If we should meet at a party and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine comes up in conversation, feel free to back away slowly before I get too animated. Because once I put down the drink to free my hands so I can emphasize ALL the ways this is the BEST Star Trek* and one of THE BEST shows to come out of the 90s and its characters and plot arcs ANTICIPATE so many things that are happening on TV now…well, you might gently point out that there’s this terrific site called Geekade that encourages impassioned speeches on just such material shortly before backing away from all the hand gestures.
*Of course, this depends on what you look for in Star Trek shows. If you enjoyed the Battlestar Galactica reboot (exclusive of the ending, of course) you’ll probably dig watching Ron Moore cut his teeth on DS9. If you prefer the original series’ utopic vision of the Federation, you may be more…ambivalent.
But seriously, whether or not you’re into Star Trek, if you are a fan of the Golden Age of TV – you know, character-driven, serialized dramas like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and all the seasons of Firefly that should have been, you should watch Deep Space Nine. Because it was all of those things back in the 1990s, and the writing, performances, and overall execution have held up remarkably well.
Okay, fair warning: I’m putting my drink down now.
Deep Space Nine is one of the very few multi-season shows I’ve liked enough to watch more than once. It’s thoughtful, complex, and instructive; every rewatch leaves me feeling I’ve learned something new about politics, society, religion, leadership, conflict, friendship, espionage, marriage, and storytelling. It premiered in 1993, during the penultimate season of The Next Generation. To distinguish DS9 from its predecessor, show creators Rick Berman and Michael Piller inverted the trope of a Federation ship encountering new civilizations. Instead, they set the show on a starbase between a non-Federation planet and a wormhole into the Gamma Quadrant, effectively letting the new frontier come to the station. This fixed location enabled a higher level of serialization, and the show’s continuity – it rewards close attention to detail, doesn’t bombard viewers with clumsy, repetitive exposition, and forces characters to live with the long-term consequences of their decisions – makes it feel less like an episodic TV show and more like a glimpse into lived lives.
Its seven-season run started with the rebuilding of a postwar society (Bajor) recovering from a brutal occupation (by Cardassia) and ended with Starfleet fighting for the survival of the Federation and the entire Alpha Quadrant. Along the way the series grappled with how to create and maintain a healthy society, exploring how we develop our values and the conditions under which we are willing to change them. It did all of this without succumbing to the tropes of a lesser drama. DS9 refused easy answers; its characters inhabited a moral universe mined with dilemmas that defied neat good/evil binaries – in other words, in a universe that was recognizably ours (but with better coffee).
And what great characters they were. DS9’s writers and ensemble delivered a level of complexity and nuance that was in short supply in the 90s and which remains comparable to that of current shows like Better Call Saul and GoT. Each character was a distinct, fully-realized individual, and their relationships with each other – and with the world – felt grounded and textured: in a word, real.
Speaking of relationships, DS9 won a special place in my heart by avoiding a trope I detest: It didn’t shoehorn unrealistic romances into mixed-sex friendships. (It was network TV in the 90s, so aside from one notable exception all romantic relationships were heterosexual.) My favorite example of this is the bond between Ben Sisko and Jadzia Dax. They are confidantes, tactical (and romantic!) advisers, and comrades-in-arms, but their closeness is free of gratuitous frisson. Even now, the only similarly close, truly platonic male-female TV relationship I can think of is between Firefly’s Mal and Zoe.
DS9 was also my first encounter with a Star Trek property that interrogated the sources and uses of Federation power. The recurring Section 31 plot threads – which reveal that the Federation is not above maintaining and concealing a “black ops” division comparable to the Obsidian Order or the Tal Shiar – rivet and unsettle. This more gritty (and realistic) vision of the Federation may alienate otherwise dedicated Trek fans, but for me Section 31 counterbalanced the utopian dream of the Federation enough to make the latter plausible.
That’s not to say every good character or bright moment has to harbor a sordid secret – this is a Trek show, after all. But in offering viewers compromised heroes and compelling villains, DS9 anticipated the nuanced storytelling and moral ambiguity we’ve come to expect from good television. There are too many terrific performances to name, but I’ve suggested one episode from each season below. There are a few clunkers, especially in the first season, but powering through them will be rewarded with some of the best character and plot arcs in the Alpha (or Gamma) Quadrants.
Best episodes to check out:
Ep. 19, ”Duet” – Major Kira confronts a Cardassian who committed war crimes at a labor camp during the occupation.
Ep. 15, “Paradise” – Sisko and O’Brien find themselves stranded with a group whose leader is so opposed to technology that she permits its members to die of curable illnesses.
Eps. 11-12, “Past Tense, Part 1” and “Past Tense, Part 2” – Sisko, Bashir, and Dax accidentally time travel to 21st century San Francisco shortly before riots over food, housing, and labor are about to begin.
Ep. 19, “Hard Time” – An alien race manipulates O’Brien’s memories to convince him he served 20 years in prison. O’Brien, his family, and his fellow crew members struggle to adjust to that man who has returned from this sentence.
Ep. 6, “Trials and Tribbleations” – In this must for original series fans, DS9’s crew finds themselves on a particular Enterprise during a particular furball infestation.
Ep. 13, “Far Beyond the Stars” – Sisko experiences an Oz-like vision that transports him and the crew to the 1950s. This episode is a great way to get a feel for the show; in addition to being one of its greatest episodes, it requires very little background knowledge.
Ep. 10, “It’s Only a Paper Moon” – After losing his leg in combat, a young Starfleet officer returns to DS9 seeking refuge from his mortality in an unreal world.