Last week, when Star Trek: Deep Space Nine celebrated its 30th birthday, the official Star Trek social media presence marked the occasion with only the barest of acknowledgements: a congratulatory tweet asking fans to name their favorite episodes, a new listicle of great quotes from the series, and not much else. An official anniversary logo and merchandise were rolled out, but with relatively little fanfare. There are, after all, five new Star Trek shows to talk about, including a reunion of the beloved Next Generation cast due in February on Star Trek: Picard. Paramount’s relative quiet about the anniversary is disappointing, but hardly surprising. As fans of the series — or its stars and producers — will tell you, it’s always been this way. Deep Space Nine was Star Trek’s problem child from the very beginning, and that’s exactly what made it so ahead of its time.
The show’s struggle for recognition is detailed in the 2018 documentary What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Deep Space Nine, which is essentially a love letter from the show’s former showrunner Ira Steven Behr to his cast and crew. Spinning out of the smash hit Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine launched in first-run syndication on January 3rd, 1993, and it was immediately apparent that this wouldn’t simply be the same premise with a different cast. (This was before Law and Order, CSI, or NCIS found massive success with exactly this model, juggling as many as three series at once with the premise Crime: But Elsewhere.)
Rather than simply send another Starfleet crew on a mission to go boldly where no one has gone before, creators Rick Berman and Michael Piller decided to take Star Trek back to its roots as a space western. If Star Trek was “Wagon Train to the Stars,” as Roddenberry had often pitched it, Berman and Piller wanted their series to be Gunsmoke. Instead of riding into a new town/planet, confronting a problem, and moving on, their new heroes would live on space station Deep Space 9, the future equivalent of a frontier settlement where adventure comes to them. Consequently, this would leave the characters unable to simply wash their hands of the consequences of each episode and move on down the space trail. They’d be forced to clean up their own messes and rebuild the place — and themselves — a little differently each time.
But, for a franchise whose heroes champion “infinite diversity in infinite combination,” Star Trek’s fanbase has a predictable habit of dismissing the new and different. Viewers rejected DS9 for a variety of reasons, from the reasonable (“What happened to that tireless Star Trek optimism?”), to the ridiculous (“You mean the station just sits there?”). Even after The Next Generation came to a close in 1994, Trekkies who were resistant to the off-beat space drama could simply wait for the premiere of its more familiar, less ambitious successor, Star Trek: Voyager, the following January. Deep Space Nine enjoyed a few scant months as the only new Trek on television, after which it was essentially buried in favor of Voyager, the flagship series of the new UPN television network.
Just as importantly, the launch of both UPN and The WB in 1995 meant that first-run syndicated dramas were muscled out of prime time slots, and where Voyager aired nationwide on Mondays at 8 p.m., DS9’s schedule was erratic. (In my market, DS9 ran on Saturday nights at 7 p.m., unless the Mets were playing a night game.) This was particularly problematic given Deep Space Nine’s commitment to serialized storytelling, which only deepend across its seven seasons. If a viewer missed an episode, which was likely to happen, they could potentially miss key story or character developments, and even showrunner Ira Steven Behr admits in What We Left Behind that it was not a boon to the show’s ratings at the time.
It is, however, perfect for streaming television, where Deep Space Nine found a new lease on life in the 2010s. Star Trek: The Original Series and The Next Generation are timeless, but decades after their release, Deep Space Nine is the classic Star Trek series that feels the most modern. While certainly not the first of its kind, it’s an early example of television’s growth from a medium for short stories to a canvas for sprawling odysseys. Moreover, existing in the very ’90s middle ground between story-of-the-week and full serialization puts it in the now-precious sweet spot in which every episode feels like a satisfying dish rather than a single bite of a meal that’s being spread out across ten courses. This is closer to the model being employed today by its younger cousins Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Prodigy, and Lower Decks, which have overall enjoyed a warmer reception than their fully serialized older sisters Discovery and Picard.
