Interviews · Movies

Ira Steven Behr Confronts His Legacy and Fandom in ‘What We Left Behind’

We chat with the showrunner about his experience with the ‘Star Trek’ fan community and how that relationship has evolved throughout filming his celebratory documentary.
What We Leave Behind
Shout! Studios
By  · Published on July 13th, 2019

The Shallow Pocket Project is a series of conversations with the brilliant filmmakers behind the independent films that we love. Check our last chat with Adam Egypt Mortimer (Daniel Isn’t Real). Special thanks to Lisa Gullickson and the other Dorks at In The Mouth of Dorkness.

Some art won’t let you leave. Years after the full stop is placed, the work rattles in the brain. The artist must make their peace with the final product as rarely anything is perfectly translated from the imagination to the page to the screen. Tinkering beyond the sell-by date leads to heartache for all parties involved. You deal with what you’ve got, and you move on to the next creative attempt. Nirvana always rests around the corner.

For those lucky enough to carve a point of view into a landscape beloved by generations, there is the threat that their obsessive love will draw you back into the muck. Star Trek does not last for 50-plus years because its consumers are fair-weather friends. Star Trek remains due to the voracious appetite of its enthusiastic fanbase and the franchise’s ability to morph its core concept without betraying its original ideology.

Ira Steven Behr, the showrunner and executive producer on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, was utterly done with toiling around the final frontier. The series finished 20 years ago, and the experience consumed every ounce of his energy. Since then he moved on to produce a wide range of programs in a variety of genres, including Bob Patterson, Dark Angel, Alphas, and Outlander. He was not aching to direct a documentary looking back at his time with the wormhole. Then director David Zappone rang his phone, and the unimaginable became considerable, possibly even desirable.

In the years since the show went off the air, nostalgia for Deep Space Nine has grown. Finally, the series is seen as more than the dismissable stepchild of Star Trek: The Next Generation and can support its own celebratory documentary. What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine began life as a “Thank You” to the cast and crew that fought in the trenches of fandom alongside Behr. “As I say in the doc, I thought this would be an interesting gesture to the actors,” he explains to me by phone. “That was my first thought. I would interview the actors. It was an hour doc at the time, and it was not going to be a big deal.”

Despite himself, however, Behr does not half-ass anything. “Look, everyone told me that we would find what the doc is about and I would be the guy to find it,” says Behr. “Meanwhile, I was working on Outlander and going to Scotland, and this is not in the front part of my brain for a number of years.” Zappone approached him to co-direct in 2012 and Behr was simply happy to run interviews until 2017. “That’s when I started to realize, ‘Gee, you got to get serious about this thing.'” Behr was rejuvenated after producing Harry Dean Stanton’s final film, and he was eager to redirect that artistic zeal into What We Left Behind. “Lucky gave a boost to my attention span; let’s put it that way.” The hour-long transformed into a proper feature.

Adding to that reinvigoration was Commander Benjamin Sisko himself. “I got a call from Avery Brooks, who was very excited about what he was witnessing,” says Behr. “I guess he was still going to conventions, and he was just really excited — especially for Avery, who doesn’t get excited in this way a lot — about the young fans who were not alive when the show was on the air.” When Behr was running things on Deep Space Nine, many of his interactions with the fan community were negative. He fielded complaints regarding the show’s supposedly darker tone, it’s handling of religion through the Bajoran faith, and narrative arcs that extend throughout multiple seasons rather than the typical one-and-done plots. Time heals all wounds, and to discover a retroactive appreciation sent a shock of verve into the showrunner.

“Part of the subtext of why I did this doc, and why the film is as long as it is, is that it was repairing my relationship and feelings towards the fans,” he says. Behr did his tour in the convention circuit when the show was on the air, but he avoided the arena from 1999 to 2012. He felt burned. “I was disappointed in the fan response to Deep Space Nine at the time,” he continues. “I just thought they were very conservative; they want the same thing. You think sci-fi fans are going to have this openness, but the shock of the new, man, they’re just like everyone else. They don’t want new; they want the same old shit that makes them feel good.”

On the other hand, Behr cannot help but be impressed by such a devoted and intense passion. “I still dig the fact that the fans get all bent out of shape at a moment’s notice,” he says. He’s worked on many projects and in a variety of environments, but nothing compares to the fire that burns within the Star Trek audience. “I used to say the difference between Outlander fans and Deep Space Nine fans is that Outlander fans want to bake you cookies and Deep Space Nine fans want to tell you how much they liked the show but what you did wrong and what you should have done.”

Such a reengagement with his art and those fans/nonfans of the work must have driven Behr to some level of catharsis, but the director is still too far into the weeds of selling What We Left Behind to commit to any kind of greater understanding. “The smoke has not totally cleared yet,” he says. “We still have a month before the Blu-ray comes out and then there’ll be this, that, and the other thing, that I’ll still have in the front of my brain…or at least, in my brain.” Behr is not out of the past; he’s still actively treading upon it. “I’m not sure you can take any of these as definitive answers.” We’ll need a sequel in another 20 years. Being Star Trek, we don’t doubt the possibility.

What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine arrives on DVD and Blu-ray from Shout Factory on August 6th.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)