Twenty-six years after it first debuted, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is now seen as one of the franchise’s finest entries.
The series was a dark examination of the moral push and pull on Starfleet’s finest ideals in a time of war, that examined the, at times, bitter cost of maintaining Star Trek’s grand utopia. But it wasn’t always seen that way.
The initial tumultuous fan reaction to Deep Space Nine—and the idea that it ‘wasn’t proper Star Trek’—has some fascinating parallels to critiques the latest iteration of the franchise, CBS All Access’ Star Trek: Discovery, has had leveraged at it over the last two years. Parallels that weren’t lost on former executive producer and showrunner Ira Steven Behr as he found himself revisiting his work on Deep Space Nine as part of the process of bringing the upcoming crowdfunded documentary What We Left Behind to life, when he stepped in to take the reigns from original director Adam Nimoy.
io9 recently got the chance to speak to Behr on the phone about his work on What We Left Behind—you can read more about that here—as well as how he feels looking back at one of the most subversive chapters of Star Trek’s long history through the lens of the documentary. Check out more of what he had to say below.
io9: There’s always been this sentiment shared when looking back at Deep Space Nine, that at the time, there was a bit of a frosty reception to some of the stuff that it was doing with Star Trek and the tone it was taking, whereas these days, genre TV is doing a lot of similar things. With the anniversary having come and gone, and people looking back at the series again, do you almost feel vindicated now that the show has found an acceptance to its approach to the Trek franchise?
Ira Steven Behr: I don’t know if “vindicated” is the way I’d put it. Back in the day, I knew—we knew—that this was going to tell this dark story. It got to the point where I literally, around season five, season six, it was nowhere certainly, near the end…I literally told the staff we’re just writing this now for ourselves, you know? This is for us. We have to like it. I don’t care whose watching anymore. Clearly, I’d been told—[co-creator, executive producer] Michael Piller came and told me, he said, “Voyager’s the flagship show. You guys are doing great work, but, you know, you’re in the shadows and you’re going to remain in the shadows.” And it was like, “OK guys. We’re in the shadows. Let’s do what we want.”
So, even though that was a battle every day, I always felt that was the right way. I never second guessed it. And so, the fact that people watch it now…the only thing that kind of shook my tree a little bit was when I’ve met a lot of people in the last few years, you know, who go: “I loved it from the beginning and I was there all the way.” And I’m like, really? When people tell me they didn’t like it, I totally believe them! “I tried to get into it when it was on, but I just didn’t like it, now, I’m a fan, but back then I didn’t like it…” That, I totally get. The people who said they got it from the beginning, I’m like, “Where the hell were you!?”
We started out as kind of an ok slate in season one, after season one, the mood was “this was an experiment that did not work.” I’m not talking about that’s my point of view, but the people, that’s the vibe I was getting. To the point where it was like, send in the cavalry of TNG to save the day. So, that’s what I remember.
io9: I would like to think I’d have been there from the start but I was like, four years old when it first aired, so, I came to it much later! But it’s probably my favourite Trek show.
Behr: Well, thank you. I’m glad to hear that, you know? I mean, I’m a human being. I like praise as much as the next guy! So, it’s always good to hear. And also, it’s like you said— I’m putting words in your mouth—but what you kind of said is, “It’s a lot easier now to enjoy the show because it’s ok to enjoy the show, because now there are so many televisions shows that tell stories in this way.” So, it’s much easier. Back then, people just could not get into [the serialized aspect]. “I missed one episode! Blah, blah, blah…” It was tough. I get it.
But Michael [Piller] created the show. I didn’t create the show, but Mike gave it to me. I felt I had a duty to take it and run with it, and do the best show I could do based on the parameters that they gave us. And I thought they came up with fantastic, well thought out series, or at least concepts and threads that could be woven into some really cool tapestries. And that was my job. And I don’t care whether they came to the point where they said, “well maybe, you know, we need to go simpler.” No. No. No. We were going to stay the fucking course, and we’re going to do the show the way it’s meant to be done. And that was my only goal.
io9: I wanted to ask if you’ve seen anything of what Star Trek: Discovery has been doing with Section 31—one of your own DS9 creations—this season, and what you thought of their take on it. If you’ve had time to see it that is!
Behr: I have not. But one of the things I’m not in approval of—I do hear a lot of negative comments about Discovery. And I don’t really get it because I don’t know the show, but I can tell it sounds like the same harping about not being in the right pocket of what [Star Trek] can be, and it’s like, “Jesus Christmas, let it be.” Change is ok. Different is not necessarily bad. Now, execution is everything, that’s a whole different thing.
I can’t speak to execution, because I haven’t watched the show. But the desire to not repeat and try to do something different should be embraced as important. But every time I hear something is not Star Trek, I start thinking, “Well…maybe that’s a good thing.”
I was very, very, very disappointed at the time of the bad responses to Deep Space Nine. I really was shocked, it took me by surprise. I thought science fiction fandom was much more brave and bold, and willing to accept the challenge. And then I realised they just want to do the same old thing. And then with season three of The Next Generation, it was the same thing. The year I was there, you know, they were still bitching that Picard wasn’t Kirk and, you know—“where’s Spock? Where’s McCoy?” It was only after that they became the crown jewel of the franchise, So, I don’t pay that any mind. But Section 31 is very near and dear to my heart, let’s just put it that way.
io9: It’s clear What We Left Behind has been such a labour of love for you. You said you haven’t really revisited the show in terms of re-watching it, but has doing this documentary changed your perception on your time on DS9? Do you find yourself looking more fondly at it, or realising the impact it’s had now?
Behr: No, I don’t feel my feelings about the show have changed at all—but it certainly has made me think of the show a lot more than I’ve thought about it for a number of years. But no. What does fascinate me, what does make the process worthwhile for me is, during the interviews [for What We Left Behind], seeing how people who, like myself, maybe have not really looked back that closely at that time, and what it meant to them, as they started to open up.
And remember, I interviewed some of these people numerous times over the years. Because we did an interview for the hour version [of the documentary], and when we realised it had to be a feature, we had better cameras and better lighting, so, we interviewed people again, even though we would use both sets of interviews. Some of these interviews would go for three hours. And it was always the same. “Well, look, I don’t remember anything—don’t ask me anything specific, it was a long time ago, don’t put me on the spot.” Everyone grumbled and everyone was reluctant. And then they would sit and start talking, and watching them start to look back, and start to emotionally get involved with the show again, was an amazing high for me.
I mean, I really got to dig it once I realised it was happening over and over again. Whether it came through in front of the camera, or in back of the camera, it was the same journey, right there, in front of my eyes. I was watching people let the show back into their lives again, you know? And that was pretty cool, because we’re all fucking neurotic people, and most of us are much more comfortable thinking about, you know, the one’s that weren’t, or obsessive about the things that got away. The failures. And not embracing the success. And [Deep Space Nine] was not necessarily a success in terms of the acclaim and money, or whatever—that’s not mass culture success. But it was the success that offers you, and I’ve quoted this many times, the chance to enter our house justified. That’s all you want. To be able to enter your house, justified.
Deep Space Nine was one of those experiences. At the end of seven seasons, I knew, without a doubt, I could enter my house justified. And going through this documentary and living with it all these many — too many! — years…it’s just reminded me once again that when it comes to this particular piece of work, I can enter my house justified. And so can everyone involved.