January 3rd, 2018 will mark a special stardate in Star Trek history; the 25th anniversary of the premiere of the second live-action Star Trek spinoff series, “Deep Space Nine”…
I still remember the premiere of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” on January 3, 1993. I was living in my tiny bachelor apartment at the time (this was about 4 and a half years before I met my future missus). It was a cool January night (for California), and I was huddled in front of my little 20” Sony Trinitron TV (which lasted just over 22 years before my wife and I gave it to charity). I’d put a fresh premium quality VHS tape into the VCR (nothing but the best to record a new Star Trek), and I was all set to live-tape the premiere (pause-editing all of the commercials, of course).
Deep Space Nine’s premiere, “Emissary” came on with a bang…almost literally.
The opening of DS9 flashes back to the the battle of Wolf 359, three years earlier in Star Trek chronology (we never actually got to see that infamous battle in the Next Generation two-parter “Best of Both Worlds”; only the aftermath). Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, temporarily converted into the Borg “Locutus,” demands the surrender of the USS Saratoga.
On the bridge of that ship, we see a Vulcan captain (played by future Klingon general “Martok” actor, J.G. Hertzler) and his first officer, Commander Benjamin Sisko (DS9 series’ star, Avery Brooks). The battle does not go well; the Saratoga is mortally wounded, and the order is given to abandon ship. In the ensuing chaos, Sisko manages to find his son Jake (apparently families are common on most Federation ships at this point, not just the Enterprise-D) and the bloodied, pinned corpse of his wife, Jennifer. With the aid of a Bolian crew member, a grief-stricken Sisko and his son manage to get into a crowded escape pod and flee the destruction of the Saratoga.
Cut to three years later; Sisko and his son Jake are aboard another Federation starship en route to take command of a recently abandoned mining station (rechristened Deep Space Nine) in orbit of the recently liberated planet Bajor.
Sisko’s orders come (of course) from Capt. Picard; the man whom Sisko unfairly blames for the loss of his wife and his old ship. Upon meeting Picard, Sisko makes it clear he still holds bitterness towards the captain. Picard tells him he will consider looking for a replacement, which Sisko agrees is a good idea. But Sisko tells Picard that until he can find a way out of the assignment, he will carry out his duties on the station.
Aboard Deep Space Nine, Sisko meets some of his staff; chief engineer Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney, transferring over from Next Generation), as well as…
…fiery-tempered Bajoran first officer Major Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor, throwing herself into the role with appropriate piss and vinegar).
Sisko also meets his grumpy shapeshifting security chief Odo (Rene Auberjonois) and a Ferengi saloon keeper named Quark (Armin Shimerman). Immediately we see that Odo and Quark have a quarry/prey frenemy vibe not too dissimilar from the verbal sparring of Spock and McCoy in the original series (but with a pinch more salt).
Later, we see the arrival of two new Starfleet characters; young, brash doctor Julian Bashir (played with a Clark Kent-like stammer by Alexander Siddig, who was previously credited as Siddig El-Fadil) and science officer Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell), who is a member of a joined symbiotic species called the Trill. Jadzia’s supermodel body is actually the latest ‘host’ of Sisko’s longtime friend and mentor Curzon Dax; whose Dax ‘symbiont’ now resides inside of her (!). It takes Sisko a moment to get used to his old mentor’s new, 28 year old female appearance; and he affectionately refers to Jadzia as “old man.”
The plot is a bit loose at this point, allowing some space for character exposition. The crew are to recover and analyze mysterious orbs (“tears of the prophets”) left behind by the Bajoran gods (“the prophets”) who reside in a mythical ‘celestial temple’ somewhere within the Bajoran star system. These orbs, one of which Sisko finds on Bajor with the aid of the planet’s spiritual leader Kai Opaka (Camille Saviola), is brought back to the station for analysis. Opaka ‘reads’ Sisko’s “pah” (his soul) by touching his ear. She predicts he will be “the emissary” foretold to Bajor in their scriptures; the one who will find the celestial temple.
