Deep Space Nine — Season 1
It's been a very long time since I've paid more than cursory attention to any series under the Star Trek umbrella. I grew up with The Next Generation as a regular fixture in my life, both during and long after its seven season run. My recollection of Deep Space Nine, however, is incredibly spotty. When I finally gave in to my curiosity, and began rewatching it on Netflix, a wave of long-dormant memories came flooding back to me. For many reasons, Deep Space Nine never managed to command anywhere near the level of interest that its predecessor did, and after roughly 2 seasons I effectively gave up on the show — for reasons I do not really remember.
I did eventually become a die-hard fan of Babylon 5, but that shift was not immediate — by the time I found "the other guys" I was already living a post-Trek life. I did notice the general similarity in concepts between Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5, and felt the latter presented a more compelling narrative. Part of me was also frustrated with Deep Space Nine also being such a drastic shift from The Next Generation, which — by virtue of taking place on a starship — presented a wide variety of settings storyline possibilities, whereas Deep Space Nine was confined to a stationary outpost. It was actually Babylon 5 that made me come to realise the absurdity of that line of thought — both concepts have ample room to tell compelling stories.
By the time I'd come around, Deep Space Nine was deep into a long-running narrative that I felt incapable of just jumping right into. I watched some later episodes, deep into the final seasons, and just could not get my bearings. This was back before DVRs, TV series being easily purchased on physical formats, and streaming services weren't even a thought in anyone's mind; if you didn't record a show to a VHS tape, you just had to wait for it to be re-aired — usually when the series looped back to the beginning. As such, I said "I'll get to this eventually" and abandoned the show again. Even though many people whose opinions I respect often spoke highly of Deep Space Nine, I just never made time for it.
18 years later, after scrolling through a seemingly endless list of content on Netflix, I happened upon the series again. Almost 20 years since I'd seen an episode, and probably a decade removed from any serious thought about the show, I decided I was going to give it another shot. Obviously my tastes and perspective have changed significantly since the show's debut, in January of 1993, when I would have been 9 years old, so I can only be certain about my current impressions of the show. I remember initially feeling as though the show was completely alien to me, that it in no way felt like a "proper Star Trek" show. In hindsight, this was a weird assertion given that the franchise consisted of 2 series — one of which had a short run of less-than 3 years — and both made regular mention of the vastness of the United Federation Of Planets and the territory in which it operates. There's nothing inherently odd about Deep Space Nine taking place on a space station — the Federation likely has hundreds of them scattered all over the place...
The main cast were also a departure from the usual, with the main protagonist set as an African-American single father tasked with managing a station recently liberated from an occupying force, in proximity to a war-torn planet whose inhabitants own the station. Instead of galavanting around the galaxy, solving problems and carrying on their merry way, the crew of Deep Space Nine is continually managing the day-to-day operations of a space station which very quickly goes from an obscure, unremarkable outpost to a major transit hub after the discovery of a permanent wormhole to another, previously unexplored quadrant of the galaxy. All of this is established in the first episode, which felt a lot more coherent and interesting on my second pass. I can still remember my disappointment that we didn't get The Next Generation 2.0, however I now realise how unnecessary that would have been. (Especially considering that The Next Generation had another year left on its run, with both series airing simultaneously from 1993 to the end of the 1994 television season.)
The only connection between the two series is crew member Miles O'Brien, who is dispatched to the station from the Enterprise in the first episode. Commander Sisko is a new character, whose wife was killed during the Battle of Wolf 359, when the Borg — aided by a captured and assimilated Jean-Luc Picard — destroyed an entire Federation fleet while en route to assimilate the planet Earth. At the time, I was a total mark for the Picard character, so the tension between him and Commander Sisko just served to further my dislike of the latter. I eventually got over it, and can now appreciate the character-building aspect to their small storyline — and just how distinct the Sisko character was right from the beginning. Following two huge fan favourites in James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard is no small task, but Benjamin Sisko managed to rise to the occasion and establish himself as a no-nonsense commanding officer with room for nuance and a general temperament somewhere between Kirk and Picard, making for a wholly unique character.
