It was the Star Trek show that boldly went, well, nowhere. At least that’s what people used to think. These days, Deep Space Nine is seen as being ahead of it’s time – featuring season long story arcs, moral ambiguity from the lead characters, the rights and wrongs of both religion and politics, the bleakness and prejudices that come from war, and the consequences of conflict. DS9 was the black sheep of the Star Trek family – not embracing the paradise that Gene Roddenberry sought to create with The Original Series and The Next Generation, and having a maturity and style that Voyager lacked.
Deep Space Nine is the story of a space station of the same name, abandoned by the militaristic Cardassians after their occupation of the nearby planet Bajor. With the Bajorans lacking the resources and firepower to man the outpost, and looking to forge an alliance with the United Federation of Planets, they invite the Federation to help run the station. That leads to the arrival of Commander (later Captain) Benjamin Sisko, a man hurt by the loss of his wife Jennifer in an attack by cybernetic race the Borg, and bringing up his son Jake as a single parent. Sisko is initially reluctant to take the assignment, especially when a stable wormhole is found near the station. The wormhole is inhabited by aliens who exist outside of time – and are feted by the Bajorans as religious deities called The Prophets. Those Prophets then choose Sisko as their Emissary to the Bajoran people – a situation he’s especially uncomfortable with. He then juggles the responsibilities of his role as religious icon, Starfleet officer and single parent over the first few seasons.
He’s backed up by a stellar cast that probably wouldn’t work in Star Trek’s traditional format of one off adventures, where the characters have little room for development beyond their basic traits. The serialised nature of DS9 meant each one grew, changed, loved and, in some cases, died. The reset button that characterised many a series that had preceded it disappeared over time (despite being prevalent in the first two seasons), and in that, characters changed too.
Sisko is backed up by his Bajoran first officer, Kira Nerys, a determined and headstrong former freedom fighter with her race’s resistance during the Cardassian occupation. Initially a stubborn stereotype, Kira matured into a lover, mother, and leader – all the while retaining the strength that defined her early appearances. Jadzia Dax was Sisko’s science officer, a member of the Trill species. The “real” character was a foot long worm, that lived inside various hosts – one of which in the past was Sisko’s best friend, and was now Jadzia. He was now sharing experiences he’d first had with a middle aged man with a 20 year old woman. It lead to a bit of light relief, but also added depth to a character who could have easily been eye candy.
Julian Bashir was the station’s doctor, at first a vain, self centred ladies man – but eventually a level headed, uncompromising physician who learned both the value of human life, how to overcome failure and to accept and learn from his mistakes. His friend and confidant was Chief Miles O’Brien – a non-commissioned engineer who excelled at his job, and more than any other member of the crew, embodied the audience of DS9 more than anyone else. The Chief was a man who just wanted to fix things, had a wife that he loved but kept him on a short lead, loved nothing better than a drink after work and was never happier than tinkering with something that needed repairing. He had flaws and weaknesses that spoke to the viewer and told them that this was a guy who they could identify with – even though he lived in the 24th Century.
The station’s security chief and “constable” was Odo, a shapeshifter who’d been on the station while it was occupied by the Cardassians. Initially a stoic, gruff and enigmatic figure, his early stories were defined by his relationship to the station’s ne’er-do-well bartender Quark. Quark himself was an unscrupulous rogue, his bar a cover for numerous illegal activities that, while on the whole innocuous, were sometimes a danger to the station’s safety. Nevertheless, he and Odo shared a type of respect that grew as the series progressed – and in the end were almost what you would call friends – even though Odo continued to deny that. Odo’s importance to the series grew when he became the catalyst for Deep Space Nine’s greatest enemy – The Dominion. His shapeshifting race were eventually revealed to be the ruling body of the force that dwelt beyond the wormhole, in what was known as the Gamma Quadrant – but more about them shortly.
Other, later additions to to DS9’s cosmopolitan crew were the Klingon Worf (Michael Dorn reprising his role from The Next Generation), and the Cardassian Garak, who spent his time as a tailor on the station continually denying his past as a spy for his planet’s secret police. Worf straddled the line between Klingon warrior and Federation officer, often creating problems for both sides, but in the end his bravery and valour were the things that defined him. He also ended up marrying Jadzia Dax, only to see her murdered and hit rock bottom, but her memory ended up making him all the more fearsome when war came to DS9. Garak was a mysterious figure, played by former Dirty Harry nemesis Andrew Robinson. His dual loyalties were often played upon heavily in the early series, but in the end he came to be a valuable ally to the main characters, especially after the Cardassians joined the Dominion.
