Avery Brooks as 'Captain Benjamin Sisko' sits on the bridge of the Defiant. ("Star Trek” footage and photos courtesy of CBS Television Studios)

Remembering "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine": A controversial sci-fi landmark

Showrunner Ira Steven Behr on his new documentary about "Deep Space Nine," a turning point in TV history


Chauncey DeVega
May 12, 2019 3:15PM (UTC)

"Star Trek" is one of the most beloved and important pop culture franchises in history. Originally conceived by Gene Roddenberry as his own version of the then wildly popular TV series "Wagon Train" but set in outer space, "Star Trek" quickly evolved into something much greater. Across numerous TV shows, films, comic books, novels and other media, "Star Trek" became a global juggernaut that channeled Roddenberry's hopeful vision of the future by taking on challenging social issues while still featuring exciting and memorable stories.

For example, the original "Star Trek" TV series was born of the tumult of the 1960s in America and was unafraid to challenge racism, classism, sexism, the Cold War and nuclear annihilation, and how best to create a just and moral society. "Star Trek: The Next Generation" came 20 years later, after a series of movies starring the cast of the original series. Likely the most popular of all "Trek" series, "TNG" was a product of the triumph of America and the West over Soviet Communism and the hopes (quickly dashed) about what that moment would mean for democracy and Pax Americana.

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Then came "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine." Debuting in 1993 (and overlapping with the last season of "TNG"), "DS9" was in many ways more grounded and realistic, taking on questions of war, ethnic conflict, terrorism, religious fundamentalism, the refugee crisis and all the difficult and challenging decisions that were often made in secret to protect the utopian vision of Earth and its partners in the United Federation of Planets. "Deep Space Nine" also departed from its "Star Trek" brethren in other important ways.

Set on a space station rather than a starship, "Deep Space Nine" featured the "Star Trek" universe's first African-American captain, Benjamin Sisko, as the central character, played by the distinguished theater actor Avery Brooks. Perhaps most importantly in terms of "DS9's" legacy, the show was serialized rather than episodic, meaning it had a long, slowly unfolding story arc rather than simply a series of self-contained stories. While that has since become standard for "prestige" TV shows in recent decades, "DS9's" narrative structure — along with that of J. Michael Straczynski's contemporaneous series "Babylon 5" — was something new for commercial broadcast television in America. In many ways a direct arrow can be drawn from "Deep Space Nine" to later series such as "Game of Thrones," "Outlander," "Mad Men," "The Sopranos" and "Breaking Bad."

"Deep Space Nine" was greeted with a mixed response by both critics and "Star Trek" fans at the time of its 1993 premiere. Two and a half decades later, however, it has become a beloved part of the "Star Trek" canon. This transformation and the legacy of "Deep Space Nine" is the subject of the new documentary "What We Left Behind: Looking Back at 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.'"

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I recently spoke with Ira Steven Behr, executive producer and showrunner of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," who more recently has been a writer and executive producer on the Starz series "Outlander." We talked about the show's origins, the challenges he and the other writers overcame in producing such an ambitious serialized project, and why "Deep Space Nine" still matters today.

Behr also shared his thoughts on the casting of Avery Brooks as "Star Trek's" first featured black captain, the challenges of doing "message of the week" episodes about such topics as poverty, racism, same-sex relationships, and religion, and where "Deep Space Nine" might have gone if the show has stayed on the air another season. We also spoke, inevitably, about America in the age of Trump and what kinds of stories science fiction writers are trying to tell in TV and film in this moment.

As always, our conversation has been edited for clarity and length. "What We Left Behind: Looking Back at 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine'" will debut in limited release in theaters across the United States on May 13. Wider release will follow.

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You can hear our full conversation on my podcast, "The Chauncey DeVega Show."

It has been almost 20 years since the last episode of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" aired on television. Looking back, what do you understand about "Deep Space Nine" that perhaps you did not see while you were in the middle of making it?

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In 2014 or 2015 I got a call from Avery Brooks. I wondered why Avery was calling. He was really excited and in a really good mood. He said, "Have you been going to the conventions? You see the difference in the fans. The fans there, these young children, who weren't even born when the show was on the air, and it's just great. These fans had no preconceived notions of what 'Star Trek' is supposed to be, and the fan base has just expanded."

