DS9 questions and reaffirms Star Trek’s legacy

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WARNING: Spoilers for a nearly 30-year-old TV show ahead.
This will be the first of a series of write-ups under the name Deep Dive Space 9

Here’s a fun fact! I am named after the most chastised and dunked on Star Trek characters of all-time. 

Yes, I am named after none other than Wesley Crusher of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” played by now Internet God among nerds Wil Wheaton.

Before Star Wars fans were spending every waking minute of the late 90s bullying and harassing Episode 1’s Jake Lloyd, Star Trek fans early child-sized punching bag was Wesley Crusher on the crew of the Enterprise D. The character was perhaps a bit flat for many and came with some of the typical issues you might see of teenage actors in Hollywood. Either way fans were so relentless that during the early seasons of the show Gene Rodenberry himself was deeply upset about it because to him the character of Wesley Crusher was in many ways a stand-in for himself.

Seriously, what did Wesley Crusher ever do to any of y’all?

But I knew none of this as a kid. All I knew was there was a character on TV that had my name and that alone was very empowering for me as there’s not a ton of Wesley’s out there to begin with. So, thus began a lifetime appreciation for Star Trek and its many series.

Most Star Trek fans generally like the franchise as a whole to one degree or another but most also generally speaking tend to attach themselves the most to the original series with William Shatner’s Captain Kirk and the aforementioned TNG with Sir. Patrick Stewart’s Picard. Since TNG contains my namesake, this series was my favorite for most of my life. I watched every Star Trek movie featuring the TNG cast, my favorite captain was Picard and I felt Data did an even better job at describing Trek’s humanist themes than Spock even did before him (though he’s not far behind either).

Also Brent Spiner is just delightful and more often than not VERY funny as Data.

But as I got more into the fandom, there was another large, fairly vocal, contingent of fans who spoke highly of another Star Trek series I had only watched sparingly in my youth and that was “Star Trek Deep Space 9.” 

In high school, I had watched most of Babylon 5 after getting my hands on the DVD collection from my dad and was pretty fond of it in my teenage years, so I hadn’t bothered with DS9 for most of my life for that reason alone. As I became more acquainted with the fandom through Star Trek groups on Facebook though, it became more and more apparent that I needed to at least give it a try back in 2019.

If you’re reading this I’m going to assume you are already familiar with the plot and setup of the series, so I’m not going to explain the synopsis for you.

Through the first season, I found it to be for the most part a bit of a slog. Though I liked the characters generally speaking at the time and even enjoyed a couple episodes, I just found myself more interested in re-watching TNG for the billionth time in a row and even skipped whole episodes so I could get further along in the story before dropping it altogether. Fast forward to a few months ago, I decided to give the show one last try as I like to typically have something on in the background as I paint models in my spare time.

I told myself “If it’s still not engaging enough, you can just drop it altogether and watch something else.”

That episode I put on in the background was the first of season 2 called “The Homecoming” where Major Kira Nerys meets a Bajoran Resistance legend named Li Nalas who turns out to be something of a fraud but is nonetheless elevated to new DS9 Bajoran Liaison by the provisional government of Bajor. Kira is sent to Bajor where she discovers a growing coup attempt by xenophobic group of Bajorans known as The Circle who are looking to attack DS9 to rid Bajor of the Federation for good. The episode turned out to be a first of a three-parter which is very unusual for a Star Trek series of the Rick Berman era but it was nonetheless engaging for myself from start to finish. From there it became my new weekly go-to during my painting sessions.

Fast forward again to just a week ago, after finally finishing the seventh season and it remarkably became my favorite Star Trek series of all-time by a huge margin.

It’s actually cited in this documentary by showrunner Ira Steven Behr that he felt that episode was the turning point for him, his writing team and this series. Not that I need to tell any DS9 fans here btw but the whole documentary is worth watching.

