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The best Star Trek started 20 years ago
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My love of science fiction, especially Star Trek, is well known to long-time readers. I have enjoyed every incarnation, from the original, somewhat campy series of the 1960s to the 2009 “reboot” movie by J.J. Abrams. I’ve enjoyed each series, but -- and this may surprise some people -- none more than Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

DS9, as it’s known in the Trek vernacular, debuted 20 years ago last week, a mid-season syndicated addition to the franchise, on Jan. 5, 1993.

It was an improbable debut, despite the seeds planted while its predecessor, Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), was on the air. In fact, it is partly because TNG itself was a spin-off of the original series and movies that DS9 shouldn’t have worked. Who had ever heard of a spin-off of a spin-off outside of a few comedy shows? Not only that, but where TNG truly adhered to Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a utopian future, DS9 was darker, full of conflict and -- for most of its run -- focusing on, of all things, war.

On top of that, it took place on a space station, not a space ship.

How was this going to work?

But it did, at least from a critical point of view. It was never as successful ratings-wise as TNG, despite both shows being syndicated by Paramount. Despite the relatively low ratings, TV Guide declared it “the best acted, written, produced and altogether finest” Star Trek series.

I agree wholeheartedly.

Like almost any show, but especially Star Trek, it took a while for DS9 to find its space legs, so to speak, and takes a little explaining to, well, explain why.

DS9, the space station, was located in a remote part of Federation space near the planet Bajor -- an originally very peaceful, spiritual planet occupied for 50 years by a race of aliens called Cardassians. DS9, the TV show, begins with the end of that occupation and Bajor’s attempts to rebuild with the Federation and Starfleet’s help following the end of a war with Cardassia.

Not every Bajoran appreciates the help, wanting to stand on their own. That might have been conflict enough for a series, but then a stable wormhole (read: shortcut through space) connecting Bajor’s region with one thousands of light years away is discovered, making the space station and Bajor a crossroads of sorts.

That means all kinds of different people are going to be working, living and passing through DS9. Now, we have a real show.

The cast was superb, including Avery Brooks as the first-ever African-American leading man on Trek, playing Commander Benjamin Sisko (who is later promoted to captain). He is joined by his son, Jake, played by Cirroc Lofton. His second-in-command is Bajoran Major Kira Nerys, played by Nana Visitor. They are joined by Odo, a shapeshifting constable (Rene Auberjonois); Dr. Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig); Jadzia Dax, a joined Trill (Terry Farrell); Quark, a Ferengi bartender who’s always out for the money and himself (Armin Shimmerman); and, from TNG’s Enterprise-D, Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney) and, later, Worf (Michael Dorn).

They were a virtually perfect cast, especially after the first season or two when they’d gotten used to playing their parts and with each other. I think the fact that they were playing second fiddle to TNG and were playing characters truly out on Star Trek’s “final frontier,” made them circle the wagons and stick together, forging themselves into an even greater ensemble than their predecessor.

Even with the greatest cast, you can’t have a show without great stories to tell. Star Trek has always been a mirror to our real life conflicts, foibles and triumphs.

Spirituality plays a bigger part on the show than nearly any other in science fiction history when Sisko is named as the Bajoran Emmissary to their religion’s prophets. His constant attempts to balance his roles as unwanted spiritual icon and a Starfleet officer inform Brooks’ acting throughout the entire seven-year run of the show.

With the end of the Cardassian war, there are still Bajoran citizens and Starfleet officers who feel the occupiers didn’t play a high enough price. Enter the Maquis, a resistance group -- talk about a departure from Roddenberry!

War is hinted at in the third season and truly comes in the fifth season against The Dominion, a vast empire on the other side of the wormhole ruled by Odo’s shapeshifting brethren.

Whenever such conflicts arise, so does moral ambiguity. Where Roddenberry wanted everyone on the Federation side of things to be perfect -- utopian, almost -- DS9 producers Rick Berman and Michael Piller realized that greater stories can be told when there is conflict.

There are spies -- especially fan favorite Garak (played by Andrew J. Robinson) -- sabatoeurs, malcontents and power-seeking madmen and women, and the stories that arise from overcoming the obstacles they place on the road to peace.

There are also quieter, more down-to-Earth (ha!) episodes that speak to more personal conflicts, such as the sixth season’s “Far Beyond the Stars” which recasts Sisko as a 1950s science fiction writer.

Throughout the series, the main cast of characters stumble often, but pick themselves up, turning to each other for support to lead not just the Federation, but their entire quadrant of space to triumph over not just the adversities of war -- but of a fickle television audience that thought they had seen it all.