Though the depiction of an inclusive future for humanity has been one of Star Trek’s watchwords from the very beginning, Deep Space Nine is the classic series that comes the closest to meeting today’s standards for diversity. The series doesn’t just give the franchise its first Black leading man but also its most conflicted and textured, in single dad/station commander In That Order Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks). In What We Left Behind, Cirroc Lofton, who portrays Sisko’s son Jake, laments that Deep Space Nine is rarely mentioned in conversations about Black television shows despite the prominence of a Black family and the multitude of storylines involving exclusively Black actors. (In fairness, behind the scenes, DS9 was almost exclusively white.)
DS9 offered its female characters far more interesting and prominent roles than its predecessors. Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor) is a former terrorist who now serves the planet that she killed to liberate, but the new government is a shambles and ghosts from her violent past seem to hide around every corner. Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell) has lived half a dozen lifetimes, both as a man and as a woman, and grows over time from a dime store Spock to the show’s endlessly lovable rogue. Recurring character Winn Adami (Louise Fletcher) might be Star Trek’s most fascinating antagonist, a religious leader whose faith and judgment are clouded by insecurity and political ambition.
But, above all, what makes Deep Space Nine feel the most urgent of all Star Trek shows past and present is that, more than any of its siblings, it embraces nuance. Star Trek is, and has always been, didactic, a means by which storytellers can approach delicate or controversial topics from a safe distance or with a new context. Deep Space Nine is no exception, but rather than spending 40 minutes attacking a social problem head-on and having the captain deliver a clear thesis statement before the credits roll, DS9 tends to leave the audience with room to draw their own conclusions. The dilemmas faced by Captain Sisko and company are more complex, as are their resolutions, which often do not fully satisfy the characters. Not only does this make for more interesting television, but it also tends to age much better than clear-cut “message episodes,” which are necessarily painted by the specific biases and blind spots of their time. There are still some absolute groaners in the bunch (“Profit and Lace” comes to mind, in which Quark goes undercover as a woman and predictable sexist hijinx ensues), but Deep Space Nine shows its age less than other Star Trek shows because it explores complex issues through complex characters and over extended periods of time, rather than simplifying and moralizing.
Captain Sisko is forced to make terrible choices — up to and including an outright war crime — in order to save the Federation from being conquered by the totalitarian Dominion. Like the violence performed by Kira Nerys during the occupation of her homeworld, these dark deeds are framed as both shameful and necessary. The same ambiguity applies to the Maquis, antagonists of the early seasons of the series who wage war against the Cardassians after the Federation trades away their homes as part of a peace treaty. It’s Sisko’s job to protect that peace, but even he must agree that the colonists are justifiably enraged by being betrayed by their own government. The righteousness of the Federation itself is called into question when Dr. Julian Bashir uncovers its amoral secret intelligence branch, Section 31, whose own actions are downright evil. Deep Space Nine never surrenders to full, nihilistic, ethical relativism; there is always a line between right and wrong. But, unlike on The Next Generation, where the strict Kantian philosopher Jean-Luc Picard sits in the captain’s chair, that line is not static.
This, too, attracted the ire of the Trek faithful back when the show was on the air. Star Trek sometimes feels like a cult, not only because of the dedication of its fans but because it does, in fact, try to tell you how to live. That a new installment of this quasi-holy text — the first composed entirely after the death of creator Gene Roddenberry — would question or contradict this vision of the future was abhorrent to some, but it in fact adds an ingredient that is essential to any faith or philosophy: doubt. Doubt that our heroes are incorruptible. Doubt that our current values are the best ones. Doubt that our own experiences are universal. Deep Space Nine does not throw away the ideal future of Star Trek, but it does attack its dogmatism. And, at a time when the only thing that moves faster than information is judgment and we are increasingly desperate for new ways of thinking and living, there’s never been a better time for a long, interrogative look at the world of tomorrow.