Thu, Sep
2
2004

Why Deep Space Nine is the Best Star Trek There Is.

Thu, Sep 2, 2004

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Brett Lamb made me do this. When he posted one post too many questioning my enjoyment of Deep Space Nine (Okay, he only did it twice), I just had to respond. So this lengthy post is his fault. If you don’t like it, complain to him.

So, why is Deep Space Nine the best Star Trek there is? Let me count the ways:


1. The Rest of Star Trek Doesn’t Provide a Lot of Competition

I normally would not have written this post because, while I enjoy Deep Space Nine and consider it the best of the Star Trek serials, I have a sense of perspective. Deep Space Nine is far from being the best science fiction television show ever produced. That honour goes to the virtually unknown Sapphire and Steel. And in between Deep Space Nine and Sapphire and Steel are, in no particular order, the Quatermass and the Pit 1950s BBC mini-series, Doctor Who, Buffy, Angel, The X-Files (before the latter half of the seventh season when the program lost its mind), The Prisoner, the new Battlestar Galactica, Farscape (by a long chalk) and Babylon 5 (during its third and fourth seasons when it was clicking on all cylinders). The only reason Twin Peaks and Carnivale don’t make this list, is that I’ve seen neither of these shows and know them only by reputation.

Television science fiction owes a lot to Star Trek. Star Trek made television science fiction respectable, and the many programs we’ve enjoyed since the mid 1990s made it to television due to the success Star Trek: The Next Generation. Star Trek also blazed the way in American television science fiction, offering such things as the first televised inter-racial kiss. But, to be frank, Star Trek was far from the best television science fiction had to offer. Until the mid 1990s, like most television, the Brits were doing it better (see Doctor Who, Quatermass and Sapphire and Steel). When American television science fiction caught up to the Brits, it was not with Star Trek, but with Babylon 5 and Buffy, which borrowed some of the narrative conventions of the best of British science fiction.

I like Deep Space Nine because it is the only Star Trek series that comes the closest to matching the achievements of the rest of television science fiction. In other words, I like Deep Space Nine because it is the Star Trek series that feels the least like Star Trek. Star Trek may have given us some memorable episodes (from the original series’ City on the Edge of Forever to Next Gen’s The Best of Both Worlds, Darmok and The Inner Light), but one thing that defines most Star Trek was its unrelenting optimism.


2. Deep Space Nine Was (Mostly) Free of Roddenberry’s Heavy Hand

Thanks to Gene Roddenberry’s vision, the Federation is a communist utopia, where money is irrelevant and where people pursue careers solely to better themselves and the rest of humanity. Every single problem of the twentieth century has been fixed, including the common cold. Humanity constantly rises above its baser natures and, if only the stupid warlike aliens can see their way to truth, justice and the Americ—I mean—Federation way, everybody would be a heck of a lot better off. All of this is a noble sentiment and, as I too believe that humanity does have a future, a valid prediction of what the twenty-fourth century could be like. However, two-hundred episodes of the same basic vision can wear thin after a while. The Next Generation characters are smug, their Federation is arrogant, and watching the crew go about its duty can be like watching a bunch of individuals with paper smiles pasted to their faces.

The actors, especially Patrick Stewart, gave considerable weight to their performance, and the show continued to hit high notes to its very end, but more and more Star Trek: The Next Generation was about discovering new anomalies and new complications. To boldly retread the plots that had been tread before. There was little character growth, and little opportunity for conflict, since the Federation was so darn perfect. Attempts were made to inject some much needed grit into the program (Picard’s torture episode), but many such attempts came off as half-hearted. Next Gen’s overhyped gay episode in particular came across as smarmy, with the writers too chicken to have Riker actually kiss a man. Deep Space Nine was easily able to top its Next Gen cousin with a storyline that was complex, deep and more subtle, and which actually featured two women kissing passionately.

