To Boldly Stay...
STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE
by Matt Brown
February 25th, 2003
Forward, December 2009: A bit of digging in the archive discovered the fact that my very first review, EVER, was of Deep Space Nine in 1993. That review is here. My series about the show, which coincided with the DVD release in 2003, starts below.
Although The Next Generation remains my sentimental favourite Trek series, it is the DVD release of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that I have been anticipating with greater excitement. Deep Space Nine is the series I enjoy re-watching more. It's a more sophisticated series than either of its predecessors, with greater layers and levels. There's plenty of stuff to see that might not have been caught the first time around, and there's also a lot to be gained by treating the series' seven seasons as one gigantic, 7-year narrative. It's ideal for the home-viewing environment.
As such, there's a hell of a lot to talk about here. As with last year's Next Gen DVD release, I've prepared a review for each of the show's seven seasons. I'll try to mete things out as best I can, while still addressing the specific merits and flaws of each individual season as well.
Deep Space Nine was a genuine leap for the brass ring by the makers of The Next Generation. It tries to be - and often succeeds in being - the ultimate Trek experience, blending the best of the previous series with even stronger storytelling, a more detailed and fascinating exploration of the Trek universe and its peoples, and a producerial penchant for testing the limits of how far the whole Trek concept can really go. The bold experiments of Deep Space Nine are innumerable ("Duet," "Blood Oath," "The Visitor," "Far Beyond the Stars," "The Siege of AR-478," "It's Only a Paper Moon," "What You Leave Behind," etc., etc., etc.). These are episodes that challenge not only the conventions of Star Trek storytelling, but the nature of television drama itself.
That said, my journey with Deep Space Nine was never an easy one. During the run of the series, it suffered immensely from being Trek's middle child, overshadowed first by TNG then by Voyager, and never given the front-and-center push it deserved. This probably served it well in the end - being out of the limelight, DS9 invented its own style and structure, and as I've said, could afford to take a lot of chances that wouldn't have been allowed on one of the higher-profile series. But for me, watching the show, my attention was often elsewhere. It was only after the conclusion of its run that I was able to look back and the complete saga, and appreciate just how well executed Deep Space Nine really was.
Before I get any further, here's a pair of well-deserved plugs. Fans of Deep Space Nine are strongly encouraged to check out two of Paramount's published treatises on the series. The first, The Making of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens), exhaustively details the conception of the show, its initial production, and the making of the first two seasons. It's absolutely fascinating - the reader is made the fly on the wall of both Berman and Piller's offices, and the extensive coverage of the process of whittling their broad concepts into a workable series premise is absorbing. The reader can literally track the series' elements taking shape or being transmuted into other ideas - early concepts for Odo, the whole "wheelchair crewman" thing, even the design of the space station itself.
This is all easily outmatched, however, by Terry J. Erdman's epic tome, The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion. Erdman began the project in the series' second season, and went on to obsessively chronicle the making of every single episode. Every single episode. We have interviews with the writing staff (we get to know the writing staff better than members of our own families), dialogues with the cast about character building and the challenges of specific episodes, information from the production personell (directors, production designers, makeup, visual effects, score), and about as complete a peek into the mind of Ira Steven Behr as it's technically possible to get. I keep this book by my side whenever I'm watching DS9.
Ira Steven Behr, of course, is the heart of Deep Space Nine, even if Michael Piller and Rick Berman were its creators. His prominence doesn't make itself known until the third season, but by the end of the run, this was his show. His absence from Trek since then is lamentable.
In the Beginning, however, there was Berman and Piller, ceding to Paramount's request to create a new and distinctive Star Trek series to run concurrently with The Next Generation. Their efforts would become not just a refreshingly unique entry in the Star Trek mythos, but a startlingly innovative television creation in its own right, completely separate from the legacy of its forefathers. And at the end of the day, that really is saying something: this is Trek that transcends Trek.
That transcendence, however, was barely in evidence at the launch of Deep Space Nine. In hindsight, the clues are there, but at the time, Deep Space Nine seemed like an amiable brother-in-arms to Next Generation, continuing the same storytelling tradition in a different setting.
The footprints of The Next Generation were all over Season One of Deep Space Nine. The Cardassian-Bajoran conflict, introduced on TNG in the "Ensign Ro" episode, became the founding lynchpin of the DS9 concept, and the character of Ensign Ro was originally intended to be one of DS9's headlining officers. Longtime fan favourite Chief O'Brien was also due to make the switch from the Enterprise to the old Cardassian mining station, although he would end up being the only Enterprise crew member to join the new team, until Michael Dorn popped up in Season Four.
The first season of Deep Space Nine exists very much within the Next Gen mode of storytelling, meaning that on a weekly basis, the crew encountered some new science fiction phenomenon, and dealt with it accordingly. To aid in this, given the sedentary setting, the DS9 crew were granted 3 "Runabouts," little über-shuttles that could take them freewheeling around the galaxy. And of course, there was that big glowing sphincter hanging just off the docking ring, the Bajoran wormhole, included in the series on the theory that if we couldn't go visit strange new worlds, we could bring the strange new worlds to us.
The exploration theme, however, would fall away as the series progressed. DS9 became a character-driven sci-fi adventure show, where the people were the point, not the science. With that change way off in the future as of Season One, it was still in the people - the remarkable cast of characters that Berman and co-creator Michael Piller assembled for Deep Space Nine - that the first cracks in the Next Generation style begin to show.
