Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
“Star Trek’s first black Captain, Benjamin Sisko, is an amazing character whose blackness never feels dialed down.”
Title: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Episodes Reviewed: All (Seasons 1-7)
Creators: Rick Berman 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Michael Piller 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Rick Berman 👨🏼🇺🇸 (173 eps), Michael Piller 👨🏼🇺🇸 (173 eps), Gene Roddenberry 👨🏼🇺🇸 (173 eps), Ira Steven Behr 👨🏼🇺🇸 (53 eps), Robert Hewitt Wolfe 👨🏼🇺🇸 (37 eps), Ronald D. Moore 👨🏼🇺🇸 (30 eps), Hans Beimler 👨🏼🇺🇸 (26 eps), René Echevarria 👨🏼🇺🇸 (24 eps), and various
Reviewed by Ruksana 👩🏽🇺🇸🌈
I love Deep Space Nine. A former partner introduced me to it in college, and I’ve had a tender spot for it in my heart ever since. I just completed my second full run-through and I think I liked it even more a second time. It is hands-down my favorite Star Trek show.
Some folks aren’t into DS9’s slow-burn storytelling and serialized plot structure, preferring the zippier tone and episodic stories of the other shows, and I respect that. But I swoon for DS9’s grand tapestry, a massive space opera that invokes big questions about colonialism, from the rapacious kind seen in the Cardassian occupation of Bajor (a thinly-coded version of Nazi-occupied Europe) to the supposedly benign colonialism of Starfleet (akin to the modern neoliberalism of the United States). DS9 ceaselessly interrogates its heroes, asking whether they are really the moral exemplars that the utopian society of the Federations claims them to be.
In The Original Series, The Next Generation and Enterprise, the Enterprise is Star Trek’s flagship, representing a spirit of spacefaring adventure and diplomacy. Deep Space Nine is the first Star Trek show not to take place onboard some version of the Enterprise; its eponymous starbase is a recaptured Cardassian space station and the site of a former labor camp. The tone of the show is significantly darker. It’s the closest a Star Trek show gets to speaking truth to power.
At the same time, it doesn’t forgo having wonderful, memorable characters who I root for episode in and episode out. Sometimes they get themselves into pretty grim situations, but just as often they’re shown commiserating, sharing meals, enjoying life on this space station on the edge of the galaxy, where a dazzling diaspora of people gather every day.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Deep Space Nine gives a lot of focus and screentime to Jadzia Dax (Terry Ferrell) and Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor), two of its main characters. Both Jadzia and Kira are fascinating characters in their own right, and their enduring friendship is one of my favorite relationships in the show. I just wish the showrunners had mined it for storylines the way they do with male characters Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig) and Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney). Even so, both of these characters are given very fleshed-out, full lives. That includes, to my great relief, their sex lives, which are usually portrayed in a positive and shame-free light. This is true of Kira but especially of Jadzia, who is bold and adventurous and seems to really enjoy sex. The show rarely takes her to task for it, and that feels pretty big for a sci-fi show from the 1990s. Especially when you consider that women enjoying sex is something that mainstream sci-fi in general can’t really seem to wrap its head around a lot of the time.
At the same time, the characterizations of Jadzia and Kira can tiptoe into misogyny, when they are sometimes mistranslated from sexually active and confident women to sex objects. It happens in different ways with each character, and it ranges from mildly annoying to outright pandering.
Still, the show seems to do a lot of critiquing of misogyny via the Ferengi race, whose representatives on the station include bar owner Quark (Armin Shimerman), his brother Rom (Max Grodénchik) and his nephew Nog (Aron Eisenberg). The Ferengi live in a money-worshipping, hyper-capitalist society in which women are completely disenfranchised and essentially sold as chattel. The show relishes the opportunity to skewer their misogynist views, though it often leans too sympathetically towards Quark when he’s complaining about gender equality or sexually harassing his female employees. Still, by the close of the series Quark’s mother Ishka (Andrea Martin; later Cecily Adams) manages to subvert the oppressive Ferengi patriarchy by successfully arguing that women are an underutilized market—essentially creating a kind of capitalist consumer feminism, which is like, I’m absolutely overjoyed for the women of Ferenginar and their newfound freedom, but it’s also deeply weird and hilarious that the Ferengi feel in some ways like the most American of all the races on DS9.
