Celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine continues to impact the franchise.
With the release of the documentary film What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Discovery concluding its sophomore season, it’s a good time to look at how the “red-headed step-child” of Star Trek continues to impact the franchise to this day.
When it was announced it 1992 that the team behind Star Trek: The Next Generation was working on a spin-off series set on a space station, it was met with a bit of head scratching.
A Star Trek series that can’t boldly go anywhere? How’s that gonna fly? (Pun intended – tip 20 quatloos to your server)
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine premiered mid-season on January 3rd, 1993. It ran for seven seasons and overlapped with both Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager. It had the most diverse cast, both in-universe and out, of any Star Trek series at that time. Ben Sisko, initially a commander and not a captain, was the series star and the first African-American lead in Star Trek. His first officer, Major Kira Nerys was the first regular female second in command since Majel Barret’s Number One in “The Cage“. There was Jadzia, the female science officer, who, by virtue of sharing a symbiotic existence with the symbiont Dax, flirted with the first notions of a non-sis-gender character. Doctor Bashir was Chief Medical Officer of Southeast Asian and North African decent. Odo was constable and a member of a mysterious race of changelings from another quadrant of the galaxy. Quark was the Ferengi Bartender. Worf, the Klingon Security Chief from Star Trek: The Next Generation would join the cast in season three and there were myriad of other recurring and supporting characters of all races. It took the multi-culturalism of The Original Series and The Next Generation and pulled all the stops.
DS9 was, also, the first series to be created by other than Gene Roddenberry, whose health was failing at the time. Rather, Rick Berman, the head producer of The Next Generation at the time, and Michael Piller, the head writer, conceptualized the series. As such, they were able to break some of the rules that Roddenberry had imposed during The Next Generation that many on the show felt too restrictive. With Deep Space Nine, the characters would often be in conflict with one another, not unlike McCoy and Spock in the Original Series. Often the disagreements ran much deeper and more political as the titular station was custodian of the planet Bajor, a world recently freed of the oppression of the show’s first antagonists, the Cardassians. The discovery of a stable wormhole in the Bajoran system allowed for Deep Space Nine to become the flash point for galactic events.
Of Prophets and Prophecies
The planet Bajor and the Bajoran culture allowed for a unique opportunity in Star Trek – the exploration of religion and prophecy. It’s learned by the Star Fleet crew that the Bajoran wormhole hosts the realm of the Prophets of Bajor – non-corporeal beings outside of space-time who are the focus point for the Bajoran religion. Indeed, Sisko, upon assuming his post as commander of DS9 is revealed to be the Emissary – the one prophesied to find the Celestial Temple (the wormhole) and save Bajor.
Never before had religion been so deeply explored in Star Trek. There had been references to the Judaeo-Christian and Greek culture in several episodes of the Original Series, but nothing overt. The closest they came to the exploration of anything deeply religious was the Vulcan culture, particularly as explored in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. The film’s premise hinged on the notion of a living spirit and its preservation by Vulcans when the body dies.
In Deep Space Nine, both the spiritual aspect and the hierarchical structure of the Bajoran religion is essential to the entire run of the show. It even culminates in a battle of good versus evil as personified by Sisko and his nemesis, Dukat. As Sisko was the Emissary for the Prophets, Gul Dukat was chosen by the Pah-Wraiths, the ancient enemy of the Prophets, to be their champion. In the best tradition of Trek, it was through the prism of an alien religion, that it could explore these themes.
Decades later, Star Trek: Discovery would make an attempt to explore faith versus science during season two, but that largely went by the wayside as the season progressed. It did, however, have some of the most explicit references to present day Earth religions of any series.
Callbacks to the Original Series
In the early days of The Next Generation, Roddenberry was adamant that the show stand on its own and offer little to no references to The Original Series. With some notable exceptions, this remained true throughout the run of the series. There were some special appearances by the original cast: McCoy, Sarek, Spock and Scotty all make special appearances and there is a (nearly dismissive) reference to Kirk in the “The Naked Now“. Of these TOS characters, only Scotty and McCoy’s appearances feel the most affectionate to The Original Series. The episode “Sarek“, is beautiful without any references to The Original Series. “Unification“, featuring Spock, references Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (which hadn’t been released yet during the original airing) but very little else. Like “Sarek” it can stand on its own.
It’s ironic that the only series not set on a starship would fully embraced The Original Series, It’s also totally in line with the scrappier attitude of the series’ production in general. Deep Space Nine brought back Kirk’s main Klingon rivals from the sixties: Kor, Koloth and Kang. Although they did not reference The Original Series much, if at all, it was only the beginning. The show followed up on the episode “Mirror, Mirror” with it’s own set of story arcs and adventures in the Mirror Universe with explicit reference to Kirk and a fun, campy tone. The most famous callback was “Trials and Tribble-ations“, in which the crew of Deep Space Nine actually revisited and were inserted into the episode “The Troubles with Tribbles”, even going so far as to bring back actor Charlie Brill as Arne Darvin. It even acknowledged Jadzia’s friendship with Koloth who originated in this episode.
This forever broke Roddenberry’s rule of no references and from this point forward, Star Trek wasn’t afraid to acknowledge where it came from. Voyager, Enterprise and Discovery would all overtly reference The Original Series with a reverence that hadn’t been seen before Deep Space Nine did it, with the latter two series also paying a visit to the Mirror Universe.
Into the Shadows
The greatest impact on the franchise can be found in the creation of Section 31 in the episode “Inquisition” Section 31 was a clandestine arm of the Federation dating as far back as United Earth in the twenty-second century. As depicted in this episode and throughout Deep Space Nine, Section 31 was based on Article 14, Section 31 of the Starfleet Charter allowing “for extraordinary measures in times of extreme threat“. It operated in the shadows and outside the normal rules of engagement, essentially, using any means necessary in order to preserve the United Federation of Planets.
It was the Black Ops of Star Trek.
It allowed for some compelling exploration of the lengths a good society will go during times of war.
It also became catnip for writers of Star Trek.
Whenever a story needed to be told that cast the Federation or Star Fleet as the antagonist, Section 31 would be employed. Section 31 would appear again in Star Trek: Enterprise, creating a major character arc for Malcolm Reed. Star Trek Into Darkness, featured Section 31 as the main antagonist unleashing Khan upon the galaxy ten years sooner than he would be in the Prime Timeline. Most recently, Star Trek: Discovery heavily features Section 31 and even goes so far as to take a character from the Mirror Universe into its ranks (a two for one sale). There is even a Section 31 spin-off series in consideration set in the same period as Discovery. It is the most resonant contribution to the franchise and is still being felt.
It may also be the most controversial.
Section 31 goes against everything Roddenberry believed about the Federation and humanity during the Star Trek period. Before he passed away, Gene saw a cut of The Undiscovered Country. He was deeply displeased with many elements, which he considered “apocryphal”. One of those elements was the cabal of Star Fleet officers conspiring with Klingons and Romulans to sabotage the peace process. Section 31 as a concept was still seven years away when The Undiscovered Country premiered, but it is easy to see the similarities. It would take little imagination to retcon the Star Fleet conspiracy as being orchestrated by Section 31. It makes for compelling stories, but at the expense of the future that Gene Roddenberry envisioned.
Twenty-five years ago, a Star Trek show, the only so far not set on a Starship, dared to shake up the status quo and impact the franchise. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine challenged Trek writers and viewers alike to embrace its collective heritage and yet not be afraid to take risks and push the envelope of what Star Trek can be.