TV Talk: Why STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE Is Hard To Love But Worth It
Though simplistic to the point of ignorance, I have always divided Star Trek into two groups. On one side, The Original Series. On the other, The Next Generation. One really cool and fun, one super lame and boring.
I find The Next Generation aesthetically ugly and sterile, the absolute definition of nerdiness. It's characters annoy me (yes, even Picard), and my visits to its world (probably about a season's worth of random episodes and three of its four feature films) make me feel like someone tricked me into sitting through a church service. I hate it. Star Trek: The Next Generation's favorite snack is Graham Crackers. It tucks its shirt into its jeans without wearing a belt. It wears Crocks WITH socks. It is an adult with braces.
For a long time, I had this opinion not just of TNG, but everything from the Next Generation era which also includes Deep Space Nine and Voyager. (I'm not sure about Enterprise. I've only seen two episodes and remember nothing more than mostly naked characters giving each other rubdowns.) As time went by, however, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine became harder to just write off and ignore like the other two. There appeared to be something different about it. I would occasionally catch glimpses of its angry, almost hostile Captain Sisko or its angry, almost hostile shapeshifter character, Odo, and wonder if there was something to it that I was missing out on. At one point I heard that much of the show takes place during an extended, ongoing conflict called The Dominion War, indicating a more serialized storytelling format than the one-offs - with occasional two-parters! - that kept me from caring about what happens on TNG. The final straw came when I saw this photo:
Years later, I have finally arrived on the other side of the DS9 journey, and I can tell you that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is much better than The Next Generation and worthy your time. It is a surprisingly mature, complex, ambitious, and exciting Star Trek endeavor. But it is also very much a show from the Next Generation side of the aisle, which means for all its qualities, it's still just the coolest kid at church camp.
Indicative of the show's slower storytelling nature, it took me over seven months to finally get through DS9's roughly 175 episodes (the first and last episodes are extra long, and I'm not sure how they're counted). I rarely felt the need to "marathon" the show, and instead developed a habit of watching it while cooking.
Aside from a six-part storyline in Season Six and an eight-part storyline in Season Seven, the ongoing importance of the multi-season Dominion War that always goes hand in hand with exhalations of this show's quality has been overstated. Yes, there is a conflict that lasts several seasons, and it does lead to some pretty badass episodes, but for the most part The Dominion War acts as another backdrop against which the show still cycles through tons and tons of one-offs.
The good news is that the show hosts such an array of great characters, each with their own specific voice and a steady stream of sharp, knowing dialog offered them by DS9's writers, that it's a casual pleasure just watching this crew hang out. The bad news is DS9 does not reach this quality level until Season Four. In fact, for much of Season One, the characters are actively irritating. Some of them (Dax and Bashir in particular) take even longer than that to get cool. And more still (Kira) never quite make it. (Though her ultra-horny bi-sexual Mirror Universe counterpart is badass from the get-go).
Most shows are all done being awesome by this point, but DS9 is just heating up. This is part of why everyone tells you to skip Season One. Some advise you to skip Season Two as well. I would skip neither. The Catch-22 about all this skipping is that you need all those less exciting episodes for the great impending interactions to have any weight.
There's a lot going on in DS9, but the general premise and core factor that sets it apart from all other Star Trek shows is that it takes place on an immobile space station rather than a roving starship. This automatically raises the show's sense of continuity and consequence, while imbuing the setting with a cool, almost Western Frontier kind of feel (or a Casablanca feel, if you prefer). Strange creatures from all walks of life must learn to mingle and co-exist in this non-place, which has the effect of slightly altering what would be normally standard species representations into kind of cooler, alternative ones. Quark, his brother Rom, and his nephew Nog are not your average Ferengi largely because they are not in an average place. This becomes explicit in Season Four when TNG's insufferable, humorless Worf shows up and must learn to change his ways almost immediately, embarking on a path that will end with him being one of the show's best characters. I know TNG has a reputation for instantly knocking Worf out in combat situations. This show instead pits him in a cage match with an endless stream of Jem'Hadar enemies to kill. It's badass.
Nothing on Deep Space Nine is black and white, and one of the show's great strengths is its unshakable moral ambiguity. DS9's larger setting involves a planet called Bajor which has just repelled a Nazi like occupation from a race called the Cardassians. Bajor wants to join the Federation of Planets so Starfleet's (Sisko's) role is to mediate between the two factions, which have some seriously bad blood between them as you can probably imagine.
