When Star Trek fans fight about the best Trek show, nine times out of 10 they're arguing about the original series versus The Next Generation. Obviously, both shows are excellent and fundamental to the franchise, but they aren't the best Trek ever put on television. I believe that honour belongs to Deep Space Nine and praise the prophets, do I love it.
We've previously talked about Star Trek's inherent optimism and hope. But in those previous series, that often meant characters would land on a planet, deal with a problem and move on to the next location. But even in a future as bright as the one promised by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine knew that not everything would be — or even could be — perfect.
Deep Space Nine took the world — er, universe — established in the previous shows and opened it up to all the longstanding complexities that would come with it. We got to see how these different species groups lived and worked together over a long period of time. We saw amazing friendships and bitter rivalries developing side-by-side. (It's why having the show take place on a space station made so much sense.)
And while the Federation was still as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as ever, dedicated to making the universe a more peaceful, prosperous place, we also got to see that not everyone has the same idea of what's best, especially when it came down to different species. Sometimes it went hand-in-hand with humanity's mission, other times it was completely the opposite. But we had a great crew that knew the value of compromise.
"Do you like my head stick?"
For example, in Star Trek: First Contact, Picard tells Lily that there's no money in the future because people work to better themselves. However, that's only true for humanity. For many aliens, there's gold-pressed latinum. It may not be used by humans, but it's almost sacred to other species. For the Ferengi, money is how they better themselves.
In the first episode, we see Commander Sisko utilise Quark's Ferengian principles in order to keep him working on the space station. He even got the blessing of the Grand Nagus when he needed Quark's help to find the Founders. And he did that through respect for the customs that his own society didn't uphold. Sisko's strength was in his ability to juggle the needs of all those on his station, of finding the best solution for the greatest amount of people, while knowing that not everyone would be or could be satisfied.
Star Trek's utopia may be great for humans, but it's not always great for everyone else. Deep Space Nine recognised that. Differences in ideology lead to problems. In the case of the Dominion, it led to war. That's because perfection is impossible. Deep Space Nine was strong because it shows the cracks in a utopian dream — idealism only goes so far, and everybody's version of a perfect world will inevitably conflict.
But this doesn't mean Deep Space Nine is the "darker Star Trek" (I really hate when people call it that). The show has a lot of heart and a great deal of humour. We saw an entire episode where our heroes got stuck in the most stupid game in the universe. They put a bomb in a Tribble. A bomb in a Tribble.
And let's not forget that Commander Sisko used the power of his words, not his weapons, to convey humanity, love, even the concept of linear time to a group of aliens called the Prophets. Deep Space Nine was, in its way, just as hopeful as the original series or The Next Generation — it just didn't hide how much work it would be to achieve that future, and how difficult it would be.
Likewise, Sisko was the first Star Trek captain who wasn't afraid to show his flaws, often to his own detriment. He was a man who was kind and clever, but made irrational decisions when he was angry or scared. He was even complicit in the murder of a senator to convince the Romulans to fight against the Dominion. Like many captains, he was forced to make questionable decisions that blurred the lines between right and wrong; Sisko simply had to make them a lot more often.
Cheers to being an accessory!
We also got our first (and I'd argue only good) portrayal of religion in the franchise. The Cardassian/Bajoran conflict was something that was first introduced in The Next Generation, but Deep Space Nine was what gave it flight. Religion was never much of topic on Star Trek before Deep Space Nine, largely because Roddenberry was an atheist, but I think the Bajorans were an excellent introduction.
The storyline taught religious tolerance and understanding. Sisko was a holy figure to these people, and even though he didn't agree with their beliefs (at least at first), he still honoured them to the best of his ability. At the end of Season 1, when Sisko's son Jake asks him why Bajorans believe that the wormhole is something sacred when it's clearly not, Sisko teaches him about the value of compassion and respect to differing faiths. It's a powerful lesson that still echoes today.
It also showed what happens when religion and politics collide. Throughout their decades of slavery, the only thing that kept the Bajorans going was their faith. Once they were free, their faith fell to infighting, because they were no longer unified against a common enemy.
Sects succumbed to religious extremism to the point where members were committing acts of terrorism, like when Neela blew up the station school in "In the Hands of the Prophets" because it wasn't teaching what amounted to Bajoran Creationism. But Sisko didn't let fear and intimidation take over, he continued to embrace his Bajoran allies. Utopia doesn't always work, but love does.
The biggest message at the end of the day for Deep Space Nine is there are no easy endings. Our heroes don't conclude their journey playing a friendly game of poker, they're forced to sacrifice almost everything they have in order to try and make the universe a better place. Because that's what you have to do in the real world.
But if that doesn't convince you, all I can say is: Morn. Case closed.