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Alternate History in Star Trek Part 14: The Controversial Birth of Deep Space Nine

By Tom Anderson

It is a measure of just how much spinoff material has been produced in the history of the Star Trek franchise that it has taken until now, part 14, before I can discuss the third live-action Star Trek show after the original series (TOS) and The Next Generation (TNG). Deep Space Nine (DS9) debuted in 1993, with its first two seasons running concurrently with the last two of TNG. As hinted at in previous articles, there were a number of on-screen crossovers and subtler plot thread links between TNG and DS9, as well as a fair few non-canon ones (which we’ll get to). This is ignoring the fact that DS9’s cast already drew upon recurring TNG secondary character Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney) who was promoted to a regular cast member, and much later Worf (Michael Dorn) would also make the jump. In fact, TNG’s Ensign Ro Laren (Michelle Forbes) was also originally intended to play a large role in DS9, but in the end the new Bajoran character of Major Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor) replaced her.

Today, DS9 is frequently cited by a large percentage of hardcore Trek fans as their favourite incarnation of the franchise. We’ll get to some reasons for that in time; right now, I just want to emphasise the fact that this would have been almost unthinkable back in 1993. No matter how much fan controversy you think the internet can whip up nowadays about new interpretations of Star Trek and other franchises, it pales into comparison to how DS9 was viewed at the time. In this article I’ll mainly be looking at this birth and just the first season of DS9 (and any AH-relevant elements) because it is worth a discussion on its own.

The critic Phil Farrand, in his “Nitpicker’s Guide to Deep Space Nine Trekkers” (covering the first four seasons) explored the controversy thoroughly in an essay titled “Bajor: Terok Nor”. Farrand was speaking for himself, explaining why he had initially been unable to get into DS9 until a particular episode (“Duet” I think) flipped him into realising he had been trying to approach it from the wrong mindset. While some of his points are specific to his own experience, the essay generally sums up the much broader controversy. When I say controversy, I don’t mean the modern interpretation where it’s a few thousand people arguing on Youtube about whether girls have cooties, I mean it was openly discussed by Big Serious Critics on Big Serious Television to an audience of tens of millions. Star Trek, TOS and TNG, was hugely mainstream; though serious hardcore fans were notoriously considered prey for mockery, plenty of ‘normal’ TV viewers in the US and elsewhere expressed feelings about what a series under the ‘Star Trek’ banner should and shouldn’t be.

It may be a surprise to modern viewers used to the histrionic internet that this controversy had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that DS9’s protagonist, Commander Ben Sisko (Avery Brooks) was the first black protagonist in Star Trek history. While I sadly have no doubt that there will have been racist hate mail and talking points about this, it was actually remarkably absent, for good or ill, from discussions about DS9 (particularly compared to Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) as the first female protagonist two years later). DS9 initially took the classic Star Trek approach that nobody comments on anyone’s racial background in-universe because it’s the future and we should have moved past that (as pioneered in the TOS episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, where the crew genuinely can’t understand the racism at first). It would only be later that this would be explored in the poignant episode “Far Beyond the Stars”, directed by Brooks himself, in which it’s presented as Sisko not really thinking about the history of past racism himself until confronted with it, which changes his perspective. But we’ll discuss that more when we get to the later seasons.

No, the controversy surrounding Deep Space Nine was simple. It was a series under a banner called Star Trek, set on a station that didn’t move. That’s it.

Let me elaborate. Farrand, in his essay, uses the analogy of a watchmaker’s founded in the 1960s by a man named “George Staffengrape” (geddit) called “Seventeen Jewels”. The classic analogue watches using seventeen watchmaker’s jewels were enjoyed by millions, and then in the 1980s the company was revived, making a new watch under the name but still with the titular seventeen jewels. However, with quartz digital watches now becoming popular, they decide to release a digital watch, still using the “Seventeen Jewels” brand name but, of course, with no jewels or analogue components at all. That was essentially how many Trek fans viewed DS9 at the start: a non-Trek series masquerading as part of the franchise they loved.

