The current success being enjoyed by Star Trek: Discovery has its roots in another polarizing spinoff of Gene Roddenberry's science fiction institution: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. After an uneven first season, Discovery's recently-concluded second year was warmly received by both fans and critics. Discovery's success has led to a bevy of other Star Trek shows in development, including the much-anticipated return of Patrick Stewart to the franchise in a still-untitled Jean-Luc Picard series.
Star Trek: Discovery season 2 managed to balance the darker corners of humanity that proved so polarizing its first season with the more traditionally hopeful, character-driven storytelling that Star Trek is famous for. But, to quote another sci-fi franchise, all of this has happened before, and it will happen again.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine blazed a path that set the stage for much of what has come after not only in Discovery, but scripted television as a whole, and managed to do it with a deeply divided, sometimes even apathetic fanbase. The similarities are striking enough to make one wonder if this is some sort of natural cycle when Star Trek tries to reinvent itself for a new era. That transition is rarely easy, but for Star Trek, the results have been worth the growing pains.
As the long-awaited Deep Space Nine documentary What We Left Behind hits theaters, we take a look at how the black sheep of Star Trek ended up paving the way for the franchise's small screen rebirth.
Deep Space Nine Was The First Polarizing Star Trek Series
When it debuted in 1993, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was immediately at a disadvantage. It premiered during the height of Star Trek: The Next Generation's popularity, and was quickly treated like the little brother of the franchise. It took place on a space station rather than a starship, meaning there would be no boldly going, well, anywhere. It was also the first Star Trek show developed without any real input from franchise creator Gene Roddenberry, and many fans still believe Roddenberry would have nixed the show had he lived longer.
The show starred Avery Brooks as Commander Benjamin Sisko, who at the beginning of the series is a bitter and angry single father who is contemplating leaving Starfleet after the death of his wife in a battle against the Borg. Sisko wasn't the swashbuckling rogue like Kirk or the silver tongued intellectual like Picard - he was a good, flawed man trying to do the best he could for his son. Sisko was also the first non-white lead in Star Trek's history, a huge step in the franchise's ongoing effort to better reflect the utopian future its claims to represent. Bafflingly, Brooks was the last person of color to headline a Star Trek series or film until Discovery.
Deep Space Nine was conceived of by TNG head writer Michael Piller and franchise executive producer Rick Berman. Piller and Berman would oversee the early days of the show, which were met with a decidedly lukewarm reaction. The first season of the show stumbled badly; the cast was clearly talented, but the story lacked urgency, and plenty of episodes felt like secondhand TNG plots; they even brought in Q for an episode. Writer/producer Ira Steven Behr took over DS9 at the start of its third season when Piller and Berman departed to develop Star Trek: Voyager, which was thought of as the new flagship show in the franchise.
Behr wasted no time taking Deep Space Nine to places no Star Trek show had ever gone before. The back half of the show takes place during the Dominion War, which at that time made it the only Star Trek series to take place during wartime. The bloody history between the Bajorans and Cardassians was something darker and more nuanced than what was often portrayed in Roddenberry's universe. Behr also broke Roddenberry's golden rule, introducing the element of blatant amorality to Starfleet, with scores of scheming admirals, terrorist Maquis turncoats, and even a lead in Sisko who was a self-professed accomplice to murder.
Perhaps most crucially to its legacy, Deep Space Nine became highly serialized in its later seasons, one of the first scripted genre shows to lean into a tight, overarching continuity; if you missed an episode of DS9, there was a good chance you'd be lost. That might not seem like a big deal in the internet age of streaming and DVRs, but Deep Space Nine was a spottily scheduled syndicated show, so even taping episodes with a VCR was a dicey prospect.
Even with all those obstacles, DS9 had a small but devoted contemporary fanbase who loved the show's epic scale, memorable characters, and darker edge. The show ended on its own terms after seven seasons, at the time deemed a modest success in the shadow of TNG's dominance and the fortunes everyone assumed awaited Voyager.
What Discovery Can Learn From Deep Space Nine
Modest though it may be, Deep Space Nine was the last Star Trek series of the Berman regime that could be considered a success. Voyager struggled to maintain an audience, and while it did last for its planned seven-year run, there were serious quality slumps along the way, and the first real cracks in the franchise's foundation began to form. The Next Generation cast films would flame out after 2002's Star Trek: Nemesis, and Star Trek: Enterprise would be canceled after four seasons, the final television series in the franchise until Discovery over a decade later.
As the Star Trek franchise collapsed and eventually found its way into hibernation, fans and critics began to revisit Deep Space Nine. In actuality, many fans were coming to it in earnest for the first time as it began airing regularly on cable television and became a staple of streaming services. The darkness and heavy serialization turned out to presage where virtually all genre TV was heading, and DS9 suddenly felt like a game changer everybody forgot to notice.
It may be set just before the era of Star Trek: The Original Series, but Discovery owes more thematically to Deep Space Nine than any other Star Trek series. It stars a woman of color who's not a captain, and who seems to have a higher purpose than the standard Starfleet officer, just like Benjamin Sisko, who proved to be the mythical Emissary of the Bajoran people. Discovery is even more heavily serialized than Deep Space Nine, both dealt with Starfleet during wartime, and both had rocky first seasons.
Perhaps the biggest shared trait between Star Trek: Discovery and Deep Space Nine is the idea that not everyone in Starfleet has pure intentions. Discovery's second season hinged largely on the machinations of the top-secret Starfleet black ops division, Section 31. Section 31's very existence seems to fly in the face of what the Federation stands for, and Discovery fans were loudly divided on the organization's role in the series... just like they were 21 years ago, when Section 31 was originally introduced on Deep Space Nine.
There are still more lessons Discovery would be wise to take from Deep Space Nine. DS9 continued to evolve as it went, eventually introducing a starship, the USS Defiant, promoting Sisko to captain, and adding the TNG fan-favorite Klingon Worf to the show's cast in season 4. Discovery seems poised to take its own giant leap forward in season 3, as the ship time traveled to the 32nd century, far beyond any future we've ever seen in Star Trek.
Perhaps the most crucial lesson Discovery can take from its predecessor is one that it actually took a few years for DS9 to hit top speed - make a deep, fully formed ensemble cast the heart of your show. Discovery has done a strong job with major players like Stamets and Tilly, but there's no analogous character to the duplicitous Cardassian tailor Elim Garak or the hypnotically peculiar Vorta diplomat Weyoun. There is a richness to the world of Deep Space Nine that Discovery is yet to achieve. But if Discovery can keep learning the right lessons from the most underrated Star Trek series of all time, the far future may be bright for Burnham and friends.