of terrorists and a couple of local scavengers. However, by the end of Caretaker, all the Maquis were wearing Starfleet uniforms and even Neelix and Kes were wearing communications badges. For all intents and purposes, barring special episodes like Learning Curve or Worst Case Scenario or Repression, Janeway might as well have been commanding a standard Starfleet crew.

This was also true of Star Trek: Enterprise. The bulk of the crew were commissioned Starfleet officers. T’Pol and Phlox fit neatly into the hierarchy. Although T’Pol did not wear a Starfleet uniform, the audience instinctively understood that she was subject to the same leering exception as Seven of Nine on Voyager. Even Star Trek: Discovery focuses primarily on Starfleet officers, although the decision to shift the emphasis (slightly) away from the senior staff towards characters on the fringe of the organisation is somewhat welcome.

However, Deep Space Nine is very different, even looking at the cast. Just under half of the primary cast are not Starfleet officers. Kira is a member of the Bajoran militia. Odo wears a uniform of the Bajoran militia, even though his rank is the affectionate nickname “Constable.” Quark operates the local bar. Jake Sisko is perhaps the most interesting example. The show plays with the audience’s assumption that Jake will become a Starfleet officer, because he is a human character and his father is commander of the station; he is basically Wesley. But he is not.

Deep Space Nine wryly subverts audience expectations. Starfleet clearly means a lot to Benjamin Sisko, as demonstrated by his vindictive pursuit of Eddington in For the Uniform. Sisko very clearly expects that his son will follow in his footsteps, to the point of arranging for him to intern with Chief O’Brien in Shadowplay. However, Jake ultimately charts his own course, deciding to become a writer in Explorers. He serves as a reporter for the Federation News Service in episodes like … Nor the Battle to the Strong, and The Visitor suggests that he might be a novelist.

Deep Space Nine imagines life outside of the Federation and beyond the Starfleet uniform. There had always been an unspoken assumption in the Star Trek universe that the Federation represent the right way for a society to develop. This was most obvious in the early seasons of The Next Generation, with the characters looking down their noses at the Anticans or the Selay in Lonely Among Us or deriding the Ferengi in The Last Outpost. Later seasons thankfully toned that down, but the assumption hung in the air; the Federation was better than everybody else.

Deep Space Nine instead takes many of the assumption other cultures at face value, and asks what happens if you take those ideas seriously. To be fair, it inherited some of this from the exploration of the Klingons on The Next Generation. In some respects, the focus on Klingon politics and traditions in A Matter of Honour, Sins of the Father and (particularly) Redemption, Part II paved the way for more adventurous storytelling on Deep Space Nine. There is a clear connection to be drawn.

However, when The Next Generation explored alien cultures, it did so through the lens of human values and human regular characters; even Worf and Data had largely been raised by humans. Redemption, Part II devoted considerable time and energy to the mechanics of a Klingon Civil War, but the episode still had to find things for the regular cast to do; it still demanded a subplot focusing on Starfleet officers. Deep Space Nine had the luxury of being able to look past that.

It is no small irony that the first episode to do that would be The Nagus, focusing on the oft-derided Ferengi. The Ferengi were a failure at that point, a bunch of new adversaries for The Next Generation seeded as early as Encounter at Farpoint who landed so poorly that they were reduced to comic relief. However, The Nagus made a point to treat Ferengi culture with respect and integrity, to accept the values established as core to their identity rather than to mock them. The viewpoint characters in these stories would be actual Ferengi, not human interlopers.

Over the course of its seven-season run, Deep Space Nine would typically devote one or two episodes in each season to exploring Ferengi culture and traditions; The Nagus, Rules of Acquisition, Prophet Motive, Family Business, Bar Association, Body Parts, Ferengi Love Songs, The Magnificent Ferengi, Profit and Lace, The Emperor’s New Cloak and The Dogs of War. While some of these episodes would have subplots focusing on regular characters, the primary plot threads tended to be driven by Quark and his family, on their own terms.