The early years of DS9 were in danger of repeating some of the more anodyne story tropes that had plagued The Next Generation’s infancy. The first season had a heavy focus on the Bajoran religion, Sisko’s role as the Emissary and how Kira was coming to terms with the war being over, and her prejudices towards the Cardassians. Episodes such as “Move Along Home” (the senior staff are trapped in a real life board game), and “If Wishes Were Horses” (the crew’s fantasy figures – like Rumpelstiltskin – are manifested physically, and cause havoc on the station), hardly helped it gain legitimacy.
Season two carried on in much the same way at the start – but picked up more as it progressed. Dax features heavily in this season, establishing her links to her symbiont within, and it’s past lives. In “Blood Oath” she joins three Klingon warriors she knew in a past life to settle a long running vendetta, and in “Invasive Procedures” where her symbiont is removed, she realises true loss – further developing her character. Season Two also introduces The Maquis, a Federation resistance group who were left homeless when Erath ceded several colonies to Cardassia in the aftermath on an earlier war. The episodes where The Maquis are introduced play into one of the main themes of the next few seasons: It’s easy to be a saint in paradise. Star Trek had traditionally been presented as a utopia – The Federation as the all-knowing, all-giving, benevolent organisation that represented humanity’s best traits. It’s officers always knew the best course of action, because it served the higher good. Here, The Federation had left some of it’s citizens to their own devices in the name of politics, and they had rebelled. Throughout the next few years, Sisko would find it difficult to weigh up the Maquis’ motives, especially when several of his friends were to join.
And that difficulty gave rise to the character traits within Sisko that marked him as different from James T. Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard. Sisko slowly came to realise that he couldn’t keep the Federation’s ideals and rules and do the right thing, as the people making the rules were far removed from the ground where he was negotiating and sometimes fighting. Sisko’s relationship with Federation traitor Michael Eddington is likened at one point to that of Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert from the classic Les Miserables, where Javert’s inflexibility consumes him to the point his pursuit of Eddington becomes an obsession. In the end, Sisko can adapt, and threatens the lives of innocent people so Eddington, who views himself as a hero, has no choice but to turn himself in.
Season two also introduced The Dominion as a tangible threat, with their shock troops The Jem’Hadar featuring in the season finale. That threat carries over into season three, where The Dominion become a growing threat, as their intentions in destroying the ruling powers in the Alpha Quadrant (where Deep Space Nine is) become clear. Rather than have that resolved over the course of one season though, the people in charge of the series decided on a slow build – using The Jem’Hadar as the military might, but using more subtle methods from Odo’s people, who became known as The Founders or Changelings, such as infiltration and subterfuge to undermine the alliances between The Federation and the Klingons, and the Cardassians and the Romulans.
That lead to the Cardassians and Romulans attempting to wipe out The Founders with a large fleet of starships – only to walk straight into a trap that decimated most of their military power, leaving them unable to repel any future invasions. Odo’s relationship with his people became more complex – they wanted him back to rejoin them while he made it quite clear he didn’t agree with their policy of expansion and destruction. For that he came into conflict with them, and they went out of their way to make sure he would eventually have no choice but to return.
Season four heralded a major Klingon presence in the show, as they were prepared to destroy Cardassia, in the belief that Changelings had taken over it’s government and were using it to secretly plan the destruction of the Alpha Quadrant. With Worf’s introduction, the Dominion Plot was largely put on hold to explore his Klingon heritage, but some of the best episodes lead to a Changeling infiltration of Earth, which in turn saw Starfleet introducing martial law, in two episodes that discussed the morals of freedom and when increased security in the wake of terrorist threats becomes so overbearing it removes peoples’ rights. In truth, the best episodes cover Odo’s relationship with his people, and in the season finale he loses his own ability to change shape, seeing his character come to terms with being human – and finding out he quite likes it.
