Crisis on N Earths (N=3): Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

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Crisis on N Earths is a recurring subseries in which I address events or works outside of the DC Animated Universe and its characters, but both contemporary and significant to the period under discussion.

It’s Sunday, January 3, 1993. In eight days, Batman the Animated Series will end its hiatus and start airing the last few episodes (in broadcast order) of the first season. The top song is still Whitney Houston with “I Will Always Love You”; the top movie this long holiday weekend is Aladdin. In the news, on Friday the “Velvet Divorce” occurred, nonviolently dividing Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia; today Presidents Bush and Yeltsin of the U.S. and Russia respectively sign the START II anti-nuclear proliferation treaty; and on Tuesday serial killer Westley Allan Dodd will be executed in the first legal hanging in the U.S. since 1965.

On TV, meanwhile, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine airs its two-hour premiere. A spinoff of the popular syndicated show Star Trek: The Next Generation, itself a sequel of sorts to the perennially popular 1960s science fiction show Star Trek, DS9 (as it is often abbreviated) shares a number of coincidental links with Batman the Animated Series, beyond the fact that they started airing within a few months of one another. For example, Rene Auberjonois, who played series regular Odo on Deep Space Nine, also played Dr. March (Man-Bat’s father) in two episodes of BTAS, as well as a number of characters in several episodes of Justice League. The Reeves-Stevens, who wrote several episodes of BTAS, also wrote five DS9 novels and the official The Making of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. One of the most controversial (and, in my opinion, the best) episodes of DS9 takes its name from the same Burton movies that inspired much of BTAS’ aesthetic: “In the Pale Moonlight.”

But, as stated, these are basically coincidences. The real significance of DS9 is what it brings to what might be broadly called the fantastic on television, by which I include science fiction, fantasy, and horror, which between them also include most of what the DCAU does. DS9 does two things that were new to Star Trek and rare on television in general, one of which BTAS was already doing, and one of which will become increasingly significant in the DCAU as it continues, beginning primarily with Superman the Animated Series. The first is the introduction of a darker, more “serious” tone, which broadly could be considered to characterize the mass media of the long 1990s in general, and comics in particular; the second is an increasing emphasis on continuity and serialization.

These differences can be understood as resulting from a combination of factors. First, there was the desire and necessity to distinguish the show from its progenitor TNG, which continued airing for the first couple of seasons of DS9’s run, and later its sister show, Star Trek: Voyager, which started airing less than a year after TNG ended. TNG was an openly utopian show, depicting a crew near-devoid of serious internal conflicts, representing a Federation similarly near-devoid of such conflicts (except briefly when infiltrated by evil mind-controlling aliens), and almost completely without mental or physical illness (except when necessary for an episode’s plot, and then almost always resolved by the end of the hour), poverty, crime, or violence (except for the exciting, low-risk kind necessitated by defense against hostile alien powers). War in particular was almost always evitable, and even when not, could be resolved by the end of a two-part episode at worst; moral choices were generally clear-cut between preserving peace or defending usually peaceful cultures from aggressors (good) and engaging in or encouraging aggression (bad).

DS9 was set up to contrast with that view from the start, both to distinguish it and because several of its key creative figures (most notably Ira Steven Behr and Ronald D. Moore) were openly bored by and tired of TNG’s utopianism and lack of long-term conflict, so they built several internal and external conflicts into the fabric of the show. For example, the character Quark, a Ferengi bartender, con man, and smuggler, naturally spends most of the series in conflict with Odo, the meticulous, order-obsessed, borderline fascistic chief of security. Sisko, the commander of the station, initially doesn’t want to be there at all; as the series progresses, he develops the opposite problem, coming to care about the independent planet Bajor (which owns the titular Deep Space Nine station, but shares administration of it with the Federation) more than the interests of the Federation he is supposed to represent. Unlike the advanced, stable technology of the Enterprise, which works flawlessly except for when the plot calls for it not to, Chief of Ops O’Brien (who had been a recurring guest star on TNG, promoted to a cast regular for DS9) spends much of the series seeming to barely keep the station running at all, and both he and Sisko have to deal with family members who aren’t particularly happy about having to live on the broken-down, grungy station.

Perhaps most interesting of all is the conflict built into the one character who wasn’t originally planned, Major Kira, the station’s Bajoran second-in-command. Originally, the plan had been to bring over the recurring TNG guest star Ensign Ro as a regular cast member, but Ro’s actress, Michelle Forbes, was unwilling to commit to the series. Kira was created in her stead, very similar in general personality, but with two major differences: an initial open hostility to Federation presence, which she saw as a prelude to the conquest or assimilation of Bajor, and a backstory that included participating in acts of terrorism against Bajor’s former occupiers and oppressors, the Cardassians. Kira is a character who quite simply could not exist in today’s climate: she is completely open about having been a terrorist, and uses the term interchangeably with “freedom fighter” for herself and her former comrades. Further, she argues quite passionately for the rightness of terrorist tactics: in Season 3’s “Defiant,” she counsels the thieves of the titular starship to change their tactics, that they “need to think like terrorists, not Starfleet officers,” and is depicted as being correct. Later, in Season 5’s “The Darkness and the Light,” she tells a serial killer seeking revenge on her for a terrorist attack she participated in years prior that killed his family that she does not regret the Cardassian civilians and children she killed during the occupation of Bajor, that by living on Bajoran land they were part of an invading force and therefore legitimate targets. Later still, in Season 7 there is an entire arc in which Kira teaches Cardassians rebelling against occupiers of their own how to be better revolutionaries and more effective terrorists, and this is again depicted as being heroic.

This is in keeping with how the show depicts war in general; as opposed to the usually evitable, always relatively easily terminable, unmitigated evil of TNG, in DS9 war is a necessary evil with emphasis on the “necessary.” The most visible of the show’s major story arcs, the Dominion War, lasts for more than two years—arguably closer to five, depending on how precisely you measure it. The start of open hostilities in that conflict is deliberately provoked by the series’ heroes in the Season 5 finale, explicitly because they fear that unless they commit an act of war (laying mines across a vital route of travel between the two parts of the Dominion, cutting off the local portion from the main territory), the Dominion will continue building up forces until it is ready to conquer the Federation with ease. In other words, they start a war they hope they can win now in order to prevent a war they will definitely lose later—and this is depicted as immensely costly in terms of lives, ships, and even the moral standing of the characters over the next two years. (“In the Pale Moonlight,” which I have already referenced, is entirely about Sisko dealing with the choice to commit acts he considers deeply immoral in order to turn the tide of war; other episodes show characters driven from their homes, grappling with the deaths of friends and loved ones, or experiencing post-traumatic stress, among other costs of war.)

This lengthy plotline is a major factor in the supposed darkness of DS9, though in this case darkness is something of a misnomer; perhaps relative to other Star Trek series it is darker, but only in the sense that the consequences of actions and choices tend to be explored in greater detail, both because of greater serialization and because, as the series is set on a space station rather than a starship, it lacks the ability of all other Star Treks to simply fly away at the end of the episode and never come back to the planet of the week. Nonetheless, there is a notably darker color palette to the show, both in its visuals—which substitute darker grays for the beiges and pastels of TNG’s main décor, and swap out TNG’s brightly colored uniforms with black shoulders for black and gray uniforms with colored collars—and in its general tone, which is neither hopeless nor, ultimately, non-utopian, but depicts utopia as a difficult-to-maintain work in progress and an ideal which characters strive for but do not always achieve, as opposed to an already extant and stable state of being.

In this it resembles the dark palette and tone of BTAS, which is not at all hopeless—as I have argued before, Batman is one of the most hopeful characters in fiction, perpetually returning hardened and vicious murderers to the revolving doors of Arkham in the hopes that one day one of them will be healed—but nonetheless depicts Batman’s superheroics as a perpetual project in which local progress (the resolution of an episode’s plot) is always possible but of which the ultimate goal of solving crime in Gotham can never be stably achieved. Even the series’ attitude toward terrorism of problematized acceptance—viewing it as a sometimes viable tactic, a necessary evil in the same vein as the rest of war—parallels what we’ve seen so far of BTAS’ treatment of Batman’s vigilantism, as something he must do, and which ultimately does good, but is nonetheless innately pathological.

DS9 and BTAS are far from alone. They are relatively early examples, but in years to come there will be many more “darker and edgier” versions of popular characters or works, some in comics (such as much of the Image line, which we will be covering when we reach that point in the 90s), others in television (such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which we will cover when we reach the DCAU series for which it is more or less singlehandedly responsible). The simple Manichaean conflict, U.S. vs. USSR, which defined the 1980s in popular imagination and was supposed to end in apocalyptic war, ended with a fizzle; wars of gray vs. gray necessarily followed. In the wake of apocalypse deferred, our stories and heroes grow darker; we shall be returning to this topic.


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