Star Trek will always be with me. The geek landscape may continue to migrate centerward, and I may not always accept what is being presented to me (my personal heresy: I’m not too fond of the Avengers movie series), but I was bitten by the Star Trek bug at an early age, and that particular affliction is one I will always enjoy flaunting. Hence, I have recently taken it upon myself to collect and actively catch up on all the Star Trek series to date (starting with Voyager, down through Enterprise, and currently wrapping up Deep Space Nine).
In so doing, I have learned something vital: Deep Space Nine is, in many respects, the best Star Trek series.
DS9 is, to most people, something of the red-headed stepchild of the Trek universe. Most agree about the classicism of the original, the classiness of NextGen, and the relative awfulness of Voyager and Enterprise, while there are still solid canon debates over the animated series. DS9, meanwhile, is often quietly enjoyed in the background. I know of no one who actively dislikes DS9, and yet it rarely makes it into the conversation.
This is a pity, as I have found it to be such a satisfying and complex piece of television. Allow me to convince you.
1. It Expands the Star Trek Universe
Star Trek holds the distinction of – perhaps – being the first sci-fi series to introduce the notion of canon; that is, that there is more occurring within the show than we, the viewers, get to see actively depicted. There are other characters, other ships, other adventures we are not privy to. It’s the detail that has allowed Trek to worm its way into the center of the geek heart. The first three Trek series dealt directly with the flagship of the Federation, and held to the ethos of the Trek philosophy. We frequently met others from the outside, but it they were always handled by – and viewed through the eyes of – the main characters of the show.
Deep Space Nine finally leaves the egalitarian comfort zone of TNG, and pushes us right outside of the human view of the universe. All of a sudden, we’re looking at a universe that, yes indeed, still includes war, conflict, strife, struggle for survival, politics, money, religion, and other complex, messy things. TNG would have you believe that the galaxy is ruled by the peace-loving Federation and the smart people aboard its flagship. DS9 shows that there is more in the galaxy than posh flagships. We now see that there is so much more than we thought before, and so many gaps begin to get filled in.
It’s one thing to have a conversation about a military occupation in the Enterprise briefing room. It’s quite another to base a series all around it.
2. It Has the Most Complex Captain
On all the Trek series, the captains are usually the most dynamic characters. They are complex leaders who have to make difficult decisions, and typically dictate the tone of the shows they are on. Kirk was a bold adventurer. Picard was an intelligent and aloof diplomat. Janeway was an obnoxiously chipper autocrat. Archer was a perpetually grinning white male archetype who got increasingly aggressive.
Benjamin Sisko, however, as played by the capable Avery Brooks, was the only captain who came across as a human being. He was angry, aggressive, forthright and confrontational. He was willing to negotiate, but allowed his passions to dictate his mind more often than naught. And yet, this was what gave him his strength.
3. It Finally Goes There
The original Star Trek was conceived during the Cold War, so there was never a proper firefight between the Federation (America), the Romulans (The USSR), or the Klingons (pirates). The idea was that humanity had evolved past the need for war, and that war was pretty much at an end.
NextGen was even more peaceful, as it depicted a crew of peace-obsessed egalitarian diplomats who would go to any length to ensure that war would not occur. Of course, in this milieu, there was no real threat of war. This is the central theme of Star Trek, but it doesn’t include any sort of direct metaphor for the modern political quagmires of the modern day. Deep Space Nine introduced a galactic power from far away, the Dominion, and actually had peace talks break down. Some political powers want a show of force. And if you’re called the Dominion, you’re probably pretty keen to dominate.
We see that politics can be sticky, and that war is possible, even in Star Trek. That takes some gumption.
4. Its Cast Is Large and Eclectic
Looking at the other Trek series, you have a definite pattern of casting: Seven main characters, a kid, a few recurring characters, and a celebrity guest. Captain, first officer, science officer, engineer, helmsman, doctor, young one. Deep Space Nine started with this pattern, but grew and expanded very quickly to include as many as nine or ten main characters, including the addition of Worf partway through the series, and a second actress to play the character of Dax near the end of the series.
In addition to the central nine, there were no less than a dozen main players in the Deep Space Nine drama, who were far more than recurring characters. We had spies and popes and love interests and Dominion operatives and generals and extended families and Grand Nagus Zek. And each one was a fully realized, rich, interesting creature. Deep Space Nine, even though it stayed mobile, attracted hundreds and hundreds of people, and we finally got to see the famed Star Trek diversity on display.
Garak is one of the best Star Trek characters. Period.
5. It Addresses Religion
Gene Roddenberry, when he created the original Star Trek way back in the day, roundly rejected the studio note that the Enterprise should have a staff chaplain on board. Roddenberry was himself something of a Communist, and, from what little I know, didn’t think too much about religion. Although his eschewing of religious matters may just be an attempt to skirt controversy.
