By Guest Contributor On March 15, 2012, Kendra James:
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is like The West Wing. But in space. With a Black president. Kind of.
That’s normally how I find myself trying to describe the show to the uninitiated, as I firmly believe that it’s the Trek series you have to use when trying to get people into Trek canon, especially people of color. Deep Space Nine (DS9) causes a strange division in the world of Trekkies. I’ve always found (non-scientifically; I just spend a lot of time at cons) that people either love it or loathe it. Meanwhile, I can’t wait to show it to my kids.
DS9 has your aliens and spaceships, and characters do occasionally say things like “set phasers to stun,” but the Trek cheese-factor is more often than not outweighed by the political storyarcs covered over six out of the show’s seven seasons, its criticisms of 20th century history, race relations in America, and lead actor, Avery Brooks, who stars as Captain Benjamin Lafayette Sisko–the first and only African-American captain to lead a televised Star Trek franchise.
In both the original Star Trek series (TOS) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), the existence of the United Federation Of Planets provided a perfect excuse to ignore (human) race and racism completely. The Trek franchise has always featured black actors and actresses, well developed Black characters, and TOS even featured the first televised interracial kiss in the episode “Plato’s Kiss.” Both shows dismissed racism on Earth as being as outdated as using money, instead highlighting racial politics between alien species rather than humans.
This model may have continued through DS9 had they hired any other actor to portray Captain Sisko. However, Brooks–a Shakespearean-trained actor, graduate of Oberlin College, and the first African-American to earn an MFA in acting and directing from Rutgers University, where he has also worked as a professor–brought much of himself to the role, and that included an emphasis in the importance of the African-American experience. Even nearly three hundred years in the future. Whether Trek fans were ready for it or not, DS9 brought the topic of race closer to home.
While I suspect that direct tone is one of the reasons DS9 isn’t as popular as its’ predecessors–along with the heavy emphasis on backroom politics instead of “seeking out bold new worlds”–if you didn’t like TNG chances are you’re going to love a show that goes out of its way in the first episode to distinguish Sisko from the already-established Captain Jean-Luc Picard. In the premiere we learn Picard (while under control of the alien species The Borg) had killed Sisko’s wife.
In a meeting between the two, Sisko speaks to Picard in a tone he’s likely never heard from a non-superior officer before, and Sisko’s dislike of the man–and the stationis made apparent. With that, Sisko distinguishes himself immediately in the DS9 pilot as one of the few people with the mettle to speak openly to Picard and to not simply fall under the spell of influence the captain was often written to command. While the scene was likely included to make the segue from TGN to DS9 as smooth as possible, Picard does not exist to emerge as the hero of the scene or to bring Sisko back in line, so to speak. Because Sisko is given his outrage, his choice to accept permanent assignment there later is that much more genuine.
The meeting also introduces what would be one of the series’ most important subplots: Sisko is a family man in a way that neither Picard or Kirk ever were. He’s a widower with an 11-year old son Jake (Cirroc Lofton), a situation that was one of the reasons for resisting his assignment to the station.
In William Shatner’s documentary The Captains, Brooks said it was important to him to portray a black father on television that plays an positive role in his son’s life.
“I read the pilot, and said well, this is very interesting to me,” Brooks said. “A man dealing with loss, having to raise a child–indeed a male child–by himself, and be brown as we spin this tale in the 20th century about the 24th century.”
The depiction of the black father continued to be an important dynamic to Brooks through the show’s finale, like when he initially thought they were going to have Sisko abandon his son and unborn child. Upset by this decision he’s quoted as saying, “ The Producers told me, ‘Look we thought you’d be thrilled…The difference, of course, is you have Sisko with another child on the way. You still have Sisko with a young man [Jake Sisko] trying to find his way…That wasn’t fair.” [Shortened for Spoilers].
This view on “Parenting While Black” is unique in sci-fi fantasy television. More often than not in these shows, black parents die off or abandon their children early on in their lives, leaving them unhappy, lonely and hungry for revenge. Brooks’ efforts helped Lofton’s character largely avoid the fate of others like Robin Wood and Kendra Young (Buffy The Vampire Slayer), Charles Gunn (Angel), Bonnie Bennett (The Vampire Diaries), and Walt Lloyd (Lost).
