Friends, Klingons, readers! Welcome to the inaugural edition of Get Thee to the Geek, Hollywood.com’s weekly column devoted to everything that prevented you from getting a date in high school: sci-fi, comics, videogames, basically anything that features something going “pew pew.” We’re not just going to limit ourselves to movies, TV, or games—if there’s something worth obsessing about, we will obsess about it. For Volume 1 of this column, I thought about doing something all pretentious like come up with a geek mission statement. But then I realized we’re not the types who like an ordered set of guidelines to govern our interests. In fact geekery is defined by only one thing. And that one thing is not a quality you might automatically associate with geeks but is really the foundation of contemporary geek culture: passion.
We geeks unabashedly, unreservedly love the things we love, without regard to such matters as taste or cred. Oddly enough, that means true geeks typically have great taste, which has given geek culture enough cred for us to have pretty much taken over American entertainment. As Hollywood’s annual tribute-paying at Comic Con shows, geeks are loud, proud, and a more coveted demo than ever. And who are the loudest, proudest geeks of all? Trekkers. So for the first ever Get Thee to the Geek, we’re going to dive deep into a show that’s cast a remarkable, if largely unrecognized shadow over contemporary pop culture. A show that’s a subculture within a subculture: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Sure, The Original Series gave us Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, green space babes, tribbles, and Clint Howard as an evil genius baby. The Next Generation gave us an individual with possibly the single greatest moral compass in TV history: Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. And even Voyager remains startlingly underrated, with an incredible lineup of brainy girl power that made possible J.J. Abrams’ “Babes Who Kick Ass” phenomenon. But Deep Space Nine is better than all of these. Fourteen years after it signed off, in May 1999, DS9 hasn’t aged a day, but continues to move and inspire. 2013 represents the show’s 20th anniversary, and instead of getting drunk on Klingon blood wine we’ve decided to honor the occasion by presenting nine reasons why it’s the best that Star Trek has ever been, and how its influence is still being felt.
1. It’s the Only Star Trek Series That Shows What It’s Really Like to Live in the 24th Century
Based on The Original Series and The Next Generation, you’d be forgiven for thinking that everyone, and I mean everyone, living three centuries in the future is a member of Starfleet. The only view we have of that more enlightened future Earth is of the United Federation of Planets’ exploratory military branch. Okay, partly that’s because it was always easier and more cost-effective for Trek to set episodes largely within the already-built sets of the Enterprise interiors. It hardly seems a more enlightened future, though, if everyone is in the military. Deep Space Nine opened up the Star Trek universe and finally showed us what it would be like to live there. The show was set on a space station, not a starship, near the Wild West frontier of the Federation’s most distant borders. Purists who venerated Gene Roddenberry’s original “wagon train to the stars” vision cried foul, even though Roddenberry himself approved the space station concept before his death in 1991. But setting the show in one place allowed us to explore the Star Trek creator’s utopian vision like never before: here was a place where beings of all races could commingle, conduct trade, get drunk at Quark’s bar, and let off steam in the holodeck. Deep Space Nine, the name of the space station, was actually a place to live in.
That allowed for the best worldbuilding—a term that’s become only more relevant since DS9’s 1993 debut--that Trek has ever given us. A vision of what it’s like to work, play, and live in the 24th century. With strong worldbuilding you can engage with and immerse yourself in a fantasy environment all the more fully, and invest more deeply in its characters. That’s what one of DS9’s writer-producers, Ronald D. Moore, learned from the show and brought with him when he relaunched Battlestar Galactica in 2003. Of course, exploration was still a big part of the DS9 concept. There were Runabout shuttles for away missions and, later, the coolest Federation starship ever, the U.S.S. Defiant. DS9 avoided the glistening, but antiseptic, white-on-white corridors that were the defining features of interior design on the previous shows. That’s partly a reason why…
2. DS9 Gave Star Trek a Harder Edge
Today, adding a touch of darkness to your sci-fi/fantasy franchise is equated with seriousness of intent. Just think of how many people want a Star Wars: Episode VII that’s harder-edged than the prequel trilogy. Somehow a more gritty Episode VII will be a movie that’s taken more seriously. That’s a false correlation, if you ask me, but on DS9 it worked beautifully. In fact, it may be the first example of a franchise reevaluating itself by going in a decidedly more dark direction. For one, since the space station was in essence a border town, there were many opportunities to question the Federation and test its values. And, more than ever, it allowed for us to view the Federation from the perspective of outsiders. Check out this great discussion between DS9’s Ferengi barman Quark and his Starfleet ensign nephew, Nog, about the fragility of human beings,’ well, humanity.
The idea of Star Trek not being all about starry-eyed optimism was revolutionary, and the tone was set from the get-go in the 1993 pilot episode, “Emissary.” Here’s how the show began, with tragedy and loss, and one incredibly ominous opening crawl:
You’ll also notice that J.J. Abrams opened his 2009 Star Trek with a prologue just like that. Later in the pilot, DS9 made its break with Trek tradition even more clear. Commander Benjamin Lafayette Sisko (Avery Brooks), the fiery star of the show, has an incredibly tense meeting with Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard in which the Enterprise captain has to acknowledge the fact that he played a role in the death of Sisko’s wife, when he (unwillingly) gave the Borg intel about Starfleet’s defense protocols. Picard, our hero, seems strangely unburdened by the cost of the carnage he has indirectly unleashed…until that moment. Suddenly, guilt became a part of Star Trek, and so did regret.
NEXT: Why so serious? Yeah, DS9 could be dark, but it was also the funniest Trek series by far.