DS9 is quite simply Star Trek at its very best, featuring everything that makes the franchise one of SciFi’s best, while also confronting and questioning those very themes that drew fans in the first time. More than anything though, what DS9 does better than pretty much any Star Trek series (at least of this era) is feature growth and a diversity of themes within it for each character and if anything builds on its message of hope despite the tough questions it asks of the source material. While other Trek characters from series such as the original, TNG, Voyager, and many others feature some changes from season to season things remain relatively static for the crews of these ships, as each episode is more often than not self-contained.

DS9 is instead anything but static.

What DS9 does so great is feature both self-contained episodes that one can enjoy on their own and episodes that continue the growth and understanding of various characters in the series and the franchise’s core messages. It’s not just the main cast either; many characters in DS9 that started out as just minor supporting characters in the background of a few episodes come around to becoming heroes or villains all the same as the series progresses. It makes the series feel organic and capable of change, unpredictable at times, and thus highly engaging for these reasons as the main pull becomes less about “What will the crew of DS9 get into this episode” and more about “How will the DS9 crew change in this episode.” 

And change is the key word here.

Not to be confused with Changeling, of course but perhaps that was always the metaphor…?

Sometimes I wasn’t fond of how some things changed for certain characters but regardless was happy to see things go in unexpected ways for this diverse crew of space officers. The aforementioned Major Kira, who later becomes a Colonel, maintains her faith in the prophets of Bajor and her belief that Bajor should be independent, but her fearfulness and mistrust of the Federation begin to ebb away in that first episode of season 2 and virtually nonexistent by season 7. Sisko begins as a reluctant commander of Space Station himself in the series first episode but becomes a charismatic and willing military leader by the end who overcomes past trauma and embraces destiny as the Emissary of the Bajoran prophets. Odo, DS9’s chief security officer, goes from being a pessimistic and overall mistrustful cop (eww) with little understanding of his true self to a man who finally assumes his full identity and all the empowerment in between through the strength of love.

There’s also characters who go from annoying to one of the series best in Dr. Julian Bashir who begins the series as a one dimensional, overly horny, womanizer to a thoughtful, calculating, empathetic, often playful leader in his own way. Quark shows himself to be largely loathsome at the beginning but changes as he finds himself taking on the beliefs of the Federation officers around him. Former TNG characters such as Chief O’Brien and Worf add new dimensions to their characters as well through interactions with the main cast. And Dax quite literally becomes a whole new character by the final season (albeit because of unfortunate contract dispute with actress Terry Farrell) but both Jadzia and Ezri are tremendous additions to the Star Trek lore and the former easily became my favorite science officer of the franchise after just a few seasons.

I could go on and on about other characters here (loved, Garak) but again, the core theme is about change both in the text of the script and perhaps the metatextual of DS9’s primary aim to audiences.

And NO ONE changes more than Nog from the series’ first episode.
RIP Aron Eisenberg btw.

DS9 explores a myriad of themes through these characters and events of the series and there is no bigger event in the story than The Dominion War.

Star Trek fans tend to treat the original series’ and Gene Rodenberry’s original themes as Dogma that can never be altered. Star Trek has always been about humanity’s hopeful future and how someday we may put aside our differences on Earth and embrace open communication and love for our fellow man. Star Trek believes that someday we may enter a post money, post scarcity society and through it travel to space and beyond the stars. It’s a hopeful vision of the future and it’s a big reason I do keep coming back to the series in my adulthood.

Fans unfortunately tend to view these themes as conflict-less, that a Star Trek series isn’t Star Trek if characters are infighting or questioning the very nature of what this future human society is built on but DS9’s Dominion War forces viewers to wonder how benevolent the Federation really is and if you’re paying attention, how benevolent we may be as society today. Even it’s supposed best parts.

As soon as first mention of the Dominion becomes apparent in this series, DS9 makes viewers answer tough questions about the lengths at which the Federation might go to protect itself when confronting an enemy as powerful as this one. “The ends justify the means” is a pretty consistent theme that is brought up across the series. Though it’s never quite endorsed by the writing it forces viewers to wonder what they would do in the position of characters such as Sisko, Kira, and Odo during this war. The introduction of Section 31 in season 6 especially calls into question what is justified when faced with imminent destruction, which will immediately bring to mind the CIA’s let’s say “troubled” history when it comes to human rights.

