Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/01/04/star_trek_deep_space_9_turns_20/

Up your wormhole: Star Trek Deep Space 9 turns 20

Defiantly different yet still boldly going

By Steve May

Posted in Media, 4th January 2013 10:20 GMT

I’ve always been strangely fascinated by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Now celebrating its 20th anniversary - amazing how time flies, even when you’re not an agent of the Federation Department of Temporal Investigations - it’s the densest and most mythology-rich of all the Star Trek TV shows. Often ambitious and audacious, it won more battles than it lost and remains a box-set must-own for any card-carrying Starfleet fan. However, it was also paradoxically (at times) the slowest, ugliest SF show on the box.

In many ways, DS9 was the anti-TNG. While Star Trek: The Next Generation was shiny, clean and antiseptic - a look exaggerated by JJ Abrams for his lens-flare reboot - DS9 was unapologetically grey and dirty.

Star Trek: Deep Space 9

Copyright: Paramount Pictures

For this third televised Trek, the show’s producers parked the idea of galactic gallivanting, choosing instead to base their stories on a dilapidated space station at the edge of the Alpha Quadrant. Thanks to a conveniently placed wormhole, aliens would come to DS9 and not vice versa. While series creator Gene Roddenberry famously conceived the original Trek as a SF reworking of vintage western show Wagon Train, Paramount head Brandon Tartikoff declared DS9 more The Rifleman, the story of a man and his son surviving on the wild frontier.

DS9 was to debut during the sixth season of TNG, running in tandem with the hit sequel series before taking up the mantle solo. It needed to offer something different, and expectations were high. After a lacklustre first season, TNG had developed into a firm fan favourite.

Co-creator Michael Piller, who along with Rick Berman had steered the Enterprise NCC-1701-D to such great success, felt the best option was a big change in direction: “Coming with the wind at our backs, it really felt as if we had figured out what made Star Trek work, and that we could bring all the vision that Gene Roddenberry had about space and the future to a different kind of franchise. We didn’t want to have another series of shows about space travel.”

Star Trek: Deep Space 9

Defiantly different: DS9 was stationary, not boldly going
Copyright: Paramount Pictures

DS9 certainly looked unlike any Trek before it. There was a sludgy, high contrast realism to life on the space station, emphasised by grotty broadcast quality of the show, which like TNG was being edited on video at the time.

The original director of photography Marvin Rush, and production designer Herman Zimmerman, revelled in the shadows offered by the utilitarian, militaristic, alien location. The show was to receive multiple Primetime Emmy nominations for its art direction, as well as award noms for cinematography and production design, from the ASC and Art Directors Guild respectively. Ironically, the real beauty of this work is only ever likely to be realised if and when Paramount greenlights an HD remaster.

DS9’s choice of principal characters was similarly bold. Avery Brooks, as the aloof Federation Commander Benjamin Sisko, Nana Visitor as Bajorian Major Kira Nerys and Rene Auberjonois as shape-shifter Odo were uniquely compelling creations, far from Roddenberry’s heroic archetypes. TNG import Colm Meaney, as Chief Miles O’Brien, quickly established a chemistry with UK thesp Siddig El Fadil (later Alexander Siddig), aka Dr Julian Bashir, while Terry Farrell, as ancient Trill Lieutenant Jadzia Dax, provided the leopard spots. Early plans to lumber the Dutch former model with a prosthetic forehead were thankfully scrapped.

Star Trek: Deep Space 9

The Dominion arrive, and Cammander Sisko (Avery Brooks) gets mean - and facial hair
Copyright: Paramount Pictures

Of course, none of the above could compete with a series stealing turn by Armin Shimerman, as the duplicitous Ferengi bar owner Quark.

DS9 may have been a conceptual risk, but it hit the ground running. The two-hour pilot Emissary was highest-rated series premiere in US syndication history at the time, bagging an 18.8 per cent audience share. Its first season became a fixture in the syndication charts, pulling a valuable male demographic.

