Tuesday, 3 January 2023

30 Years of DS9

A wormhole, a religious society and a space station might not have seemed the most obvious route to take when Star Trek was looking for a new direction in the early 90’s.

Three decades later and seven full series on, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine remains the only show to have chosen a stable location for its base of operations week in, week out. 

Taking a decidedly different stance from TOS and the simultaneously on air TNG, DS9 revolutionised the franchise with many of its choices from day one. Utilising a reclaimed Cardassian mining station, having the lead only ranked as a commander and have the main cast include several non-Starfleet personnel are just a sprinkling of the offerings in Emissary

Amazingly - and with five series (one more than the Berman era of '87 to '03), the Kurtzman take on Star Trek has yet to try something similar. Ok, Discovery went with a non-captain lead (initially) and both it and Picard attempted season long arcs with varying levels of success. Discovery has mixed up the cast, spun a curveball with its 32nd Century jump but yet not one of the five have decided to set up roots in one place.

Story arcs nowadays are nothing new but in 1995 when DS9 really kicked the Dominion War into touch it was a landmark for Star Trek if nothing else. Thirty years on and its legacy has only grown in stature. Now rated as potentially one of the best if not THE best Star Trek series, DS9 might have boldly stayed put for seven years but it allowed for a healthy ballast of secondary characters, recurring and ongoing stories and possibly the biggest galaxy building exercise in franchise history. The show developed backgrounds of both the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants with the latter still remaining largely untouched by the new era of shows. 

Aside from Enterprise it also remains largely untapped in 2023. Enterprise remains almost outcast but DS9 is conspicuous by the demands of fans for answers to the show, nods to what happened after What You Leave Behind and more. Recently Lower Decks has opened up passage to the station for its third season Hear All, Trust Nothing which returned both Nana Visitor and Armin Shimerman to voice their roles of Kira and Quark but there was still no word of what had occurred in the time since Sisko's disappearance.

Amazing to think that back in 1993 it started off with one of Star Trek's best pilot episodes only to descend into an "alien of the week" show seemingly trying to be the swansong-approaching TNG but in one place. To quote from another space station based show around the same time, it was the last best hope... it failed.

DS9 could never be TNG and that's where those first 20 episodes tend to fail. What it did do was illustrate that the galaxy wasn't as goddamn perfect as viewers were led to believe from aboard the Enterprise-D and that outside the Federation it wasn't all kisses and hugs galore. There was tension, there were differences out there on the frontier and while Voyager caved to internal demands, effectively neutering the Maquis, DS9 retained a healthy mix of personnel and believably all the way through. It never shied away from character changes and consciously embraced them. Sisko went badass, Bashir was briefly a Changeling and then revealed as an augment - and that's just two of the multiple characters. 

Looking back at that first season thirty years on, it's not that bad. Rose-tinted glasses are in play perhaps if you're not a super-fan of the Kurtzman shows, but even the weaker episodes are more memorable than some of Discovery's third and fourth season offerings. Move Along Home, The Storyteller and If Wishes Were Horses all seemed rather flat in '93 yet their presence in the franchise still echoes strong today. If nothing else they entertain, the characters are decently written even if the circumstances are bats-arse crackers. At its worst (allamaraine!) there seems a much greater depth and resonance to the plots than we see today. Admittedly no-one does ask what the Wadi are up to but hey, we can hope?!

But it wasn't all cheese back then (no Voyager pun intended). Season one memorably brought about the oft copied but never bettered Duet, Tosk and ended with the arrival of Vedek Winn and the true beginning of the show's Bajoran political and religious arc.

There was a tendency to over-rely on canon characters early on with the Duras sisters, Q, Vash and of course Picard all turned in before episode eight but that seemed to be dealt with rapidly. Q would never go back thankfully and bug Janeway for the next few years, Generations saw off the Duras sisters and it would take until Blood Oath in the late stages of season two before any other classic characters would wisely be brought back. 

Titillated during the first season and prominently in the opener, Emissary, the Bajoran arc seemed bungled to a degree before Winn and Vedek Bareil came aboard. Season two's opening trilogy of Homecoming, The Circle and The Siege showed the first real signs of life and potential rather than just that "alien of the week" approach that weighed down it's preceding year. But again, with some tweaks and thought, the Bajoran arc with its Pah Wraiths, orbs, vedeks and more would grow with the show. Initially it also provided a key way of showing the series could step outside the TNG-style framework and be unique since TNG never dared cover religion in such detail. It was a becoming a show that realised it could breathe on its own and tell its own stories without having to rely on its soon-to-finish sister series.

Breathe it did with the arrival of the Dominion and that first volley of phaser fire from the USS Defiant in The Search, Part I. A season later Worf jumped ship in the "Dorn to DS9" twist that was The Way of the Warrior and the show truly hit its stride. I could wax on for hours about the brilliance of seasons five and six; For the Uniform, Children of TimeCall to Arms, Sacrifice of Angels, Far Beyond the Stars and unashamedly the franchise rocking In the Pale Moonlight are just a mere fraction of the demonstrations of both writing and acting talent this show would produce between 1993 and 1999. 

DS9 is, in my opinion, unchallenged in its greatness and ability to say it is the best of all the Star Trek series right from day one. Was it better after Ira Steven Behr took full control and was allowed to just do what he wanted because the focus was on the UPN jewel Voyager? Absolutely and it's all the better for it. 

DS9 is not without its faults and many of those are in its first 46 episodes but it learns, adapts and grows in ways which none of the current shows in the stable have even shown a glimmer of achieving. In their defence, two of these shows are animated, one is ending after three seasons and one has only completed a season but nothing says EPIC in the way that DS9 said it or rather screamed it for several years.

Maybe it's therefore a good thing that we have stayed clear of a starbase, space station or colony so far in this era of the franchise. DS9 has left such a lasting impression that it may well have become the untouchable child, the one series that people just don't want to mess up. It had a start, a middle and an end and was fairly concrete in its 

At present the nearest we may get to seeing such a "single location" show is through the much rumoured Academy series or maybe the much delayed Section 31 show. So the wait for something, anything, that might be a follow up to this phenomenal part of the franchise is ongoing. One day, yes, there will be a show that treads a similar path but I think we'll have some time to wait before that becomes a reality. For now it's best to grab the box set and start that journey one more time.

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