Movies

A qualified case for watching Deep Space Nine

I watched Star Trek for the first time in 2016. Following Max Temkin’s guide for The Next Generation’s essential episodes, I fell in love with the series and ended up going back to watching most of the episodes. The experience became an important part of my life. I had never seen a show like The Next Generation before and I’m pretty certain no other show like it exists. When I reached the end of the series I wanted to keep the Star Trek train rolling so I sought out the other series. I found Temkin’s follow-up list, a passionate case for why Deep Space Nine is worth watching, and I gave it a shot.

For those who haven’t been in a room with Star Trek fans before, Deep Space Nine is sort of the ugly duckling of the franchise. In my experience, there are three types of Star Trek fans, each defined by the first series they saw. The Original Series veterans who loved its goofiness and big ideas; The Next Generation fans who followed the franchise’s revival in the late 80s/early 90s and make up the bulk of the fandom; and the Voyager fans who are the youngest and latched onto the more modern approach to Star Trek. In my experience, these are the three camps I run into when talking about Star Trek. I’ve never met a fan of Deep Space Nine who didn’t give a huge amount of qualifiers before stating their enjoyment of the series.

So — I come to you now — a Next Generation fan, who actually likes Deep Space Nine a lot, but I have many qualifiers. I recommend reading Temkin’s guide, but below I’ve added some additional thoughts that I think are necessary when considering Deep Space Nine in a modern context. For Temkin and other fans, Deep Space Nine may have been their first exposure — or most memorable exposure — to long-form storytelling with gritty realism and plot twists, but to compare the show to Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones is setting up expectations the show cannot possibly live up to. That said, there is something valuable in Deep Space Nine’s storytelling but I want to qualify what that value is.

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Gul Dukat, one of the more complicated characters in Deep Space Nine.

How it’s different from Next Generation

As Temkin says in his thoughts, Deep Space Nine has fundamental differences that separate it from other Star Trek shows. For starters, there’s no ship. Deep Space Nine is the name of a space station that sits outside a stabilized wormhole that connects the Alpha Quadrant and Gamma Quadrant of the Milky Way galaxy. Additionally, this wormhole is located near the planet Bajor — a planet that only recently gained its independence after multiple decades of military occupation from another race known as Cardassians. The Federation has been installed on Deep Space Nine to keep the peace between Bajorans and Cardassians, as well as oversee expeditions to and from the Gamma quadrant. Whereas most Star Trek shows can be serialized as a variety of different missions given to their respective captains and crew, Deep Space Nine stays in one place. Whatever conflict occurred last week, or last season, continues in the future episodes. This also means the show tends to deal with political debacles rather than scientific ones.

These conflicts often exist outside of the politically neutral Federation, which leads to the other significant departure from other shows: most of the cast is not affiliated with the Federation and by extension most of the stories are about life outside the Federation. The crew is helmed by Benjamin Sisko, and he’s assisted by chief science officer Jadzia Dax, chief engineer Miles O’Brien (returning from Next Generation), and chief medical officer Julian Bashir — but the majority of the senior staff and reoccurring characters have their own backgrounds and storylines. First officer Kira Nerys is a Bajoran officer who fought Cardassians during the occupation of Bajor; chief of security Odo is a shapeshifter who operated under Cardassian rule but views himself as purely committed to justice; Quark is a Ferengi and the only bartender on the station; and Garak is a Cardassian tailor who seems to have an intriguing former life. In addition to these reoccurring characters, Deep Space Nine quickly adds more characters into the mix. Benjamin Sisko’s son, Jake Sisko, and Quark’s nephew, Nog, form a friendship early in the series and that relationship develops more than you might expect. There are many side characters including Gul Dukat, Martok, the Grand Nagus, Winn Adami, Rom, Leeta, Shakaar and of course Morn.