Farrand runs down a bullet point list of differences which were controversial at the time, which I paraphrase below:

- DS9 was the first series not to be set on the USS Enterprise, and indeed had no starship at all (at first).

- There was no opening narration of ‘Space…the final frontier…’

- And, indeed, because (it seemed) there would be no ‘exploring strange new worlds’.

- The protagonist was not a captain (at first).

- The cast was not solely Starfleet, but a mix, including members of the Bajoran Militia and others.

From a modern perspective, these points may seem trivial. We are used to the idea of hefty media franchises which function as settings, in which different kinds of stories can be set. Star Wars doesn’t just have to be trilogies of movies about the main cast having epic galactic adventures, it can also be spinoff TV series with self-contained storylines. I remember Jonathan Ross saying in the 90s that James Bond was different to other franchises because it could survive the replacement of its protagonist’s actor, specifically mentioning that obviously there could be no more Terminator films without Arnold Schwarzenegger…yet, nowadays, there are, and spinoff TV series, and more. But back in 1993, the idea that Star Trek was a setting, where we could set adventures on a space station that the Enterprise might call at – rather than a genre of story fundamentally being synonymous with the spacefaring voyage of the Enterprise herself – was, to say the least, controversial.

As I mentioned above, DS9 would go on to shake off this reputation with hardcore Trek fans and eventually become the favourite version of Star Trek for many people. Yet it’s often ignored that this initial impression was much more lasting among the general public. Many changes made to DS9, such as the addition of a ship in season 3, Sisko’s promotion to captain and shaving his head (suspiciously evoking Picard), Worf joining in season 4, etc., smack of the kind of desperate retool of a show in trouble trying to go back on its controversial concept. We ignore this because, as far as the hardcore fans were concerned, it worked. But as far as the public in America and the world were concerned, Star Trek stopped being a mainstream source of familiar references when TNG ended. When I was growing up, Star Trek and Star Wars were considered essentially equivalent in terms of popcultural awareness – Trek might even have the advantage. Yet since 1993, Trek has long since faded into the background behind Wars. I’ve seen it noted that one can even see this happening on “Whose Line Is It Anyway”, whose sci-fi references were almost all Trek until the mid-90s and then transitioned to Wars. It is a strange dichotomy.

Let’s discuss the show’s concept itself. Paramount chairman Brandon Tartikoff played a fairly significant role in its conception. Tartikoff had already been responsible for helping rescue Star Trek VI’s troubled production (although upsetting Leonard Nimoy in the process) and boldly responded to views that VI was ‘the end of Star Trek’ by looking for reinventions. As well as pushing for TNG films to succeed the TOS ones, Tartikoff envisaged a series that would take a different approach to the Star Trek setting. Just as Roddenberry had conceived of TOS originally as “Wagon Train to the Stars”, Tartikoff thought of westerns like “The Rifleman” that, rather than being about travelling wagon trains, would be set in a ranch or outpost on the edge of the frontier. (Indeed, DS9’s now little-remembered original tagline was “Beyond the Final Frontier”, which I mainly remember from the VHS tape covers in Blockbuster). Tartikoff also came up with the idea of working to seven seasons becoming the new norm for Star Trek.

TNG showrunners Rick Berman and Michael Piller would realise Tartikoff’s idea, though Tartikoff would leave Paramount before DS9 debuted. Piller, who eventually went to work on Star Trek: Voyager, would gradually be replaced by Ira Steven Behr, who also wrote more episodes of DS9 than any other writer. We cannot avoid the elephant in the room that DS9 was frequently compared to “Babylon 5”, another science fiction TV show set on a space station (but with a different, original setting) that was simultaneously being created by J. Michael Straczynski. Straczynski has claimed that Paramount saw and declined a detailed treatment of “Babylon 5” he sent them as far back as 1989, and there have been many suspicions that elements of DS9 were ‘borrowed’ from this. Naturally, the two became duelling shows with their own rival fandoms. The most profound influence of “Babylon 5” on DS9 may actually have been the more subtle one that the former, being almost entirely the work of one writer, could offer more cohesive, long-running plotlines, character and story arcs than earlier, episodic Star Trek had managed. This same approach would, gradually, also influence DS9. One consequence of being set on a station, as some critics observed, was that one couldn’t have an adventure on the planet of the week and have Kirk or Picard fly off into the sunset; the station crew were, well, stationary, and had to deal with the consequences of their actions in the long term.