If you hate the Space CIA you should probably hate the real one too…

You see, it’s easy to imagine the Federation as a perfect utopia in previous series because it largely was not facing real conflict. Yes, there’s the Romulans and Klingons of the first series but nothing ever goes further than mostly militaristic posturing. The Borg of TNG certainly gives the Federation a truly menacing enemy, but they don’t appear nearly often enough to create the tension necessary to make us question who the Federation really is in response to it. Having The Dominion as a primary threat to the Alpha Quadrant for basically four seasons instead of a spattering of a few like the Borg in TNG keeps that consistent theme going and makes it impossible for viewers to ignore what the Federation chooses to do about it episode to episode. To quote Sisko himself in Season 2’s “The Maquis” another faction of the Trek series that calls the Federation’s very ideals into question “It’s easy to be a saint in paradise” and by taking away/threatening paradise the writers of DS9 challenge what our sense of idealism is and what our favorite futurist society might actually be capable of.

At times I found quite a few of these choices by the crew to be revolting and deeply unethical but plenty of times, especially in episodes such as “In the Pale Moonlight” it shows the results as effective and leads viewers to question if they would sell their soul for the greater good in such a situation. Whether someone watching would or not, the fact that such an episode challenges a viewer to consider it, since in this case Sisko’s deeply immoral choice leads to an alliance that essentially helps win the war, is profound for what was network television at the time.

It personally does not sit well with me what Sisko did here but I think one thing the episode does well in illustrating here, intentional or not by the writers, is the total lack of consequences that come from this because that’s generally speaking how the real world operates unfortunately…

The space battles and ground warfare of the series is certainly fun to watch too, Season 7’s “Siege of AR-558” especially is a high point in the action of DS9 but the writers do a great job of making sure the plot is secondary to the themes and the character development. The plot instead reveals these things to the viewer and we get a pretty nuanced look at the Federation. Some fans are probably still upset that DS9 in many ways fractures our sense of what an idyllic society looks like, but storytelling should also be challenging. As much as I love the first two series of Star Trek, those series are, for lack of a better term, easy to watch. Yes, they are fun and yea, even more than a few episodes present challenging themes and ideas themselves but overall Star Trek’s first series don’t consistently, at least, challenge viewers on the Dogma of its themes.

DS9 does pretty much from start to finish.

Was not expecting this at all when I got to this episode in Season 7. A real high point for the franchise in terms of production design, action, and just overall tone and mood.

But as dark and worrisome as these themes are, DS9 is hopeful in both the same way Star Trek has always been and in new ways that ultimately should be uplifting to viewers who feel this series lost the franchise’s original optimism. 

The counter to the war themes of “The ends justify the means” of DS9 is that “Things must and will change” that in order to grow, in order to become better and truly survive things can’t remain the same which in many ways describe the very essence of the production behind the series itself. 

DS9 writers HAD to change things in order to stand out between TNG and Voyager. The story of DS9 tells us change is necessary in more ways than one.

Throughout DS9’s story, the crew of the space station and various characters of the Federation and factions such as The Klingons, the Bajorans, and even the Cardassians and the Dominion themselves are confronted with this statement. Their literal worlds must change, or they will perish.

Star Trek is certainly a glimpse of a hopeful future, but it comes with the caveat that if we want this hopeful utopian society we, my fellow “hoomans,” MUST change. Adhering to our own societal dogma over and over again just because it’s the way it has always been done is how fascism tends to grow and societies decay more and more. We’re going through that right now in a very rough way in this country and many are already questioning the means at which we are supposed to fix things. In DS9, each faction comes to the determination that change is necessary for true survival in a variety of different ways which, to the writers credit, give viewers a nuanced way of understanding how to go forward. 

Star Trek has always been good about commenting on our past and present to talk about our potential future but this episode especially, directed by Avery Brooks himself no less, truly nails that point. It unfortunately remains VERY relevant.