Even with an intergalactic war raging around them later in the series, Sisko is always there for Jake. They’re often shown having dinner together and Sisko is always eager to read over and help edit Jake’s stories and articles. He supports Jake’s decision to become a writer instead of going to the Starfleet Academy, even though that’s perhaps what he would have preferred. Episodes like “The Visitor” (guest starring Tony Todd as an older Jake Sisko) and “In the Cards” (where Jake tries to acquire a 1950s baseball card to cheer Sisko up during a stressful week) highlight the strength of the bond and loving relationship between father and son.
With a highly educated and vocal African American actor in the lead it’s no wonder you get get seven seasons of a series that takes his cultural experience to heart; Sisko is specifically written to acknowledge the implications that the color of his skin bring.
Not only are there references to Sisko’s New Orleans heritage, soul food, his love of baseball (particularly players Willie Mayes and Jackie Robinson) and bits of African art we see decorating his quarters, but we see him enter a relationship with an African-American woman, Kasidy Yates, enabling them–and the viewers–to discuss the cultural history of racism, of which Sisko is still acutely aware. In one episode his crew becomes infatuated with visiting “Vic’s,” a holosuite program set in a 1960s Las Vegas casino and lounge, and Kasidy asks him why he doesn’t want to join his team’s Rat Pack cosplay.
Sisko: You want to know … you really want to know what my problem is? I’ll tell you: Las Vegas 1962, that’s my problem. In 1962, black people weren’t very welcome there. Oh sure, they could be performers or janitors, but customers? Never.
Kasidy: Maybe that’s the way it was in the real Vegas, but that is not the way it is at Vic’s. I have never felt uncomfortable there, and neither has Jake.
Sisko: But don’t you see? That’s the lie. In 1962, the civil rights movement was still in its infancy. It wasn’t an easy time for our people, and I’m not going to pretend that it was.
Kasidy: Baby–I know that Vic’s isn’t a totally accurate representation of the way things were, but… it isn’t meant to be. It shows us the way things could’ve been – the way they should’ve been.
Sisko: We cannot ignore the truth about the past.
Kasidy: Going to Vic’s isn’t going to make us forget who we are or where we came from. What it does is reminds us that we are no longer bound by any limitations–except the ones we impose on ourselves.
It’s a small scene in a 45-minute episode, but the fact that it’s acknowledged is important and more than you get from most genre shows. Sisko is initially displeased with his crew’s little Mad Men fantasy, and he’s allowed to express it, no matter how uncomfortable it might be for the viewer.
During season five, Brooks also tackled nostalgic racism from behind the camera, as director of the episode “Far Beyond The Stars,” which spends an entire 45 minutes dealing with race relations in mid 20th-century America. “Stars” reimagines Sisko as a science fiction writer named Benny Russell working for a racist and sexist New York magazine in the 1950s where racism is present, but more deceptive and innocent, casually rolling off the tongues of people Benny considers friends and colleagues. The magazine refuses to publish his stories about the character Benjamin Sisko, a black starship captain.
When Benny’s editor finally does agree to publish his stories he insists that the stories must be revealed to be the dreams (not the reality) of a poor Black man in their present time–because everyone knows the idea of a black sci-fi hero is that unrealistic. With that, the episode also reminds the viewer that despite the inclusive attitude the Trek franchise has embraced, science-fiction is still very much a white man’s world. For every Octavia Butler there are five Joss Whedons. More pointedly, for every one Captain Sisko, there’s a Captain Picard, Captain Kirk, Han Solo, John Carter, and … well, you get the picture. With Sisko in the lead, DS9 is self-aware and capable of criticising the flaws of its own genre, and that’s something to appreciate.
I’m struck by how much more I understand this show at the age of 24, compared to when I rewatched it at 17, and before that when I originally watched from 1993 to 1999. I was only 11 when the finale aired (and grounded for a good deal of the season, but that’s another issue entirely) and while I vaguely understood the significance of Sisko, I admit to taking his presence–the presence of a starring Black man–on my screen as normal. I like to think that Brooks would have appreciated that, knowing that part of his reasoning for accepting the role of Sisko was his belief that “brown children must be able to participate in contemporary mythology.”
In some ways the 1990s were better landscape for a kid of color to get into science fiction and fantasy. Not only did I have Sisko, there was Carl Lumbly as M.A.N.T.I.S; Wesley Snipes was Blade; Spawn aired on HBO and was made into a film; Cleopatra 2525 starring Gina Torres debuted in 2000; my favorite book series, Animorphs, starred Black and Latino teens; and Will Smith was king of the summer sci-fi box office.