Odo’s growth continued as he confronted his feelings for Kira, and being human made him think about his own mortality and frailties in the face of an increasingly violent galaxy. Despite season five seeing him regain his shapeshifting skills, it wasn’t a backward step. Odo knew how humans thought even more and used that to try and better understand their motivations and resist the lure of his own people. Standout episodes like “Nor the Battle to the Strong”, which saw Dr. Bashir put aside ego and reputation to cure a virus, showcasing that bravery comes just as much from saving people as it does vanquishing them in battle. The eventual destruction of The Maquis and the conclusion of Sisko’s vendetta with Eddington also feature highly, ultimately proving that revenge isn’t worth it in the end, especially when the other person doesn’t care that you’re pursuing them. “By Inferno’s Light”, and “Call to Arms” ramp up the tension with The Dominion and conclude with them successfully invading DS9 and the Alpha Quadrant itself.
War became the key theme of the final two seasons of Deep Space Nine – something Roddenberry would not have seen in his vision for a utopian future. The Dominion, along with their Cardassian and Breen allies, trample all before them. The Federation and Klingons are the only ones willing to stand against them. The Romulans want to remain neutral, but their intervention could swing the war in the other direction – this impasse leads to one of the greatest Star Trek episodes of all time – “In the Pale Moonlight”.
Faced with the Romulans’ determination to stay out of the war, Sisko is persuaded by Garak to falsify evidence that The Dominion is plotting to destroy Romulus. Sisko relates the whole plot in retrospect, recording it for his Captain’s Log. He wears a heavy-hearted expression throughout, as if he’s uncomfortable with the whole idea, but he went ahead with it anyway. When a Romulan Senator finds his and Garak’s duplicity, he threatens to return home and expose the conspirators, which could prompt his race to stay on the sides, or even worse, join The Dominion. When he leaves, he’s assassinated – with the blame falling on The Dominion. Garak confesses, and says he’ll allow Sisko to arrest him and risk losing the war – but believes that Sisko secretly agrees with his course of action. He’s right, and the whole affair is covered up, leading to the Romulans declaring war on the invaders. Sisko is ashamed of what he’s done, but tying in with the earlier theme of compromise, decides that he should stay quiet if more lives are to be saved. In a disturbing moment, he chooses to erase the log, and all evidence is destroyed.
That episode heralded Deep Space Nine as one of the most dramatic and dark interpretations of Star Trek, showing that there were shades of gray in even the most heroic of characters, and displaying a maturity that some of it’s science-fiction peers lacked.
The final season saw Ezri Dax take over as the host of the Dax after Jadzia is murdered by perennial Cardassian nemesis Gul Dukat, who infiltrates the Bajoran religious order to bring it down from within. Driven insane by the death of his daughter and removal from power by The Dominion, Dukat is determined to destroy Bajor. This is set against the backdrop of the increasingly bloody war, as the subject of loss, PTSD and the harsh realities of death on the battlefield are explored in the episode “The Siege of AR-558”. A small Starfleet detachment is pinned down and slowly slaughtered by Jem’Hadar troops, and Jake Sisko, now a war correspondent, learns how terrifying the front line can be, and how some soldiers never ever forget what they’ve seen in the heat of battle.
DS9 ended much differently than how it began – the good guys didn’t really win, as the cost of the Dominion War saw millions of people dead, Bajor admitted to The Federation, and characters much changed. Bashir and Ezri Dax embarked on a relationship, much to Worf’s anger and sadness. Odo, with The Dominion defeated and The Founders in retreat and sick due to a virus unleashed on them by The Federation, chose to forgo a relationship with Kira to heal his people. Garak ended up going from tailor to the new leader of Cardassia, while O’Brien and his family were just glad the war was over.
Sisko himself ended up fulfilling his role as the Emissary and confronting Dukat, who was on the verge of unleashing demons that would have destroyed Bajor and The Prophets, and made him unstoppable. In doing so, he sacrificed his own existence to join The Prophets to attain the power to stop Dukat. He’d arrived at Deep Space Nine a broken man, unwilling to embrace what would be his destiny. In the end, he gave it all up to become the man who would save an entire race through his own belief. He, like so much else, changed immeasurably over the course of the seven years DS9 was on air.
Deep Space Nine was different. Words like “dark” and “gritty” are much used these days to describe TV drama, but DS9 could be described that way long before the likes of Daredevil or Breaking Bad came along. Yes, it was Star Trek, but like no Star Trek that had gone before. In that respect, it did “boldly go”, just to different places.