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The Middle Child: An Appreciation of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

by Tracy Hemenover
 

The original Star Trek was...well, the original. The Next Generation reintroduced the concept of Star Trek to the masses, and created huge new audiences. And Voyager was the one that Paramount hung its hopes on as the flagship of their new network, UPN.

It's almost a cliche now to refer to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as the "middle child" of the Trek family. Yet it's accurate nonetheless, and not only because of its chronological position between TNG and Voyager.

DS9 never got the amount of attention that any of the other series did. All its life, it was overshadowed -- first by TNG's last two seasons and its much publicized finale, followed by its move to the big screen. Then DS9 got to enjoy all of three months as the only Trek on the air -- but Paramount was busy at the time building up its new darling, Voyager. The only attention DS9 got from the studio came in the form of attempts to "fix" the ratings by adding the Defiant and Worf, rather than addressing the real problem: a lack of publicity, coupled with an unprecedented wealth of TV science fiction competition that neither TOS nor TNG ever had to contend with.

As if all that weren't enough, there was the attitude from many Trek fans. "They don't go anywhere." "It's boring." "To boldly sit and wait for everything to come to us!" We heard less of that in later seasons, but the misconceptions still continued to dog DS9 throughout its production.

Yet there was an up side. While TNG and VOY tried to be crowd-pleasers, DS9 quietly made itself into something unique. And for those of us who "got it", no amount of starship-based adventure could match the richly detailed canvas of the corner of the Trek universe that DS9 created. We loved its characters, their motivations and relationships, and how they dealt with what happened to them and around them.

We appreciated the writers' willingness to experiment. Episodes that were dark, or had ambiguous endings. Episodes that were pure comedy. Episodes that explored the nature of faith, fear, love, and our reactions to war, death, and change. Episodes that delved into the psyche of a character, and sometimes found things there that no one should have to know. Episodes full of political skulduggery, and episodes that were just "a day in the life". There were even episodes that cast doubt on the smug, rose-colored paradise that the other Treks had made the Federation out to be, and even suggested that the aliens and the renegades could be right.

Perhaps most daring of all, main regular and recurring characters (gasp!) fell in love -- with each other, without the aid of alien influence or space anomalies -- and stayed that way. Even more amazing, these romances for the most part were not cooked up for the sake of titillation or ratings, but grew naturally out of the characters' interactions; and it wasn't only the "beautiful people" who got to find happiness. Odo and Kira...Rom and Leeta...even Worf and Dax. Love...now there's a final frontier for you.

Characters got to change and develop. In the beginning, you probably never guessed that the bitter widower who reluctantly took charge of the station would become not only a master schemer but a near-mystical figure, wholly devoted to the world he was charged to protect. That the angry, scarred woman who was his second-in-command would become the most faceted and realistic female character in all of Trek. That the naive, charmingly arrogant young doctor would grow into a mature, introspective, caring individual. Or that the cranky, lonely, shapeshifting security chief would find his people, reject them, be turned human and back, and achieve fulfillment.

DS9's writers took what many people saw as a disadvantage -- the lack of the tried-and-true shipboard format -- and turned it into the show's greatest strength. The characters' actions had consequences that could not be left behind and forgotten; and so in my opinion they seemed to matter more than the usual "see planet, solve problem, go on to next planet, never look back" episodic formula that we saw on the other Trek series.

The other part of the essence of DS9 was conflict between the characters, and in their back stories and emotional makeup. For DS9 fans, it was much more fun to watch them spar and jostle and argue and get sarcastic, than it was to see the happy, relatively uncomplicated dynamics of most of the other Trek crews. It gave the writers something built in that they could work with, rather than being forced to manufacture a "problem of the week" in order to have an episode. As a result, we got to learn much more about the people on DS9 than we ever really learned about any of the other crews; and it made the friendships and romances that inevitably sprang up over the seasons seem all the more deep, complex, and real.

This is not to say I liked every single episode, or that mistakes weren't made. Particularly not in the rushed, plot-heavy, manipulative finale, or in the fates of some of my favorite characters -- but I don't want to dwell on the negative at a time like this. After all, satisfying endings are rare for TV SF series; and overall, I actually got much of what I wanted out of DS9 over the years. That's something that can't be said about many series of any genre.

Now DS9 has gone to rerun heaven. This is it; there will most likely not be any movies, and I'm not certain that the big screen is suited for DS9 anyway. They'd probably turn it into something unrecognizable -- the kind of noisy, flashy, mindless standard-issue "blockbuster" that Hollywood churns out because that's what science fiction is "supposed to be". TV movies are a possibility, but I'm not holding my breath.

What I am anticipating is the sense of vindication that DS9 fans will get in the years to come, as new fans discover it, and as its current detractors finally give it a real chance, through the reruns. Because I know what they're going to say: that DS9 was the smartest, edgiest, funniest, most sensitive, best-acted, and best-written of any of the Trek series, and that they wish it was still in production.

I know I do. I also know that I've been completely ruined for any other Trek, past or future. We don't need a starship to boldly go. That's what DS9 taught us.

I'm going to miss it.



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