There's definitely been a change from when the show began those years ago. "Deep Space Nine" has not changed, of course, but the fact that people now can binge it is a huge difference. When the show began it was on syndicated television and this was very unkind to viewers. A viewer could be out of the loop very quickly if a syndicated station skipped an episode or the viewer missed an episode. "Deep Space Nine" was serialized. All that has changed now.

How have platforms such as Netflix and digital downloads more generally impacted writing and narrative? Does binging change how writers approach storytelling?

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Obviously, I enjoy the limited amount of binging that I do. "Deep Space Nine" is 26 episodes a season so it demands a certain investment in time and energy. But there are things I like about the media environment today and others that I'm not so crazy about. For example, after a show's newest episode the actors are there — the director, the writers, everyone's talking about the show online. That can come later. This immediate reaction of "This is us explaining what you just saw," I find it to be a bit much.

There were some amazing talents in the writers room of "Deep Space Nine." Most notably, Ronald Moore comes to mind, who went on to work on "Battlestar Galactica" and "Outlander." Have you done a genealogy of sorts tracing the show's impact across TV and other mediums?

It's mentioned to me all the time. One of the things I look back on that I feel good about is how I have mentored a lot of people who've gone on to do some great things. I am really proud of the "Deep Space Nine" writing room. We're ubiquitous in terms of genre TV and other formats and mediums.

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The critical and popular response to "Deep Space Nine" was very mixed at the time. The show, in my opinion, was very unfairly compared to "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Given the new documentary and how "Deep Space Nine" is now so beloved, did you have the last laugh?

I don't think I would describe it as having the last laugh. I think that it's a good feeling to see that all the things that I wanted to do with "Deep Space Nine," which at the time seemed to create some very strong counter opinions and perpetual fighting, finally pay off. I always felt that ultimately, in some way, that would be a vindication. But it wasn't really about the vindication. All I can control is how I wanted "Deep Space Nine" to be presented to the public, and I had very strong thoughts about that. I just wanted to feel that I was satisfied with the show, and of course that's easier said than done. There were times we didn't live up to what I had hoped for, but we never gave up fighting and that's what I'm proudest of.

When does a TV show take on a life of its own? When do you know that there is special chemistry between the actors and the writers?

I really liked the pilot. I thought the pilot gave us a great jumping-off point. But part of the frustration was the pilot really worked and now we're doing this scattershot kind of technique in season one, where we seem to be scrambling all over the place, trying to find our identity. And the identity was firmly established in the pilot, so why are we looking to change that, or go in other directions? Let's just follow the path that was laid out in the pilot. Why are we deviating and trying to go back in time or go back to "The Next Generation"? The pilot wasn't "TNG," why are we trying to do episodes that could easily be adapted for "TNG"? It was just finding our mojo, which we found towards the end of season one.

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Was there any one single moment when you knew that "Deep Space Nine" was special, that it had life?

We had some good episodes in season one for sure, but the one-two punch of the final two episodes of the season, "Duet" and "In the Hands of the Prophets," needed to end the season on a high note. Forget about everyone else. I'm not talking about fans or the studio. I'm talking about us, as the writers, we had to feel that we were in a good place, and it took all season to get there.

But after that one-two punch going into season two I thought, "OK, we found our footing. We just have to remember to stay in those footsteps". Then Michael Piller came up with the three-part episode to start season two, and I felt basically, with some setbacks aside, we were off and running.

Michael Dorn played Lt. Worf on "Star Trek: The Next Generation." He was then brought onto "Deep Space Nine" as one of the core group of characters. This was the studio's way of trying to get crossover appeal. How did you make it so that Worf's addition to "Deep Space Nine" didn't feel like a mea culpa, a forced correction?

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We don't need to take too much credit for that. The reality was, OK, this is going to happen and we can't wish it away even if we wanted to. So what do we do about it? We had a whole different season format mapped out originally. Now we're going to throw everything out and have to start from scratch, and who knows if we're ever going to get back where we thought we were going to go. Needless to say, we had to persevere and absorb the character of Worf into "Deep Space Nine," and I think we did that very successfully. In fact I think we did it even better than we thought we would. Because once we had Worf and Jadzia hooking up, it was like a realization of "Wow! this is a character that has plenty of mileage left in him, and this is good for the series."

I was so lucky some years ago to see a Shakespeare performance starring Avery Brooks. He is mesmerizing. What did Brooks bring to "Deep Space Nine"? What were your thoughts on how Benjamin Sisko — "Star Trek's" first black captain lead character — was depicted on the show?

Obviously I can't think of "DS9" without thinking of Avery. There would've been no documentary without Avery. I went to a convention to see Avery, after having not been to one in 13 years. I just wanted to see Avery, and that's what started this whole ball rolling. Avery Brooks, as I've said many times, is the most fascinating person I've worked with. I thought that he was a really bold hire for "Star Trek" at the time. Avery brought some tremendous potential to the show.

Then it seemed it liked we hamstrung Avery Brooks every way we could. He made it very clear how he wanted to look, and the studio didn't let him look like that. They made him a commander instead of a captain, and yet he was of the age and of the manner born to be a captain. Star Trek was all about captains, so the minute you did not make Benjamin Sisko a captain, you singled him out in a negative way. Who cares if captains are on space stations or on starships? It's just meaningless to me.

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It's funny you said you saw him doing Shakespeare, I saw him do his one-man Paul Robeson show. I actually saw it with a friend of mine who had actually studied with Avery at Rutgers, so it was really interesting talking to her about her experiences with him. I came back the next day and I sat the writing staff down, and I made it very clear that the problem, if there was a problem, was that we were not writing Sisko, and thus Avery, to his full potential. It was up to us to free the character and free the actor. No matter what his hairstyle was, no matter what his rank was, that did not matter, we had to do better with the character. From then on, I think we all committed to making Benjamin Sisko the character he became.

One of the great moments I remember back in the day, and still happens at present, is that when I went to conventions I would talk to people who were either ex-military or in the military, and  it seemed they all loved Sisko. They wanted Capt. Sisko to be their leader. They recognized this is a man who would be looking out for them. They didn't need a friend, they needed a leader, and that always made me feel good.

Avery Brooks also made sure that Benjamin Sisko was a proud, unapologetic black American who was comfortable with himself and proud of his people's legacy and struggle and triumphs. Was this Avery's initiative? And how were those decisions made about Benjamin Sisko's habitus, his way in the world?

To be honest, I'm not sure I remember. But I do remember we were going to change Sisko's clothing and some of the décor in his quarters. At the time, we were getting these mixed messages. The whole issue always was that in the 24th century, everything has been made bland, we were all the same. Yes, Capt. Picard [of "The Next Generation"] drank Earl Grey tea, but that was about the extent of his Englishness really.

We were going to try to bring that African element into it. At first I wasn't sure I was going to buy it because it just seemed like an overt way to remind everyone of his identity, instead of just playing the character that way. But it was cool. We did it and things turned out fine.

In the iconic episode "Far Beyond the Stars," which Avery Brooks directed, he was very on top of how his character Bennie's apartment in Harlem was going to look. But that seemed much more organic to me than Sisko's quarters in the future. His quarters made me think we were just waving the flag to remind everyone that he was a man who was in touch with his past. It was all a little jarring at first but once we got into later seasons it was cool.

Science fiction, at its best and worst, is highly topical. The genre uses aliens, time travel and other narrative devices  to talk about current political issues and social concerns. How did you balance the topical issues that "Deep Space Nine" dealt with in such a way as to not be too obvious and preachy?  

I was not that happy whenever we did an issue-oriented show. I don't like them. In general, I feel like they are preaching to the choir. What is going in the world since the election of 2016 has changed my opinion quite a bit about what we need to do in storytelling, especially on TV at times.

"Deep Space Nine" was a truly character-driven show. So even if there were issue-oriented episodes, that principle still held true. Many TV shows call themselves character-driven, and basically I find it not true. What is really going on is that those shows are plot-driven with a little character sprinkled in. We were a character-driven show with plot sprinkled in. These issues mattered to the characters. In episodes like "Far Beyond the Stars," "Past Tense" and "Rejoined," we put those issues right up front.

