Did 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine' set the bar too high?

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ruined it for everybody.

It’s easy to forget, but Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was the red-headed stepchild of Star Trek for a long, long time.

But with almost thirty years of hindsight, DS9 is widely-regarded as the best series of the franchise. It broke significant ground, not just for Star Trek. But for television in general.

The series pioneered serialized television storytelling. There was ongoing political intrigue, with an ever-shifting balance of power. Ambiguous depictions of good and evil. One of the regular characters was a terrorist – and a good guy, no less!

It changed the game. And that’s exactly how it ruined it for all of Star Trek.

Like its sci-fi cousin, the Star Wars franchise, Star Trek is forever held against an entry that set the bar impossibly high. It’s a bar that Star Trek: Discovery still struggles to meet. And it’s a bar that even the venerable Captain Picard may struggle with on Star Trek: Picard.

This is our deep dive into how DS9 made Star Trek an impossible franchise to write for the rest of time.

Serialized storytelling became the norm for 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine'

Boldly Going And Going And Going

The ongoing arc with the Dominion – the anti-Federation from the Gamma Quadrant – ultimately defined Deep Space Nine.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was already the darker series of the franchise. But the Dominion War arc – which spanned six years of the show’s seven-year run – set the series on a completely different level. It was truly where no one had gone before.

As groundbreaking as the idea of a war on Star Trek was, though, it was the notion of an ongoing arc that was truly revolutionary.

Star Trek, to that point, was the quintessential episodic television show. What happened to Captain Kirk last week has no impact on how he behaves this week. Data losing the daughter he just created will never come up again (well, not that daughter anyway). But with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, you couldn’t afford to miss an episode.

But it wasn’t just the Dominion War that carried a thread throughout the series. Could Captain Sisko balance his role as a Bajoran religious figure with his duty to bring Bajor into the Federation? How will conflicts with the Klingons affect preparations for an inevitable Dominion conflict? And seriously, what side would Gul Dukat be on this week?

Contemporary Star Trek seems to understand the value in ongoing stories, but it doesn’t seem to understand what makes them work. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine used subtle hints to get its fans to come back week after week. To use Star Trek: Discovery as an example, that show has never heard the word “subtlety.”

The story carries over week-to-week because it’s supposed to. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had stories that came to a conclusion within its alloted 48 minutes but left enough on the table to return to down the road.

And that’s the lesson contemporary Trek should take from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Every episode needs an easy stopping point. A signal that says, “Okay, we’re done with this part of the story – but we’re not done with the story.”

Section 31 - The clandestine intelligence group from 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine'

Cloaking Device And Dagger

In season six of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the writers revealed Section 31. The clandestine shadow organization that kept the Federation afloat since its inception.

Like other cynical elements of Star Trek (which we’ll get to in more detail later), it rubbed longtime Trek fans the wrong way. It was the antithesis of Gene Roddenberry’s Utopian vision.

But take yourself out of what many Trek writers called “the Roddenberry box.” Remove yourself from the question of, “Does this represent the morality of Star Trek?” From a storytelling perspective, Section 31 fit well within the Trek universe. And it was cool.

It was world-building as world-building should be. In the broader universe of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, humanity and the Federation was paradise. No poverty, no crime, no war. Section 31 answered the question no one ever thought to ask: “Okay, fine, everything’s perfect – how does it stay perfect?”

Again, it was an element of world-building. It was not a world unto itself.

Star Trek: Discovery and the J.J. Abrams film Star Trek Into Darkness made Section 31 integral to its plot. In the case of Discovery, the organization was overt, front-and-center, and in-your-face. And as a result, it was diluted. The secret organization that’s apparently not a secret to anybody. It’s such a poor secret that there’s a CBS All Access series about the organization in the works.

Even Star Trek: Picard is dabbling in cloak-and-dagger espionage. And to its credit, that show is using it as a means to an end rather than the end itself.

What Star Trek: Deep Space Nine got right about Section 31 is that we don’t need to see their deeds. The fact that they exist and might be lurking around any corner? That’s what made them formidable. And unsettling.

Garak and Captain Sisko in one of the darkest moments from 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine'

“These People Don’t Live In Paradise.”

In the second-season episode “The Maquis Part 2,” Commander Sisko explains the plight of the Maquis. The Maquis is a terrorist group, striking back after their space was ceded to the Cardassians by the Federation.

Sisko elucidates that the Federation doesn’t understand that it gets harder the further you are from the seat of power. “It’s easy to be a saint in paradise,” Sisko says.

That one scene opened the door for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to be the cynical Trek series. After this, we find out that Starfleet planned a coup to make Earth a totalitarian state for the sake of security. And after that, we discover the aforementioned Section 31.

From a critical and storytelling perspective, a dash of cynicism is good. A dash of conflict is good. Writers on The Next Generation famously hated Roddenberry’s directive that the regular characters had to get along at all times. No matter what.

Because conflict between our characters breaks the veneer of Utopia. But it also makes that Utopia richer. Hinting that there is still blood shed to preserve the Federation validates its importance. It makes the fantasy more real if there are people with blood on their hands keeping it a fantasy.

Unfortunately, again, contemporary Trek took the wrong lessons from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Star Trek: Discovery tried to run the gauntlet of all the differences that made Star Trek: Deep Space Nine special in its first season. A season-long arc about a war with the Klingons, a cynical, morally-ambiguous captain, and a Federation willing to go dark to preserve itself. But none of them enriched the season.

None of those approaches validated the world of Star Trek. They were risky choices for the sake of risky choices.

Captain Sisko on the bridge of the Defiant

What ‘Star Trek’ Left Behind

When I think of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, I feel like it’s analogous to how people feel about Superman through a contemporary lens.

The world around Superman has to change. It’s unavoidable. He should go from fighting slum lords to fighting Nazis to fighting aliens to fighting terrorists. But Superman himself cannot change. He must always be the hero who stands for high ideals.

By the same token, the Star Trek universe should explore our world as it is. Not how we want it to be. But it should – as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine did – explore it through the people we want to be.

The heroes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine are Starfleet heroes like Captain Kirk and Captain Picard. But they face with a much different world. It’s much harder for them to remain good. It makes their struggle to maintain the best ideals more worthwhile.

And modern Star Trek clearly learned some valuable lessons from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

But it left the most important lessons behind.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine streams on Netflix, Hulu, CBS All Access, and Amazon Prime.

All images courtesy of startrek.com.