While DS9 at one point had the anonymous, sensibly-rejected working title of “Starbase 362”, another key part of its conception was that the titular Deep Space Nine would not be a Federation-built station. In the backstory (as previously established in TNG), the planet Bajor had been conquered by the imperialist Cardassians and ruled for several decades. With their own homeworld largely lacking in resources, the Cardassians had stripped Bajor bare, with DS9 (then called Terok Nor) being an ore processing station. Finally, after years of resistance from Bajoran freedom fighters, the Cardassians withdrew and the Federation took possession of the station by treaty. Naturally, some of the now-independent Bajorans (initially including Major Kira) viewed the Federation with suspicion, initially fearing they simply wished to replace the Cardassians as the new colonial power. In the pilot episode, “Emissary”, Ben Sisko, the new station administrator, has to try to ensure that local civilian businesses on the station – such as Ferengi bartender Quark - do not pull out with the Cardassians. A plotline in that episode involves the discovery of a stable wormhole near Bajor which connects the area to the mysterious, distant Gamma Quadrant of the galaxy, suddenly promoting Bajor in importance (and presumably making the Cardassians kick themselves as having the worst timing ever). This is a two-edged sword as far as people like Kira are concerned, because it also means Bajor is now at the crossroads of major powers wanting access to the wormhole, and on its doorstep if any new threat comes through it (as it inevitably does).

This setting allowed for remarkable opportunities for the very impressive Star Trek set design and VFX team (including Michael Okuda who famously did the computer displays – and later designed patches for real space missions for NASA!) I would highly recommend “The Making of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens for some fascinating insights into the early development of DS9, especially for the aesthetics that the set designers and VFX team used. Rather than just doing the same thing again as for TNG (except for the small Starfleet ‘runabout’ spacecraft used), or try to look ever more advanced for a new future era, they could instead invest time and ideas in developing an alien aesthetic. The Cardassians were a relative newcomer to Star Trek compared to the Klingons and Romulans, but the DS9 team (writers as well as designers) ensured that they were left with probably the most distinct and cohesive identity as a culture. The DS9 station was designed to be deliberately alien, using brown and orange tones rather than Starfleet greys and blues, with trigonal symmetry patterns and curved rather than angular designs. The control room, ‘Ops’, had Sisko’s office (formerly Gul Dukat’s) on a higher level so he could look down on his ‘underlings’. The control panels were also in Cardassian – another of Farrand’s bullet points involves the fact that, for the first time, one couldn’t be sure of the bridge positions of officers or be able to read the displays. DS9’s overall design was also one of the first to be achieved using computer-aided design, which allowed the creators to play around with all sorts of designs before settling on the one we got.

I won’t go on in detail, just read the book, but it is striking that Star Trek at this time had a working team that blurred into the fanbase, often being obsessive and thorough themselves in a way that today is only associated with people making fan films on Youtube. For example, at one point in the book a VFX artist actually apologises that the menu on his hideously expensive 90s graphics workstation just says ‘phasers’, when he knows people will write in and say that the Klingon and Cardassian weapons effects on the menu are disruptors not phasers. It is something you don’t appreciate until you miss it, and you get things like the 2009 Star Trek film casually doubling the size of the Enterprise (so it now has gigantic decks and windows on the outside!) just so you can fit in a stupid pointless ‘comedy’ scene involving a purposeless array of water circulation pipes. Sorry, I’ll leave that rant for another day.