Why so many characters? Next Generation showed through its storylines about Worf that the show could achieve more meaningful depth if its intergalactic conflicts were tied to a crew member who had a personal connection to the issue at hand. Worf’s tumultuous family history and his identity as Klingon warrior versus human security officer were persistent storylines throughout the entirety of the Next Generation — many of which are the greatest episodes of the series. Deep Space Nine expands that approach by enveloping multiple races and tying them to specific characters. This allowed the show to tell more stories and fill in the universe of Star Trek that made it feel real. In Deep Space Nine, you get a deep view on the culture, identity, aspirations and problems of the various races that wasn’t possible in Next Generation.

With that in mind, the biggest departure from previous Star Trek shows is Deep Space Nine lacks the optimism that made the series iconic. Star Trek had always been about existing in a utopia and combating the problems of the next millennia. There were no material wants that left people hungry or sick. It was a society of abundance that left people to pursue their deepest desires for the betterment of mankind. In line with this utopian vision of the future, the writing team of Next Generation wasn’t allowed to have the characters be in conflict with each other. If you watch episodes such as Measure of the Man or The First Duty, you’ll see how episodes with obvious interpersonal conflicts are resolved respectfully. Since Deep Space Nine exists outside of the ideals of the Federation, all of that is thrown out the window. Characters yell at each other a lot and many of the solutions don’t follow Federation regulations.

So to review: a Star Trek show with no ship, deeper character backgrounds, more world-building and moral ambiguity. Sounds pretty interesting, right? It is. But there’s some things I have to prepare any viewer for:

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Deep Space Nine has way more goofy episodes compared to other Star Trek series, such as this episode where the station plays baseball against Vulcans, luckily most of these comedic episodes are quite good.

Some qualifiers to keep in mind.

There is a lot of mysticism.

In the first episode of Deep Space Nine it becomes apparent that some type of lifeform exists within the wormhole. The crew attempts to communicate with this being but its messages are bizarre and ambiguous. Any fan of Next Generation will remember plenty of episodes where a strange lifeform appears to have supernatural ability (crystalline entity in season 5, for example). While Next Generation was committed to treating these entities as unknown beings that could be studied, a lot of Deep Space Nine deals in prophecies, belief and faith. Specifically, the Bajorans see the wormhole entities as “prophets,” and refer to them as such. There are a few episodes where Bajoran leaders have religious experiences with “the prophets.” In some ways, this approach of recontextualizing what religion and faith can be is fascinating. However, the show isn’t always consistent with how it treats religion and folklore. Could you imagine an episode of The Next Generation ending with two spiritual deities firing red and blue lasers at each other to prevent the apocalypse from occurring? Well, that exact scene happens in an episode of Deep Space Nine. If you’re someone who’s big into the SCIENCE part of Star Trek’s science fiction, these episodes can induce some eye rolls. There are a lot of them.

It is very inconsistent.

Temkin says in his write-up that if you’re enjoying the show by season 3 or 4, it’s a good point to start watching the episodes sequentially. I have to strongly disagree. Deep Space Nine has multiple massive step ups in quality in season 4, season 6 and season 7 — but I wouldn’t say the show is “good” until season 6. If I were to compare it to another show, it reminds me a lot of Angel, a spinoff series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Angel was a decent show for four seasons, but it received a big reboot in its fifth season that radically changed its format and quality for the better (it was then promptly canceled). Deep Space Nine follows a similar trajectory. The majority of the show has good ideas, but the whole thing doesn’t come together until season 6 or maybe season 7. I knew when the show got good because all of its attempts became successes. The humor was funny, the character motivations mattered, the drama was heartfelt and I cared about the stakes. A lot of the early seasons are sloppy executions of good ideas, but when Deep Space Nine works it really works.