Turns out the Cardassians, led by former head of the occupation Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo) want this newfound orb as well. The Cardassians plundered both the station and the planet Bajor before they ended their decades-long occupation of the system; and they already have several other orbs in their possession.
The orb gives Sisko and Dax powerful visions of their respective pasts. Sisko recalls meeting his future (late) wife Jennifer (Felicia Bell) on what looks like a sunny, hot California beach (guessing Malibu?). The vision reopens old wounds for the still-grieving widower.
Dax sees herself on an operating table, with her symbiont’s former host Curzon dying quietly nearby. Curzon’s still-living symbiont is then transferred into her body…this was the moment she became the dual-being that she is now.
The story then becomes a race to stop the Cardassians from learning the whereabouts of the celestial temple before the DS9 crew can locate it themselves.
The shapeshifting Odo provides a nifty little bit of sabotage to slow the Cardassians down (that a security chief would use sabotage as a means to an end demonstrates the grayer morality of life aboard this Bajoran-run space station versus life aboard a rule-abiding Federation starship. I found that very interesting…).
Dax and Sisko take a runabout (think: bigger shuttlecraft) out to look for the famed ‘celestial temple.’ They instead discover a wormhole; a wormhole that leads to the other side of the galaxy, into the “gamma quadrant” 70,000 light years away. Turns out the wormhole IS the celestial temple, and it is inhabited by non-linear beings (rather similar to the faceless aliens who created the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey”).
At this point, Dax is (somehow?) sent back to DS9 by the aliens, but they keep their ‘emissary’ Benjamin Sisko. Sisko tries communicating directly with his hosts, but they can only appear to him as people he’s seen or met over his lifetime (implying that they have no physical forms themselves; not too unlike the original series’ “Organians” from the episode “Errand of Mercy”).
These wormhole aliens (‘prophets’) have no concept of our linear, corporeal existence, and they are initially distrustful of Sisko’s “aggressive, adversarial” nature. Using his favorite game of baseball as a clever means of explaining linear time and existence, Sisko gains the wormhole prophets’ grudging trust.
In the end, they also give Sisko the impetus to get over his lingering grief over Jennifer by reminding him that such prolonged angst is “not linear” and therefore not compatible with continued existence. Sisko eventually understands what the prophets are getting at; as long as he continues to wallow in grief, there is no moving forward with his life (or his son’s).
Through their unintended intervention, the prophets allow Sisko to accept his new life as their ‘emissary’ and embrace his new duty (and adventures) as commander of Deep Space Nine.
Sisko’s runabout returns a short time later, towing a disabled Cardassian vessel left behind in the wormhole, and thus ending an attack on the station by several trigger-happy Cardassian warships. All of the enemy vessels are sent home with their tails between their legs.
By the end of the pilot, we see Sisko and his son reunited and we get a glimpse of day-to-day life aboard this new station.
To be honest, I wasn’t completely blown away by “Emissary” (just as I wasn’t entirely blown away by “Encounter at Farpoint”).
Some of the quasi-religious sounding mumbo jumbo about ‘prophets’ and ‘destiny’ left me a bit less-than-comfortable (I’ve always preferred my Star Trek to remain somewhat agnostic), but the positives of the pilot still outweighed those relatively minor issues.
I immediately got that the Cardassian-looted space station was a metaphor for the post-riot Los Angeles of 1992 (the now historic “L.A. Riots” had occurred only the previous summer). Sisko’s call for Quark to stand as a ‘community leader’ echoed the sentiments of many Los Angeles area shopkeepers who decided to stay and rebuild following the L.A. Riots’ devastation.
I also appreciated the scale and production value of the pilot. It was far smoother and more surefooted than the initially shaky “Encounter at Farpoint.” At the very least, I was certainly intrigued enough to see where it’d go next.
So I stuck with it. And I was rewarded with an initially slow-burning series that soon exploded into one of my favorite science fiction series of all time…
Things I really like about Deep Space Nine:
* A rich tapestry of primary and secondary characters.