I can understand why some Star Trek fans might object to Deep Space Nine’s original premise. It’s a frelling spacestation, some said straight from the beginning, how’s it going to seek out new life and new civilizations? It’s just going to boldly sit like no one has sat before! But Deep Space Nine did go boldly where Star Trek hadn’t gone before; it went into the human psyche.


3. The People Were More Real and Less Perfect

At the end of Deep Space Nine’s first season, the program launched a four-part story that carried over into season two. It dealt explicitly with religious beliefs coming into conflict with secularism. It focused on Bajor as the fragile democracy crumbled into civil war and the possible institution of a theocratic dictatorship. Sound familiar? Already Deep Space Nine was more relevant than its anomaly-hugging Next Gen cousin.

But while there would have been a lot of temptation to shame and attack religion on general, Deep Space Nine never did that. The character of Kira Nyries was portrayed as exceptionally spiritual, and her spirituality was an integral part of her heroic character. The spirituality of all Bajorans was not ridiculed, in part because the gods they were worshipping (the Prophets, a.k.a. the wormhole aliens) and their Emmisary (the reluctant Captain Sisko) were real. The religious debates that were the focus of several episodes were treated with care — something the humanist Next Generation would not have done. Even the antagonistic Kai Wynn, the Bajoran pope, was rendered with depth and subtlety, eager to assist Benjamin Sisko when she was convinced he was the Emmisary of the Prophets. She wasn’t evil, per se, she just couldn’t picture spiritual Bajor and secular Federation co-existing, and her failure to reconcile these two elements, and her subsequent fall, was very much a tragedy rather than villainy.

Deep Space Nine also offered a lot more grit. Its characters were not perfect, and they certainly weren’t out primarily to better the rest of humanity. Consider Quark, petty criminal to the end. Consider Miles O’Brien, the everyman, whose most basic goal is to put in a good day’s work and return home to his family. Consider Captain Sisko, reluctant messiah to the Bajorans, who still found time for his son and to find love after his wife’s death. Consider Worf, who at one point was saved from persecution for war crimes only because the civilian ship he blew up with 200 people on board was actually an empty plant placed there as part of a Klingon setup.


4. Deep Space Nine Was Not Afraid to Kick the Federation About, Physically and Politically

While it is true that many of the regular characters settled their differences and found in themselves the Federation do-gooder way (see Quark), the program was not afraid to take the revered Federation down a peg or two. Consider the elements that Deep Space Nine either introduced or perfected:

Section 31: The Federation’s secret police. Devious, ruthless, and not afraid to kick over governments through assassination in order to get their way. When we last heard from them, they had the head of the Romulan secret service in their pocket.

The Maquis: Co-created by NextGen and Deep Space Nine to provide conflict on Voyager, those conflicts between the Voyager crew and the Maquis were resolved by Voyager’s third episode. On Deep Space Nine, the Maquis gave us the betrayal of two Starfleet officers, a protracted guerilla war with the Cardassians, a personal vendetta between Sisko and Eddington, and possibly the trigger that caused the Cardassian government to fall and the Dominion to take root in the Alpha quadrant. For Deep Space Nine, the Maquis were a constant reminder that the Federation weren’t the lily-white innocents that they portrayed themselves as.

The Dominion: A gigantic empire with the power of the Borg but the diversity of something completely different. It’s many faces showed brute strength (the Jem Hadar), cloying treachery (the Vorta) and grim resolve (the Changelings). Deep Space Nine was also the first Star Trek series that had the courage to take the Federation into a protracted and bloody war. Consider that for a minute. Next Generation also took the Federation to war against the Borg — a conflict that was resolved after only two episodes with not a lot of onscreen casualties. Deep Space Nine planted an enemy that was as ruthless as the Borg, but which had actual character, and which could negotiate with the Federation, and compete in a number of devious ways. The Dominion were more real, more frightening and threatening as a result.