These episodes were not well-received at the time. There are a number of reasons for this. The Ferengi were still considered something of a joke, and devoting whole episodes to the Ferengi was seen as an example of Deep Space Nine taking attention away from elements that fans actively wanted to see. However, there is also the fact that two of the last three Ferengi episodes (Profit and Lace and The Emperor’s New Cloak) were actively terrible and may have retroactively poison any good will that the writing staff had accrued.

However, these episodes were remarkable for a number of reasons. The writing staff built up a recurring pool of Ferengi characters, each with their own personality and set of relationships; Rom, Nog, Zek, Ishka, Brunt. More than that, these episodes tended to be about Ferengi culture rather than about Federation interactions with Ferengi culture. These episodes took the core premise of Ferengi culture – pure unchecked greed – and built a reasonably plausible alien society around it; with burial rights, religious beliefs, institutional power structures, foreign policy.

The Ferengi were perhaps the most obvious example. After Ronald D. Moore joined the writing staff in the third season, Deep Space Nine made a conscious effort to focus on Klingon culture and ideals in a manner similar to The Next Generation. The Way of the Warrior introduced the character of Martok, a true red-blooded Klingon in contrast to Worf’s human-reared Klingon. Martok became part of the regular recurring cast after In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light, and his position in the larger ensemble allowed for more Klingon-centric stories.

Deep Space Nine featured three episodes that unfolded primarily on Klingon vessels with Klingon crews; Soldiers of the Empire, Sons and Daughters and Once More Unto the Breach. Ira Steven Behr and Ronald D. Moore joked that the pitch for these episodes was effectively “Star Trek: Klingon.” It could reasonably be argued that these episodes spent more time focusing on Klingon culture than episodes of The Next Generation or Discovery, even going so far as to present Klingon culture without the prism of a human character.

The Ferengi and the Klingons are perhaps the best examples of this approach, but it permeated Deep Space Nine. In the early season, Federation and Starfleet characters were frequently treated as passengers in stories about Bajor and Cardassia. Progress focused on a dynamic between Kira and another Bajoran character, Duet focused on Kira trying to hold a Cardassian war criminal to account. The second season premiere – The Homecoming, The Circle, The Siege – focused on what amounted to a military coup on Bajor.

This is to say nothing of how the show would flesh out other cultures in the background. The Jem’Hadar were developed in episodes like The Abandoned, Hippocratic Oath and Rocks and Shoals. The Vorta got a tragic back story in Treachery, Faith and the Great River. The Cardassian Union was carefully cultivated and developed across the seven-year run of the series, shaded and detailed in stories the revealed perhaps the franchise’s most nuanced alien culture that could not be easily reduced to single traits like the Klingons or the Ferengi or the Borg.

On Star Trek and The Next Generation, big galactic events tended to focus on the Federation rather than the other major characters. The Federation might have opened communications with the Klingons and the Romulans to look for support, but the Borg invasion in The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II was consciously targeted at Earth. Even in the midst of the Klingon Civil War in Redemption, Part I and Redemption, Part II, Starfleet was key in exposing Romulan support for the House of Duras.

On Deep Space Nine, the other galactic powers had their own agency and their own dynamics. Bajor and Cardassia signed a piece treaty in Life Support, which did not directly affect the Federation. Romulus and Cardassia mounted a stealth attack upon the Dominion in Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast, with Starfleet making a conscious decision to sit out that mission and wait for the result. Deep Space Nine imagined a world in which the Federation and Starfleet were not the only games in town, instead only one player on a much larger board.

Deep Space Nine explored the inevitable tension of this approach to alien cultures. Of course, The Next Generation would frequently embroil the Enterprise in these cultural disputes, but there was always the tension of the Prime Directive and the unspoken assumption that the Federation should avoid wading into these disputes where possible. Deep Space Nine seemed much more pragmatic, accepting that to be part of the wider universe meant having to deal with other cultures with different values.

