One of the programmes I will probably focus on regularly in this blog is Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. As the politics and themes of the show are rather more complex than other shows, this is a very brief primer for those who are either unfamiliar with the programme itself, or need a refresher for context.
Deep Space Nine and War
Created just post Persian Gulf War (1990-1991) and airing during the Intervention of Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-2004), this American programme utilises science fiction to make statements on culture and events like war through a futuristic lens, as science fiction, generally (and Star Trek, specifically), is known to do. For those less familiar with Star Trek in general, the two programmes on during this time, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) (TNG) and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine were extremely different from each other. TNG, although occasionally delving into darker material, had a tendency to focus primarily on the wonders of the universe. In TNG episode ‘Q Who’, an omnipotent being, Q, gives the TNG crew a ‘kick in our complacency’ when he shows Captain Picard an enemy that cannot be reasoned or negotiated with (The Borg). Q warns Picard,
If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it’s not for the timid.
Whilst TNG certainly delved into the dangers in the universe on occasion, generally, the show focused on the ‘wonderous … treasures to satiate’ rather than the horrors. Gene Roddenberry’s dedication to Humanism meant a future that showed humans evolving beyond racism and homophobia, creating a society based not on fear and hatred, but of love and hope. TNG, in particular, explored this, showing what humans could be capable of. Generally speaking, war and xenophobia were distant memories, a dark corner of the primitive soul buried and rarely exposed. TNG, much like the original Star Trek series, was optimistic humanism, encouraging others to see a world of possibilities. In Star Trek: The Captain’s Summit (2009) for example, several of the Star Trek actors debated the legacy of the programme, concluding that it was the positivity and hope of a better future that drew people to Star Trek in the first place.
DS9, however, was a different flavour entirely: rather than occasionally touch on the ‘wonders’ of the universe, the focus was turned, instead, to that ‘bloody nose’ Q speaks of. Often considered (wholly unfairly, in my opinion) as the ‘step child’ of the Star Trek franchise, DS9, unlike Star Trek and Next Generation, often focused on repercussions and consequences of actions. For example, Kirk could make changes to an alternate universe with no consequences in the original Trek: DS9, however, is forced to face those consequences when someone comes from that alternate universe and reveals that Kirk’s changes destroyed everything entirely.
For me, this is the greatest appeal to DS9: the characters were damaged, often irreparably, by the world they lived in. In short, DS9 utilised the Gothic regularly within a franchise generally focused on hope, intellectuals, exploration and discovery. This resulted in an occasionally uneven programme, but one that arguably held some of the best Trek episodes in any of the programmes. Ron Moore, of Battlestar Galactica, has stated that he was unable to go as ‘dark’ as he wanted with DS9 due to the general optimism and format of the Trek universe. However, the show did go darker than the other Trek shows generally, and as such, DS9 is a valuable place to locate the Gothic within Trek. As my research focuses on war and television, as I will certainly explore in further blogs, in many ways DS9 became something of the ‘anti-Trek’, focusing not on the great efforts of humanity, but on the follies and the flaws (which is why I love it, and why it is often ignored within the Trek universe).
Unlike the other programmes, DS9 was a static space station: it did not go out each week with the goal to ‘seek new life and new civilisations’ or to ‘boldly go where no one had gone before’. No, the station was primarily positioned as a political chess piece between two different entities: above the planet Bajor and next to Cardassian Space. For several decades, Bajor has been under Cardassia occupation: a brutal and totalitarian invasion, very strong links can be made between this situation and WWII (and will definitely be a full blog entry alone!).
As Bajor attempts to rebuild after the planet has been devastated for resources, the Federation has an interest in protecting Bajor. Recovering from decades of occupation and war under Cardassian rule, Bajor remains vulnerable. Deep Space Nine, a Cardassian station, is abandoned and power relinquished jointly to the Federation and Bajor. This space station is the first line of defence (as much as it is, having few weapons) against any new incursions against Bajor from the Cardassians. It is, in short, a stopgap to make Bajor feel safer and make the Cardassians a bit afraid. If the Cardassians move in on the station, the Federation becomes involved to protect Bajor. The Federation and the Cardassians previously went to war with each other many decades previously, and no-one seems keen on repeating this experience.
