Five Reasons Why “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” Was Way Ahead of Its Time

Manny Otiko
Sep 14, 2018 · 4 min read

By Manny Otiko

(Courtesy Paramount Pictures)

I’ve developed a new appreciation for “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” which is often regarded as the red-headed stepchild of the long-running sci-fi franchise. When it initially aired, it looked like a poor imitation of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” I watched it dutifully, but “DS9” only got into its stride in the third season when the Federation go to war with the Dominion. That was when it became a great show. Things were humming on all cylinders by the seventh season, but that’s when it got canceled. But during its seven seasons the show tackled some thorny issues which few other sci-fi shows have touched, and it still holds up a great viewing.

Here’s why it was so good:

  • It was progressive. “DS9” was groundbreaking because it not only featured a show set on a station, but the lead character Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) was black. Of course, that shouldn’t be an issue in the 25th century and the show rarely tackled the subject. For example, the Bajorans consider Sisko to be the messiah, a messenger to their gods. The fact that he’s black is never addressed. However, they did do a show in which Sisko is sent back in time to the segregation era and uses that struggle to fuel his fight against the Dominion.
  • “DS9” exists in a morally grey universe. They are no wholly good guys or truly bad guys in the “DS9” universe. During the course of the show, the heroes lie, cheat and scheme to achieve victory in a desperate war. According to “Variety,” cast member Rene Auberjonois said all of the main characters have a deep psychic scar. Sisko begins the show as a bitter widower whose still mourning the death of his wife. The female lead Nana Visitor is a former terrorist who figures out that maintaining peace is tougher than fighting a war. And the writers really stretch themselves by making the Cardassians, who are essentially space Nazis, not come across as one-dimensional goons. Dukat, who is the lead villain, constantly shows flashes of charm and kindness, even though he lead the occupation of Bajor which killed millions of people. I liked the fact that “DS9” was unlike the previous Trek shows where the Federation is portrayed as shiny, happy good guys in a clean and perfect world. Unlike Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, I never believed the future would be perfect. Making the heroes imperfect made them relatable. According to Trek Today, Andrew Robinson, who played Garak, said, “It’s not the most popular because it’s the most morally ambiguous… Whenever you have characters who are gray rather than black and white… Although they are more interesting, they are more difficult for people to get a handle on.”
  • It’s complex. Some people said they couldn’t get into “DS9” because it wasn’t centered around a ship. I think other people couldn’t get into the show in the later years because the plot was so complicated. Sides are constantly shifting, good guys become bad, and bad guys become good, then turn bad. Again, this was a sign of great writing, but it may have scared people off.
  • It dealt with weighty issues. Some of the issues that “DS9” tackled included genocide, slavery, sexual assault, war crimes, terrorism and suicide. In the episode “ Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night,” Kira goes back in time and discovers her mother became a “comfort girl” with the enemy to protect her family. At the time, the punishment for collaborating with the enemy was death. The episode doesn’t pass judgment on her decision, but presents both sides of the argument. During the Dominion War, the Federation turns on itself and a covert organization, Section 31, starts looking for enemies inside the union. Sloan, Section 31 leader, justifies this by saying, “sometimes you have to break the rules to win.” The was long before the George W. Bush administration sanctioned torture. Section 31 also develops a biological weapon to win the Dominion War. And, a member of the Bajoran clergy commits public suicide to protest the occupation of the station. That’s pretty deep.
  • The show got pretty trippy. In the episode “Far Beyond the Stars,” Sisko keeps flashing back and forth between the future and segregation-era New York City. Sometimes the characters appear as humans and sometimes they appear as aliens. Also, the episode is metaphysical and allegorical as it tells a deeper story and is filled with messages. I didn’t realize this until I watched it again.

Looking back on “DS9,” it’s amazing the showrunners Michael Piller and Ira Steven Behr and the writers were able to get away with such radical subjects. And it’s not surprising that one of the writers was Ronald D. Moore, who helmed the revamp of “Battlestar Galactica,” known as “BSG,” which ushered in a new era of gritty sci-fi. “BSG” is arguably one of the best sci-fi shows in the history of television. Looking at “DS9” in retrospect, it’s easy to see where Moore developed his talent. Variety said the show was way ahead of its time with its use of long-form storytelling and is perfectly suited for binge watching.

“People love to stream the original episodes and all the other versions, but ours is the one that is almost like a Russian novel. My sense of there is a growing base of an audience that really is getting it,” said Auberjonois.

Manny Otiko

Written by

Manny Otiko writes about race, politics and sports. He has been published in Salon and LA Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @mannyotiko.

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