Deep Space Nine did not skirt controversy, and featured several stories that were based on religious principles, religious faith, and outright Gods. The main character of the show became a religious figure in the pilot episode, and slowly grew into his role as an emissary to the Prophets. The Ferengi talk about how their religion is based in money. Star Trek was finally bold enough to step over the line and discuss matters of religiosity, complete with positives and negatives; the Bajoran pope was a power-hungry opportunist, for instance.
There were no references to any Earth religions – that wouldn’t happen until Dr.Phlox mentioned attending Catholic mass at St. Patrick’s cathedral in Enterprise – but faith could finally be openly discussed. And seeing as how religion permeates human society, it’s nice to have that side of things opened up on Trek.
6. It Addresses Money
There was a line in Star Trek: First Contact that doesn’t sit well with me. Captain Picard explains to someone from the past that, in the future, people do not work for money and that they work to better themselves. I accept this, of course, and I see that the future is supposed to be a land of plenty where we’re very much in “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” territory.
But we know there are things of value in this universe, and that material gain is still the priority of many people…including humans. There is a sense of ownership in Star Trek, which implies some sort of currency.
Deep Space Nine finally gives it a name: gold-pressed latinum. The Ferengi believe, on a religious level, that material gain is the measure of virtue. The officers on the station also talk about having bar tabs and paying for services. So there is money in the future, after all. The Federation money is never named, but we know these people do get paid and have to buy drinks in restaurants. The mystery of currency was finally revealed.
I just hope that the name of Federation cash is something other than “credits.” That’s in every sci-fi show and movie.
7. It Has the Best Design
The Enterprise is one of the most iconic ship designs in all of popular culture, and I still love it to this day. All the Enterprise ships from various shows and movies are spindly, and seem to make sense for a ship that wouldn’t have to deal with air resistance. As much as I love the Enterprise of Next Generation, however, I agree with the criticisms that it looks, on the interior, like a cruise ship. Pastels, carpets, soft lighting. It’s a little too posh for a space craft.
Deep Space Nine has an awesome station design. Spidery, functional, a little off-center (it’s divided into thirds rather than quarters). What’s more, the costume and makeup designers had to invent a whole new array of background outfits, and they outdid themselves, inventing oddball outfits that somehow are alien, yet still look like formal wear. Plus, the makeup budget was larger, allowing for a more eclectic gaggle of bizarre aliens.
Deep Space Nine is the best looking of the Star Trek shows, bar none.
8. It’s Modern
One of the thematic centers of Star Trek has always been its keen sense of classicism. There are numerous references throughout all of Star Trek to ancient literature, old philosophies, and classical music. This makes Star Trek feel timeless. That classicism, however, can come to be a detriment when it comes to plotting. Sure, it’s exhilarating to explore ancient philosophies through sci-fi alien avatars, but one can get those same discussions in a more pure fashion in a Philosophy 201 class.
Deep Space Nine, by contrast, is almost deliberately modern. It deals with very real political and religious and wartime issues that are now more than academic postulations. The previous Star Treks look place in a world where we were kind of post-philosophy; where pragmatism had taken hold. Deep Space Nine is about figuring things out as you go along. About dealing with immediate conflicts and wartime drama, and how those decisions can’t be dealt with easily. Also, how they have consequences.
NextGen has read Sun Tzu. Deep Space Nine is on the front lines.
9. It Has the Courage to End Badly
Extending from the point above, Deep Space Nine was not afraid of living out the consequences of its actions. Unlike the previous Treks, DS9 went past the moral struggle to the point where performing evil actions may contribute to a greater good… or maybe not. There was room to grow animosity, to sacrifice people you respect, to murder and get away with it, and to feel horrible about the bad decisions you knew you had to make.
It wasn’t a deep analysis of evil like, say, Breaking Bad, which seemed to revel in how depraved its hero could become. It had its share of happy endings. But Deep Space Nine also had beneficial assassinations, rejected refugees, unforgiven family members, and much more complicated moral conflicts that don’t always have easy answers. Or perhaps they do, but someone is unable to complete their intended beneficial actions.
This is richer drama, folks.
10. It Has a Sense of Humor
Star Trek, when it comes to being funny, has always been unbelievably stodgy. I suppose when you’re exploring humanity’s idealized future, it’s hard to crack wise. The only moments of humor came from the mouths of recognizable character types. Dr. “Bones” McCoy was the curmudgeon, for instance. Data was an innocent who didn’t understand human conversation.
Deep Space Nine, by virtue of its more complex universe, was allowed to stretch and joke and be silly. The Ferengi, perhaps my favorite characters on the show, were often treated like comic relief characters, allowing Star Trek to have slapstick moments and broad comic archetypes. It wasn’t always as funny as it thought it was, of course – the writers were still not entirely well-suited to comedy – but at least there was some levity in the Star Trek universe that we hadn’t seen before, and haven’t seen since.
No. Neelix from Star Trek: Voyager most certainly doesn’t count.
Previously by Witney Seibold: