Deep Space Nine never had it easy; an abandoned ore processing station orbiting the planet Bajor, beyond the protective boundaries of the United Federation of Planets and until recently occupied by the hostile Cardassian Union, Commander Benjamin Sisko was on the verge of refusing his appointed task of establishing a Starfleet presence with a view to persuading the understandably reticent Bajoran government to accept membership of the UFP having just removed one yoke from their shoulders.
Deep Space Nine never had it easy; launched in January 1993 during the sixth season of The Next Generation which was regularly pulling in around thirteen million viewers, it was the first time two Star Trek series had aired simultaneously and it was a radical change of format, from the friendly command crew of the NCC-1701-D on their comfortable top-of-the-line Galaxy class vessel to a run-down space station built twenty years before by slave labour.
Additionally, it was the only Star Trek series at that point never to have had a clear run on the airwaves; even before The Next Generation had concluded its seven season run in May 1994 the feature film Generations was already in production, taking that hugely popular crew on the big screen as James T Kirk bade farewell, while the forthcoming show Voyager launching January 1995 would not only return to a more conventional exploratory format but would be the cornerstone of a new broadcast network as opposed to being sold direct to syndication markets.
During the run of the show it was often said by the producers, the writers and the cast of Deep Space Nine that the true legacy and importance of the show would not be appreciated until later, much as it was with the original adventures of the Enterprise in the late sixties, cancelled after three season for low ratings and yet still celebrated over fifty years later, and a quarter of a century later the time has come to reappraise those one hundred and seventy six episodes across seven seasons guarding the sometimes difficult treasures of the Bajoran wormhole.
Co-directed by former Deep Space Nine executive producer Ira Steven Behr who contributed scripts for over fifty episodes of the show and David Zappone, a producer of For the Love of Spock, as much as What We Left Behind can cover in two hours it cannot hope to be comprehensive, and acknowledgment is made over the closing titles of some of the major omissions; it was not for want of trying that Trials and Tribble-ations was left on the cutting room floor.
What is presented is every major onscreen player and a cross-section of those who sweated in the engine room, unseen but every bit as vital, Avery Brooks, Nana Visitor, Rene Auberjonois, Terry Farrell, Colm Meaney, Alexander Siddig, Armin Shimerman and Nicole de Boer, writers Ronald D Moore, Robert Hewitt Wolfe and Hans Beimler, makeup artist Michael Westmore, designer Herman Zimmerman and many more.
As befits Deep Space Nine, many of those who would nominally be regarded as supporting players make significant contributions and what is said is often not the sanitised stage-managed promotional filler presented to promote a current project, Farrell’s frustration at her character Jadzia Dax being marginalised still as raw twenty years after the Tears of the Prophets were shed, though it is obvious she does not regret her decision to leave and bears no animosity to de Boer who succeeded her as Ezri Dax.
Despite this, the roles of the female characters was one of the arenas where Deep Space Nine took a huge step forward with Farrell remembering the “serious, driven, complex women” and Visitor speculating that the current television landscape would be unlikely to allow a conflicted former terrorist such as Kira Nerys to be depicted lead let alone hold a recognised position of authority.
Equally candid are the writing staff, discussing an opening episode for a speculative eighth season set twenty years after the season finale and with key scenes presented in rough animation while also commenting not only on what they feel to be their achievements but also what they regard as their failures of ambition and representation.
Studio executives at Paramount preferring a “softened” version of Benjamin Sisko from that associated with Brooks’ previous starring roles, it took three years for them to accept that he should be shaven headed and bearded, and having won that victory the writing staff chose never to push for an openly gay character despite knowing which of their ensemble it would have been.
“I know a little about truth and lies,” says Andrew J Robinson whose “simple tailor” Elim Garak span out from a single-episode guest spot to almost another forty episodes, one of the last men standing at the liberation of Cardassia Prime from the Dominion as the series finished, and he has lost none of the sly charm which made him a favourite of the writers and viewers nor the sanguine approach which knows which battles to fight and those to accept the hand of fate.
Some of those battles were indeed huge victories; set in a static location, the format of Deep Space Nine lent itself to serialised storytelling which the studio had previously been reticent to adopt, yet after a three episode experiment in the second season and a six episode storyline launching the sixth the show concluded with an unprecedented ten episode arc, a longer form now common in prestige television drama.
Conversely, the darker tone on the fringes of civilised space and what he expressly was not permitted to include would later inform Moore’s reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, sometimes regarded as “the anti-Star Trek,” but what is largely absent in What We Left Behind is that broader context of the show and its significance.
When first broadcast, The Next Generation represented a huge step forward in televised science fiction, both in production values and the way it was broadcast via syndication, meaning it dominated the airwaves in its early seasons, while Deep Space Nine entered a more crowded marketplace, one particular rival being the parallel situations, at least in broad strokes, of Babylon 5, though it is understandable that having always been perceived to be in competition that Deep Space Nine should here be permitted to exist without distraction.
All artistic endeavour exists in a context of time and place and compromise of budget and time constraints and what the market will bear, and this project is no different; that Deep Space Nine can still generate the same level of passion and connection with an audience, some of whom were not even alive when it was first broadcast, is a continuing testimony that what we left behind is as important as what we carry forwards.
What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Deep Space Nine is currently playing festivals and limited cinematic engagements