Yet the real appeal of DS9 is not about technology or aesthetics, but about characters and storytelling. DS9 built on the ‘soap-opera’ elements of later TNG, when we got to see our characters’ lives outside their adventure of the week on the bridge or down on a planet. We got to see the regulars playing poker, organising concerts and plays, practising their hobbies and so on. DS9 put a grittier touch on the same approach, something summed up in the pilot where Dr Julian Bashir (Siddig El Fadil a.k.a. Alexander Siddig) meets Kira for the first time. Bashir is young, enthusiastic, and excited about not sticking to a cushy job in the ‘civilised’ Federation, but roughing it out on the frontier – Kira, naturally, is less than impressed to be patronised in this way. We get to see the high-minded ideals and post-scarcity luxury of TNG colliding with the grim realities of Bajor and its neighbours; but, crucially, usually without losing the worth of those ideals. (I’ll talk about some borderline cases later).

The aforementioned pilot, “Emissary”, is, to my mind, paced badly. I think a lot of the criticisms made of the TNG pilot “Encounter at Farpoint” – usually unfairly, I will defend Farpoint to the death – actually apply more to its DS9 counterpart. Another similarity between the two is that the protagonist’s actor’s performance is a bit off as they’re finding their feet. Like Picard in Farpoint, Sisko in Emissary is erratic to the point of coming across as manic at times. Another reason for Brooks’ performance is that he actually did not want the role at first, but his wife was a Trek fan and insisted. Fortunately, he chose to take it in the end and we were not deprived of one of Trek’s most memorable and interesting characters.

Where “Emissary” does shine is how it opens. We get a text scroll recap of the events of “The Best of Both Worlds”, with Picard being assimilated by the Borg and then the Borg using his knowledge, against his will, to destroy 39 Federation starships at the Battle of Wolf 359. In TNG we only saw the aftermath of the battle, but here we finally see it in all its glory – with model shots, no CGI yet! The ship Sisko is first officer on, the Saratoga, is destroyed by the Borg and he is forced to leave his wife Jennifer behind, trapped and unconscious, as he is dragged away with his son Jake. Three years later, Sisko and Jake arrive at DS9 to take over, though he’s not sure he should take the role (unintentional subtext!) The Enterprise is there for the handover, and Sisko coldly offends Picard (and most of the audience) by bringing up the first time they met, at Wolf 359. As a commenter on the SLP forums noted recently, this was quite a bold idea of the writers – one would expect the more usual spinoff-handover trope of ‘this new guy I’ve never mentioned is my best friend and we’ve had loads of offscreen adventures together’. (At the end of the episode they reconcile when Sisko has moved on, which helps).

We are introduced to the cast and Sisko travels down to Bajor, where the Bajoran spiritual leader Kai Opaka tells him he is the prophesised ‘Emissary’ and she exposes him to an ‘Orb’ or ‘Tear of the Prophet’, an ancient artefact hidden from the Cardassians which gives him a vision. Yes, that’s the other thing changed about DS9 – it is the first Star Trek series to attempt to not be ridiculous about religion, and sometimes even succeeds. Despite one of the writers complaining about something called an ‘orb’ being hourglass-shaped, this concept would continue to underwrite the series throughout. At least it wasn’t the first draft, where a male Opaka gives everyone foot massages.

The Orbs all appeared in ancient history from a nearby area of space, so the crew decide to investigate. Sisko meets up with Jadzia Dax, a Trill symbiont-host combination. Dax was another concept carried over from TNG, where the Trill were introduced in “The Host”, except so many things got changed in the carryover that they might as well just have come up with a new name. The Trill in TNG were a race with bumps on their foreheads who were bonded to a great big symbiont creature, something which was unknown to the Federation until that episode, and that creature essentially overwrote the host’s personality like a freakin’ Goa’uld from Stargate. The Trill in DS9 are a race with spots running down their faces and bodies who are bonded to a tiny little symbiont creature, who have been known to the Federation for decades, and each host forms a new blended personality with the symbiont, just carrying over memories. Sisko knew Jadzia’s previous host, an older man named Curzon, who was an able diplomat and maverick ladies’ man – hence he affectionately refers to her as ‘old man’. It’s a pretty interesting concept with a lot of storytelling potential later on: for example, a few episodes later in “Dax”, there will be a court case over whether Jadzia can be tried for an alleged crime by Curzon.