Many of the plots within DS9 tend toward understanding a post-war culture, devastated by war and attempting to rebuild their world. The closest approximation to this situation would be a British or American base (primarily employing Jewish immigrants and displaced war survivors) taking over the Dachau, Germany labour camp as a civilian base directly after the Second World War immediately after the war.
Many of the primary characters were themselves veterans of war: Federation Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) lost his wife in the battles with the Borg only a few years previously; unlike Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart), who generally remained unaffected after being taken captive by the Borg in TNG unless the plot called for it, this event created a very deep, persistent and occasionally destabilising issue for Sisko: a harshness in an otherwise gentle man. Kira, a Bajoran, on the other hand, is fresh from war, and therefore more representative of the hardened war veteran recently sent home after the war and struggling to cope with civilian life. Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney), a veteran from the long-ago Federation war with Cardassia, also very often becomes the centre of imprisonment, torture and violence within various episodes so often that it has become something of a trope in itself (And future blogs will most certainly explore O’Brien, PTSD, Irishness, class, war and torture, as these are all areas I research in).
The station was something of a Land of Misfit Toys: each of the characters seem to struggle to cope with life on the station in some way. Odo, a changeling, is (to his knowledge) the only being of his kind: surrounded by humans, but never really able to be one, Odo is constantly on the outside looking in. What Odo fails to realise, however, is that most of the main characters on the station are the odd ones looking in. Quark, the greedy Ferengi bartender, constantly complains about the humans surrounding him – but he complained about the Cardassians when they owned the station, as well. He can’t go back to his home because he doesn’t make enough money to have respect in his society. He gets along well enough with most of the crew, but no one trusts him – nor should they. Garak, a former spy for Cardassian who has been banished from his home, forced to live surrounded by people who hate him (and I have plenty to say on Garak and Dandyism!). Garak, like Odo, is the only one of his kind near by – but they’re far too different to connect. Most of the characters on the station are, in one way or another, the outsider with no where else to go.
I could go on, but the point here is that whilst Captain Picard was taking the crew of The Enterprise to explore all the wonders of the universe, Captain Sisko and crew of Deep Space Nine station were busy trying to just cope with their living situations, often alienated by their homes and alienated from each other through politics and culture. They’re often too busy to keep peace with each other – let alone cope with the responsibilities of keeping peace outside the station. The station is situated on the cusp of two post-war cultures attempting to start again: The Federation is positioned to protect Bajor, a planet stripped of all resources, left crippled by war, from Cardassia – a people the Federation was, at one time, at war with. Cardassia, a somewhat floundering empire, over-extended, left embarrassed by war, attempting to rebuild not their cities, but their reputations. DS9 attempts to keep peace (and ultimately fails — but that’s another blog for another day) between politicised and aggressive forces in a station on the verge of falling apart.
DS9 and the Gothic:
In a previous blog for the IGA, I wrote on how Star Trek: Next Generation experiments with Gothic tropes in ‘Night Terrors’. In this blog, I concluded that the utopian element of Star Trek hinders the Gothic from ever truly being realised to full potential. TNG makes several interesting attempts into the Gothic – and, at some point, I might revisit this. But generally speaking, I stand by my conclusion: TNG was a show that focused on the wonders of the universe, and even when dealing with the ‘bloody nose’ in the universe, in the end everything is generally reset with little to no consequence for future.
As previously suggested, however, DS9 is a Trek of a different flavour. Is it consistently Gothic? No. Does it, like other Trek series, utilise familiar Gothic tropes? Yes. Does it do so more effectively than the other Trek series? Absolutely.
As I will undoubtedly discuss ad nausea in future blogs, the majority of the episodes dealing effectively with Gothic tend to focus around Miles O’Brien. O’Brien was tortured so often in the programme that it became a running joke that others have noticed – to the point that people have asked actor Colm Meaney why his character was so often forced to suffer. However, there are some really great episodes that are focused on other characters that are certainly worth of discussion on Gothic.