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You Should Be Watching: Deep Space Nine

I would very much like to know who it was that first claimed Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is inferior to its predecessors. I would like to learn their name and invite them out for coffee some afternoon. I just want to have a nice, civilized chat. Hand to God. Turn on your location, friend! You have nothing to fear from me...

No really. This illusive someone literally has nothing to fear because I'm 105 pounds of preferred passive aggression who has never thrown a punch in her life. Which is not to say I haven't been tempted, particularly when it comes to absurd, cultural "facts" like this one. For those of you not in the know, Deep Space Nine (DS9) is the third incarnation of the Star Trek franchise, covering seven seasons between 1993 and 1999. It is set contemporaneously with The Next Generation, following a Federation commander stationed at the presumably boring as fuck Terok Nor, a space station previously under Cardassian control. Long story short, the Cardassians had been occupying/oppressing the nearby planet of Bajor, the Bajorans led a bloody battle for freedom, they succeeded in time, and the Federation swooped in at the very end of it all, wondering if they're now a good candidate for inclusion. With the exception of our puppy-like doctor, no one stationed at Terok Nor (now re-named DS9) is happy about getting chucked into a Cardassian designed home, out in the middle of nowhere, charged with winning over a traumatized and justifiably suspicious people... That is, until the first stable wormhole is discovered right next door, linking their quadrant of space with another. Suddenly Bajor is a hotspot of political intrigue and there's a new, endless expanse of space to explore. Hello, entertainment.

Except DS9 sucks. Presumably. That's what I've been told for most of my adult life anyway.

Far more pressing than one mystery critic, I'd like to know how we collectively managed to decide that DS9 is somehow lesser than the holy grails, The Next Generation (TNG) and The Original Series (TOS). I'm not even sure where I first picked up this bit of cultural osmosis. I didn't start watching Star Trek until the later days of high school when (gasp!) we were still saving up money to buy the DVDs. TOS was what got me seriously writing fic for the first time and arguments regarding Kirk vs. Picard are some pretty treasured memories. I wasn't any aficionado back then (or now, frankly), just a young girl getting into an old series. But even so I knew the cardinal rule going in: You watch the first two and then you seriously consider dropping out because everything else----at least comparatively----is trash.

Who the hell taught me that nonsense?

Look. This collection is titled "You Should Be Watching" so it's pretty obvious that I'm gonna tell you that you should watch DS9. But let me be just a little more blunt. You should drop what you're doing and go start this show. Immediately.

Why? Because DS9 is the first Star Trek I've watched that truly manages to find a balance between the franchise's staple optimism and the horrors of the real world. But Katie, you exclaim. Doesn't every incarnation of Star Trek embody that balance? After all, they're boldly going where no one has gone before. Sometimes the final frontier is beautiful, sometimes it's deadly, but regardless our crew will continue their mission with optimism and an open mind! To which I respond, precisely. Kirk and Picard are----and I say this with as much love that one can possibly possess for two fictional characters-----a bunch of goodie-goodies. Kirk only seems like the wild card rascal, but is really out to Do The Right Thing each and every time; Picard is pretty much everything a starship captain is supposed to be, positively oozing levelheadedness and dignity. Just as important, they're both men commanding Federation vessels, meaning that everyone else around them is a goodie-goodie too. For the most part anyway. My point being that everyone within their sphere (our primary cast) has been Federation approved at the start of the show and possesses the same basic core of ethics. Or, if you happen to be Vulcan, Klingon, an android with human aspirations, you're expected to put aside your personal views because at the end of the day there's a job to do and you all agreed to do it. For all its emphasis on diversity, TOS and TNG are populated with characters who uphold a single perspective: the Federation's.

Of course, this is a gross simplification. Kirk's drive to do the right thing flies in the face of the Prime Directive half the time (more than half, really...) and for all his dignity, Picard has run into his own share of trouble with the law. Some of the shows' best conflicts arise out of the Bureaucratic Paper Pushers vs. the Ragtag Hero Team. Doing what the higher ups back home are too scared to, and all that. There's always been a sense of our crew as outsiders facing off against the world-----even when the world includes your superiors. But still. Picard and Kirk's rebellious natures have got nothing on Benjamin Sisko.

Honestly, only one GIF can truly do this man justice:

That's Q by the way, whose immediate, shocked response is, "Picard never hit me!" and that right there is the difference. Benjamin Sisko is an honorable man, not necessarily a good one-----if we're defining "good" according to the Federation's usual standards. Within a few hours of boarding Terok Nor, Sisko blackmails a local Ferengi named Quark into staying on the station as a "community leader," using his nephew Nog's incarceration as leverage. He's got some xenophobia in him, frowning at his son's friendships and dismissive at times of the Bajoran's faith. He's got a temper and tends to yell a lot. A lot, a lot. In the most recent episode I watched we get the most fascinating exchange:

Garak: "Commander, this is extortion!"

Sisko: [slow, pleased smile] "Yes. It is."