Sisko and Dax investigate the area where the Orbs come from, only to find the aforementioned wormhole. Inside it, in a sequence that is one of the more poorly-paced in the episode, they somehow land on a planetoid, which Sisko perceives as dark and brooding while Dax sees it as light and arcadian. This goes precisely nowhere. Jadzia gets somehow beamed out of the wormhole back to the station, while Sisko is in a bright white void and gets interrogated by aliens taking on the forms of his memories. The wormhole disappears right after former Cardassian occupation leader Gul Dukat decides to investigate it, so Kira has no answer when more Cardassians show up later to ask about him – though she has had the station moved out to the wormhole. This transition really smacks of one writer taking over from another, or something – the fact that the Dax plotline immediately cuts off. (She also gets a flashback vision at one point of the surgeons transferring the symbiont from Curzon to her – amusingly, a later episode will imply this was right after Curzon suffered a fatal heart attack while boinking a woman on Risa, obviously).

Anyway, Sisko in the white void finds that the ‘wormhole aliens’ are those whom the Bajorans call Prophets, and this is related to the fact that they do not experience time linearly, but experience everything at once. While there is an obvious logical plot hole here (how, therefore, can there be a time when they don’t understand linear time yet Sisko can then explain it to them and now they do), it’s still a pretty interesting high-concept sci-fi sequence. The point is that Sisko starts out trying to explain it to them with metaphors such as baseball (he’s one of the few who still enjoys the sport, which has fallen into obscurity in the 24th century) and not knowing the outcome of the game. However, he keeps being sent back to the corridor on the Saratoga where he had to leave his wife Jennifer behind. He asks the aliens why they keep torturing him by sending him back there, only for them to clarify that they’re not the ones sending him back. They are confused because, while Sisko has successfully explained linear time to them, he isn’t experiencing it himself – he has never moved on from Jennifer’s death. “You exist here. It is not linear.” In tears, Sisko agrees “No, it is not linear.” This is a pretty clever human plot twist on top of the sci-fi concept. Sisko finally realises he has to move on, and makes peace with Picard at the end.

“Emissary” ends with Sisko having convinced the Prophets to allow the use of the wormhole for transit, and Kira managing to bluff the Cardassians with fake weapons engineered by O’Brien. I didn’t mention it above, but we are also introduced to Ferengi businessman Quark and his rival ‘Constable’ Odo, a mysterious shapeshifter who has been employed as the station’s head of security since the Cardassian days. Both of them will go on to be very memorable characters. It was a big selling point for DS9 that we could now have CGI effects for Odo’s shapeshifting. Odo also claims he came from the same space near the wormhole and has no knowledge of his origins, naturally setting up a reveal for later. The next episode after “Emissary”, “Past Prologue” introduces another memorable character, Garak, the only Cardassian not to leave the station. Garak claims to be a ‘plain, simple tailor’ but, as everyone suspects, is actually a Cardassian spy – albeit more of a retired one – and who strikes up a friendship with Dr Bashir.

The first season of DS9 is a mixed bag, as is not uncommon for a Star Trek series in its early days. Some episodes feel like they could be straight out of TNG, such as “Babel” (where the crew get infected by a virus that gives them aphasia), “The Storyteller” (where an ancient storyteller protects a Bajoran village from a monster and O’Brien has to take over when he dies), “If Wishes Were Horses” (wishes start to come true). Others show attempts to drag over the TNG audience with cameos – “Q-Less” features Q and Vash, “The Forsaken” features Lwaxana Troi falling for a petrified Odo.