Indeed, one of the most subtle and telling moments in Deep Space Nine comes in the early episode Battle Lines. Sisko is planning to rescue a bunch of exiles from a hellish planet. Bashir, who in many ways represented traditional Star Trek idealism, makes passing reference to the Prime Directive. Sisko has little time for that argument; these people are suffering, and Sisko can end their suffering, and there is no time for debate about positioning oneself above the fray. This set the tone for the years that would follow.

The characters on Deep Space Nine occasionally discovered that boundaries must exist for cultures to coexist in peace and harmony. Worf generally enjoyed a great deal of latitude in pursuing Klingon traditions and customs on the station, but Sisko drew the line under allowing Worf to ritually murder his brother Kurn in Sons of Mogh. More to the point, episodes like Chimera suggested that the larger Star Trek franchise was nowhere near as tolerant of different cultures as it claimed to be, insisting that there was further to go.

The show occasionally explored how the other characters interacted with Quark. Sisko was revealed to hold some serious anti-Ferengi prejudice in The Nagus and The Jem’Hadar. (This was understandable; Captive Pursuit makes it clear that Quark is a sexual predator.) Similarly, Kira had to fend off the Nagus’ advances in Rules of Acquisition and dealt with Quark trying to use her biometric data to produce porn in Meridian. However, very few of these episodes dealt directly with the Federation trying to influence Ferengi politics or policies.

In some ways, this allowed the optimism and humanism of Deep Space Nine to shine through. Deep Space Nine repeatedly suggests that societies can change, but that those changes need to come from the inside. This is perhaps why Sisko never completes his mission to induct Bajor into the Federation, the task set in Emissary, even going so far as to interrupt a signing ceremony in Rapture. In many ways, Deep Space Nine seems to argue that societies need to change on their own terms, but those terms are often influenced through passive exposure to liberal ideas.

Ferengi culture gradually evolves over the course of Deep Space Nine, with the series repeatedly suggesting that key individuals have been exposed to outside ideas and to better ways of living without any direct foreign intervention. Rules of Acquisition and Family Business suggest that there are Ferengi women who yearn for freedom. In Profit and Lace, Zek begins to push Ferengi culture towards a more liberal and equitable model. By The Dogs of War, Zek has implemented progressive taxation and environmental laws.

This happens without a lecture from Sisko, without a plot where Quark learns the true value of women’s independence from Dax, without a storyline about the Federation opening cultural exchanges with Ferenginar. Deep Space Nine argues that open borders and open opportunities encourage the spread of liberal ideals, that characters like Quark and Rom and Nog cannot help but be influenced by the pervasive optimism and idealism around them. Quark and his family left Ferenginar, and exposed themselves to whole new ways of seeing the world.

On Star Trek and The Next Generation, it was frequently suggested that the only way for a society to achieve utopia was to join the Federation. In contrast, Deep Space Nine suggests that such changes need to come from within these societies themselves. Damar’s evolution from Cardassian nationalist to rebel leader, between Return to Grace and What You Leave Behind, epitomises this philosophy. The Cardassian Union rejects poisonous nationalism through characters like Damar and Garak, who come to recognise how toxic and dangerous these attitudes are.

Similarly, the Klingon Empire is redeemed through characters like Worf and Martok. In When It Rains… and Tacking Into the Wind, Worf is forced to evaluate his relationship with an institution that he has romanticised and fetishised over the prior decades. Worf and Martok do not need Federation assistance to bring about this change, although Sisko seems to condone any course of action that will stabilise a key political ally in the midst of an intergalactic war. “In the long run, the only people who can really handle the Klingons… are Klingons.”

This approach can be contrasted even with the Star Trek series that followed Deep Space Nine, with no other Star Trek embracing multicultural ideals in a similar fashion. In fact, Voyager and Enterprise often seemed afraid of interacting with alien cultures, treating them as something of which Starfleet should be wary. Voyager occasionally seemed outright reactionary in its racial politics, as demonstrated by its treatment of the Kazon or by episodes like Displaced or Day of Honour. Similarly, Enterprise was coloured by the cultural context of the War on Terror.