The bulk of the first season did a good job fleshing out the world in which Deep Space Nine takes place. Previously, every Star Trek series was completely episodic in nature. Aside from the occasional two-part'er — which were typically the finale of one season and the debut of the following one — almost none of the events in one episode were referenced in another, except perhaps a fleeting comment on rare occasions. Each episode effectively existed in a vaccuum; stories were resolved within their alloted episode and that was it, onto the next adventure. Deep Space Nine's first season was a slow-build, but right away it began establishing a more persistent world, where events of one episode were not simply forgotten after 45 of minutes of content.
Deep Space Nine also features a mixture of spirituality and science fiction. The outpost is the property of a race known as the Bajorans, who are a deeply spiritual people. In the past, Star Trek dealt with religion only in passing, or in a few one-off episodes where some sort of moral dilemma pitting religion versus science / protocol was the central plot. In Deep Space Nine, the Bajorans' religion is immediately introduced as a significant and ongoing plot element. The wormhole was created by space-faring entities the Bajorans refer to as 'prophets' — and revere them as such. The Bajorans were also the victims of a brutal and violent occupation at the hands of the Cardassians, another race from the Star Trek universe who get fleshed-out significantly throughout the course of Deep Space Nine. The relationship between the Bajorans and Cardassians is frought with mutual enmity and distrust, drawing parallels to any number of attempted genocides — and violent cultural conflicts — throughout real-world history.
Without dragging its feet, the first season of Deep Space Nine is a lot of world-building. The main crew is slowly introduced and, by the end of the season, the characters have settled in to their new locale, and the seeds of the main story arc begin to sprout. The wormhole is discovered in the first episode, and this transforms a former mining station into a bustling hub of commerce which provides a reason for all sorts of characters to just "drop in." Meanwhile, the Bajorans lose a key spiritual leader and a xenophopbic faction attempts a planetary coup while the search for a new leader is appointed. The final episode of the season gives the first real glimpse at the growing discord among the Bajoran people, as some see the Federation as an unwanted presence and seek to drive them out, while others wish for Bajor to become a member of the Federation. This internecine conflict is established and shows no sign of abating as the series continues.
In terms of cast, the show has a lot of talent under its banner. The interplay between Constable Odo, a humourless shapeshifter, and Quark, a Ferengi who runs a night club on the station, is an amazing example of on-screen chemistry, and a credit to both actors (René Auberjonois and Armin Shimerman, respectively). Colm Meany reprises his role as Miles O'Brien, a minor character from The Next Generation who takes a more front-and-centre role as a Chief Engineer who is constantly battling with the station and its seemingly endless technical problems. Major Kira Nerys is the liason between Bajor and the Federation, and the dynamic between her and Commander Sisko works well, and avoids the typical clichés one might expect with a strong female lead. Rounding things out are Jadzia Dax, a symbiotic amalgam of 2 organisms known as a Trill, a species featured in a single episode of The Next Generation (S4E23, "The Host") who knew Commander Sisko in a "past life," and Dr. Julian Bashir, a medical wunderkid whose amorous advances come off as a mix of awkward and extremely cringe-worthy in 2018. I assume he was always supposed to come off as a lovestruck fool, with his constant attempts to get Dax to go on a date with him, but it's still really unsettling — for better or worse, a sign of the times.
Overall, I would say Deep Space Nine has the strongest first season of any modern Star Trek series. The slow-roll of the long-running story arc, the gradual introduction of a very disparate group of central characters, and the coherence of writing all add up to a very strong first season. Something that even The Next Generation lacked, and the series that followed Deep Space Nine stumbled with as well. There are usually episodes worth skipping in any show's debut season, but I can't say that about Deep Space Nine, even if some do vary in terms of quality. I figured my opinion would have changed over time, but I did not expect to enjoy Deep Space Nine nearly as much as I did this time around. I've gone from indulging a pang of curiosity to being emotionally invested in watching the series play out.
I don't regret my initial decision to stop watching Deep Space Nine, as it truly did not resonate with me at the time. I'm going to chalk it up to the folly of youth and just carry on enjoying myself with this revisit. At this juncture, I still see a lot of things that Babylon 5 did better, but I have to admit that I do feel foolish for not revisiting this show sooner.
Published: June 30th, 2018.