3. Trek’s Morality Suddenly Got a Lot More Ambiguous
So DS9 existed in a world of greater verisimilitude than any Trek series before it, and with it presenting us a “real world” came the realization that right and wrong aren’t always absolute. Sometimes ignoble actions are necessary to facilitate noble goals. This was the theme of the episode that’s often considered the very best of the series, Season 6’s “In the Pale Moonlight,” when Capt. Sisko (yes, after three seasons he finally got a promotion) revealed how he helped stage an assassination in order to force the Romulans to join the Federation’s fight against the primary antagonists of the show, the Dominion. Avery Brooks directly addresses the camera in that ep, like he’s straight out of House of Cards…and yet he’s still never less than our hero. “I lied, I cheated, I bribed men to cover the crimes of other men. I am an accessory to murder. But the most damning thing of all? I think I can live with it. And if I had to do it all over again? I would.”
It’s impossible to imagine Kirk or Picard making such a boldly relativistic statement about morality.
4. But It Really Has a Sense of Humor!
I’m making DS9 sound like a depressing exercise in interstellar sturm und drang. Far from it. Yes, the show was Trek at its darkest. The way it killed off characters very much preceded how cheap life is on TV today. Heroes could have a streak of larceny in them. But episode for episode, I’d say DS9 was the funniest Trek of all. Take a look at this great moment between barman Quark (Armin Shimerman) and his Cardassian patron Garek in which they pair the moral inquiry and ambiguity that made the show so smart with a dash of rapier wit.
And the laughs on DS9 weren’t all dialogue-driven. One of the most inventive TV episodes of all time, “Trials and Tribble-ations,” digitally inserted the time-traveling DS9 crew into scenes from the Original Series episode, “The Trouble With Tribbles,” from 1967. In the episode, the culture clash between the 24th and 23rd centuries was at issue, but, in real life, for us, it was about how much the conventions of television had changed between the ‘60s and the ‘90s.
5. It Was a Bold Experiment in Serialized Storytelling
Star Trek had always been episodic, devoting one episode to a single mystery, conflict, or quest. DS9 upended that and paved the way for today’s serialized storytelling with long-term story arcs. The last five seasons of its seven season run are concerned with the Federation’s run-ins with primary series antagonists, the Dominion, culminating in a war between the two great powers that dominates the storylines of Seasons 6 and 7. Serialized shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica, that also featured sprawling ensembles, focused heavily on how their characters lived their lives, and balanced moral murkiness with humor, something unimaginable without the precedent set by DS9.
NEXT: It's the characters, stupid. Why DS9 didn't just prove to be influential but revolutionary.
6. It Featured the Best Special Effects in the History of the Medium
Back to that whole lived-in realism thing…I don’t know if there’s ever been a show in the history of the tube with better special effects. I remember watching an episode of ABC’s V a couple years back and thinking that some force-field effect they had looked worse than what DS9 was doing 15 years before. And V was a network show, while DS9 was merely in syndication until 1995, at which point it went to UPN, hardly a guarantee of quality. Mostly, it’s because the Trek franchise’s TV production company, Paramount Television, had contracted Industrial Light & Magic to render its effects. Here’s a space battle from DS9’s 1998 season finale. I’ll be damned if it doesn’t look every bit as good today.
7. It Was That Rarest of All Things…A Sci-Fi Character Study
But as great as the special effects were on DS9, what was truly dazzling was its exploration of its characters. Sci-fi isn’t traditionally known for its emotionalism. But the astonishing number of heart-tugging moments during its run, testifies to DS9’s deep investment in the psychology of its characters and the crafting of complex, resonant relationships among them. SPOILER ALERT if you don’t want to see the final parting of Rene Auberjonois’ Odo and Nana Visitor’s Kira in the following video from the series finale. To me, however, this was indicative of everything that made the show so great. Even watching it out of context and on YouTube I still found myself getting misty-eyed.
8. It Featured the Best Ensemble of Any Trek Series
Of course, as great as the DS9 writing team, led by Ira Steven Behr, Michael Piller, and Ronald D. Moore, was, it wouldn’t have meant anything without an exceptionally gifted cast to bring those characters to life. Brooks brought a theatrical flair to Captain Sisko, Alexander Siddig brought finesse and elan to Dr. Bashir, Robert Altman veteran Rene Auberjonois brought quirkiness and off-beat charm to Odo, Nana Visitor feistiness and tenacity to Kira, Armin Shimerman gleeful amorality to Quark, Terry Farrell intelligence and sexiness to Dax, not to mention those two great additions from The Next Generation, Colm Meaney as Miles O’Brien and Michael Dorn as Worf.
9. It Was Groundbreaking In Its Diversity Without Ever Being Smug or Self-Conscious About it
After years of shows with racially and ethnically diverse casts like Lost and Grey’s Anatomy we may forget just how revolutionary it was in 1993 to cast an African-American as the lead on a show not geared primarily toward an African-American audience. And as a Starfleet Captain no less! This was not color-blind casting, however. A native of New Orleans and proud of his heritage, Sisko was truly a 24th century African-American. The key was that, though he was proud of being black, he wasn’t defined solely by being black. The same goes for a character that was every bit as groundbreaking, Alexander Siddig’s Dr. Bashir, who may have been the first-ever Arab character as a series regular on an American primetime drama. Bashir was cultivated, stylish, savvy. Oh, and a genius. Quite a difference from the way people of Arab descent are often stereotyped on TV. The fact that DS9 acknowledged this diversity, while making it clear that each character’s race and ethnicity was only one part of what made each unique was a triumphant balancing act that many series still struggle with today.
Quietly revolutionary and hugely influential, for my latinum DS9 is one of the most important shows of the last 20 years. It still boldly goes where other series fear to tread. Today’s geek culture is unimaginable without it.
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt