Star Trek is finally getting a new television series again. With that in mind, it’s a good time to revisit Deep Space 9, the 90s Star Trek series that managed to be excitingly ahead of its time as well as provide a perfect cap-stone for a century of space opera. While the Original Series and Next Generation focused on a utopian world of endless exploration, every episode being in a brand new part of an every expanding universe, Deep Space 9 went in the opposite direction. It takes place almost entirely on one small space station, right in the ass-middle of a known and uncared for segment of the universe. Sure, soon this tiny speck of space becomes incredibly important due to the presence of a stable worm-hole leading to another galaxy, but even then it’s a backwoods part of the universe struggling with that newfound attention. Previously, Star Trek was about exploring, about envisioning the impossible, about endlessly looking forward. Now for the first time, Star Trek was about building things, about working with what you got stuck with, about making choices about what was possible, about looking backwards to understand history and context. It was an adjustment that some fans would never be willing to make, but it makes Deep Space 9 resonate today in a way Next Generation doesn’t.
Star Trek has never felt the need for subtlety. The alien species humanity interacts with out in the stars are one-dimensional stereotypes with very little variation. One species might be nothing but “logical” while another is nothing but “pacifist.” A few species (usually the ones that appear more than once) get to have two dimensions, like the Klingons being “aggressive” BUT “honorable” or the Romulans being “logical” BUT “total dick heads.” In the end, the alien species of the Star Trek universe have extremely reductionist societies, and no one watching the show is going to miss what real world political situation each alien is supposed to evoke in their minds. Deep Space 9 starts out with the same attitude towards its main alien conflict: the Cardassians are vampy, cartoonishly evil and the Bajorans might as well rename their planet “Space Israel/Palestine.” However, fitting with Deep Space 9’s focus on building and understanding what we already have rather than endlessly seeking the new, this gets subverted a bit. Deep Space 9 relies on fans having been trained to expect each new alien to only be a superficial reference to a real Earth culture in order to surprise and challenge them.
The Cardassian Empire is not quite as cut-and-dry evil as we see. There is a huge disconnect between the average Cardassian citizen and the expansionist military often operating a galaxy away. Despite the military government’s convoluted systems of oppression, the Cardassian citizens live in relative luxury. Like nearly every space-faring people in the series, on their home planet there is no poverty, crime is low, there are resources to spare, and their artistic culture is at its zenith. They have successfully shared their culture with the other planets in their system, so wouldn’t everyone else want that too? Enter the Bajorans. Bajoran culture pre-Cardassia was a rigid, fascist caste system. Civil war was often and bloody, religious fanaticism rampant, and apocalyptic death cults the norm. A perfect place for the enlightened Cardassia to practice nation building! The Bajoran government, eager to control its populace, even invited the Cardassians to set up shop. It backfired, both because the average xenophobic Bajoran wanted nothing to do with any other species and because exercises in neoliberal nation building are always doomed to backfiring. How does the Cardassian government and military deal with this crisis? By not telling anyone back home what’s really going on. They’re bringing civilization to a place torn by war and oppression. Meanwhile the military reacts to every altercation by becoming more and more indignant and violent, and using it as an excuse to grab more and more power back home without struggle. While the Cardassian government begins committing war crimes, all the people back home hear about is the Bajoran backwardness and their despicable terrorist attacks on Cardassian civilians. The conflict is light years away, after all, and Cardassian culture is based around trusting the state as much as possible. A campaign of dehumanization (well, de-bajorization) allows the military to run wild. An enlightened, even liberal (by their standards) people become monsters because they can’t deal with their entitlement or the opposition rejecting them. Defensive narcissism on a national level. Does this sound familiar? It should, because Cardassia is the dark mirror of American exceptionalism in the same way the Federation is the “good” version of it.