This conflict takes up most of DS9's first couple seasons, and the genocidal aspects of it can get surprisingly explicit for a Star Trek show (see the excellent Season One episode, "Duet"). Bajorans are spiritual humanoids with creases on their nose. Of the show's main cast, Kira is a Bajoran. Despite of, or perhaps due to their role as victims, they are extraordinarily boring and their episodes suck almost without exception. Meanwhile, the show's two Cardassian characters might be among the most interesting figures Star Trek ever produced. Gul Dukat provides the show with one of the creepier examples of charismatic evil I have ever seen, while the sneaky, unknowable ex-spy Garak (now living on DS9 as a mere tailor) appears to be on our side but utilizes methods no one on our side would be comfortable with. Both are fascinating (though Garek is especially great).
I say Garek utilizes methods no one on our side would be comfortable with, but perhaps that's not necessarily true. The show's Old West Sheriff archetype character, Odo, represents its most solid (ironically since he's liquid) moral absolutist. But as the law enforcer during both Starfleet and the Cardassian's occupation of the station, the show cannot let him get away without acknowledging his complacency while Cardassians murdered Bajorans. In another episode, Captain Sisko, a more emotionally driven man than Odo, but still quite absolute in his morals, must lie on a massive scale in order to bait Romulans into joining Starfleet against the Dominion. You will be surprised how often this show presents a moral dilemma and, rather than solving it, ends with it still out there in the open, just another part of life on the station.
The character of Jadzia Dax also illustrates the ambiguity that drives DS9. Jadzia is a bright young woman who plays host to the Dax symbiont, a worm that has been alive for centuries, living in both male and female hosts. Once Dax is implanted in Jadzia, she becomes one with Dax's memories and personality. This means Dax's gender lacks certain definition. Her last host, for instance, was an old friend and mentor of Sisko, and as a result, Sisko spends the whole series referring to Jadzia Dax as "Old Man." She's been both been both sexes multiple times each, and the writers of DS9 do not shy away from this aspect of her character. That means Jadzia Dax stays up late drinking and gambling. She is also a lady who likes to have lots of sex with lots of people. When she and Worf hook up later in the show (an absolutely brilliant pairing of characters), their lovemaking leads to injuries for them both, indicating her brazen masculinity.
Relationships on DS9 are not very dynamic, but I mean that in a good way. There's a solidity to the way certain characters act around each other that rarely changes. In other words, there are relationships, but almost no relationship drama. This is best personified by Captain Sisko's teenage son, Jake, who lives with him on DS9. Their relationship never devolves into the kind of arguments or yelling you would expect from a show with an adolescent boy in the cast. Instead, DS9 uses Jake to help define Sisko's better qualities. He's a good man, and he raised a good son; the two love each other and that's that. Furthermore, as the show progresses, Jake ages into adulthood and becomes his own man quite separate from this father. Tolstoy's notion that "Happy families are all alike" has become unnecessarily axiomatic in drama, and it is refreshing to see a show so dedicated to positive depictions of love, friendship, and family.
It doesn't happen as often as you want, but DS9 also absolutely nails space combat thanks to a combination of effects, respect, and infrequency. Reminiscent of Star Trek III, when a starship goes down in DS9 it always means something, even when the frame is full of them going at it. Though narratively tethered to a space station, DS9 kind of gets to have its cake and eat it too with the arrival of its badass bruiser mini-ship, The Defiant, which allows them to have outer space skirmishes and adventures away from the occasionally stuffy titular setting. Not all of DS9's effects are great - most of the Odo/Changling stuff looks like it was already dated the day it came out - but I'd rather watch its space battle scenes than Abrams' if only because of the obvious respect for the ships on display.
This article sadly does not have the time or space to get into many of DS9's more intricate strengths and weaknesses, but I would also be remiss if I did not make some special mention of Avery Brooks, the paramount representative of both.
If Avery Brooks is not the strangest actor I have ever seen, he's certainly up there with people like Crispin Glover and Emo Phillips when it comes to bizarre line delivery. All the imitations you ever heard of William Shatner are nothing compared to the breathy hesitations and arrhythmic pauses employed by Brooks, especially when he gets all hot and bothered:
Just as it takes a while to get into Deep Space Nine, it takes a while to get used to Brooks' Captain Sisko (he doesn't actually become a captain until later in the series). But just like everything else with this show, it's worth the effort. Sisko may speak like some kind of Shakespearean android, but he is an amazing character, perfectly indicative of this show's advanced complexity. Lacking the charisma and optimism of Kirk and the refinement and intellectualism of Picard, Sisko is far more flawed and complicated. But he's also the last captain I would want to anger.
In the end, I have to admit that I love this show, but it's not an easy show to fall for, especially when approaching it from our modern age of almost annoyingly serialized television. If you're willing to put a lot of time into a series on the faith that it will eventually get really good - but not so good that is suddenly knocks your socks off on a weekly basis - I highly recommend you head over to Netflix Instant and get started right now. With almost 200 episodes to get through, you'll be at it for a while.