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Non-Review Review: What We Left Behind

Part of what is so remarkable about What We Left Behind is the way in which it feels more like a testament (and love letter) to how series producer and documentary co-directory Ira Steven Behr saw the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine than an exploration of the show itself.

This is not a surprise. Indeed, the poster for the documentary notably features Behr holding the eponymous space station in the palms of his hand, as much trying to figure it out for himself as offer it to the audience watching. Behr jokes that the documentary began production in 2012, but spent three years trying to figure out its identity and its angle. With its release in 2019, this puts Behr in the paradoxical position of having lived with What We Left Behind for almost as long as he lived with Deep Space Nine itself.

There isn’t too much in What We Left Behind that a dedicated fan won’t already know about the show’s production and history, but that’s not the point. An early sequence in the documentary exists largely in order to caution the viewer against interpreting the accounts offered in the documentary too literally. Repeatedly, actors and writers contradict themselves and each other. At one point, Robert Hewitt Wolfe casually recalls the finer details of Shadows and Symbols better than Hans Beimler, who actually wrote the episode. “I wasn’t even on the show at that point!” Wolfe jokes.

However, the documentary comes back time and again to the second season episode The Wire in order to explain these competing accounts and contradictory stories. They all hint at some greater truth.

Instead of offering a rote point-by-point history of Deep Space Nine as a piece of television or as part of the larger Star Trek franchise, What We Left Behind feels like an accounting of Deep Space Nine, and an effort to put it in perspective for Behr himself. The documentary’s tangents and divergences are all built around Behr himself and his own interests, the material brought to screen reflecting his own interests and priorities as an archivist examining work that was shaped and charted by him.

These segments are often revealing in what they say about both Deep Space Nine and What We Left Behind. At one point, discussing Michael Piller, Behr discusses the producer’s great innovation in terms of Star Trek storytelling; the realisation that plot is less important than character. Behr internalised that lesson very well. What We Left Behind is very much about the character of Deep Space Nine more than the finer details.

This is true even if the hypothetical eighth season premiere that the writers break throughout the documentary. The original plan was to include that session as an extra for fundraisers and backers, to package it on the home media release. Instead, Behr jokingly spends an extended period towards the end of the documentary explaining what material has been relegated to the status of “special features” to make room for that tangent within the documentary itself.

Blocking a hypothetical eighth season premiere for a series that ended twenty years ago sounds like the height of indulgence, and it is. It would be justified in bringing these writers back together of itself, but it also illuminated a fundamental truth about how Behr and his writing staff see Deep Space Nine. The reunion story that the writers craft is driven far more by emotion than by plot mechanics. At various points, characters appear and disappear from the narrative with little warning or set-up, because they feel like they belong in a particular scene or beat.

The nicer touches of What We Left Behind are small but illuminating. As Robert Hewitt Wolfe breaks the plot on a white board, a quick close-up reveals that the writers plan to have one of the characters “TECH the TECH.” The actual technobabble mechanics are dull and inessential. The particulars are less important – less “true” – than the feeling attached to the various developments. This holds true to the documentary itself. Those looking for lots of behind-the-scenes gossip may be disappointed, but the film does offer a lot of the slice of life on the series.

What We Left Behind serves largely to underline, emphasise and stress what Behr thinks made Deep Space Nine so unique. On these terms, it’s very insightful and illuminating. Behr doesn’t focus on the beats that fans might expect given the show’s reputation and legacy; there is no long discussion of the impressive battle sequences, there is no in-depth exploration of the larger franchise dynamics outside of some basic context, there is no real engagement with the perceived cynicism of the show. That’s not what Deep Space Nine is about to Behr.

In fact, the documentary very literally refuses to open on the big battle scenes from Sacrifice of Angels. Behr keeps coming back to the show’s beating heart, the humanism and its compassion at its core. Behr devotes a stretch at the end of the film to joking about the exclusion of various fan favourite episodes and talking points from the documentary, emphasising how consciously What We Left Behind was shaped. Some of the exclusions are very striking, if only because they seem nominally “important” to understanding Deep Space Nine.

