Deep Space 9 was basically an attempt to explore the darker side of human nature while still trying to keep true to the positive and hopeful future as envisioned by Gene Roddenberry. It succeeded in some ways, with some really great episodes exploring the brutality of warfare in The Siege of AR-558, the careful balance between freedom for the people and security of the state in Homefront and Paradise Lost, and even delving into some pretty dark themes like terrorism, its repercussions and motivations. I didn’t watch Deep Space 9 when it first ran due to a combination of my being too young to understand some of themes being explored and the fact that Deep Space 9 had the worst opening season ever. I thought Voyager’s first season was rough, but man, I’m honestly surprised Deep Space 9 survived its first season. I’m glad it did survive, however, because it’s the only show I’ve watched that had the courage to feature an unapologetic terrorist as one of its main characters.
Having a cast of deeply flawed main characters, who often times didn’t get along, gave the show a distinct personality that separated it from the rest of the Star Trek canon, which is the very thing that turned off a lot of the fans of TNG and TOS. Still, I don’t think it veered away too much from the vision of Gene Roddenberry and overall I think the Star Trek canon was better for having run Deep Space 9, because it explored several themes that TNG and Voyager were never able to explore. It also gave us strong female characters who were able to remain rounded and interesting without falling into the trap of making them blatant sex symbols. If there’s one thing Star Trek is deficient in, it’s their depiction of women. More specifically, their clothing. Seriously, look at these outfits:
Kira and Jadzia, by contrast were a pair of strong female leads that actually wore uniforms:
And when you do see these two in something more sexy and revealing, its a natural extension of their characters, like when Jadzia puts on a bathing suit when visiting the pleasure planet of Riza (and even that bathing suit is conservative by today’s standards). Don’t get me wrong, Seven of Nine in a form fitting body sock is enough to send any heterosexual male into a cold sweat, but the ridiculous outfits are only there because the executive team wanted to improve the show’s sex appeal. Contextually, there was no reason for Seven of Nine to wear such a uniform, it didn’t fit her character or her situation. When you have your character going into a warzone wearing high heels and a silver outfit that you could spot even in the void of space, you know you have some issues with your female characters. Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that by allowing their two female characters to dress in a manner that suited the situation and their characters, Deep Space 9 took on a much more mature view of women, a change that Star Trek has badly needed. It also fit the much more mature character arcs of these Kira and Jadzia.
Kira is a Bajoran, a species in Star Trek that had been conquered by the Cardassian Empire and just recently withdrawn when Deep Space 9 begins, in fact rebuilding Bajor is the major plot arc of the first three seasons. We also find out that Kira was a terrorist during the occupation of Bajor, and the show is constantly reminding us that this very likable character was responsible for some pretty horrific acts. One of my favorite episodes featuring Kira was The Darkness and The Light. It featured members of Kira’s old resistance cell being systematically murdered by an unknown assassin, each one being killed without ever harming any innocent bystanders. The final reveal of the episode is that the assassin is an old Cardassian who was wounded in bombing that Kira planned and executed. This Cardassian wasn’t even a soldier, he was merely a servant, cleaning and fixing uniforms for the military leader of the outpost. This Cardassian also explains that Kira’s bombing killed 14 people, including the wife and children of the man who was the target of the bombing, and crippling 23 other people. The point that the Cardassian was trying to make by killing Kira’s resistance cell, was that you could accomplish your goals without killing innocent people.
What’s really great about this episode is that the show itself doesn’t tell us what to think or believe at this point, it provides us with the two opposing sides of the argument and leaves us to make our own decision. Clearly our first instinct is to side with Kira, because she’s an awesome character that we’d all grown to love over the past 5 seasons, but you also can’t escape the knowledge that the Cardassian proved his point. He set out to kill seven people, and only those seven people. As he points out, he could have killed dozens or even hundreds of people if he had engaged in the indiscriminate bombing that Kira and her terrorist cell had resorted to during the occupation. Kira set out to kill one Cardassian soldier, Gul Pirak, and killed 13 other people in order to do it. In the end we’re left with only the slight comfort that Kira and the resistance did what they thought was necessary, perhaps they were wrong, but what would any of us done in a similar situation? If our homes were conquered, would any of us have the patience to meticulously plan every attack as to only kill military personnel?
Those were the kinds of great questions that Deep Space 9 asked and forced its audience to wrestle with, often times without making the mistake of telling us the answer (or rather what their opinion is). Like all good stories, the show asks these questions through gripping, character-driven drama, which brings me to my favorite character. A recurring character appearing in only a handful of episodes, he was nevertheless one of the most fascinating and complex characters I’ve ever seen on a television series: Gul Dukat.
There was a german movie released a few years ago called Downfall (German: Der Untergang) that features the last days of Adolf Hitler in his Berlin Bunker as the Soviets put a bloody end to the second world war. It’s an extremely good movie, and I recommend everyone see it. What made it really unique was how it humanized one of the greatest villains in human history, most of us only know Hitler as the genocidal maniac responsible for starting a war that killed 78 million people. In Downfall, however, we get to see the human side of this infamous monster and by the end of the film you almost feel sorry for the guy. Almost. It is still Hitler, after all, no storyteller is so good that you can get someone to feel sympathy for him.