Indeed, thanks to Deep Space Nine, the only other alien species The Federation could fight a protracted war with would be:

The Klingons: The original series invented them, and Next Gen gave us Worf, but Deep Space Nine perfected their character, giving depth to their aggression, and taking Worf far further that Next Gen had developed him. The pilot episode of the proposed series Star Trek: Klingon can be found on Deep Space Nine, and it’s quite good. The series also had the courage to take Federation/Klingon relations to the brink of war and back again, something NextGen would never have done.

And that’s just to name a few. Deep Space Nine’s Federation was one where parents of underachieving children occasionally took their kids to black market genetic enhancing clinics, whose horrible mistakes reside in asylums to this day. Deep Space Nine’s Federation was one where Starfleet showed its military colours and slugged it out for two years with an enemy that took several trillion lives and wiped out planets. Deep Space Nine’s Federation was the one where San Francisco got destroyed (before Voyager miraculously resurrected it less than a year later). Deep Space Nine’s Federation was a lot less perfect, and once it got its arrogant smirk wiped from its face by the Dominion, it was a lot more noble.


5. And, In the End, It Didn’t Take Itself Too Seriously

Most of all Deep Space Nine never took itself nearly as seriously as either The Next Generation or Voyager did. Even as the Federation/Dominion war got incredibly bloody, there were time-outs of fun, like the Baseball episode, or various Ferengi comedy episodes. Deep Space Nine is also the series that poked fun at the Federation communist utopia.

Jake: “I’m Human, I don’t have any money.”

Nog: “It’s not my fault that your species decided to abandon currency-based economics in favor of some philosophy of self-enhancement.”

Jake: “Hey, watch it. There’s nothing wrong with our 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 my money.

Note: Jake’s line, “We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity”, is a direct quote of Picard from the Star Trek movie First Contact. Picard delivers that line with a straight face and in all seriousness to Lily, a frightened woman from the mid-twenty-first century. Only Deep Space Nine would make fun of a line delivered by the incomparable Patrick Stewart.


6. To Put This Politely: Voyager and Enterprise Suck, and Paramount Doesn’t Know How to Make Good Star Trek

Behind the scenes, Deep Space Nine was the orphan stepchild of the Star Trek production office. The people at Paramount objected to the grit of the series and to the long story arcs and the extensive character development. Paramount even asked that the Federation/Dominion war be fought and resolved in two episodes. Two episodes! Deep Space Nine’s writers and producers had to fight hard to get Paramount to accept six, and then used trickery in order to prolong the war over two seasons.

I suspect that at least some of Paramount’s motivation was a desire to protect its syndication profits, although others objected to the program “trampling” on Gene Roddenbury’s “vision”. I prefer to say that the writers of Deep Space Nine knew how to write a good story, and that grit and imperfections were the key to interesting characters, and action sequences that actually meant something. Note that it was on Deep Space Nine that CGI effects were brought into regular use on Star Trek. They had to be, as the producers were using so many ships in battle, they couldn’t build enough models.

These reasons are enough for me to place Deep Space Nine over The Next Generation. I suspect that my feelings for Deep Space Nine were enhanced, however, by what followed on Voyager.

Never, in the history of television, has so much potential been so criminally wasted than on Voyager. Voyager is, in many ways, the true Star Trek successor to The Next Generation, both in its promise of really exploring new life and new civilizations, and in its failure to give us the flaws, imperfections and conflict that make characters interesting and stories shine.

It didn’t start out that way. In the last season of Next Generation, it and Deep Space Nine collaborated to create the Maquis, a group of renegade humans living on territory the Federation had ceded to the Cardassians. This was specifically done for Voyager’s benefit so that Captain Janeway could chase down a Maquis ship, end up getting blown all the way across the galaxy, and forced to work together with said Maquis crew to find the way back home. This plotline was facetiously summarized as “Star Trek chases after Blake’s 7 and they both get Lost in Space.”