On paper, nothing Cardassia wanted to do is different from what the Federation does when it meets a new planet. Despite the important “first contact” rules, the Federation LOVES bringing new planets and people into its fold. Its universal translators and enlightened future philosophy helping “backwards” planets adjust to a new life as part of the Federation. They take what they like best from each new world and let the rest transform into Federation hegemony. When the Federation enters the Cardassia/Bajor conflict, it is much later when the unaccountable Cardassian military has already committed horrific acts of genocide and slavery, and the Bajoran people have spent learned to survive as best they can (hence things like rigid caste systems getting tossed out). The Bajor we meet at the start of the series is not the Bajor first encountered by Cardassia. The past atrocities of Bajor, such as the caste system, were dropped so they could survive the looting and pillaging of their world, but now that peace is there there is no shortage of Bajorans eager to bring them back. Not that ANY world, no matter how fanatic or oppressive, deserves what the Cardassian military did, but it is very important to note that the original Bajorans were closer to Original Series or Next Generation “enemy alien” stock characters than potential allies. The idea that Cardassia as a whole might be closer to our own society, or that Bajor’s history of fascism might actually be a powder-keg waiting to happen, is something the Federation never considers.
This theme of the Federation being so self assured that it doesn’t bother looking at larger context or questioning itself comes up again and again, and that original Cardassia/Bajor conflict is what trains the viewers to begin looking deeper. Cardassia never truly overcomes their current oppressive regime or cartoonish evilness, and Bajor never truly slips into barbarism, but we see enough attempts to make us question our original expectations. While we watch as progressive forces on Cardassia try to wake their world up to the truth and reactionary forces on Bajor try to reinstate the vilest parts of their history, the federation is shoving exploration vessels into the worm hole without a care. What new life will they meet? What new discoveries will be made? Huzzah! A new chance to boldly push forward with reckless abandon in the name of utopian discovery and knowledge!
The idea that the people on the other side of the worm hole might not want them there never occurs to anyone.
The fact that the Dominion War is largely started by the Federation refusing to acknowledge another culture’s sovereignty is key to understanding Deep Space 9. Federation ships are told not to come to the Gamma Quadrant, a section of space occupied by an existing people, and the Federation refuses to stop traffic through the worm hole or colonizing the planets there. On paper, the Federation is entirely in the wrong here. They’re lucky their new enemy is so conveniently vile. They are an empire ruled by a sociopathic hive mind that barely acknowledges other species as living, their will enforced by an army of drug-addicted genetic soldiers that have had free will surgically removed and its last vestiges beaten out of them with each new generation. The Dominion responds to even accidental or benign incursions with overwhelmingly disproportionate force. But, again, it is also their quadrant, and anyone paying attention would know that the Federation would want access to that new section of the galaxy even if the empire ruling it was one of fluffy socialist tree huggers. After being told they are not welcome, the Federation builds its first war-only starship and sends it through the wormhole “to tell the Dominion we want peace.” A cloaked, massively armed warship, obviously the interstellar symbol of peace and harmony. Despite everything that followed, the real origin of the conflict is that the Federation feels entitled to the Gamma Quadrant, an entitlement that comes from their unquestioned cultural superiority. An entitlement that the audience has already seen transform the Cardassian Empire for the worse.
It is how Deep Space 9 challenges our idea of the Federation as a utopia that led so many fans and even previous cast/crew members to criticize the series. Gene Roddenberry’s vision was to create a world that would show people what could be achieved by using the best of what humanity had to offer. A future where the impossible was possible because we put aside the worst of our barbarism and embraced science and humanism. Roddenberry even famously made writers downplay or remove conflict between the crew, because his vision was of a future where people had no conflict with each other. Class, race, gender (somewhat) and even personality conflicts were gone in Roddenberry’s utopia. If Star Trek had been willing to show any actual queer people in its vision of the future, they probably would have shown no conflicts about sexuality either. Now here was a sequel showing that even in the best possible future, we could repeat the same mistakes. It showed a universe that might not be a place where objectivity rules and a combination of scientific logic and good ol’ American gumption could fix every problem. It showed a universe where good people from different backgrounds might still have conflicts despite being enlightened and futuristic. It showed maybe we all had differences that weren’t so easy to push aside, or had value even as they “separated” us, that maybe subjectivity rules supreme and maybe endless expansion, union and knowledge weren’t inherently good. That utopia could make mistakes.