If there’s one place where DS9 knocks it completely out of the park, it’s on race. I think a lot of this has to do with the presence and contributions of Avery Brooks, who plays Star Trek’s first black Captain, Benjamin Sisko. Sisko is an amazing character—commanding but nurturing, tactical but not unspontaneous, given to bravura shows of force as much as sensitive displays of affection—and one of my favorite things about him is that his blackness never feels dialed down. He is a character who acts and speaks in a way that registers as unambiguously black, who embraces black history and hails from New Orleans, who is proud of who he is and where he comes from, even in the supposedly post-racial utopia of the 24th century.
Two of DS9’s most legendary episodes each deal with Sisko in a different light. In “The Visitor” (Season 4 Episode 3), he is shown as an affectionate father to his son Jake (Cirroc Lofton), essentially returning as a ghost to try to help an adult Jake move on from his grief after his own death. It occurred to me watching this episode how rare it is to see this affectionate and tender a relationship between a black father and son on mainstream TV, something Brooks insisted upon during production.
In “Far Beyond The Stars” (Season 6 Episode 13), he takes on the role of Benny Russell, a sci-fi writer in the 1950s who can’t get a story published due to his main character being the black Captain of a space station. “Far Beyond the Stars” is probably my favorite episode of the entire run, a genre-bending head trip that invokes and criticizes America’s brutal systemic racism while essentially reframing the entire series as the utopian dream of a man who was repressed by his society, but whose imagination could not be.
Beyond Sisko, DS9 also features Star Trek’s first major Middle Eastern character in Dr. Julian Bashir, played by Alexander Siddig, or Siddig El-Fadil as he was credited in earlier seasons. Julian’s storyline is somewhat fumbled in later seasons with the introduction of a problematic plot about genetic engineering, but on the whole he is one of Star Trek’s great doctors, and a worthy addition to the canon. The show also features the return of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Michael Dorn as Worf. It’s a pleasure to see this many men of color in the main cast of a major sci-fi franchise.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that although many of the “alien” characters are still played by white actors in prosthetics, the show’s depictions of those races as disparate entities with different values and ideologies is usually quite nuanced and interesting. DS9 shows us a warmer side to some of its major Klingon characters like Worf and Martok (J.G. Hertzler), in a fictional continuity that often codes the Klingons as warrior-savages. It also puts a great deal of worldbuilding muscle into showing how the Bajoran people survive oppression through organized resistance and a common spirituality. At the start of DS9, they have only recently thrown off the yoke of Cardassian occupation and begun their path to self-determination as a species.
The relationship between the Cardassians and Bajorans is meant to evoke many colonizer-colonized interactions, as writer Michael Piller describes when asked if the Bajorans were meant as stand-ins for the Palestinians: “The Bajorans are the PLO but they're also the Kurds, the Jews, and the American Indians, They are any racially bound group of people who have been deprived of their home by a powerful force.”
This definitely doesn’t matter as much as diverse real-world casting—despite some token people of color, the Bajorans are largely played by white Americans—but it feels significant to me that the “alien” races of this fictional world aren’t just window dressing or exotic “others”. They feel like living, breathing cultures that you can imagine being a part of, and that’s a good high water mark for any depiction of peoples outside the dominant group.
It’s tempting to cut DS9 some slack on queer representation for being a mainstream show in the 1990s. But despite a few bright spots, its missteps feel pretty grave.