Plenty of episodes are intimately connected with the station’s unique setting and the backstory with the Bajorans and Cardassians, being able to explore ideas and themes that previous forms of Star Trek usually could not. Phil Farrand referred to these as “Bajor: Terok Nor” episodes (i.e. as opposed to “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”) and states that these were the ones that first led him to be able to appreciate DS9 on its own merits, rather than seeing it as an inadequate substitute for TNG. Many of them involve Bajorans who were formerly freedom fighters or terrorists (a fine line) who are now struggling to adapt to living under a legitimate government that has formerly made peace with the Cardassians. For example, in the aforementioned “Duet”, Kira finds that a visiting Cardassian may be a war criminal in disguise and tries to bring him down – only to find that the Cardassian was a mere clerk who worked at the death camp, but deliberately posed as the leader to be condemned in order to seek atonement for his own actions. At the end, Kira decides to let him go – only for him to be killed by a Bajoran, not for his own actions or the leader’s, but simply because he was a Cardassian. (I once saw something similar happen with Nick Clegg in Sheffield – long story). Related themes are explored in “Progress”, where Kira has to persuade a Bajoran farmer to move because his home will be demolished by the new Bajoran government as part of a project, and has to face up that she is now seen as the faceless oppressor by one of her own people. Other episodes got to explore the non-Starfleet characters of Odo (“A Man Alone”) and Quark – and a reinvented Ferengi culture (“The Nagus”).

What really disappointed me about the first season of DS9, though, and what led me to stop watching it as a kid (I only came back with season 3) was that I felt the episodes involving the wormhole and the Gamma Quadrant were rather pedestrian by comparison. Given that the wormhole being the gateway to new adventures was effectively the show’s counter to criticisms based on it not being a ‘Trek’, it generally fails to live up to what was promised in “Emissary”. We don’t get to see our first Gamma alien until the sixth episode, “Captive Pursuit”, and that’s about O’Brien befriending an alien named Tosk who turns out to be the genetically-engineered prey of a ‘hunters’ species. It’s not a terrible episode, but it really fails to live up to ‘this is the big, dramatic first time we see people from another quadrant’ – which the episode does try to remind you of at the start, just in case you forgot. The second proper glimpse of Gamma aliens is the really weird and quite TOS-like episode “Move Along Home”, where some aliens call the Wadi force Quark to play a board game for REAL with the CREW’S LIVES AT STAKE like Knightmare/Virtually Impossible or something. And our third is a guy in “Vortex” who claims to be able to lead Odo to his shapeshifting people, except no he can’t and it doesn’t link up with the eventual revelation of them at all well. Straight after that, Kai Opaka, introduced as a major recurring character in “Emissary”, dies in a runabout crash on a Gamma planet where nanomachines bring everyone back to life when they die, but they can never leave. It’s the punishment for two groups, the Ennis and the Nol-Ennis, who were unable to give up their endless conflict and were exiled here to fight for all eternity. (Their main difference appears to be that one side wears hats and the other doesn’t, which feels more like a plot ripped off from Red Dwarf). Opaka stays there to try to lead them to peace, no prizes for guessing that we never see her or them again, and the only lasting impact is that it leaves the see of the Kai vacant and starts a plotline about it being filled by one of the Vedeks. This story is also quite TOS, but not in a good way.

The first season ends with “In the Hands of the Prophets” which then leads into a multi-part story at the start of season 2 – which, as far as I can tell, literally nobody remembers. Ultimately it’s about certain militant Bajorans called THE CIRCLE getting stroppy with the Federation on the station and wanting to control it themselves, but the initial trigger is about O’Brien’s wife Keiko (who’s set up a school) teaching about the wormhole, and the Bajoran Vedek Winn doesn’t like her teaching that they’re ‘wormhole aliens’ rather than ‘Prophets’. This episode wants to be Very Clever about being the Scopes Monkey Trial IN SPACE and it just isn’t. Anyway the Federation pulls out of DS9 or something but Sisko stays behind and fights and then they come back at the end and…I’ve already nodded off.

Fortunately, the rest of season 2 began to improve, and ultimately would end with a fitting new enemy from the Gamma Quadrant, finally giving us something from that angle worth caring about. Next time, we’ll discuss DS9 seasons 2 and 3, before looking into some of the spinoff material produced for early DS9.



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