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Friday, January 04, 2013

Memories of DS9

A modern CGI recreation of Deep Space Nine by artist Tobias Richter.

Twenty years ago this week, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine premiered. DS9 is often referred to as the dark horse of the Star Trek world, perhaps the least-remembered series among the general public. But it is also quite possibly the very best Star Trek show, its strongest episodes comparing quite favourably to the strongest of the original series. And on a personal level, it was the show I needed to endure my angst-ridden twenties.

When "Emissary," the pilot, debuted in early January 1993, I was living in the Bleak House of Blahs with Ron and Allan. We watched the episode in the so-called Ron Room, Ron's first-floor library and office.  I don't remember their impressions, but I was impressed right from the start. Unlike Star Trek: The Next Generation, which featured an at-times embarrassing pilot and a very rocky first season, DS9 began with a cast of compelling characters and a premise that inverted the Star Trek formula: instead of boldly going to explore strange new worlds, DS9 was all about staying in one place and working on a single long-term problem: the reconstruction of a formerly-occupied world and its struggle to earn membership in the United Federation of Planets.

While TNG featured a cast of almost too-perfect heroes on the Federation's shiny new flagship, DS9 was crewed by misfits and average joes struggling to get a scuttled enemy space station back in working order while dealing with a ruined planet and the double-edged sword of a nearby newly-discovered wormhole to the other side of the galaxy, a kind of Silk Road to potentially great wealth and knowledge, or (as it later turned out), a very dangerous existential threat.

DS9 has often been characterized as "dark" in comparison to the other Star Trek shows, but I think that's too simplistic a description. I would characterize it, rather, as more political, more ambiguous, more complex and only a tad less optimistic than the rest of the Trek canon. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry declared that by the time of the Next Generation era humans were essentially perfect, an edict TNG's writers struggled with. By the time DS9 premiered Roddenberry had died, giving writers greater freedom to explore interpersonal conflicts among the the show's cast - and the friction between DS9's diverse characters was one of the highlights of the show.

Single father and DS9 commander Benjamin Sisko had an almost impossible job, and unlike Captain Picard he wasn't shy about using anger as a tool to motivate his staff. His son Jake wasn't a wunderkind like Wesley Crusher, but an average kid overcoming the loss of his mom. First officer Kira Nerys, a native of planet Bajor - the world recovering from occupation - was a former terrorist/freedom fighter with a huge chip on her shoulder and a distrust of the Federation. Policeman Odo was a delightfully curmudgeonly alien shapeshifter, always at odds with shady entrepreneur Quark, the station's bartender/black marketeer. Doctor Julian Bashir was the station's overenthusiastic doctor, who annoyed the hell out of everyone including his best friend, former Enterprise bit player Miles O'Brien, the show's salt-of-the-Earth everyman.

Even the recurring players on DS9 - people like Cardassian tailor/spy Garak, Quark's brother Rom and his son Nog and the show's primary antagonist, Gul Dukat, receive more character development than many of the starring cast members of other Trek shows.

But characterization means little without solid storytelling. DS9 started strong, with several stories about the clash of Bajoran and Federation values, political intrigue, personal loss and, yes, space exploration. With every year the show's continuing storylines grew more complex, culminating in the four-year Dominion War arc.

I was the perfect viewer for this show. During the 90s I was struggling to find my place in the world, just as DS9's occupants were. I had some of Quark's ambition, hoping to escape the poverty of minimum-wage existence. I had Bashir's naivety and optimism, tempered by Odo's anxieties, Sisko's early struggles with self-confidence and a touch of Kira's cynicism. The 90s recession mirrored DS9's bleak tone, but the characters managed to overcome their difficulties; they were, after all, the show's heroes.

And I needed heroes then, because I wasn't sure I'd ever realize any of my dreams. I moved in and out of my parents' basement several times, and I bounced around a number of different jobs and apartments. Becoming a professional writer, my primary dream, was echoed in Jake Sisko's character arc, and it's fair to say that his perseverance helped encourage me to keep writing. I sold my first professional work midway through DS9's run, and by the time the show ended in 1999 I'd earned my first co-author credit.

I watched that final episode alone in my apartment near the University of Alberta. "What You Leave Behind" was powerful and sad and as ambiguous and difficult as ever, and its final tracking shot away from the station left me profoundly moved. Of all the Star Trek shows, DS9 is the single series that hadn't yet exhausted itself creatively; more than any other, it could have gone on for another two or three seasons, and I wish it had.

But for seven years DS9 helped sustain me. For an hour each week, the show gave me food for thought, a chance to escape, inspiration to dream. During a lonely time in my life, DS9 was a stalwart companion, and I'm grateful to all the creators who provided seven years of superb entertainment.

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