However, they are not essential to Behr’s understanding of what Deep Space Nine is and was. Allowing for the material that is omitted, it’s telling that Behr devotes entire segments of What We Left Behind to discussing often overlooked episodes like Past Tense, Part I and Past Tense, Part II or broader allegories like Far Beyond the Stars. Behr is unapologetic in these terms. What We Left Behind does not gloss over the progressive politics or particular cultural context of Deep Space Nine, instead tackling these elements head-on.

Although Avery Brooks declined to participate in What We Left Behind, the documentary makes a point to place Sisko at the centre of the show; the question of why Avery Brooks was forced to grow hair and shave his beard to make audiences feel comfortable, the importance of Benjamin’s relationship to Jake, the number of scenes on the show focused on the African American characters. Deep Space Nine was the most multicultural and diverse Star Trek series, and What We Left Behind takes ownership of that.

What We Left Behind understands how well Deep Space Nine has aged. There is a sense of deserved celebration on What We Left Behind as the talking heads discuss things like the series’ use of terrorism or the exploration of racial identity in the twenty-fourth century. This might seem grandiose or indulgent, but it helps that those involved maintain a sense of humour about themselves and that the series remains something of an under-appreciated gem in the nineties pop cultural canon.

Notably, Deep Space Nine has also aged well in a much more literal manner. Much has been made of the use of scanned film negative in What We Left Behind, even colour-corrected by cinematographer Jonathan West himself. This is the first time that Deep Space Nine has been available in high definition, and it looks beautiful. The colours are vivid, the blacks are rich, the lighting is stunning. While a high definition remaster of Deep Space Nine remains unlikely, What We Leave Behind showcases what a treasure it would be.

It’s fitting that What We Left Behind is just as weird and esoteric as Deep Space Nine itself. It reflects Behr’s sensibilities in ways both large and small. It’s notable how much time Behr spends with the actors who played the Ferengi, despite fandom’s muted reaction to them. It’s also notable how much space the documentary affords to lounge singing, despite that being an eccentric part of the show’s mythos. Indeed, Behr’s choice of opening and closing sequences are very revealing, contextualising the documentary as his own subjective effort to contextualise Deep Space Nine.

It’s telling that Behr reserves his harshest criticisms for himself – for what he perceives as his own lack of moral courage in certain aspects of the series, which have garnered some media coverage in early reviews. Behr is generous to everybody, but tough on himself.  Indeed, the interviews are very careful to avoid directing anger at other individuals, even where the stories being told have been documented elsewhere. Notably, the account of Terry Farrell’s departure in What We Left Behind is consciously fuzzier than the version offered in The Fifty-Year Mission.

What We Left Behind is a loving, eccentric, esoteric celebration of the most unique series in the Star Trek canon. It’s a twenty-year-late victory lap for what several cast members describe as the “bastard stepchild” of the franchise in this very documentary. It’s a delight, and a well-earned one at that.

6 Responses

  1. I don’t have much to add at this point other than I like your take on the documentary and I think that’s an accurate summary of its character…

    …that and I howled at the inclusion of a scene from “the greatest episode,” of Deep Space Nine at the end.

    • Ha! I have a soft spot for “the greatest episode” of Deep Space Nine. I mean, it’s bad, but it’s weird. And willing to be weird is better than trying to settle for mediocrity. At least for me.

  2. A DS9 HD remaster needs to happen. That terrible cave set they used about a dozen times (or more) would probably be the most improved part of it.

  3. I watched it yesterday in Berlin together with a rather peculiar audience and was very moved. All scences, but most of all the battle scenes from “Sacrifice of Angels” were stunning, to say the least. You would just wish to sit together with this cast which has aged mostly pretty well (maybe with a little help in some cases) and seems to consist mainly of very modest and kind people. And I did like their take on a storyline for the 8th season. Too bad it won’t happen. Still, I am grateful for the opportunity to watch this on the big screen and for this nicely and reflective documentary about my favorite show. I cannot, but have to wait for all the bonus stuff on the DVD.

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