As with TNG before it, Season 2 saw DS9 iron out the lumps. Characters grew and the world they inhabited became far more convincing. Resident bad guys the Dominion arrived from the Gamma Quadrant, and gold-pressed latinum liberated from studio coffers meant the set was expanded. Everything began to flow a little better. Most importantly, my favourite character, Cardassian ‘tailor’ Garak began to claim more airtime, as the show’s writers competed to weave intrigue around him.

Dominion pizza

Classic episodes include the comedic Rules of Acquisition, which introduced the inexplicable game of Tongo to the DS9 universe, and Blood Oath, which saw the return of Klingon warriors Kor, Koloth and Kang from the original 1960s series.

Star Trek: Deep Space 9

Ferenghi landlord Quark (Armin Shimerman) proved in instant hit...
Copyright: Paramount Pictures

Futuristic technology naturally played a big part in the show. DS9 had a well established litany of technobabble to call upon, but innovated as well. We got a portable(ish) hologenerator, a portable Starfleet computer that looked very much like a modern laptop and a Cardassian medical tricorder worn like a glove.

Season Three was to prove pivotal for DS9. Suddenly it was the only Trek show on air. TNG had bowed out in a blaze of glory and incoming newbie Star Trek: Voyager wouldn’t clash until episode 11. Unfortunately, backstage pressures were building. The show wasn’t generating the same buzz as TNG, and its preoccupation with Bajoran religion and politics were proving a turn-off. The solution was to step up the threat of the kick-ass, drugged-up Jem‘Hadar, and to draft in the Defiant, the first Federation warship to employ a cloaking device. DS9 found its action mojo, even if it meant flip-flopping on the original premise.

Reflecting a wider talent draft from TNG, Jonathan 'Riker' Frakes guested both in front and behind the camera. The fans seemed satisfied. Ratings solidified, averaging twenty points higher than its nearest syndicated competitor, the pneumatic Baywatch. But that didn’t stop the studio demanding yet more shake-ups for Season Four. Enter everyone’s favourite Klingon, Worf.

Star Trek: Deep Space 9

...as did Constable Odo (Rene Auberjonois), though Nana Visitor's Kyra Nerys suffered from the designers' fascination with nasal prosthetics
Copyright: Paramount Pictures

Executive producer Ira Steven Behr recalled: “Of all the TNG characters, probably the one who would fit in the best would be Worf.” The story possibilities were strong. The Federation was no longer on speaking terms with the Klingon Empire, leaving Worf very much out on a limb. His arrival, in the two-part The Way of the Warrior is fondly regarded as one of DS9’s best episodes.

Season Four also saw co-stars Siddig and Visitor become an item off camera, necessitating the writers to work Visitor’s pregnancy into the series. My personal season highlight? Little Green Men, in which Quark, Rom and Nog wind up in Roswell, New Mexico…

Season Five conveniently corresponded with the 30th anniversary of the franchise, and in celebration DS9 gave us Trials and Tribble-ations, which inventively (and expensively) mashed the cast into the classic TOS Trouble with Tribbles episode, creating a ratings smash in the process.

Star Trek: Deep Space 9

But it required the arrival of Worf (Michael Dorn) to give the ratins a much-needed lift
Copyright: Paramount Pictures

Season Six similarly broke new ground, opening with a six-episode arc that flew in the face of the episodic nature of TV shows of the time. And it wrapped by killing off one of its key characters.

Deep Space Nine was to enter its final season battered in the ratings by a double whammy of Hercules and Xena Warrior Princess. Audience tastes were clearly changing. Still, plot-wise DS9 went out with all phasers firing. The Dominion War came to a fitting conclusion, and the show culminated with a final two-parter that once again returned DS9 to the top of the syndication charts.

Once described as the Rodney Dangerfield of the Star Trek universe, because it “didn’t get no respect”, Deep Space Nine may not go down in the history books as the greatest of the TV Treks, but it was consistently the most interesting. I for one wouldn’t say no to a return visit. ®