I’ll start with the good stuff: Jadzia Dax as a character is an easy stand-in for an alien with a life cycle that isn’t transgender in the sense that we think of it, but is about a genderless symbiotic organism that transfers from host to host, and accrues experiences from a whole spate of different lives (Dax is the organism, Jadzia is the host). Jadzia remarks often upon how she acts and is treated differently depending on the gender of her host, and also frequently calls upon her symbiotic memories of former host Kurzon Dax, who was Sisko’s cis male mentor. Characters around Jadzia have no trouble adjusting to this multifaceted experience of gender, experience and self. The show frequently uses the Dax character to skirt or tease at boundaries of gender, especially as both Kurzon and Jadzia are romantically and sexually active individuals.
The episode “Rejoined” (Season 4 Episode 6) takes Dax on her biggest leap into unambiguously queer territory. Reunited with Lenara, the widow of her now-deceased former male host Torias, Jadzia must decide whether or not she will risk her people’s greatest taboo, becoming romantically involved with the partner of a former host, in order to be with Lenara, whom she she still loves deeply. The episode depicts the nominally progressive future of Star Trek by showing that no one on board the station bats an eye at two women being romantically involved, but at the same time it replicates the taboo of queerness through this invented Trill taboo. The eventual kiss between Jadzia and Lenara is Star Trek’s first queer kiss, which outraged some fans. It’s disappointing to think that over 20 years later, some fans are still opposed to queer love, as demonstrated by a vocal minority expressing outrage over a same-sex kiss in 2017’s Star Trek: Discovery.
Sadly, Deep Space Nine takes a bit of a dive from here. The Dax character remains interesting throughout, including in the final season, when Jadzia Dax is replaced by a new host, Ezri Dax. In one of the infamous Mirror Universe episodes, we see a badass, leather-clad version of Ezri who is an unapologetic lesbian. But the Mirror Universe episodes also overindulge in the depraved bisexual trope through the character of Mirror Kira, their continuing antagonist. She’s an awesome character who I really enjoy watching, a sort of hyperaggressive BDSM version of Kira, but it’s disappointing whenever you see an easy and stereotypical association made between bisexuality and emotional instability and sexual aggression.
DS9 reserves some of its most concerning queer rep for the Ferengi. In the episode “Rules of Acquisition” (Season 2 Episode 7), Quark falls in love with Pel, a woman who has dressed as a man to conduct business in Ferengi society, where women are not allowed to participate in the economy. Quark begins to fall for Pel, and no issue is made of the two characters both being ostensibly male, but of course there’s the ‘safety catch’ of Pel actually being a woman. Much later in the series, the notoriously bad episode “Profit & Lace” (Season 6 Episode 23) trades in every ugly stereotype imaginable, as the writers attempt to pull off Some Like It Hot and instead concoct an utterly ghoulish hour of outright transphobia and homophobia. The less said about it, the better. It’s the only episode of DS9 I would recommend skipping entirely.
But maybe there’s hope for transgender representation in future Star Trek series. After all, even “Profit & Lace” imagines a future where gender-affirming hormonal and surgical treatments appear to be painless, instantaneous, and free of any gatekeeping. I’m choosing to hold onto that minuscule silver lining in what was otherwise a completely terrible episode that almost soured me on the entire show.
Mediaversity Grade: B 4.00/5
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was never afraid to be about something, which seems like an increasingly gutsy proposal on network television these days. It succeeded far more in some ways than others, and I think it has a lot to do with its contributors: with a strong hand like Avery Brooks at the helm—Brooks was heavily involved in the building of Sisko’s character and directed nine episodes—the show’s depiction of race became far more nuanced and sensitive than I’d expect from any major American sci-fi show. On the other hand, it’s pretty clear that there was very little positive queer influence on the story, despite DS9’s occasional victories in representing homosexuality and imaginative forms of non-cis gender expression.
It certainly feels light years ahead of The Original Series, and in some respects even The Next Generation. If you were looking for something to dive into after whetting your palate on Star Trek: Discovery, this is absolutely my recommendation.