When Star Trek: Deep Space Nine premiered 25 years ago, it was widely considered the black sheep of the franchise. The setting was a run-down space station, unable to seek out any new life or new civilizations, and the characters were a far cry from the clean-cut crew of the Enterprise. But over the time, these misfits and outsiders picked up the pieces and made a home of the station, and the show went on to feature some of the boldest storytelling in the franchise, diving head first into issues of racism, genocide, and fear-mongering in wartime. And a whole lot of goofy Ferengi episodes.
While tacking heavy issues through the lens of science fiction has been at the core of Star Trek from the very beginning, it was never more direct, more pointed than it was on Deep Space Nine. And to accomplish this, the show needed characters through which to explore these topics and a greater urgency to drive the point home.
In other Trek entries, these ideas were often presented from an outside perspective—with the main characters of the respective series arriving at a planet to find a people at war, or a society with a dubious moral standing, with the solution to the problem coming from our leads. Which, to be clear is no bad thing—there’s a reason this type of storytelling has been a staple of the franchise since 1966, and DS9 itself featured numerous episodes of this kind. It’s a sturdy format that allows the writers to explore complex themes and ideas while ensuring that the main characters remained the moral center of the show.
That’s not to say Kirk or Picard never had to make any tough decisions in their time either, but rarely did a Trek show force a moral conundrum upon a main character that truly challenged who they were like DS9 did.
The Benjamin Sisko we meet in “Emissary,” the pilot episode, is a broken man. After the death of his wife in the episode’s prologue, he has doubts about his future in Starfleet. And his assignment to a station in the middle of nowhere is hardly a dream job either, while his son Jake isn’t best pleased about their dilapidated new home.
This was fertile ground for exploring a new kind of captain, one who hadn’t even earned that rank yet when he first stepped onto the station. For an example of what the character of Sisko brought to the table, look no further than the excellent “The Visitor,” a truly touching portrait of fatherhood and grief.
In the episode, we see an alternate future, one where Sisko’s apparent death sent Jake down a lifelong path of obsession—casting aside his ambitions as a writer and driving his wife away in the pursuit of bringing his father back. As we learn over the course of the episode, Sisko is, in fact, alive, but only capable of materializing for a short time and very infrequently.
And Jake’s obsession with bringing him back leads to a tragic revelation—that he himself is the tether that keeps his father stuck in time, and the only way to break the cycle is to die. Sisko appears before his now elderly son one last time, realizing that he’s poisoned himself and breaking down into tears. “He needs you more than you know,” Jake says of his younger self, a line that lands with maximum impact thanks to three seasons worth of development for these characters and their relationship.
As Jake passes away in front of his father, we return to the accident that caused all of this, only this time nobody gets hurt. Despite the timeline being reset, Sisko keeps all memories of what happened, remembering his son’s sacrifice for the rest of his days. While other Trek shows have done episodes about family and loss, none could ever really come close to this wonderful, heartfelt episode that truly gets to the heart of the father-son relationship at the center of DS9.
And then you have Odo, the hard-line security chief. He’s a Changeling with no idea where he came from, who struggles with what his place in the world is. Having worked on the station during the Cardassian occupation, a part of Odo still feels uncomfortable about his position in the Bajoran Militia, despite them recognizing his fairness and sense of justice. He will never truly belong to either the Bajorans, the Cardassians or the Federation. And when he later learns the truth of his people and their position at the top of the Dominion, things only get more complicated for the Changeling.
Despite his perceived fairness, Odo’s guilt over the occupation never left him. In the episode “Things Past,” an anomaly sends Odo and Sisko, along with Jadzia Dax and everyone’s favorite Cardassian spy/tailor/gardener Garak, seven years into the past. Here they find themselves on DS9, or Terok Nor as it was then known, during a particularly troubling time in Odo’s past. After a failed assassination attempt on Gul Dukat, everyone’s second favorite Cardassian, Odo is put in charge of the investigation.
However, as the episode later reveals, Odo made a terrible mistake, allowing three innocent Bajorans to be executed. While he may have believed he had the right people at the time, Odo later learned that this was not the case and that his desire to preserve order led him to forgo a more thorough investigation and condemn these innocent people to death.
The episode is a haunting portrayal of how even the most honorable people are capable of losing sight of what’s important and having their carelessness lead to drastic consequences. It’s the type of idea that on another Trek show would likely have been told via a one-and-done character, one that wouldn’t leave a lasting impact on the show. But here, the character in question is Odo, one of the main cast. We have to spend the remainder of the show with him, knowing what he did and understanding the guilt he lives with every day.
Longtime Trek producer and writer Ronald D. Moore said the following of “Things Past:”
“one of the things that always drove the writing staff nuts was the idea that Odo had been a policeman during the Cardassian Occupation, but had never gotten his hands dirty, that he had been above it all, and that everybody had trusted him. We never bought that. it seemed to me that if I were a Bajoran, I wouldn’t trust the cop who’s still on duty from the Occupation. Somewhere along the line something bad went down on Odo’s watch. And “Things Past” was the show to say it.”
Upholding the law and maintaining justice was a key component of Odo’s characterization and having that be challenged in this way proved that no one on this show was infallible.
We also have Major Kira, the fiery Bajoran revolutionary, whose initial reaction to the Federation’s presence is not what you’d call welcoming. And you can hardly blame her, considering the Bajorans have only recently made it through one occupation. One that she fought hard, and made questionable choices, to put an end to. And the last thing she wants for her people is more invaders.
The writers were never afraid to explore the cost of her revolutionary past and the morally questionable actions she had to take. The episode “Necessary Evil” is a prime example of this, acting as a companion piece to the aforementioned “Things Past” and providing an honest portrayal of the cost of fighting oppressors.
This season two episode, much like its later counterpart, takes us back to the nightmarish Terok Nor. After an attempt on Quark’s life in the present day, Odo is forced to unearth the memory of a similar case from the days of the occupation, where a Bajoran collaborator is killed and Odo is forced to work the case by Dukat.
A twisty narrative ensues, combining past and present while exploring the horrific effect the occupation had on the Bajorans. And in particular, Kira, who as the episode slowly reveals, was responsible for the murder on Terok Nor. While she didn’t intend to kill the collaborator, her orders from the Bajoran Underground were merely to retrieve information on known collaborators, he got in the way of her mission and she had to act quickly.
For Kira killing another Bajoran was unforgivable, but the dire circumstances left her with no other choice. And the cause she fought for was worth making sacrifices for. The episode ends with Odo unsure if he can trust her in the same way again, as both the characters and the viewers are forced to confront the terrible things we do to get through hard times.
And this idea of good people being forced into dark places doesn’t stop with Kira. Between Sisko’s scheming to involve the Romulans in the Dominion War in the outstanding “In the Pale Moonlight,” Chief O’Brien’s duplicitous infiltration of the Orion Syndicate in “Honor Among Thieves,” and Worf killing Chancellor Gowron to put a stop to his reckless battle strategies in “Tacking Into the Wind”, the show was never afraid to let the main characters get their hands dirty.
And by keeping the focus on the main cast for these heavy stories, DS9 was able to craft an ensemble full of complicated, nuanced characters that were allowed to have moral failings that stayed with them for the rest of their lives. That reflected who they were, where they came from and what they were willing to do for what they believed in.