Inter-personal conflict had been virtually impossible on The Next Generation, due to an edict by Roddenberry that stated that the people of the 24th Century never argued with one another - that humanity had evolved. Itching to free themselves of this constraint, the creators of DS9 followed the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit, made the non-conflict rule Starfleet-specific, and filled their crew halfway with non-Starfleet characters, who could, following the new logic, argue with themselves and the Starfleet officers as much as they wanted to. The station would also be peopled by a coterie of Federation and non-Federation civilians, who again, not being Starfleet, were free to gamble, drink, murder one another, and of course, fight up a storm.
This was not a fair reading of Roddenberry's intention, but in the end, the result was remarkable. As an ensemble, the cast of DS9 works the best of any Trek crew, before or since, and I am still amazed by just how perfectly the creators assembled their mix of personalities.
Deep Space Nine is more of an ensemble show than its predecessors had been, although Avery Brooks' Commander (later Captain) Sisko is certainly a formidable entry in the tradition of great Starfleet leaders. Sisko is the saga's first true Captain-as-warrior, a battlefield general with an innate tactical ability that makes him, by the end of the series, the hero of the Dominion War. Yet, like all good Trek captains, Sisko is a renaissance man: a peacemaker, a philosopher and poet, and a hell of a chef. He also seems to feel more deeply than his predecessors - the death of his wife, his relationship with Jake, and his primal reactions to conflict make him a more accessible captain than Kirk or Picard.
Sisko is ably supported by a clique of Starfleet personnel, assigned, like him, to a caretaker mission on an abandoned mining station orbiting the devastated world of Bajor. Colm Meaney's Chief O'Brien, already given good stead on The Next Generation, grows exponentially on DS9. Terry Farrel filled the shoes of Lt. Jadzia Dax so well that it's remarkable to think of how little experience she'd had before joining the series, especially given that she is playing a Yoda-esque, 300-year-old creature. And it was certainly bold of the producers to make Alexander Siddig's Dr. Bashir rather unlikeable at the start of the series, leaving that "room to grow" which allowed the character to mature intensively, right before our eyes.
As expected, however, the non-Starfleet characters are the real gem stones of the cast. Major Kira (the substitution for Ensign Ro, when Michelle Forbes turned down a series contract) is a delightful creation, played with consistent measured integrity by the remarkable Nana Visitor, and probably remains my single favourite Trek character, ever. Rene Auberjonois' Odo could very easily have slid into routine - a CGI shape-shift here, a molten puddle of goo there - but instead transforms radically into the heart and soul of the series. Armin Shimmerman's Quark remains a fan favourite, for good reason - he's the single embodiment of all the rule-breaking Deep Space Nine is allowed to do.
With the intense pre-launch hype that greeted Deep Space Nine, Season One fares remarkably well, and turns out far more stable and enjoyable than the first season of The Next Generation.
"Emissary" is a great pilot for a Star Trek series. That's not saying much, because they're never all that great, but "Emissary" is the most far-reaching of the five, going a long way towards establishing the gigantic mytharc that would propel the series for its entire seven years. The only flaw here is that the episode represents the tangible end of Sisko's trauma over the death of his wife. It might have been nicer to have this episode be a stepping-stone along the way toward healing, rather than the resolution of a storyline we have never witnessed.
The next seven or eight episodes take turns with the principal characters, giving everyone a time to stretch their legs, with varying results. "A Man Alone" is pretty silly, "The Passenger" is just plain awful, and "Past Prologue" feels exactly like a bad episode of The Next Generation. (It does, however, introduce Andrew Robinson's Garak, a character who does not appear again this season, but would become an enormous asset to the show in years to come.)
There's the obligatory nod to the ongoing storylines of The Next Generation, when Q and Vash show up in "Q-Less." It doesn't really work as an episode of Deep Space Nine, since the two principal characters aren't part of the series, and we spend most of our time with them instead of our new heroes.
By the time we've reached "Vortex," however, things are picking up stride significantly, and it isn't too many more episodes before we are treated to "Progress," one of my all-time favourite episodes of Trek. Note-perfect performances by Nana Visitor and guest star Brian Keith turn what could have been a re-tread of the TNG episode "The Ensigns of Command" into a lovely character piece for Major Kira, exploring where she's been, and where she is (almost unwillingly) going.
Fun mid-season episodes include "The Storyteller," which lays the seeds for the lasting relationship between O'Brien and Bashir, and "If Wishes Were Horses," Deep Space Nine's "fantasy makes us understand the characters better" episode. Majel Barrett's appearance in "The Forsaken" is surprisingly effective - having been comic relief on Next Gen for five years, Lwaxana Troi is represented far more three-dimensionally on Deep Space Nine in her handful of guest spots.
After staying the course reasonably well, Season One ends with a knockout double. "Duet" is quite simply one of the most impressive hours of television I've ever seen, anywhere. Once again Nana Visitor is owed a lot for making this episode work, and Harris Yulin is nothing short of tremendous as Marritza. An episode which is essentially just two people talking in a room, "Duet" carries a raw power that runs unequalled in memory - I'm still waiting for Star Trek to pony up the stones to do something this audacious again.
"Duet" is followed by "In the Hands of the Prophets," a stylish season closer that brings to the forefront the conflict between science and religion, a theme which would become a centrepiece for the entire series, as Deep Space Nine slowly became the only Trek to directly address the concept of faith on an ongoing basis.
Season One of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a bold beginning to something that had already begun to feel unique and separate from the rest of the Trek mythos. It would only be a handful of years before the series had successfully carved out its own niche in television history.
"To Boldly Stay..." has been an ongoing review of all seven
seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The complete series is now available on
You can access the complete series of reviews on the right.