Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Happy 25th Birthday to STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine turns 25 years old today.

Deep Space Nine hit screens on 3 January 1993 with its feature-length pilot episode Emissary. The first spin-off from Star Trek: The Next Generation, the series was the first (and, to date, only) instalment of the Star Trek franchise not to be set on a starship. Instead, the show was focused on one location, the enormous Cardassian-built space station Deep Space Nine.

Inspired by the then-ongoing crisis in the Balkans and the collapse of the Soviet Union, DS9 did a number of things differently to the Star Trek shows that had come before. The premise was that the Cardassian Union had withdrawn from the Bajoran homeworld, which they had brutally occupied for forty years. Starfleet was invited to take charge of the abandoned Cardassian space station in orbit and advise on the rebuilding of Bajor. The series balanced a number of tensions against one another, particularly with those on Bajor who were fearful that they had swapped the militaristic yoke of the Cardassians for the much friendlier but still imperialistic fist of the Federation. These tensions were exacerbated in the opening episode when a stable wormhole between the Bajoran system and the distant Gamma Quadrant of the galaxy was found, leading to Bajor's economic boom and constant threats from the Cardassians to reclaim the system.

Early seasons revolved around Bajoran religious and political tensions, the rebuilding of the DS9 station and the attempts by Commander Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) to hold his crew together whilst he's been proclaimed a religious figure by the Bajorans. At the end of the second season a new threat was introduced: a powerful alien empire in the Gamma Quadrant known as the Dominion. Fed up with interlopers from the Alpha Quadrant, the Dominion infiltrated the Alpha Quadrant over the course of several years, using shapeshifting agents to ferment war between the Klingons and Federation and to destablise the Federation, Cardassian and Romulan governments. Eventually this led to the outbreak of full-scale war, with the Cardassians siding with the Dominion in a major conflict that lasted over two years.

What made Deep Space Nine work wasn't the space battles, explosion or (relative) cynicism compared to other Star Trek shows, but its consistency, its thematic coherence, its serialisation and, most of all, its characters. No other Star Trek show had such an eclectic crew of dysfunctional individuals, or so many non-Federation characters in the regular cast. Most successful amongst these were greedy Ferengi barkeep Quark (Armin Shimerman), order-obsessed shapeshifting sheriff Odo (Rene Auberjonois), and the grumpy-but-loyal engineer O'Brien (Colm Meaney), a transfer from The Next Generation. Later seasons also saw the arrival of Lt. Commander Worf (Michael Dorn) from TNG, who immediately found a new level of character development on the (somewhat) darker and more adult show. Deep Space Nine also accumulated a massive cast of recurring and returning characters played by outstanding actors, such as Dukat (Marc Alaimo), Winn (Actual Oscar Winner Louise Fletcher) and the incomparable Garak (Andrew Robinson) and Weyoun (Jeffrey Combs), probably the greatest assortment of villains and antiheroes in the history of Star Trek.

Deep Space Nine dealt seriously with topics including religion, politics, racism, refugee rights and warfare. It also developed alien species such as the Ferengi, Bajorans, Trill, Romulans and Klingons in far greater depth than on The Next Generation, and it also introduced its own great roster of villains and new races, most notably the three species that make up the Dominion: the Jem'Hadar, Vorta and Changelings. So successful was the Dominion that Star Trek: Enterprise tried to repeat the idea with the Xindi, although this was less successful. DS9 was also confident enough not to lean on the Borg, which ended up being over-used on Star Trek: Voyager to the point that they lose all of their original, formidable menace.

DS9 was also, easily, the funniest Star Trek show, with several outright comedy episodes that were very successful (most notably In the Cards, bus also several James Bond pastiches and 1950s pulp SF homage Little Green Men) and a great line in knowing humour. It even allowed Worf to lighten up and deliver some serious masterclasses in deadpan delivery. DS9 even took the mickey out of Star Trek itself, noting that its utopian society, although laudable, was perhaps both a little bland and at times a unfocused.
Jake: "I'm human! I don't have any money!"
Nog: "It's not my fault your species decided to abandon currency-based economics in favour of some philosophy of self-enhancement."
Sisko: "Hey, watch it! There's nothing wrong with out philosophy. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity."
Nog: "What does that mean, exactly?"
Jake: "It means...we don't need money."
Nog: "Well, if you don't need money you certainly don't need mine."
Most importantly, Deep Space Nine was very consistent in quality. The first season could be a little bland but it didn't have any outright-terrible episodes and had at least one stone-cold classic in Duet. By the end of the second season, DS9 was firing on all cylinders and somehow kept getting better. This contrasts with The Next Generation and Enterprise (Discovery is too new to see which way it's going to go yet), which both took at least three seasons to really find their feet, and Voyager, which never really settled down at all. Its worst episodes were nowhere near as awful as those of the other Star Trek shows and it's finest hours - Far Beyond the Stars, In the Pale Moonlight, The Visitor, DuetTrials and Tribble-ations - are right up there with the very best the franchise has to offer. Recent years have seen a re-appraisal of DS9 that has moved it up from being the ugly stepchild of the Star Trek franchise to frequently voted its finest incarnation. It also has the best finale episode of any Trek show (despite stiff competition from TNG's All Good Things).

DS9 also gave us another classic TV show that followed in its wake: four years after DS9 ended, producer-writer Ronald D. Moore regrouped with writers David Weddle, Bradley Thompson, Michael Taylor, Jane Espenson and others to create the revamped Battlestar Galactica, which delivered an even bleaker take on war, spirituality and technology.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary, a new DS9 documentary is in the works. What You Leave Behind will feature interviews with the creative team behind the show, the actors and many fans and appreciators. The documentary will be released later in 2018 and will also feature the first sequences from the show remastered in full HD, with the hope the rest of the series may follow.

Happy birthday, Deep Space Nine. Maybe one day we'll see a Star Trek series being as bold and innovative once again.


Pat Sammons said...

An excellent review of DS9. Time for a re-watch.

LeftHanded Matt said...

Great write up. DS9 is not only my favourite Trek show, it's my favourite TV show of all time. I'm happy to say that I'm in the middle of a re-watch now and I have to note that DS9 is the only Star Trek that has aged well and is able to fit among modern TV shows.

Can't wait for the documentary and HD footage, proud backer here.

Anonymous said...

Just scrolling mostly through the long Star Trek blogposts and catching "take the mickey out of", which I've frankly never seeen anywhere else but here. Oh well.