When one looks at the scope of white genre heroes this isn’t a large number in comparison but, because Sisko was always there, I didn’t feel as if I was lacking for anything. It never occurred to me that the physical and cultural representation I was seeing was unique not only within the Trek franchise, but on television in general. Because, let’s be real: It’s already been 12 years since DS9 ended, and sometimes it’s nice to watch Avery Brooks as Sisko and remember that, yes, we can do that, too.
Every season will now come with a “don’t listen to me, just watch it all” disclaimer. These are my personal favorites among a season of favorites. Seriously, by the time we get to season 7 the whole post is just going to be a video of me sobbing and hugging myself.
And pressing my cheek to this image lovingly.
4×01-2: Way of the Warrior parts 1&2:
These episodes are killer. The tone and drive of the back half of the series sharpens to a knife-point. We learn so much in these episodes, we see so much set up, so much is twisted and turned around.
We learn that “sand peas” are almost definitely watermelon Jelly Bellies. We learn that the spots do go all the way down. That Garak doesn’t bother to fold his tucked napkin when having lunch with Odo. (Perhaps the whole torture thing means those social niceties are beneath them now?)
We learn that, if you have begrudgingly made your home among aliens, if you’re isolated and plodding on through bitterness and regret in a place besieged at every side, if your friends are your enemies, and your hardscrabble pride is your dearest enemy-friend, if you are drunk and afraid, then take heart. The only time you should really start to worry is the moment you begin to like the taste of root beer.
But, most importantly: Worf. Worf Worf Worf. Worf.
4×03: The Visitor:
Do you enjoy weeping freely? Has it been too long since you’ve had a good, long, snotty, blotchy, call-everyone-you-love-at-an-inappropriate-hour cry? Well, here you go, buddy. Leave those embarrassing voicemails as the credits roll.
Oh, and just go ahead and keep right on weeping. Just segue straight from tragic family story into tragic love story.
See, in addition to questionable psychiatric practices, the majority of Trill society believes it’s taboo-level improper for the new hosts of symbionts who once knew each other to “re-associate”. I’m gonna just translate that to “make out and be in love forever omg”. This is supposedly for the good of the symbiont so that it can have new and various experiences in its ages-long slug life.
Like many people would when confronted with the gorgeous new host of their ex-wife, Jadzia Dax calls bullshit on that.
Oh, does she ever.
And from this we get what’s arguably Star Trek’s most direct treatment of queer relationships. Some argue that the outcome of this episode precludes it from being pro-LGBT. For me, it only made the story hit closer to home. Trill’s taboo against re-association is as dehumanizing and insulting as any modern law that drives people in love apart, that bleeds into society and diminishes the character of any person enforcing or affirming that law. It isn’t Trek as utopia, but it is absolutely Trek as worthwhile and passionate social commentary.
4×06: Starship Down:
Like many geeks, I’m a person who loves stories about teams, about constructed families. Unlikely alliances and unexpected friendships that end up being so, so rewarding. This episode deals with that beautifully. Worf gets his in to begin really gelling with the crew, Jadzia and Julian laugh together at the expense of early-seasons-Julian, Quark makes friends with James Cromwell, and Kira and Sisko are the best.
Kira’s “holy crap I am friends with the Emissary” grin is also the best.
In addition to all these Feelings, this is just a really great spaceship episode in classic submarine storytelling style.
4×07: Little Green Men:
Look at this.
Look at it.
Good, now go watch the episode.
4×10: Our Man Bashir:
It should be clear by now that I’m a woman of offbeat tastes. I’ve always wanted to meet a nice lady with a tapeworm so that I could date someone like Jadzia. I somehow found it in my heart to love early-seasons-Bashir. Bedazzled skintight jumpsuits, disproportionately long limbs, anime eyes and all. But do you want to know what really gets my engine revving?
Oh. Hello, there.
O-o-oh. Oh, I see.
Oh God, what are these feelings inside of me? What witchcraft are you working on me, Star Trek?
OMG now he’s bleeding he’s in a tuxedo and he’s bleeding this is the most amazing thing to ever happen to me in my life what do I do with my hands how do I go on living when this is over OMGOMGOMG
I’m told that some other things happen in this episode, but frankly I never noticed.
4×16: Bar Association:
Rom: labor union organizer.