"Rejoined" was about Dax. If you cared about Dax, you cared about the issue. "Past Tense" was about contemporary issues of poverty and homelessness and misery, seen through the lens of Bashir and Sisko.

"Far Beyond the Stars" was about a ghetto within a ghetto, being a science fiction writer working for the pulps. Creative marginalized people. And then within that marginalization we see what it is like to be further marginalized because of your race. But it was all about Benny Russell. I love the character Benny Russell and I wish I could have done a lot more with him. I wish we could have seen Avery Brooks as Benny Russell much more.

Reflecting on "Rejoined" and how "Deep Space Nine" dealt with issues of same-sex love and intimacy for a moment. This has been written about a great deal in the "Star Trek" novels and certainly by fans. It is also hinted at in the canonical "Deep Space Nine" TV show. What of Garak and Dr. Bashir's relationship? Were there any discussions about having Garak be more open about his sexuality and his being "bisexual" or perhaps even "omnisexual"?     

I wish I could say there were. Of course Garak's sexuality was mentioned in the room. One of the things I have to keep emphasizing is that, yes, "Deep Space Nine" was great. But there were lots of obstacles along the way. There is the dream and the reality, and there is dealing with the suits and the other powers that be. So it felt like a constant struggle at times to do the show we wanted to do. You can't fight every battle, and the thought of the studio allowing us to depict Bashir as queer was not going to happen. It wasn't Garak so much, but the issue was really how close he was to Dr. Bashir.

I just don't think they would have allowed us to do it. On the other hand, we should have at least tried harder. But we had so many things going on, we had so many other issues that we were trying to fight.

What are other things you wish you should have pushed harder for?

Some of them are obvious. Everyone loves the Dominion War. But the Dominion War could have played out with an even bigger arc. There was lots of horse trading to even get what we were able to accomplish in terms of the Dominion War. It would have been great to make it more serialized as well.  I also don't know if we needed to do a "Mirror, Mirror" universe every season. There were diminishing returns there. So yes, there are all kind of regrets. But who cares?

How did you figure out the balance between showing and telling regarding story elements such as the ominous and secretive intelligence agency Section 31? Unlike the Borg on "TNG," Section 31 was not overexposed on "Deep Space Nine."

With Section 31, don't give us too much credit. Section 31 came very late in the game. As we show in "What We Left Behind," if there was an eighth season, Section 31 is the direction the show was going in. After the Dominion how can you come up with another villain? The villain would have to be on the inside, and it seemed like an absolute normal progression for "Deep Space Nine" to see how the Federation would stand up if the villain was us. We showed restraint with Section 31 because we ran out of time.

Were there ever discussions about doing the obligatory Borg episode?

No, we were told that very clearly. It was a battle I had no reason to fight. I didn't find the Borg that interesting so I didn't care.

In terms of character arcs, does Capt. Sisko ever find peace?

Well, obviously we're never going to know, because there's never going to be an actual "Deep Space Nine" show starring Benjamin Sisko. Certainly not one with Avery Brooks in that role. It's all theoretical. But I will say, what I would think was next for Sisko was that he would have to re-find his humanity. Because once you've basically lived with the gods, or become a wormhole alien which is almost the equivalent of being a god, it's finding your way back to your simple humanity that matters. People sometimes get too above the fray.

I think that's happening in this country, in a weird way. In the last couple of years we thought we were above all this, and people now are realizing that they have to come down and fight for the right to have the freedoms that they were thought were theirs by birthright. And this country and its freedom and democracy could all be taken away very  fast. There will always be people who want to take it away, so you have to be willing to fight for it. How much would Sisko's sons mean to him in order to reach back into his humanity?

Do you think that artists have a special obligation to tell the truth in times of crisis? What advice would you give about writing science fiction?

Certainly when it comes to "Star Trek," it is not about the future. "Star Trek" is about today. So that's what you're writing. What's a little scary now is that people seem to be writing other people's truths. They are trying to make the big sale by doing something like "Lord of the Rings" by way of "The Avengers," or "Game of Thrones" by way of "Breaking Bad," or whatever the hell they're coming up with. In chasing that big prize and trying to write something of value, you have to know your own truth. Today that seems to be disappearing fast.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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