Gul Dukat is Star Trek’s Hitler, he presided over the Bajoran Occupation and though several numbers are given over the course of the series, hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of Bajorans died while he was in charge. Hilter isn’t quite the right analogy I suppose, since Gul Dukat wasn’t the head of the Cardassian Union at the time, instead I guess you could say he was like Goering or Goebbels, a high ranking official that was just “following orders.” What made Gul Dukat my favorite character, however, was just how believable and sympathetic they made his character despite being a war criminal. It was an extremely ballsy move on the part of the DS9 writers to make Gul Dukat so despicable and yet so relatable at the same time.
During the early seasons, when Gul Dukat interacts with the crew of DS9, he often tries to explain his actions during the occupation and what’s scary is just how reasonable his explanations are. All his arguments eventually boil down to the same “following orders” defense that was shot down at Nuremberg, and yet through his explanations of that defense, it allows the audience to see just how easy it is to rationalize even the most horrific of acts. I had stop myself from nodding my head in agreement when listening to Gul Dukat. For instance, when he first took command of DS9 (then called Terok Nor), he immediately halved the output quotas of forced labor camps on the planet and doubled the food rations. He got banned child labor, improved medical care, and by the end of his first month as prefect of Bajor, the death rate on Bajor was down by nearly 20%. What was the Bajoran response to this? They blew up an orbital drydock, killing over 200 people. So he rounded up 200 suspected terrorists and executed them, perfectly reasonable.
Wait, did I just say that? Did I just say summarily killing 200 people was reasonable!?
Yes I did, for just a fraction of a second, Gul Dukat’s actions seemed reasonable. Partly it was Marc Alaimo’s awesome performance as Dukat and the rest was just some great writing and character development. You see Gul Dukat isn’t the moustache-twirling villain that is easy to hate and disavow, we get to see his best side more often than not. His devotion to his daughter, despite being a half-Bajoran half-Cardassian hybrid, feels absolutely genuine and gives him a much needed humanity. He is also constantly trying to befriend the crew of DS9 despite their constant comments about his being a dictator and war criminal, especially Kira Nerys, as he tries to reconcile his actions by gaining Kira’s forgiveness. Gul Dukat has a pleasant laugh, an intelligent and sensitive demeanor, and a strong loyalty to his friends and family. It’s the fact that he is so very human, so well characterized, that makes it so easy to fall into the trap of agreeing with his twisted logic. Gul Dukat shows the audience just how easy it can be for our best intentions to become twisted and evil, but also how easy it is to justify those actions to ourselves.
So he cut the output quotas, and a bunch of other great stuff, but here’s the thing: they’re still forced labor camps. By their very definition, that’s a war crime. The fact that he made hell on earth slightly less hellish doesn’t excuse his actions. “I was just following orders” is no more a legitimate excuse today, or in the Star Trek universe, than it was 60 years ago at Nuremberg. If we don’t carefully examine our own actions and think critically about the leaders we follow, we could all end up like Gul Dukat. Following a path to hell paved with our good intentions.
On the other side of the coin from Gul Dukat are General Martok and Worf, two of the most badass characters this side of the Alpha Quadrant and two men who stay true to their ideals and beliefs even if it means openly defying orders or tradition. A big part of why I loved Deep Space 9 was the fact that it gave us such an in-depth look at the Klingon Empire, its culture and belief system, and of course, the workings of its powerful military. I love the Klingons, and while I wouldn’t bother trying to learn the language, I would totally carry a bat’leth with me if I could. It’s probably because the Klingon Empire borrows much of its culture from Nordic and Celtic traditions, and as a regular visitor of the Highland Games here in Washington, that speaks to me. It’s probably also because Martok is officially the coolest and baddest Klingon in history. While Worf is kind of a terrible warrior, Martok kicks ass in every damn episode he appears in. The actor who plays Martok does it with such enthusiastic zeal that you could be forgiven for thinking he’s an actual Klingon. He also gives the most concise and badass summary on the institution of marriage I’ve ever seen.
For all of this praise, however, Deep Space 9 has one massive flaw that keeps it from achieving its full potential. A flaw that runs right through the core of the entire show, a huge crack in the foundation that eventually causes the entire show to cave in on itself like a damn house of cards. The Prophets.
The inclusion of the Bajoran’s religious beliefs was actually a really interesting part of the series actually, and I quite enjoyed that aspect of Kira’s character since we don’t really have any other religious characters in Star Trek, but did they have to include actual gods in the series? For those who don’t know, the Prophets are aliens living inside the wormhole leading to the gamma quadrant, who the Bajorans worship as gods and, for all intents and purposes, are gods in the story. They literally act exactly like the gods in ancient Greek and Roman plays would act, either creating some arbitrary danger for the characters to overcome or saving the characters from an unconquerable danger. There’s a reason that the Deus Ex Machina was retired as a major literary technique, it cheapens the action. If gods can swoop down and interfere with the story we’ve been watching, the story loses all meaning. The character overcoming strife and turmoil is cheapened if he only got there because some god helped him out. That’s exactly the problem with the Prophets in Deep Space 9, they cheapen and marginalize basically everything good about the series.
