If you’re new to Star Trek, you’ll get a lot of people telling you that DS9 is the best of the ’90s spin-offs, if not the best Trek, full stop.
And those people aren’t wrong.
Nevertheless, I’ve decided to skip it for now in my round up of “Star Trek episodes you might enjoy if you are new and liked Discovery“. Because the truth is, I just don’t like it all that much.
That might be overstating it. I like a lot of things about DS9. And I’ve put off writing this post because I find it far too easy to get caught up in the fun of criticising things, being snarky and clever, and ultimately suggesting that a work is worse than it is.
And that’s not fair, because DS9 is indeed very good. And I like it just fine. I simply … don’t care. And without a strong emotional engagement, I find it very easy to get distracted by faults and flaws — especially when I’m doing a rewatch within a year of my last watch through.
(That’s why I say I’m skipping it for now in my round ups — I might revisit it in a few years’ time. And I’m generously assuming that people, including myself, will still care!)
Here are some of the faults and flaws which have annoyed me this time around. (This list is really aimed at people who are familiar with the series, because I feel curiously defensive.)
- The colonialism inherent in that whole thing where the Bajoran messiah turns out to be a human atheist.
- Honestly, a lot of things about the Federation’s treatment of Bajoran religion seems tremendously colonialist in 2018, especially when the writers are attempting to impose a metaphor about the US religious right on the narrative.
It’s not that Winn was right to oppose teaching Bajoran children that their “celestial temple” is “really” a wormhole, it’s that it’s absurd that this would be an issue for a culture which has had space travel for millennia.
- But then, DS9 leans into “the Federation is actually just America” even more heavily than the other Treks. The metaphor for linear existence is baseball. Federation culture is represented by root beer. I mean.
- The multiple episodes where Kira learns an important lesson about being nice to elderly Cardassian men who are partially responsible for the occupation of her homeworld and attempted genocide of her people.
- “Duet”, for example, is a truly great episode, except that it posits that being a mere clerk in a death camp means you had no responsibility for the crimes that took place within it. Apparently, justice in this situation means either public execution, or being sent on your merry way (until a passing fanatic murders you).
Unfortunately, I watched this episode just a few days after the death of Oskar Gröning, the so-called “bookkeeper of Auschwitz”, who was sentenced to prison in his late 90s, which made the narrative choices in that episode look particularly bad.
- The fact that Nana Visitor had to beg the writers not to write a Kira/Dukat romance just highlights how poorly they understood her character. And I say that as one who really enjoys their relationship!
- Which brings us to Odo. Who is a collaborator, over and over again. If there are space fascists to serve, he will inevitably end up supporting them, if only for a short time. And the writers don’t seem to realise it? Early in season 6, Quark says, “I know Odo, and he’s no collaborator.” Which would carry more weight if Odo wasn’t at that moment … collaborating.
And this could have been really interesting! Because we’re told that Odo’s need for order is a biological imperative — which, okay — and with more honest writing, the temptation towards fascism, the constant moral balancing act, could have been fascinating.
But instead, we get a well-acted character who has all the moral courage of … a bucket of goo.
- Which makes it even worse that he nice guys his way into a relationship with Kira.
- All this on top of the usual problems with ’90s Trek — the compulsory heterosexuality, the behind the scenes stuff like Rick Berman’s sexual harassment of Terry Farrell and insistence on making Kira more feminine by changing her costume into a catsuit and her army boots for high heels. (Voyager, of course, had similar problems plus conflict among the cast — but it engages me emotionally, so I can overlook that. Unless, of course, the next rewatch comes around and I can’t.)
In the interests of fairness, however, here is a list of things I will always love about the series:
- Cardassians! I wish there had been more women among the major Cardassian characters, but I do love Garak and Dukat.
- Dukat’s conviction that he is the real hero of this story. He’s a terrible person, but he only occasionally knows it. (On the other hand … the bit where he loses his mind after his daughter is fridged? Ugh, I wish he’d just been killed off, or — I dunno, literally anything else. It was like a perfect storm of ableism and sexism and bad writing.)
- Garak knows he’s a terrible person, but he’s like, well, that’s no reason not to put a cheerful face on. Also he’s high for, like, a whole season, which probably helped.
- Bajorans! A lot of them are pretty blandly written (Bareil, snore), but Kira and Winn are two of the most interesting women in science fiction of any decade.
- SPACE POLITICS
- A lot of the interrogation of Federation assumptions and hypocrisies … doesn’t really stand up post-9/11, but points for trying, well done.
None of this is to say that you, hypothetical new fan, shouldn’t watch DS9. Objectively considered, Voyager‘s flaws are even deeper, I just find them easier to overlook because I care about the characters, and I care about the characters because they came into my life at a particular time.
(I am not apologising for Voyager being my favourite. Voyager at its best is amazing. I’m simply putting my subjective opinion into context.)
But trying to rewatch DS9 this time turned out to be a mistake, and I’m giving myself permission to move on.