4×20: Shattered Mirror:
Subtitle: Jake Sisko goes on the Best Vacation Ever! The trend of excellent space-therapy continues as Jake spends the weekend with the body-double of his dead mom. Captain Sisko isn’t entirely convinced of the wisdom of this.
Jake and dead mom double, however, are sure that nothing could possibly go wrong.
In other news, Regent Worf got the cream of the crop from the SPCA.
I’ve had this dream so many times.
There is some subtextual evidence in the dialogue that implies Regent Worf is not a leader of well-considered opinions:
GARAK: The Intendant was bad enough. She was irrational, accusatory, unappreciative. But at least…
WORF: At least what?
GARAK: At least I was able to please her now and then.
WORF: You are not my type.
Worf, how are you even in charge of anything ,what is wrong with you, ye gods.
4×22: For the Cause:
Up until this episode, my opinion of the Maquis was “pfft, boring, they’re humans”. But then this hits and it’s like whaaaat.
Kasidy’s Maquis??! Whaaaat.
And then you’re like okay, okay I can deal with that. The Sisko will persevere. Jake will add this onto the pile of mommy issues and move on. But then!
Whoa whoa wait but Odo totally liked you what whaaaaaaaaat.
The shit: it is real. Oh, and Garak goes on a date with a teenager. To be fair, she’s pretty great.
4×24: The Quickening:
I have had this song stuck in my head since 1996.
This is the episode where I can begin to feel okay about liking Doctor Bashir in all his colonialist glory. In an apt follow-up to Eddington’s Federation-as-homogenization tirade, Bashir finds himself neck-deep in his beloved ~frontier medicine in a place we’ll call The Planet of the Lepers.
I get the impression that Julian Bashir’s internal monologue sounds a lot like the content of a long series of pulp novels with racy covers and titles like Doctor Bashir And The Girl With Five Breasts, or Doctor Bashir Investigates: Where Are My Socks?, and in this particular instance Doctor Bashir– Among the Lepers! The great thing about our little ball of Starfleet-spiffy sunshine, though, is that he’s not that guy anywhere outside the holosuites. He doesn’t get the girl, and for the moment he’s no master of espionage. Heck, he can’t even cure one measly planet full of lepers. No matter how much he’s sure that he can.
“My bad, lepers.”
There’s a wonderful moment in act four where Bashir comes face-to-face with his own recklessly optimistic arrogance. It’s beautiful stuff.
4×26: Broken Link:
My notes for this episode were just “Worf totally ruins a perfectly good plan to commit genocide.” I stand by that. Another note could be that it’s clear from this that the universe runs on a currency of charm, and Garak is a goddamn billionaire.
No, for real. Why is Garak even on this mission in the first place? There’s every reason to disallow it. But all it takes is Garak reminding Sisko how great he is. The scene goes like this:
“Check it: I’m great.”
“Damn. He’s got a point.”
Season four ends with Garak in the clink, Odo in a meatbody, the Federation and Klingon Empire kinda-sorta tapdancing around open war, Emperor Gowron a suspected pudding-person, and the death of all Cardassia foretold by the Founders.
In the next post: Wacky Emissary hijinks! An episode about Keiko that’s actually fun! The spots go all the way down! Klingons, Klingons, Klingons! Even more genocide! Doctor Bashir becomes an unwilling expert in treating injuries associated with particularly rough interspecies sex!
Plus everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.
While the Federation Alliance launches its final assault against the Dominion, Kira, Garak and Damar launch their own attack against Dominion Headquarters. Meanwhile, Winn and Dukat travel to the Fire Caves to release the Pah-wraith and the crew of Deep Space 9 prepare for great changes to their lives once the war ends.
Seven years ago, Benjamin Sisko took command of an alien space station newly christened Deep Space Nine. There he met Kira Nerys, Odo, Miles O’Brien, Quark, Worf, Julian Bashir, and many others who would touch his life deeply. He also found a new and troubling destiny as the long-awaited Emissary to the mysterious wormhole entities known as the Prophets.
Now, after years of triumph and tragedy, and a cataclysmic war that rocked the entire Alpha Quadrant, Captain Sisko and his valiant crew face their final challenge. No one is safe, nothing is certain, and not even the Prophets can predict the ultimate fate of Deep Space Nine!
Benjamin Sisko and his new crew take control of a former Cardassian space station and make a discovery that will change the galaxy.
Sisko and the crew take a new starship into the Gamma Quadrant to contact the Founders of the Dominion.