However, even when alien cultures changed on Voyager and Enterprise, they seemed to be guided and shaped by Starfleet crews. The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II proposes that Hirogen society can be preserved through the gifting of Federation technology. In The Forge, Awakening and Kir’Shara, the Vulcan High Command is redeemed when Surak of Vulcan is blended with Captain Jonathan Archer. In Divergence and Affliction, the flat-headed Klingons of classic Star Trek are created by hybridising Klingons with augments.

Deep Space Nine seemed to understand that it was important for other cultures to retain their identities and their values, while also acknowledging the core Star Trek belief that cooperation and interaction had the effect of spreading liberalism and progressivism. Deep Space Nine did not reject the utopian beliefs at the heart of Star Trek, instead insisting that utopia is something that must be found through exploration and discussion, rather than imposed through dogma.

In some ways, this approach to multiculturalism in the alien races populating the larger Star Trek universe was reflected in the way that Deep Space Nine approached more human matters of race. Captain Benjamin Sisko was the first African American lead character to appear in Star Trek. Although the production team did audition white actors like Peter Capaldi, Rick Berman and Michael Piller had always intended that Deep Space Nine would have an African American lead character. However, Deep Space Nine went even further with that idea.

Deep Space Nine has the most diverse cast of any Star Trek series. There is not one white American character in the primary cast; there is an African American commander, a Sudanese British doctor, an Irish engineer. The two white American men in the cast, Rene Auberjonois and Armin Shimerman, are both buried under latex as the aliens Odo and Quark. In terms of the show’s vast supporting cast, the audience has to look as deep as Admiral William Ross to find a major white American character. (Michael Eddington is implied to be Canadian in Blaze of Glory.)

By and large, the Star Trek franchise has tended to be quite “colour blind” in how it approaches characters of different ethnic backgrounds. For all the praise that the original Star Trek got for its diverse cast, it afforded those diverse supporting cast members little sense of their cultural background beyond Scotty’s exaggerated accent and Chekov’s cartoonish nationalism. Sulu did not get a first name until Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and Uhura did not get a first name until Star Trek.

By and large, this carried over to the Berman era. There is very little specificity in the franchises supporting cast members of colour, whether Geordi LaForge on The Next Generation, Harry Kim on Voyager, or Travis Mayweather on Enterprise. There is nothing inherently wrong with this; Geordi LaForge develops into a full formed character with a distinct identity. However, it should be noted that the later Star Trek shows did tend to marginalise primary cast members of colour, depriving characters like Kim or Mayweather of any identity whatsoever.

However, Deep Space Nine rejects the idea that Benjamin Sisko can ever be (or even should ever be) completely separated from their cultural background. Avery Brooks was likely a large part of this, working with Ira Steven Behr to develop the character of Benjamin Sisko in a way that fleshed out the commanding officer into a fully-formed human being. Benjamin Sisko is not solely (or even primarily) defined by the colour of his skin or his cultural background, but it informs a great deal of who he is.

Deep Space Nine understands that Sisko’s ethnicity makes him different than Kirk or Picard. Not better, not worse; just different. And there is nothing inherently wrong in acknowledging that difference. Sisko’s African American heritage is explored in a number of ways over the course of the series, both subtle and overt. In The Search, Part I and The Search, Part II, Sisko redecorates his quarters using antiques and artifacts of African origin. Sisko’s off-duty wardrobe is more colourful and more overtly influenced by African designs.

Deep Space Nine explores Sisko’s family and background, with Sisko demonstrating considerable pride at his family in New Orleans. He cooks creole food for his friends, his family and his senior staff in episodes like Equilibrium. He even visits his father in Homefront and Paradise Lost. Of course, Sisko is many other things as well. Emissary establishes that Sisko is a fan of baseball, while Explorers confirms that Sisko likes to build things. Sisko is a keen military strategist, a wry observer of human nature, and an intensely proud officer.