I make him sound like a horrible person, but Sisko's really not. He's just human in a way that our heroic starship captains sometimes lack. He might be up for a bit of blackmail now and then, but it's always for compelling reasons. The same man who yells at his friends while under stress is also one of the most openly loving fathers I've ever seen on TV. In the midst of season two Sisko gives a passionate speech about how yes, he and the Bajorans often get into epic, devastating fights. But you know what? They're still working together and each time the fight concludes they've learned just a little bit more about the other.

So yes, there's tension all around. Remember how I said that, differences aside, everyone on a traditional starship is bound by the same moral code? There's no such thing here. At the start of the show our primary cast consists of:

Sisko: The above mentioned commander whose concern about living on this station is only outweighed by his son, Jake. Resourceful, stubborn, and crafty as hell, he's the exact kind of guy you want in your corner when things start going south.

Major Kira: Member of the Bajoran military and former leader of the resistance against Cardassian rule, she's got more than one chip on her shoulder and a whole mess of trauma to work through. Competent first officer? Absolutely, except she thinks the Federation is made up of a bunch of naive fools and really, really doesn't want them here.

Doctor Bashir: The young, optimistic genius eager for a bit of adventure in his life. He's basically Wesley Crusher if people actually liked Wesley. Bit of a Gary Stu (with in-world reasons though!) and arrogant to boot, but he's so genuine you end up adoring him anyway. Even O'Brien ends up warming to him. Sort of.

Chief O'Brien: Yep, former transporter guru of the Enterprise has gotten a promotion to Chief of Operations on DS9. Love those former side characters? Keiko? Little Molly? They get a lot of the spotlight here, giving DS9 another avenue for exploring family and what it means to make a marriage work while out in space.

Odo: A shapeshifter of unknown origins who heads the station's security team. Like Kira, he's got his own ideas about justice and is none too pleased to have one hand tied behind his back in the form of Starfleet regulations. Unlike Spock and Data, Odo isn't quite as easily loved and is at the center of much of DS9's thoughts on discrimination.

Jadzia Dax: A Trill on her seventh lifetime, formerly a man named Curzon and a dear friend of Sisko's. Her situation is fascinating in and of itself, but making a subordinate the commander's BFF who also happens to be his former teacher and several hundred years older? That's one hell of a dynamic.

Quark: The before mentioned Ferengi who owns DS9's bar and, like all members of his species, is rather focused on accumulating wealth. This leads to frequent (read: daily) delves into the criminal underworld, leaving Quark in the endlessly precarious position of deciding when he'll endanger himself or others in pursuit of profit, and when he'll put instincts aside in the name of friendship.

Garak: Last but certainly not least is DS9's tailor. The only Cardassian left on DS9, Garak enjoys hemming dresses and debating literature with Bashir. He's just plain, simple Garak. Nothing else to see here. Wait, you think he's a spy? Really, Doctor. You're letting your imagination run away with you again.

As is readily apparent, this group is a far cry from the series' normal lineup. Which isn't to say they're not morally upright people striving to do the right thing. They absolutely are, it's just that for the first time we've got a Star Trek that's working to prove that to us, rather than banking under that assumption from the very start. TOS and TNG both have enough conflict in them to excite any Klingon, but there was always that innate feeling of family-----at least for me. The knowledge that, whatever else, this group was already bound together through a shared love of life and exploration; they had one another's backs. The only thing that binds the DS9 crew at first is being stuck in the same hunk of metal. Some due to orders. Others blackmail. Because their family is here. Because they literally have nowhere else to go. Each of them has to work to make DS9 an actual home.

And yes, let's talk for a moment about the station itself. What's Star Trek without that exploration? Pretty damn entertaining, actually. Our normal format involves a vessel hopping from planet to space oddity, encountering something new for 45mins before leaving it behind. By reversing things and making the crew stationary-----aliens and oddities coming to them-----DS9 feels more like a home than our previous starships. Not that I don't love the bridge and medbay, but there's something so very great about constantly having your cast next door to a bar/gambling den. Or eating lunch in the replimat with the local venders, a hungover Klingon, and a passing member of the Bajoran faith. Star Trek, in my humble opinion, is great for two reasons: its social commentary and its emphasis on diverse character relationships. Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations and all that. DS9 keeps all of Star Trek's hard hitting questions while giving the characters an even better environment for exploring those interpersonal connections. DS9 feels unique, lively, and the exact sort of place I'd want to visit with a secret intention to stay.

I could give you a thousand other reasons to watch this show. Exploration of Cardassian and Ferengi culture. Learning how to not just accept alien perspectives, but actively live with them. Long term consequences that give the episodic show a touch of seriality. A Big Bad with more compelling motivations than the Borg. A grittier, nuanced look at maintaining optimism in a world that is too often cold and bleak. DS9 is an absolute gem... except for that premier.

Just accept that season one, episode one "Emissary" is in no way representative of the rest of the show's quality. Muddle through it with the knowledge that there are rewards to be reaped on the other side. Do it for me.

And if all else fails, watch for Garak.

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