With A New Documentary Out, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Finally Gets the Credit it Deserves
Sandwiched between Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager, Deep Space Nine was something of an underdog during its original run.
Prior to the launch of Star Trek: Discovery in 2017, it is safe to argue that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — which ran for seven seasons from 1993 to 1999 — was probably the most controversial entry in the Star Trek franchise.
For some fans, Deep Space Nine is the pinnacle of the Star Trek franchise and its most complex and gratifying installment. To others, its somewhat darker tone violated the optimistic view of the future while its stationary setting was in contrast to Star Trek’s theme of exploration— the hallmark of the fifty-two-year-old franchise.
Now, twenty years after the final episode — “What You Leave Behind — aired, Deep Space Nine is finally getting its moment in the spotlight with the release of a new fan-funded documentary entitled What We Left Behind.
For the first time since the show ended, the majority of the cast — with the notable exception of Avery Brook (Captain Sisko) — the crew, and writers sit down to reminisce about this unique and frequently overlooked chapter of the Star Trek franchise.
The narrative of the documentary is centered around the reality that during its original run, Deep Space Nine was — as many involved with the show put it — seen as the ugly middle child of the franchise by both the fandom and even Paramount Television.
Deep Space Nine was conceived by Star Trek: The Next Generation producers Rick Berman and Michael Piller. With Paramount planning to move the Next Generation cast to the big screen to replace the aging Original Series cast, the studio wanted a new Star Trek series that would carry on The Next Generation’s legacy.
Berman and Piller decided that the new show would be a direct spin-off of TNG and they would overlap for a short period to give the new show time to find its footing and take over Trek’s TV mantel — this was long before Star Trek: Voyager was on the radar. As such, it was felt the new show should have a different setting and tone to that of its predecessors, and not center on the crew of a starship. Thus the idea of space station based series was born.
Deep Space Nine’s launch marked a number of firsts in the franchise. It was the first incarnation of Star Trek not set onboard a ship named Enterprise, and to date, the only Star Trek set on a space station. It was the first Star Trek series to center on an African American commander/later captain, the first to feature a female first officer, and the first Trek series to feature non-Federation/Starfleet officers in its principal cast.
While it debuted to huge ratings in January 1993 — the pilot entitled “Emissary” still holds the Nielsen record for being the most watched episode of any Star Trek spin-off — the show was met with resistance by a significant chunk of the fan base, and the ratings slowly declined.
Sandwiched between Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager with only a brief period at the start of its third season where it was the only Star Trek show on the air, Deep Space Nine was something of an underdog.
The show was lambasted by some fans for being too dark, too political, too boring, and too stationary. Being set on a space state meant the characters didn’t ‘boldly go’ exploring each week, rather the action would often have to come to them.
Yet the change in setting from starship to space station ultimately created an environment that allowed the writers to push the boundaries of the types of stories they could tell.
Showrunner Ira Behr, who conceived and created the new documentary, recalls that by season two, the writers began to focus on stories they could only tell on Deep Space Nine. Attention shifted from the concept-based storytelling of The Next Generation to character-oriented ones resulting in the most fully realized cast of characters in the franchise.
The show’s setting and its character centric plots eventually led to serialized storytelling. This marked another first for Star Trek which prior to Deep Space Nine never stretched stories beyond two parts and rarely followed up on previous episodes.
Unlike on the USS Enterprise or USS Voyager, the characters of Deep Space Nine had to live with the repercussions of previous episodes since they couldn’t just warp away 45 minutes later.
However, Paramount and series Executive Producer Rick Berman were not pleased with the writers’ desire to tell interwoven stories. Behr states in the documentary that Executives at Paramount believed that by embracing serialized storytelling, they were costing the show ratings.
For the fans who continued to watch the show, the ongoing story lines became the show’s crowning glory and pushed forward a franchise that by the mid-1990s was beginning to stagnate.
It is safe to argue that the show’s lasting legacy to the franchise is its serialized storytelling. Indeed, by the end of DS9’s run, some Trek fans lamented Voyager’s episodic and soft continuity storytelling felt dated. It was not until season three of Star Trek: Enterprise that producers and Paramount conceded and began a season-long story arc in an attempt to boost the show’s drastically low ratings.
While the DS9 was criticized for being grittier than the Next Generation or Voyager, it kept true to Star Trek’s legacy of social commentary. It tackled social issues, such as homelessness, racism, military occupation, terrorism, religion, and war. DS9 was also the first Star Trek series to show a same-sex kiss on screen in the episode “Rejoined.” And while it did add a few shades of grey to the 24th-century universe of Star Trek, it remained true to Gene Roddenberry’s humanist view of the future.
It’s no secret that for much of the latter half of the show’s run, Deep Space Nine was a lower priority for Paramount than Voyager. Voyager, after all, was the flagship show of the studio’s fledgling UPN TV Network, while Deep Space aired in first-run syndication.
This created an environment where the show was somewhat under the radar which, as actor Casey Bigg (Damar) pointed out in the documentary, gave the writers a huge amount of freedom. In retrospect, that freedom allowed Deep Space to come into its own while Voyager writers were restricted to not break the mould established by The Next Generation.
While Voyager was heavily promoted by Paramount, Nielsen figures show, despite the myth within the fandom, that Deep Space Nine typically drew in more viewers each week than Voyager.
As was the case for Original Series, in many ways Deep Space Nine was ahead of its time. In post-9/11 America, stories about war, terrorism, religion, and politics are fairly commonplace, but this was not the case in the 1990s. This is perhaps why some feel Deep Space Nine has become more relevant now than it was when it originally aired.
Thanks to streaming, the show appears to be finding a new group of fans while long-time Trek fans are rediscovering it.
Like the show itself, the new documentary is quirky, profound, honest, and irreverent. It finally shines the spotlight on a chapter of the franchise’s history that for many years has been misunderstood, underappreciated, and even ignored.
Indeed, actor Armin Shimmerman (Quark) expresses his frustration in the documentary that Deep Space Nine is frequently overlooked in favor of the Original Series and The Next Generation.
Regardless of this, Deep Space Nine has — like it or not — profoundly affected the Star Trek franchise as a whole.
Watch Star Trek: Discovery for even a few minutes and you can can strongly feel the legacy of Deep Space Nine. Discovery’s serialized storytelling, its flawed, complex, and heroic characters is a page right from Deep Space Nine’s book.
The new documentary gives Deep Space Nine its moment in the spotlight. It gives the cast and crew an opportunity to not only to recall their experiences on the show but also to assess how Deep Space played a role in shaping the Star Trek franchise, and helped pave the way for the complex and profound science-fiction television of the modern era.
Twenty years after its final episode faded from television screens, Deep Space Nine is finally getting the recognition it deserves.