Finding Validation in ‘What We Leave Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’

As the first series to spin off from the popularity of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was doomed to a life as the second child. There is a natural resentment towards the elder sibling seemingly succeeding in every avenue, graduating to their own big-screen adventures, and receiving uproarious adulation from one convention to the next. Retroactively, DS9 was clearly on the cusp of arc-based storytelling pushing Klingon skirmishes and The Dominion War well beyond the usual one-and-done narrative mode, and they certainly had more on their minds than exchanges of phaser fire. Despite seven full seasons of television, in watching the new documentary What We Leave Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, we meet showrunner Ira Steven Behr still struggling with that first wave of reception he received.

Not my captain, not my Star Trek. When a television series survives its cancellation to find new life in cinemas, which in turn resurrects a small screen demand that maintains a fandom for f53 years, it’s inevitable that multiple divisions will fracture within. Kirk and Spock will personify Gene Roddenberry‘s vision for some, Picard is the answer for others. Love is generally a matter of whatever you first encountered. As a result, when a new crew braves to boldly go where no one has gone before, the reaction from the fanbase is one of trepidation or downright rejection.

Six years in the making, What We Leave Behind, directed by Behr and David Zappone, returns to the trenches of production and the battles waged to steer Star Trek towards new horizons. More significantly, the film offers a warm gathering place for champions of the series to celebrate the victories won and the pathways it carved for future television to follow. Whenever contributing to one of the largest and longest lasting pop culture factions in history, change is bound to spark critical ire. The creators’ response to that negative energy becomes key to the product’s long-term resonance.

It took a few seasons for Star Trek: The Next Generation to find its footing. Manufacturing the balance between utopian ideals and necessary drama requires finesse and lots and lots of bumpy foreheaded aliens to stand-in for contemporary societal issues. Once they worked out the kinks, however, the USS Enterprise-D secured an army of enthusiasts that would follow them into any unknown nebula or cliffhanger climax.

When DS9 premiered during the tail end of TNG‘s sixth season, several red alerts erupted inside the fan community. Wha? We’re stuck on a space station? What about the Final Frontier? There’s a Commander, but no Captain? Wormhole what now? Religious prophets and emissaries? There’s too much talk about occupations and terrorism. No, thank you.

For all the love and credit we give to the original series for its clever confrontation with the horror of the real world, TNG discovered its place in primarily pursuing character over social science fiction. DS9 came on hard tackling religion and racism in that first season and never let up. In addressing the very human concerns that plagued Roddenberry in the 1960s, which was still rampant in the 1990s (as well as today), the producers and cast were dubbed “The Dark Star Trek.” A label that would also be flung towards Star Trek: Discovery 24 years later.

At the start of What We Leave Behind, we witness actors from the show reading various “fan” letters they received during production. This barrage of frustration, anger, and resentment leaves the lips of Nana Visitor and Rene Auberjonois with a chortle and a sweet smile. Misinterpretations of the space station’s sedentary existence as a lack of exploration and classifying protracted arcs as rambling are actually hilarious when aimed at the already converted. What We Leave Behind is a documentary for DS9 enthusiasts, after all. We’re in the know, and the inevitable popularity of season-long programs like Battlestar Galactica and Breaking Bad proved our point of view to be righteous.

As co-director and onscreen guide through this celebratory reminiscence, Behr appears to be working through the traumatic experience of being Star Trek‘s second child. The film revs its engine by basking in the hate mail and encouraging convention attendees at Star Trek Las Vegas to explain their recollected trepidation. Behr stews in Paramount’s doubt regarding that early reception, going so far as to place Executive Producer Rick Berman as well as the studio TV Chairman Kerry McCluggage in the hot seat. The message was clear, “Star Trek is precious. Don’t mess it up.”

Almost from the beginning, the Star Trek entity preoccupied itself with consumer reception. While the original series ignited much primetime conversation during its first season in 1966, by the second season the hour-long show was struggling in the ratings, and the studio ax loomed overhead. A letter-writing campaign was crucial in granting a third season, and without that assured enthusiasm of superfans like Bjo and John Trimble, Star Trek would probably hold as much cultural impact as Lost in Space or Space: 1999. When the first theatrical feature, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, scored big box office but great yawns, Paramount was quick to cut the budget and retool the sequels to match the perceived audience demand for original series’ character dynamics. Frustrations surrounding the prequel continuity of Star Trek: Discovery Season 1 led to its overly explanatory second season.

The grand and terrible power of fandom as we know it today has its roots in Star Trek. The outrage and the instantaneous petitions spewing across the internet as the credits roll on Star Wars: The Last Jedi or Game of Thrones exist because they had power in the past. Not to lay all such toxicity on the doorstep of the Federation (great gobs of that misery must be attributed to the wretched bliss that is social media), but there is no denying the intense power swayed by Trekkies/Trekkers. Over the decades, their ownership has only increased. We know what Star Trek is and what it is not.

Ultimately, What We Leave Behind reveals what little importance we should grant to the initial feedback of a piece of art, and how fandom can be an impediment to the object of their affection. Star Trek cannot last without the passion it inspires, but it also cannot last without the possibility of evolution. Our hugs have become strangleholds. Let’s ease up.

Twenty years after the season finale of DS9, Behr went on a six-year journey to exorcise himself of the angst that enveloped every decision made, and every Roddenberrian deviation dared. Every cast and crew member put before the camera beams with affection for their characters and their stories, and since being taken off the air, the cult of DS9ers has snowballed. The conventions attendees who remembered their concern at the start of the series now exalt in hindsight. The documentary’s very presence acts as a validation.

Brad Gullickson: @@MouthDork Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.