Deep Space 9 reveled in exposing the cracks of the Star Trek universe. At best, the Federation is naive, believing their elaborate “first contact” rules mean they are safe from any criticism of imperialism. Before long, the Federation is revealed to play the same games its citizens despise the Romulans and Cardassians for, with its shadow military performing horrific acts in the name of security and willing to engage in every crime the Federation claims to stand against. The much lauded future where racism is a thing of the past revealing that the myriad humanoid aliens are still willing to dehumanize and lash out against aliens that don’t fit the standard humanoid mold. Every classic Star Trek species is shown to be hypocrites. We never meet a single Vulcan who isn’t a putz whose “logic” merely an excuse to avoid what they don’t like about reality. Klingon honor is shown to be an easily corrupted political game and the empire a dying relic. Not even the Ferengi, Next Generation’s first new villains who were quickly demoted to comic relief after it was realized no one watching could ever consider them to be a threat, are spared. At first they are revealed to be more worthy of respect than previously expected, with bartender Quark mixing his usual comic relief with pointed monologues on Federation hypocrisy, only to be revealed to be even more pathetic than previously known, with their beloved ideals of capitalist meritocracy being a farce to keep most of the populace poor and naked. The Federation and its allies are not an end point, but part of a never-ending struggle that moves laterally as much as it moves forward.
It would be a depressing commentary on our likely future, if it wasn’t for the larger focus on space soap opera stuff like being a dad, romance, and friendship. From the very first episode with Commander Sisko trying to explain linear existence and baseball to a species of omnipotent beings living outside of linear time, Deep Space 9 was primarily concerned with moments and the people living them. Previous Star Trek series opted for a mostly episodic approach, with the characters largely remaining static and a status quo restored at the end of each episode. Next Generation even makes a joke out of how ridiculous it is that a character like Riker never chooses to advance his career. Deep Space 9 opts for cascading plotlines, with small moments in each episode building towards larger stories, and a real sense that nothing is certain. As a result, Deep Space 9 is perhaps the most human Star Trek. The tapestry of politics, disillusionment and clashing beliefs is not the story. The story is about the people stuck there, trying to make it through each day, and how they change. Change on a political, social or scientific level cannot happen until individual people allow themselves to change. The worst villains of Deep Space 9 all share a defining flaw of wanting to force the universe into their view of utopian perfection by any means, regardless of whether their actions represent this ideal.
In some ways, Deep Space 9 didn’t go far enough. As I noted before, Cardassia never stops being cartoonishly evil by our standards, and a lot of the most interesting parts of their culture and the civilian/military conflict are left in the background. Likewise, the Dominion goes from zero to genocide far too quickly, forcing even the most ardent Federation critics to agree that they must be stopped. The moral quandary is not “should we get involved in everything” but “since we are clearly the best and should get involved in everything, how can we best do that?” The series is defined by its era; a 90s America flush with a post-Clinton surplus, a certainty of its own progressive future despite actual legislation, and not terribly keen on overthinking its treatment of its own poorest citizens or the victims of its imperialistic games abroad. The national shame of Vietnam was replaced by back-patting over our presence in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and the fallout from that still years away. The series ended two years before the September 11 attacks, and as a result it asks questions that immediately post-9/11 sci-fi was too scared to ask again for a long time, but also posit answers that occasionally seem hopelessly naive in a way only sheltered, Cardassian-esque 90s America could manage. The epic space operas that would come later, most notably the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, would owe a lot of their grim and gritty-outlook to Deep Space 9’s willingness to challenge its roots, but the most successful sci-if would also owe Deep Space 9 for its focus on real people and humanity within that cynical world.