So the Dominion War becomes the focal point of the final two seasons of Deep Space 9, and the show really does a good job handling a large galactic war with only a limited budget. In the Sacrifice of Angels we get to see the first large scale fleet battle ever fought (ignore the speech bubbles):
How badass was that? I’ve heard some people criticize this scene because the ships are all lined up like this is the Napoleonic wars, but I actually like that about the scene. As far as we know, all previous battles in the Star Trek universe never had more than half a dozen ships duking it out. The Battle of Narendra 3 was a single Ambassador class ship against five Romulan Warbirds. Two huge galactic nations bringing the full might of their military to bear would be a situation no one would know how to handle. Much like World War 1, the technology far exceeded the tactical and strategic knowledge of the combatants. This pitched battle is the highlight of the entire series, every battle after this one (especially the finale) just seems like a disappointment. In fact the show immediately nose dives only minutes after the battle is done.
You see the whole reason they fought this long, bloody battle was to reach the now occupied Deep Space 9 before the Dominion can destroy the minefield blockading the wormhole. Starfleet is already outnumbered and outgunned as it is, and behind the wormhole are thousands of Dominion ships waiting to reinforce the Dominion attack in the Alpha Quadrant. If the minefield goes down, the war is lost. Kira and several others on board Deep Space 9 trying to keep the Dominion from destroying the minefield as well. Basically the entire Alpha Quadrant has united in order to stop the Dominion from dismantling the minefield.
Well they’re too late. The minefield goes down. This is one of those moments designed to shock the audience, to suddenly and violently force the audience to consider the mortality of the heroes. It’s the same thing as when the mountain troll stabs Frodo in Fellowship of the Ring, or Jack Sparrow getting stabbed by Barbossa. We writers do this all the time, because we want you to feel that the stakes are real, that the heroes are in imminent danger of dying. There are plenty of ways to go about a scene like this, and plenty of ways to go about resolving it. Frodo is wearing a mithril vest given to him by his uncle earlier in the movie, and Jack Sparrow stole a coin from the chest and became undead like the other pirates. Both natural extensions of the storyline and characters. The one way guaranteed to screw up a scene like this is to have Gods swoop in and fix everything.
Sisko literally asks the Wormhole Gods to fix everything and that’s exactly what they do. The Dominion reinforcements vanish as they try to pass through the wormhole. Well shit, I guess Kira and all the others on Deep Space 9 risked their lives for nothing. Hey, all you thousands of men and women who died in the battle a few minutes ago? Sorry, but apparently that whole battle thing was totally unnecessary. The Defiant could have just cloaked and then gone and asked the Prophets for help. In fact, if Sisko had asked the Prophets to stop the Dominion coming through in Season 5, we could have avoided this whole galactic war business that would cause the deaths of billions.
See that’s the trouble with having actual gods in your series, they’re just such an easy way to fix bad situations that you end up using them to the detriment of your story, and if you have them fix one problem, the audience is going to ask themselves why they can’t simply fix everything? And you know what’s worse? I could have forgiven this if it had been a one-off mistake, maybe they ran short on time or money and needed a quick, easy end to the episode. Okay, shit happens, I can live with that. But no, that’s not what happens, instead the writers of Deep Space 9 lose their god damn minds and start to turn Benjamin Sisko into fucking Space Jesus. I’m not even exaggerating, at the end of the series, Ben Sisko literally dies to prevent the literal devil from taking over the world.
Oh, and you know who that devil was? Gul Dukat! Yes, they turn my favorite character, one of the most interesting characters in the show, into fucking Snidely Whiplash so he can serve as the final boss for Sisko’s ascension into Godhood. Jadzia Dax, one of the most beloved characters in the series, dies in one of the most contrived and useless scenes in the history of television. If the actress wanted to leave the show, the least you could do was give her a believable death. One that wouldn’t dictate we write “The devil killed her…no literally, the devil did it. No we’re not even joking.” on her headstone. Even worse is the eventual revelation of Sisko’s origins, apparently the Prophets took over the mind of some poor, innocent woman and had her sleep with Sisko’s dad. I’m serious, that’s actually what they say in the show.
Hey, DS9 writers, you know that sex attained through mental coercion is considered rape, right? They go out of their way to say that once Sisko is born, the woman leaves immediately, probably psychologically shattered after being forced to have sex and give birth without her consent. How fucking horrifying is that? What the hell is wrong with you people?
The Prophets destroyed Deep Space 9, there were still some good episodes even after the writers lost their collective minds, but their frankly insane dedication to making the main character Space Jesus just made the entire series start to lose its cohesion. It’s still a thoroughly enjoyable series, but if you watch it, I would suggest you skip all the episodes that feature these story breaking entities (though admittedly that means cutting out most of the last season) and in the final episode, just turn off the TV after the scene on the holodeck…
Hope you guys enjoyed, and as always, any questions and comments are welcome!