DS9 is still one of the most ground-breaking installments in the entirety of the Star Trek franchise, and January 3rd marked thirty years since “Emissary” graced our screens for the first time. It seems like a good time to discuss just a little bit of what makes DS9 so special in a franchise already known for taking forward-looking stances.
HERE THERE BE SPOILERS—ISH
This article is going to be a touch different in that I want to explore what makes DS9 so different from all of the other Star Trek shows and how that impacts what they were able to do narratively. It’s a good time to do that as the show celebrated 30 years since it premiered on January 3rd, 1993.
Deep Space Nine is the first and only show to take place on a space station rather than a star ship, and that’s pretty huge when you think about the ramifications of what now has to happen in the narrative. In each of their own series, Kirk or Picard drops into a situation only as long as the immediately pressing need requires the ship’s presence. They do supply runs, exploratory missions, and transport dignitaries, but life on a station is fundamentally different because the space station is, well, stationary. Granted, we’ve seen some shifting in the station’s location, but mostly, Deep Space Nine stays in one location, near Bajor and where it can look out over the wormhole that proves to be so important for the Bajoran economy and that causes the war plotline that will so deeply affect the show’s storyline.
I think about this a lot because this narrative conceit impacts the type of diplomacy required here. In essence, it’s the difference between a general briefing and a deep investment of time, resources, and study into a culture. Star ships offer quick solutions to complex problems that generally will be more fully hashed out by later teams of diplomats, but Sisko has to be knowledgeable of the minutiae of Bajoran culture and history because he lives there, day in and day out. He gets to see how these smaller cultural elements impact how the Bajorans conduct everything from day-to-day business to large-scale interplanetary diplomacy.
This is not to say that I think there’s anything inherently superior to either of these approaches; more than anything else, they represent two different tools in the diplomatic toolkit. Kirk and Picard show up in a moment of crisis and craft solutions from a place of remove, giving them a very different perspective on the impacts of culture during that crisis. Sisko, however, experiences the development to the crisis in real time, meaning that upon occasion, he has the opportunity to prevent the crisis from unfolding, which is something Kirk and Picard never really have a chance to do.
Even more importantly, Deep Space Nine has more time to develop side characters and supplemental plotlines. Morn’s very existence as his own meme serves as a great example of this. Because the Enterprise warps away to a new destination at the end of nearly every episode, the cast of supplemental characters changes continuously. That’s not true of Deep Space Nine; we get barflies. We get recurring references to Jadzia’s boyfriend with the transparent skull. Deep Space Nine can do this because it doesn’t have to spend half of each episode world-building. We already know that world; it’s largely the same as it was last week and the week before. Freeing up that airtime means that the writers and producers could spend more time with their characters, giving them a depth that goes beyond “plays the trombone” or “is a fan of Tri-D chess.”
I don’t mean to imply that we don’t get to know our Enterprise bridge crew members well. We obviously do, a fact which is partially responsible for people returning to Trek over and over for the past fifty-odd years, but Deep Space Nine simply had more airtime to devote to its characters’ lives. That’s why we get an opportunity to see Keiko struggle with having left her career when Miles transferred to the station. As I mention above, that’s why we get Morn and his inexplicable relationship with Quark.
It’s clearly no accident that DS9 features not only the fewest number of Starfleet main characters but also the fewest pure human characters out of any Trek franchise installment. The station’s unique position of being a Bajoran possession run with Starfleet oversight gives us the chance to see how people could live in this world. In what other situation would Keiko have to navigate balancing instructing her students in scientific fact with the importance of the religious beliefs held by the Bajoran majority population.
The show doesn’t always flesh all of those ramifications out successfully, but I think it’s important to have the opportunity to see how Starfleet principles play out in an everyday kind of situation. Lower Decks does a great job of highlighting the sheer weirdness that star ships encounter, but DS9 asks us to think about what upholding Federation values and ethics really looks like. In many cases, the answer seems to be trying to maintain the spirit of those core beliefs where upholding the letter of the law would result in greater harm. Occasionally, it even involves performing actions that run entirely counter to those beliefs and values.
Deep Space Nine lives in that grey area between right and wrong where nothing is absolute and everything is negotiable, whereas the more starship-focused shows don’t have to grapple with the same issues. That grey area, that flexibility gives the series the freedom to take on issues that would be impossible for other shows even to try, but at its heart, DS9 probably provides the best depiction of what living the ideal of IDIC really requires. It means finding that balance between the importance of scientific fact and the cultural importance of religion. It means constantly interacting with species that don’t hold your same values but recognizing that their culture is valid, and even learning a bit about The Great River. Sometimes in the series, it even means the contracting of an assassin for the death of a Romulan official, and frankly, I think we’re better off for getting the chance to watch this kind of everyday diplomacy play out week after week on the small screen.