On the topic of inconsistency it’s worth noting many of the characters of Deep Space Nine can either be well-rounded complex characters or loathsome clichés. I find it difficult to rank my “favorite” characters from the show. Part of me wants to make a passionate defense for Odo’s character and his arc, but there are plenty of episodes where he’s written like a sitcom grandfather who yells at kids to get off his lawn. Some of the characterizations of Odo in earlier seasons hang over the character’s development later in the show which makes it difficult to accept some pivotal events. On the flipside of that problem, many characters who start off as empty husks get an immense amount of development by the end of the show. Jake Sisko and Nog start off as comedic relief, but each character has a hugely significant arc in the show. All of this is to say, there will be moments where you love Deep Space Nine and there will be moments where you want to give up.

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Some characters, such as Doctor Julian Bashir, don’t receive any significant development until the later seasons.

Some of the world-building doesn’t make a lot of sense.

We live in an era where massively complicated worlds such as A Song of Ice and Fire, The Witcher or Westworld exist for mega fans to devour. They have multilayered storytelling, with fictionalized economies and cultures that are detailed in textbooks and other supplemental writings. The description of Deep Space Nine may suggest that this is Star Trek’s biggest foray into explaining the universe that had only been hinted at by the serialized format. Unfortunately, the results don’t always hold up.

The biggest standout is the Ferengi race, a culture built on absolute free market capitalism. Every Ferengi commits to memory a long list of “rules of acquisition.” These rules can sometimes be sound advice (“Greed is eternal,” or “Good customers are as rare as latinum. Treasure them.”) but they usually serve as comedic relief (“Never place friendship above profit,” or “Never have sex with the boss’ sister”). You get the sense that the rules of acquisition are mostly used as a gag rather than a mechanism to fill-in how Ferengi society operates.

Many overarching racial attributes for the various backgrounds in Deep Space Nine seem to be decided in a writer’s room for one specific episode, only for them to struggle to write around it in later episodes. For example, at one point in the show it’s revealed that Bajorans lived in a caste system not too long ago. This becomes very relevant for exactly one episode, but then the caste system — and its legion of supporters — are never mentioned again. In the context of a serialized show like Next Generation, this short-term memory loss about fundamental foundations of how a society exists could be forgiven. In the context of Deep Space Nine’s continuous storytelling, the forgetfulness can seem overly convenient and detracts from the reality of the world. You never get a sense of what matters and what doesn’t.

Baby’s first morally ambiguous hero.

Deep Space Nine is often pitched as a “darker” Star Trek. That’s probably true on paper, but when the franchise is defined by its ethos of optimism, going darker than that isn’t very difficult. Deep Space Nine tackles many grim storylines such as genocide, slavery, war wives, futile resistance, biological warfare, torture, post-traumatic stress disorder, racism, mental breaks and much more — but it’s all in the context of being a Star Trek show. There are moments where the bad guys do something truly horrific, and other times where they come off as Disney villains who have safety bumpers on their malice (because what the character would actually do doesn’t fit Star Trek’s tone). When Deep Space Nine commits to its purpose, it nails it. More often than not, it feels like a corny Nickelodeon show trying to feign villainy.

With all those qualifiers it’s easy to get down on the show, so here’s some good things about it:

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Often times the best episodes exist outside the Federation, such as this Ferengi episodes that’s modeled after The Magnificent Seven.

Why Deep Space Nine is worth watching.

Season 1’s Duet encapsulates Deep Space Nine’s potential.

Temkin notes in his guide that it’s difficult to recommend a single episode for new viewers since the continuous storytelling requires context for every episode. While this is true, the closest estimation of Deep Space Nine’s identity comes from its Season 1 episode Duet. You need a bit of context, but if you watched Next Generation and can answer: “Who are the Cardassians? Who are the Bajorans? What is their conflict?” You can follow the story of Duet.

In Duet, a traveler docks at Deep Space Nine reporting they have a terminal illness that needs treatment. First officer Kira Nerys recognizes the name of the illness as the side effect of a biological weapon that was used in a labor camp during the Cardassian occupation of Bajor. This implicates the traveler as someone who was either a Bajoran laborer or a Cardassian war criminal. The story combines Kira’s past with the universe’s sentiments toward Cardassians and Bajorans. It’s one of the best episodes of the series and acts as a sneak peek to what the show will eventually become.