This message is probably best summed up in Season 7’s“Tacking into the Wind.” Worf violently usurping chancellor Gowron in traditional Klingon ritual combat but ultimately choosing to cede power to a qualified leader in General Martok instead of taking power for himself like Klingons before him showed the need for ending a backward tradition of following arrogant Strongmen. Meanwhile for the Cardassians in this episode, Damar finally realizes that his people’s hatred and loathing of Bajorans was wrong from the beginning, killing his racist first officer after he threatens to kill Kira. He understands in that moment if Cardassia is to truly survive it is not enough to push The Dominion off his planet; his people need to become better too so the cycle of following Strongmen in their own right doesn’t continue. 

The Dominion’s change goes hand-in-hand with Odo’s growth as a character too however and it’s what ultimately ends the war and exemplifies this theme best. 

In the series’ final episode, despite The Dominion’s forces on the backfoot and clearly in total defeat, the Changeling Founder refuses to surrender and instead pledges to fight to the very last Jem’Hadar troop, to inflict as much damage as possible on her enemies before victory can be truly claimed by the Federation. She is of course dying from a virus unleashed on her people by Starfleet themselves, effectively a form of genocide the Federation is all to eager to turn a blind eye too including Sisko (again, revolting), but if she dies before surrendering the war will continue at great cost. 

To her this is the only way of course, peace with the Federation and their allies the Klingons and Romulans means death to her and it’s hard to blame her. The aforementioned virus proves a point about her general mistrust of the “solids” as she calls them and considering what she and the viewers know about how belligerent the Klingons and Romulans can be comparatively she doubts they’ll be so kind to her and her people all the same. But Odo steps in, newly healed from one Starfleet officer, our man Bashir if you will, who chose to circumvent Starfleet orders to save Odo and potentially the very people who aim to conquer the Alpha Quadrant, and links with the Founder to show her a better, peaceful future is possible. No words are exchanged in this moment but its clear what Odo shows the Founder; that love is a powerful thing and that despite the Federation’s own questionable morality they are capable of change and so is The Dominion.

Odo is still a bastard and a collaborator for being a cop working with the Cardassians during the occupation but he at least was wise enough to recognize genocide wasn’t the right answer here either. *stares at Starfleet*

Odo is able to come to this conclusion through the love of Kira, who he pines for through most of the series before they finally get together in season 6. Love is a powerful thing, everyone understands this, but what the series does a great job with this is show the affirming, cathartic nature of this feeling.

Odo had spent most of his life being unsure of who he is or where he comes from. The discovery of the other changelings in the Gamma Quadrant begins to affirm his identity but takes a drastic 180 when he discovers who they really are and their plans for conquest. Through Kira though he learns that he is not only capable of love but deserving of it as well. To be loved is to be seen for who you really are and Odo passes this message to The Founder in this moment to show who the solids/humanoids can be to their people. Yes, the Federation committed a war crime here against their people, but Odo shows that these “solids” can change and that they are capable of loving people like him and by that measure other Changelings.

It seems obvious but once you’ve experienced being seen for your true self and embraced for it, there really isn’t a better feeling in the world.

Again, despite the fact that no words are exchanged in this scene, what ultimately ends the war is love and it’s one of the most beautiful, cathartic messages Star Trek has ever given. Despite the fact that DS9 is considered by most fans to be the darkest series and has plenty of those aforementioned pessimistic and cynical themes that seem to run counter to the franchise’s original message it ultimately reaffirms that sense of optimism about the future by showing us there’s potential for something even greater even in this Utopic future.

That we can dream even bigger than Star Trek and Gene Rodenberry’s original vision.

DS9 is by far my favorite Star Trek series now and I am very happy I gave it another chance. It’s a series that challenges what we know and love about Star Trek while also reaffirming what we hope humanity’s future might end up being by commenting on our present. It’s a series that, unlike its predecessors, aims for growth first and delivers an overarching narrative that gives viewers nuanced takes on the universe Star Trek inhabits. It features arguably the franchise’s best cast and crew shows fans who are willing to see a different side of the series one of its best stories for all characters involved.

There are many others things I want to say about what is now my favorite Star Trek show but I have written too many words here already so this will have to do for now. It won’t be the last time I write about DS9 though so until then…the best is yet to come.

Take it away Vic!

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