Still, that would have been interesting: one small ship far from home, left to its own devices, its crew split between Starfleet officers devoted to Federation values and the prime directive and between Maquis renegades who have spat on Federation complacency and live a life of rugged self-reliance. How long would high Federation values hold up after the resources run out? How could two very different crews function as one?

Except, this didn’t happen. Had it happened, had the characters been allowed to come into conflict, had they been forced to accept the consequences of being on their own far from home, the characters would have changed and grown, and that could have threatened Paramount’s ability to syndicate the series. Halfway through the first season of Voyager, Maquis and Starfleet officers were functioning just fine as a unit. The only treachery came from a Cardassian sleeper agent. Some Maquis members grumble about high-minded Federation values lengthening the trip home, but nobody does anything about it — mostly because Captain Katherine Janeway does a pretty good job getting them home promptly. By the third episode, Voyager is stopping on its way to look at anomalies. By the third season, the Borg return to give the Voyager crew something to fight.

There were still flashes of the old brilliance right up to the end, especially during the fifth season when Ron Moore came over from Deep Space Nine and tried to inject character and consequence into the show. Barge of the Dead does more to advance B’lanna Torres’ character in 45 minutes than the previous four years combined. The episode before sees Janeway come face-to-face with a reflection of herself: a smaller Federation ship that was also brought across the galaxy but which quickly abandoned Federation ideals in order to survive; the ruthlessness with which she goes after this ship frightens even her first officer Chakotay, but it makes for excellent television: Janeway comes close to losing it because she sees herself in these renegade Starfleet officers.

But Voyager would not achieve its promise. Ron Moore quit, and the anomalies returned. So too did the love affair with the reset button. Questions which should have dominated the last three seasons of the program, like “how does the crew react to being able to communicate with their families while still being several years from arriving home?” or “how does the Maquis cope with the fact that they’re still outlaws and unlikely to be welcomed with open arms by Starfleet” or even “how does the Voyager crew feel now that the Federation has suffered a brutal war while they were away?” were never addressed.

As Voyager entered its last season, Erin made a prediction: she said that Voyager would not do a series of episodes showing how well (or how badly) the Voyager crew adapted to being home after being away for so long. No, she predicted that they wouldn’t arrive home until the very last episode — indeed, she predicted that the very last shot would involve Voyager approaching the blue sphere of Earth.

And, you know what? She was dead right. Two hours of the season finale were wasted with a pointless plot about time travel and the Borg. The Voyager crew makes it home almost incidentally, and the last we see of them is their ship escorted back to Earth while the crew just stare dumbfounded at the viewscreen. No cheers. No Toyota jump. No scene of Tom Paris’ father holding his newly born grandson for heaven’s sake! Just a look of disbelief and a dawning realization that their contracts have expired and Paramount won’t be paying them to make new episodes anymore.

Utter crap, made all the more frustrating by the fact that it could have been so much better.

Enterprise had similar promise, fueled primarily by the “gee whiz” atmosphere of humans venturing into deep space for the first time, but they too fell victim to Voyager’s addiction to anomaly. And as ratings fell, Paramount lost its collective minds, halting what few promising storylines existed in Enterprise to spend a season on a 9/11 revenge fantasy. By then, I had basically given up. The ratings suggest that I wasn’t the only one.


Conclusion

You know, it’s not the first time a show’s producers completely fail to understand what makes their show good. Witness the ponderous voice-overs and the hokey dialogue that mar some of the overly-serious X-Files episodes, or how the boring conspiracy dominates when all we want is Mulder, Scully and some alien fun. Paramount did the least amount of interference with Deep Space Nine, primarily because DS9’s writing staff broke with the production office early and did its own thing, and Paramount seemed content to just let the program run its course while focusing on Voyager. Thus the real exploration of the Star Trek universe, the real pushing of the envelope, took place on Deep Space Nine.

As a result, what was achieved was not only good Star Trek, but darn good television.

And I’ll carry that opinion to my dying day.


**UPDATE, 2004-09-03: Brett Lamb has a rebuttal which is worth reading


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