Over the summer, Netflix added all of the Star Trek series to it’s instant service–well, all but one: Deep Space Nine. This made me sad, because DS9 was my favorite, but I figured it would be a good opportunity to catch up on Voyager and Enterprise, which I watched some of (two seasons and one season, respectively) but never really got into. I tried, and quickly remembered why I’d stopped watching those shows (Neelix and implausibility, respectively). I was already in a Star Trek mood, though, so I went back and started watching The Next Generation. I really enjoyed this series while it was on TV–it’s final season ended my senior year of high school, and my friends and I were all Star Trek nerds–and in rewatching some of the old episodes I was delighted to see that they held up over time. It wasn’t just nostalgia that made me like them in high school, and in fact many of the episodes I remember as kind of boring turned out to be pretty great once I watched them with a more discerning eye.
Last night, having just watched “Pen Pals” from season two (specifically because it was recently covered in Tor.com’s TNG rewatch), I decided on a whim to do a search for DS9, just in case Netflix had added it to the Instant Streaming options. TNG is great and all, but the episodic nature of it was really starting to get to me. I wanted the depth of an ongoing story, and the darkness and tension of DS9′s murky political minefield. What could it hurt? I pulled up the search window and…it was there! My sweet, precious Deep Space Nine! I went straight toward the end of season two, when the long-form story just starts to get going (a two-parter about the formation of the Maquis, a resistance/terrorist organization) and started watching.
I love this show so much. We start that episode by watching someone plant a bomb, and then instead of watching it explode, we jump to the control room and listen to Dax and Kira have a snarky, half-friendly-half antagonistic conversation about dating. Not only does this serve as a perfect example of the Hitchcock Principle (“Suspense is when you know there’s a bomb but it doesn’t go off”), its wonderful character development, and nicely humorous. Then the bomb goes off and a ship explodes, and the entire sequence is a perfect, representative slice of DS9: darkness, conspiracy, humor, character, and mundane life. These characters didn’t have time to catalog anomalies and dork around with the Prime Directive, because people were setting bombs on their ships. It was all they could do to keep their heads above water while the darker forces of the universe did everything it could to destroy them. And in the midst of it all they do their best to live a normal life.
The first two seasons of Deep Space Nine were still trying, albeit half-heartedly, to mimic a normal Star Trek show; you still got a lot of political stuff (I can’t even count the number of people I’ve talked to who hate the show based solely on its early preoccupation with Bajoran politics), but there was a lot of “Anomaly of the Week” type stuff. I’m not saying that the other Trek shows were frivolous–they’re well-known and well-loved precisely because they deal with weighty issues like ethics and responsibility. The difference with DS9 came in its tone, which was dark and tense and far more bleak than the others. Every Trek show has tricky questions, but DS9 has questions with no good answers–and, more importantly, consequences that come back to haunt the characters for years.
The TNG episode “Pen Pals” is a great example. Data accidentally contacts a young girl on a dying planet, resulting in a fascinating quandary over the Prime Directive: do they save her? Do they save her planet? If saving her will irrevocably destroy her culture, is it still worth it? If the only other option is death, does the Prime Directive even matter? They wrestle with this back and forth for an hour, and it’s great science fiction, and then in the end they choose to save her planet and–here’s the kicker–wipe the girl’s memory. They broke the Prime Directive by directly interfering with a developing culture, and then there were zero consequences, and then they flew away and never thought about it again. All of their deep, philosophical theorizing was interesting, but ultimately meaningless.
Deep Space Nine doesn’t have that kind of crap. If they mess with something and cause a problem, they’ll have to deal with it, probably several times. They’re a space station, so they can’t just fly away to a part of space they haven’t ruined yet. The Maquis I mentioned earlier were a resistance group forged by the events of a TNG episode: the Federation came to a political agreement with the Cardassians, resulting in a demilitarized zone that displaced a lot of people. Colonists in Federation territory suddenly found themselves, and the homes they’d given so much to build, under enemy control. TNG never really dealt with this, but DS9 used it all the time. The colonists felt betrayed, and when the Cardassians exercised what the colonists considered to be unfair control, they formed a resistance movement and/or terrorist organization. They blew stuff up and killed people, and the DS9 characters couldn’t just wipe anyone’s memorizes or reroute power to the deflector array, they had to hang around and deal with it and try to make peace in an impossible situation.
In season three, Deep Space Nine embraced its long-form nature and went whole hog, starting a massive war that consumed not only the Federation and the Cardassians, but the Klingons, Romulans, and a new alien nation called the Dominion. The one where the Romulans join the war is one of the best episodes ever: the Federation is losing the war and needs more help, so they order DS9′s captain to enlist the Romulan’s help as allies through “any means necessary”. If he doesn’t get their help, the Federation will be destroyed–but the only way to get their help is to break his own set of ethics in a profound and terrifying way. There are no easy answers on DS9, and the implications of his decisions in that episode haunt him forever.
I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this–I can’t convince you, objectively, that a piece of art is “good.” It’s on Netflix now, so watch it for yourself. Perhaps it would be simpler to say that DS9 has my favorite characters of any Star Trek show and leave it at that. Perhaps it’s enough to point out that DS9 was run, in part, but Ronald Fracking Moore, who also ran the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. Whatever convinces you to try it, try it. It’s my favorite Star Trek show ever.
(And that makes it the best.)