When a large Klingon fleet arrives at Deep Space 9 and refuse to clarify their intentions, Sisko enlists the help of Worf.
- Without warning, Benjamin Sisko is living another life. No longer a Starfleet captain, commander of space station Deep Space 9, he is Benny Russell, a struggling science fiction writer living in 1950s Harlem. Benny has a dream, of a place called Deep Space Nine and a man named Ben Sisko, and a story he has to tell. But is the Earth of that era ready for a black science fiction hero?
Tales of the Dominion War
- For two seasons, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine chronicled the intense struggle of the Federation, fighting alongside the Klingons and the Romulans against the overwhelming forces of the Dominion in some of the most exciting hours of television ever produced.
- Now, for the first time, see how the Dominion War affected the entirety of the Star Trek universe. From the heart of the Federation to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. From the front lines of Klingon space to the darkest recesses of the Romulan Empire. From the heroic members of the Starfleet Corps of Engineers to the former crew of the USS Stargazer. From the edge of the New Frontier to the corridors of station Deep Space 9.
By Robert Ring, Tue, 11/02/2010 – 08:45
Another below-par episode for Deep Space Nine. However, this one’s not as bad as “Babel,” and, to be fair, the first few episodes set the bar pretty high. This one examines the Prime Directive under a unique and challenging set of circumstances, but it spends too much time on stuff that just isn’t interesting. On paper, its plot sounds like the premise for a solid episode, but it wasn’t pulled off as well as it could have been.
When the first life form from the Gamma Quadrant comes through the wormhole by Deep Space Nine, O’Brien befriends the visitor, named Tosk. Or he’s a Tosk. Or the word “Tosk” describes him in some other manner. He never fully explains. Anyway, this Tosk seems a little too secretive and on-edge. His arrival is a great occasion for the Federation, but unfortunately he is uninterested in chatter and seeks only to get his ship up and running as quickly as possible. Eventually, we learn why: he comes from a culture in which his race is bred and trained for hunting by those in power, and it was during this hunt that his ship was damaged and he ended up on DS9. Though he could seek asylum on the station if he wanted to do so, he views such action as an abandonment of his life purpose. All he wants to do is continue the hunt as prey. As much as Sisko and the others don’t like the idea, the Prime Directive demands that in these conditions they allow the hunt to continue. Queue a heroic action sequence, and curtain.
Hey Tosk, do you happen to know a guy named Bossk?
While the Prime Directive bit is interesting here, it comprises a small portion of the episode. Still, it’s absolutely worth looking at. We’ve had a difficult call in The Next Generation, where following the Prime Directive would have meant allowing someone to die, but here we have to bring an entire culture’s way of life into question. No doubt, to us this custom is deplorable. However, even Tosk is fully given to the morality of the hunt. He believes he’s fulfilling his life’s goal. There hardly seems a way to justify this on the part of those who arrange the hunt system, but if everyone’s happy with it, what are we to do? Tell them they’re wrong? Good luck with that. So, because of the Prime Directive, we have to allow the culture to keep doing its thing.
I like this in part because it forces us to acknowledge a seemingly universally heinous custom as possibly morally acceptable from a certain perspective. To me what’s even more interesting about it, though, is the idea of actually finding meaning in a life in which one is bred only to serve as the prey in a hunt. It is as if these people have to create their own meaning in life, and they do so without apology and without reservation. They just need a purpose, and they’re happy to serve that purpose even if it means their death. After all, who needs life if it’s meaningless? I would like to learn more about this society. Is it totally absent of religion? Their need to create purpose in life would suggest that it is.
So, there’s some good stuff here, but I remain disappointed that so much of it consists of establishing the mystery of what Tosk is running from, why he’s in such a hurry, and, eventually, why aliens in space suits are trying to capture him. We don’t actually learn what’s going on until over halfway through the episode, as if the mystery is somehow more rewarding than the pondering of the morals of the situation. Then we learn what’s going on and get to watch the characters talk and think about the problem for about ten minutes, at which point we get an “O’Brien saves the day” escape scene that lasts pretty much the rest of the episode. Yawn.
At the least, I can say that DS9 still seems to know what it’s doing a lot more than what I’ve seen of TNG. Plus, at this point the series is still very young. Every good show has its missteps. Right now I’m just hoping these indeed are its missteps. From what I can tell based on the first three episodes, I’m still in safe territory