The new characters are introduced with much more confidence and aplomb than the somewhat more awkward introductions of the Next Generation crew six years earlier. The new characters develop quite nicely from their stable foundations established in the pilot episode.
This cast of characters, and an equally fascinating cast of secondary characters, would undergo some of the most extreme arcs in Star Trek history. Dr. Bashir would be revealed to be a closeted genetically engineered superhuman (that Clark Kent affectation in “Emissary” made a bit more sense after that; even if the actor was unaware of that future development then). Widower Sisko would marry again, and his new wife Kassidy Yates (played by “The Orville” ’s Penny Johnson), a former freighter captain/smuggler, would be expecting their first child together by the series’ end.
Major Kira (a former terrorist, by the way; try to imagine a new series with the balls to do that) would be involved in an off-again/on-again relationship with the grumpy shapeshifter Odo. Jadzia Dax would die by the end of S6, and her Dax symbiont would be given to a new character, station counselor Ezri Dax (the amiable Nicole De Boer). Chief Miles O’Brien and his wife Keiko (Rosalind Chao) would welcome a second child into their family. And the noncommissioned, earthy Irish chief would also develop a deep, unlikely bromance with the intellectual, fastidious Dr. Bashir. They become the station’s true odd couple.
Even a seemingly minor character like Quark’s illiterate young nephew Nog (Aron Eisenberg) would go on to become a heroic Starfleet cadet (and later an officer). He’d even lose a leg in combat during the final season. Nog arguably has the greatest arc of the entire crew; from low-level hoodlum to indispensable hero (!).
Cardassian villain Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo), former head of the occupation of Bajor, would go on to become a tragically demented but truly unhinged megalomaniac by series’ end.
We would also meet (in the 2nd episode) an enigmatic Cardassian tailor named “Garak” (“plain, simple Garak”). We soon learn that Garak is a former operative of the “Obsidian Order” (think: Cardassian CIA) with many stories to tell. He is brought to vivid life throughout the series by “Dirty Harry” ’s ‘Scorpio Killer’ Andy Robinson, who is utterly brilliant. By series’ end, he is one of my favorite characters; and with this bunch, that’s an embarrassment of riches.
In its 4th season, Next Generation’s resident Klingon Worf (Michael Dorn) would come aboard and change the dynamic of the series a bit. Turns out the surly Klingons were a perfect match for the grayer morality and shadier dealings aboard the station. While some complained that the series became “The Worf Show,” that was never truly the case; if anything, his presence only added to the colorful ensemble, but never overshadowed it. There were still plenty of other characters spotlighted during those final four years of the series.
There were countless other so-called secondary characters; Quark’s brother (and Nog’s dad) Rom (Max Grodenchik), his future-wife Leeta (Chase Masterson), Bajoran ‘pope’ Kai Winn (played by Oscar winner Louise Fletcher!), Dominion liaison Weyoun (the incomparable Jeffrey Combs), holographic Rat-Pack era crooner Vic Fontaine (played by ’60s teen idol James Darren) and so many more. These characters often headlined their own episodes, and almost any one of them were interesting enough to have held a lead slot on their own Star Trek series. To call them secondary characters seems almost vaguely insulting, considering their contributions to the show.
DS9 dove into character development like no Star Trek series before or since. The rich tapestry of characters is the very core of Deep Space Nine, and that core remains its best feature.
* Amazing production values for 1990s televison.
DS9’s production team (under Rick Berman and the late Michael Piller) assembled most of the same team that had worked on Star Trek steadily for the last few years, so they were bound to apply a bit more experience to this pilot. The sheer size of the Deep Space Nine interiors was staggering for the time. The operations center of the station is a multilevel, high ceiling chamber with an enclosed office at the rear. The ‘promenade’ decks are multistoried as well, with a large bar, shops, a breakfast area and alien restaurants lining the walls. Along the upper walkways, there are giant orbed windows with starscapes visible in the distance. It’s like LAX in space, and delivered on a 1990s syndicated television budget (!).