However, Deep Space Nine understands that it would be impossible and ill-advised to ignore Sisko’s ethnicity. Far Beyond the Stars finds the character thrown back to the fifties in order to tell an allegorical story about the importance of seeing more diversity in science-fiction and celebrating the importance of an African American commanding officer. In Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang, Sisko even goes so far as to (correctly and justifiably) call out Bashir’s fancy Las Vegas holoprogram for glossing over the racism of the sixties by pretending that it doesn’t exist.

Avery Brooks has pointed out that Sisko’s relationship with his son is very much a response to pop culture stereotypes about fatherhood in the African American community. The bond between Benjamin and Jake Sisko is perhaps the strongest relationship running through Deep Space Nine, and episodes like The Visitor and What You Leave Behind seem to suggest that the two will always be connected in some form or another. The writing staff were very conscious that Deep Space Nine was being watched by modern audiences in a modern context.

The production team even touched upon race in the time travel episodes Past Tense, Part I and Past Tense, Part II, in which the characters find themselves thrown back in time to the twenty-first century and the birth of the Star Trek universe. The writing imagine vast “sanctuary districts” built to house the dispossessed, including the homeless and the mentally ill. Sisko, Bashir and Dax are found lying on the street. Sisko and Bashir are both sent to sanctuary districts, while Dax evades arrest. It is no coincidence that Dax could pass as a white woman.

This cognisance of race might explain how Deep Space Nine avoid the awkward racial politics that defined the early seasons of Voyager. Deep Space Nine never produced an episode as embarassingly racist as Tattoo or Alliances. (Sadly, Deep Space Nine tended to make its own missteps in relation to gender and sexuality; Let He Who Is Without Sin, Profit and Lace, The Emperor’s New Cloak.) Indeed, some of Deep Space Nine‘s awareness of race has aged very well indeed, such as the enhanced interrogation of Sudanese Doctor Bashir in Inquisition.

Deep Space Nine was in many ways the most diverse Star Trek series, both in terms of its characters and its cast. In its own way, it represents the purest distillation of the franchise’s core values of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations”, building logically and organically off of Star Trek and The Next Generation. It is a shame that Voyager and Enterprise did not manage to build further upon those trends. Discovery represents a clear step back in the right direction, but it still feels like it could push further than it really has.

Twenty-five years later, Deep Space Nine seems to represent the very edge of the idealism suggested by the final frontier.

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5 Responses

  1. I’m actually interested in this series, even though I’ve never really been into Star Trek outside of the feature films (which I’ve seen most of). However, there’s another series that I’m currently watching that has some interesting ties to this one. Babylon 5. Deep Space 9 came out a couple weeks before Babylon 5 did, and that caused some controversy, with viewers and critics claiming one show stole from the other, because both are so similar. I have reason to believe it was Deep Space 9 that stole/borrowed from Babylon 5 when taking into account the pilot movie The Gathering aired first, if I remember correctly. That, and that Babylon 5 spent 5 years in development (writing and such) before being green-lit for being filmed as a tv show.

    Either way, I hear that both are excellent.

  2. Great piece! DS9 is truly multicultural in that it represents not just people of different genders and skin colors, but also different cultures. Discovery is diverse, but most of the characters still seem recognizably “American”.

    • That’s fair. I remember reading that a lot of Americans were somewhat confused by Bashir, a man of North African or Middle Eastern extraction who spoke with a British accent. This was not something that a lot of people outside of the United Kingdom would have seen on television at that time.

  3. Excellent write-up, Darren! This is a great summary of the themes you have been touching on throughout your reviews of the individual DS9 episodes. I posted a link to this in my own piece about the show…

    https://benjaminherman.wordpress.com/2018/01/17/star-trek-deep-space-nine/

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