Do Over: In Defence of Deep Space 9
Last week, Rú wrote a Do Over on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which prompted this reader response.
It has ever been thus, that our species will divide on issues of fundamental import. Lord of the Rings versus Star Wars. Old Testament versus New. Side-parting versus centre-parting. Ryan Turbidy versus a punch in the genitals. However none of these conflicts can compare to the flame wars that break out online among Trekkies regarding Deep Space Nine.
On one side are those who think DS9 represents the apotheosis of boldly sainted Gene Roddenberry’s vision. A true frontier being explored. A worthwhile adventure in pushing the boundaries of Federation civilisation and values, so that they encompass and protect the ravaged planet of Bajor and it’s slowly recovering people. Pitting the values of The Federation against the rapacious and recalcitrant Cardassians. Against the genocidal Founders. And most importantly, against the superstitions and atavism of the traumatised Bajoran people. Not blundering around in the fucking dark, wondering what shit Q is up to now, a la The Next Generation.
On the other side are the witless wrong.
Why does Deep Space Nine resonate with those of us who are on the right side of this divide? Ultimately it is all to do with Bajor, a world we first learn of through the character of Ensign Ro Laren. As a recurring character in Star Trek: The Next Generation, we discover through Ro that Bajor has been occupied by the Cardassians for decades and that this occupation has been brutal in the extreme, costing millions of Bajoran lives. The bitterness engendered is so strong that a woman of strong convictions and loyalty like Ensign Ro will betray Captain Picard, her mentor, to continue her war with the Cardassians.
Ensign Ro deserts the Enterprise to join The Maquis. A terrorist organisation which was created as a plot device to facilitate a clash of cultures in Star Trek Voyager, The Maquis becomes a rather wonderful sub-plot, because, for the first time, we are introduced to an enemy of The Federation which one could contemplate supporting. A comprehensive Peace Treaty is signed between The Federation and The Cardassians Union. As part of this Treaty, several Federation worlds are ceded to the Cardassians. The Federation citizens on these planets are offered resettlement, but many instead arm themselves, choosing to fight the Cardassians, in defiance of The Federation. They were ‘sold out‘ by The Federation, for the common good after all. Difficult not to feel a certain sympathy.
So we meet Commander Benjamin Sisko. A man charged with running an abandoned Cardassian Space Station, as the Cardassians have left Bajor. A broken man, he yet fulfills Captain Picard’s one wish, protecting Bajor, in the process treading a difficult path between Federation idealism tinged with pragmatism and Bajor’s brutalised spirituality. A task only made possible by his relationship with Major Kira Nerys, a Bajoran resistance fighter who must attempt to make an accommodation between her desire to be a traditionalist and the reality of her seeing compromise and The Federation as Bajor’s best hope for a safe and secure future.
All of the other characters add to this grand narrative arc in their own way, while also telling compelling stories of their own.
In Doctor Julian Bashir, the callow idealist, we learn in Episode 1 that this is a frontier posting. Not, ‘Helm, Warp 6, engage.’ No, this is a Fort, built in hostile territory and designed to establish a presence and protect the locals. The good doctor is sharply rebuked for his gurning excitement by The Major who reminds him that this is also her home.
Then there is the enigmatic Odo. A Changeling, a Shapeshifter, a Founder. A Member of a species so paranoid, so sociopathic, so xenophobic, that it feels no compunction about eliminating entire civilisations just to make a point. In contrast, Odo is almost Cardassian in his moral rigidity, but is saved from the extremes of Cardassian and Founder morality by his empathy. I was ‘shipping’ for him and Kira from early on. Their final scene together made me cry. She had finally met some worthy of her… anyway, moving on.
Of course there is Chief Miles O’Brien and the most profound bromance on TV, ever. The O’Brien/Bashir Show. For some, this relationship had a cheesy ‘look at the Brit and the Paddy getting along so well, if only we blew the populations of Ireland and the UK into space, all would be peace and loveliness’ feel to it. I didn’t get that. All I saw was that for a Kerry Man to find his equal, he must find someone who has been genetically engineered. A burden? Yes. But one that must be shouldered with grace and modesty.
Glamour was provided by bon vivant, dilettante, purveyor of bon-mots, shoulder-spotted Jadzia Dax. Referred to as “Old man’ by Sisko, due to her being the seventh host of the thinking worm that resides within her, she is uniquely his mentor and his subordinate. And she is proof positive that Sisko is so evolved that he does not see boobs, only age. She was a warrior scientist, the very epitome of Federation values. And she conquered the heart of Worf, son of Mogh. In Jadzia, Worf finally found a mate that could help him overcome the identity crisis he had always suffered: was he of the Empire or The Federation. With Jadzia’s guidance, he learned to be both. Their bond was such that when the Host Jadzia was killed, Worf and the new Host, Ezri, ignored an enormous cultural taboo to continue their relationship. Makes you wonder about the nature of the host-symbiont relationship doesn’t it? No really, doesn’t it?
Comic relief was provided by the über-capitalist Quark, of the Ferengi Alliance. A brutish looking individual with a brutish business philosophy. His relaxed attitude towards other people’s mores brought him into constant conflict with Odo, eventually leading to mutual respect and friendship. We even witnessed a growing morality in Quark, despite his best efforts to resist the taming hold of The Federation.
As counter-point to Quark was the Station’s resident enemy, Garak. This menacing tailor is a disgraced former Cardassian spy. And not some low-level watcher. He was a spy’s spy. And he represented that politically correct school of thought, that even a dangerous, possibly murderous person is allowed feel pride in their culture, just so long as they try to keep the massacring down to a minimum.
There were then three major villains. Gul Dukat, a man so insane one just knew he was going to die screaming, falling into a pit of flames. Kai Winn, a religious leader of such conviction that she found in herself all those qualities she felt most represented the Gods she served. And finally the Founders, who engaged The Federation in an existential conflict of such overwhelming destruction that one could be forgiven for wondering why the Borg didn’t try their hand at this point.
Why this grand departure from the usual Star Trek format worked was because it was part Western and part soap-opera. And it yanked hard on the fabric of Federation idealism. Fraying it, sometimes even ripping it, but never casually discarding it. The Federation supported Bajor, even if that meant remaining outside The Federation during a war. The Federation never once relaxed its campaign against The Maquis, despite individuals deserting, despite whatever sympathy one felt, despite being on the same side as the Cardassians. And while they procured allies and advantage in their war against the Founders in ways that compromised Federation values, a genocidal counter-strike was quickly discounted once a more civilised resolution became available.
Perhaps its greatest strength was that in the story arc of Bajor, who I maintain was the central character of this story. There was a beginning, a middle and an end. There was back-story and there was enough information to make an educated guess about the future. Bajor, a planet and people, that drew the special interest of Captain Jean-Luc Picard. A people the great Captain cared about. A people, let us not forget, that never once appeared in fucking Babylon fucking 5.