Some of the world-building is incredible.

With so many characters, there are a lot of options for Deep Space Nine to dive into various races and cultures to liven things up. Typically these are done with the appropriate cast member delving into their own society. For example, Quark has to deal with a trade or commerce dispute on Ferenginar or Worf goes on an expedition with Klingons to achieve glory in battle. As I mentioned above, the lore around these stories can seem a bit silly, but the storylines themselves offer an amazing opportunity for characters to exist outside of the traditions of Star Trek. Some standout episodes include: Tribunal, O’Brien is put on trial through the Cardassian justice system; Prophet Motive, Quark learns that the Rules of Acquisition have been rewritten; Indiscretion, Kira looks into a missing Cardassian prison ship; Rules of Engagement, Worf is put on trial through the Klingon justice system; The Quickening, Bashir studies the effects of biological warfare against a planet in the Gamma Quadrant — and many more. These episodes standout because they would have never existed if it wasn’t for Deep Space Nine’s interest in exploring stories outside of the Federation.

An optimist’s approach to pessimism.

Often in anti-hero stories, there’s a strange fetishism with “being bad.” A series like The Punisher will focus on a protagonist who is supposedly a good person, but they use excessive violence against their enemies. You can see a similar dynamic in modern shows such as Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. Everyone will talk about Walter White’s descent into villainy, but the audience still cheers when he blows up a hospital or runs over a gangster. There’s something weird going on in when characters are written this way. What are we really celebrating? The hero’s good intentions or their revelry in evil? The “heroes” who perform these actions don’t see a contradiction in what they do and how they do it. They don’t question their goodness despite many actions that could suggest the contrary.

Deep Space Nine has moral ambiguity, but it doesn’t celebrate it. More often than not, the tough decisions are agonized over by characters and their decisions have consequences via their fellow crew members who draw a hard line between good and evil. There are obvious examples where these relationships can be complicated — such as Kira’s past as a resistance fighter, or Odo’s role as a source of order during wartime — but some of the more surprising examples are when it comes from characters you don’t expect. One of my favorite episodes follows Jake Sisko as he tries war reporting. He begins the assignment with ambitions of being a brave correspondent who gets the gritty story, but he walks away from the experience scared and ashamed of his glorification of war. Many of the characters in Deep Space Nine struggle with these problems and the show handles all of these cases with grace.

Far Beyond the Stars.

When I tell people why I like Star Trek, I tell them to check out The Next Generation episode The Inner Light. It’s an episode that explains the importance of Star Trek. Deep Space Nine has its own version of that idea, although its execution is radically different. Far Beyond the Stars is the best episode of Deep Space Nine. It’s practically a standalone episode, but the episode requires the show’s context to understand its significance. It’s an episode about the importance of stories and how Star Trek isn’t a series of whacky hypotheticals about the future, it’s a collection of insight to understanding our current moment. For anyone who’s had a story change their life, or anyone who’s a writer that wants to believe their work is important, Far Beyond the Stars speaks directly to you. It’s powerful.

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This blog may have been more convincing for reasons not to watch the show than to give a chance, but I hope it gave insight into the strengths of Deep Space Nine. I’d recommend following Temkin’s list and liberally skipping episodes if they don’t interest you by the teaser. I personally wasn’t a huge fan of the Bajoran conflict storylines. They felt overly complicated for no real purpose. I also wasn’t a huge fan of Garak’s storylines because they were too corny. But even with those general guidelines, there were exceptions and I eventually found myself watching almost every episode rather than skipping most of them. By the later seasons, I found myself investing time in every episode just in case there was something worthwhile hidden away. That’s Deep Space Nine in a nutshell. There’s a lot of digging, but when you find something good it’s worth the effort.

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