Later on, in its third year, the series got a new starship as well; the USS Defiant. While she may have looked like a flying toilet seat, she had teeth; and she could kick some serious enemy ass. She would partake in some of the most epic space battles in all of Star Trek (those dizzying flyovers!). The Defiant also gave the show a unique advantage over other Trek shows; it could be both a ship series and a character-driven homefront show. Truly the best of both worlds…
* The storytelling and writing of DS9 helped blaze the trail for modern serialized television.
DS9 writers/producers such as Ron Moore (who would go on to reimagine a brilliant new version of “Battlestar Galactica” in 2003), Ira Steven Behr, Naren Shankar, Rene Echevarria, Robert Hewitt-Wolfe and many others would take advantage of the show’s ‘middle child’ status (Next Generation and Voyager seemed to be the darlings of Paramount Studios then) to develop DS9 like no other Star Trek. Their relative freedom to do as they wished paid off handsomely for the fans. DS9 would embrace the serialized style of storytelling that is the norm today (see: “Dexter,” “Breaking Bad,” “House of Cards”, etc). At a time when most audiences were comfortable with standalone storytelling, DS9 took them into a longterm relationship with its characters that was far more deep and satisfying than the one-night flings of late 1980s/early 1990s television.
Now for the hardest part of this post:
My personal favorites of each season.
So hard to choose from such a rich assortment, but here goes…
Season 1: “Emissary” (nice kickoff) “Duet” (Kira’s best, and Harris Yulin is arguably the series’ finest guest star) “In the Hands of the Prophets” (all-too relevant today). First season is arguably the weakest (and certainly the shortest).
Season 2: “Invasive Procedures” (great Dax episode) “Whispers” (right out of Philip K. Dick), “The Wire” (best Garak episode), “The Jem’Hadar” (a preview of things to come).
Season 3: “Past Tense” parts 1 & 2 (DS9 takes on homelessness in a big way and it pays off), “Improbable Cause/The Die Is Cast” (great Garak/Odo two-parter), “The Adversary” (“The Thing” in space…).
Season 4: “Way of the Warrior” (sort of a second pilot for the series that introduces Worf to the family), “The Visitor” (arguably a series’ best; guest star Tony Todd owns this story), “Rejoined” (great Dax episode, and a pre-“Discovery” attempt to show a gay Star Trek relationship), “Homefront”/“Paradise Lost” (post 9/11 paranoia, several years ahead of time…).
Season 5: “Apocalypse Rising” (Sisko, O’Brien and Odo do Klingon cosplay), “Trials and Tribble-ations” (the most fun episode of the show; a love letter to the original series), “For the Uniform” (Sisko goes Inspector Javert on traitor Michael Eddington’s ass), “Dr. Bashir, I Presume?” (Bashir’s best), “Children of Time” (a poignant time-travel tragedy) and “Call to Arms” (hell of a cliffhanger).
Season 6: “Sacrifice of Angels” (Sisko and company retake the station), “You Are Cordially Invited” (Dax’s bachelorette party is a blast), “Far Beyond the Stars” (Avery Brooks’ passion project, and it shows), “In the Pale Moonlight” (Sisko, with Garak’s help, crosses the line…into my personal favorite episode).
Season 7: “Treachery, Faith and the Great River…” (great Odo/Weyoun interplay), “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (Nog’s best), “Chimera” (a strong metaphor for bisexuality), and the rich, slightly overstuffed 90 minute finale, “What We Leave Behind…” (the best finale for a Star Trek series yet filmed).
Over those seven seasons (1993-1999), Deep Space Nine would go onto become one of the most creatively (if not always commercially) successful Star Trek incarnations ever. It’s still my favorite of the post-TOS Star Trek spinoffs.
Deep Space Nine is also one of my favorite science fiction series of all time; and that’s a list that includes “Twilight Zone” “The Prisoner” “Battlestar Galactica” (2003-2009 version) and “Doctor Who.”
I enjoy it just as much today as I did in the 1990s. Perhaps even more so.
Guess I’m a Niner for life…